Today I’m honored to have the opportunity of discussing the arts of writing and teaching with Jincy Willett, the author of Jenny & the Jaws of Life, Winner of the National Book Award, and her latest novel The Writing Class (St. Martin’s Press). Her metafictional story “I DON’T TRASH MY OWN LIFE” is live at Metazen right now.
Metazen: Jincy, when I see reader responses to your writing, I’m never surprised to see the phrase “favorite writer.” How does that make you feel?
Jincy Willett: Surprised. Also of course it’s gratifying. Also bewildering. (Sorry, this is a participle festival.)
Metazen: Well, I hope it’s gratifying to hear that you’re high on my list. For those readers unfamiliar with your prose, here’s the opening paragraph to “Melinda Falling” (Jenny & the Jaws of Life, 1987) which is a magnificently eloquent entrance for one of the clumsiest and most memorable characters I’ve ever met …
The very first time I saw her, Melinda was in midair, just below the summit of a long, winding staircase, on her way down. There were three other women on the wide carpeted stairs, two were prettier than Melinda, and all more chicly dressed—cocktail party, Newport, lawyers, bankers, brokers—but Melinda eclipsed them all, descending, as she did, by somersault and cartwheel. She was upside-down when I first caught sight of her, left profile to me, splayed hands poised above the stair upon which the uppermost chic woman was standing, long black skirt accordioned around her hips, plump pink face partially obscured by a curtain of brown hair. I thought: Oh, my. Her right foot came down first, glancing off the edge of a step, snapping free the golden heel of her plastic shoe, and, momentarily upright, she pivoted and went down the rest of the way sideways, arms and legs extended like spokes. She wheeled, in stately fashion, between the other two women, who stood motionless as handmaidens in a frieze, watching her. All watched her, all held their breath: she whirled in dignified silence, broken only by the soft thuds of hand and foot on thick red carpeting. She did not exactly defy gravity, but mastered it by the perfect rate of descent, so that, for instance, the hem of her skirt ebbed and flowed with tantalizing discretion. So deliberate, solemn, and utterly magical was her progress that it promised to go on forever. When finally she touched down on the floor, upright, there was a little collective sigh of disappointment and then spontaneous applause led, I believe by me. “Magnificent!” I said. “Bravo!” And I took her arm and led her away from the crowd. I was half in love already and wanted her all to myself. “Get me out of here,” she said—her first words to me—and the expression on her flushed, round face was regal, impenetrable.
Could you tell us a little about how Melinda came to be (so gracefully clumsy)?
Jincy Willett: When I was young, I fell a lot. Apparently this is not unusual: I have friends who remember the same thing about their young selves. You’ll just be standing there talking, or accepting a Junior Alliance Francaise medal or something, and then you’ll crumple in a heap. Or you’ll be walking with your date and then he’s a block ahead and you’re flat out on the ice. I fell a lot and never hurt myself, and it really did seem that I was only graceful when falling. Landing, not so much. Anyway, I just wanted to explore that in “Melinda.”
Metazen: “I DON’T TRASH MY OWN LIFE”—at Metazen now—is an experimental, metafictional and dialogic romp of various voices creating the character of “Marlene.” You’ve said before that writers should simply start writing and see what comes out. Is this how “I DON’T TRASH MY OWN LIFE” came to be?
Jincy Willett: I guess so. I don’t remember much about writing it, except that it was basically a lark. Metafiction is great fun to write, which is what makes me suspicious of it. Straightforward stories are murder. I think my non-meta stories are better, but I do have a fondness for the meta ones, especially this one.
Metazen: There are so many great lines in the story. I had a hard time picking a couple for the quotes. In my opinion you write the type of prose that writers like. The Writing Class seems to me to be the perfect text for a creative writing class. I see that you are using The Writing Class as the textbook for a class right now. How’s that going? Any murders yet?
