New life goal(s): Write an incredible novel. Make a superstar friend who is also a fantastic novelist. Go on tour together so we can mostly hangout, share stories, crack jokes and be mindblowingly awesome — in a very down-to-earth and relatable way.
This isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s a performance model. On Saturday, Feb. 20, contemporary authors/critique partners Joshilyn Jackson and Sara Gruen discussed the writing process, business, their newest novels and their friendship in a delightful event at Malaprop’s.
Joshilyn and Sara met on an online writers forum before either were successful authors. (For what it’s worth, they revealed that both sent their first published manuscripts to more than 130 agents each before securing representation.) With Karen Abbott, they formed a critique group that provides support, brainstorming, beta reading, and writing retreats. But as professional (and ingenious) as that sounds, Joshilyn and Sara have this enviable best-friend known-eachother-forever camaraderie in person.
On writing style
Sara: I’m a Northerner in attitude.
Joshilyn: I call her Canada. She calls me passive-aggressive.
Sara: But Paula, the main character [in Joshilyn’s new novel, The Opposite of Everyone] is very Northern, and Maddie [in Sara’s most recent book, At the Water’s Edge] is very —
Joshilyn: — passive aggressive.
Paula, a feisty divorce lawyer, was a minor character in Joshilyn’s previous novel, Someone Else’s Love Story. “I’d try to write a Paula chapter, and it would go on and on,” she says. “I realized she’d have to have a book of her own.” Paula’s backstory, which unfolds organically in the opening chapters of The Opposite of Everyone, includes an unconventional childhood during which her hippie mother frequently moved them and changed their names, while also raising Paula (then known as Kali) on Hindu mythology.
Joshilyn: I sink in a lot of Christ figures. … I feel like if you’re leaning into a mythology, you’re going to be telling story that will resonate because it’s bigger than itself.
Sara: I’m fascinated with oral tradition and folklore. … The oldest written account of the Loch Ness Monster [who plays a major role in At the Water’s Edge] is more than 600 years old.
Sara: For my first couple of books I was dumb enough to outline until I realized once the characters come alive, they throw the outline out the window and set it on fire.
Joshilyn: You want them to. The good books live in the dark and salty reaches of your mental illness. Your characters want to go there.
On their critique group
Joshilyn: You want to keep at least one member of the group to read your whole manuscript [with fresh eyes] before it goes to your agent.
Sara: I probably don’t send anything out until I’ve gotten a third [written].
Joshilyn: One of the nicest things we’ve done over the years is go on retreats. On the first night you set a lofty goal, and as soon as your goal is met, you can play with the other writers.
Sara: Then we have fancy dinners and read to each other what we’ve written that day.
Joshilyn: None of us ever wants to write anything you can set down. Our goal is for none of you [readers] to get any sleep for the rest of your lives.
Music, for me, has long been a doorway into prose. The act of listening and then transcribing both the visceral experience and the internal visualization frees me. Words find their way. A wrong word is a sore thumb, new ways of describing melodies and sonic textures present themselves. The language appears, waiting to be snatched from the air. I like this latest piece, originally published in Mountain Xpress, because it’s creative writing masquerading as an album review.
Every narrative is a story, every setting possesses a landscape. Worlds shift and reveal themselves and open and vanish in a single shuddering breath.
• • •
The eight tracks of Live at The Mothlight by Tin Foil Hat — the synth-pop project of Jared Hooker — are the sonic equivalent of a series of experimental short films. Immersive, thoughtful and surreal, they unfold along nonlinear story lines and weirdly danceable melodies.
Borrowing from dream-pop, lounge, disco and techno, Hooker’s album is as much a Frankenstein creation as a lush tapestry. But the beauty of one plays off an repulsiveness of the other, and no one song is completely the property of aesthetic appeal or nefariousness. The track “Meet Your Maker,” a burbling, twitchy dance number, changes mood when the lyrics come in. Suddenly the party gives way to a nightmare, though even as Hooker sings, “All I know is I don’t want to die alone,” his voice snaps and pops to match the brisk tempo and crisp beats.
But the eerie fantasy begins with the first notes of lead track “Still Floating.” Lounging and languid, the song builds on gossamer melodies and spacey warbles. Hooker’s vocal rises into a cool upper register. It’s not a perfect lyrical performance, but it’s daring. And the art of this collection is in its risk-taking — how far can music be pushed and still retain elements of entertainment and emotional relatability? Hooker finds that edge and continually prods its boundaries.
The progression of that artistic process plays out in “Whatever.” Hooker sings, “I risk my life for a pipe dream / I want to tell my story / They simply say ‘Whatever, / I think we’ve heard enough.’” The vocal delivery is theatrical, punchy, hinting at jazz hands and arabesques that make full use of the stage. The music, which depicts the isolation and strangeness of experimentation, wheezes and swells. There’s a guttural, scratchy bottom end jabbed by synthy high notes. There’s a tambourine, a snarl of static and a slack-key-like guitar that rises into earshot and then falls away again. Hyper-happy tones grow increasingly frantic and helium-shrill.
