Surgical Precision: An Interview with Jayne Martin by Naomi Ulsted

A memoir in vignettes, Jayne Martin’s The Daddy Chronicles (published by Whiskey Tit, March 2022) delves into the loss and emptiness that comes with growing up fatherless. Martin’s snapshots of memory make up a story that is all too familiar for so many, but ultimately brings the reader on a journey to healing and hope. The Daddy Chronicles follow Martin’s Tender Cuts, a collection of flash fiction. As Martin states in this interview, she’s had more than one writing career, having had a successful career in television writing. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions award, and she’s a recipient of a Vestal Reviews VERA Award. 

This interview was conducted via email and Zoom.

Naomi Ulsted: Much of what you write is microfiction. Even The Daddy Chronicles, which is a larger work, is made up of small vignettes. Can you talk a little about this format and why your drawn to it?

Jayne Martin: Some are long-distance runners. I’m a sprinter. I like working with constraints, like word limits, for example. It forces you to focus in on the most important elements, the ones likely to provide the greatest emotional impact. The very ones that can easily get diluted amidst extraneous verbiage. It’s very tempting for a writer to fall in love with their words. Nothing makes me happier than finding ways to cut them. The kind of surgical precision of it and then watching “the patient” thrive.

NU: Working with constraints reminds me of working within a screenplay format. You originally began writing as a television writer. Can you talk a bit about what you enjoy most about each style? Do you have a preference, or does it depend on the story you want to tell?

JM: Writing screenplays for so many years taught me to think in images, be concise, and keep the story moving forward. Those were valuable lessons that have served me well in every genre I work in. I use the same skills no matter what I’m writing, and don’t really have a preference. A story knows what it wants to be. It’s a writer’s job to discover what that is. That’s also where the fun lies. I’m a big believer in learning your craft. Craft will take a writer farther than that illusive thing called “talent.” Great if you have both, but talent can fail you. Craft is solid.

NU: How did you make the switch from screenwriting to what you’re doing now?

JM: I wrote for TV for years. Some of my scripts eventually made it to the screen, but it was a pretty capricious system, often having little to do with the quality of the work. However, whether it went to production or not I always got paid. So it was a good career. But in 2004, the industry changed, largely due to the influx of reality shows. With the reality shows there wasn’t as much need for writers like myself, so there weren’t many jobs and people were scrambling. I figured it was time to move on. I still had to feed myself, so I got a paralegal degree. I didn’t write a word from 2004 to 2009. And it was fine! I didn’t even miss it. But in 2009 I started to play around and write a blog. And that was a whole new thing because I got to interact with readers who left comments on the posts. It was completely unlike TV writing. I had great interactions with people and made some very good friends. I really had no expectations, I was just having fun, but my microfiction grew out of this writing.

NU: Who else is writing microfiction that you admire? Anyone you recommend?

JM: So many. Robert Scotellaro is a master and has a new book of stories entirely written as triptychs that is amazing. And I’ve written some of my best microfiction in workshops with Meg Pokrass. Most of The Daddy Chronicles was written in one of them. Nancy Stohlman, Kathy Fish, Gay Degani, and Robert Vaughan were some of my earliest influences and still setting standards to which I aspire. Really too many to name.

NU: You do an excellent job in The Daddy Chronicles of using a child’s voice as narrator, and then moving into a more adult voice. That can be tricky. Do you have any tips or techniques you’d like to share about how to effectively writer from a child’s perspective and in a child’s voice?

JM: As an adult, I thought I’d dealt with my father’s abandonment, but there was still a child inside of me that was hurting and it was that voice that poured out onto the page in the early chapters demanding to tell her story in her way. So I listened and I let her. That’s really the key to writing any character’s voice. You have to listen for it. I don’t really know of any other technique. Some have an ear for music. I “hear” my characters. While I might start a story with an idea, if the voice doesn’t come the story is hollow and I’ll likely put it aside.   

NU: Who are your biggest literary influences?

