A few years ago I won The Grip of It by Jac Jemc in a contest run by my local writing center. A friend who worked there was thrilled that I had won that particular title because of the tendency to gravitate toward monsters and discomfort in my own work. I read Jemc’s novel in large gulps and was quickly sucked into the unease and humor that were expertly woven together. An attribute that I love about her work.
Jemc’s work was also formative to the early days of Bodega—we had the pleasure of publishing “Hammer, Damper” in our second year, and it helped shape our editorial sensibilities. This coming fall, we eagerly anticipate Jemc’s new collection of short stories titled False Bingo. In the following interview we talk about the collection and other aspects of her writing life.
Tonissa Saul: Your forthcoming short story collection, False Bingo, is due out next fall. What are some of the themes in the collection?
Jac Jemc: I'd say that the stories circle around a lot of ideas, but mostly: misdirection, games, manipulation, lying, isolation, happiness, and social responsibility.
TS: “Kudzu,” from False Bingo, is a beautiful story. I felt that it balanced the ideas of interconnectedness vs. invasion. What gave you the idea to use the kudzu as the visual for the connection between mother and child?
JJ: You know I hear all of my environmentalist friends hating on kudzu all the time, and I get it. It's changing the landscape in a way that feels impossible to combat. When I've encountered it in the wild, I can't help but think it looks really magical. I've seen shacks buried under the vines so they look like fairytale cottages. I know it's not that simple, but I started looking into the history of kudzu and how it was introduced as a way to help farming rather than hurt it. The translation to helicopter parenting (or some cousin of that) seemed natural. It's an urge to keep what we have safe that can sometimes allow in a different predator than we were protecting against. It's not a condemnation. It's a realization that there will always be a threat.
TS: In an interview with MAKE Magazine, you mention that you were interested in the unknowability around physical wellness. How does that concept inform your new body of work?
JJ: Well, it's definitely present in the story "Delivery" in the collection, in that a whole family watches the father deteriorate and don't really note that something really awful might be happening. Other than that, I think I moved onto other obsessions here.
TS: I see from your bio that you wear many hats. How do you feel working as both an educator and an editor informs your work as a writer?
JJ: I'm no longer an editor in a regular capacity. Right now serving as a teacher full-time is very fulfilling. Being allowed to nurture the work at the thesis project stage for students feels akin to providing publication opportunities for new writers. It's a similar level of support for different stages of writer, but both feed me, and I'm grateful to serve in either capacity.
TS: On your website, you recently announced that a story you had been submitting for two years has found a home. That two year time span intrigues me. Do you have any stories that you feel have a shelf life? How long do you keep stories on your to-be-submitted list?
JJ: Oh gosh, I was so close to giving up on that one. One of the problems was that it was way too long. It was almost 40 pages at first, and I submitted to all the places that said they'd consider work of any length. That turned up some kind rejections, and eventually I realized I needed to cut it. It wasn't a novella, but lengthwise it felt almost that way, and it was a lesson in realizing it's tough to ask people to commit to 40 pages of what could be handled in 20. I'm always trying to swindle my way into a story that's too short or too long, but I'm always learning when the response isn't what I expect it to be.
TS: What was the Hald Writer’s Retreat like? What made you choose that particular retreat?
JJ: It was such a dream. I was there for four weeks with three other international writers (one of whom, Amanda Michalopoulou, was a writer I already greatly admired), and then every week we received a new influx of Danish writers. We'd make dinner together and they took us on field trips and it was such a beautiful, intimate experience. What a gift. I heard about it through a friend who had been to the same residency, and I applied two or three times before they accepted me. It's a big manor on a lake. We hiked around the lake and I swam across the lake alone and they yelled at me for doing that. The couple who runs the place are so very lovely. I can't express what a perfect month it was.
TS: Many publications were really hyping up that you had switched genres from literary to horror when The Grip of It came out. What are your thoughts on the genre vs. literature argument and do you feel that muddying those lines can be good for your work?
JJ: Eh, the book didn't really land with typical horror readers, and I didn't feel like any coverage of the book was saying it was totally out of the blue. I like an uneasiness in my fiction at all times, and The Grip of It just brought that to the fore. I love when writers bring tropes from other genres into their work. It can be very invigorating. I'm working on historical fiction now, and it's a thrill to have a new vocabulary of what people see every day and compare things to, and new frameworks for social interaction to work within. I like a challenge and figuring out how to steal elements of the work I love and make it my own is my primary goal. I hope if I'm engaged while writing it (and sometimes that takes brutal honesty) that others will be engaged while reading it.
TS: You participated in a photo essay project with Work in Progress’s Developing Stories, and I thought the photos you took were fascinating. I particularly liked the golf balls in the sidewalk and the lamp hiding in the streetlights. Do you have any interest in photography and have you ever considered using the photographs you took as a catalyst for a story?
JJ: Ha—thanks! That was so much fun! I am not a photographer AT ALL. I love looking at it, but I have zero talent. BUT, I was intrigued by the prompt and I remembered those disposable cameras and how everything I photographed always came out a little more dull than I thought it seemed in real life, and I knew that the funny half-life I was living in central Illinois would only be magnified by the dullness of film (at least when it's me operating a disposable camera). I do use photography when I'm writing a lot though. I love looking at art and pulling mood and ideas from the images. It's one of the easiest ways for me to begin accessing my narrative imagination.
TS: Last year I had the pleasure of hearing you speak at Desert Nights, Rising Stars in Tempe, Arizona. One of the things I took from your talk is when you said you like to steal individual words from other things you’ve read. What’s a particularly good word that you read and were immediately excited to repurpose in one of your own stories?
JJ: I love that you were there! I didn't know! Well, the trick of my thieving is always that I don't steal just one word, but a handful from different parts of the same work, and I try to force them to work with each other and consider how they start to suggest a story. I don't have one that comes to mind, but I'm at a writing conference right now and I just bought a stack of books so hold on...
"baby moaned without change"
"my hand's sharp edges"
I stole all of those words from Anaïs Duplan's poetry collection, but none of them were on the same page. It's a matter of freeing myself by stopping the process of believing I need to find the ideas in my own head, and believing I can find the ideas in the language or the world.