Jaclyn Desforges is the author of Danger Flower, a poetry collection about nature, sexuality, reverse mermaids and mothering. She’s also the author of Why Are You So Quiet? a picture book about being an introverted kid. Her award-winning poems and stories have been published in literary magazines across Canada. Today, Jaclyn joined me to talk about a book that I have always thought I hated. It turns out, I fundamentally misunderstood “Jane Eyre,” and this was one of those bookish conversations that opened my eyes and made my brain tingle. We also talked Reverse Mermaids, how to understand books differently on a re-reading, and how Jane Eyre is Jaclyn’s own personal Patron Saint of Neurodivergence.
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Discussed in this episode:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Danger Flower by Jaclyn Desforges
Why Are You So Quiet? by Jaclyn Desforges
Devolution by Kim Goldberg
Moving to Climate Change Hours by Ross Belot
Gold Rush by Claire Caldwell
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Wild Milk: Stories by Sabrina Orah Mark
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Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast, where we get to know interesting people by asking them to tell us about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to author Jaclyn Desforges. When Jaclyn told me her all-time favorite book is Jane Eyre, I had to physically hold my eyeballs in my head, lest they roll out of my skull and onto the ground. I have never gotten why so many people love this book so much. But then we started talking, and I can’t wait for you to hear Jaclun convince me that Jane Eyre may really, and truly be the Best Book ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Jaclyn. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast.
Jaclyn Desforges: Hi there.
JS: Jaclyn, I’m so excited to talk to you about this book, that I thought would be chosen right off the bat. And you’re the first one to choose Jane Eyre. So we’ve got a lot of ground to cover today.
Jaclyn: Yeah. I’m so looking forward to chatting with you.
JS: Me too, because my opinion has changed as of this reading. But we’re going to get into that in a few minutes. I want to ask you how you got to Jane Eyre in the first place. What was your reading life like when you were a kid?
Jaclyn: My reading life. I don’t remember not being able to read. I think I learned to read pretty early, and it was the nineties, so there wasn’t much to do. So, I read all the time. And I was such a sensitive kid and very, very Jane Eyre-like. I liked to be quiet and I didn’t really want to run around and play with the other kids so much. I just kind of wanted to be in my book. And so books were always a really safe place for me. They’ve been there from the beginning. My earliest memories are book related. Little House on the Prairie, Little House in the Big Woods.
JS: That sound you hear right now is every one of my listeners nodding along. If you didn’t like a book, will you finish it? Or will you abandon a book you dislike?
Jaclyn: I abandoned books. I also abandon poems that I write, stories that I write. If something gives me that feeling of, I am tired and bored, then I won’t do it. And I think that helps me keep reading because otherwise I would just get stuck. I tried to keep going sometimes, but then I’m like, oh, I sure feel like reading, but I’ve got to finish that book that I don’t want to read. That’s not fun.
JS: No, it’s not fun. And it slows you down.
Jaclyn: It does. Let’s just pick up the pace here.
JS: Tell me about what you write.
Jaclyn: Sure. I am a poet. I just had my first full-length poetry collection come out, called Danger Flower. I write very sort of strange, lyrical, fairy tale-ish poems about bodies and motherhood and sexuality and nature. Stuff like that. Reverse mermaids. Tamagotchis. In addition, I also have a picture book that I wrote about being an introverted kid. And that’s called, Why Are You So Quiet?
JS: We’re going to talk more about that in the Patreon section. But I want to ask, because I don’t know what this means: What’s a reverse mermaid?
Jaclyn: You know how a mermaid is a fish bottom and a lady top. It’s the opposite. So it’s like fish top. lady bottom. I know the listeners won’t be able to see, but I’m holding up a picture right now. This is the book called Devolution by the brilliant poet Kim Goldberg. And she has a reverse mermaid on the cover of her book. And yeah, it’s, it’s a little creepy and weird, but I feel like it’s kind of like fairy tale-ish and morbid and strange and mystical.
JS: What did they do?
Jaclyn: I don’t, well, I don’t, I don’t know. If they existed, would they walk or would they swim? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.
