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  • Laura Manardo on Chemistry, Fiction, and Beluga Whales

    Laura Katherine Manardo was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She attended Kalamazoo College, where she was Pre-Med, and there discovered her love of writing toward the end of her freshman year. A current graduate student at Columbia College Chicago, her book of poetry, Lemon Water in Lake Michigan, was published in April of 2018. 

    I first met Laura through the English & Creative Writing department of Columbia College Chicago in September of 2017 when we were placed in the same MFA Fiction workshop. Laura’s fiction writing immediately grabbed my attention. She had an incredibly poetic way of writing prose that stood out to me, and her focus on the sea and whales served as a beautiful backdrop to the stories she was telling. When I heard she was a poet, I was not surprised, and eager to know more about her writing. Laura, a natural-born storyteller, did not disappoint as we sat down to eat cookies in Columbia College’s 33 East Congress graduate lounge. 

     

    So, have you settled on a title?

    I haven’t run it by the editor yet, but I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be titled, “Lemon Water in Lake Michigan.” It’s the title of one of the poems in the collection and it is the one that kind of, as soon as I wrote it, realized … you know, this can actually be a whole thing, this can be a collection, because it kind of encompassed everything that I’ve been working on. 

     

    How did you get started with writing?

    Okay, so, I managed to escape out of almost all my English classes in high school because I didn’t like reading, and I took all science classes. I was obsessed with chemistry. Essentially, I just really wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a pediatrician, so I went to Kalamazoo College, because of their science program. I did pretty well—I mean, I wasn’t totally A’s, but it’s pretty hard in pre-med. So, after my first year, at the very end of my winter term I was signing up for classes and I had taken all the required classes for my first year of pre-med, so I had these three free courses. I took an Anti-Apartheid course … and it was amazing, and that was the first class that I took that I was enjoying what I was reading and writing. I also took an Intro to Creative Writing class. I had never written creatively before, except in second grade, when I wrote a short story about a woman who lived in a barn with ghosts. And, essentially, I started writing in the creative writing course and my professor kind of made a comment like, “Wow, Laura, what’s your major?” “Pre-med.” “Oh, that’s so interesting, have you ever taken any English courses?” “No, I haven’t, I wasn’t really planning on it.” “Well, you should just take a ‘Reading the World’ course.” Which was like an Intro to English course at Kalamazoo College.

    So, for the reading, he asked me if I would go first, and I got an A+ in the course and I enjoyed myself more doing that than I ever had doing anything with chemistry, so I was like, “This is kind of crazy.” So then, in the fall, I was still taking the pre-med courses, but I deferred one of the credits and took a ‘Reading the World’ course. It was about classical film and I got a B in the course, but I enjoyed myself and it was very rewarding. So, I think that freshman year of college was where I really started writing and enjoying it. 

     

    Where did the inspiration for this collection come from?

    So, in my senior year of college, I took an Advanced Poetry course, with one of my favorite writers and professors of all time, Diane Suess. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent collection and I honestly feel like I’m like her daughter, based on what she writes, if that makes sense? I read what she writes, and I feel like I am her child of writing! So, my final collection for that course was about marine life and the ocean, and my relationship to myself, and my relationship to men, and my relationship to the world that I live in as a woman. And so, I took two years off before starting grad school and in those two years I continued with that collection, I continued with that final project, and it kind of morphed into just different bodies of water and my relationships with men. So, it kind of follows my relationship with my father, my relationship with my brother, and my relationship with men in sexual and nonsexual ways. That’s kind of what inspired the collection. In the very beginning of my Advanced Poetry course, I had to pick a topic, and of course I love the ocean so much and I’m obsessed with whales so that’s kind of where it started, and it just kind of leached on beyond that and I saw it kind of unfold in front of me. 

     

    What is the first book that made you cry? If a book ever has!

    Yes, books have made me cry. I honestly think that the first—and it’s a short story, if that’s okay—the first short story that made me cry was “A Small Good Thing” by Raymond Carver. The reason that it made me cry is because I read “The Bath” by Carver as well, prior to reading “A Small Good Thing”, and felt not great about it, honestly. Like, okay, this is a good story, it was well crafted, but it wasn’t … it didn’t haunt me, it wasn’t something that left me feeling a certain way that I couldn’t describe, like so many short stories do. When I read “A Small Good Thing,” which is the revised version, essentially, it’s the same story, it made me realize what revision could do to a story. 

    I was actually working on my senior thesis at the time, and I was totally against revision, I couldn’t open up my stories again after I’d written one version. I was like, “This is crazy, it has a beginning, middle, and end, it feels complete, it feels whole, I don’t want to mess it up.” I would be afraid to mess it up, and so I wouldn’t revise. Finally, my thesis advisor, Dr. Bruce Mills, gave me both those stories and said, “Laura, take a look and tell me which story gets to you more and why?” And I just started crying after I read the second version of it. I was kind of like, “Okay, ‘A Small Good Thing’, I get it, you have to open up a story”. Because the bare bones were there in “The Bath” but once Carver finally took it away and added all those new elements and added a new role for the baker in the story it totally shifted my feelings of revision. 

     

    Does writing energize or exhaust you?

    It energizes me, for the most part. So, I think that, in general, it energizes me because once I complete something that I feel is whole or beautiful or something that sparks something in me when I reread it or rewrite it, I’m elated, I feel finally like I’m doing something that I’m supposed to be doing. But it exhausts me sometimes if I have to write a certain amount of pages for a project or classes and I don’t get to what I need to get to in those pages. 

     

    What period of your life do you find you write about most often?

    I would say fourteen to sixteen, because that’s the first time that I fell in love. I fell in love with a boy named Evan and it was deep and pretty chaotic and I find myself falling back into that moment, a lot, of falling in love and falling out of love. I write about now, and my relationship to men as it is now. 

     

    If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?

    I would work with beluga whales! I would be a marine biologist. I would for sure go into marine biology and work with beluga whales because they’re my favorite animal in the whole world. They’re the canaries of the ocean and they deserve so much attention because there are not many of them left. 

     

    What is your favorite childhood book?

    Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. When I was going through puberty, my mom was really worried about me because I wasn’t getting along with my father. He didn’t understand that I was growing into a woman and he wanted me to be this young girl forever. He didn’t understand that I needed to be treated like a woman. So, my mom gave me that book before I started my period and it helped me understand that not everything works out the way you expect it to, but it’s going to be okay. 

     

    Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind of music?

    I don’t listen to music when I write. Like, at all. But, I love going to coffee shops and listening to other people speak and have conversations. It helps me, in fiction, because I’m able to think of realistic dialogue. It also helps me in poetry because of the white noise of it.

     

    How are you feeling about this publication? 

    I’m really excited! You never forget your firsts, so I think that it’s going to be something that I look back on, hopefully. I think it’s going to be really rewarding. 

    Interview by Grace Smithwick

  • Jac Jemc: Poetry-Prose writer

    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 MagazineJennifer's fiction can be found at The Copperfield Review and Habitat Magazine or on her website jcbostrom.com.