A Conversation with Jennifer Wortman, Part 1
Interview by Alan Good
Jennifer Wortman and I live relatively close to each other. Neither one of us wanted to talk on the phone, though, and we both chose to blame our children for not being able to meet up in person, so this is an email interview. Jenny’s book, This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love., has just been published by Split Lip Press. Full disclosure: I haven’t finished reading it yet, which is why this is going to be a two-part interview. Here we go:
So you told me you sort of hate your book at the moment, which I definitely relate to, but what do you still love about it?
I love certain lines in the book. I love most of the endings. I have a special place in my heart for some of the secondary characters: Dirt and Cheryl's grandpa in "What Family Does," the man in the alley in "Sometimes Things Just Disappear," Tom's mother in "I'm Dying without You, Tom." I'm also a big fan of the main character, Shelly, in "I'm Dying without You, Tom," and I love all the protagonists' obsessiveness. I appreciate what I hope is the book’s mix of variety and continuity in style and theme, and its blend of humor and pathos. And I'm completely in love with the cover, designed by Jayme Cawthern, who took my input and made magic.
My hatred was mainly a response to having to proofread the book twice in 48 hours while spotting myriad too-late-to-change problems. But I'm learning to relax my perfectionism: writing and publishing a book has taught me a lot about letting go of that stuff.
What’s one of your favorite lines?
In "Love You. Bye." when the narrator contemplates cheating on her fiancé, she says, "When you leave the kitchen, does the table within still exist? Common sense says of course. Philosophy deliberates. The animal says, where’s the food in the room I’m in now?"
That’s good. So how did you get hooked up with Split Lip Press?
I followed Split Lip Press on Twitter because I kept seeing cool books from them in my timeline: Kristen Arnett's story collection came out around the time I joined Twitter, and they'd published a chapbook by the remarkable flash fiction writer Kara Vernor. So as a reader, I liked their list, but also my book was on submission and I'd been keeping an eye out for presses that might be a good fit. When I saw they'd put out an open submission call, I jumped at it, and they plucked my manuscript from the slush. I still get all warm inside when I think of that acceptance email.
That’s the email we all dream about. How long were you submitting before you got that email?
About a year and a half. Which seems blessedly short in retrospect, but felt like forever back then. That’s the short version, though. I’d been submitting different forms of the collection off and on for a good decade, but mostly off. I didn’t get really serious about it until 2017.
Ahhhh! Any horror stories from the submitting process?
Only the horror of routine rejection and mounting submission fees.
That’s a horror we all deal with, and it sucks, even if it’s how we pay our dues; could be wrong but I feel like we have similar perspectives, sort of naturally pessimistic, striving toward hopefulness. What keeps you going, in the face of both the pointlessness of writing and publishing, but also in the face of the larger absurdity and ostensible pointlessness of like the world and shit?
Yes, I also think we have similar perspectives! One thing that keeps me going amid the absurdities of the writing life is experience: I've been at this stuff a long time and have developed a pretty thick skin. Every so often a rejection really stings, but most of the time it's like bad weather: a hassle but I don't take it personally. Also, at 48, I've gone a while without achieving conventional marks of big writing success, and while that can sometimes be demoralizing, it prevents me from getting jaded. I still get super excited about any recognition or achievements, and I'm always so touched when my work resonates with someone. That gratification can fill me for days. Finally, I'm well aware that no one is forcing me to write. I know what I've signed up for and I want to do it anyway, because I feel better when I write than when I don't. The writing, for all its frustrations, is also its own reward, and I'm blessed to live in circumstances that allow me to do it.
As for the absurdity and ostensible pointlessness of the world and shit, I could write a long, boring book about my attempts to navigate that! I'm exceptionally lucky to have great people in my life, which helps a ton. Meditation and exercise have been game changers for me. And never underestimate the power of a good antidepressant! Meds aren't for everyone, and they're not a cure-all, but they give me the baseline stability to do the other things I need to do to take care of myself. Figuring this stuff out is a lifelong project, but there's obviously other matters at stake than my own well-being. The problem of suffering and evil and the systems that enable them—and my participation in those systems—is big and thorny and I have no easy answer for it.
Damn, you have such a healthy perspective on writing. What were your expectations when you started writing? Were you going to blow up the whole literary world or what?
My "healthy perspective" mostly hinges on good timing: if you'd asked me the same question a year ago, or at 3 a.m., I probably would not have been as sanguine.
I loved reading and writing from a young age, before I understood much about the world, so at first my expectations were amorphous and grandiose. I think I assumed I would just drift into becoming a respected writer; I didn't have a clear vision or plan. Then, when I hit 15 or 16, I got pretty angsty and self-destructive. I was able to keep it together enough to do fine in school (well, I might have gotten suspended once . . .), but I didn't have much left for writing. I had problems with discipline and focus and confidence, not to mention anxiety and depression, and it took me until my late twenties to begin to really work through all that. So by then, I just hoped a literary journal would publish one of my stories so I would feel like a "real writer." Taking the literary world by storm did not occur to me.
You’re like the nicest person on Twitter, but I’ve seen you portray yourself as pretty grumpy, too, which I completely relate to of course. But how does your online persona match up with your real life personality?
I'm struggling with this question! Someone who isn't me would probably be better at answering it—I don't really know how I'm perceived. I think my online persona is definitely a register of my real-life personality. That said, even my real-life personality, like most people's, changes according to context. I'm pretty shy in groups but chatty around good friends. Not much can keep me off a dance floor or a karaoke stage, and I actually kind of like public speaking. But I also quite enjoy hiding in bed.
Anyway, I'm nice to you on Twitter because you're nice to me! In fact, a lot of people are nice to me on Twitter, so I reciprocate. Before I joined Twitter, I thought it was all Nazis, but it turns out it's not. As for my grumpiness, my husband and kids can tell you plenty about that.
Also I’m glad you used the word sanguine, I like how that word means hopeful but also bloody or bloodthirsty.
And, yeah, sanguine is the best word!
I really hate the what-books-would-you-take-if-you-knew-you-were-going-to-be-stranded-on-a-desert-island questions, so the Earth is on fire and you and your family are able to sneak onto a rocket headed to Mars and it’s stocked with tablets that are loaded with millions of ebooks. What print books would you still take to the space colonies?
Bluets by Maggie Nelson, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch, Briefs by John Edgar Wideman, Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya, Sorrow Arrow by Emily Kendal Frey, The New Testament by Jericho Brown, Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, At the Bottom of the River by Jamaica Kincaid. (I've picked mostly short books so I can fit more!).
My husband would probably want to bring Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov and sci-fi books I know nothing about. I'd throw in some Octavia Butler for my daughter and a Diary of a Wimpy Kid or two for my son.
You mentioned you got suspended one time (don’t have to answer if you don’t want to and don’t feel bad about declining to answer), what happened?
My friend and I thought it would be fun to spike our Tropicana with vodka and drink it in the high school bathroom. Turns out it wasn't fun for me: being drunk at school just highlighted how boring and depressing it was. But my friend kept drinking and got really schnockered and we ended up getting busted. We had in-school suspension for a few days: we were installed in a little room where we basically read books all day long. The suspension monitor was cool: we turned her on to Richard Brautigan.
To be continued . . .
Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. (Split Lip Press, 2019). Her work appears or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train, Normal School, Electric Literature, Brevity, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, Waxwing, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Colorado, where she teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.