USC alum’s powerful story inspires debut novel, ‘Belonging’

Jill Fordyce explores how pivotal adolescent moments can shape who we become.

“Belonging” is Jill Fordyce’s debut novel. While she was a student at USC, Fordyce took a class that helped her see the importance of fiction writing. (Jill Fordyce)

From a young girl growing up in Bakersfield to an accomplished lawyer, mother, wife, philanthropist and now author, USC alum Jill Fordyce has proven that our past doesn’t define who we are. She channeled these themes of heartbreak and coming of age into her debut novel, “Belonging,” which releases Tuesday.

An intimate, coming-of-age story covering three decades that culminates in overcoming a traumatic childhood, “Belonging” goes through the harsh upbringing of Jenny, a 13-year-old girl from a small town in central California as she battles a devastating disease that leaves her bedridden, an alcoholic mother and neglectful father. After fleeing to Los Angeles for college, Jenny comes back to reencounter her past and confront the evils she ran away from. The story revolves around Jenny’s fight against her past and the difficulty of letting go as she navigates a new life.

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Fordyce based much of Jenny’s story on her own. Jenny’s pivotal moments as she finds herself are reflective of Fordyce’s personal growth as a lawyer, writer and person while at USC.

“I became an adult at USC,” Fordyce said. “I discovered what I was passionate about at USC. I made my best friends there. I met my husband there.”

Graduating from the class of ’86, Fordyce received her Bachelor of Arts in English from USC. She was deeply involved in her community, becoming vice president of USC’s Panhellenic Council, a member of the debate team, a sister in the sorority of Kappa Alpha Theta and the president of the Order of Omega, an honor society of fraternity and sorority leaders.

A major point that pushed Fordyce to write at USC was a class in her senior year with only a dozen students, taught by PEN/Faulkner award recipient T.C. Boyle. Fordyce recounts her first writing workshop as an initially terrifying experience. It wasn’t until she handed in her work that she realized the value of fiction writing.

“[In] the feedback I received, people all understood different things from the story, things I didn’t intend necessarily,” Fordyce said. “It just really opened up fiction writing for me because I thought of how interesting it is that everyone’s going to bring their own perspective. I don’t have to say, ‘this is my theme.’ People are going to bring themselves to it.”

Jerry Papazian, president of USC’s secret society Skull and Dagger, praised Fordyce for her quiet yet powerful leadership and impact on the community.

“She just really took advantage of all the things that are available in college, available to her,” Papazian said. “Jill was very well- respected by her peers, very well-liked by everybody.”

Above all, Papazian and Fordyce both recall a prominent figure in guiding her: former Dean of Women Joan Metcalf Schaefer. As a counselor to USC’s female students, Schaefer was a notable mentor and a role model who shaped Fordyce into who she is today.

“The fact that she would be my mentor was just so meaningful to me,” said Fordyce. “She was an icon. I mean, just an incredible warmth: interesting and so generous with her time.”

“Belonging” is a reflection of Fordyce’s journey and resilience. It’s not only a description of Jenny’s struggles but also her ability to turn an emotional past into a life filled with a loving family, quality relationships and community. “Belonging” is proof that our pasts do not define us and that we are capable of building something out of nothing, Fordyce said.

Sheri Griffin, lifelong friend and sorority sister of Fordyce, highlights this as one of many of her awe-inspiring qualities.

“She released all of that pain and those burdens and she just accepted what life had to offer her, which was incredible friendship and love through her ever-growing family and our community,” Griffin said. “That’s what she accepts that surrounds her and her family today.”

Another best friend and sister of Fordyce, Jackie Thompson, recalls the Fred Zulfa Memorial Scholarship Fund, set up by Fordyce in honor of a late friend from high school to help students in Bakersfield afford college.

“She’s just amazing,” Thompson said. “She’s super smart, always has been and just continues to add tools to her toolbox.”

Fordyce’s advice for students? “See everything, do everything.” Given by Schaefer, it’s what Fordyce believes fuels her ambition.

“Take a film class, go to a music class, do things [where]  you’re not necessarily in your wheelhouse,” Fordyce said. “Study in every single library, wander around campus, get to know L.A., make friends in classes that wouldn’t necessarily be your peers.”

Fordyce’s love and passion for coming-of-age novels made it clear that her debut novel had to explore themes of family, heartbreak and forgiveness.

“I’m always interested if two people love each other, why do they love each other? If someone has a friendship that lasts their whole life, what were those pivotal moments that created that?” Fordyce said. “[Coming-of-age novels] reveal the important moments in life that make us who we are.”

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