JS: I’ve never thought of the concept of reverse mermaids. Of course, now that you’re saying that I’m thinking of all of these half creature things that have existed throughout mythology. And isn’t it funny that if they exist in one form, they’re kind of hyper-sexualized. But if you just reverse that, which I guess biologically speaking, that should exist to. If one exists, then the other should exist.
Jaclyn: Right? Like the, the sister of the mermaid could also look like the reverse mermaid, but the sexiness does not reverse necessarily.
JS: It wigs me out a little bit to think about it. Is that why you decided to write about it? Because the immediate thought is, why do I feel weird about this?
Jaclyn: That sort of weird feeling, that’s what I try to express in my poetry. I know the other feelings, but that, like, I find that like when there’s something that has some like symbolic underlying meaning that I don’t quite understand yet gives me this little like, wow. You know? And then I hold onto it and it’s the way I weave these weird images into my poems, and they always end up meaning more than I thought they did. It. It ends up being something about transformation and seeing the world in a different way. What would it mean to, to look at the world through the eyes of a fish instead of human eyes? I think it opens doors in the psyche when you can engage with pictures like that.
JS: Do you read what you write for the most part or do you try to really read outside of the genres you’re interested in writing in?
Jaclyn: I read pretty widely. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry over the course of the pandemic because I found that it is just kind of exactly like the literary experience I’m looking for right now. I can dive into a poem and be there for a while, but I can come out of it just as quickly. And I think there’s this sort of, maybe I feel a little hypervigilant in the world. It’s hard to sink into a novel the way it used to be for me.
JS: Did you discover any new to you poets in the last – how long have we been in this pandemic? 20, 30, 40 years? I don’t know.
Jaclyn: Something like that. Yeah. I have a pile here cause. Kim Goldberg was new to me. I just facilitated a panel with her recently and she was wonderful. Moving to Climate Change Hours. by Ross Belot was wonderful. Also, Claire Caldwell’s Gold Rush was really, really great. That’s a book I just read recently. And Claire was actually my editor for my picture book.
JS: I don’t know much about poetry. And so I’m always asking my guests here because I always want to get to know poetry better and learn how to read it.
Jaclyn: Well, I think maybe it’s the way we’re taught about poetry. We’re sort of taught that there is some special way to read it. Like there’s some mystery to figure out or some treasure at the bottom of the well. I don’t know that that’s really true. I like reading poetry out loud because I find that it’s really pleasant. It’s enjoyable to listen to. I don’t know about you, but I find that for me I read a lot, and I tend to read so quickly that I’m not necessarily hearing the sound in my brain as I’m reading. It’s more like I’m just getting information quickly and not noticing it. But with poetry, when I read it out loud, it’s sort of like this experience somewhere between music and the story. And it’s something that can be so pleasant and easy. And I hope that more people will give it a try because it doesn’t have to be an academic exercise, despite what our high school English teachers may have suggested.
JS: And isn’t that weird, that that’s so many people come out of school with that impression. When in reality, like you said, it seems like it should be the opposite. It should be what we turn to when we have nothing else in us, not only when we’re looking for a challenge. When we don’t have a lot of time, we don’t have a lot of energy for a gigantic plot. Like you would think that if they really wanted us to read it, (English teachers,) you would teach it as a source of comfort.
Jaclyn: Yeah, exactly. That’s how, that’s how I view it. And it’s the kind of comfort that can also open doors in your mind to places that you might not have traveled before. I’ve found that writing poetry is the best way that I’ve found to sort of express how it feels to live inside my own brain. It’s the clearest path to doing that, to sort of expressing what it feels like to me. And then when you read somebody’s poem and maybe you can relate to that, that’s a very exciting feeling. When you can recognize yourself in someone else’s perception.
JS: To me, writing poetry is the hardest form of writing because it is so stripped and so essential. So, I am fascinated that you said it’s the clearest way. It feels like such self-awareness to say that writing poetry is the clearest way to you, because it feels like you have to be a person who absolutely knows who you are.
Jaclyn: Yeah, and I think that’s the work of art, or, that’s the work of my art. That’s the work of my poetry is digging deeper and deeper into myself and trying to express it as plainly and honestly and concisely as possible in a way that can get past convention and be served directly.
