Dogs, Death, and Desire: An Interview with Jenny Irish by Ruut DeMeo

Jenny Irish lives in Tempe, Arizona, where she is an Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing Program at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Catapult, Colorado Review, Epoch, The Georgia Review, and Ploughshares. She is the author of a collection of prose poems, Common Ancestor, from Black Lawrence Press, and a collection of fiction, I am Faithful, forthcoming this month from Black Lawrence Press.

Ruut DeMeo: I feel honored to ask you some questions about your new short story collection, I am Faithful. It was a moving and stimulating read that also challenged me in many ways. Really beautiful work—I will be recommending it to everyone. But before we get into the content within your stories, I’m curious to know how long this collection has been in the works. Can you share about the publication process?

Jenny Irish: Thank you so much for the kind words! Most of the stories were written while I was working on my MFA, but a few are older, though they’ve changed with time. What has been interesting is the space between completing the collection and its coming into the world as a book: the timeline between acceptance and being physical object is about two years. That distance is tricky! As the manuscript for I am Faithful makes its way toward being a book, I’ve had to return it to many times, but I also have to remember that it’s finished, that I’ve already committed to having done all I could do. The temptation to keep tinkering is there, but at a certain point I know all I would be doing is making things different. The publication process has been an important exercise in letting go.

RM: Even though your first book, Common Ancestor, is poetry, I understand you call yourself mainly a fiction writer. Still, I think there is a poetic aspect to your fiction. At times your stories feel almost like prose poems put together into a narrative. A good example of this is the first story, “I am Faithful,” which reminded me of Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Throughout your collection, several other stories also have such “deviations” from the plot, which don’t offer purposeless exposition but rather insight that fortify the storyline. I wonder how you have developed this rare ability. Is it conscious, or do you let yourself follow threads without knowing exactly where they will lead?

 JI: I love poetry for its precision with language, sound, and shape. As a writer, I feel like reading poetry widely has been a vital part of my education, which is ongoing, always. Poetry has also allowed me to do things I couldn’t in fiction—like all the stacked rhyming in Common Ancestor which I don’t think a story or novella would have tolerated—and vice versa. Whenever the chance is there, I encourage fiction students to read poetry and take poetry courses, and on the less common occasions when I teach poetry, I always encouraging the poets to deepen their experience with fiction. Cross-genre study supports writing! The majority of my poetry, I think, is highly narrative. With some work, there have been questions about how to best identify or label it—prose poetry, flash fiction, lyric essay? While I do write quite a lot of poetry, it almost all leans toward story.

If I have to identify, I think I’d be a reader first and a fiction writer after that.

To answer the second question, when I write, it’s without a plan. Often, I start from something sensory—a smell, a feeling, a sound—and then the story unfurls. I’ve always appreciated the movement of elliptical pieces. There’s a relationship, I think, between how elliptical stories move and the operation of memory—the way that association carries us from one place another. Though I never have a plan, I can feel when the pieces fit and see the mosaic they’re making as it’s built.

RM: From the first to the last story, the theme of an absent or unknowable mother kept resurfacing. Nearly every story has a neglectful or mysterious mother character at its center. I think the most poignant expression of this is in “Milk,” which is told from the perspective of two children who try hard not to wake their sleeping mother. A desperate feeling lingered with me long after I finished it, with the clear visual of taut plastic-wrap over milk glasses in the fridge meant to last during her long bout of sleep. Whenever this theme arose in a story, I noticed that it was never told from the point of view of the mother, but rather from the one who suffers from her neglect. Is the title I am Faithful tied in at all with the idea of motherhood?

JI: To me, faith is grounded in love. I say this with the recognition that love is complex and not always healthy. When we talk about sacrifice, so often it’s linked to punishment, but sacrifice, I think, can be an act of love. I’m realizing there are, in the collection, multiple mothers who experience the sacrifices that parenthood demands—whether they choose to make those sacrifices or not—as a punishment and their relationships with their children are understandably affected. I hope that there are other examples, perhaps in the daughters of these mothers, who can see love in the sacrifices they make, and in that have the potential to be restored by their choices, even as they are struggling, even if their struggle is heightened.

Last, I should say, I always hope to avoid good evil binaries, which I think are dangerously simplistic and generally false. While there is one unquestionably “bad mother” in the collection, I think there are more people who are trying, and a lot of them are failing.

RM: In these stories, you let us see life through young eyes, whether through a child’s or  someone’s, who is remembering their youth. How much of your own childhood are you puzzling out as you write fiction? What do you tell your students about writing themselves into a character?

JI: The first rule of fiction workshop, is that we never ever conflate author and story. This is to allow writers to be free to write what they want to—some might say to write what they need to—without the pressure of assumptions. Rejecting conflation from the start also removes the potential for the defensive response, “But this happened to me!” which can shut down direct, honest critique.

