Jake Wolff has had some fantastic firsts this year. In 2018, he began his teaching career at UCF as an assistant professor of English. And on June 11, 2019, he released his first novel, The History of Living Forever.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the book tells the story of a chemistry student’s quest for immortality, which begins when he discovers his deceased teacher and first love had been searching for the Elixir of Life himself. Touching on themes like mental illness, love, morality and science, it made the Indie Next List for June of 2019, received starred reviews from Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and was even featured by our own Orlando Sentinel.
We asked Wolff about his inspiration for the book, what he wants young writers to know about publishing and more.
Where did the inspiration come from for The History of Living Forever?
Before I pursued creative writing, I worked for several years as a medical editor, so I already had some knowledge of that world. There’s a lot of drama and conflict inherent to the pharmaceutical industry because there’s a built-in tension between doing good (helping people, curing diseases, etc.) and profiting off those same activities.
While I was doing that work, I also had a cancer scare that led me to become interested—in a hugely skeptical way—in alternative and fringe medicine. I discovered this long history of brilliant, troubled people who have searched for an elixir of life, and I thought there was a novel in there somewhere. I like characters who are smart and desperate, so I built the story around those kinds of people.
What was most important to you while writing your book?
The real answer to this question is probably just that I wanted to finish it, to prove to myself that I could complete a project of this scale. But I also really wanted the book to be fun — to have humor and adventure along with some of the darker elements of the plot. All of my favorite books make me laugh at least a little bit.
Many reviewers have praised your book for blending genres. Do you think blending genres is becoming the norm in the publishing world?
Has the publishing world become more welcoming to cross-genre novels? I hope so. My editor was very encouraging about the weirder, more experimental parts of my book, but I know not all writers have had the same experience when trying to publish or when trying to find an agent. It’s still probably easier to find a home for your work if it can be neatly categorized.
With my own students, I certainly try to encourage them to write whatever they’re passionate about, regardless of how it might be labeled in terms of genre. To me, good fiction is good fiction.
What is your hope (or hopes) for your novel?
I hope people buy it (or check it out of the library!) and enjoy it. That’s all! (Okay, I also wouldn’t mind a TV or film adaptation that makes me extremely rich.)
How has your first year at UCF been?
I love teaching at UCF. My first year was amazing—I had one great class after another, each filled with talented students who really care about fiction. My colleagues are superstars and have been so supportive of me and the book. I’m very proud to be part of the creative writing program here.
What would you like MFA students and young writers to know about publishing their first work?
I suppose I would tell them to expect a lot of complicated feelings—excitement, anxiety, fear, vulnerability—and I would tell them to go easy on themselves if they start feeling like they’re not reacting the “right” way. And I would tell them to be cheerleaders for their classmates who publish before them, both because it’s the right thing to do and because when their own book comes out, they’ll want to be celebrated in that same way.
The Creative Writing MFA program prepares students for careers in writing with workshops in fiction, literary nonfiction and poetry. Learn more here.