Monday, October 12, 2015

My First Time: Jan English Leary

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Jan English Leary, author of Thicker Than Blood, praised by Katherine Shonk, who said: “In Thicker Than Blood, Jan English Leary tackles big issues: the mother-daughter bond, race, adoption, and immigration, to name a few. Readers with an interest in any of these issues will be absorbed by this well-crafted and insightful novel. But if her canvas is broad, Leary's focus on her two main characters, Andrea and her daughter, Pearl, is tight and discerning. With great empathy and insight, Leary portrays a mother-daughter relationship that is both unconventional and universal. I was left thinking of Pearl and Andrea, and wishing them well, long after I turned the final page.” Leary grew up in the Midwest and central New York State. During her junior year at Smith College, she studied in Paris, an experience which fostered the love of travel that runs through her fiction. She received an M.A. in French Literature at Brown University. While teaching French and raising her children, she completed an MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For the remainder of her career she taught fiction writing at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago and at Northwestern University. Her short fiction has appeared in Pleiades, The Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, Carve MagazineLong Story, Short Literary Journal and other publications. Click here to visit her website.

My First Fiction Writing Class

I came to writing fiction in my late thirties. I’d been a life-long reader, a lover of books and language. I studied Latin, French, and Russian. I loved crossword puzzles. I considered myself more of a decoder than an inventor. I chose a career teaching French to high-school students, mostly grammar, but also beginning literature. I enjoyed teaching, and it was a good career to have while raising children.

However, I began to grow restless. I considered embarking on a second Master’s, and as I tried to study for the GREs, I’d have flickering thoughts about writing fiction. I dismissed these thoughts as frivolous. At one point, when the thought of graduate school sat simmering on the back burner, I read that the Newberry Library in Chicago was offering an adult night course in fiction writing. I decided to sign up but gave myself permission not to write anything if I didn’t want to. No one could force me; I was an adult after all. I would stick my toe in the water, but no one could make me dive in.

I soon found that non-participation was not an option. I would never have allowed a student to sit in a language class and not speak. Why did I think I could audit a writing class? I wrote a story there, a very personal one about a woman taking her son to a swimming class at the Y, about how she observes the other mothers and children, about how she feels inadequate compared to them. I called it “Floating.”

I was hooked. I sent it out and it was accepted for publication. No one was more surprised than I that I could do this, that I could conceive of and finish a story.

I’d never before approached anything important by backing in instead of facing it directly. I wanted to have a career, to be married, to have children, and I worked to make those things happen. But writing seemed out of my reach and to ask for it and be denied seemed too frightening. But, as is true for most things, the higher the stakes, the scarier the contemplation, the greater the rewards.


  1. David,
    Thank you so much for including me on your blog. I really enjoyed writing the piece. Although in some ways, it seems as if I've been writing forever, this reminded me how late I came to it and what I'd have lost if I'd never gone that route. Again, many thanks. JELeary

  2. This is great, Jan. I didn't know you studied Russian, and I guess I thought you'd been writing forever. Can't wait for your launch and to read the book in its finished form.

  3. Becoming a writer after a successful career in another field involves enormous risks: you're a beginner again. You, however, weren't a beginner very long. Enjoyed reading this thoughtful piece.

  4. Beautiful essay. It speaks to a life of curiosity and a love of language.