Jody Hobbs Hesler’s debut story collection What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better is set in Charlottesville, Virginia — not academic or tourist Charlottesville, but working-class neighborhoods, convenience stores, motels. Risk, heartache, betrayal and failure are common experiences for the author’s characters.
It’s good to be talking with you again, like old times when we met as residents at The Virginia Center for Creative Arts ten years ago. While What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better is your debut collection, many of these stories have appeared in journals. You also write essays, book reviews, community news and profiles, teach at WriterHouse, and have a novel forthcoming. I’ve long appreciated your dedication to your craft, and your generosity to other writers. Reading this collection, I’m struck by your dedication and generosity to your characters. Troubled precarity, emotionally and often financially, runs through their lives. What contributes to your ability to tap into and access these disparate characters?
My parents divorced in the 1970s, so my mom was a single mom before that term had been coined. Not that we have equal pay now by a long stretch, but it was much more unequal then, and banks routinely denied loans to women and usually refused to issue credit cards without a male co-signer. At her house, we were aware of money, scrimping and saving, while, my dad, who was in real estate at the time, walked in and out of money the way other people walk in and out of the rain. So even within our family, we straddled socioeconomic divisions.
The middle class still existed then, and our suburban Richmond, Virginia neighborhood housed the entire spectrum. For an attorney down the street, just out of law school and raising his brand-new family, this was a first home. For others, it was the first home they could afford to buy after a lifetime of renting. In a newer section built to be more affordable, a friend whose dad was in jail lived with his mom and siblings. They may still live there. My mom stayed 33 years.
I grew up with the characters I write. I made up ghost stories with them, rode overcrowded school buses with them, ran through half-built houses with them. Not only do I know them, I could have been any one of them. Nothing about my future was guaranteed.
These are divisive times. You don’t shy away from the implicit and explicit cruelties of racism, prejudice, abuse, and inequity. What choices have you made about fictionalizing controversial issues? How do you see the challenges, limits, and possibilities of imagination, empathy?
I feel duty-bound to bear witness to some of the ugly in our world, though I feel like I don’t do it often enough. When I do, I work hard not to claim someone else’s experience in order to tell difficult truths and not to use trauma or injustice merely as a prop. It’s hard, because pointing at racism, misogyny, wealth disparity, sexual predation, and domestic abuse opens the possibility of getting it wrong and accidentally perpetuating the stereotypes or attitudes we’re trying to combat.
Not mentioning these issues, though, risks inauthenticity and irrelevance. And if we can tell hard stories with genuineness, maybe we can move a reader to see what we hope to change. Our world is starving for empathy right now, and stories can help generate it.
These stories of cruelty at least as often as kindness, are still infused with wry humor, compassion, even gentle forgiveness. Like Otto, who tries to woo his estranged, college student daughter with a “bright red, human height, plastic M&M.” Or elderly, childless Gladys who finds a left-behind child in the check-out line and almost lives out her rescue fantasy. You punctuate the darkness with grace notes. Conscious intent on your part, a deliberate technical decision? Or something more mysterious? Both/and?
I remember reading Vanity Fair eons ago and finding it difficult to stomach Thackeray’s obvious disdain for his characters. For me, affection and affinity help me see my disparate cast of characters more clearly. Otto bumbles his efforts at connection with his daughter, and when he discovers his own sincerity, it’s by accident and as a surprise. His yearning to replicate that sincerity scratches below the surface of his absurdity, though, and I think that’s what gives the reader a reason to connect with him, beyond and despite his goofy insensitiveness. Gladys is a bit of a judgmental busybody when it comes to the little girl in the grocery store, but her history of grief and loss—six miscarriages and a medically necessary hysterectomy—softens the reader to her. Anyway, it softens me to her, and by extension, I hope it softens the reader.
My grandfather once told me he thought people were born evil, and that horrified me. I think people are born valuable and redeemable. That doesn’t mean we don’t mess things up. I know I do. My characters do. But my stories are interested in that valuableness and redemptiveness, in how characters lose faith in it, how others struggle toward it. I want to believe we can all be better people. We need to be if we want a kinder world.
You combine writing and teaching. How does your writing influence your teaching? Your teaching influence your writing?
I might have the best-case scenario of combining writing and teaching. I have one freelance student and also teach for WriterHouse, a community writing center here in Charlottesville. I teach 6- or 8-week sessions a couple different seasons of the year, nothing is graded, and all my students have unabashed enthusiasm about writing and about learning, plus I still have time to write. With students, my biggest goal is to keep that enthusiasm fresh. Find what makes them want to sit down and write, then keep going. The big bonus: when I engage with their curiosity, encourage them through their slumps, all of it circles back to me. What I teach, I learn all over again. It’s kind of beautiful.
We could close with the question “What’s next?” But that’s an open secret – your debut novel Without You Here is forthcoming next year. So, instead, why now? As you say, you’ve been writing since you could hold a pencil, and continuously writing, publishing in journals and magazines. Why do you think this is the moment for your double debut, story collection and novel?
Certainly it’s true that the longer we do this work, the better we get at it. That ten thousand hours thing. But I don’t think it’s that simple. The publishing industry is in wild disarray at the moment. What used to be maybe a dozen big houses have dwindled and merged down to about four. What used to be small, distinguished presses are now medium-sized, struggling with growing pains. I’ve written other books and sent them around. I’ve collected near-celebration-worthy rave rejections, even had an agent for a while. While those efforts never turned into books in my hands, I got enough encouragement to believe I belonged in the game, at least.
Beyond redefining its size, shape, and form, the publishing industry has shaken itself up in other ways too. Formerly reserved mostly for white, cisgendered, hetero men, now the industry is beginning to welcome and even encourage more diversity. We have a very long way to go before there’s anything like parity, but women’s, LGBTQ, and BIPOC voices are revolutionizing the present and the future of publishing. No doubt the timing of my own path to publication owes itself, at least in part, to these advances.
Thanks so much, Jody. For your work, and for the pleasure of this conversation.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s novel Frieda’s Song was published in May 2021; the story collection Known By Heart appeared in 2020. The Bowl with Gold Seams, her debut novel, received the Indie Excellence Award for Historical Fiction; the story collection Contents Under Pressure was a National Book Award nominee. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, her column “Girl Writing” is a regular feature of The Washington Independent Review of Books.