Behind the Words: Jeni McFarland

Posted by on Aug 9, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Jeni McFarland is a Michigander living in Houston, TX with her husband. She received her BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston in 2011, and will start her MFA in Fiction at the University of Houston in fall 2013. She currently serves as fiction editor for Houston & Nomadic Voices Magazine. Her work has appeared in Forge, Glass Mountain, and on makeblank.com.

Jeni’s short story ‘Window’ was featured in Issue #1 of Spry Lit. In this interview she shares her experience writing ‘Window,’ and talks about the balance of color and darkness in story.

 

Samantha:Window’ radiates a dark, hypnotic energy. The language is beautiful and raw, and the imagery is so vivid that at times I felt uncomfortably trapped in the room with the narrator. The room is real and yet intangible; it feels like a painting or a dream. How did you visualize and create this confining atmosphere?

Jeni: I know some people say you should never write based on a dream, but I did. I kept having a dream about this window. The room itself was indistinct in the dream, so I had to fill in with remembered and fabricated details.

 

The title of this story is also a central theme and a recurring image. The story opens and closes with the window. The idea of a window carries a certain metaphorical power, and it can mean so many things. In this story, it seems to represent both confinement and escape. How did the window motif work itself into your story? Was it the inaugural scene, or did you incorporate it at some point during the writing process?

The window was definitely the first thing I wrote. A lot of my stories start with an image. I write down everything I can think about the image—in this case it was more the feel and smell of the window, the warm wind blowing through, the dry grass outside. Those were very real to me. I’d been obsessing over them for over a year, so I wrote them down. I liked the window because of the inherent meaning it seemed to have, they ways in which a window can illuminate or obscure, keep a person in or keep the world out.

 

I love the way you explore the idea of memory. I find that memories are usually made up of bits and pieces, with some elements in sharper focus than others, which is something you convey brilliantly in the story. Memories are full of flaws and inconsistencies. Things are easily altered, even subconsciously. When dealing with the memory of something traumatic, people find ways to distance themselves from it (you employ the shift to third person, which is a wonderful way to create that distance). Can you talk a little bit about your own thoughts or observations of memory, and what inspired you to write about such a complex, interesting subject?

I think that writing is a very methodical way of sorting through one’s thoughts. I’ve been out of undergrad for two years now, and I still find that, when I read a book or even a poem that’s complex or difficult to sort through, I’ll sit down at the computer and write an outline as if I were writing an academic paper on the themes of the piece. I think it helps me slow my brain down and really look at the individual components that make up a piece. And I think memories work the same way—if you let them, they’ll all sort of flood in on you and you can’t keep your bearings. But if you sit down, and you write them out, you can sort through them much easier, try to make sense out of what’s the true memory versus what details your brain inserted to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense. And I often find that even the fabricated details can make a kind of sense, like when the window is suddenly closed, it heightens the feeling of confinement, which is a feeling that is true to the story, even if the detail of the closed window isn’t true.

 

Your writing feels very honest, yet the narrator keeps things hidden, even from herself. She speaks as though she is narrating a dream as it’s happening, and just as she begins to focus on something, it seems to dissolve. She is able to change the context of the room, transform feelings of fear into something much more pleasant. Then she replaces herself entirely, switching from first to third person. In trying to interpret parts of this story, I felt like I was peeling layers of transparencies from a deep, dark truth that the narrator was trying to keep buried. To what extent do you consider her an unreliable narrator?

I feel like any time you have a story in first person, or even a close third person, the narrator’s going to be a bit unreliable, just because the story is limited to one person’s point of view, one version of reality. This piece, for me, was very much about how a person exposes the truth to herself, and how she makes sense of that truth.

 

Emotionally, this is an intense and visceral story. I’m haunted by this line, which comes near the end: “Once he finishes, leaves, I lay there still, sweat drying on my skin, his sweat, on my body so young it doesn’t even know how to sweat properly.” This is the breakthrough moment; she’s confessing it all. It’s the moment where you have to look away, because it gets you right in the gut. I recently wrote a scene where the main character of my novel is beaten up by her boyfriend, and I was in a hollow daze for a few hours afterward. How did it feel to write something like this? How do your characters’ lives affect your own?

I feel like this is the essay question on the final exam for which I’m completely ill-prepared. It was hard to write it; it was hard to experience it with my character. But at the same time, it was kind of cathartic to get it out on paper and out of my head.

I often write stories where the main character is being cheated on by their lover, but recently I flipped it; I wrote a story where the main character was the cheater. And I felt kind of guilty for a while. I still haven’t let my husband read that story, even though I’ve never cheated on anything except diets. I think that, in order to write, we have to put ourselves there in the character’s body, and experience the story with them. Maybe that’s why, when I’m suffering from writer’s block, and can’t seem to get going on the stories I should be working on, I usually sit down and write romance, something with very little conflict. It’s a lot easier to inhabit those characters for a while.

 

It’s rare to read a serious story that isn’t weighed down by its own subject matter, especially when the subject is something like rape. ‘Window’ retains its mystery until the very end. You give us this room and this window, and yet there is something much darker going on—hints are dropped, but nothing is overtly stated. What are your thoughts on writing about subjects like rape and death in the context of short fiction? What responsibilities does the author have?

