Introducing 2019 Debutante Jake Wolff

On May 16th, at our 10th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating six of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Jake Wolff, author of One Story #164, “The History of Living Forever” and the novel The History of Living Forever (FSG).

On the first day of his senior year of high school, precocious chemistry student Conrad Aybinder learns that Sammy Tampari, his favorite teacher and first love, has died of a rumored overdose. Soon he discovers that Sammy had secrets besides their relationship—most notably, a lifelong quest to construct the elixir of life. If Conrad can figure out the recipe, he has a chance at both saving his dying father and understanding a lover who, it seems, he never really knew. The problem is, Sammy wasn’t the only one searching…

Nina Sabak:  Where were you when you found out The History of Living Forever was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Jake Wolff: I was at home on a Monday night. I knew the people at Farrar, Straus were meeting that day to make a final decision on the novel, but when 5:00 pm arrived and I hadn’t heard from my agent, I assumed I was in for another long night of tossing and turning. Then around 9:00 pm, I realized he’d been trying to reach me for over an hour. I called him back in a panic, and he gave me the great news. Afterward, my wife and I just sat on the bed in a state of happy disbelief. She was crying. I was stunned.

I remember saying, “I don’t know what to do now. What should I do?” 

And she said, “Call your mom.” 

So I called my mom.

NS: The story you published with One Story, issue #164, shares a title with the novel and is echoed in the first case history, “Ge Hong Reflects on the Discovery of Mercury.” In the Q&A for that issue, you noted that you’re working on what became this book: a novel that “explores the same ideas…but in a contemporary setting.” What was your idea of what that novel might be, and how was it different from the book you ultimately wrote? 

JW: This question has led me to an answer I actually find surprising, which is that my vision for the novel back then is relatively close to how it turned out. I’m surprised because it feels like we did so many heavy rounds of edits, and we did—removing characters, reconfiguring plot lines, cutting lots and lots of backstory (poor backstory…always the first to go). But the core vision and basic shape of the novel stayed true. I see this as a testament to my editor, Jenna Johnson, who helped me find ways to clarify and sharpen without disrupting the spirit of the book. A lot of editors I spoke to, for example, wanted to cut the Case Histories. And I get it: the Case Histories are weird. But Jenna understood how much the history matters, and even how much the weirdness itself matters, to a subject like immortality. 

I will say that maybe in 2012 I saw the book more purely as the narrator Conrad’s story, who is on this scientific quest to save his father. As it evolved, I realized it was really just as much about Conrad’s teacher, Sammy, and the life he lived before his death in the novel’s first chapter. I realized that Conrad sees the book as a chance to tell Sammy’s story as much as his own. 

NS: Did the story prompt the research, or did the research turn into the story? Put another way: which came first, the elixir or the people you imagine searching?

JW: For me, it’s always research first. In this case, the history came first—understanding the “elixir of life” as an idea, one that has a historical, cultural, scientific lineage. I was researching the history of living forever long before there was a History of Living Forever or a Conrad who would tell it. I’ve always understood that character as a small part of a long continuum; he’s never existed for me just on his own.

My research for the elixir of life that Conrad spends the novel constructing—based on Sammy’s journals—happened more organically and more concurrently with the writing. There were some ingredients that I thought would be more important based on their historical importance, but Sammy’s life and interests began to dictate certain directions for his research. I also did some first-hand research by sampling various products claiming to be elixirs of life, which helped me access Sammy’s mindset and understand the risks he was taking. You haven’t lived until you’ve ordered an “elixir of life potion” from an Australian alchemist (only $70!). 

NS: You didn’t drink the elixir, did you?

JW: I did drink the Australian elixir. It came in a soda bottle wrapped in tinfoil, and it mostly tasted like saltwater. I also drank a snail mucous elixir, a gold nanoparticle elixir, and a deer velvet elixir. And I took a caterpillar fungus pill. The only really gross one was the deer velvet, which tasted like apple juice mixed with blood. 

NS: What led you to set this particular tale—or at least a major portion of it—in the place you’re from? 

JW: The book required such an extraordinary amount of research—both historical and scientific—that I suppose I was inclined to make my life a little easier when it came to Conrad’s home. I love Maine, and I know it really well despite not having lived there in some time. It was nice having one aspect of the book where I could just close my eyes and find an image. I particularly like the contrast between northern and southern Maine, so I had fun bouncing Conrad back and forth between those two poles. I don’t think any of this was a conscious decision, by the way, but it still feels true.   

NS: Because the elixir is impossible and therefore can’t actually disappoint, it can reflect its searchers’ hopes back to them. For Conrad, it’s one last Hail Mary to save his father. For Sammy, it’s a way to quiet the question he’s been asking himself his entire life (what’s wrong with me?). For the New York Society of Numismatics…well, that’s probably an entirely separate book. You, though in a far less credulous way, have conducted your own kind of search. Why do we keep looking for this particular supernatural answer when both the quest and the prize can backfire so badly?

JW: I think what’s interesting to me is that there are actually surprisingly few people who have searched for immortality, at least in any serious way. We talk about immortality a lot—in philosophy, in religion, in all forms of art. We like the ethical, spiritual, and moral questions surrounding the idea of living forever. But to take two characters from my book, there really aren’t that many Radkins or Bogdis out there, today or historically. That was part of the fun of those characters, for me. They exist in a state of lonely exasperation. They’re saying, “Why are people getting so uptight if I commit a few bad deeds? I’m trying to save us all from dying!”  

NS: Which fact or character detail do you most regret having to cut from the final book? 

JW: In chapter two, I had this one sentence of backstory where I mentioned that Sammy was once mugged in an alley by a woman holding a hand grenade. For some reason I find this idea very funny. The sentence had nothing to do with anything, so we cut it very early in revision. But whenever I read that paragraph I think, “Aww, this is where the lady with a grenade used to be.”    

NS: What are you most looking forward to at the Debutante Ball?

JW: If I have to pick one, I would say reuniting with my mentor, Judith Claire Mitchell, who was my MFA advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s the kindest, most brilliant teacher, and she was the first person to make me believe I could actually do this job. I haven’t seen her in many years, so the chance to send her the invitation was really special for me. We’re also both big introverts, so we’ve been joking about how wonderful it is that we have this opportunity to see each other—and also how horrified we are that it’s going to be at a party.

Nina Sabak earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. A native of West Virginia, she now works in publishing in New York City. Her stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Bartleby Snopes, and elsewhere.