By MARGAUX HENQUINET
Three summers ago, Lise Saffran and her husband visited Washington’s San Juan Island and attended a performance of “The Tempest,” a play by William Shakespeare.
It is the story of Prospero, a nobleman exiled to an island with his infant daughter, Miranda. At the beginning of the play, Prospero conjures a storm to wreck a ship sailing by, carrying his enemy. The enemy’s son washes ashore, and eventually he and Miranda fall in love.
Saffran had seen the play before, but that performance was the first time she was seeing it as a parent. She saw themes she had missed before: protecting children and keeping them safe while letting them grow.
At the end of “The Tempest,” Prospero is ready to “step off the stage,” Saffran said, accepting it is the young lovers’ time.
“It occurred to me that that would be more difficult if you were a single mother and not quite ready to step off that stage” if you were still hoping for a romantic life, Saffran said.
With that idea, Saffran’s novel, “Juno’s Daughters,” was born.
Saffran will speak about the novel at the Columbia Public Library, 100 W. Broadway, at 7 p.m. on March 23.
“Juno’s Daughters” is the story of single mother Jenny Alexander and her two teenage daughters, Frankie and Lilly. All three live on San Juan Island and take part in a production of “The Tempest” there. The drama begins when Jenny and her oldest daughter fall in love with the same visiting actor.
That love triangle, as well as other choices the novel’s characters make, has readers talking to Saffran. In addition to making tour appearances in the Midwest and along the West Coast, where the “Juno’s Daughters” is set, Saffran has also been making virtual “visits” to book clubs using conference calls or Skype.
She enjoys hearing people discuss her book, and says they are not afraid to give their opinions of the book to its author; “When I’m talking to them, they don’t hold back,” she said.
Saffran said readers connect to the story and have been able to relate to Saffran’s characters, both to Jenny, who is in her 40s, and 17-year-old Lilly.
“I’m delighted about the extent to which people who have read the book appropriate it,” Saffran said. “It’s no longer something that’s just mine; it now belongs to these other people.”
Her discussions with readers never change her opinions of the book, never make her rethink what she wrote, because she said it feels like a “done” story. However, she does learn things in discussions.
Saffran, like her protagonist, is in her mid-40s. When she talked to a group of 60- to 70-year-old women, they gave her a new perspective on that age from 20 years later.
Her novel has possibly given readers new perspectives, too, ideas about life in other parts of the country. She writes about coastal communities and the “West Coast sensibility” that can seem casual and laid-back to her Midwestern readers.
A resident of the Old Southwest, Saffran has lived in Columbia for 18 years, and before that she earned her master’s degree in public health in North Carolina. However, having grown up in San Francisco and attended college in Oregon, she is familiar with the Pacific Northwest. She sets a lot of her work on the West Coast, and said the region is her subject as much as the people are.
Saffran started writing seriously when she was in her 30s and already involved in a career in public health. She went to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop for two years and earned her master’s of fine arts in fiction writing before returning to her career at MU. But she continued to write.
Though there are many books and writers she considers models, Saffran said she doesn’t have a favorite book. She appreciates realistic fiction that is carefully written, with “fresh” sentences, and she enjoys books that are captivating — capable of transporting the reader to a new place.
“I really like it when fiction can be both serious and have really funny moments,” she said.
When Saffran writes, she tries to write things she would like to read herself, exploring subjects she cares passionately about. She said she is a huge reader, so she was excited to write about characters who were thinking about “The Tempest” and reflecting on how it was relevant to their lives.
Saffran finds it interesting that her book is defying classification in the literary world. People in literary fiction and women’s fiction have both claimed it, and even some people who write about Shakespeare have expressed interest in it, because it relates so strongly to “The Tempest.”
Saffran said it took her about a year to write the novel. She was already working with a literary agent when she wrote the book, and when she finished it her agent sent it to several publishers before finding one. She said even the rejections were helpful.
When a publisher, Plume Books, finally bought the novel, she was excited, shocked and a little overwhelmed. She had had work published in journals and anthologies before, but having a published novel allows her work to reach a broader audience.
“The idea that I’d really have something out there in the world was fun,” she said.
Once the book was finished and sold, it took another year of going through steps such as editing and choosing a cover before it was finally published.
Saffran had no expectation that being published would change her life, and she said it hasn’t. Her family and friends are “just the greatest,” she said, and her two sons are excited and happy that she dedicated the book to them — one even asked her to circle his name.
She continues to work and tries to write every day, just now with the occasional book discussion added in. She is already working on her next novel.
Saffran would love to make a virtual appearance at your book club; see her website for more information.