February 18, 2010
Author Interviews @ Pickle Me This: Amy Jones
It would have been hard not to have encountered Amy Jones’ writing during these last few years, with her stories appearing in a variety of Canadian literary journals and her 2006 CBC Literary Award for short fiction. In 2008, Amy won the Metcalf-Rooke award for What Boys Like, which was published by Biblioasis. Before the collection came out, three of its stories appeared in The New Quarterly 111, and once I read them, I knew this was a book I was going to love. It was.
I’d never met Amy until she arrived for our interview on Friday February 5th, but I can tell you now that she’s lovely. We set to talking in the living room over obligatory tea and scones, while Harriet emptied her baskets.
I: I was curious to read in your The New Quarterly interview that part of your education in short stories was learning to read them as well as to write them. What did that education entail?
AJ: I think it was just reading a lot of them. One of the first short story books I read was Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look on Love and I read it the way that a lot of people who don’t read short stories would, [thinking] “No! I wanted it to keep going. I wanted to find out what happens next.”
I had to retrain my brain to consume a short story. I think of short stories as more akin to poetry, or like art. A painting, instead of something that goes on and on. You know, I look at that painting on the wall and I take it in for what it is–
I: It was done by an elephant.
AJ: You’re kidding.
I: So maybe it’s not the best example.
AJ: No, but I see it for what it is, I get from it whatever emotion or story I think it’s telling. As opposed to sitting down and watching a movie, or reading a novel. But when I started reading short stories, I thought they would be like novels, but shorter…
So I read [the Gowdy book], and then I read The Broken Record Technique by Lee Henderson. A friend of mine gave it to me when I first started writing short stories and she was like, “You should read this if you want to write short stories.” And I read it, and I really didn’t understand how to read it. And now, it’s one of my favourite short story collections. Same with the Barbara Gowdy one.
I had to learn to slow down, I think. When I read novels, and I’m still guilty of this, I have this really bad habit of jumping to dialogue and racing through descriptions and not really savouring every single word that comes along. But in short stories, every word is so weighted that you have to spend more time with it.
I: Is there a short story collection you’d recommend for someone who wants to get into the form?
AJ: One of my favourite short story writers is Aimee Bender. I read The Girl in the Flammable Skirt because it was recommended to me early on and it totally blew me away. It was so different from anything else that I had ever read and it felt like it gave me permission to do whatever I wanted. So that’s one, and then anything by Lisa Moore.
I: What do you like about writing short stories?
AJ: I like being able to be ambiguous. Right now, I’m trying to write longer pieces, and I’m having a hard time loosening up. I really like the tightness of short stories.
I: But then for a lot of readers, that ambiguity is the problem.
AJ: I think when people say they’re turned off by the ambiguity of short stories, a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’re used to the story continuing. I get that so much: “I want to know what happens next.”
I: And they think it’s a compliment.
AJ: Totally! “You need to write a novel about this.” They say that about “Church of the Latter-Day Peaches” all the time.
I: I just wanted it edited so Marty didn’t die. Which is different.
AJ: I sort of like the idea that with a short story you can give somebody a little snapshot into a life or a situation and they can use their imagination to fill in the blanks around it.
AJ: I think so. It’s not so much that I’m purposefully obtuse when I’m writing. I want people to know what I’m getting at in a short story, but at the same time I want readers to be able to fill in the blanks around it, to imagine what if these people lived in the world.
I: A lot of your characters are on the edge, particularly the ones we get really close to. The only ones who seem to have control, if only in their ability to manipulate people, are Leah in “A Good Girl” and Emily in “All We Will Ever Be“– both characters seen from a distance in your narrative. But if we were able to get access to their minds, the way we do with the other characters, do you think they’d be as lost as the others?
AJ: Yeah, I’m pretty sure they would be.
I: They were fabulous characters, so hard and ruthless.
AJ: That’s good to hear. Both of those stories started out as experiments, in a way. I wanted to see if I could do the male point of view, for one thing. And I think [Leah and Emily] are very similar characters to the other girls in my stories, but as seen from a different perspective. So, I think a lot of what they are is just the flipside, the way a male would perceive some of the girls, who are actually insecure and pretty crazy.
I: So these girls show the limits of that point of view.
