Whether she’s navigating the secrets people keep from one another or venturing into the world of the uncanny, Jac Jemc has established a particularly haunting corner of fiction where she explores the unpredictable and disquieting. This week brings with it the release of False Bingo, her second collection of short fiction, and one which demonstrates Jemc’s impressive range as a writer. I talked with her about the collection’s origins, her work in both the supernatural and realistic, and caught a glimpse of what might be next from her.
False Bingo is your second book-length collection of short fiction. Was the process of putting this one together different from A Different Bed Every Time?
With False Bingo, I started thinking of the stories as a collection much earlier, thinking about the way they balanced one another and what would be needed to complement different themes and styles. I think False Bingo is a much more cohesive collection than A Different Bed Every Time.
You’ve written books that deal with the uncanny and the more naturalistic, and the stories in this new collection include examples of both. Was there a challenge finding the right balance between the two?
For me, even when the stories are more naturalistic, I find myself examining unease and detachment. I tried to highlight an atmospheric consistency between the stories. When pulling the stories together, I did consider how each of the stories could be classified in terms of tone, style, voice, POV, theme, realism, and structure, to name a few, and aimed to form a collection that formed an echo chamber of sorts, projecting forward and harkening back to other stories in the collection
“Delivery” begins in a relatively realistic mode and gradually becomes more and more surreal. What was your process like for gradually ratcheting up the surrealism in it?
This is the one story in the collection that has real basis in reality. When my dad began suffering dementia, he began shopping with no memory of having bought the things he did, and it really was one of the things that tipped off my family that something was wrong. At a certain point, I exaggerate those gestures in the fictional story, but so much of this story is factual and it felt surreal in real life. I just took it one step further. Maybe this is an answer to the earlier question about the uncanny and the naturalistic: I’m looking for the surreal moments of real life, and the real moments in fantastic situations.
At what point did the title False Bingo come to mind as a fit for this collection?
I was thinking a lot about what existed as common ground between the stories, and I identified games, gambling, deception, and mistaken interpretations of events/not being able to recognize happiness for what it is as ideas that kept coming up. I played church basement bingo with a friend, and someone called Bingo when they didn’t win, and I love that moment. I love the thrill of realizing the game is still going even though you’ve lost. It’s so, so embarrassing for the person who calls the mistaken bingo, but I experience a little Schadenfreude watching the person’s disappointment. That’s cruel of me, but true in that I just love observing humans, and it seems like one of the most innocent ways to witness that emotion.
In “Pastoral,” you use the first person singular and plural as well as the second person. How did that structure end up coming together?
For me, the POV there had to do with the assumptions of what the mental state must be of a person doing sex work. Switching from singular to plural shows a collective solidarity. Then to second person implies a confrontation, in which the narrator is allowed to acknowledge her audience. In that confrontation, she can address some of those assumptions. I liked the surprise of those shifts because they allow the story to shift in dramatic ways, highlighting the different angles from which the narrator understands her own complexity.
“Half Dollar” bears the subtitle “After Shirley Jackson.” What prompted you to riff on Jackson’s fiction? Was the writing of this particular story different from the others in the collection?
I wrote this story in response to a call Tin House put out to finish a partial Shirley Jackson story. It didn’t win the contest, but I realized that the ending I’d written worked fine as a story on its own, so I rewrote the beginning of the piece (which had been the middle of the hybrid story), and there it was. I love Jackson so, so much. the story “Any Other” is also inspired by a Jackson story in which someone pretends to be someone else. I owe her so much.
A while back, I believe you’d mentioned working on a Mad King Ludwig-inspired project. Is that still in the works?
Yep, that’s still cooking. It was enormous and now it’s slowly shrinking, but the work is slow. I’m trying to boil the whole thing down so that it reads as being certain of what it wants to be.