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Monday, March 05, 2012

Interview with Jenniey Tallman: mother, maven, published writer

It's time for an interview. Why? Because it's important for writers and readers to connect on a human level. And this is a special interview because I've known Jenniey Tallman since I was an awkward girl hanging out with her little sister.

When I was in middle school, Jenniey taught us how to steam our faces: Boil a pot of water and carefully lean over it -not too close!- while draping a towel over our heads and arms, giving the illusion that we're in a secret chamber. A hot-ass chamber that will catch fire if you don't keep your arms up! Remember to keep your arms up! Haha.

And in high school, I totally envied her yearbook photo: Jenniey smiling, kneeling under a beautiful tree that highlighted her red hair amongst a page of face-painted, hair-fried girls. Of course, I can't imagine what my own photo looked like that year. Probably no makeup, clothes five sizes too large, wearing one of my dad's flannels. So don't feel bad painted and fried girls.

My point, you ask? Jenniey is one of a kind. She always has been. And now the world gets to experience a little bit of that unique spirit through Jenniey's writing.  
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Jenniey, your writing captures everyday events in a way that makes them magical, dirty, and sentimental all at once. I think many writers shy from such depth -especially the little details that are just this side of being fucked six ways to Sunday- because it leaves them open to the most personal and, consequently, the most humiliating criticisms. Yet you do it flawlessly every time. Your characters and stories resonate. Broken people and moments look gorgeous in their truths, even while they feel ugly because of them. Your writing seems to leave the impression that it's okay to look at an inverted reflection in the mirror and say, "Yep, that's me. If you don't like it, kindly go suck it."


Are you really that fearless in your writing?

All right, firstly — you are awesome. It is incredibly swell of you to say all those nice things.

Fearless? I don’t intend to be, but yes, I suppose I am —at least the writing part is, and here is why: I usually begin writing with brutal honesty. It isn’t always comfortable; for instance, sometimes I feel nervous about my language, but when I’ve tried to make things comfortable it feels safe, false, and boring. So I end up thinking, Oh, screw it all. I’ll write what I feel like. Nobody has to read this.

After that, I am less fearless — when I have to put the work out into the world. At this point I either find the guts to ask someone to read it (all the while thinking, Screw you. Fine, you will never speak to me again, but I can live with that), or I send it as a submission somewhere thinking, Screw everybody. I’m sending this out.

Sometimes, I do a lot of revision, with a couple of excellent friends’ input and critique — overall I feel much less shy of this work. However, quite often, I’ll have something published after little revision and when no one (outside of the editor) has even read it — I feel painfully shy of these pieces. So, in that way, I am not fearless at all. In fact, I often feel like withdrawing completely.

You have a background in women's studies and sexuality. Do you utilize these fields of study to promote certain feminine platforms in your writing? Or do they kind of coexist, sometimes mingling, fraternizing, goading, playing with the idea of that first kiss?

I would say that studying those issues was the logical next step for me when I saw the themes recurring in my writing. In other words, the writing came first, then the studies. Class and identity issues are very important to me: labels, women, minorities, “abnormal” people. There are perfectly good reasons for this: as you know, my family is made up of pretty much every type of person ever put into a box. My experiences have been formed through devalued, stereotyped, and misunderstood populations.

As for the feminine: I started out writing about mothering. It was my experience, so I wrote about it. I wasn’t aware that this subject in writing was not highly regarded until much later. I did not know that stories about socioeconomically disadvantaged poor people were undesirable. Now that I know, I don’t change my writing to reflect other people’s experiences. I do, however, try to trick people into reading my writing anyway. 

Do you have a "typical" writing process or is it different for each project?

I suppose it is pretty typical. However, my first and only writing teacher told me that being a writer was like being a magician and one should never divulge her tricks. I can tell you that when I am writing, it is all I can think about. My mood is altered by the story I’m telling, sort of like a method actor — kinda sucks for my husband and kids. I always read my work aloud to myself, sometimes going so far as to record it and play it back to get objectivity. The rhythm of the words might be the very most important thing to me, even in fiction.

What is the most surprising thing you've learned about yourself through your writing? (And maybe about other people, as well.)

This is a really hard question. I don’t know if I have an answer for it. Have I learned anything about myself through my writing? That I am a feminist. That I like minimalism.

Which project was the most difficult, and why?

No question: an as yet unpublished apocalyptic tribal fiction story. (A very kind rejection labeled it that, not me.) I am still working on it and worry that I may well be working on it for the rest of my life. That is all right though; I really like the characters so I don’t mind spending time with them. It is just hard because I keep thinking it is done only to find out that it isn’t. It also has the distinction of being the first and only straight fiction writing I’ve done. Fiction does not come easily to me.