JS: Do you remember how you first found Jane Eyre?
Jaclyn: I do. I do I actually saw the movie first. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the 1983 adaptation of Jane Eyre with Timothy Dalton? It is not good.
JS: He’s Mr. Rochester? Do you know what, I don’t hate that idea.
Jaclyn: He’s a little bit too handsome. Anyway, it’s not a super fantastic adaptation. It’s too long. The casting is weird. Everything’s weird about it, but we, my mom and I, – Well, I think we rented it. This was a while ago. We rented it from a physical rental place, and brought it home and put it in a machine and watched it on the TV. And it, I remember watching it and being like, this is a bad movie. Why am I so immersed? I am so immersed. I think I was 18 at the time, something like that. And so we watched half of it and I went to work the next day. It was the summer I was working as a cashier and I spent the whole day thinking about it. There was something in my psyche that was connecting to it on such a deep level. It didn’t matter any of the strangeness of the movie itself. So I watched the rest of it and I was just obsessed. And after that, I got the book, of course.
JS: And, and so this was not connected to school. You just read this book on your own steam?
JS: Okay. So for my listeners who have not come across this book, what is the plot?
Jaclyn: Okay. So the basic plot of Jane Eyre is there is a little girl who is living on the kindness of others, in a fancy estate with her cousins, and she’s very much disliked for reasons that are somewhat unclear, although it seems that she doesn’t have any money and she’s orphaned and everyone there is mean to her. She has a very difficult childhood and then she’s sent off to a boarding school, where there’s not enough food or heat or anything like that. She makes her first friend there. She spends her adolescense in this boarding school and then she wants to get away. Most of the students who end up surviving through the school, and who graduate, they end up being teachers. She doesn’t want to be there anymore, so she advertises and then goes off to Thornfield Hall, to be a governess, which is just so romantic. So she goes, there falls in love with the master of the house, Mr. Rochester, and now we’re getting into spoiler territory.
JS: I mean, the book was written in 1847. I have to assume that we know how this ends. This is on you, listener.
Jaclyn: For sure. So, when she’s at Thornfield Hall, which is sort of this Gothic castle situation, there’s some weird stuff going on. She and Rochester fall in love. He’s got some issues going on. He’s a little bit toxic. He’s manipulating her and making her think that he’s in love with this woman named Blanche Ingram. Drama and romanc ensues and they become engaged. And they’re about to get married, when turns out he has a wife in the attic. No ghosts, just a wife they keep up there who is suffering from some serious mental health issues and is having a hard time. And then Jane runs off. Jane’s like, nope, peace out. Like, she’s quiet. She doesn’t yell. She doesn’t freak. She doesn’t pack anything up. But she’s fleeing the place that night, even though Rochester is like, no, that’s cool. We can go away. We can just shack up. It’s fine. No biggie. We don’t have to be officially married. So she runs off and into the wilderness and just by sheer luck arrives in this little town and the first people she runs into turn out to be her cousins, who she didn’t know existed. And so she goes and she becomes a school teacher. She’s still in love with Rochester, from afar. It’s very tragic, but she’s making a life for herself. She’s teaching, she inherits some money of her own. And then her cousin, St. John, who’s very, very religious, he’s very serious, and not super fun. and he wants her to go off and marry him and have sort of a loveless relationship. She’s like, maybe, I don’t know. I want to go back and see what’s up with Mr. Rochester. There’s this psychic moment of maybe they connect over time and space and she hears him calling for her. And then she goes, turns out there was a big fire at, at Thornfield Hall. His wife has now died in the fire, and Mr. Rochester’s living in this little cottage and has less money and he’s blind.
JS: Yes. And missing a hand.
Jaclyn: And missing a hand. And then, they get back together, live happily ever after, have babies. Part of his sight comes back and there we go. How did I do?
JS: That was amazing. If I had never heard of this book, I would for sure want to read it after hearing that description. It was perfect.
JS: I guess this is a two-part question: What do you think you connected to so much when you were 18? And then after you answer that, I want to know, why does it still grab you so much?
