Interview with Jen McConnell

Katie Phillips: Hi, Jen. We were thrilled to have your story “Shakespeare’s Garden” in this issue of r.kv.r.y. Please tell us a bit about your writing process. Do you prefer a certain time of day? A certain place in your home or apartment? What habits do you practice to get in the writing groove?

Jen McConnell: Sometimes I wish I could schedule myself to write every day, say for two hours to work steadily at this story or that novel. And sometimes I can. I did National Novel Writing Month last November and got up most mornings and wrote, half awake, from 6:30 – 7:30. But I could only keep that up for a limited time. Life just gets in the way.

Virginia Woolf said we need a room of our own to write, but for me, I write where I can, when I can – at home, at a coffee shop, on a computer, longhand in my journal. Most writers I know are like this. I think those writers that can schedule four hours blocks of writing time every morning, like Stephen King, are the exception, not the rule.

While I was in Goddard College’s low-residency MFA program, I was lucky enough to work just part-time. Some days I could write for 10 hours straight in my sweats in my apartment. Other days I was lucky to get an hour at the coffee shop.

Any sense of schedule I had went out the window after my daughter was born in 2005. Since then it’s been even more ad hoc. But that’s just the physical act of writing.

My creative process, however, is much more specific to my personality.

For me writing is the way I release the thoughts and feelings–coherent or not–that rattle around inside me. I don’t consciously plan out what story I’m going to tell. The story comes to me.

The stories I like to read most are those that don’t feel like they were written by someone. Those stories that feel as if they were out there in the world and were simply transcribed or translated from an invisible language.

Alice Munro, Richard Ford and Charles Baxter are great examples of getting out of the way of the story. At my best, I feel like this kind of translator. As if a story is handed to me, fully formed, and it is my duty to write it down as best as I can. This has happened to me a few times.

The first draft of my story “What We Call Living” was written longhand during a plane ride. I did very little editing between the first and final drafts and, because of that, the raw emotion remained intact. Different scenes in the story “The Last Time” had been recurring to me–separately–for years but one day, like jigsaw pieces finding each other, they suddenly snapped together.

The latest short story I’ve written, “The Divorced Man’s Guide to the First Year,” came to me so unexpectedly that I pulled my car to the side of the road to write in my journal as fast as I could. This is what I mean by getting out of the way of the story.

Other stories, like Shakespeare’s Garden, are much more challenging. In fact, the final version that is published here took ten years to get to.

With these more difficult stories, the ideas and emotions are there at the beginning but by the end of the first draft something is just not right. So I try something else–add a new character, change the setting or reverse the point of view–but I have finally learned that instead of tinkering endlessly with a draft, I need to open up and let the real story come to me. It is much easier for me to let go now, after fifteen years of writing, when it was at the beginning, when I so desperately wanted to control what I was writing.

colorful flowers

KP: In “Shakespeare’s Garden,” Evelyn and Janey experience grief in different ways. How do you feel their respective experiences fit in with the theme of recovery?

JM: I don’t actually create the characters in my stories. I simply chronicle their actions. In that vein, I believe that Evelyn and Janey act as they always have (and always will): Evelyn waits and Janey ignores. Because of this, when Richard dies, Evelyn’s life comes to a complete standstill, which she was heading for all along. Janey tries to smooth things into shape by having the driveway fixed. This is how the women cope. They have preempted recovery by not confronting their own grief. Unfortunately, this only postpones the inevitable, and painful, process of recovery. A friend of mine who has M.S. told me once that nothing hurts as much as healing does.


KP: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing?

JM: Having an incomplete idea. Ideas come to me all the time – for scenes, stories, screenplays, novels. But besides not having enough time to write (every writer’s biggest challenge), I am overwhelmed with these bits and pieces when I have no sense what to do with them.

Sometimes I will have part of a story in my brain for years but it doesn’t go anywhere. Sometimes I’ll try to force it into another story or idea I have, but it just doesn’t gel. So I let the idea go. I have dozens of these ideas floating around.

But sometimes, one idea will find another and they will give birth to a whole story. It sounds silly when I write this, but that’s how it happens for me. Inevitably, the ideas and stories that don’t work are the ones I try to force.

Most times though, ideas find each other when I am NOT thinking about them – usually while I am walking the dog or in the shower. That’s when I have to hurry and find my journal and get it down before it’s gone.


KP: Which work of Shakespeare inspires you most and why?

JM: Hamlet is a close second. It is such an amazing character study. But my very favorite is Twelfth Night. I’ve seen it performed many times and it’s just so clever and fun. Each time it is so refreshing, it’s like watching it for the first time again. I think being able to read or view something over and over again is the highest compliment that we can pay to art.

One of the best nights of my life was seeing Twelfth Night performed under a night sky in London at the reproduction of the Globe Theater. I was filled with joy during the entire performance, and amazed that a story, written hundreds of years ago, can still be so transformative without any “modern” translation. Seeing it reminds me of the true power of words and inspires me to keep writing.

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