That said, I do draw on my own experience in writing. I think many writers do, whether it’s a light fictionalization of something that happened to them, or setting their work in a familiar environment, or drawing on a specific sensory experience and sharing it with a character.  The first two-thirds of my life were marked by addiction, violence, and an ever-present financial anxiety. There are experiences and anxieties that live in me, that I don’t know if I can ever shake. Though I am now, in so many ways, in a different place, the complexities of class, addiction, violence, and how they are understood internally and externally remain central to all my writing.

RM: I loved all the stories, but one of my favorites was “Glass.” It felt like a bigger engine was driving that one. From the narrator’s best friend getting depressed and dying, the four-year-olds struggling to cut ponies out of paper, this story got me thinking about expectations and fulfillment. I thought about pressure to perform, and about having to “be something” in life. If glass in this story is a symbol for dreams, the people taking a silly class are the only ones who get to enjoy theirs. And even the narrator acknowledges that she doesn’t know “how high a fire must burn to melt glass,” but imagines “it’s hell hot” (120). In other words, dreams are hard to kill. This is just one interpretation, of course. Tell us what drove you to write this story?

JI: Failure! Oh my goodness, there are so many ways that we all fail, all the time—as teachers, as artists, as friends, as lovers, as parents, as people who mean to be our best selves, but can’t pull it off on a daily basis—grinding against so many pressures not to fail coming at us from all sides. We don’t, people I mean, generally achieve what we dream for ourselves. We have to reconcile our own failures, perceived and genuine, and figure out how to live with disappointment. This is life!

The other side of the coin, I think, is how many chances we have. We’re given, in our lives, the full spectrum of pain, and it can make us bitter, jealous, and resentful, or it can make us more aware, and ultimately, I would hope, more empathetic. Part of getting there is acknowledging our failures and how we’ve responded to them—which is often ugly, often unkind. But we can try again and be open to learning something from the attempt no matter what the outcome.

RM: Relating to that topic, what does success mean to you as a creative person?

JI: I don’t ever expect to live off of my writing, and I think comparison to other writers’ accolades and accomplishments can only lead to misery. Misery! I recognize that I’m incredibly fortunate to have a teaching position that also encourages my writing, and I also recognize that I worked very hard to be where I am.

I’ve finally reached a point where I won’t let anyone else dismiss that I’ve done the work—which, and this is such a bummer, people will try to do. Having created for myself, the time and space to do things I love feels like success to me.

As a writer, rejection has been, and continues to be, the majority of my publishing experience. I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with the women at Black Lawrence Press, who have been so supportive of my writing, and in publishing my books, had an instrumental in my professional career. For me, success is doing the work, just keeping at it, and ideally encouraging others to do the same.

RM: These stories touch on class difference and gender expectations, as some of your previous writings also have. Several narratives are told from the perspective of people who are poor or struggling, and most of them are from a woman or a girl’s point of view. Having read some of your poetry and familiarized myself with your Texas Chainsaw Massacre Theory, I’m curious to know if there were different aspects of these themes you were exploring while writing I am Faithful?

JI: The working class, I think, is often depicted in stereotypes that gloss over the complexities of their experience and are utterly ignorant to the effects of multigenerational poverty. When I was in graduate school and writing about the daily struggle to make ends meet, I would frequently get well-meaning feedback from peers who thought they’d found a gaping hole in a story’s logic. Why doesn’t the character just ask their parents for help? they’d ask. There was a huge disconnect that I wanted to try to close with the stories in I am Faithful, while providing representations of the working class that neither fetishized or glamorized what it is to struggle.

Common Ancestor, I hope, poses questions about class, family expectations, and gender roles, but I think it’s much more of a romp—a romp through the confusion of sexual development and cannibal country, but still, comparatively, a romp. Its energy is very different. Common Ancestor, though dark, is rough and playful, while I am Faithful is quieter.

RM: What else intrigues you as subject matter for your writing? Anything in the works now?

JI: Thank you for asking! There are multiple things in the works right now—perhaps too many! I am finishing a poetry collection about sexual desire, shame, and academia, and I’m also working on a novel very loosely based on a turn-of-the century cult in Maine.

Ruut DeMeo has studied music at CCBC, children’s literature at Johns Hopkins University, and creative writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. In 2018, her short story and poetry were published in Fine Print Literary Magazine, and in the same year she contributed to a non-fiction memoir collection called “Suominaiset Maailmalla,” which was published by Otava in Finland. Ruut’s research into Nordic Folklore has been supported by the Mellon and Finlandia Foundations, and she recently won the Appelstein-Sweren Book Collecting Prize for her Kalevala-themed collection. Ruut is a recipient of the 2019 Kratz Writing Fellowship, and is currently working on her first middle grade fantasy novel.

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