No Gothic Excess: A Between Books Conversation with Jac Jemc

Jac Jemc‘s first novel My Only Wife ended up on more than a few of our best-of lists for 2012. Those who have read it will understand why: the Chicago-based author’s fiction is perfectly pitched, atmospheric and yet containing abundant mysteries. It’s unsettling without ever crossing a line into Gothic excess; it’s ambiguous without ever feeling the need to show off. Over the course of a few weeks, Jemc and I exchanged a series of emails to discuss her work as a writer and editor — and to learn what might come next for her.

Your chapbook of Russian stories came out in 2011, and your novel was released last year. What are you working on now?
I have a collection of stories that I keep rearranging and scratching my head about, and I have a collection of poems that I’ve all but forgotten, but right now I’m actively working on another novel. Right now it’s called The Dizzy Maximum. It started out as the story of a haunting, and that’s still there, but maybe there’s some disease stuff, as well now. I hope to have a rough draft by the end of February; that’s my goal. But it’ll just be a rough draft – more like a lump of raw material, and then there will be a ton of work to do.

My Only Wife could be described as having elements of a haunting as well — albeit one that’s more rooted in memory. What is it that attracts you to this kind of story?
I love doing interviews like this, because I generally don’t ask myself questions about why I’m doing what I’m doing or what the relation of something I’m working on is to the other writing I’ve done. But then someone asks a smart questions like this, and I think, “There must be something that draws me to this. Better figure it out!”

I agree that My Only Wife is a haunting from another angle. I think the attraction of this story is the idea of the unknown vs. the misunderstood. You might be looking at a relationship and wondering if you understand that other person and the dynamic of your relationship and the actions and events that happen between you, or if you’re totally wrong: does that situation count as the unknown or the misunderstood? It could be either depending on how you look at it. Is what you’re looking at a knowable thing in an absolute way? Can you stop yourself from trying to understand something or someone? I don’t think I can, but I can stop before it becomes debilitating, for the most part. It’s like the inverted spectrum idea – you can drive yourself mad trying to figure out if the green your neighbor sees is the same green you see. Does it matter?

I think that obsession with the misunderstood/unknown is easily traceable to the idea of a more conventional haunting where strange things are happening in your home: is it an unknown force or is it you misunderstanding the wind or is it your mind playing tricks on you?

My grandmother has macular degeneration, so she’s losing her eyesight from the center of her vision out, and has started experiencing something called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, as well. My understanding of the syndrome is that, similar to how a person who loses a limb might experience phantom pain, someone who is losing their sight might have phantom visions. She’s not losing her mind – she’s very sharp for 85 – but she sees things that aren’t there. She calls often telling me people are projecting images and “movies” into her home: naked men, street scenes, people in historic costumes. We’ve tried again and again to explain to her that those images aren’t actually there, but she cannot wrap her mind around the idea that she could be seeing things, with her eyes, that don’t exist. She thinks we’re telling her she’s crazy, which we’re not. I can’t imagine how hard it must be to admit that your brain is lying to you in such a concrete way. For her, she’d rather believe that someone else, a punky neighbor kid, is doing this to her than think that her body could be doing it to herself. Does it matter then what the truth is? Or should she just look at the situation in the way that seems the most livable to her? My grandma is being haunted by her own mind. While this haunting sounds like a ghost story, it’s really quite a bit closer to the narrator of My Only Wife, whose memories won’t leave him alone – ultimately it’s mental. Everything is mental though, right? Like Shakespeare said, “Nothing is good or bad, it’s thinking that makes it so.” The way people think, the way they allow their experiences to influence, or haunt, their decision-making: I don’t know that there’s anything more fascinating to me.

The shorter answer to your question, the answer that doesn’t make my mind cramp up trying to explain it, is that I like being confused and I like being scared – they go hand in hand. But I think ultimately I’m a pretty positive person who is stable enough to enjoy being scared because I have the faith that nothing can go so terribly wrong that I couldn’t recover. I’ve always really loved reading scary stories and watching well-made horror movies, and not too long ago an interviewer told me there was spooky quality to my writing, and I thought, “Yes! You’re right!” It’s always been there, I think. I’m just going at it at more directly this time.

Has the editorial work you’ve done at Hobart affected your own writing?
I think everything I read affects my writing, but yes, reading for Hobart does make me think about how to catch an editor’s attention and how a small thing can make or break a story. Sometimes I love 90% of a story, but then there’s one element that makes me question the writer or disengage. I’m either relieved because it means I can dismiss it, or I’m nervous because I don’t know if it would be presumptuous to ask a writer to rework that or remove that part, because what if it still doesn’t work? I haven’t really written a story since I started reading for Hobart – which feels crazy – but when I do I wonder if I’ll think differently about what I’m doing. I worry I might get paralyzed if I try to think about this too actively – at least for the first draft.

You’ve been conducting an ongoing series of interviews with non-readers. What have you learned from the series so far?
Man, it’s been such fun. One of the favorite things I’ve learned so far is that many people who tell me they’d like to participate because they don’t read, don’t really want to take the time to answer my questions either! Hahaha. They’ll be 100% in, in theory, but when I send the questions along, they don’t respond. So I feel like I should start adding some sort of disclaimer to the series where is says, this is just a random sample of the non-readers that are willing to take the time to talk about not reading – there are tons more that don’t even want to read a list of questions.

