University of Baltimore professor Jane Delury recently brought new life into the world, accompanied by that familiar maelstrom of love, pride and uncertainty. Unlike most bundles of joy, however, Delury’s creation is ready to speak for itself — and it seems everyone is listening.
Her first novel, “The Balcony,” debuted in late March from Little, Brown and Company, quickly earning the attention of some of the biggest names in the literary world. Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan, for example, wrote of Delury’s “breathtaking array of writerly gifts,” and celebrated author Andre Dubus III called the book “a true work of art and a most impressive literary debut.”
While Delury was grateful for the praise, of course, she says she had already made peace with whatever would happen.
“It really is like having kids,” she says. “You do your best for them and work really hard and spend a lot of money and you put everything you can into it, but in the end, they have to make it on their own when they’re out the door.”
She would know. Delury is mother to two daughters, an 11-year-old she calls a “great editor” and a 16-year-old studying writing at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson. The girls come by their bookish interests honestly, and both have embraced the literary life–a little earlier than their mother had. Though Delury says she was “always writing” snippets in her notebooks while growing up, it wasn’t until she was nearing the end of her graduate studies in Grenoble, France that she began to pursue the passion in earnest.
France, as it turns out, was both genesis and muse.
“I began writing short stories about this imagined forest based on a real forest in Chateauroux,” she recalls. “I wrote the first story when I was at the Writing Seminars at [Johns] Hopkins, and then I was just writing them regularly and publishing them in journals.”
Soon, she had the beginnings of what she called a “linked collection,” but it wasn’t until years later that she realized what was missing: the estate that would become the central point of “The Balcony.” The novel, written in a series of interlinked short stories spanning centuries, revolves around a manor in the fictional French town of Benneville and the forest (and secrets) that surround it.
Delury’s France, however, is not the macarons-and-berets dreamland of the American imagination. A starred review of “The Balcony” in “Kirkus Reviews” refers to Benneville as an “ugly city,” a moniker Delury attributes to her own home in the country.
“I purposely wrote about an area of France that Americans don’t think about,” she says. “I lived in an ugly city, and I was married to someone [a Frenchman] from an industrial area. When I was living there, there was this sort of Peter Mayle experience that was always on the mind of all the ex-pats.
He was writing about the real experience he had in France, but the rest of us were just standing in line at the supermarché and waiting in traffic and just living normal, not-very-romantic
Beauty, she found, lies in a place’s history — what she calls the “passageway to the past.” And while Baltimore might not have the ancient history of Europe, she found she was intrigued by the city’s past when she arrived in 1999. Years later, she’s still particularly enamored with the Jones Falls and its mill buildings, though she can’t help but to wonder about the history of her own home.
“My house is a rowhouse on one of the oldest streets in Rodgers Forge. It was built in the 1920s,” she says. “That’s a nice thing about living in Baltimore. You can find the past so easily, can see all these different conventions of living throughout the years.”
The past — or, at least, the imagination of the past — can be preferable. “I would much rather spend time as somebody else than myself,” she says. Even her Twitter bio is telling: There, she used to self-identify as a “worrier about the state of the world,” an anxiety that stretched into her
“I don’t think my writing is overtly political, but I struggle with this,” she says. “I think that the world is really messed up and needs a lot of help. As writers we’re contributing to that noble pursuit, but sometimes you just need to go do a sit-in as opposed to sitting behind your desk.”
She thinks for a moment.
“It’s a little highfalutin, but I do believe that the ability to understand the perspectives of other people is essential to citizenship. When you were asking me about moving into a character — if we all could do more of that, the world would be a better place.”
In the meantime, however, she’s happy to let her words do the work, shut her blinds to the world and escape in her imagination.
“I think part of me is always under a parasol on a stone bench in a garden in the 19th century,” she says with a laugh, miming the gesture. “Note the parasol. I sunburn very easily.”
On reading her reviews: “I’ve been writing and submitting for a long time. In the end, it’s all just about you and your work. ”
On her office décor: “What I love about this plant is that it hasn’t died.”
On her writing process: “I don’t print the manuscript until I think I have the story or the chapter done. Once the pages are physical, I’ll cut them up, tape them to the wall, move them around. Some of it is just ritual, but I think ritual can be helpful
because this process is so mysterious.”
On her sacred space: “It’s my corner of my own. I don’t even let the cat in.”