Jaclyn: Absolutely. Well, I think what grabs me to begin with when I was 18 was sort of what still stays with me, which was that I really saw myself in Jane with the way that she engaged with the world, the way that she looked at things, the way that people reacted to her and also the way that Mr. Rochester reacted to her. When you’re a very quiet, sort of mysterious person, and people are like, what’s your deal? What’s going on with you? Because sometimes people can find that, you know, attractive. And then sometimes there’s this handsome man who suddenly is attracted? When I was 18, I was like, oh, what a romantic story! It was like the most amazing romantic story. I didn’t understand at the time why she left, and I hand-waved away so much of Mr. Rochester’s toxic behavior. And I was like, well, why didn’t you just go off to your Villa with him? Oh, too bad, it was the olden times, and you couldn’t really do that. That’s too bad. Like it was that kind of attitude. Right? I blamed it entirely on the societal element of her not wanting to live in sin. Noww I view it differently in that regard. And I see that reading it in my thirties is much different reading it in my thirties. I am not hand waving away the toxicity of Rochester. I recognize the allure of someone looking at you and being like, oh, you’re so special and mysterious. How that can be dehumanizing in a way, right? When you can’t necessarily be all that you are, you can only be what is acceptable to the person who has more power in the relationship. And I see her running off and having to create her own life before she can truly have a healthy partnership, that makes total sense to me. But I think the biggest thing was, funnily enough, I actually ended up being diagnosed with autism and ADHD in my early thirties. At that point, I was like, you’re like Jane Eyre. I Googled Jane Eyre and, lo and behold, all of these academic articles pop up analyzing Jane Eyre is a potentially autistic character written before that diagnosis was really a thing. And then it was like, it was like, oh my God, I recognized something in her that was in me when I first read this book. And ever since then, she’s been kind of my Patron Saint of Neurodivergence, even though that’s my read. And there are other ways to analyze the book. There are other ways to look at it. But ever since then, I’ve been, like, she’s my she’s my girl, you know? And I’ve felt like Charlotte Bronte being, you know, very intelligent and reclusive enough to want to write a book like this and writing perhaps based on her own perspective in the world, writing this first person novel, maybe she was on the spectrum too, and didn’t realize it. It’s like this time-traveling connection of neurodivergence and imagination between me and her and Jane.
JS: Can you tell me some incidences that would indicate neurodivergence to you?
Jaclyn: Sure. Yeah. I was just rereading the childhood section recently, and I was struck by how much of the pain of her childhood comes from misconnection and misunderstanding. Do you notice that how the adults, she seems to be, for the most part, doing what she is expected to do? But everyone’s mad at her, and everyone’s very disturbed by her. But we don’t get a sense of, is she doing something bad? For the most part, she’s just reading. She’s just hanging out. She’s trying to carve out some space for herself in this family where she’s so isolated. And then the moment when she acts, she expresses herself, the adults are surprised and actually warm in certain instances. They’re like, oh, you’re suddenly expressing yourself. It’s so strange because when I read Jane Eyre, it’s so much internal. Like a monologue, right? It just seems so normal to me. I was like, oh, you’re just like me. This is so well-written that this is the way an ordinary person is just like me.
JS: That is a magical reading of it. And I feel like it absolutely unlocks her.
JS: How many times have I missed this? That is what I wonder.
Jaclyn: And then you think about like, who are these women who are writing in times when it’s not socially acceptable to be writing. And it takes a lot of time.They were doing the stuff of society, cultural, motherhood in those times was so overwhelming. I just, I don’t know.
JS: Who else would be doing it?
Jaclyn: As the person on the spectrum, I’m always thinking, oh, they’re on the spectrum. Totally on the spectrum. But in this case, there must be like an over-representation of women on the spectrum who ended up being authors in these types of places where it was not typical.
JS: So tell me about what you think of Mr. Rochester. And how, I guess, your opinion of him has changed once you understood Jane.