AJ: That’s sort of what I was playing with in “All We Will Ever Be“… The point of that story was perspective, with the two different male points of view. And originally, when I first wrote it, both of them were in second person, and… there wasn’t enough differentiation between the voices of the two men, and even when there was, it seemed a little too pat. So I figured, because I think of it more as James’ story, it would be good to have him in second person, because he’s the one in that moment, and then maybe the next story, Daniel will be the second person, and someone else will be the third person.
I: Two characters in “A Good Girl” share “a mutual love of mid-‘nineties rock”. And I like talking about mid-‘nineties rock. Why was that an important part of your story? Was it nostalgia?
AJ: Yeah, nostalgia was a big part of it. I’ve always been a music lover but in the early to mid ‘nineties, I really started actually liking stuff that I liked instead of what people told me to like, or whatever was playing on the radio.
I: If you were writing a story that took place now, would you be as conscious of the soundtrack?
AJ: Definitely. I actually had a CD of all the songs mentioned in my stories play at my book launch. I don’t know if anyone noticed it, because it was pretty loud in there. That was Dan [Wells]’s idea…
I: I saw the play list.
AJ: He thought I should make a CD. I wasn’t sure, because they aren’t necessarily songs I like. They’re songs that were pivotal at that particular time or fit with that character. But just because a character likes a song doesn’t mean I like a song. Which was why I was like, “I can’t have Avril Lavigne at my book launch. It’s just not right.”
But a lot of my stories and images have come into my head while I’m listening to music.
I: Is it a risk to put a current song in a story? Wouldn’t you have to wait and see if it would resonate?
AJ: Some of the stuff that I’m writing now, I’ll put in a song I happen to hear on the radio. Because I feel like I can do whatever I want on one hand, but I also feel like I have to be true to time and place. Which is why I haven’t written any stories about Toronto yet.
I: Do you need distance?
AJ: I don’t know if it’s distance.
I: Did you write about Halifax when you were there?
AJ: I did, yeah. I’ve never known a place as well as Halifax. I purposefully set out to write about Halifax, but I think in writing about Toronto, I would feel like a bit of a fraud. Because I don’t know it well enough, and people who live in Toronto would read it and know where I’m wrong… Setting has always been so important to me that I feel like I need to get it right.
I: Is there anyone writing now in the Maritimes who excites you?
AJ: My friend Ryan Turner just published a collection of short fiction. It was short listed for the Metcalf-Rooke award the same year mine was, and it’s called What We’re Made Of. I haven’t read all the stories yet, but I’ve read some of them, and he’s really sort of nailed a very specific time and place in Halifax.
I: Is there a trick to writing about young people for adults?
AJ: If there is, I really hope to discover it.
I: Who are some writers who’ve done it well, in addition to yourself?
AJ: Well, I really loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. [Mark Haddon] not only wrote from a kid’s perspective, but from a disabled kid’s perspective, and that was done pretty well. I was hooked on that book from beginning to end.
I think it’s less about the voice and more about the themes that would appeal to adults or kids, although there’s a lot of themes in children’s literature that are aimed towards kids that I love to read. I think the line is a little blurry. Kids are more aware and intelligent than a lot of people give them credit for, and so a child narrator can be a lot more perceptive about things that are going on in the adult world, and that adds an interesting texture to a story, because the kid may be able to perceive what’s going on but not fully understand it, but as an adult reader, you’re going to understand the situation a little better than they are.
I: You reference video games in your stories. What do you think is the relationship between video games and literature? Is it necessarily antagonistic?
AJ: Not at all. I probably get in all kinds of trouble for saying that, but I’m fascinated by a lot of the stories in video games. I think that there’s a lot more there than is given credit for. My boyfriend just spent all Christmas playing a game called Borderlands, which is an apocalyptic wasteland where people are running around trying to survive. There’s all sorts of interesting characters, some levels of ambiguity– it’s not all about ‘this guy’s a good guy” and ‘this guy’s a bad guy.” The course of the story changes depending on what actions you take.
I: Do you think games could take the place of books?
AJ: No. I don’t think anything could take the place of books. I love all sorts of different kinds of media. I love television, I love movies and video games, but I don’t see it as a competition. I see it all as story, and character, and I’m always interested in story and character. I find it hard to separate myself as a writer and myself as audience, and I don’t know that I’d get as much out of media otherwise, because I view everything with an eye to story instead of just viewing it.
