Sandy Ebner’s essay “Jesse Lee” is a powerful story about friendship and loss. Unfortunately, the main character in her essay passed away before the publication of her piece. We were interested in seeing how she considered her essay after this tragic event, and how an essay about the different ways one can lose a friend can be addressed in non-sentimental yet caring ways. In this interview, Ebner also discusses how she approached writing such an emotionally rich piece, where the tension in the essay is for her, as well as other texts that address friendship and loss.
The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review:“Jesse Lee” is a deeply personal essay, and yet the reader feels like she is involved with the story, interacting with it as she witnesses how relationships can change. Why did you write this essay and at what point did you know it was time to right it?
Sandy Ebner: [I wanted] to explore the nature of friendship, particularly long-term friendships where cultural differences are involved. I’m interested in why some survive and others don’t. Friendships that have withstood difficulties and have lasted over several decades, especially during periods of anger and misunderstanding, are fascinating to me, particularly if there have been times when one or both individuals assume the relationship has run its course, only to find that the opposite is true; that the friendship is, in fact, stronger because of those periods of anger and separation. That was the case with Jesse and me.
I knew it was the right time when I found myself thinking about Jesse all the time. If a subject keeps popping into my head, that usually means it’s a good time to get something down on paper. Writing the essay helped me come to terms with my own shortcomings in regards to my friend. When I realized that I had been very selfish towards Jesse, I decided to write about our friendship.
TJE: What sort of preparations (unintentional or sought out) did you take before completing this essay? Did you talk it over with your friend or any family members before you started submitting it?
SE: The preparations for this were mostly mental. This was the first essay I’d written about someone still living, and someone who might object to being the subject of an essay, so I had to work through some issues there. I rarely talk about an essay before I’ve at least finished a first draft. Once it’s been published that’s different, of course, but keeping it private until I’ve got it into halfway decent shape allows me to avoid being distracted by outside influences or comments made by other people. I never talked about the essay with Jesse.
TJE: In between the first draft of this essay and when it was accepted for publication, the friend who you based Jesse on passed away. How do you feel about your essay now? Has anything about it changed for you? Also, did she have a chance to read it?
SE: Nothing about the essay itself has changed for me since her death, other than the fact that reading it is painful because her loss is still so fresh (she died in March). No, Jesse never had a chance to read it. I’m not sure how she would have reacted to it, considering some of the subject matter. That’s one of the reasons I chose not to use her real name. I wanted to protect her privacy as much as possible.
TJE: Is there anything about the essay you would do differently if you were to re-write it now? Would you include different scenes or take out any of them?
SE: I wouldn’t have the emotional distance necessary to write about her right now, obviously, but if I did I doubt the essay would be substantially different. If I still felt anger towards her, knowing that I’d never see her again, that would be tremendously difficult. The essay would be quite different if that were the case.
TJE: Tension can build within a narrator, how she can feel conflicted about certain situations, and tension can also build between people in relationships as they might disagree on each other’s actions. Considering how tension can be the driving force of a story, which parts of your essay do you think hold the most tension and why do these stand out to you?
SE: I’m not sure which scenes will hold tension for a reader, but for me the most difficult scenes are the early ones, when she was calling me from across the country and reaching out for help. Those are tough memories. The later scenes, in her house, when I saw how she was living, followed by our time together in New Orleans, when we talked about her hopes for the future, are also hard for me to read. I was finally able to see the tragedy of her life from the point of view of an adult, rather than that of a young girl. It’s also hard to read those particular scenes because that was the last time I saw her in person.
TJE: This essay walks a very difficult line between sentiment and the sentimental, as well as the concepts of nostalgia and gratitude. How do you think you were able to keep the essay from turning to a sentimental piece that only speaks to you? What did you have to do in order to veer “Jesse Lee” away from feeling overly-nostalgic?
SE: I never viewed the piece as nostalgic or sentimental. Some of the subject matter–domestic abuse, drug abuse, etc., prevents the piece from veering too far in that direction. At least I hope it does. Long-term friendships often aren’t pretty. Discovering difficult things about yourself, or another person, can be painful. I think that if you write from a place of absolute truth, or as close to that as you can, you can avoid crossing that line.
TJE: Is there a novel or memoir you think best conveys and discusses female relationships?
SE: Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett, is a wonderful memoir about friendship and loss. Anne Lamott has written at length about the loss of her best friend, Pam, in several of her books, which I’ve always found inspiring. In terms of novels, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale touches on several themes relating to abuse and friendship, among other things. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See explores female friendships that survive difficult circumstances, as does Khaled Hosseini in A Thousand Splendid Suns.
TJE: Is there anything else you would like to share?
SE: I’m glad you used the word “gratitude” earlier. When I read the piece now, especially since Jesse’s death, I feel an enormous sense of gratitude and peace having had her as my friend, regardless of the difficulties we faced.
TJE: What are you working on now?
SE: I’m working on my first novel, which has been a huge challenge because I’d never written fiction before. I also have several short stories and essays that are in the very early stages.
Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her essays cover a variety of topics and have been published, or are forthcoming, in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and other publications. Her essay, “The Clothes I Was Wearing” was named a finalist in both the 2012 Press 53 Open Awards and the 2012 Glass Woman Prize, in addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Cal State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She is working on her first novel.