I will always carry one specific sentence in my mind from your story 'Truths About Suicidal Women', published in the Alice Blue Review. "Suicidal women keep the magic markers and paints above the refrigerator." It makes me laugh, while a squishy, reserved inner part of me simply nods. What is one of your favorite lines or moments from your writing and why?

That is really sweet of you, Blakely. I like that line too. It was actually that line which led me to the title of the story and to use that particular format — the framework of suicidal women.

Off the top of my head: from “Into the Rainforest” (published in annalemma). I love the line that says something like, “We did not used to like eating small boiled fish, but now they taste good to us.” The truth is, I adore that story, but, that might be because it is something I would personally like to read. It perfectly captures the transitional moment when the narrator is no longer one of us. 

The "Mommy" question: With three sons that you "unschool", when do you write? What do you do when you're not writing? It's okay to lie. (Okay, that was a lie.) You have always been a "creator". That's how I picture you, anyway. I remember artwork covering your house growing up, and I suppose I've kept that image. Only now, I imagine three boys wreaking havoc in a high-speed chase through your house while you smile and find a table or wall to showcase their latest arts and crafts. Maybe next to one of your own. Am I totally wrong? (It's okay to lie here. It's also okay to admit that you do things that don't involve glue, glitter, paints, or the Victoria Secret catalog. (Yeah, I saw that blog post.)

Damn, Blakely. You pegged me. That is it, exactly. It is funny that this question follows the markers/paints, because that is a part of it. I do not keep the paints and markers out of reach, but if I did, I imagine I would be suicidal — it points to a lifestyle which is more concerned with order and cleanliness than with expression and spontaneity, and that would, quite frankly, make me suicidal.

When I write, it is with an invisible shield. I just let whatever is happening happen and put my blinders on. I get really, really, angry when one of the kids tries to pull me out of my trance. If they make a mess or a lot of noise, on the other hand, it doesn’t bother me at all. So, I write whenever I feel like it — as long as the boys aren’t sick or in need of parenting. I suffer from serious insomnia, so I do end up writing quite a lot when the house is asleep. Actually “suffer” sounds like a lie, to me. I suffered from it until I learned that I could write during that time, or do submissions — I do a lot of editing/polishing at those hours, actually.

I believe there should be 30 hours in a day. How many would you suggest?

Oh, I would completely agree as long as during the extra hours the kids would just sleep. Otherwise, no thanks. For a long time, nursing babies and whatnot, I lost track of hours and days entirely. That was good for me — having one long never-ending day. It drives some people mad, but it worked well for me. 

If you could pet any type of creature (real/mythical/mythological/supernatural/etc...), what would it be and why?

There is one particular kitten on Youtube — it is a Himalayan thing being unimaginably cute and soft. It makes me shake a little to think of it; I would eat it if I could.

You're not off the hook yet! Since I'm such a fan of the Actor's Studio with James Lipton, I'm going to require that you answer Lipton's "Final Ten".

1) What is your favorite word?
As.
2) What is your least favorite word?
Traditional.
3) What turns you on?
Kittens. KIDDING! Squirrels.
4) What turns you off?
Regurgitated bacon.
5) What sound or noise do you love?
A baby’s first attempts at speech.
6) What sound or noise do you hate?
Loud unexpected noises make me cry (Have you seen The Catherine Tate Show? <http://youtu.be/8JdeMenMTL4>.
7) What is your favorite curse word?
Fuck-a-duck (and make it cluck).
8) What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’d love to own an Inn — a place for weary travelers to stop for a bite, a brew, and a bed. I’ll do the cooking, Chris will do the brewing, the boys can do the housekeeping… we’ll be like the Green Valley <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CapsH0RQgE8>.
9) What profession would you not like to do?
Anything commercial.
10) If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Sincerely, I’m an atheist. I’m not saying that is what I’d like to hear; I just mean: really, fish don’t ride bicycles.

Here are but a few of Jenniey's published works:
'study, nine', Elimae:
http://elimae.com/2012/02/Study.html
'Into The Rainforest', Annalemma Magazine:
http://annalemma.net/features/into-the-rainforest.html
'Truths About Suicidal Women', Alice Blue Review:
http://www.alicebluereview.org/thirteen/prose/tallman.html

For the latest Jenniey news, kindly visit her website:
http://jennieytallman.com/
or her blog
http://jennieytallman.com/words/
She is also "not" on Twitter :) here:
https://twitter.com/#!/jennieytallman


Thank you Jenniey,
for a lot more than your words!