An Interview with Jac Jemc, Author of My Only Wife

At this year’s AWP conference in Seattle, we passed booth after booth of beautifully decorated books. Yet, none held our gaze longer than the black-and-white patterned cover of Dzanc Books’s My Only Wife, which—after a quick and enjoyed read—proved to be so much more than a pretty face. A finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, My Only Wife is a pristinely crafted and poetically told love story. The Austin Review was honored that the acclaimed author, Jac Jemc, agreed to give us a few moments of her time.

The Interview

The Austin Review: When did you first begin writing? 

Jac Jemc: The story goes that when I was in third grade, I told my teacher that someday I'd write a hundred-page book, so I've always been interested in writing, but I didn't start to take writing more seriously until college. 

TAR: What creative works have had a major impact on you as an artist?

JJ: So many! When I was a kid, Roald Dahl was the be-all, end-all. In junior high, I loved Francesca Lia Block. Into high school, I was a big Salinger, Palahniuk, Hempel fan. In college I started venturing into the more experimental: Markson, Maso, Pessoa. But those are all writers. I've also been really energized by visual art and film as well: Jodorowsky, Lynch, Hitchcock films. The works of Sophie Calle's and Matthew Barney's performances and documentation, Nan Goldin, and Roger Ballen's photography, Gottfried Helnwein's paintings, Karen Reimer and Yinka Shonibare's work with textile, Jenny Holzer's and Barbara Kruger's text-based work, Kara Walker's paper cuts. I could go on and on.

TAR: What is your writing process like?

JJ: Generally I tend to read a lot and fill myself up as constantly as possible—anything from other literature, to criticism, to Wikipedia articles on science and social phenomenon, to art. I very seldom start a project knowing what I want it to be. I start by stealing little bits of language—taking words from any source possible and combining them in nonsensical ways and then trying to make sense of those phrases, fixing those phrases up and piecing them together into something that resembles a narrative. Sometimes I might pick something I've read or thought about that feels exciting to me: taxidermy, the foster care system, bingo. It's strange, but it works for me. I get bored if I'm not constantly surprised, so my way of getting out of my own head is by writing in a way that's nearly outside of myself. Revision then allows me to focus in and make the work something that's accessible to others. Often I might pull in an outside reader to help me understand what gaps need to be bridged. I like to leave questions in the work, but it's best if I'm not lazy and fill in the gaps that I don't mean to be there.

TAR: You are an accomplished poet, novelist, short story writer, editor, and essayist. Do you identity as one type of writer more than another? How do all of these different roles influence each other?

JJ: I don't know that "accomplished" applies to all of those, but thank you! I think of myself as a writer and don't worry too much about the rest. That said, I think if someone knows my work it's probably for my fiction, and I'm okay about that. I seem to have found my niche most easily in the world of fiction, but that line is blurrier in my mind than it might be for others. I make poetry very similarly to the way I make fiction very similarly to the way I make nonfiction. It's just the end form that differs. Do I stay in the realm of truth and circle tightly around real experience (nonfiction)? Do I fill in most of the holes until paragraphs form (fiction) or do I let more of the gaps between language exist (poetry)? I like to read everything—I like the density of language in poetry and to pull that into all genres. I like the form of essays and how they start out as one thing, but often open into something else. I like to try to transfer the techniques I learn from medium to medium.

TAR: I read that My Only Wife began as a poem. What inspired you to turn it into a novel? Is that a common happenstance, for your poetry to turn to prose, and prose to poetry?

JJ: I was working on a draft of another novel in an independent study and really having a tough time with it, but working on this poem that I really loved. The poem was already long and I thought, what if I make it really long? What if it just stretches on and on? That seemed more fun to me, so I made the transition. But no, I don't generally transform my work that way.

TAR: In My Only Wife, the elusive quality of memory seems to be key.

JJ:  I've been reading Repetition by Kierkegaard lately, and I think that gets at my issues with staying present and the danger of memory pretty well. There's a character who's in love with a young woman, and the narrator, watching the young man experience this love, says, 

"He was deeply and passionately in love, this was clear, and yet he was already, in the earliest days, in a position to recollect his love. He was basically finished with the whole relationship. Simply by having begun, he advanced such a terrific distance that he had leapt right over life. It would make no great difference if the girl died tomorrow."

This is similar to the issues of memory I was exploring in My Only Wife. Memory is obviously shaped by our subjective minds, and you can lose touch of the truth of a situation by lying on top of it what you want it to be. With some time and distance and growth, I feel like it's logical to explore those memories from a different point of view and search them for holes or answers. In My Only Wife, the narrator is exploring his married life and coming up with different conclusions than he previously had. Which one is more correct? That's the sort of thing you might not ever know for sure.

TAR: Intimacy is also an interesting theme of the book.

JJ: Yes, I think intimacy can be very subjective depending on a person's emotional state. Most of the time I feel loneliness most acutely when I'm in the company of others. My loneliness often takes the form of realizing that, even when you're close to someone, there is a gap that is unbridgeable. It might be a tiny gap, but even that can feel huge when you're trying to understand a person's actions or trying to believe that someone truly understands you.