I: In reading your story “Talking About the Weather”, I realized that I’d read it before when it was published in echolocation. But the story was different. The story was a relic of what it is now. Do all your stories go through revisions that are that intense?
AJ: My favourite process of writing is to think about something for a really long time before I put anything on paper. I don’t take notes ever. Unless there’s something really specific that I’m worried I’ll forget. But generally, I try to let the character live in my head for as long as possible before I put anything down, because if I start too soon, then it will end up a disaster. And usually if that works, then it will come out all at once, and there will be fairly minor revisions that I’ll make along the way, but nothing too serious. I feel like it’s sort of like making dough, that if I mess with it too much, it just won’t rise. So then I just leave it alone.
But there are other stories that have had those false starts, where I’ve started too soon or I didn’t have a solidified idea yet and so I start it, it will fall flat, and I won’t be able to continue it, but there’s still something there that I really like about it and I really want to continue, and eventually, if I let it sit…
Like with that story [“Talking About the Weather“], it wasn’t a bad story. I liked it, enough, and I thought there was enough there, but it didn’t quite come out right, so I let it sit for a while. And I’ve done that with a couple of stories where they’ve gone through pretty significant changes, where sometimes I even think there’s two different stories and they come together to be one story, or vice versa. But yeah, generally, it’s one extreme or the other.
I: The characters in that story had their names changed. How did that happen? And what happened to Lara and Steven when they become Susannah and Tom?
AJ: I think they grew up a little bit.
I: Where the names really important? How do you name you characters anyway– I’m fascinated by this.
AJ: I am too. That’s my favourite part of writing, in lots of ways– naming my characters. In that situation, I’m trying to remember, I know that I wanted to rename Steven because I had another character in another story with that name who I was already attached to. So when he wasn’t Steven anymore, Lara couldn’t be Lara anymore, so I ended up changing their names because of that.
I: Did they change as people?
I: Do you change your characters’ names a lot?
AJ: Yes I do. Sometimes they just don’t work. Sometimes they just come to me and it’s like, this character has to be this name. That’s what happened when I wrote “The People Who Love Her”– Sephie was Sephie from the very beginning, and she couldn’t be anyone else. But there’s a lot of other characters whose names have changed along the way. Just because they didn’t feel right. And I think that in the case of Tom and Susannah, she grew up a lot, became a lot bitchier. I can definitely still see Lara as a part of her, but she grew a more hardened side in order to cope with the vulnerability that was too out there with Lara. Tom, or Steven, got a little more well-rounded too. He was a bit of a cliché in the beginning, which was kind of the point, but even if you’ve got a character who’s perceived by another character as a cliché, you have to give it layers, and that’s what he developed when he become Tom.
I: Which is odd, because Tom isn’t a particularly layered name.
AJ: It’s funny, because I don’t know any Toms…
I: Do you think there aren’t any, they’re all just in fiction? I don’t know any Toms either, but books are rife with them.
AJ: I know a Thomas, and he’s not a “Tom” at all. That’s true…
AJ: I definitely cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. I don’t know if I ever considered it a career choice so much as just something that I did, ever since I was a kid. I used to write newsletters for my stuffed animals where I would report on the events of soap operas. My mom hates it when I tell that story because it makes it sound like I just came home from school and watched soap operas, but I did.
I definitely always wrote, and then when I got to high school, I started to take it more seriously. Oh, but I went through another phase when I wrote all these stories about homeless orphans and kids who were locked in basements, because I was reading a lot of VC Andrews at the time, and that just seemed to be what you wrote about.
I: Why did they let us read it?
AJ: I don’t know. They were so bad. I can’t remember who I was talking to, but I was equating girls going through a VC Andrews phase with boys going through their WWF phase. Where it’s like you need to see all this ultra-violence, ultra-horror. I remember reading Stephen King in Junior High too, which I didn’t find quite as disturbing as VC Andrews.
But I was writing all these stories and my teachers were terrified– they thought I was having the worst life, but I was at home having a perfectly normal childhood, while they were trying to have my mom in for meetings. (Laughs). I feel bad about what I put her through.
