Interview with Jane Hawley

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Jane Hawley is a writer and educator from San Luis Obispo, California. She earned her BA from the University of Wyoming and MFA from Texas State University. Her fiction, nonfiction and graphic narratives have most recently been published by The Pinch, Memoir Journal and Day One. Her latest work appears as a short story in anthology, Because I Was A Girl.

Kate Thompson: What do you hope women or young girls will get from reading your story?

Jane Hawley: That amazing personal growth can come out of tragedy. That you never have to stay in one place. That the ability to be mobile gets harder as you age. That you will be at least a million different selves. That maintaining a sense of adventure is the secret to staying in love with your life.

KT: I read that while completing your MFA, you served as a managing editor. What exactly did this entail and do you think these skills influenced/helped your writing in any way?

JH: Initially, I hadn’t planned to work as a Managing Editor for Front Porch Journal. I originally interviewed for the Fiction Editor position, but was asked to become a Managing Editor for the magazine. I actually did much less with working with writers and editing the actual pieces in the magazine than I did with behind-the-scenes management of the editorial staff. When you’re the leader of a team of artists—or anyone for that matter—you have to learn great communication skills, how to make unpopular decisions, and how to collaborate well with any personality type. A great deal of tact and discretion helps. I learned how to recognize a person who’s difficult to worth with right away—and how not to be that person with agents, editors, and publishers.

Being a Managing Editor helped me as a writer in the sense that I began to understand why editors make certain practical decisions and how those decisions affect writers. For example, Front Porch receives dozens—hundreds—of poems or stories about the South, but the magazine’s vision isn’t necessarily to focus on issues related to the South or Southwest. The magazine is also online and the system used to have problems with poetry that was formatted in certain ways so sometimes the editors would have to think twice about accepting a piece due to possible technical issues.

It’s also much easier not to take things personally when I receive rejections. It might be a crappy story, or maybe there was something else going on—the style or content isn’t right for their vision, the story wasn’t the right length or was too much like something else they recently published, or maybe the story didn’t fit in with other pieces that had already been accepted. You really can never know what an editor might love. It could change from one day to the next. Write to the best of your ability. Do your homework about the publication. The rest is a numbers game.

KT: Which genre do you prefer writing in?

JH: When I first started writing, I began with nonfiction because I found the craft part of the writing to be less daunting. You basically have the characters and the plot. You just have to do a lot of arranging and reflecting. Reflection is the hardest part. Writing creative nonfiction very much feels like having to stand in front of a floor length mirror and see yourself the way others do. To write about yourself well means that you have to be extremely willing to be honest with yourself—to put your insecurities, flaws, secrets, dreams, and sorrows on the page. It can be terrifying. That state of self-reflection can be hard to sustain for long periods of time.

Fiction is difficult for me in the opposite way. There’s so much to manage at once—creating characters is essentially like giving birth—when you’re telling a story. And I’m miserable about writing autobiographical fiction. I can’t blend the two because I’ll essentially end up writing nonfiction without changing anything. It would be interesting to see what authors who are famous for autobiographical fiction—like Jack Kerouac or Sylvia Plath—would say about the nonfiction to fiction ratio of their work. Writing is about capturing truth. Fiction and nonfiction allow a writer to do that in different yet equally important ways. The power of lived experience shines through nonfiction while fiction is a powerful tool for taking emotional truths from your own life and imagining them in the bodies and experiences of characters. A writer always lives inside their words whether those words are labeled as fiction or nonfiction.

The shorter answer is that I switch between the two when I get stuck. Some people have two creative outlets. Maybe they paint or dance when they feel blocked. I just go from one genre to the other to kick-start my brain again. It gives the Muse a little jolt when she gets lazy.

KT: Who/what would you consider to be your greatest influence in your work as an Author? Additionally, who inspires you?

JH: My influences are constantly changing, but some authors I keep going back to are Rebecca Solnit, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath—especially her journals, Yoko Ogawa, Joan Didion, Barbara Kingsolver, Susan Sontag, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Valeria Luiselli.

KT: To what extent do you incorporate your writing in your role as an educator?

JH: I wish I could provide more opportunities in my English classes for creative writing, but all the time limitations that come with teaching public school mean that creative work often takes a backseat to other things. However, I’m fortunate to teach a Creative Writing course as an elective once a year so I’m able to use my expertise and abilities there. I mostly incorporate my writing into my role as an educator by sharing my writing—and my writing process—with students to show them that my passion is writing and that I consider myself to be a professional writer and a teacher. It’s inspiring to students when their teachers pursue something that’s important to them outside of the classroom. Though I adore teaching, I try to be transparent with my students that there are things I have to do to feed myself creatively, intellectually, or even spiritually that has nothing to do with them. When Because I Was A Girl was published, I actually read my essay to my classes. Even if they didn’t personally connect to my story, I think they at least respected my vulnerability. If you expect vulnerability from them then you have to lead the way. Adults often aren’t real with teenagers—and they’re definitely hungry for that kind of honesty.

KT: Your short story “The Suitcases of San León” was originally published in Day One literary journal, and is now available as a kindle book. Can you take us through the process of each form of publication?

