Friend of the Devil: An Interview with Jen Fawkes by Curtis Smith

Jen Fawkes’s debut book, Mannequin and Wife (LSU Press) was a 2020 Shirley Jackson Award Nominee, won two 2020 Foreword INDIES (Gold in Short Stories/Honorable Mention in Literary Fiction), and was named one of Largehearted Boy’s Favorite Short Story Collections of 2020. Her second book, Tales the Devil Told Me (Oct 5, 2021), won the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in One Story, Lit Hub, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Best Small Fictions 2020, and many others, and has won numerous fiction prizes, from The Pinch, Salamander, Washington Square Review, and others. The recipient of the 2021 Porter Fund Literary Prize, she lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and two kittens named Tessio and Clemenza. Find her at https://www.jenfawkes.com/

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Tales the Devil Told Me and winning the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. There are many awards one can submit to—what was it about Press 53 that attracted you?

Jen Fawkes: Tales the Devil Told Me was my MFA thesis project, so I wrote the book’s stories between 2009 and 2010, during the second year of my MFA, which I did at Hollins University. My instructors didn’t talk much about the business side of writing, but they did tell me that it was nearly impossible to sell a story collection. Their advice was to put the book in a drawer and write a novel that would land me a literary agent, who could then get me a two-book deal. After the MFA, I did query some agents, and though a few read and liked the stories, they essentially said the same thing: “come back when you have a novel.”

During the decade that followed my MFA, I earned a PhD from the University of Cincinnati and dealt with the disintegration of both my parents. I also wrote enough stories to fill a second collection (Mannequin and Wife, which came out from LSU Press in 2020) and tried desperately to write a novel that would land me an agent. In 2019, I decided to start submitting my two finished books to publication contests and small presses. Both books were finalists in several contests/for publication, then Kevin Watson chose Tales the Devil Told Me for the 2020 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction (publication was pushed back to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Press 53 publishes wonderful poets and story writers, so I felt that my book would be in good hands at the press.

CS: In the book, we encounter characters and stories we thought we knew, yet you’ve reimagined them in innovative ways. I found this construct fascinating—and I think it illustrates one of fiction’s greatest gifts—the empathy necessary to consider the world through a new set of eyes. How did these characters and situations come to you? Had they been kicking around in your head for a while? Or did the concept of these reimaginings come to you and then send you back to these tales to find narratives you could work with?

JF: I reread The Odyssey at the end of my first year in the MFA, and I decided to make my thesis project a story collection that retold the epic poem from the POV of the various characters Odysseus meets during his travels. The first piece I wrote was “A Moment on the Lips,” which takes the POV of Polyphemus (the Cyclops). Not long after I’d finished that piece, I learned of a book that does (essentially) the same thing and came out the year before, Zachary Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey. But I loved my Polyphemus story, so I tried to find another container that might hold that piece, and other stories. I began to think about a thematically-linked collection whose stories reimagine popular tales, but re-centered on the story’s “villain.” I wrote “Never, Never” next—which reimagines a new life for Captain Hook—and I thought I might be on to something.

I made a long list of potential villains and went to work. Before beginning each story, I reread the text(s) that inspired it. Some of my tales follow the events of their originals closely, and for those, I kept the text close-by and referred to it frequently while writing. Though I didn’t conceive of Tales until 2009, the book was also partly inspired by a course I took at Columbia University in 1994. “Forms of Popular Fiction,” taught by one of my all-time favorite teachers, Dr. George Stade, introduced me to not only some of the texts I retell in Tales, but also the idea that the “low art” of one generation becomes the “high art” of the next. In terms of the writing process, the restrictions that reimagining well-known tales placed on the process were actually helpful to me, in that they allowed me to open new doors and windows – to discover parts of these narratives that were always there, only hidden from view.

CS: There’s a dreaminess here—the surreal mix of these characters rescued from the fictive universe and then plunged into new and often recognizable situations. We see them doing what we do—wrestling with love and confusion—in short, we see them as much more like us than they were before—flawed, vulnerable. Can you address the challenge of this balance? Is there a mindset you step into in order to better see these characters in these new lights?

JF: Revealing the humanity in the supposedly inhuman is one of my central projects, so no, I wouldn’t say that I stepped into any mindset other than my own, to write these stories. As a writer I’m largely self-taught (as we all are, in my estimation), and I came to the study of creative writing late in life, finishing my MFA at 36 and my PhD at 44. But I was raised by a voracious reader and would-be writer who made me into an equally voracious reader. I was fortunate enough to receive a classical undergraduate education, and I’ve spent my whole life absorbing brilliant texts. And though I’ve never experienced anything fantastic or inexplicable in my waking life, my work eschews the idea that there is a single objective reality. Because we’re each experiencing a world that no one else ever will, there’s never any need for me to figure out how to balance the “surreal” with the “human.” From where I stand, the surreal is human, and the human is surreal. All that can be imagined comingles with all that can be seen, heard, tasted, or touched, to compose this patchwork mosaic we call experience.

CS: In your acknowledgments, you state “I endeavor to find a brand-new access-point into a well known tale; over time, I’ve come to see that this is how every piece of writing works.” I have a pair of questions about this. One, how do you determine what the access point is (and can you give some examples from the book)? And two, I’m guessing this idea of an access point is applicable to all writing, not just these stories—do you find this to be the case in your other work? If so, what is your usual access point? Is it situation? Setting? Imagery?

JF: Oh goodness, I’m afraid I was speaking more theoretically than concretely there. That was more of a general after-the-fact way of characterizing what I believe I did in the book than a representation of how I went about crafting the stories. For me, writing is about 80% alchemy – something we simply cannot understand, let alone explain to anyone else.

As I said before, I’m largely self-taught, and my short fiction is written from beginning to end with very little revision or editing. I don’t move forward until I’m sure, and if I find myself stuck, I back up to a place where I feel sure and set out in a new direction. I can hold a very long story in my head, so this method works fine for short fiction, but it’s difficult to write long-form fiction this way. To write a novel, I’ve discovered, one must either learn to draft or find another way to break the work up into some sort of manageable chunks. Though I don’t believe anything is applicable to all writing, I suppose situation is where I begin most often (though this isn’t always the case).

CS: This is your second story collection (the first was Mannequin and Wife, which is now on my to-read list). Can you compare the experience of bringing that book into the world and this one?

JF: Before Mannequin and Wife came out in September of 2020, I knew nothing of book publication. I’ve never asked another writer to walk me through the publication process, and even if I had, I think everyone’s experience is so different. Before the fall of 2020, I had no idea how precarious the publishing industry has become, and I had no idea that book publication is often (usually?) fairly disappointing/disheartening (unless you’re one of the anointed, or maybe even if you are). I now understand these things too well.

Though both Mannequin and Wife and Tales have been finished for years, the fact that they came out in 2020 and 2021, respectively, means both publication journeys have been entirely shaped by COVID-19. For the first book, I wasn’t able to do any in-person events; for the second book, I did a couple. Marketing and publicity are antithetical to my nature, and having to handle those things myself has been difficult and stressful. People looking at things from the outside tell me I’ve done a fine job getting the word out about my books, but from where I stand, I’ve failed far more than I’ve succeeded.

CS: As I reflected on all the characters you brought to life here, I was wondering if there was a character who you tried to write into this collection but it just didn’t work out. If so, given the distance between now and then, can you identify what part of the story didn’t come together—and if you could do it again, how might you reimagine it?

 JF: There were two stories in the original version of Tales that I ended up removing over the ensuing decade. One – a reimagining of Othello in which Othello and Iago were recast as female door-to-door cosmetics salespeople, told from the collective POV of the saleswomen who work for the company – I ended up removing because I wasn’t certain the story was both true enough to the original and interesting enough to exist in its own right – two criteria I required of all my reimagined tales.

The other story I ended up removing was a reimagining of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Mr. Tumnus has become a laudanum addict, and Narnia is falling to pieces some years after the death of the White Queen. That story was told from the POV of a young female faun with whom Mr. Tumnus is having an illicit love affair, and though I loved it, I removed the story for fear that it was too explicit. I’m just not certain how much faun sex your average reader can handle.

 CS: What’s next?

 JF: I have a novel that’s ready to go. I worked on the book for three years, then put it aside for three years. I loved many of my original ideas, but the story was never working in its first incarnation. When I came back to it, I saw what seemed to me a revolutionary way to overhaul the book, and I spent a year and a half working on that total revision, now titled A Young Lady’s Guide to World Domination.

Set during the American Civil War, A Young Lady’s Guide to World Domination employs actual historical events and characters to tell the story of Sylvie Swift, a young woman who discovers that she is predestined to play a vital role in a fantastic, ancient, ongoing battle of the sexes. In Nashville, Tennessee, in 1863, Sylvie lives in a brothel staffed by literal Sirens and works on an English translation of a “lost” comedy of Aristophanes—Apocrypha, or A Young Lady’s Guide to World Domination. Interwoven with the story of this critical period in Sylvie’s life are two additional threads: excerpts from a biography of Gaia Valentino—the 16th century Venetian Courtesan who originally translated the play—and the text of Aristophanes’s comedy itself. Looking back from fifteen years on, Sylvie curates letters, clippings, pages of the translated Greek playscript, and her own written remembrances to create a pastiche that poses essential questions about war, family, prostitution, authorship, and the earth-shaking power of women.

This novel is formally inventive, epistolary, and grapples with questions that haunt me daily—questions about the shape of female power, questions about the power of indirection, questions about what family does to us, and for us. The narrative carries the reader from late-19th-century Californian to Civil-War-Era Nashville to 16th-century Venice to Ancient Greece and back again. I hope the book is funny and surprising with a powerful emotional core. I suppose it is pretty ambitious, but I hope the heart I installed at its center is able to beat someday, for someone other than me.

At this point, I’m working on two new novels, one of which is set in a haunted State Hospital for Nervous Disorders that’s been converted into luxury condominiums and deals with historical notions of female “madness” (current title: The Donjon).

Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020 

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