Jen Grow’s debut collection, My Life as a Mermaid, won the 2012 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition. She is the Fiction Editor of Little Patuxent Review. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, Other Voices, The Sun Magazine, The GSU Review, Hunger Mountain, Indiana Review, and many others including the anthology City Sages: Baltimore (City Lit Press, 2010). She’s received two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, and her stories have earned nominations for Best New American Voices and a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with the artist Lee Stierhoff and a zoo of cats and dogs. You can contact her on Facebook, Twitter @Jen_Grow or through her website: www.jengrow.com.
Curtis Smith: congratulations on winning the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition. It’s a wonderful book. Can you tell us a bit about how that all went down?
Jen Grow: Thanks, Curtis! I’m really pleased with how it all came together. For me, it’s been a lesson of perseverance. Before My Life as a Mermaid won the Dzanc Books Short Story Competition, it was turned down repeatedly. Various incarnations of the collection were the runners-up or finalists in four separate press competitions between 2003 and 2012. Over and over again, I received lovely notes from editors that basically said, “This is a great collection. I’m sure it will get published one day, just not by us.” There were some years when I felt like giving up. I stopped sending the manuscript out for a while. Then, in 2012, I picked it up again and reread it with fresh eyes. I tweaked a few stories, changed a few endings, came up with a new title and sent it to Dzanc at the last minute. I had no expectations, which is the best way to send work out into the world.
CS: Was it always writing or nothing else for you? Or were there other routes on your creative journey?
JG: My creative life has most always focused on writing. I’ve dabbled with visual arts, and for a while I was taking drumming lessons. I used to teach at the Maryland Institute College of Art and that environment sparked lot of ideas for me. Lately, I’ve been working with a photographer to pair his images with my essays. I’m also flirting with the idea of taking painting lessons. My husband is a plein air painter and I’m envious of his process, which seems very relaxing. I need some of that! I’ve read articles about how helpful it is to have at least one other artistic outlet because it opens up avenues in the brain and sparks new ways of seeing and thinking. That’s probably true. But I’m a slow writer. So ultimately, I feel like other pursuits take time away from writing.
CS: What were the books that made a difference in your life?
JG: If “you are what you eat,” then I think it’s also true that you are what you read. All the words and books I’ve ever read have shaped me in some way. Even if I don’t like a book, it makes an imprint, tells me something. I’m not a fast reader, so I really let a story envelop me and become part of my life for a while. That said, my earliest influence was Dr. Seuss. No one really talks about childhood stories, but Dr. Seuss got me thinking about the racism, justice, environmentalism, and the size of the cosmos at a very early age. I especially remember the story of the Star Bellied Sneeches and how I felt after reading it when I realized the absurdity of how we judge each other. Those themes have stayed with me.
I’m also indebted to Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? because I experienced something close to an epiphany when I read it. It changed the way I thought about stories, changed what I knew to be possible. Around the same time, when I was buying a gift for my father, a book of stories by Anton Chekhov fell off the shelf into my hands. I knew squat about Chekhov, but Dad and I became big Chekhov fans after that. Dakota, a collection of personal essays by Kathleen Norris holds a special place in my heart. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich was an early favorite. The first time I read Anna Karenina, my head just about blew off. (However, rereading it now has been a disappointment. Maybe it’s because I’m reading a different translation that I’m not wild about? Or maybe I just don’t relate to Anna in the same way I used to.) Most recently I’ve been wowed by Dylan Landis’ Rainey Royal, especially the chapter “Trust,” which is a marvel; also Susi Wyss’ The Civilized World; Kim Church’s Byrd, Diane Lefer’s California Transit and Michael Downs’s The Greatest Show– his story “Elephant” made me cry! Really, I want to mention a whole slew of writers I admire who are still shaping me and deserving of a wider audience.
CS: Can you share your process with us? Are you a regular, daily writer? Do you plan your pieces out or do you start writing and see where the pen takes you?
JG: I try to be a daily writer. I go through periods of being a daily writer. But something inevitably knocks me off course. So, I write as often as I can, even if it’s just ten minutes before I go to bed, just to change one sentence. You can write a book ten minutes at time, I’ve learned. But I prefer to write in binges. I like to leave town and write for eight to ten hours a day for a few days. I’d be a binge writer all the time if I could sustain it, but then it wouldn’t be a binge, would it? Just obsessiveness. And who would earn a living, walk the dog and make dinner? It takes a lot to sustain a writing life.
