I was delighted when Jorden Rosenfeld, novelist and writing-guide author, agreed to be interviewed here.
Jordan, you’ve published two novels, ‘Forged in Grace’ and ‘Night Oracle.’ Can you tell us a little about each of them? How did you conceive them? What was your path to publishing? With whom did they come out? What was after-publication like for you?
Hi Jane. I’ve actually published three novels, the latest, Women in Red is published by Booktrope, a hybrid press I’ve really enjoyed working with—quality team, I was very happy with the people involved in making my book. The other two I published through a writer’s collective I co-founded several years ago called Indie-Visible, and I learned so much about publishing at the time and had immense support from this collective of fellow writers (though I have not much to do with its current, fabulous incarnation due to time constraints). Night Oracle was actually originally represented by the same literary agent who represents Gillian Flynn; she thought we had a similar tone and style, but ultimately the book didn’t sell in NY publishing despite some “wonderful” rejections. So I took Forged in Grace and Night Oracle into my own hands when I saw the magic and persistence happening in indie publishing. I think all of my novels are conceived out of the rich, bohemian, but also dark sensibility of growing up a child of the 70s to parents who grappled with addictions of one sort or another, drug dealing, multiple partners, etc, but were also passionately cultured and into books and art and film. Reading and writing were my escape. All my characters are fragments, I think, of my own fascination and horror with people and their secrets, their failings.
You’ve also published three guides to writing: ‘Make a Scene,’ ‘Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life,’ with Rebecca Lawton, and the recent ‘A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice.’ Which is your favourite form to write in, fiction or non-fiction?
And again, I’ve also added a fourth writing guide, my latest from Writer’s Digest Books, co-authored with Martha Alderson, called Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion & Theme. My heart, when it comes to writing, is fiction. I like to analyze the craft of writing and digest it for other writers, but I’m not really wholly myself unless I’m storymaking and playing with language. I’ve found the essay form to share some similar satisfaction, and I love the how-to, and analytical aspects of the other non-fiction but I’ll die a novelist first and foremost.
Where do you think most new writers run into problems?
Ten years ago, I’d say writers ran into craft problems like not knowing how to write strong scenes or develop compelling characters. Today I feel like writers run into the problem of rushing their work out for publication and many don’t even consider the issues of craft, so you get sloppy storytelling or incomplete characters.
What advice would you give them to get started?
To me starting is the easy part, it’s staying with it, being persistent, and really loving the craft (and your eventual readers) enough to learn to write and rewrite stories so that you’re not just settling for mediocre. In my book on persistence I talk about how necessary it is to find what makes you passionate about your writing so that you will be likely to persist with it, to treat it as a writing practice. Also, one of my graduate teachers said that the only way a story works is if your characters are real to you, living, breathing people, not simulacra.
What about that tenacious bear, the writer’s block? Do you have schemes to keep it from the door?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe in fear, resistance, stubbornness, excuses, lies to avoid writing. The fact is, if you sit down and write something, anything every day, you’ll get through the block. The only real exception I’ve seen is if you’ve dealt with a huge loss; grief is a creativity killer sometimes.
What main problem do you think writers who’ve completed MFAs discover?
I can’t speak for all writers and all MFA programs. I went through one—Bennington’s writing seminars—and on the one hand it expanded me in so many ways, gave me access to writers I needed to learn from, and forced me to work really hard, which every writer needs. In other ways, I think I so wanted to please my professors rather than write from my guts that I think I compressed some of my own voice out of my writing for a few years and honestly, I have rarely been able to write a short story again since I graduated in 2005.
Do you have any comments about the state of literature and publishing today?
I refuse to be a pessimist. Publishing is about dollars and business, and it will always be at the whim of the masses and the corporate bigwhigs. But literature is always sneaking out the cracks, and I am so buoyed and thrilled by the writers that I feel are my contemporaries and what they are producing; it feels like a revolutionary time to be part of any literary scene.
My Years As A Kleptomaniac by Jordan Rosenfeld
Jordan Rosenfeld’s website.
Run don’t walk if you get a chance to take a writing class with Lynda Barry, cartoonist. Her fabulosity quotient is crazy high. Until then, she’s stitched it all up for you in a new book called Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Get a copy now, hopefully from your independent bookseller.
sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014
We’ve all been there on the receiving end of rejections that are ill-conceived and thoughtless. Your work is crap, these notes say, in whatever arguably neutral language they couch this in. Your work made me vomit. Go shovel walkways. Go work at Goonies. Just go away and please, please, please, and whatever you do, stop writing.
They aren’t actually that bad, and most of them aren’t bad at all. But we feel like they are, right?
It may be that, in fact, our work is crap. It happens to the best of us. After 35 years at this, I still write reams of garbage, and, sometimes, I send it out. But regardless of the status of my submissions, good or bad or in between, the stats for rejection/acceptance stay about 20-1. Which means that I get one acceptance per couple dozen rejections.
Does being queer enter into that? Of course it does. Pieces aren’t judged only by merit. Unless there’s a push for affirmative action at a magazine, an article/story/poem that is even tangentially about being queer is often overlooked. Oh, we published a lesbian piece last month. Not quite for our demographic. A little too avant garde for us.
Do I care? Yeah, a lot. I hate homophobia, and at my age, it’s a tired old saw. Go play with knives, already. Get over yourselves and ask more of your readers.
But even so, if I send a piece out–no matter what kind of piece it is–for long enough, with enough diligence, it will eventually find its home, and that won’t be the bottom of the barrel, that’ll be at a magazine/journal/online site where I’ll be proud to publish and they’ll be proud to have you.
Most of being a writer is showing up, keeping at it, being persistent when the whole damned enterprise seems keyed to shutting you down.
Here’s what I know, though. You can do one thing better than any other writer anywhere: you can be yourself.