Jincy Willett: I thought it would be perfect too, since the real class is a 9-week class at the very university extension on which I based the fictional 9-week class. It’s even the fall semester. So far, though, the class has worked harder at their writing than at their reading. (This is typical of all writing classes, human nature being what it is.) I’m using the structure of the book to schedule weekly exercises which focus more or less on the topics of the First Class through Ninth Class chapters. But I haven’t been able to get them to talk about the book. So I’ve assigned them to dig through the first half for expository material so we can discuss how it was woven into the foreground of the narrative and whether it actually worked for them. In order to write well, you have to read actively, critically, and I’m hoping to help them do that. Update [because this interview took a few weeks]: With a bit of prodding, they turned out to be excellent readers after all, and the book did provide a helpful framework.
Metazen: Do you have a writers’ group yourself in which you critique one another’s work?
Jincy Willett: Yes, a coven of three. We get together every few weeks. It’s very helpful.
Metazen: I think most critics agree that you have a strong, consistent narrative voice in your work: a cynical narrator, not always a woman, who finds most everyone and everything around her/him humorous and absurd. The word “wry” almost always pops up, but I’d add deadpan and ironic. Are these words accurate?
Jincy Willett: I don’t know about wry and deadpan. It’s just me. I’m not conscious of a voice at all, except when I’m working with dialogue or first person narration. All I’m working at is trying to get at the truth, at least the truth of what’s in my head, which is hard enough. I do find humor (not the comforting kind, since that’s not real humor anyway) in most things, but it’s not as though I put it there. It’s a slapstick universe. And I don’t mean to be a cynic. Cynics are armored in their cynicism, like Pollyannas in their optimism. I’m all for self-preservation, but when you write you should take the armor off.
Metazen: I read Winner of the National Book Award first. The title got me. I was going through my Book Awards phase, reading any book that won a Pulitzer, Nobel, etc. Of course I saw immediately that the title was a cheeky joke—but it worked. After that, it was love at first page. Dorcas is another memorable character. Actually, there’s not really a question here, is there?
Jincy Willett: Do you know how the title came about? The title of that novel was always Fame and Honor. I found it years ago when I was just starting the first chapter. It comes from that Schopenhauer quote and it’s perfect because he says fame and honor are twins (like Abigail and Dorcas, get it?), &etc. Years later, I’m on an improbable roll, St. Martin’s has re-issued Jenny in paper with a great cover, they want the novel I’m working on, and I’m in the middle of the last section, and it (the narrative momentum) is finally gathering speed, and my editor says, By the way, the title sucks: it’s just two abstract nouns, that never works, we need you to give us new title suggestions. Because really I liked my title, I was annoyed and came up with a clever ploy: I would keep “suggesting” increasingly ludicrous titles until they gave up and let me have the one I wanted. (This is not a complaint, by the way. They were being very nice about the whole thing. It’s their job to take your stuff and sell it. I could never even sell Girl Scout thin mints.) So I took about ten minutes and made up a list of silly titles, at the top of which was “Winner of the National Book Award,” and I sent them that one. They wrote back and said, “That probably won’t fly, there might be legal issues, etc.,” and I said, “Well, that’s all I’ve got,” and they said they’d get back to me. I immediately forgot about the whole thing, so imagine my surprise when they wrote back in a month saying that Legal had cleared the title and it was great and there was already buzz about it in, I don’t know, the industry or something, and I was just horrified. I tried to talk them out of it but it was too late. I was the picture of chagrin. I even considered taking a stand, insisting on my way, but really the whole thing was my fault, so I let it go. And of course it turned out that the publishers knew what they were doing, and I did not.
Also—after the title change I was asked to seed the novel with references to the National Book Award, which I did. That was actually fun.
Metazen: Good! I hope the National Book Award people got lots of free publicity. Can I tell you a (possibly embarrassing) secret? Someone else who got some publicity was David Sedaris. I didn’t know who he was when I bought your book. In my defense, I’d lived in Germany for almost a decade.
Jincy Willett: That’s pretty amazing. He’s a rock star. Also a very nice guy. If not for him, I’d have stopped with Jenny.
Metazen: I’m glad you didn’t. Between the publication of Jenny & the Jaws of Life (1987) and Winner of the National Book Award (2003) sixteen years passed. That’s longer than the missing years of Jesus (also a rock star). What were you doing all that time?