I compare my writing process to sculpting. When I was in my twenties, I worked as a figure model for art classes and learned a lot about the creative process. It was a sort of grad school for me. I related to the sculpture students who built armatures and then spent hours adding and subtracting clay, sometimes to the same spot. They’d shave off a sliver, re-add it, smooth it over, and then shave it off again. That’s how I write. I start with a quick, bare bones draft so I know the basic shape of my story and what the ending is. Then I build up. Revision is my favorite part, so I smooth over each line, shave a word, put it back. The important thing is to know my ending and where I’m headed, otherwise I feel lost. I’ve tried to write without an ending in sight, but those stories haven’t worked out well. So my process is a hybrid of planning and intuition. As I write, my mind makes connections and patterns that would be impossible for me to know or outline beforehand. The discovery process is what’s so fun.
CS: I greatly admired the book’s tone and mood. You really walk us along an emotional tightrope. In stories like “I Get There Late” you have your characters holding their cards close as you lead us into lives that are sheltered and private. There’s a lot of quiet tension built up as we read further. Can you talk about this? Does it happen naturally? Do you consciously hold back, allowing the pressure to build?
JG: I’m really interested in negative space in literature, how it shows up as quiet tension or loss. Going back to my years as a figure model, when I was posing I learned about positive space and negative space, terms that visual artists use to describe the compositional relationship between form and background. For visual artists, painting or sculpting the space around a subject is essential to the whole. For writers, ‘form’ and ‘background’ are created with words, or at times, the absence of words. There are lots of ways you can create negative space in fiction: through silence between characters; the omission of scenes that are essential to the story; the looming absence of other characters; the unknowable; and so on. In “I Get There Late,” I was playing with a lot of unspoken history between the characters. I wanted there to be a presence of uncertainty and tension. And I wanted the change at the end of the story to be very slight. I’m really interested in incremental shifts, the small moments in life that are often overlooked. For me, being able to pay attention small moments and negative space in life is spiritual.
CS: The title story, “My Life as a Mermaid,” is marvelous. There’s guilt and regret and anxiety—and it’s handled with such tenderness and restraint. Do you see guilt and anxiety as components of the modern condition? In what ways do they take their toll on us?
JG: Maybe I’m projecting, but I think there’s definitely a level of anxiety and guilt under the surface of our modern lives. How could there not be? On some level, we must know that our consumer culture, our love of pain-free convenience, our addiction to distraction is affecting more than just ourselves. I just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, which I think should be required reading for everyone on the planet. We are at a very unique time in history. I was also just reading a fascinating interview in The Sun with Stephen Jenkinson who wrote, among other things, Die Wise (on my list of things to read). He talks about the Native American teaching of the seven-generations, which is, as he explains it, keeping in mind the consequences that our decisions will have seven generations from now. It seems obvious to me that our decisions are having a big impact on our fellow human beings and all living creatures even now. That’s a heavy load to carry, so of course it takes its toll on us: depression, disease, lack of presence or peace of mind. I heard about a nomadic fishing tribe in Indonesia that doesn’t have a word for ‘want.’ That’s hard for me to wrap my head around because we, in the U.S., live in a culture of wanting. I don’t know how not to want, because even to want peace of mind is a sort of striving after something. Jenkinson also talks about the necessity of recognizing what we owe in terms of giving back. I think he’s on to something, there.
CS: I admire stories that play with form—with time and pacing and expectations—and I enjoyed what you did with “OK, Goodbye.” How do you handle pieces such as this that play with linear notions of time? How did this particular story come together?
JG: When I was in grad school, I had a story due to send to my professor, and of course, I waited until the last minute to write it. I knew I wanted to write something about these elements: a woman being towed in the dark by her father’s truck and only seeing the blinking red of his flashers; a bird that had made a nest in the grocery store; a woman losing her keys in the front yard and not being able to find them; and a girl with pink hair. But I didn’t have any idea how I would fit it together. So I wrote notes: there will be a scene about this, and another scene about that, and, oh yeah, don’t forget this other scene…. I assumed my professor would read these pieces as notes. But he read it as a story and was really taken with the structure. He’s the one that encouraged me to keep playing with it so the plot circled and repeated several times. It was a lot of fun to write, but the hardest part was to keep the time markers from confusing the flow of the story. I had to take out a lot of references to ‘two weeks earlier’ or ‘one month later’ or ‘the next day’. The time markers made sense in my head but confused readers.
CS: So what’s next as far as your writing goes?
JG: I just got back from vacation where I spent a lot of time writing. (That’s what vacation is for me, now: the opportunity to do writing work instead of work work.) I’m finishing a memoir; I’ve got a draft of a novel/novellas/linked stories that I’m trying to dust off and revise that may or may not have to do with West Virginia. I have a ton of short stories that are vying for my attention. Also, I’ve been working on a long personal essay about my father that I’m pairing with haunting, beautiful photographs that a friend took of my father’s house as we were emptying it. I’d really like to turn that into an exhibit one of these days soon. Or who knows? With all my spare time (ha!) maybe it will become a book.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.