TAR: My absolute favorite scene in My Only Wife is when the narrator and his wife spend the day at the beach. It was quite beautiful and vivid. What was it like to create?

JJ: Thank you, and I don't remember! Isn't that sad? I wrote that book in such a hurry that I don't remember the experience of writing most of it. I had put myself on a diet of about twenty pages a week, and I just hustled through. In my mind the experience of writing the entirety of that first draft is just one long afternoon in this place called The Normal Coffeehouse in Normal, Illinois.

TAR: My Only Wife was your first novel. How long did it take you to complete?

JJ: I wrote the first draft in about two and a half months. It all came quickly, but I was strict with myself to reach that deadline, and I didn't have a ton going on. Then I lingered on the revisions for quite a while—maybe about two years? I shared it with advisors and a novel class in grad school to get their reads. I blew it up a bit—it was maybe another hundred pages long at one point—and then pruned it back to a shape that made sense to me. I think I was surprised how easy it was. Not that I loved showing up every day to do the work, but in some ways it was easier to keep adding to this thing rather than starting something new all the time. I tried not to overthink it. I just kept adding on, and then I reached that point where it felt like everything was related to the book. I love that point on creative projects where all of a sudden it seems like the world is showing itself to you in light of this particular theme or obsession. I used to do theater work, and I'd often reach that point with a show I was working on—where I'd be so mentally fixated on the show that everywhere I looked there was something informing the piece. With short stories, it's less common for me to get focused in that way, but with novels, there's the time and luxury to start seeing with a different focus. 

TAR: Can you tell us about working with Dzanc Books?

JJ: Dzanc is one of my favorite presses, and it's a pleasure and honor to get to have two books out with them. They are one of the hardest working small presses out there, and I feel like in working with them, I get the attention of a small press relationship, the permission to make the work I like, and the distribution and marketing of a bigger house. They also listen to me when I complain or freak out about something that's very small in the grand scheme of things. They put up with me.

TAR: Your upcoming short story collection, A Different Bed Every Time, is due out this October. What can we expect?

JJ: It's a lot of small stories. They all live in the same world—a world where it might seem like magical things are happening, but the world doesn't feel like fantasy. It's a world where people are telling themselves stories and making up metaphors to try to wrap their minds around their own situations. I listened to my sister tell my nephew a bedtime story the other day, and it was just the best: it was about a boy who rode his scooter very fast to the moon, and there were aliens there who wanted him to stay and play, and the boy loved the aliens and playing without gravity, but in the end he returned home because he missed his family. It had all of the things my nephew loved, but when he asked for the story he called it the "Fast Boy Story." I don't think he understood it was made just for him. I don't think he understands that he loves it because he can see himself in it, but I've spent so much time thinking about that, thinking about how we like stories for what we're able to pull out as personal, even if we're not aware we're doing it. Sometimes you have to push a story through some sort of filter to be able to recognize the lessons. 

TAR: What inspired the Rejections portion of your website?

JJ: When I was just starting out, I was fixated on rejection. I also wanted to set up a website that would be my home base online presence. To get people to check back occasionally I needed a gimmick, something I could update regularly that might keep people checking back, so I started publicly tracking rejections I received. I was fixated on the yes's and no's, but I didn't take them too personally. I think I felt aware at the start that I was really trying to find the market for my work—trying to figure out where my community would be, and where work was being represented that lived in the same world as mine. I enjoy being really open about the successes and failures. I've heard that it's occasionally helpful to other writers, as affirmation that someone else is going through the same thing, as confirmation that things improve once you find your niche, as a reality check that rejection is always a factor, but then also as a list of places to read and submit work. Transparency: I'm all about it.

TAR: What is the literary scene like in Chicago?

JJ: It's lovely. Everyone is so supportive. There's no "networking" vibe to any of the readings I go to, just a "hanging out" feel. I think people are truly creating what they want to create here. It's not about what's sellable to a big house—people make what they feel compelled to make, and then look for the right home for it. I used to go out to more, but now I'm old and tired and busy. Time seems to moving faster and faster every day. I try to make it out to a reading every couple of weeks, but I feel like I'm missing so much. I'm consistently excited and motivated by the work I see coming out of Chicago. There's a vibe that there's room for all of us—very low on the competition.  

TAR: When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?

JJ: I love Austin and wish to spend more time there. My sole trip to Austin was on the Dollar Store Reading Tour in 2009. We did a reading at the Scoot Inn, and I drank far too much whiskey. We had a huge tour van and one of the other writers was driving us home (he was not drinking), and we got pulled over, but all was fine, and then a dog ran out in the road and the driver had to stop suddenly and I was all the way in the back of the van laying down, and I rolled off the seat with a thump and woke up. This experience is Austin in my mind. That and sitting on a friend's back porch late at night in the heat and looking at bugs.