Jincy Willett: The year Jenny was first published, my son was born (so the publication itself was a mildly exciting event for me but dwarfed by the other). The next year my husband died. I had to pack up my life and move across country to raise my son where the rest of my small family lives. Basically that’s the next sixteen years. I did some writing workshops and about a million thumbnail bios for Who’s Who (a part-time job), and once in a blue moon I’d add a chapter to Fame and Honor, which I had begun just before my husband’s illness.
Metazen: Death pushes everything else aside. My brother died in 2007. I’m still trying to figure out how to write about it. You’ve said in past interviews that you leave your past out of your writing. But is that possible?
Jincy Willett: Of course your life, your past, informs what you write. I just believe that people own their stories. My life, what’s happened to me, including the experience of grief and loss, that’s all mine to use freely. But family members and friends own their lives, their stories; my husband owns his life, his death. I won’t use those. When you write, you have to separate the stories into piles—the ones you use, the ones you won’t touch. They don’t belong to you. It’s a real snarl of threads, I know, and you can make mistakes, but you must try your best. Otherwise you risk betrayal.
Metazen: But where is the line between the story that belongs to me and the story belongs to, say, my brother or your husband? It’s a very personal question. I’ll understand if you don’t want to answer.
Jincy Willett: If anyone who knows you can recognize someone close to you (wife, child, ex-husband) in your fiction, you’ve crossed the line. You’ve appropriated a human being and used him as a character; you’ve invaded his privacy. Family and close friendship (friends being the new family) depend upon intimate relationships. Not wholly, and not always, but intimacy is key. You don’t violate that. Art is not worth it. Happily, we’re free to plunder ourselves, and we all have more characters in us than we’ll ever need.
Metazen: What was that story in Playgirl about? I’ve looked through my stacks but can’t find it.
Jincy Willett: There was one in November 1986 (“Justine Laughs at Death,” which was included in Jenny) and “Medea in the Garden” in the January 1988 issue. I think you can still read it in http://www.fivechapters.com/2009/medea-in-the-garden/ (Five Chapters, an online magazine.) I’m actually not crazy about the story: it’s a thesis story, and those probably never work. (See why I couldn’t sell thin mints?)
Metazen: I assume you have an agent to sell your thin mints now. Tell our readers how one clubs an agent into her cave. What’s the secret?
Jincy Willett: I don’t have an agent. (I have a book-to-film agent, but that doesn’t count.) In the 80s, new writers didn’t need agents. We just sent out our stuff unsolicited to magazines and book publishers. We arose from the slush. This is what we should still be doing. I’m very uneasy about agents, rather than publishers’ readers, being the gatekeepers confronting new writers. Agents are all about marketing and niches and platforms. What the hell is a platform? I know that publishers must think along those lines too, but at least if you deal with them directly, you don’t have to run a gauntlet of gatekeepers. I might have a bit more money now if I had an agent, and I admit ignorance of what they do besides slam the door on new writers because nobody wants to read about X, or memoir isn’t hot right now. I may be unfairly blaming them for the nichification of fiction. All I’m saying is: I don’t get the whole agent thing. We’re not night club acts.
Metazen: This is so encouraging. OK, I read in another interview that you do a lot of mental work on a story before you put pen to paper so that when you finally write, you’re content with your first draft. Have I paraphrased that interview correctly? What’s your mental work like?
Jincy Willett: Honestly? Watching TV; driving; cross-stitching absurd texts. Sorry, I know that’s the least inspiring possible answer, but I’m one of those people who can’t think clearly unless they’re being distracted. I have writer friends who go on retreats, lovely places off in the woods with no electricity and nothing but stark solitude and blessed silence. Kerosene lamps, lemon sunlight slanting in on a rough-hewn table, big-eyed woodland creatures midwiving your creative throes. Pure hell. I’m fine with the solitude, but the silence would drive me insane. All I know is: I’ll get stuck in the middle of a book and it won’t budge, and then I’ll go off for a few hours or a few months, and when I come back it’s there. My subconscious is very industrious. I don’t return to the writing with a plan—I don’t work from outlines—I come back just knowing what comes next.
Metazen: You teach aspiring writers. What have you learned about yourself from being a teacher?