Jaclyn: I read Mr. Rochester as the first time that Jane encounters another human being who, even if he doesn’t necessarily look at the world the same way that she does, he looks into her and wants to know how she looks at the world. And so they have this connection, which feels like for me when I’ve encountered another autistic person in a room of neuro-typical people, it can feel like you look over and you’re like, oh, you’re here too. There’s another person! They’re all people, but it’s like, oh, we are here! We are experiencing this experience in a similar way. And I wonder if that is the intoxication, for Jane, after a lifetime of so much neglect and misunderstanding, like just the inability to be understood. I don’t even think she understood that she was misunderstood. Or, she does, but I don’t know if she really fully feels the extent of that wound until suddenly there’s a person there who is looking at her and asking her questions.
JS: Which is so fascinating to contrast him with St. John, her cousin, who, on paper, looks like the right answer for her. Solid, safe, conventional. Nobody could criticize that as her choice of a life partner, except she knows that Mr. Rochester is the one who paid attention to her.
Jaclyn: She looks at him and perceives him to such a level. She doesn’t look at him and think oh, you’re so great, and no worries about that other stuff. She sees him as a whole person with a lot of problems. And obviously she has boundaries, you know, strangely enough. She comes out of, out of school, with such a loyalty to herself and an integrity, that I think she really is the perfect person for him.
JS: I think what you just said about her loyalty to herself was precisely what I have always missed about this, because I always said that I do not get the appeal of Jane Eyre. I’ve never gotten it. I will tell you the exact passage that got to me this time. That made me go, oh my God. And it’s exactly what you just said about her loyalty to herself. He’s trying to convince her to live with him, even though, you know, he’s got his wife up in the attic, but it’s fine. You’ll just be my mistress, no worries. No worries. He says to her, it would not be wicked to love me. And she says, it would to obey you.
Jaclyn: Yes, Jane.
JS: And then later on, she says, I care for myself. There I plant my foot. The first time I read this book was in college. And this was the first time that I noticed that line and went, oh my God, she is not a doormat. I’ve always seen her as a doormat. I was so wrong.
Jaclyn: She’s so strong. Unbelievably strong in the face of it. It’s strange, because in some ways the big decision she makes to leave is going along with social convention. And that she’s like, I don’t want to be a mistress. I feel like it’s deeper than that. It’s not for her about, oh, people would look at me in a different way or I wouldn’t be taken seriously or whatever. It wasn’t about that. It was like, she knew. She could see that it wasn’t the right thing. It wasn’t the right thing. And he couldn’t make it right by hand-waving. She feels out of place almost everywhere.
JS: She’s already shown us that she gets – is awkwardness the right word. Cause I don’t think she ever feels awkward. But she’s shown us that she doesn’t care what other people think, but she cares very much what she thinks of herself. That’s what stops her.
Jaclyn: And that’s what she gets from in the first part of the book where she makes friends at Lowood school. The boarding school with Helen Burns, her friend who teaches her how to take care of herself.
JS: And there’s a very simplistic reading of this, I think, that it’s a Christian morality tale. That makes me angry too, because I don’t think her rejection of Mr. Rochester has anything to do with sex out of wedlock. I think she’s genuinely saying, if it were the right thing, I would do it, but it’s not the right thing. This would not fit with my soul. Until you clean up your house, Mr. Rochester.
Jaclyn: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. It’s not the right thing. And I think she was angry too, that he was pushing her because if he truly knew her as well as he claimed to, then he would know that she always has to do what is the right thing for her own integrity. And he was using his social power to say, oh, it’s okay. I can pay for us to have a villa far away and you don’t have any relatives to worry about. It’ll be fine.
JS: Jaclyn, I have to thank you. Until now. I have misunderstood this book.
Jaclyn: Well, I hope that what I’m saying makes sense. It’s my vision of her and that steel, you know, I feel like that is partially a gift of like, for me, when I think about myself as a person on, on the spectrum, I think well, that is what I want to have. That extra strength against the pressures of social convention, the pressures of trying to be like everybody else, it’s never been very important to me. And it clearly isn’t very important to Jane. But I’m so glad I found her.
JS: Is this a book you reread frequently?
Jaclyn: Not frequently, but I do watch the 2006 Toby Stephens adaptation very frequently. Probably 25 times. It was my favorite one. For me, it’s the Jaclyn Desforges definitive edition.
