Barbara Straus Lodge: I’m sitting here with Erica Jamieson at one of our favorite writing places, The Funnel Mill in Santa Monica, California. We have written together for years. Erica, did you ever think I’d be interviewing you about a recent publication?
Erica Jamieson: I’m just so thrilled that we’ll have our names in the same literary journal at the same time! I hope it’s a precedent that continues! Should we order our Chai Masala before we get started?
BL: Oh yes, and in fact, I read somewhere that in Ayurvedic medicine the main ingredients in chai are described as “sattvic” – known to revitalize and simultaneously help clear the mind and calm the spirit. A perfect beginning to our meeting. Let me begin by telling you how deeply moved I was by your most recent publication, Hope Like Blue Skies. Will you explain your inspiration for this most beautiful, poignant short story?
EJ: I wrote this piece in response to a short story contest in which we were asked to take a picture off of the internet and use it as a prompt for a story. I searched through the public pictures on Picasso and found a photo of an old ice cream truck with the word “Waratah” printed on the side. When I started writing the story, the only thing I had in mind was a broken down truck and a couple. I felt somehow the truck was going to be symbolic of something broken in them.
Netta was based very loosely on someone in my family who’s spirits never faltered despite some significant challenges in her life, including miscarriage and giving birth to a stillborn child. As this story took shape, I saw the ice cream truck balanced against this kind of grief. I created the husband character, Rex, to reflect upon the profound effect such grief might have on a husband as well as a wife. I pictured him as having just gotten stuck in his own sadness, the same way a broken down truck would become immovable. I played with the notion that Netta would have an innate understanding of time and healing and the hope a new pregnancy would bring.
BL: In much of your other work like Angels In The Wind, (Spittoon Magazine, December 2011), and All That Remains of Etta, (Lilith Magazine, Spring 2013), you use nature, especially wind, as a metaphor. Will you expand on that?
EJ: Okay, that’s astute. I hadn’t noticed I do that, and it’s not intentional from story to story but now that you bring it up, wind and/or the change in weather is something present in a lot of my work. I don’t write much about weather, but I do see wind and change as powerful elements that interact with characters either as catalyst for reflection or as a some sort of guide. I grew up in the Great Lakes Region so sudden bursts of inexplicable weather was very common. I remember so much of my childhood as centered around these drastic changes in weather and that I was extremely sensitive to them. One of my strongest memories from camp was of standing on the porch to our cabin and feeling a storm roll in over Lake Charlevoix.
There would be wind, than rain, than sudden blackness, then sunshine! We’d stay in the cabin for the hour or so it lasted playing Jacks or cards, but the best part was standing on the porch being part of those extreme natural forces.
BL: You were so young to have had an awareness of being part of something much bigger than yourself. No wonder you are so wise! And how do you see your work as a reflection of incorporating this sensitivity to nature in your work?
EJ: So, In Angels there is a scene where Eloise goes to the window and watches great gusts of wind bending the trees so they appear to be dancing in circles, then bowing down to the ground and rising again. It’s that moment that she understands the depth of her grief over both her loss of her husband and her assistance in his suicide. Years before I wrote that story, I woke to loud Santa Ana winds in the middle of the night and I watched this swirling of tree tops out of my window. By the time I turned to wake up my husband, the wind had stilled and the night was quiet again. I always wondered why I saw that, if I really did! I felt like there was a message in that wind, and for Eloise at the moment she has tried to erase some of Eli from her body, the angels speak to her and tell her it won’t be that easy.
In Etta, I used the swirling snow at the moment the two woman meet to create a fugue state in which past and present might viscerally be blurred. There is a woman in a black coat that reminds her so much of her mother, and I think that happens, we blur memories sometimes, the past seems to get swirled and meshed with the present. I hope by infusing familiar sensibilities of the weather, readers get that visceral sense of change. In Hope, the virtual paralysis of both characters is plays against the hot, stifling heat, only to be broken by the storm that comes crashing wildly in with the understanding that Netta is pregnant again.
BL: That is so interesting to me, having been born and raised in LA without knowing dramatic weather. But I do love our version of wind, especially the Santa Anas…I feel their excitement and believe the wind carries, or at the very least, reminds us of the interconnectedness of all life. Your stories highlight how changes in nature can create awareness of both our internal and external words. I very much enjoy reading your insights. Now that we are talking about some of your other stories, you often address the theme of grief and recovery, why is that so?
EJ: Yes, well for a while I did find myself writing a series of stories about grief, Hope included. I seem to be breaking out of that now but when I started, I was inspired by people who survive — who go on with their lives and even thrive in the face of immeasurable grief. Their capacity to heal and grow through unfathomable suffering, even finding a way to live with joy and hope, is what both humbled and astonished me.
I haven’t suffered that kind of unexpected loss and my respect for the individuals who have has resulted in my creating these characters. I hope my stories do honor to the people who have suffered inexplicable losses. They were written out of reverence and a humble attempt at empathy.
BL: Well, I certainly compliment you on your courage to approach such tender, difficult topics. Your writing does what you intend and not only illustrates this kind of strength, yet also allows the reader to relate in an empathetic, compassionate way. And so, why the title, Hope Like Blue Skies?
EJ: I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I wanted to challenge myself to write a story that wasn’t necessarily all on the page, and of course that brings to mind Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. That was my inspiration for the how I originally approached this story and in earlier versions, I think the interchange between Netta and Rex was far more subtle making it difficult to understand how they had arrived at their current situation. I tried to write a story with grave undertones because I think that’s where we carry so much of real life, in those undertones. You know, we talk about the weather but we are really talking about what happened at the party last night!
BL: What are you working on now?
EJ: I’m always writing short stories and listening. When I’m at a coffee shop and overhear conversations, oftentimes, a line of that conversation wakes a character up in my head.
BL: That sounds intriguing! Go on….
EJ: Let’s say I’m somewhere and I hear something out of context….I can’t wait to create a world around the words I heard and try to guess what they might actually mean. My kids do that with me all the time. They point out a flamboyantly dressed person or an irate customer and they ask “what’s their story?” The more outrageous I get with telling the story, the more they love it. There’s inspiration everywhere. We just have to get out of our own heads and take note. So much easier said than done, though.
BL: Easier said than done is the understatement of the week! Describe for me your writing process.
EJ: I’m always writing starts to stories. I like beginnings. In fact, most of my published work has started with a beginning that I put away for a while and returned to years later. When I read those early beginnings with a more mature eye,
I take off into a story that might not otherwise have been there when I wrote them down before. Life experience helps. Another perk of aging. Currently, though, I’m turning my focus towards writing a novel. As I’m used to thinking in vignettes I’m really challenging myself to see a character through his or her full experience. In a novel, characters move into and out of experiences and I need to envision him or her handling new and different challenges. I need to get to know my characters deeply, inside and out, and hopefully they will then help me through those processes as well.
BL: I thought I was alone! I’ve always written personal essays for publication, short pieces with beginnings, middles, and ends…and now that I’m in the process of writing a much longer piece, my memoir, I’m faced with the challenge of consistently weaving the character’s personalities and changing life experiences throughout the book. It’s definitely different. Looking at both the forest and the trees can certainly be both daunting and enlivening, given the unexpected gusts of wind. Good luck with your novel. I know it will be fantastic. And thanks so much for taking the time away from getting to know your characters to talk with me, Erica. I look forward to writing together and reading more and more of your work.
The stories mentioned in this interview can be read at Erica’s website, www.ericawjamieson.com.