Jennifer Harris

Author of the surreal and cleverly written PINK, Jennifer Harris talks to us about what the writing means to her.

Thank you for enthusiastically agreeing to take part in our Interview Sessions, Jennifer. It’s always a pleasure to be able to talk to first-time authors just starting out in the business, as it gives our readers insight into a writer’s career from the beginning. Not only that, but we also get a glimpse of what goes into writing a first novel and just what it takes to get it published.

KBV: How long have you been writing and how did you get started writing?

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. When I was a kid my favorite pastime was making these little books. I’d design them, bind them, and write out either stories or poems! In college I took a poetry forms class from Carolyn Kizer and absolutely fell in love (w/ poetry, not her). I must have been 19 at the time. But I remember reading Elizabeth Bishop and being like, I am so doing this! Of course, I was terrible. I mean I wrote the worst sestinas EVER. Thank goodness I got over that phase.

KBV: Who (if any) were your influences early on?

Let’s see. In addition to Bishop, there’s Joy Harjo, Jane Miller, Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens…so many, I could go on a total tirade! Re: fiction, I’d have to go with Raymond Carver, his short stories are remarkable. I love his shortness of breath; the minimal style he managed is so remarkable! I think one of my all-time fav books though is Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I’m still waiting on her next book. Seriously. Oh and also, wait, this might be a bigger fav: The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. I have read that so many times it should be embarrassing. Oh and then there’s Gita Mehta’s A River Sutra…that’s completely charming.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing. When I was a kid my favorite pastime was making these little books. I’d design them, bind them, and write out either stories or poems!

KBV: What underlying principal, if any, would you say motivates you to write?

It’s not so much a principal as it is a physical compunction. My head gets dizzy with words. Thank god or Buddha or whomever for computers!

KBV: What draws you to certain subjects and issues, if any?

Usually it’s subjects that I’ve been closely linked to in one way or another. I’m not creative enough to just invent whole new universes.

KBV: What, for you, is the hardest thing about writing?

The writing itself and/or knowing when to stop and/or editing and/or the tiny typo’s and/or making something happen! Plot? Really, must we? Sigh. I guess all of it. I think you have to be really stubborn to be a writer. There’s no other way, it’s just that hard. I remember when I was in my early twenties; I’d write out these poems and be like Voilà! Thinking that whatever popped out of my head was just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Didn’t you just love being 20? So ridiculous. I’ve of course grown up. Twenty years later, I’m suffering from almost the exact opposite problem “It’s not good enough, I need to work harder, etc.”

KBV: How do you like to approach your writing when starting a new project? Do you do outlines and breakdown scenes, or do you just leap straight into writing the narrative?

I’m a leaper, not to be confused with leper mind you, but I suppose they have their similarities. I tend to ruminate on my ideas for years and then I just get down with it. I always admire people who lay it out, and are all systematic and orderly that’s just not me. I’m a leap before looking kinda gal. Ho hum.

KBV: How do you create your characters? Do you start with a basic outline of personality type, or work them up as you go along?

Again, I see it all in my head first, so I’m pretty familiar with them before I put anything down on paper. I’m more into personalities than physical attributes. Like it’s rare for me to really and thoroughly give you an image of what someone looks like or is wearing etc. To me, that’s just not important. I’m more interested in what they’re thinking or doing or being motivated by. The internal stuff.

KBV: Do you talk to your characters at all?

Like being schizophrenic? No, I don’t talk to them but I have to admit, and especially in writing Pink, to laughing at myself as I write. I laugh a lot and I do mean “at” myself.

KBV: What are some of the things you do to improve on your craft? Do you attend conferences? Take workshops? Go on retreats?

I have a Masters in Creative Writing from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. I was also deeply involved in the poetry world of Chicago for about fifteen years, but I burned out on the whole writing ‘scene.’ And now, I just don’t have time for any of that. It seems dreamy though to be able to go live somewhere on a farm or something and just write….really romantic, right? But that’s not my life. I have a 2-year old, a partner, and a fulltime job. I couldn’t imagine leaving Susan (partner) and Sophie (daughter) for any period of time. Plus, I sorta hate traveling. I’ve done a lot of it and I’m a homebody. Fridays are my writing days here. I think in the end reading is what truly helps me improve my writing…that and just writing more and more.

KBV: Do you have people read your work as you write, or do you wait till a project is complete? What would you say were the benefits to either approach?

I’ve done both approaches and both have pros/cons. There was this agent guy in New York who wanted to sign me for this project called ’68 Rambler only he had all these ideas about changes he wanted to make to the story and was saying how he knew so and so at Random House that would, as he put it, Love It. And I got all greedy and ego-filled and rewrote, rewrote, and rewrote until I no longer recognized my project. Seriously, it totally fell apart so I had to set it aside for several years until I could find what it was again.

I’m happy to say it’s now called The Stars at Her Feet and will be coming out from Bold Strokes Books. Conversely, my partner read Pink (first novel) and she totally helped me see it for what it was and what had to happen etc. It was super helpful. With Stars at Her Feet, I’ve kept it to myself. But now that it’s in the editor’s hands, it will be collaborative. Let me just say that the agent wasn’t at fault; it was my ego that went bonkers. Such a shame, but that was my own immaturity.

Anyway, like I said, the first draft is with my editor, Jennifer Knight, at Bold Strokes Books and we’ll see what she says. Maybe it’ll stink. I have no idea really but I’m ready to get to work and follow direction. Writing is rewriting. That’s about all I know for certain. Oh that and it is, absolutely, collaborative. In fact, there was this great article in the New York Times several years back about Carver and his editor and how it was a debate as to the authenticity of Carver’s work because the editor changed it so dramatically. I think others can provide critical and often much needed feedback but you have to know yourself and be true. You have to be able to say yes, this is my voice. You know?

