Friday, 21 June 2013

Interview - Jessica Harman

Jessica Harman interviewed by Frank Burton. 

Jessica's short story collection, "Wild Stabs at Love or Something Like it" can be downloaded for free here.

Were the stories written independently or did you always intend them to be part of a collection? 

I come up with stories without thinking of how they’ll look in a final collection. I’ll be riding the city bus, and I’ll be thinking of emotional situations that can be extended into plot. Sometimes a scene will come to me, and it will just be a single moment with a dynamic between characters, for example, a man staring out a window thinking of his ex-wife while his new girlfriend is in bed, asking him what is wrong, but all he can do is stare at the moonlit parking lot below while smoking. I find that true moments are moments of supreme connection to others or extreme disconnection: we learn who we are, and are not, then.

I go about writing short stories in batches. I’ll usually write about ten short stories in a period of a few months, then rest for a while. I’ll work or watch TV, read, or sleep, or travel. Then, I’ll make sure I have time to write another batch of short stories. The short stories in “Wild Stabs at Love, or Something Like It,” are the fruits of two batches. I discarded the rest of the stories because they’re no good. I heard that writers discard eighty to ninety percent of what they write, and that seems to be the case in my experience. From the moment I complete a batch, I’ll just let time pass, knowing I have to wait a while before I go back and read the stories to make edits, and select the ones that work.

I can’t tell right away which work, and which I’ll have to throw away. After a few months, I’ll go back, re-read the batch of stories, and it will be obvious which are good and which I’ll scrap. At this point, I’ll also do editing, like adding in sentences, images, and now and then even a whole scene.

Once I have selected the stories that work, they come together as a collection. I put the stories together like a collage, thinking about contrast and similarity. You want to have an exciting order, so the emotions in each story should be different for the sake of variety, but there should be a linking image to tie them together. For example, if one story ends in Starbucks, I could put it before a story that starts with a scene in Starbucks, even though the characters will be different, and have different preoccupations.

I put together a second collection of short stories, “Cheap Food in Big Cities, and Other Tales of Love and Woe,” and I am now shopping it around to publishers. I put the collection together in the same way that I did “Wild Stabs at Love, or Something Like It.” I write the best stories I can regardless of what they have to do with each other, then let them sit, write some more, let them sit, edit, select, order.

Once the stories are ordered, the last thing to do is find a title for the collection.
I usually think of ten or fifteen titles, some of them quite ridiculous, before the right thing fits. I find that titles come to me when I’m in bed at night trying to sleep, and I have to get up, turn on the light, and write things down in a notepad on my bedside table. In the morning, I’ll be able to tell if I was being brilliant or delusional.

A lot of the stories are about failed relationships, but as a whole the collection feels positive and optimistic. Do you agree? 

Hope is the most important thing a person can have. We live if we have hope, and without it, we die. As a person, I always give myself a dose of inner joy. I used to feel this naturally when I woke up, but as I get older I don’t feel it easily anymore, so I have to work at it by thinking happy things, and appreciating things, even if it’s just birdsong or flowers.

I am glad to hear my collection of stories is optimistic, because even though life gives us a lot of ****, it is interesting ****. The idea that there is something interesting and touching and profoundly human in everything we go through, even the worst parts, is very hopeful.
Love is doomed but beautiful. It is everything. Someone once told me that love always ends.  Either you break up or someone dies.

The fleeting quality of love is painful but it was also a good realization for me to have, because then I didn’t feel so distraught when my loves ended. It was just what had to happen all along. But how each of them ended was different, and it happened for different reasons. That’s where people’s character lies, and where the story happened. That’s the part that interests me as a writer.

Are the stories autobiographical? 

Yes, but I changed a few things to make it fiction, and to make the stories more cohesive. For example, in “Whispered Emergencies,” the first story, a lot of it was true, except that I never thought the elevator was stuck. I just made up the woman with the small dog in the elevator too, because you need details in a story, but how can I remember the level of detail I need when it happened so long ago? To make the story into a palpable substance, you need to make up good imagery. Also, in that story, we never really said those things at the end, though there was an overwhelming sense that something needed to be said that I couldn’t say. In a story, though, it helps if that what in reality is just a vague sense of things is illustrated, and resolved.

