Interview by Jennifer Bostrom
She’s a novelist among poets and a poet amongst novelists: Jac Jemc is an author whose prose elegantly delivers both story and lyricism. A Chicago-based writer, Jemc has authored a chapbook, a collection of short stories, a novel, and numerous poems and nonfiction works.
Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books), was named a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and won the Paula Anderson Book Award. In addition to penning her prose, Jemc spends her time as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Notre Dame, editor to a handful of presses and journals, and an avid blogger about writing and rejection.
Hair Trigger Online had the chance to talk to Jemc about My Only Wife, her process, and what’s coming next.
Jennifer Bostrom: When did you first begin writing?
Jac Jemc: I’d always written a little. As a kid, I loved writing scary stories. I wrote a handful of E.E. Cummings knock-off poems in high school. I also had an obsession with copying out passages of books, catalogue copy and lists of names longhand from childhood on. I see that now as some sort of apprenticeship I was doing—immersing myself in language without actually producing it myself—though I couldn't have identified it as such back then. I started writing fiction in college and wrote the first draft of My Only Wife as an independent study during undergrad.
JB: My Only Wife was your first novel. How long did it take you to complete?
JJ: I spent about three months on the first draft, which is mind-bogglingly fast compared to my pace now. I shuttled it through workshops and advising sessions irregularly for another two years of grad school and then spent another year editing it on my own afterward. It was accepted for publication in 2009, but wasn't published until 2012. So there were about seven years between starting work and the book meeting readers.
JB: What is you writing process like? How does it differ when approaching a poem versus a short story or novel?
JJ: It used to be nearly identical between all three forms. I'd start with language and start piecing together fragments. With poems, I was satisfied to leave space between the gluts of language and allow the force to be more intuitive. With stories, I'd try to fill in the gaps a bit more. With a novel, I strung together more of these narratives and tried to identify pattern and shape in a way that only the mass of 40,000+ words can allow you to do. Lately, I've been going into fiction with a little more of an idea of what I want to aim for than I used to. I might have an idea or a voice or a particular image that I start shaping action around. It's still very exploratory, but now I might choose a ideological location to set off from, whereas before, I'd close my eyes and drop a finger onto the map.
JB: My Only Wife shows elements of poetry in the prose. Would you say that you identify more as a poet than fiction writer, or rather that one discipline influences the other?
JJ: I’d say I'm definitely more a fiction writer these days, but the poetic roots still live in me, and I hope and expect that I'll return my focus to poetry again someday. I think a lot has been determined by where I've found my community. Though I've published a fair amount of poetry, I always felt a bit adrift in that world, like I never got a firm handle on what my place was in relation to other poets. With fiction, I felt like I found my way a little easier, and have a clearer idea of how my position shifts depending on the work I make. That said, I enjoy feeling a bit lost, so I'm happy the world of poetry is always there to revisit.
JB: Having completed This Stranger She'd Invited In, a chapbook of short stories, were there challenges that arose with writing a novel that you weren't expecting?
JJ: I actually wrote My Only Wife before the chapbook of stories, though TSSII came out first. The stories that make up the chapbook are almost more biographical character sketches, but they all live in the same world. In some ways, I saw those stories as a novella - something akin to Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood — defining a community.
JB: Your short stories were published first and in your third book you've returned to short stories after My Only Wife, a full-length novel. Is that out of a preference for short stories or just where inspiration took you?
JJ: The stories in A Different Bed Every Time were written over the course of the last 10 years, so there's at least one in there that was drafted even before My Only Wife and many that were written during the drafts of My Only Wife and other longer projects, too. I can't imagine ever ceasing to write short stories. I'll keep writing them as breaks from longer projects and ways to work out ideas are more suited to the shorter form, but because the stories are generally so short, it will take a while to amass enough for a collection.
JB: What lead to the decision to leave the husband and wife unnamed in My Only Wife?
JJ: My Only Wife is built on the repetition of "my wife." To keep up that voice, I opted not to add names into the mix. Possession and ambiguity were ideas I was interested in exploring, and that phrase sticks close to those themes.
JB: You keep busy. How do you find time to set aside for your projects? Are you particularly rigorous about setting aside time each day, or specific goals you have to meet?
JJ: I try to spend my entire morning on personal projects: reading and writing and editing. Afternoons and evenings are for class prep and reading/responding to student work, reading submissions, blog posting, submitting my own work and applying for residencies or teaching gigs. It's definitely busy, but I feel very grateful to get to focus on what I love.
JB: As previously mentioned you post, most, if not all of your rejection letters on your website. Rejection isn't something most want to face but you do so very personally and publicly. Can you elaborate on why?
JJ: I’m very invested in transparency in the writing life. I believe there's value in seeing rejection as a regular part of the writing life and admitting to the quantity of no's you hear in relation to the yesses. I don't really care to pretend to be some hero who's succeeding at everything I attempt. Failure is core to the creative process.
JB: What's the next big project for you?
JJ: I have two novel-length projects in the works right now: One is a haunted house story based in the present. The other, which is much younger draft-wise, is a historical fiction novel set in late 1800s Bavaria.
To find out more about Jac Jemc, visit her website.
Jennifer Bostrom is a BA Honors Fiction Graduate from Columbia College Chicago, Academic Excellence scholarship recipient (2013-2016), Production Editor of CCC’s award-winning Hair Trigger anthology, and intern for HYPERtext Magazine. Jennifer's fiction can be found at The Copperfield Review and Habitat Magazine or on her website jcbostrom.com.