Jincy Willett: I’ve learned that although I’m pretty articulate and okay with public speaking, I can’t do lectures. When I try, I find my own words so boring that it’s hard to stay awake. Anyway, writing courses shouldn’t involve lectures. I’m a good reader of student work. My strength as a teacher is form: I can generally see the form of a story and what’s missing or askew. Generally I emphasize substance over style: there’s way too much “Look at this lovely sentence!” feedback in writing workshops and not enough grappling with the story on the page.
As far as what I’ve learned…I guess it’s that even though I’m pretty solitary in my habits, I do enjoy meeting these people. People are so interesting! (You have to know some, it turns out, if you want to write.)
Metazen: How has the internet changed the way you do business?
Jincy Willett: It’s great. Setting up online workshops turns out to be a piece of cake, as does arranging for payment—much easier than finding workshop space and waiting for checks in the mail, etc. I have found that my online work is usually one-on-one—I haven’t been able to set up a group since the first one, which was just experimental, and actually a lot of fun. But the Internet does, I think, make it easier for writers to find students, or vice versa.
Metazen: How important is formalized education when it comes to creative writing?
Jincy Willett: I’m so glad you asked this!! Education is important, formalized or not. If you don’t know anything you won’t have anything to say. And if you’re in college and you get the chance to take a writing course or two, that can be a good thing—it can start you on your way. But I sincerely believe that the best formal education for writers is Anything Besides Creative Writing. I mean, when you’re an undergraduate, major in Anything Else, and if you do grad school, Anything Else would be preferable as a specialty. Great writers didn’t learn Writing from their formal education. There is no body of knowledge to be transmitted. Workshops can be very useful (though not necessary), but you can take those privately or in university extensions and they won’t cost nearly as much, and you won’t risk getting sucked into the literary trend-o’-the-day, or worse, being turned into a disciple, because you’ll be working with different people in different places.
Aspiring writers can feel crushed, thwarted, when they fail to get into the university writing program of their choice, as though this had anything to do with their innate talent and drive to write. This is just totally unnecessary. Trying to make it as a writer is hard enough without that sort of blow.
R.V. Cassill, my own mentor, taught in the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa in that famous writing school’s early days and founded the Associated Writing Programs, and then, fifteen years later, publicly renounced the whole idea of teaching writing in academe and urged that the AWP be disbanded. Of course this didn’t happen, but Cassill was right. (You can read about this in more detail at
Look, if you can get a free ride in a writing program, as I did at Brown (because I had done my undergraduate work in philosophy there, and because faculty wives got freebies)—if, for example, you get a fellowship—then it can be pleasant to spend a couple of years in the company of other writers. But it isn’t necessary. Don’t pay for it. Save your money.
Instead, live. Stay alert. Pay attention. Read like crazy. Write. Learn the world for heaven’s sake. Keep sending your stuff out (when you think it’s ready), and when it comes back at you, send it out again. Don’t paper your walls with rejection slips. Throw them away.
Metazen: Got any inspiring, heart-warming rejection stories?
Jincy Willett: I do have an odd one. Years ago, during a fallow period, just to get myself writing, I wrote a comic radio play, just for my husband and friends to act out and record. The play was about a married pair of retirees who invite two young academic couples over for dinner, bore them silly, then lure them into their basement rumpus room for a round of games. The retirees are serial killers. Mayhem ensues, and the writing challenge (there always has to be a challenge) was figuring out how to take full advantage of an audio-only medium. This involved a lot of wine and me running around doing sound effects, and it was pretty hilarious. About ten years later, I wondered if there were a market for these, and of course in the U.S. there isn’t. I sent it to the BBC. They liked it! We had some preliminary correspondence about how this and that would have to change (jokes, references, etc.). Then time went by and I realized I hadn’t heard from them for months. When they finally wrote, I wasn’t surprised to learn they’d changed their minds, but their reason was unique. Soon after they’d first received the play and begun to map out how to adapt it, England was rocked by the discovery that a married couple (Frederick and Rosemary West) had been murdering women in their basement. The British public, they said, was so traumatized by this that they’d hardly be in the mood to laugh at the homicidal antics in “Trivial Pursuit.” They were so kind and courteous about the whole thing. Anyway, the story of the rejection is probably more interesting than the play. (Which is actually somewhere on my website, if anybody wants to put it on in the old barn.)
