Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love (Split Lip Press, 2019). Her fiction, essays, and poetry appear in Glimmer Train, Normal School, Electric Literature’s The Commuter, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, Brevity, North American Review, Confrontation, The Collapsar, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Colorado, where she teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The jury’s still out on this one: my first book’s just about to land. But big picture, so far, I’d say it hasn’t changed my life. I’ve been at this long enough to know that each literary milestone tends to level up the hopes and frustrations. Once the euphoria wears off, the same old habitual suffering kicks in. Small picture, though, I’m overjoyed about my book: It feels like an affirmation of my years of hard work, which boosts my confidence. Plus, I love having a means to connect with more readers and writers! The community that can build around a book, or any piece of writing, is a joy to behold.
Much of what I’ve written after the stories collected in my first book is maybe, on the whole, freer and more visceral and, at times, experimental. In my middle-age, I’ve grown into my vision and voice and have better skills to express them.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I actually wrote a fair amount of bad poetry in high school and college. I still write poetry from time to time, but I eventually realized I didn’t have the precise facility with language to make it my focus. And my reading always skewed toward fiction: there’s little I love more than escaping inside a good story. So my writing followed suit. I guess that escapism deterred me from writing non-fiction, too, but I sometimes write it now—I’m braver than I was.
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?
My writing process is eclectic and varies from project to project. I tend to mix slow, careful crafting with wild, speedy freewriting. My first drafts, especially of full-length short fiction, rarely look like the final product, but occasionally a flash piece comes close.
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?
For most of my life, I’ve focused on individual short pieces: my book is the result of stories created over the span of many years, compiled mostly after they were written and published. Now, though, I’m working on a project, which is either linked stories or a novel-in-stories or a novel—I can’t decide—that I view as book-length. I continue to write short, self-contained pieces on the side.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t think about doing readings as I write, but I do see readings as one consummation of the writing process. Without an audience, all those carefully crafted words have nowhere to go! I love reading but, for various boring reasons, I don’t get to do it nearly as much as I’d like. However, I have some readings lined up for my book this summer, and I’m psyched!
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 don’t consciously enter my writing with theoretical concerns, but I guess I’m often trying to answer psychological questions like why love so often invites ugliness and why people sabotage themselves. I’m also intrigued by the wavering nature of reality: that’s come up in my work a lot lately. But I’m not trying to answer questions so much as explore them. A professor of mine, maybe quoting someone else, once said than an answer is the end of thought. That’s stuck with me.
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?
I think all writers hold a mirror to the larger culture, and the best writers offer a corrective to it—not through didacticism, but by casting light, through close, honest observation and reimagination, on the unacknowledged and unseen. But that’s a lot to ask. Most days I’m lucky if I manage to wash a few dishes and remember to take out the trash.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A good editor is a writer’s best friend: I love working with editors and am grateful for any attention they give me. I don’t know if editors are always essential, but smart, trusted readers are. It’s so hard to see your own work clearly.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Writing advice, from Steve Almond: “Slow down where it hurts.” Life advice: Nothing. I prefer to figure things out on my own. Though that rarely happens.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have a loose writing routine, which depends on my loose work routine. I work mostly from home and my workload fluctuates, so some days I have less time for writing than others. Ideally, I like to write in the morning, after the kids are off to school and I’ve squeezed in a run. I’ll sometimes do more left-brained stuff, like line editing, in the late afternoon. And, occasionally, I’ll stir up my subconscious for weirder pieces or passages where I’m stuck by writing for a few minutes before bed.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Dreams are a never-ending source of inspiration for me. Or sometimes I’ll just start writing about my day: there’s usually a story in there somewhere. And I have a ton of rough or unfinished stories in my computer: when all else fails, I turn there.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
This scent of thick green grass in dewy air.
13 - 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?
Definitely music, on a couple counts. I used to write and perform songs, and the music of language has a big place in my work. I’m especially sensitive to rhythm. And my obsession with certain music and musicians have come up in my work a lot lately. One of my recently published stories revolves around AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” I also have a forthcoming story inspired by The Who, and another inspired by Jeff Buckley. I expect to draw more from that well.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many! Walker Percy was a revelation to me, both personally and artistically, when I was younger, and he remains a force in my life and work. I’ve also been deeply affected and energized by the writing of Maggie Nelson and John Edgar Wideman, among many others.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Alaska.
16 - 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?
The fantasy answer: rock star. The realistic answer: an insecurely employed and criminally underpaid English Lit adjunct, forever in search of a tenure-track position to justify my PhD.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
When I don’t write, I get depressed. Or more depressed.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve read so many great books recently! But Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped wowed me; I also couldn’t put down Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream. I don’t watch a ton of films—I’m more of a TV person; the last film that really floored me was A Ghost Story.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A chapbook best described as a semi-evasive memoir in poetry and prose. A flash fiction collection. And the aforementioned linked stories/novel-in-stories/novel thing.