Friday, December 20, 2013

Jessica Francis Kane vs. the Beautiful Chaos

In the 54th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Jessica Francis Kane, author of This Close (Graywolf Press), talks about good ideas and bad ideas, good advice and bad advice, inspiration and obstacles.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas? 
Lately I would say, not often enough. As for triggers, a little bit of everything: reading, history, autobiography, overheard conversations, worry, fear, misunderstanding, love.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
I realize now only non-writers have ever told me to write something and said it would make a good story. I always cringe when that happens. I think writers know better. The one exception is my father. He’s not a writer, but he has a writer’s sense for good material and often tells me stories that wind up in my work one way or another.

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
Possibly this story I tried to make work for years about a small country fair. It was going to be about a man who had trained a team of horses for the horse pull contest. I was obsessed with the nature of old-fashioned farm work for a time. I read and researched, even interviewed a man who had a horse team, but the story never got better. If you’re wondering why, I’ll tell you that there was going to be an ancient oak tree, and a storm, and the whole thing was called “Carnival of the Winds.” So many problems. Still, these were the early days of my story writing career, and I learned a lot from the constant failure of that story.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
I fear I can’t even summarize it here satisfactorily. I'm still hoping to persevere and get this one written.

Where do you do most of your work?
I have worked in libraries for about a decade, ever since my first child was born. It helped me then to get out of the house and work around other people. I still like to leave the house but lately am tired of battling undergraduates for the best desks, so I’ve joined a writers’ space in the city called Paragraph. I like it there and only wish it were called Whole Novel.

"Who was I kidding?" by Nicola Hicks
In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
Music and art, most recently the sculptures of Nicola Hicks. She is an English artist who has an exhibit currently at the Yale Center for British Art. I saw it over Thanksgiving with my family and was transfixed. Her piece “Who was I kidding?”—based on the Aesop fable of the donkey dressed in a lion skin—is one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. It is the very embodiment of shame. I’m fascinated by it and I know this means it will inform my writing somehow, but I don’t have any way of saying how yet. 

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten? 
The worst advice was when someone told me that the shortest story I’d written to date sounded the most like the opening of a novel. I wanted to write a novel and was casting about for a subject, so I latched onto this idea and spent a long time, too long, trying to turn that little thing into something longer. The best advice, interestingly, came from the same person. I was worrying a bit of description in a different story, and he said, “Leave the blue curtains alone.” Now I think of those words whenever I’m trying to push something in a story too hard. That some of the best advice and the worst advice came from the same person probably means that, at best, all writing advice is suspect. Ultimately, you find what you need and use it in your own way.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
The biggest obstacles have been the beautiful chaos of life with children and sustaining confidence over time. If I’ve overcome them, it’s news to me. It feels like a constant battle, but my trusty aides are an astonishingly supportive husband, a belief in routine, and the occasional retreat or residency.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
The shortest period of time was a month, but it was based on an opening paragraph I’d written about six years earlier, so I don’t know if this counts. I had a voice in my head for a character who was based on the woman I was living across the street from at the time. I liked the voice, but after the first paragraph didn’t know where to go with it. I try not to throw anything away, though, so years later I opened the file, reread the paragraph, and just kept writing. A month later I had a new story. I wish more of them came like that.

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story? 
I don’t know yet, but sometimes I worry I’m likely to set a record. I still have things I hope to finish, other abandoned paragraphs and pages I plan to resurrect.