She worked for Nasa and lived in Los Angeles, but Jessica Fox found love and happiness in a small Scottish town by the sea. Now she’s written about her journey in a memoir. By Lee Randall
EACH time the vision returned she noticed fresh details. There was a girl wrapped in a woolly jumper, sitting behind a wooden desk in a cosy second-hand bookshop. It was Scotland, and near the sea. The girl sipped from a steamy mug of tea, at peace, until a clanging brass bell signalling the arrival of a customer broke the silence. After many months, she realised the girl in this recurring vision looked a lot like the one in her mirror.
Jessica Fox was 25, living in a leafy corner of Los Angeles and working as a storyteller and media consultant for Nasa, helping the aeronautical wizards use narrative as a tool for knowledge-sharing. The highly independent Boston native was determinedly career-driven, pursuing her lifelong ambition to direct films. She studied mythology and astronomy at university, but always with a view to filmmaking, chasing that dream to New York City, Hawaii and Prague.
But, she writes in Three Things You Need to Know About Rockets, “I had become so focused on my career, that I was living in a self-imposed box. When was the last time I had done something without calculating how it benefited my ambition?” Well versed in the work of Joseph Campbell, most famous for documenting the Hero’s Journey, she questioned her own trajectory, and found it needed more self- direction and more scope for change.
Though she’d never visited here, she Googled “Used Bookshop Scotland”. Topping the initial results list was: “Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town.” Clicking that link, she recalls, “my heart jumped into my throat. I couldn’t believe it. Wigtown was a town of 1000 people and 16 bookshops, right by the sea in Scotland.”
The bookshop boasted that it was Scotland’s largest used bookshop, so Fox fired off an e-mail asking if they had a job for an enthusiastic volunteer willing to exchange hard work for accommodation for a couple of months. The immediate reply was short on punctuation, leading her to picture an elderly proprietor unused to digital technology. In no time at all she hatched a plan with Euan, whose shop it was, to time her visit to coincide with Wigtown’s annual autumn book festival.
That was 2008, and visiting to chair author events, I remember being struck by Fox’s brains and enthusiasm. We bonded over being Americans in Scotland. But Fox’s memoir isn’t a collection of quaint cultural recalibrations, such as learning not to snigger when someone asks for a loan of your rubber. It’s a love story, chronicling her burgeoning – often rocky – romance with Euan (who turned out to be young, good-looking, and cultured), and her blossoming relationship with Wigtown itself. Yet even that doesn’t fully describe a book that explores the idea of storytelling itself, asking what it means to give yourself permission to be an artist.
Part of the essence of being human, Fox writes, is “our bold insatiable curiosity and of leaving home for the unknown”. She jokingly depicts herself as someone who’d erect sandcastles only to knock them down. “What was I looking for? I didn’t know, but I knew the taste of it. It was a feeling I wasn’t having in Los Angeles and wasn’t having at that time in my work. If I were to analyse it, I’d probably say I was looking for an opportunity for understanding myself better. It isn’t my instinct any more, but I used to build up a career or life somewhere, and then go off somewhere else.”
Given her background, why wasn’t she online looking for films shooting in Scotland during her hiatus from Nasa? “I know! Why? I felt the vision was weirdly sacred, because every aspect of it was so real, so very much like a dream. In a dream your mind casts characters for a reason – and for me, for an emotive, cathartic reason. Just like in a dream, where every element is important, it felt like in this vision, every element was really important.”
Though she’s edited reality in the interests of crafting a readable and linear narrative, that mostly consists of condensing time and making composites out of certain acquaintances. But apart from one or two unruly customers – including the haughty lady who slapped Fox on the bottom – and misbehaving speakers at the book festival, there are no villains.
Fox became so integrated – and integral – to life in Wigtown that when she was later refused re-entry into the UK on a visa technicality – a legal row that’s not yet resolved – the locals rallied, sending messages of support to her back in Boston, and to the authorities here.