A lot of times in real life there will be no resolution to things, but in stories, you need endings that sum things up. You have to make it comfortable for the reader. You have to create this chicken nugget that’s just bite-sized and yummy. So a lot of the amorphous matter of my life gets tweaked and changed a little when I put it into a story, making it digestible, consumable.
I want to work, in the future, in a less autobiographical way, because then I can be a more versatile writer. I am happy with the stories in “Wild Stabs at Love, or Something Like It,” though, because a lot of those moments are very real, and I wanted to share them, even though I am presenting them as fiction.

How would you describe your writing process? 

I think about the structure of a story first, and I generate this from extending moments or scenes into a larger meaning made of how I see time unfolding as a narrative. The bus, the train, or walking are good times for me to get lost in thought and muse on what might be a compelling story. Sometimes I’ll think of a scene, in a bar, let’s say, but then I ask myself, “What does that character come to realize?” and they’ll be nothing else there, so then I’ll just daydream some more and another image or scene will come to me, often from memory. At times, I’ll think of an image, let’s say rain at a picnic, and I’ll wonder what people learn from each other and how it happens, and then the whole story with its scenes will organize itself in my mind. Then, I’ll go home, make a pot of coffee, and write ten pages. My stories are usually written in one sitting. Then, I wait to edit them in a few months.

The other writing process I have is to read a bit of my favorite book of all time, which is “Nausea” by Jean-Paul Sartre. He always inspires me. Then, I’ll just begin writing. This works for me, too. His work is so detailed and it boosts my confidence in my own ability to express myself.

You write a lot about the relationship between Canada and the United States, and about living in Boston. How important is the geography of these stories? 

People are people wherever they are. I am, though, interested in cultural differences. The tensions between Canada and the United States are interesting to me because I live with them in my mind: they are in me. The countries are similar, but very different in some ways. Take health care, for example.

My Mom is from Montreal and my Dad is from Kansas. When I was young, we lived in Montreal (where I was born), then we moved to Los Angeles where there were a lot of oranges and beaches, then my Mom moved with me but without my Dad back to Montreal when I was five years old. I came to Boston when I was twenty-four and have been here since. I am now thirty-eight.

My move to Boston was not easy. I was moving from French Canada, and Boston has a very English culture with Puritanical roots. A lot of the social rules were different. I don’t think that one country’s social norms are better than another, generally; it’s all about context. Not all the time, but generally.

Nationality, identity, and writing is an area that intrigues me, and I have a lot of emotions about it, and I would like to learn more about what one can do with this subject matter. In the end, whatever makes us feel more human and connected to others is what I hope I’m about as a writer.

I realize my answer to this question is sort of convoluted. I guess I don’t know the answer, but I feel these places are important to me as a writer, and I feel that geography and writing are very connected.

I am also concerned with the connection between geography, politics, and writing. Lately in America we have been losing a lot of our freedoms. I want to write about our times, but the way to start is to write about truth, and in my first collection, I find truth in love and its beauty and failings.

Who are your influences? 

I’ve heard that to write, you have to read, and I find this really good advice.

“Nausea” by Jean-Paul Sartre is my favorite book. Sartre makes two pages about an alleyway the most riveting, philosophical thing. I also like Orhan Pamuk for the same reason: he can take a lot of space just describing a lagoon, but you feel he’s described your soul or the reason for your existence.

I also like the dark humor and crystalline imagery of T. C. Boyle.

While I was writing one of the batches of stories in “Wild Stabs at Love, or Something Like It,” I was reading “Austerlitz” by W. G. Sebald. I like the way he uses the tentative powers chance has to connect us to meaning. There’s a scene in the train station where Austerlitz finally remembers who he is, and where he comes from. I t felt like I was there.

How do you feel about non-profit publishing? 

Non-profit publishing is a good option if you want exposure. You can build an audience and begin your career that way. This is my hope, anyway.

Are you working on anything new at the moment? 

My next project is to write a novella called “Ninjas of the Sweet Corn.” It will be a family saga about the women in my family. My aunt is a black-belt Tae-Kwon Do champion, and my Mom’s pretty tough, too, though she can also be very girly. My maternal side of the family with its tough women comes from the region around Montreal, in Quebec. All along the sides of the highways in the harvesting season there are signs that say “Sweet Corn,” in French, and you can get delicious veggies for very little money. I want to write about the part of my childhood I spent in that environment and how the women are tied together in ambivalent but caring relationships. As always, there will be love stories in my work, and the men these “Ninjas of the Sweet Corn” find themselves with will play a prominent role.

I haven’t started working on it, yet, but I plan to get to work as soon as I take a little rest. I think I’ll need a month to write the first draft.

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