So I was influenced by that when I was younger, and then in high school I started writing more seriously. But not really seriously, and then I got into the whole theatre thing, and I was really into that for a little while, and I always thought, “I’ll be a writer someday, but right now I’m going to do this”, and I basically just decided one day that I was not cut out for a life in theatre at all.
I: Was that in high school?
AJ: No, I actually did a theatre degree. I went to Dal and I did a theatre studies degree there, and then I did my MA at UofT. And I basically realized when I was at Dal that I wasn’t cut out to be an actor. Not that I don’t love acting, but I don’t love the whole lifestyle, and going out to auditions and trying to sell yourself. Which is kind of weird because you sort of do that as a writer too, but in a very different way. Sending your stuff out is auditioning, and getting rejecting is always getting rejected.
I: But you get to do it from home.
AJ: Exactly. It’s all on paper. And then when I was at UofT, I definitely decided that I was not cut out for the world of academia. And then I started writing.
I: And who were you reading at that point?
AJ: I was only ever a novel reader up until that point. And when I first started writing, I thought, “I don’t want to write a novel because I’ll probably suck, and I don’t want to spend all that time writing a novel and then discover that it sucks. So I’ll write short stories, because it’s easier.” And it’s so funny because now I have the total opposite view in a lot of ways. If there’s anything I took away from the UBC program, it’s that short stories are not a warm-up to writing a novel. They’re a very different beast, but at the time I didn’t know that, and so I started writing short stories that were really, really terrible, and this was when the friend of mine gave me the Lee Henderson book and said, “Read this.” And then I started reading, and reading every literary magazine I could get my hands on. And I’ll be honest, I thought, “I want to do what they’re doing so I can get published.” And then it actually opened up into this whole world of, “This is what they’re doing, and I want to do more.” Or not more, but I want to do it differently.
I: How would you define what you’re doing then?
AJ: I can’t. I’ve thought about it, but at this point I have no perspective on anything to do with my writing, or with the book in particular. So I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do know that I got really excited when I started to read what was going on in Canadian short fiction. And it wasn’t so much that I wanted to copy these people but I was inspired by them to try new things, new perspectives.
I: Is there more opportunity to try new things with the short story, as opposed to the novel?
AJ: I think so, in some ways. For a long time I was really interested in trying out new structural techniques and gimmicks, and sometimes they worked really well, and a lot of times they didn’t, and the times they didn’t work were the times that someone reading it could tell it was a gimmick. When it came right down to it, I realized, after all that experimenting, that the most important thing is the story. So whatever structure or form your story takes has to be true to that, it has to come from that place as opposed to being superimposed on it.
I: What are you reading right now?
AJ: I’m actually reading The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie, which I’ve never read, and I’m attempting to sort of, maybe, write a novel right now, and he’s my favourite novelist, so I thought I’d go back and read something of his I’ve never read.
I: I wasn’t even going to mention novels, because I know short story writers get that all the time. Is it controversial to be a short story writer with a novel in the works?
AJ: It’s probably kind of controversial, not that that really matters so much to me. I just love writing, and right now I’m having a lot of fun writing this novel. I just want to try something new, the same way I’d like to try writing a screenplay some day, or whatever. I know that for me, reading a short story is a completely different experience than reading a novel, so I imagine that goes for writing, too. I’m still writing short stories, though, too. I can’t imagine myself ever not writing short stories.
I: Are you reading anything else these days?
AJ: I try not to read too many short stories while I’m writing short stories, because I’m too influenced by what I read, which is good in some ways because it gets things going, but generally I try to stay away from it. So right now I feel like I shouldn’t be reading any novels. I’ve also just started reading Century by Ray Smith. Dan [Wells] gave it to me a while back, and said I’d love it, but I didn’t get around to reading it, and then I was reading about it on your blog…
And basically what I do in between is read mystery novels. I have a hard time reading for pleasure. It’s almost like instead of being able to see a finished product in a book, I always see the blueprint. But with mystery novels, it’s different. And I love Ian Rankin. I’m sort of obsessed with him. I just bought not the newest one, but it’s the first non-Rebus one, and it’s disturbing me a little bit. It’s written from the point of view of the criminals and now they’ve carried out the crime and they’re scared of getting caught, and I keep reading it before I go to sleep and having these dreams…