Jessica Stilling on Writing Her Version of David Copperfield
In Conversation with G.P. Gottlieb on the New Books Network
In The Weary God of Ancient Travelers, Lydia Warren has a particular kind of amnesia. She vaguely recalls arriving in Santorini with a one-armed man whom she calls David Copperfield, who takes care of her. Lydia spends her days watching the sea and the changing light, trying to remember who she is. She takes walks, befriends a kindly old antiques dealer who might have been a Nazi and a French woman who helps people remember their past lives. Bits and pieces of what might or might not have been past lives appear in brief visions. A lamp she buys from the antiques dealer reminds her of an New York apartment she once lived in, but it’s the 1960’s, well before she was born. Then she’s visited by someone from The Hague investigating war crimes, and she learns that she has an uncle who lives like a hermit behind a monastery, also somewhere in Greece. This is a story about memory, the mysterious workings of the brain, and the human capacity for forgiveness.
Jessica Stilling: When I was creating the character David Copperfield, I actually models him after the character Hector from the Iliad and Hector from the Iliad is is widely considered and he is my personal favorite man. But he’s widely considered the epitome of goodness and honor and nobility. And he’s the crown prince of Troy, who sacrifices himself for his country. And he loves his family, and he loves his wife and is literally the only man in any piece of Greek literature I’ve ever read that is, like, has a conversation with his wife about something, anything at all. So I really liked seeing their dynamic and how David Copperfield was good like that. And so his goodness sort of rubs off on her.
G.P. Gottlieb: What about the Dickens character? How is he connected?
Jessica Stilling: So there is this sense that David Copperfield is the character, the Dickens character who tells his whole life story and lays it out. And David Copperfield does not. I’ll just say. And that’s sort of the kind of irony is that he’s this guy who she doesn’t know his name. We don’t learn his name till very late. I didn’t want to tell the reader the name until much later, but I was told I should probably name him a little earlier. She learns very little about his life, she learns a little bit about how she knows him as we go through the story. She knows who he is because she sees who he is. She sees his personality, she sees his goodness. But as far as any story connected to him, there is no story really, truly connected to him for a very long time. And so he sort of is the opposite of the David Copperfield that we know from Dickens.
Jessica Stilling earned a BA from the New School and an MFA in Creative Writing from the City University of New York. Before The Weary God of Ancient Travelers, she wrote The Beekeeper’s Daughter (Bedazzled Ink Press), Betwixt and Between (IG Publishing), Nod, and the young adult Pan Chronicles Series (D.X. Varos). Her short stories have appeared in The Warwick Review, The Hawaii Pacific Review and Wasifiri, and her nonfiction has appeared in The Writer Magazine, Ms. Magazine, and Tor.com. She has lived in New York City and Southwestern Vermont. She loves skiing, hiking, Virginia Woolf and anything Icelandic.
G. P. Gottlieb is the author of the Whipped and Sipped Mystery Series and a prolific baker of healthful breads and pastries.