The album sails and pitches, its sonorous and smooth moments suddenly colliding with jagged edges, industrial cacophony and roiling monsters of the unfathomable deep. The anxiety-laced “Just Cause” is followed by the darker “Mr. Belmont.” Explosive low notes rumble under Hooker’s gliding falsetto. The track could almost be a James Bond soundtrack B-Side. It’s cinematic and science-fictiony, but the hero seems to be having a bad day — or at least an unfortunate case of vertigo.
“A Day at the Beach,” with its hand claps, snaps and sun-dappled trill, is a welcome interjection. Though also surreal, the song is less haunted, more at ease. This is likely a direction Hooker could easily move in — were he to settle for dulcet tones and placated listeners. There’s a nod to Dent May — to that beachy, kitschy, psychedelic-yet-sweet brand of swoon and sway. “Under the sea were there’s no light no air to breathe / I slowly realized our love can’t be,” Hooker sings. The nightmare is never too far away.
But that’s OK because, as much as the bad dream is uncomfortable, it’s also a source of continual inspiration. Hooker doesn’t shy away from plumbing the depths of each creepy image and disharmony at his disposal. Final track “Go to the Water,” is a rocker at its outset. “Just break those chains / their only in your mind. / Because we’re standing on the precipice of our last life,” Hooker sings. It’s not a warm and fuzzy thought, but it’s a fitting conclusion for this absorbing and imaginative theater of horrors. And wonders. There are plenty of wonders, but Live at The Mothlight would rather thrill, scare, haunt and taunt that be plainly, simply pretty.
I suffer from Fear of Missing Out syndrome, aka FOMO. I attribute it to being a Gemini, and to being an arts editor, and to living in a town where on any giving night that are at least ten cool concerts, art openings, fringe-art shows, or literary readings that I’d love to attend.
Even as I write this, my Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of reminders of an upcoming Salman Rushdie talk. I really feel like I should go to it, but my need for rest, a home-cooked dinner, and time to write are winning out.
But this post isn’t about the fear of missing cool social events in favor of the solitary act of writing. I’ll save that topic for another time. This is about choosing to write but still feeling like the larger world of writing — the award-winning, book tour-planning, serious career-having world — is happening just beyond my reach. And no matter how hard and fast I work, I still might not make it before the opportunity passes me by.
I like to think there are many writers who don’t suffer from this anxiety, who don’t feel like if they don’t win a major award or sign a book deal with one of the Big Five publishers by the time they’re 30 or 35 or 40 or 50, it’ll be too late. I like to think there are writers who work in peace in contentment, in the quiet spaces of their home offices or personal libraries, surrounded by beloved books, soothing music, and artfully arranged flowers. To them, writing is the destination in and of itself.
And of course they’re right — those imaginary contented writers.
But it’s also true that we live in a world of goals and success meters, where striving is not just a possibility but a civic duty. Where, while I’m adding six new sentence each day to a short story of questionable redeem, my neighbor is taking a meeting with someone in LA who wants to turn her chapbook into a screen play.
Okay, probably no one writes chapbooks anymore. And we’ve all got to finish the short story before we can even entertain taking a meeting with anyone anywhere about anything to do with writing. But still, as I polish my manuscript, send off my contest entries, and research agents to query, I’m often struck by the feeling that I’m still not doing enough. If I started sooner I’d be father along, if I worked harder I’d be presented with more promising opportunities, and if I was better at recognizing opportunities in the first place, I’d also be better at answering opportunity’s fateful knock.
Though it’s possible that I might not hear opportunity knocking because the cacophony of doubt, second-guessing, and FOMO fight-or-flight is too loud.
I’m not the first person to say this, but it would be really nice if — like becoming a lawyer or a welder — there was a set of steps to take to becoming a writer. If it could feel a little more orderly and little less left to chance, luck, and being good at things like small talk and elevator pitches.
Then again, if one became a career writer by getting degree, completing X number of work-study hours, climbing a corporate ladder, and earning partnership, the magic would be lost. The art is in the work, yes, but it’s also in the alchemy of wishing and wanting, of imagining what’s happening just out of sight, of longing for more fun, more interaction, more inspiration, more of the stuff that can’t even be named yet surely must be delightful and worthy of regret at the prospect of missing it.
The magic is in waiting for the knock, and willing the knock to come, and sometimes, when it doesn’t, going out and doing our own knocking.
This still of Jack White’s circus-freak persona from the Dead Weather video for “Impossible Winner” aptly illustrates what it’s like to be a writer. Multitask, multitask, caffeinate, repeat.