So a quick note before we get started - this interview with Jessica took place last semester. We began emailing in October, and then things sort of fell off over the holidays. The delay worked out though, as I'm happy to be able to post this now, in 2008, which should be a good year for Jessica.
Could you talk a little bit about the process leading up to your first novel's being accepted for publication? Am I right in saying that McSweeney's Books will publish it this coming spring? Basically, how has the whole experience been so far?
Do you mean the writing process or the publishing process? The publication date hasn't been set in stone, but the book will appear "sometime" in 2008.
Oh yes, I mean specifically the publishing process: finding an agent, submitting the MS to editors, etc. How has that worked out for you so far?
My third year, the Mason faculty awarded me the fiction thesis fellowship, but not for the novel I had proposed about a female bullfighter. They essentially said they were giving me the time, but wanted a different story. I had written a short voice piece for Susan's class that I liked, so I just kind of kept going with it, turned the bullfighter proposal into a short story, and submitted it, along with the first 40,000 words of the "new" book, to McSweeney's for the Amanda Davis Award. After I won, my agent found me, and McSweeney's published the bullfighter story. So I think I was extremely lucky. Not only to have been given the time from the Mason faculty, but then to have so many things fall into place. Of course, then there's the small task of actually finishing the novel. All said, it took four years to write and research, so we were on hold for a while, then last spring my agent sent it out. I received a couple of offers, but in the end went with McSweeney's, not only because they have a truly amazing editor who I felt really “got” the direction I wanted the book to go in, but also because they have a relationship with Grove, who will publish the paperback.
I think McSweeney's Issue 11 was one of the first issues of theirs that I read as an undergrad. I remember that call for submissions about the Amanda Davis Award printed inside the front cover, and later, when I began worrying about the MFA admissions process, I saw the announcement that you had won and that you went to Mason. Now that I think about it, for an impressionable young writer who pretty much only knew McSweeney's writing and nothing else at the time, that had an effect on me.
I want to jump away from the book for a moment (though we'll come back to it I hope) and ask you about how you came to study at Mason? Was there a particular "thing" that drew you to the program?
That is hilarious.
You know, I ended up coming to Mason because I met Richard Bausch at Breadloaf, and he gave a lecture on the short story that totally blew me away. I went up to him after the talk and he encouraged me to apply to Mason. I did, was accepted, and was offered a teaching assistantship which made it a no brainer. I also spoke with Alan before I came, and he was incredibly helpful. I loved that all of the faculty liked each other, and spent time out of class together. Plus, the fictioners in my class were truly amazing, and I still keep in touch with many of them. I don't regret a second of it.
What was your favorite aspect of that long writing process? The research? The initial creation? The revising?
I think you're right about the freedom Susan's voice class delivers; it's a model I've used for my undergraduate students, and they're always surprised by how well they can write.
For me, writing a novel is like solving a puzzle, and some of my favorite moments were when I figured out some connection that had been apparent the whole time, just waiting for me to figure it out. I went to some writers' residencies which give you time to write. I would spend whole days just reading and thinking, which was invaluable. Before I'd never really understood or appreciated why it took so long to write a novel, and now I realize that it's the space and time when you're not typing that you really need. Novels need to breathe. You need time to sort out what the hell is going on, to allow the innate, subconscious connections of the novel to present themselves to you, otherwise you just end up typing into an abyss.
But I also loved researching the story, so much so that I had to limit myself to 15-30 minutes of research a day. Half of it takes place in present day Virginia, and the other half in a farcical 9th century Hungary, so I spent a long time reading and thinking about stories and myths about the early Hungarians and the barbarian cultures of the late ninth, early tenth century. I'd just want to read all the time. I found a couple of great primary texts, some in Latin, which had been mercifully translated, and also interviewed medieval historians and Hungarians to make sure I wasn't way off base with the culture and the language. That was a blast. Did you know that the early Hungarians really liked buttons? Buttons are cool and everything, but imagine a whole tribe of proto-Hungarians who really dug buttons. I liked that. They also wore pointy hats and mustaches. So it's true that the life is in the details.
I did not know about the Hungarian fascination with buttons. The pointy hats do seem familiar to me, though I don't know why.
So aside from having a first book deal, what are the details of your life right now? You're teaching in
I've been teaching in some capacity since graduation; comp, lit, intro to creative writing, the fiction workshop. I've been teaching mostly for the
That's interesting about the rented office - it made me think about that Guardian special feature on writers' rooms. I don't know if you've seen it.
What convinced you to move the writing out of the house? And how's that different than writing at home?
That's a great list of writers at the Guardian—I hadn't seen it. The writing space is always kind of amusing to me. I left home to write a while ago. See, I got this dog because sitting at my desk all the time is pretty lonely. I had these very romantic notions about writing with a dog asleep contentedly by my side. What happened, though, was that the dog, being a dog, just wanted to go out all the time. She sat next to me and watched me, and every time I started typing, her eyebrows would lower, darkly. I felt horribly guilty. So I guess you could say that it was because my dog was watching me that I had to get my own space. I love being in a locked room to write knowing that no one knows where you are, and there's no phone or internet. I'll see people sometimes scribbling away in their journals or laptops in cafes and it bewilders me. I can't help but feel like these are people who would rather be seen writing than to actually write. To actually write for me is to disappear into the fiction completely, to deal with the problems of the story in solitude, without having to listen to someone else discuss the temperature of their double macchiato on their cellphone—cafes are great places to read, but not to write.
I think the trick you describe, I mean, establishing your own space, can also be useful for student writers juggling numerous responsibilities. I'm thinking of MFA students working jobs, teaching first-year comp, volunteering at animal shelters, whathaveyou. And a writing space could mean anything from a particular office, right, to that certain time of day when only writing matters.
I mean this as an ideal - I still struggle with managing my time. So when I say I'm thinking of MFA students, I'm actually just thinking of me, in a selfish sort of way.
As far as cafe writing goes, I agree with you in the sense that I'd rather be on my own, alone at the desk, with headphones on, away from distractions, etc. I do know a few writers in the program, though, who regularly meet at cafes and such to write, and that has worked well for them.
Do you have any plans to visit George Mason any time soon, either to read your work or to teach a few workshops as a visiting writer, etc? Have you done that already?
Hey, don't get me wrong! Whatever works is great. If you can write a short story while enjoying a nice hot double-espresso in a cafe or whatever, while standing in line at the grocery store, or while taking a bath, then by all means, do that. I have a friend who can only write when her entire house is clean. She is forever scrubbing grout. I think the point is that I don't know a single writer who doesn't struggle with the time or money problem—and I would advise anyone in the MFA to cherish that amazing time! I'm currently teaching anywhere from 3-6 classes a semester, and working 20 hours for a women's health website, writing about things like Restless Leg Syndrome and hot flashes. So however it works is how you should do it.
I do envy the poets, however. I am suspicious that they have more time than the fictioners (Is that a word? If not, I like it), whose thinking time is always curbed by the necessity to type, or whose thinking is discovered by the typing. I have to say I never felt pressured about my writing time at Mason, and I was a T.A. with 2 classes, read for Candid Yak, edited for Phoebe, and was a participant of an abundance of other fun, important writerly gatherings. The fact that the faculty wants you to be writing above all else is a huge strength of the program—but I also enjoyed the fellow writers I met there so much. My year, 2004, was a great class. There were some really dynamite writers there. People who genuinely loved it.
I would love to come to Mason, as soon as Bill Miller invites me! When the book comes out, I'm hoping to come down and give a reading, visit a workshop, or even just hang out with the MFA-ers.