Books | Post-Its

Tucsonan Jessica Emerson’s Forthcoming Novel Already Creating a Buzz

Jessica Elisheva Emerson is happy her smart, steamy first novel, “Olive Days,” made the Los Angeles Daily News and Jewish Book Council summer reading lists, even though the book won’t be published until Sept. 10.

When pitching it to agents, Emerson described “Olive Days” as “Unorthodox” meets “The End of the Affair.” But Kirkus Reviews recently said, “This bold debut is unlike anything you’ve seen before.”

The book, which will be published by Counterpoint Press/Penguin Random House, follows Rina Kirsch, a young Modern Orthodox wife and mother living in Los Angeles’ Pico-Robertson neighborhood. When her husband suggests a night of wife-swapping with other Orthodox couples to bring a spark back to their marriage, the episode instead sends Rina searching for meaning, first in a community college art class and then in a passionate affair with her married art teacher, Will Ochoa.

A Tucson native, Emerson went to college in Los Angeles and stayed there for 23 years before returning to Tucson. She says the wife-swapping incident comes from real life – it’s a story she heard from several people in the Modern Orthodox community when she was living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, though never from anyone who participated.

Emerson, who is not Modern Orthodox, says, “I don’t think it’s endemic to the community. I also don’t feel judgy of what consenting adults do with their lives.” She adds that she could imagine scenarios where the experience goes well and fortifies a marriage, but it was more interesting to imagine “somebody whose life was upended by it.”

Obsessive love and women’s desire are favorite topics for Emerson, who has published short stories and poems and had a play produced at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood.

The publisher describes “Olive Days” as “told in the fevered tenor common to both lust and religious devotion.” Details of the endless housework in Rina’s life as a Modern Orthodox woman add to the book’s hectic, almost surreal quality. The particulars of cooking and cleaning, hosting and gift giving come from observation, research, and even experience, Emerson says, explaining that in one of her L.A. apartments, she could only reach the sukkah via a long flight of stairs, which translated into Rina climbing the stairs to a rooftop sukkah 37 times in a single night.

Apart from Chaim Potok, there haven’t been many mainstream portrayals of the Modern Orthodox community, says Emerson. She grew up in Tucson’s Conservative Jewish milieu.

“The Jewish community was at the center of my life,” she says, including weekly attendance at Congregation Anshei Israel; membership in USY and BBYO youth groups; Hebrew High; and abundant time spent at the JCC. As a teen, she did a bit of shul-hopping to satisfy her curiosity.

Her career, too, has centered on the Jewish communal world, including two years as the executive director of the University of Arizona Hillel.

She is so deeply and happily ingrained in the Jewish community, she says, “that until my husband, Patrick, and I moved here three years ago, as far as he was concerned, with all our visits over the years, everyone in Tucson was a Jew.”

“Olive Days” is not technically Emerson’s first novel. She wrote another before earning her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. Her BA in journalism is from the University of Southern California.

She says her early manuscript will probably remain unpublished, “although my sister, who’s just lovely, is always like, ‘But that’s the best book I’ve ever read!’ Everyone needs a sister like that in their life.”

She realizes the frank sexuality in “Olive Days” may make her two college-age children uncomfortable if they decide to read it (she doesn’t have to worry yet about her six-year-old). But her mother, Bonnie Sedlmayr-Emerson and her aunt, Laurie Sedlmayr, were among her beta-readers, and her husband is her staunchest supporter.

Her father, Randy Emerson, may have some trepidation, she says. He told her he will read “Olive Days” when the hardcover is in his hands.

Jessica Emerson, author of “Olive Days”

Her parents always nurtured her creativity, she says, recalling that when she decided to study journalism in college, they asked, “But what about your painting?”

While “Olive Days” took her 10 years of intermittent writing to finish, “the second one cannot take that long,” she says. She’s now writing every night.

Although it includes a consuming love affair, the new book will be very different from “Olive Days.” The main protagonist is an aging Jewish folk star who plans to call attention to climate change with an act of self-immolation.

Her third book, which she’s also started, is set in Tucson.

“I don’t feel totally well and balanced if I’m not writing,” she says.