I have a friend who told me that the job of the writer is to satiate the voyeuristic nature of readers—to give the reader permission to look at things which are grotesque or emotionally charged. But I’m not sure how much I agree with this statement. I guess my natural tendency is to look away. When a writer gives me permission to look, my first inclination is to say, “thanks, but no thanks.” What’s more likely to get me are writers who trick me into looking. Before I found writing, my main creative outlet was drawing and painting. My brother told me one time that, even though I liked to draw with bright colors, he saw the darkness underneath. I think I like worlds that draw you in with their bright colors, and then leave you exposed to something darker.

As far as author responsibilities go, I don’t know that I can come up with any universal rules. I just know that, for me, what I try to keep in mind is that, the writing has to retain some truth. That goes for all writing, not just writing that discusses difficult topics. A story doesn’t necessarily have to be true to the exact circumstances of any given personal experience, but it should at least be true to the emotion of the experience.

 

Would you say that this story is in keeping with your writing style and voice? Or do you find that it varies from piece to piece?

I think I’m still finding my voice. I did the thing for a long time where I tried to get this edgy voice, characterized by a first person narrator who uses strong and frank language. It was fun insofar as it let me play with character development through dialogue and interpersonal interactions, but I’ve gotten a little bored by that lately. What I love to read these days is anything with vivid imagery. I’m thinking of, Stuart Dybek stories, where the images are really a driving force pushing the story. That’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and trying to do more in my own writing.

 

Which authors inspire you?

At the moment, the writers who I’m most excited about are the ones who don’t adhere strictly to reality; I love magical realism and speculative fiction. I guess my top authors would have to be Aimee Bender, Margaret Atwood, Kevin Wilson, and George Saunders. I tend to have a short attention span, which is why I love short story collections. I can read a story by this author and then a story by that author, and I’ll finish all of the collections I’ve started eventually. I like the freedom authors enjoy when they depart from reality, how the story becomes more about the characteristics of the situation, rather than the specific situation itself.

Maybe the best piece I read last year—it was in The New Yorker sometime in mid-December—was “Shirley Temple Three” by Thomas Pierce. I’m always trying to get people I know to read it so we can discuss. Without spoiling too much, it was superficially about people having cloned a wooly mammoth, but beneath the surface, it sort of hints at—without appearing to me to take a stand either way—the question of abortion. If the author had set out to talk about this debate outright, the story would have bored me at best, and pissed me off at worst, but it was much more clever and subtle, pulling me into a cool speculative fiction story with vivid relatable characters and a plausible situation, and then it had this hot button issue sort of lurking in the background. It was brilliant.

 

I got the most wonderful feedback scribbled on one of my early stories, and I keep that page posted over my early stories, and I keep that page posted up over my desk to remind me that at least someone out there thinks I’m good. Do you have words of motivation or a quote that inspires you to keep writing? Something you have written in your workspace, or something you keep in mind as you work?

I’m really bad about keeping feedback. I jot down notes after workshops, and keep the notes in the latest draft of each piece, and then for a while, I’ll keep the written feedback all labeled and sorted into manila envelopes. I might keep them for a year or so, but every once in a while I go on a cleaning binge, usually after watching that T.V. show “Hoarders,” and I throw it all out. I figure, the feedback that makes the most sense to my story will stick in my head. I feel the same way about story ideas; I have friends who keep notebooks with them at all times, and jot everything down, and it seems to work great for them, but when I do it, I end up with lots of pages of useless musings. The ideas that are the most compelling for me are the ones that I can’t forget, so why bother writing them down in a notebook?

As for words of motivation, I have a lot of writer friends who help me stay motivated. They ask what I’m working on, and when I can’t answer them, I know I need to be working harder, because if a story is coming along well, the idea is already put into words—at which point it’s easy to talk about, at least with other writers. With my friend, Randall, we send each other emails and Facebook posts that simply say “That will not be the last thing you ever write.” We tell each other this whenever we see each other too. I think that’s my biggest hang-up, the idea that maybe I’m out of ideas, and I’ll never come up with anything ever again. I also have a writers’ group to keep me motivated—we do workshops, but we also just meet at the bar sometimes whenever anyone feels like they want to get out of the house, and we usually end up geeking out about our writing at some point in the evening. I think it’s really important to have a community, even if it’s just an online community.

 

What are you working on now, and what do you have planned for the future?

See, this is one of those times when I need to be working harder. I have a couple of stories that are still taking shape in my head, but not so much on the page yet. Both of them are about first love. Sort of. Or maybe I should say they’re about the relationships which people interpret as “first love,” and kind of about the ways in which people come to understand what actually constitutes love. I don’t know, it’s still hard to put into words.

Good news is, I’ll be starting an MFA program this fall, so I’m sure I’ll have plenty of new people to kick my butt and get me writing.

Samantha Eliot Stier’s short stories have appeared online at The Faircloth Review, Infective Ink Magazine, Extract(s), and Gemini Magazine. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in sunny Venice Beach, California. Check out her website here.

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