Authors might have talents and skills you don’t have, but you have talents and skills they don’t have, as well. That’s the thing that strikes me over and over in this long-game: No one can write like I do. Often I whine and grumble about that–how I can’t stop being me for five minutes in order to write as brilliantly as, say, Eudora Welty–but really, ultimately, my uniqueness is a good thing. In fact, in an over-crowded marketplace, it’s the sum total of what I’ve got. My idiosyncracies? Those are my only commodities in publishing-land.
Do I wish I had other styles, other skills, other talents? Of course I do. Absolutely I do. If I could write like Arundhati Roy, or Karrie Higgins, or poetry like, say, Alice Anderson or Jane Hirschfield or Marilyn Hacker, or essays like Roxanne Gay, or one true sentence the way Ray Carver could, or a Lidia Yuknavich short chapter, I would die a perfectly fulfilled human being. If I could turn a sentence like Rebecca Brown or Lorrie Moore or Mavis Gallant or Toni Morrison I would be incandescent. But I can’t. That’s them. That’s their kick at the can. It’s not supposed to be mine.
Mine is the bit I got.
And that’s a lucky thing. Because if we all wrote like each other, reading would be a grim task indeed.
Your work is crap? Make more crap. Do it the Beckett way: If you’re going to fail–and you are going to fail–fail better.
photo by: Jane Eaton Hamilton: orchid
“In an experiment in NY in the mid sixties, they asked elementary school children to draw their parents. They were too young to have any attitudes or opinions; they saw things directly, from experience. They came up with the most amazing symbolic drawings: Dad’s big as a barrel, with beer cans on his stomach; Mom’s tiny, standing next to a Matterhorn of laundry. The symbols were vivid and stunningly revealing. This is what Flannery O’Connor was talking about when she said a good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal. From this idea you take the faith that what you are really after in describing experience is to recover the direct gaze of the child, to be an infant with speech. The symbols and even the meaning will take care of themselves, if you can be simply, straightly clear. Forget everything you think you know and just try to be clear, try to render exactly what your direct gaze gives you to say about the instance you’ve created. It will have so much less to do with what you think than it will with what you ARE. And you may not even be particularly aware of it; in fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t, even though what it amounts to finally is something that others will call your vision. Trust that. It’s the most beautiful thing about this work.” Richard Bausch
Reprise # 19
“You never really learn to write as it is usually conceived; there is no template you are trying to decipher. What you learn, eventually, is how to write this one thing you’re working on. It’s no accident that we feel as if we have to learn everything all over again each time we try to do it. Because that is indeed the situation. You have to learn how to write each one, and each one contains secrets and mysteries that you have to solve, and those secrets and mysteries change as the story changes, and so you have to learn it all over. The thing you can treat like a template is HABIT, the habits of work that you develop, that you can strive consciously to develop. The habit of being shrewd about it all: practicing the habit of working without demanding too much in the way of specific conditions (silence, certain light, certain time of day, certain place), teaching yourself to work in changing conditions and with the noises and distractions of being alive on this very hectic and un-peaceful planet. Just visiting it each day, let it know you’re there. So I am really seldom teaching writing: I’m teaching habits, and revision, and practice, and understanding that confusion is quite normal and even healthy because it leads you into what you don’t know about what you thought you knew.” -Richard Bausch
Richard Bausch is one of my literary heroes, and he’s told me I can reprint his short advice pieces about writing, which I will do periodically. The early short fiction books of his that I list below taught me to love the shape and scope of stories; he’s a gorgeous stylist with heartbreaking things to say about our world. His story ‘The Fireman’s Wife’ dragged me over the coals; I’ve never forgotten it.
Reprise # 8
Work in the perfect confidence that: 1.) it is going to be harder work than you have ever done; 2.) it will not yield its secrets easily; 3.) it will drive you a bit crazy until it surprises you and even then the surprise will have other complications that will drive you a little more nuts; 4.) it will seem to open with perfect simplicity like a flower in sunlight in the first fresh morning of Spring, and then close on you like an iron door manned by six guards of the inquisition—and, 5.) all of this being true, you cannot truly hurt it. You can only make it necessary to do it again, to get into its little dark grottoes and work it, and let the opening and closing and the secrets and the falterings take place knowing that you cannot hurt it. You absolutely cannot ruin it. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. You can not permanently harm it. It is not made of glass, but of LANGUAGE, that sweet and glorious possession, that is there like a guiding spirit, wanting to give you everything. Just be worthy of it and try to let go of expecting it to dance on command. It must be courted, cajoled and appreciated even for its inconsistencies. YOU must forgive your own clumsiness and failures of insight in the moment. The thing is tidal. Trust the beauty of it, and don’t over worry it. It WANTS to yield its treasure. You only have to be very, very patient, and quietly stubborn.
I haven’t explored the site yet, but I stumbled across this quote of mine here: The Unnovelist.
The story curls inside you, hardly formed, just eight weeks along. Two months—still time for a miscarriage. Has anyone else ever had that happen? Told the world they were going to be a novelist and then had the damn book slide out slippery as a dead fish? —Jane Eaton Hamilton
“In 1923, realizing that “you could omit anything … and the omitted part would strengthen the story,” Ernest Hemingway conceived of his “iceberg theory.” He would replay the facts, leaving it to readers to deduce the submerged symbolism and untold back stories themselves. While his contemporaries, still finding their way out of the thickets of Victorianism, overwrote and overexplained, Hemingway cut through. Delivered in tight bursts, his deceptively simple narratives hinted at offstage conflicts, concealed wounds and unspoken desires. Later, another great storyteller, Miles Davis, similarly suggested that “it’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.”
Mark Braude, Power of Small, the Globe and Mail, July 16, 2012