KBV: How do you see your work developing in the future?

Well, I’ve had two book ideas for about 15 years so now that they’re done (well, one is done the other is “pending”) I have all this freedom. I’m actually thrilled to find out how my writing will develop. I sort of have my next idea already drifting around in my head…

I think you have to be really stubborn to be a writer. There’s no other way, it’s just that hard. I remember when I was in my early twenties; I’d write out these poems and be like Voilà! Thinking that whatever popped out of my head was just brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Didn’t you just love being 20? So ridiculous.

KBV: What genre do you feel most at ease writing in, if any?

I suppose you would put me in the literary fiction camp, which sucks because genre fiction like romance and detective novels sell a lot more! I mean seriously, I probably have bought some detective/thriller writers their darned houses. I wish I could do that. But I sort of have this love affair with lyricism, but I still want my writing to be fun and energizing. I would hate to be dull or pretentious. I just have to say how cool it is that Bold Strokes Books launched their Victory Banner line. It’s thrilling to be able to publish in the community and I’m honored to be one of their authors. I really think it’s important to be in the lesbian community and especially where the arts are concerned. I don’t mean it like a them/us or separate thing but rather a “we,” rather building on and adding and being part of a community.

KBV: What have you given up, if anything, to write?

Nothing. If you are passionate about something you figure out how to do it. After I had Sophie, I actually didn’t write for about a year and a half. It was just work and home life. Now that she’s mobile and (sigh) fiercely independent, I’m happy to be writing again. But, I’ll always be a mom and partner first. I have to be; I don’t think art can come from a selfish or self-centered place.

KBV: If you didn’t write, what would you be doing right now?

Again, I can’t imagine not writing. I can easily imagine not being published, because I think I just completely lucked out on that front, but not writing? It wouldn’t happen. A part of me would feel empty. Writing is how I express myself.

KBV: As a writer what do you look for in a prospective publisher?

Well, I have my publisher, and my hope is to be able to partner with them for as long as possible (i.e. until they kick me out). I mentioned this earlier but when I was a lot younger I had all these delusions of grandeur when it came to writing and be a “writer” but thankfully all that nonsense has gone by the wayside. What’s important is A. that you do the writing and B. That you land somewhere that is professional and supportive.

KBV: What, from your perspective, were some of the most common mistakes you made when starting out in the business?

I think I hit on it above. My own immaturity was my worst stumbling block.

KBV: What are some of the things you do to build up interest for your work? What do you think are some of the most effective things an author can do to advertise him or herself?

I have a MySpace page, a Blogspot page, and I try to be active. Networking with authors and readers is important, along with institutions. I’m trying, for example, right now to be put together a mini-BSB writers reading at a local independent store in Chicago. As much as I hate it, putting myself out there, makes a difference. I know some artists who are total self-promoters and I pray I’m not that, but you know, you’ve got to admire it. It takes balls.

KBV: How do you feel about e-publishing and the quality? And would you go that route?

For me, I’d rather have the real book. I have bad eyes so reading online would just kill me. I’d be like seriously cross-eyed in minutes. But, it’s smart, cost-effective, and a growing trend…

KBV: What have been your best and worst experiences, so far, with an editor?

At Haworth, the editor I worked with changed Pink from future tense to present tense, which was sort of the whole point of the book. I almost threw up when I got it back. But, she was super cool and didn’t have any problem w/ me changing it back after I explained the concept – thank god. I had visions of having to have a fake name on the thing. Although, I have to say, the first book was hilarious in that it deals with the fantasy of being a “successful writer” and what that means, and after a few months of being on the market Haworth was sold and Pink was going to die a very unceremonious death. Fortunately, Len Barot, president of Bold Strokes Books and an esteemed writer picked me up. Phew. Right now I’m actually feeling like a giddy little kid waiting to hear back from my editor now. I feel like it’s perpetually Christmas Eve and I’m wondering if I’m getting coal or presents…who can say?

KBV: And finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a writer? And what, for you, are the worst aspects about it?

I just adore writing. I love it that I am never really satisfied. That there is always opportunity to grow, to do something slightly different, and to change one small word or letter to have a whole new meaning. I love it that even though we share language we all interpret it differently. That ultimately I have no control whatsoever over how someone else is going to read what I write. It’s so interesting! Also, the lack of control is the absolute worst!!!! Ha ha ha. So it’s perfect like that.

Author Profile:

Since 1994, Jennifer Harris’s poetry has appeared in numerous national literary magazines including multiple publications in the New York Quarterly, Fish Stories, Art Times, HLLQ, and the anthology “Power Lines” (Tia Chucha Press). Pink was her first novel (Bold Strokes Books, 2008, reprint). Jennifer received her MFA from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago and her BA from The University of Arizona.

Jennifer spent a decade as an active literary organizer in Chicago, both as the director of a poetry series at The Art Institute of Chicago and as the founder of a small literary magazine, which she ran for three years. She also founded and directed a nonprofit that hosted writing workshops for at-risk teens in hospitals and shelters throughout Chicago. For the past nine years, she has also spent most of her spare time raising money for food and medical supplies for the Drepung Gomang Monastery, located in south India. She was recently invited to join the Board of Trustees of the Chicago Poetry Center.

Her second novel, The Stars at Her Feet is forthcoming from Bold Strokes Books. You can find out more about Jennifer, and her work, by visiting her web site here: JENNIFER HARRIS.

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