Saturday, October 26, 2013

Everything Happens In Bed: an interview with Jessica Keener

Interview by Joyce Norman

As I turned the last page of Women in Bed, Jessica Keener’s new collection of mesmerizing short stories, I realized I loved this book so much, I wanted to have a conversation with the author.  Her words are bold and brave and they moved meto the point that I began to write questions in the margins as I read.  Her book is chock-full of each character’s truth and intimate emotions.  I can’t remember when I’ve been so touched by an author’s words or her ability to “show me” these bold, brave women’s feelings and emotions.  These characters are everyday women, all looking for that other heartbeat that will synch with their own.  They look in different places and in different ways and that’s why this writing was so riveting for me.  It keeps the reader turning pages, with hope that love will win out.  As you read this collection of exceptional short stories, look closely.  You just may find yourself in these pages.

Jessica Keener has been listed in The Pushcart Prize under “Outstanding Writers.”  Her fiction has appeared in: The Southeast Review, Chariton Review, Night Train, Eclectica, The Nervous Breakdown, and Huffington Post.  She is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist’s Grant Program and she's won second prize in fiction from Redbook magazine.  Her feature articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Design New England, Coastal Living, Poets & Writers, O, The Oprah Magazine and other national publications.  She earned her B.A. in English from Boston University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University.  Her first novel, Night Swim, was published to critical acclaim and was a national bestseller. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, said of that novel: “Jessica Keener steps boldly into the terrain of Eugene O'Neill, conjuring up the pathologies and quirks of a besieged Boston family in stark, quivering detail that never entirely distracts us from the looming sense of crisis.  This gripping first novel announces the arrival of a strong, distinct and fully evolved new voice.”

Joyce Norman:  Women in Bed.  What was your reasoning behind this title?

Jessica Keener:  I was looking for a connecting image, one that reflected something about all nine stories.  On a simple, concrete level, every story features a woman and a bed—her own bed, her boyfriend’s bed, a hospital bed, a hotel bed.  I also meant it to be provocative, to get readers wondering what it’s all about.  And, I like the symbol of a bed.  Everything happens there.  We sleep, dream, rest, make love, cry, read, suffer, take to our beds when we are sick, and, generally let ourselves be our most unclothed selves in our beds.

JN:  Describe this book in three words.

JK:  Raw.  Emotional.  Intimate.

JN:  The collection has an odd number of stories.  Why nine?

JK:  I’ve been assembling this collection over many years, selecting stories that I felt went together as a group.  Each story stands alone but I also intended the collection to be read as an organic whole, and for the reader to experience it as a whole, from the first story to the last.  I didn’t plan on having nine stories per se.  It worked out that way because the stories themselves dictated it.

JN:  What takeaway do you want readers to “get”?

JK:  I hope readers will react to my protagonists’ struggles and will subsequently be affected by the ways in which my characters succeed or don’t succeed in overcoming problems in relationships.  Whether it’s a love relationship as in “Boarders,” a relationship of unbalanced power and misuse as in “Papier Mache,” or a sibling coming to terms with parental abuse in “Forgiveness,” each story deals with entanglement, some kind of emotional puzzle that the protagonist desperately needs to solve in order to become more true to herself.  Obviously, I hope these stories linger in readers’ minds to ponder, return to and discuss with others.

JN:  Are these stories connected in any way?  If so, how?

JK:  Yes, they are very much connected.  Five of the nine stories feature the same woman at different emotional points in her life—from college dropout to working woman in her early thirties.  The other four stories feature women in their twenties, thirties and forties and deal with rejection, separation, mental and physical health problems.  Most of the stories take place around Boston and New England, but the final story takes place in a Paris hotel.  Thematically, these stories explore variations of love relationships; love broken, lost, mended and found.

JN:  What prompted you to write this book?

JK:  It’s been a long-time desire of mine to publish a story collection because I love the short form.  I’m drawn to its mythic quality in the sense that a short story has a feeling of timelessness to it, and, when it’s working, many possibilities for complexity and depth.  As a young reader, I grew up on short stories, particularly fairy tales.  I loved the intensity of them and their brevity, and the ease with which I was able to return to the same set of tales again and again to explore their layers and meanings.  I can’t count how many times I reread Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales.  As a young writer, I worked on story writing first and discovered many new writers because of it.  The South American writers are stupendous: Machado De Assis, Clarice Lispector.  Some of my favorite American short story writers include Flannery O’Connor, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Melanie Rae Thon, Ha Jin and many new voices coming out in today’s literary magazines online and in print.  Literary magazines are where it’s at for discovering new talent and perspectives.  It’s a kind of an underground world of creativity that has evolved and persisted and continues to expand the possibilities of fiction as a method for exploring the universe.

JN:  What is this book’s importance?

JK:  This is a tough question; one I’m guessing is better determined by others.  But, I’ll say what has been important to me in writing these stories: a need to dramatize emotional truths and all the behaviors and thoughts that lead to those moments of revelation.  Sometimes these turning points come out of anger.  Other times, sadness, or grief or joy.  Whatever the case, these stories are meant to be examinations of perception, a way to reveal how we think, feel, and interpret who we are within the context of an important relationship.  Do we shift our identities to accommodate this intimate other?  Do we hide who we are?  Can we be genuine?  True?  Why do we respond as we do?  How are our behaviors shaped by what we know or don’t know about ourselves?  I wanted this collection to voice things that we often feel ashamed to admit or acknowledge and especially to express, but exist nonetheless as a common human experience.  I wanted to dramatize who we are as lovers, family and friends and to reveal the underpinnings of these dramas, ultimately, without judgment.

Joyce Norman, a former journalist and foreign correspondent, is the author of eight books.  She is currently working on her latest book, PASSPORT: The Travels and Heart of a Journalist.  She has won many awards for her coverage and photographs from the Middle East.  Joyce is a graduate of Texas Wesleyan University and holds an M.A. from the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

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