JH: I initially submitted my story to Day One and after a period of a couple of months, Carmen Johnson—who was the editor at that time—called to see whether I’d be interested with working with her on edits for the story. After Carmen sent me her editorial notes, I worked her suggestions into the story and then was eventually offered an official publication contract. It’s sad that Day One just recently announced that it’s closing down after a few years because the magazine was such a well-paying magazine for beginning of career writers. They paid a $2,000 advance to writers for rights to a single short story—which is basically an unheard of amount for writers who haven’t published in major markets—and also offered insight into the publication process through a larger market than many young writers may get to work with at the beginning of their careers. A week after the story appeared in Day One, Amazon released it as a Kindle Single so the story has a longer shelf life, which I definitely appreciated as an author. I think you’ll be seeing many of the authors who were published in the magazine appearing with debut novels and story collections in the next five to ten years. Day One really was one of those few great publishing incubators for early career writers. There are still places like Glimmer Train and The Master’s Review who run contests for new writers, but now I’m looking to places like Electric Lit, Joyland, and The American Reader for work from emerging or early career writers.

KT: What was the process of finding an Illustrator for the cover of “The Suitcases of San León”?

JH: Amazon had already hired a group of illustrators who worked on a rotating schedule to do Day One’s cover illustrations. I’m lucky I ended up with Michael Hirshon. His work is gorgeous in general, but I thought that Michael was able to capture the tone of the story really well in his illustration. The focus on each individual suitcase lined up on the garage visually demonstrates how they function in the story as reminders of the unnamed victims who are taken off the bus and slaughtered by a drug cartel. Part of the story is about how there’s so much violence in the world that most of us become desensitized to crime reportage. People—individuals with desires, unique perspectives, families—turn into statistics. I wanted the reader to feel the burden of being forced to make a choice between self-protection and standing up as a witness for the victims.

KT: What is your favorite place to write?

JH: Anywhere I can be totally alone. I prefer writing late at night after everyone else has gone asleep. I can only write really well when I can settle into a deep state of concentration, which can take sometime. In Memoirs of a Beatnik, Diane di Prima discusses how she discovered the concept of woodshedding, or holing up to work on your art in a solitary state. “Woodshed was a word we were very fond of, because of Mezz Mezzrow’s book, Really the Blues, which was one of the things we read that filled our heads with a way of talking and a way of being, and in it the word ‘woodshedding’ is what you do when you hope up and practice your art, in his case jazz, to the exclusion of all else.” Any artist has to have a place to woodshed—even if that place is tiny or imperfect or changes constantly. I was reading a book about women writers once and one of the writers was a single mother—I can’t remember her name—who literally wrote her first book inside of a closet just so she could have a place to herself. We all have different schedules and living situations. You ultimately have to get the work done however you can, whenever you can.

KT: What keeps you motivated?

JH: My husband. He’s also a writer and is way more disciplined than I am. It’s very easy to doubt yourself as an artist. You might produce something decent before then you’ll sit down to write again and have an existential crisis about whether you’ve lost all of your creativity and skill or not. I’m lucky to have someone in my life who both truly supports me and believes in my work and also isn’t afraid to tell me when I’m not living up to my potential. Getting published is also an incredible motivator because you get a boost of confidence from knowing that at least a few other people have enjoyed your work, but that can also be a bad thing to derive your motivation from since acceptances and publications can often be spaced very far apart from each other.

Despite all the frustration that it involves, the act of writing has to be the underlying motivation to get the work done. That’s what other writers mean when they say that they have to write. Art making is a calling. It’s too easy to give up otherwise. If you’re not truly compelled to keep writing for the sake of telling stories then you’ll find something else to do with your time that’s less anxiety inducing or at least better paying.

KT: Do you work with an agent? If so, what was the process like finding one? If not, do you think there is a need for one?

JH: I’m not currently working with an agent though I have had one on other projects before. If you want to publish a book with a larger publishing house, agents are definitely necessary. They know the ins and outs of what can be an extremely complicated industry and—if you have an agent worth their salt—they are often the biggest advocates of your work and also function as an editor. Most agents do quite a bit of editorial work on manuscripts with their authors before they even sell a book. They should want your work to be in its most polished and sell-able state. A good agent will also get you a better financial deal than you probably could negotiate on your own. However, I think that writers don’t always need to work with an agent when they’re selling to smaller or independent publishers. Shorter pieces also don’t really need to be agented for the most part though agents do sometimes negotiate with big magazines like The New Yorker to sell short stories and nonfiction.

KT: Do you have any advice for young writers in general or those currently trying to make a name in publishing?

JH: I’m still trying to make my way as an early career writer, but I think about when I first started writing and how little I knew about everything—agents, the publishing process, the craft of writing itself—and I think I would have told my younger self to be more intentional. There’s a short article by Nell Zink called “How To Become A Novelist In Ten Easy Steps” on Lit Hub that every young writer should go read. It’s tongue in cheek, but also extremely practical, and I wish I’d listened to people when they said that I needed to learn a well-paying skill to finance my writing habit. She also gives you permission to not publish your early crap. It’s important to understand that eventually you may not want a lot of your early writing to see the light of day. It’s still necessary to write those pages—that’s how you learn—but you don’t need to feel the pressure to try to publish them. Sell your work when you’ve written something quality and try not to publish too much of your work for free. “You do not want to be free,” she says. “You want to be very expensive.” I think that’s pretty damn good advice in this current climate where everyone seems to either want free content or thinks that writing free content will eventually get them a paying gig. If you absolutely want to do something or take advantage of a non-paying opportunity then feel free to do so, but when you know that your work is worth being paid for then you should make every effort to receive compensation for your artistic labor. You might only get $25 for a poem, but you should always—literally and figuratively—value your work.

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