Another thing I knew going in was that even people who say they don’t read, read a little bit, or they read something that they’ve been convinced “doesn’t count.” I used to be a bookseller, and there were such a wide variety of people I got to talk to about books on a daily basis. Now that I don’t do that anymore, I think I missed the variety of book talk. I love talking to people with similar tastes to me, but it’s also really joyful to me to talk to other types of readers (and I would say a self-identified non-reader is just a variety of reader). I’m certainly not doing this to convert anyone, and I don’t see myself changing the way I write based on what I’ve learned to try to gain more readers. I don’t think I could do that even if I tried. But it’s fun to understand the landscape of readers. I think it’s interesting that so many of the people I’m talking to prefer to get their narrative fix from TV, often from TV on DVD, where you can watch a long involved story in small time period. It seems like a lot of dramas on TV occupy a closer parallel to what it’s like to read a novel than a movie does, and novels being sold as TV shows – like Swamplandia and The Corrections – seems to evidence that I’m not the only one that thinks this. I’m specifically talking about one-off novels and not series. Converting a series of books to a TV Show seems obvious and has been done for a while, but converting a single novel to a TV show seems to show a more delicate understanding of what’s driving people to watch what they watch right now. People seem almost as engaged by depth of character as they do by plot twists, and novels seem like a logical seed for that level of engagement. Does any of this make sense? I feel like there’s going to be a big old hole poked in my theory because I don’t watch a ton of TV, just one show at a time basically, from beginning to end.

Dare I ask: what was the last book or movie (or both) that scared you?
One of my favorite scary movies is The Orphanage by J.A. Bayona. It’s smart and well-written. It almost feels like a drama that also happens to scare the wits out of you. I’m terrible at summarizing stories or movies, but a woman returns to her childhood home with her family. That home also happened to be an orphanage and the mother intends to revive it as a home for disabled children. Soon her son reveals he has discovered an imaginary friend in the house and then he disappears and I won’t say too much more. But it’s so smart and compelling, and there is nothing about it that feels like a guilty pleasure. Just talking about it, I want to watch it again.

As for books, I love those Alan Schwartz Scary Story collections. Those are closest to my heart. Kelly Link’s story “Stone Animals” is sort of the pinnacle of great scary story telling. Kathryn Davis’ book Hell is one of the most incredible scary novels I’ve ever read, and I never hear anyone talk about it. She tells 3 stories simultaneously – not in alternation – but all at once. So one sentence might apply to all three narratives, or characters might participate in all three stories at once, and you’re never sure quite where you are in the story, because nothing is rooted down. You’re just watching these three stories haunt each other.

Is there an overarching theme to the poetry collection that you mentioned earlier? Can you generally move easily from writing poetry to writing prose, or do you generally need some time to acclimate to one after being involved in the other?
My poetry tends to be very fragmentary – lots of miniatures strung together into longer poems, so the collection seems to me more drawn together by style than theme? That said, glancing through it again now, it does have a rather gothic feel to it. A fair amount of death and seduction, seduction often taking unconventional forms. I haven’t been writing poetry really, while I’m working on this novel, mostly because I haven’t really been writing much of anything else, but it’s something I’m eager to return to. I make poetry in a very similar way to the way I make prose: lots of searching for the surprises language presents, so it feels easy to move from one to the other. I use a set of pre-writing exercises I’ve made for myself to gather language whether I’m writing fiction or poetry, usually through constraint-based pre-writing exercises I’ve made myself. It’s just a different exercise I do depending on whether I think I’m moving toward poetry or prose. With poetry, I feel like it’s more acceptable to ask the reader to take larger leaps with me, so I tend to leave it even more ambiguous or cryptic than my prose.

Are you still maintaining your collected rejection letters? And as someone who has been on both sides of that divide — as both a writer and an editor — has one experience given you insights into the other?
I am still maintaining the rejection letters blog, but I really have not sent out work in almost a year unless it was solicited. I think there are two very easy-to-identify reasons for that: I had a novel come out so there were lots of interviews and excerpts and whatnot to do, but also working on a new novel, I’m hesitant to send it out in pieces. But as soon as this draft is finished, I’ll get back to stories,and start sending out work again more vigorously. I feel bad there isn’t much new content to put on the rejections blog, but I guess it’s natural for there to be a gap like that. I knew when I said I would start working on a new novel that that meant I wouldn’t have work out in magazines for a while, and there was something both terrifying and relieving to me about that.

I don’t think I’ve ever had too much trouble receiving rejection letters and I’ve been reading submissions for magazines almost since I started having work published, so I think my attitude about rejection has sort of gone hand in hand with understanding the demands put on a reader. The higher quality submissions I see as time goes on make me rethink the level of polish something should have before I send it out. And as an editor, I do take the time to encourage people to send different work if I really liked what they sent, but there was something about it that didn’t send me 100%.

Over and above the projects you have in the works, is there an idea or a style that you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to in the months and years to come?
I don’t plan ahead too much, but I would really love to learn how to write essays. I’ve tried a couple times, but I feel I have a long, long way to go. I’d love to pick a topic that I don’t know too much about and really get lost in it

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