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Author Interview: Elizabeth Percer

Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Today, I'm delighted to be interviewing with Elizabeth Percer, author of An Uncommon Education, today on the blog!

Afraid of losing her parents at a young age, Naomi Feinstein prepares single-mindedly for a prestigious future as a doctor. But when her only friend and confidant abruptly departs from her life, Naomi isn't sure she will ever recover, even after a long-awaited acceptance letter to Wellesley arrives.

Yet Naomi soon learns that college isn't the bastion of solidarity and security she had imagined. Amid hundreds of other young women, she is consumed by loneliness--until the day she sees a girl fall into the freezing waters of a lake.

The event marks Naomi's introduction to Wellesley's oldest honor society, the mysterious Shakespeare Society, defined by secret rituals and filled with unconventional, passionate students. As Namoi immerses herself in this exciting and liberating world, her hapiness is soon compromised by a scandal that brings devastating consequences. Naomi has always tried to save the ones she loves, but sometimes saving others is a matter of saving yourself.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into writing.
I come from a family of writers and readers. My father's family fought hard to win the chance to come to the U.S. for education, and many of them followed in the footsteps of their rabbinical ancestors to become academic scholars and writers. My mother hated school, but loved to read, and she instilled in me an appreciation for literature that went far beyond the classroom. My sisters and brother and I all LOVE books, so it was natural that at least one of us pursue writing in earnest. Being the third of the four, I think I had a unique opportunity to bend the rules a bit and be creative. I imagine this is how more than one novelist was born!

It's cool how your family loves to read. I'd love to share books with my brother, but he thinks I'm a bit too obsessed with books. I saw that like Naomi you also attended Wellesley College. How has your time there influenced the writing of the novel and what liberties did you take in fictionalizing the experience?
I love this question, though I'm never quite sure how to answer it. A novelist, I think, should not write about what she knows, but should instead explore the persistent mysteries in her life. As I set out to write the novel, I knew that I wanted to explore my own questions about what it means to be an educated woman in this country in the 20th/21st century, and Wellesley was the perfect setting in which to create fictional characters who would enable me to explore that interest to the greatest extent. The fact that I am familiar with the college -- or was fifteen years ago -- made it easy to let those characters move smoothly within that setting. But I did take many a fictional liberty -- there's nothing in the roof of the Shakespeare House, for example, and forensic burning does not exist.

What are your thoughts on women's education and the gains to be had from the college experience?
Oh, wow. OK, well, truth be told, my thoughts on women's education change almost as soon as I can get them down in writing. I think this is because I believe that education, in general, is best when it's an individualized program, attentive to the particular nuances and idiosyncrasies of the mind it's serving. That said, the fact that so many women in this world are denied an education is an ongoing reminder that my feminist existence -- and many of the things I tend to take for granted along with it -- is the result of exceptional opportunities, rather than universal rights. And until the latter is true for all women, we need to fight for women's educational opportunities no matter what shape or size they might come in.

Naomi also receives an education of sorts through her interactions with her peers, family, and other people in her life. What do you feel is the significance of social relations to Naomi and all the young adults out there finding their way in life?
I love this question, too -- the education that takes place outside of the classroom is, invariably, far more interesting and influential than what takes place inside it. One of the most remarkable things about Wellesley is that it throws together a couple thousand goal-oriented, intense women when they are young adults and puts them in an environment where men mostly out of the equation. The result is a far more intimate knowledge of women's experiences than most of us get to have, and it is at once intimidating and invigorating. I think the social experiences women -- and men -- have in their teens and early twenties continue to teach them throughout their lives in a way that few other relationships can. When these social experiences occurs between the ages of 18-20 and mostly involve other women, they shape you in unusual and profound ways.

What are some of most important things you learned while writing An Uncommon Education?
I learned a lot about having faith in the creative process. I think it might have been James Thurber who said something like, "Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see about three feet in front of you, but that's all you need to get to where you're going." I love how writing teaches me this way to take a backseat to my hyper-controlling tendencies and just let my intuition drive for a while. It's healing and terrifying, and I wouldn't give it up for the world. I also learned that sometimes dropping your standards is the way to really allow for flow and find that creative place where we remember to play and allow enjoyment to come into the work -- both for ourselves and for our readers.

You also were a member of the Shakespeare Society. If you were to use your experience and audition for a role in An Uncommon Education, which character would you like to be and why?
Best question of all! I've always wanted to play Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. I think we tend to judge her from our modern feminist experiences, and fail to recognize the bind she was probably in. I used to love playing characters whom I felt were unfairly maligned -- Isabel in Measure for Measure, Cressida in Troilus and Cressida -- not so much because I wanted to make them seem lovely when they weren't, but because they were juicy and had great potential for complexity.

The complex characters are always the most interesting ones! What are you working on right now?
My second novel, All Stories Are Love Stories. It's set in modern day San Francisco and follows a group or survivors in the immediate aftermath of two major earthquakes. I live just south of San Francisco, so this satisfies two of my requirements for a novel-length project: that it scare the hell out of me (both in prospect and subject), and that it allows me to express an intimate knowledge of a place and time that I love. Watch for it in early 2014!

About the Author

Elizabeth's Website | Facebook
Elizabeth Percer is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and has twice been honored by the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation. She received a BA in English from Wellesley College and a PhD in arts education from Stanford University, and has also completed a postdoctoral fellowship for the National Writing Project at UC Berkley. She lives in California with her husband and three children. An Uncommon Education is her first novel.
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