JS: Is it a movie or is it a series version of it?
Jaclyn: It’s a BBC miniseries.
JS: I think I’ve seen the wone with Mia – I don’t know her last name. Is that a bad one?
Jaclyn: It was very short. If you have already read the book or watched other adaptations, maybe. But it cut out so much that I would be confused about the plot, I think, if I didn’t know the book.
JS: Do you, as a Jane Eyre fan, do you follow all of the other twists and turns that modern writers have done with this work? There are so many more books about the woman up in the attic.
The Wide Sargasso Sea, and there have been so many fictional takes, mainly on the life of Bertha. Do you pay attention to that kind of thing?
Jaclyn: I read Wide Sargasso sea multiple times, and I think, oh my God, that book. Very much a poetic work, just a beautiful, beautiful work of fiction. And I think there’s obviously a lot of room there to try to talk about the under the light, because there are so many colonial and racist underpinnings to that aspect of the book, with regards to Bertha. Yeah, obviously, I’m so glad that writers have been diving into that and exploring those aspects in their imagination. Obviously, Charlotte Bronte was writing at a particular vantage point, and there’s stuff that clearly that needs to be talked about.
JS: So this book is sort of a foundational book in your life, doesn’t exist – it’s not encased in glass. You’re really willing to see what others do with the story and interpretations and that kind of thing?
Jaclyn: For sure. And it’s not perfect. It’s a work of art. And I see it as sort of like a time capsule of this person, this writer, this woman writer in this other time, who had her own struggles and challenges. I feel like if she wrote this and left it and now I’m reading it and writing my own stuff, it doesn’t mean that if somebody finds my work in, in a couple of hundred years and reads it, I don’t want them to be like, well, that’s perfect. You know? I’m just a human.
JS: Who do you recommend this book to? Have you successfully passed it off to other people? Because it’s a book that intimidates a lot of readers.
Jaclyn: I don’t know that I’ve ever recommended it to anybody. I have such a personal relationship with it that I don’t know that… Or maybe because it’s so thick, that I’m like, this is a big assignment, if you aren’t into it. But I would say, If you have any sort of little sensation of interest, there is so much there, especially for anyone who’s neurodivergent. Cause I think it can be really fascinating to look at it through that lens and see how this is strangely familiar for something that was written a very long time ago.
JS: I listened to it on audio. And I thought it was oddly short for such a long book. Well, of course, when I finished it, I realized I was listening to an abridged version. I was on an eight-hour road trip, and I listened to it in one gulp. And when I, when it got to that line, There, I plant my foot, I burst into tears. Isn’t that weird? And I was going, what is happening to me? I hate this book! I’ve always hated this book! When I got home, I picked up my old copy from college and I read through it. What I’m going to do, going forward, is if anybody ever expressed interest, I’m going to say, listen to the abridged audio, where you get the picture. It is so skillfully done because it gets to the important, the essentials. This is the story of a woman who figures herself out and does not deviate.
Jaclyn: Reading is fun, eh?
JS: So fun. So tell me, what are you reading right now?
Jaclyn: This book is called Wild Milk: Stories by Sabrina Orah Mark. I just started it. So I don’t have that much to say yet, but it’s so magical. The stories are so short and poetic that I think if you’re a person who wants to dive into poetry or is a little nervous about it, or maybe wants to start with some poetic short fiction, it might be a good start and it’s quite magical.
JS: All right, I’m going to look it up. Will you tell my listeners where they can find you?
Jaclyn: Yes, absolutely. so my name is Jaclyn Desforges, which is a little complicated to spell, but if you go to nestandstory.com, that’s my website and there are links there to get my books or visit me on Instagram or Twitter. Those are mostly the places where I’m hanging out.
JS: This has been lovely talking to you. I hope you will come back anytime you want to talk books with me.
Jaclyn: I would love to! Thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms! . I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram, where you can see some of my favorite quotes from the podcast, occasional photos of my reading cave, and get bookish news from friends of the show. You might even catch a glimpse of our official mascot, Benny, the meanest bunny on the planet. I really love most social media, but I love the Instagram book community. So come on over and let’s chat books.