While urbanites might presume Wigtown would have a censorious small-town mentality, that hasn’t been Fox’s experience. She writes: “I found Galloway’s mind-your-own-business, look-the-other-way acceptance incredibly liberating. Wigtown, in particular, isolated and idiosyncratic, seemed to welcome the same qualities in its residents. Everyone knows your business, but they let you get on with it.”
And Wigtown provides the sense of community that Fox has searched for all her life. Knowing that she’s close to her family and loves Lexington, her home town, I’m curious about this restlessness, and wonder what caused such intense yearning for “a sense of cohesiveness … a sense of belonging”.
Mulling it over, she says: “I think I see it as an inheritance of a sense of dislocation.” Her family on both sides is Jewish, from Eastern Europe, and her German-born mother is the child of Holocaust survivors. “Every time I go to my grandmother’s they get out stacks of photo albums of people who went through horrible experiences, but also in places that I never visited. Or maybe it was because my grandmother always sounded quite Eastern European, and spoke another language. On my mother’s birth certificate she had a different name than the one I was used to her having. There was always a sense of not quite belonging. And growing up as any kind of minority gives you a sense of dislocation.”
The countryside proved another enticement. “What was most surprising was how beautifully soft the landscape felt. It still feels like someone clapping you awake every time you see the sparkling sea leading into marshland leading into trees, and you think, ‘Whether I’m there or not, it will still be as magnificent.’ There are vistas that no-one’s there to witness. It is one of the most beautiful places in the universe.”
She didn’t head to Scotland looking for love, but once found, it overwhelmed her. There are moments in the book when Fox loses her way, mainly when she tries to over-analyse – and, she’d be the first to admit, stage-manage – her love affair with Euan. Most women will identify with the moment when she admonishes herself to “Stop being the Hercule Poirot of other people’s feelings . . . give the poor man some privacy to think and feel without a full mental investigation.” Be a warrior, she counselled herself. Be bold, confident, and trusting.
Having only seen Wigtown in full throttle, during the book festival, I wonder how Fox copes the rest of the year. The town’s fortunes have been up and down. There is great affluence and noticeable poverty. An old newspaper found in Euan’s shop boasts that it will take about four hours, travelling non-stop, to get to London via train. But those tracks were ripped up. More recently, a creamery opened and was forced to shut again.
Fox nods. “Some people say one of Wigtown’s charms is that it is an undiscovered treasure. During the quiet months there is a charm to being able to go to a beach and be the only person there among this spectacular beauty. But that’s changing because there’s the Spring Fling festival now, and they’re looking to do another one in the winter. I am happy to say on record that I think the Scottish Tourism Board has done a really craptacular job about promoting Galloway. I don’t think they have it even on their radar.
“That’s all the more wonderful for us who get to enjoy this unspoiled landscape, but their focus is on other parts of the country, and it’s ultimately a shame. We have one of the oldest whisky distilleries in Bladnoch. There’s golf. Anything you want at your fingertips. It’s a trek to get here, but the journey is worth it. I’m quite sensitive to feelings in places. Even towns have a feeling. And Wigtown’s energy is good. I’ve never met such generous, thoughtful people.”
Ultimately, what has she learned from the tremendous highs and lows of the past few years? “I really took for granted why I was interested in film and stories. Without it, I needed to exercise my narrative and directing instinct, and I was definitely doing that on my relationship. A lot of it is about figuring out how to stay on your centre, regardless of what you hope happens, understanding what you want to express, and hoping that the rest of life, the part you can’t control starts reflecting your dream.
“I am done directing my life. I learned that life is a lot more collaborative. I have hopes and dreams that I’m going to follow as much as I can – and they involve all the things I really love: Euan, Wigtown, books, stories, movies and more adventures.”
And is she worried about the book’s reception? “A quote I borrow for the book is, ‘I know what I have given you; I do not know what you have received.’ There is always that gulf. So far, people have been extremely wonderful and supportive. As long as I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings, I’ll be very proud of myself. It’s definitely a love letter to Wigtown.”