Metazen: For our readers who haven’t read it, go to http://www.jincywillett.com/journal/ and find out what you’ve been missing. So, Jincy, what are you reading now, and what do you think about the hundreds of indie/underground literary ezines out there? Good trend? Bad trend? Exhausting trend? Do you still read books on paper?
Jincy Willett: I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about trends, and I’m mostly reading old stuff—books I’ve been putting off for 60 years. I’m not a snob or anything, but when you’re my age you realize you don’t have all the time in the world. As Dorcas says, if something that’s out now is worth reading, it will still be around tomorrow. Why keep current?
Metazen: I agree, but if we all did that we wouldn’t sell any books, would we? (Not that most writers sell many anyway.) Are you concerned about the state of the publishing industry? Is it sick? If you think it is, do you think the disease is terminal?
Jincy Willett: Honestly, no, because I didn’t much care for what was happening before the Internet and the e-book revolution. There are, what, 10,000 books published per day? We are all, or should be, readers first, writers second. Now the only way a community of readers is possible is for us all to be reading the books we’re told (by the Lists) to read. That’s bad. I grew up in libraries: I discovered my favorites on the shelves. They weren’t marketed to me, at least not the way they are now. And there are, it sometimes seems, more of us writing than reading. Aspiring writers enter MFA mills and dream of bidding wars, and some very talented ones get them and publish books that draw an outlandish degree of critical attention and really aren’t very good, because the writers aren’t ready yet. And many fine writers, many great writers, turn out more books than they should, because they’re expected to. Somehow we’ve got the idea that writers should be able to support themselves with their writing, and that you’re not a writer at all if you’re not writing, even after you’ve actually gotten one fine book published, or one great story. That’s just wrong. A few very industrious, very talented people pay for room and board and a whole lot more with their writing, and good for them. But for most of us it’s a cottage industry, and there’s nothing tragic about that. If the current shake-up results in a return to the cottage, maybe we’ll get our books back. Books aren’t movies, and they aren’t television, and authors aren’t celebrities (unless they are—Dickens, Twain, Sedaris). Sorry, I’ve totally lost the thread of this conversation…
Metazen: Ha. No problem. Tell us about your next project with Amy Gallup. What’s in store for her? When can we expect to see her back in stores? Will it be available on Kindle or other e-book formats?
Jincy Willett: I hear that my published stuff will be available on Kindle soon. Amy’s still shuffling on, without the mystery. In this novel I’m working with accidents. They’re much more interesting than murders.
Metazen: Accidents. Good ones or bad ones or both? Jincy, this has been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you. I look forward to seeing your books in the shops. I always turn them so their covers are showing.
Metazen: Accidents. Good ones or bad ones or both? Jincy, this has been a pleasure and an honor. Thank you. I look forward to seeing your books in the shops. I always turn them so their covers are showing.
Jincy Willett: Bless your heart. (My great-grandmother said that a lot—these were, in fact, her last words. I just love that expression.) And thanks so much for the opportunity to sound off, which is a lot more fun than writing.
Jincy Willett graduated from Brown in 1978 with an AB magna cum laude in Philosophy and earned an AM in Creative Writing in 1981, having worked with R.V. Cassill, John Hawkes and Angela Carter.
Willett has taught fiction workshops on and off since 1983, at the extension divisions of Brown University, San Diego State University, and the University of California, San Diego, in addition to numerous private workshops.
After publishing short stories in The Yale Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Playgirl, she sold her collected stories (Jenny and the Jaws of Life) to St. Martin’s Press, which published it in 1987. Through generous and repeated praise, David Sedaris managed almost singlehandedly to resurrect it in 2002, when St. Martin’s re-released it, this time in paper, with a spiffy new cover and a foreword by Sedaris. The following year, St. Martin’s published her first novel, Winner of the National Book Award. Willett’s second novel, The Writing Class, was published by St. Martin’s in June of 2008. Her novels and stories have been translated and published in France, Germany, and the Czech Republic; there are editions in the U.K. and Australia, and plans for publication/translation in Italy and Turkey. Her stories have appeared in various anthologies, including Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (2005), ed. David Sedaris; uncollected stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Lifted Brow, and 5chapters.com. She has also reviewed books for The New York Times, the Providence Journal, and the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Read other interviews with Jincy Willett: