Our poetry co-editor JD Fox recently had this exchange with Jessica Bryant Klagmann, our Issue #21 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about the inspiration behind “June, Fierce and Simple,” her approach to writing, and what she took away from her MFA experience.
What inspired you to write this piece?
As with every story I’ve written, I was inspired by a series of unrelated images and ideas that somehow became tangled up with one another in my mind. For this story, there was the big, brown lumpy “creature” in the giant cottonwood across the street from my house. When I got out the binoculars I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what it was. The next day it was gone. There was the mesa and arroyo that was our back yard, and the lone cottonwood out there that seemed so out of place amidst the juniper and cholla cactus. While driving, I saw a man walking with what seemed great effort out to his mailbox one hot afternoon and thought, I’m going to write a story about that man. But the real heart of it was the man who worked maintenance at the college where I taught, who sat down in my office one day and told me how he’d go out to water his garden in the middle of the night when it was cooler, and how he was always afraid he’d trip over the hose and hurt himself, but how ultimately he liked doing it because he was “really into astronomy.” I loved that and wanted to write about it immediately, but it was probably a year before I’d collected the rest of the pieces and finally started writing anything.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
I’m not sure I’d want readers to get any ideas about love or relationships, as much as a sense that there are magical things in the world, and we can choose to follow them or we can choose not to. The mountain lion Pietro and Luisa find may not be their “monster”—it probably isn’t—but that hardly matters. They got where they needed to be because they were drawn to a certain mystery, they gave meaning to it, they chose to follow it, and it eventually led them to that place.
The catalyst for Pietro and Luisa’s relationship is the investigation of a strange, unknown creature. How did you decide on this particular anchor?
It emerged naturally as these two people became more real to me and were drawn toward each other. There is a quote from Flannery O’Connor that “If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen and you don’t have to know what before you begin.” I think about this often, and in this case, I knew I wanted to write Pietro’s character, but it wasn’t until I actually started putting words on the page and saw him in real situations that Luisa, and then the creature, came into the story at all. A woman in the dark, a “monster” in a tree—these created choices for him. As things started to evolve, I found Pietro and Luisa orbiting this one mysterious hub, and their different responses to it became a way to develop their personalities and their conflicting ideas about love.
One of the things the story made me think about was getting older and the things we’ve never done, never risked. Is this a theme you have explored before in your writing?
I’ve written a lot of main characters who are observers. They tend to never venture too far out of their comfort zones, and they don’t fit in well with the rest of the world. Someone pointed this out to me—as well as the fact that usually nothing happens in stories about people who just watch what goes on around them—and I made a conscious effort to write a story where a character was drawn to do something he wouldn’t normally do. So I guess I’ve explored the theme of not doing, not risking, but only more recently started writing characters past that point into unfamiliar territory. It’s much more exciting to me, and I imagine for the reader as well.
Could you describe your writing process in general, and how you approach revising?
I collect images, ideas, sentences over time. Sometimes I write them down, sometimes I don’t, sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it. But eventually there comes a point when many of them suddenly come together in my mind—they seem connected. I’ll start with one and see how it leads me to the next. Once I have what feels like a complete story, I’ll read through, revising as I go. But my best revising tool is always time. I need to let a story sit for a while—weeks, months—and usually in that time a missing moment or a key piece of dialogue will come to me. Then the story feels like it’s found itself. It happens best when my mind is wandering and I’m not trying too hard. The stories are always better when they’ve had time to mature on their own schedules rather than mine.
We were impressed with how you manage to balance the allegorical impulse with the very concrete physical sense of your characters and their setting. Did the creature come to you first as symbol, or as creature?
The creature came as a creature first, and it’s probably better that way. Starting out trying to write an allegory would—for me anyway—always feel too heavily allegorical. I like to get pretty far into writing a story before I look at its parts and wonder what it all means. That’s when it gets exciting, and when I figure out who the characters really are and what they want and where they’re going. Once I saw the relationship between Pietro and Luisa evolving around the creature, I began to see it as a symbol and went back to revise with an eye to that particular symbolism. I was amazed to find that much of what I’d already written laid the groundwork for the creature as a metaphor. I enjoy moments like those so much.
You grew up in New Hampshire, got an MFA in Alaska, and now live in New Mexico. How do you choose where to set your stories?
My stories usually start with something that is unique to place. I’m interested in images that are grounded and very real, but can be made magical by the characters’ perception of them. I like to take places I know well, find what’s extraordinary about ordinary things—particularly in the natural world—that could exist only in those places, and then build stories around them.
What are you working on now?
Something that I hope will become a novel. Set in Alaska.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
I had a writing teacher who, on every single story, would draw a line sometimes two paragraphs in, sometimes two pages in, and write, “Start Here.” I always found it so annoying until I realized how much more interesting it is to begin in the heart of a scene—halfway through some dialogue or in the middle of some action—without all the neatness of setting it up first.
What is the first story you remember writing?
I was a visual arts major in college and took creative writing somewhat by accident. I didn’t take it very seriously and my first story was an embarrassing mystery-adventure sort of thing, complete with a getaway boat sailing into the sunset at the end. I had fun writing it, but it was terrible. It was torn apart by the other writers (rightfully so), and by the end of the class I was so fascinated and hooked by what a real literary workshop felt like that I’d decided to change my major to writing.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer? Who gives you inspiration?
I’m most inspired by language and I learn a lot from how other writers use it. When things aren’t flowing, I’ll pick up any book by the same few writers and read a couple pages: Richard Ford because he’s so direct; Rick Bass because he’s so lyrical; Karen Russell because she’s so lively. Others lend me a sense of freedom as a writer: Italo Calvino, Jose Saramago, and especially The Boy with the Cuckoo Clock Heart by Mathias Malzieu.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience? What did you take away from your MFA experience?
In one workshop, we were asked to write a manifesto about what we resist in our writing. Then we read them aloud. I wrote about resisting sentimentality and realized that because I was so afraid of anything sounding sappy, I was always trying to skirt dramatic issues and keep all emotions as subtle as possible. It made for really boring stories. So this manifesto was like therapy for my writing. The best thing I got out of my MFA experience was discipline—to write when I don’t feel as inspired as I’d like to, to learn something from everything I read, to take risks with my work.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
Leo Lionni’s Frederick.
What is your ideal creative weather?
I’ve grown partial to the dark and the cold. Summer is beautiful, and I’m too easily distracted. Winter is beautiful in a quieter way, like a blank canvas.