"Anna had always insisted that her students make distinctions between author and character, life and books, truth and lies," writes Madison author Agate Nesaule in her debut novel, In Love With Jerzy Kosinski, just released from the Terrace Books imprint of the University of Wisconsin Press.
Especially for those who have read Nesaule's first book, the American Book Award-winning memoir A Woman in Amber, the lines between fiction and fact may be easy to blur.
Nesaule has a number of things in common with her fictional main character, Anna Duja. Nesaule was born in Latvia and endured extreme hardship as a child during World War II and in its aftermath. Nesaule and her character both had to make new lives for themselves after emigrating to the U.S.
"I'm interested in the relationship between fiction and nonfiction," Nesaule says in her sunny dining room filled with books and plants. While she plans to begin work on a second memoir later this year, she felt compelled to write a work of fiction.
"I had some experiences that I didn't want to write about in a memoir. I had some experiences for which I wanted to find very far-removed fictional equivalents," she notes.
In Love With Jerzy Kosinski - the book's title stems from Anna's obsession with the Polish-Jewish émigré author - charts the course of a woman starting over in her 40s. After extricating herself from a bad marriage, Anna must learn how to create a fulfilling life on her own. Along the way, she finds new friends and a new lover, but in some ways repeats mistakes from the past.
Local readers will spot many familiar names and places, from references to the personals in Isthmus to the Elvehjem Museum (now the Chazen), the Ovens of Brittany and American Players Theatre.
"We live in a non-literary age, but I still think books can be powerful, and I hope that women, as well as men, can read this story and maybe have the courage to change their lives and take risks," says Nesaule.
Nesaule describes her novel as a form of what writer Maureen Corrigan dubbed "the female extreme adventure story." It's not a tale of bullfighting or shooting the rapids, but of "facing common female experiences with courage and persistence," as Nesaule puts it.
When she's not writing, the professor emerita of English and women's studies at UW-Whitewater enjoys her other major passions: reading and gardening. She laughs as she recalls how she essentially dug up her entire front yard to plant flowers.
"I just love doing it; it's such a hopeful thing to do," she says of her horticultural hobby. "It's like writing. When I'm really into it, I don't think of anything else at all. I enter into another kind of space."