Jenn Stroud Rossmann is a fiction writer and an engineer. Her first novel, The Place You're Supposed to Laugh, came out November 14, 2018, from 7.13 Books. She writes the essay series An Engineer Reads a Novel at Public Books. Stories have appeared recently in Hobart, Cheap POP, JMWW Journal, Literary Orphans, Jellyfish Review, and failbetter, and have garnered multiple Pushcart nominations. Rossmann earned her BS and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College, and previously taught at Harvey Mudd College. She throws right, bats left.
1- How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I suppose the major change is that it now feels possible to imagine there might be a second book. I’m thrilled that this book, unlike the previous novels I ultimately consigned to a drawer, will be out in the world. In my most recent work, I have become more comfortable with experimentation—particularly with form and structure. My newest book project is crazily nonlinear and spans more than a century, with settings all over the world. Each of my previous book-length projects was much more contained and generally followed a straight chronological path. I think part of that is probably due to the confidence boost of (finally!) publishing a novel, but I also give a lot of credit to flash fiction, a genre I’ve been reading and writing in for a few years. The achievements of writers I admire in this form just expand my understanding of what fiction can do, and make me want to shoot for the moon.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I was a kid who got lost in stories. I wanted to be Trixie Belden, Turtle Wexler, Meg Murry, Jo March. And then I wanted to create an absorbing experience, similarly indelible characters. I love to read poetry, but I am at best a workmanlike, narrative-minded poet, with just enough of an ear to be acutely aware of how far I fall short of the work I most admire.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I have a thing about notebooks, to keep track of thoughts before I have time to work on a draft. On any given page there’s an assortment of (a) ideas for new stories, (b) ideas for revisions, (c) sketches of scenes or characters, (d) to-do lists related to my Real Job, and (e) runic notations that may have been intended to be (a) or (b) but are equally likely to be my grocery list. Someday perhaps my subconscious will finally dislodge the fiction I meant to be reminding myself to write when I jotted down “marble rye / marmalade.” Alas, I tend to discover my structure and what stories are really about only after writing quite a bit of them, so there’s plenty of revision to be done along the way to something I could call “final.”
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m a people-watcher; my idea of fun is imagining a backstory for everyone I see from a table at a sidewalk café, or an airport gate. I start, always, with characters. The scale of the story they have to tell is something I figure out later. I have short stories that started as novels, and vice versa. I do not recommend the first method, at least not if efficiency is something you value.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I always read my stuff aloud as part of the revision process. And I love to be read to – at other writers’ readings, or via audiobooks. But as a pretty introverted person, reading my own stuff in public can feel even more like handing strangers my freshly peeled inner organs than handing them my published book would. I’m so grateful to anyone who laughs in the right place, or even offers an encouraging nod.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I write out of empathy, curiosity, a drive to understand people and relationships. How people think, feel, interact, misperceive, betray, and love. I wouldn’t have thought of these as particularly “current” or timely questions until recently, but of course they are urgent and essential questions, eternal ones.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
These are fiendishly clever questions. I believe stories show us possibilities beyond ourselves, and reveal us to ourselves and each other. Also, the larger culture is in desperate, urgent need of more empathy. It is among the writer’s projects to help us develop and practice our empathy.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have been fortunate to have thoughtful and generous editors work with me at a range of journals and at my book publisher, 7.13 Books. Consistently, they have helped me get my work closer to what I was aiming for, in a truly collaborative process. It is always hard to recognize that—as I’d suspected all along—I haven’t quite hit that mark, but what a gift to work with someone whose questions and ideas can help you get closer.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I was lucky to workshop with Jim Shepard, who told us to “Embrace the weirdness” in our stories, those passages that get circled in early drafts because they don’t quite match the tone of the rest of things, or they seem to reveal some dissonance. He showed us how often those passages were really the whole point of the story, the story that wanted to be told. Also, my friend Alix Ohlin quotes James Kelman as having told her, “Be bold. Make art. Take risks. Don’t wait another second.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (essays to short stories to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
My essays are where I permit myself to be didactic, where I am free to make allusions and references to other texts. In fiction I prefer to be more subtle, not instructive or ideological. My characters don’t wear their libraries on their sleeves—or those who do are understood not to be admirable for it.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
For the most part my writing gets squeezed into spaces in my overfull life, and I will turn to my writing only after my responsibilities to my job and my family are fulfilled. (Or I’ll be scribbling story ideas in a notebook while fulfilling those responsibilities.) One exception is that one morning a week, I meet with two wonderful writers, and we sit at our respective laptops for four 30-minute sessions, with 5 minutes of stretching/tea-making/chatting in between. I’m dismayed when something comes up at work or elsewhere that keeps us from keeping this routine.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Almost always to a book by someone else: to Woolf, or Murakami, Michael Chabon, or Adrienne Rich. For the music, the energy, and the imagination. Sometimes I’ll strategically pick a story or book that does well the thing I’m stymied by, and try to “reverse engineer” it, outlining it and identifying the structure and function of its parts.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Eucalyptus. Takes me right back to the bay area. A couple of other scents can also send me straight back to Berkeley, but I’ll leave it at eucalyptus.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
There is nothing like a “forest bath” or walk in the woods to get the gears turning. But an evening at the symphony or opera is a close second. I love the pre-performance talks that highlight motifs or other elements of the music to be performed; they are also storytelling craft lectures in disguise. I have written several stories in response to particular paintings. As for science, it’s half of the way I see the world.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have a core group of writer friends that I’ve known since my Berkeley days. We used to meet each week, with a pile of manuscripts on the table for our homework, and it was a wonderful community that kept me writing and thinking about writing—especially valuable since I was in grad school studying engineering and physics at the time. I’m so grateful for the writing communities I’ve been part of that have arisen out of various workshops or conferences, or online, or at the marvelous reading series being curated and sustained by intrepid heroes among us. And the bottom-line answer to both your questions: Virginia Woolf.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I am a miserable swimmer, and I would like to have learnt to swim well.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I have another occupation: I’m an engineering professor. Though for most of my childhood and early adolescence, I fully expected to become a private detective.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Chutzpah, I guess: I was too aware of the chasm between my own limited talents and the true art I admired to continue with music; but I stood on that same precipice as a fiction writer, looked across the chasm at what Woolf, Zadie Smith, Jennifer Egan, and Lorrie Moore had made, and leapt.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I loved Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries. I think Sorry to Bother You was terrific.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve finished a draft of a new novel, and it’s been sitting for a while, so I’m just getting into the revision process there. And I’m always working on a book review. I’ve really enjoyed thinking about technology and culture for my “Engineer reads a novel” series. A few other ideas are in their infancies.