JM: Nora Ephron for authenticity of voice. My first book, Suitable for Giving: A Collection of Wit with a Side of Wry, a book of humor essays, was deeply influenced by her. Helen MacDonald (H is for Hawk) for exquisite use of language. Sentences that made me stop over and over and ask, “How does she do that?” Probably the best writing advice I ever read was from Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) who said, “Read at the level that you want to write.” My writing is always heavily influenced by whatever I’m reading at the time so I push myself to “read above my grade level” in order to grow as a writer.

NU: How did you find your publisher, Whiskey Tit? Do you have any suggestions for writers seeking publication on how to find the best match for them and their work?

JM: When I was looking for a publisher for my collection of microfiction, Tender Cuts, Whiskey Tit was one of the presses where I submitted. They made an offer on the book, but it came a week after I’d accepted a deal from Vine Leaves Press, which was the perfect press for Tender Cuts. The following year at AWP in San Antonio, they were there and I introduced myself in person. I liked Miette Gillette, owner of Whiskey Tit, immediately. The types of books they were publishing leaned toward experimental, When I was ready to submit, The Daddy Chronicles, I knew that’s where the book, with its unusual format of flash memoir, belonged. I’d say to others, network. Follow the presses on social media, see what they liked, go to the conferences and book fairs. It’s also a great way to make contacts, and even better, people who will become friends.

NU: Writing can be a solitary pursuit—lots of hours with just you and the laptop. Yet, building a writing community is important for many reasons. Do you have recommendations for a new writer on how to build a writing community?

JM: Again, my close “writing tribe” are all people I met doing workshops whom I’ve now become close friends with in real life, as well. Doing writing retreats is another way. Be active on social media reading the work of writers you admire and then tell them so. Join writing groups in your area if you’re fortunate enough to live where they have a literary community.

NU: What are you reading right now? Who’s an author you really enjoy?

JM: In fiction, Lauren Groff. Her newest book, Matrix, is a tutorial in creating character. I’m a huge fan. Right now, I’m reading a lot of memoir. I just finished Gina Frangello’s brilliant Blow Your House Down and The Part that Burns by Jeannine Ouellette. I had the privilege of reading with both of them along with Athena Dixon and Lilly Dancyger at an AWP event in March. I’m also dipping my toe into poetry, a genre I’m excited to finally learn more about. Currently, I’m reading Kim Addonizio and Diane Suess.

NU: I saw those great pictures of you at AWP with those authors on social medial. How did that event come about?

JM: I had decided to attend AWP and I wasn’t on any panels, wasn’t scheduled for any readings so I figured I’d create my own. Taking control of things is a common trait with fatherless daughters. Jeannine Ouellette had provided a lovely blurb for my book so, after securing the venue, she was the first I called. Jeannine and Athena are both with Split Lip Press and she’d just done a Zoom event with Gina, so she got them onboard. I’d just read Lilly’s book, Negative Space, about her relationship with her father, which made her a great fit and I was thrilled when she said yes. It was such a blast to read with these incredible writers.

NU: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

JM: I’m not sure what my next project will be. I know I don’t want to repeat myself and, at the moment, I’m feeling pretty burned out. But my poetry education has been embarrassingly lacking and I’m feeling drawn to going back to being a student for a while. I’ve been fortunate to have had more than one writing career so I don’t feel any pressure to “produce” at this point. I may just focus on journaling and see where that takes me.

NU: And one more—if you could be any television character from the 70’s or ’80’s, who would it be and why?

JM: Without question, Fallon Carrington from “Dynasty.” Blake Carrington was my dream father. He was a powerful protector of his family, especially his daughter. It never mattered how much trouble she got into, he always took her side and woe be it to anyone who hurt her. He is really the other end of the spectrum for a fatherless daughter like myself drawn to fantasy father figures.

Naomi Ulsted writes memoir, as well as young adult fiction. Her YA novel, The Apology Box, published by Idle Time Press, was published in December 2021. It recently won the “runner up” prize for Indie Press young adult literary category.  Her memoir, FINDING HOME, will be published by SheWrites Press in 2023, and her work has been published in Salon, Mud Season Review, and Full Grown People, among others.

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