Our editor in chief Lauren Bender recently had this exchange with Noelle Q. de Jesus, our Issue #28 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her writing process, her experiences in workshops, and her inspiration for the short story “Wanting.”
What inspired you to write this story?
What kicked “Wanting” off was the notion that none of us really know what’s going on in other people’s lives, and when we interact with other people, our actions are often projections of our own problems and the unhappiness in our own life. So I had this idea of someone casting themselves as some kind of savior in someone else’s drama…but really, it is all to do with a wanting of their own and nothing to do with reality. I know there are people who self-harm when they are consumed by anger or grief or just overcome by the sheer intensity and lunacy of their own emotions. That was the germ of it.
“Wanting” is part of a new short story collection you’re working on. How do you decide which stories to include when you’re assembling a collection? Is there a certain theme or mood you’re aiming to encapsulate? In a more general sense, what topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
I’ve only ever written one collection—my first book Blood: Collected Stories—and I had already written a version of “Wanting” by the time I was preparing the manuscript of Blood for publication, but I kept it for the second. In general, I saw that in Blood, my protagonists were more youthful, and the themes I was tackling were more in the “coming of age” vein. For this second collection, characters are more mature and the conflicts are more…adult, I think. I am always interested in people in various states of dissolution or pain or grief. I guess it’s the whole Tolstoy quote: happy families are all alike, whereas unhappy families are unhappy in their own specific ways. In my first year doing my MFA, a writing teacher advised us to find our material by choosing to confront our deepest fears and write about them. He said, go to where you are most in pain, most afraid. I have taken that to mean that I should write about my fear, and apparently, what I most fear is unhappiness. That tends to be what I write about.
I am interested in the lies people tell others and themselves, the things they keep secret, the things they do not allow themselves to confront. I’m interested in sexual dynamics and sexuality, because people never ever talk about that. Or at least, they didn’t used to. I’m interested in what differentiates cultures and what remains universal regardless of culture, and I am always interested in the ugly, secret, terrible nitty-gritty of family, relationships, marriages, friendships.
I also enjoy the process of titling stories and sequencing the titles for a collection. So sometimes, I will just make a list that is intended as my “table of contents.”
This story leaves the reader with a lot of unanswered questions. How do you decide how much to give away in a story?
I guess it’s not so much deciding what I will or will not give away, but recognizing that the story ends at a certain point, because going on would take us into another story. A short story is a glimpse of a life. It starts at point A and ends at point G. Things happen beyond point G of course, but they are beyond the coverage of this story. I like to keep to Poe’s “single impression”…so answering all the questions in “Wanting” is not really the point of “Wanting.” Will the doctor leave his wife and take Eloisa away? I don’t think so. Will he leave his wife eventually? Maybe. Will Eloisa fall in love with the doctor? Maybe. But none of that is important. The doctor discovers that what he believes is not, in fact, the truth.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write?
Unfortunately, I have too many stretches where I’m not writing. But I will say that I’m always plotting and always jotting notes down for various things—the novel, a short story idea, a short story that I’ve written from what turned out to be the wrong point of view, so I have to change it. Drafting is to me more painful than revising. I love revising. But generating the entire story from point A to point G is what presents me with the most challenges.
That said, I can write anywhere—on airplanes, in restaurants, in my bed, at the dining table, in a coffee shop. I try to write every day, but too many times there are things that are easier to do—work, argue with people on Facebook about the political situation, play tennis, watch television. There are too many distractions. I’ve gotten the most work done when I go on a trip and I don’t bring my laptop. Instead, I will bring a notebook and a nice dark inky ballpoint pen. By the end of a trip—there will be drafts, paragraphs, ideas for stories or sections of the first novel that I’m working on. I then transfer what I’ve written by hand into a word doc. So I have a lot of word documents in progress, that are short stories in progress or even novels in progress. I prefer to write by hand. The blinking cursor is a pressure to me, as is the blank white of a screen, whereas the lines of a notebook or, as I prefer, the squares of graph paper are always inviting, and I will write pages and pages without sweating it so. I’m a bit of a mess, I’m afraid.
Which artists/writers/thinkers inspire you? Is there anyone you are reading (or engaging with) right now that you’d like to talk about?
As a working freelance writer and editor, I’m not able to read as much as I would like. I volunteered to do a book review column for the American Women’s Association monthly magazine in Singapore so I would be forced to read more, and that has helped tremendously. There are writers whose work I will always love and follow with curiosity: John Irving, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is a truly favorite book because it breaks so many rules. But of late, I’ve enjoyed Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. Right now, I’m enjoying Elizabeth Strout.
What were the challenges (if any) of writing from the perspective of a male, and one who is obsessed with trying to read the mind of a female character?
I am always interested in the male perspective, and I think it’s because I’m tired of the female perspective. I don’t feel so much that it is a challenge, because I find it pleasurable to write from a perspective that’s not mine…or from one that is totally different from mine. My problem is not always being certain that the voice and the perspective rings true. I mean, it certainly feels true to me while I’m writing it, while I’m inhabiting a character, but once a thing is out there, I have no real certainty that it comes off to a reader as “true” and of course, I want it to come off as true. I just have no way of knowing that for sure.
Which character from “Wanting” do you relate to the most and why?
I understand where all of them are coming from…even the clueless wife Elizabeth. I understand the kind of pain that draws someone to hurt herself. And of course, I understand pining for someone as this doctor does. I relate to the husband Manny the most. He understands his wife. She doesn’t think he does, not enough anyway. But he does. That’s why he still tries to keep her from hurting herself. He loves her and doesn’t want her to hurt herself, and for now anyway, he is still engaged. Still talking about trying to make her happy, even though he does not understand why she isn’t. It may not always be like this. He may tire of it, get completely fed up and not give a hoot whether she hurts herself or not. But that is not part of this, not this story, anyway.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Show, don’t tell. Let the dialogue move the story forward. Start in medias res. Small details make place. Place is character.
And then there’s the one I already mentioned. Go straight to the most difficult, terrible, most frightening thing—the thing you don’t want to think about because it scares you and makes you cry—and that’s where you’ll find your best stories. So far, it’s been true. I’d like to try to write a happy story once in a while…but that’s probably even more difficult.
You have written novels, short stories, and children’s literature. Do you have a favorite form? Are there any other forms (or genres) you haven’t had the chance to try yet and are hoping to explore in the future?
I have only written a chicklit novel, and it was very much a formula. I’m working on my first literary novel, and while I’ve written substantial sections of it, I am aware that the structure of it is going to be of utmost importance. In terms of my confidence levels, I have to stick with what I’ve done the most of. As much as I’d like to say the novel is my favorite, the truth is I know what to do for a short story, and I generally trust my instincts. A novel is too much of a juggling act. I’m just not that confident and it has yet to feel like it’s coming naturally.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: could you share a best—or worst—workshop experience?
My worst experience was at the UP Writer’s Workshop in Manila where I put up a story about a happy mail-order bride, and the faculty on the panel basically said it was an irresponsible story because I was romanticizing the mail-order bride experience. Many Filipina women become mail-order brides as a way to escape a life of poverty. My attempt to defend the story by saying it was fiction did not help matters.
My best workshop experience took place during my second year as an MFA student at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Anyone who has gone through an MFA program will recognize that point where we were at…when you know your classmates so well, you know what kind of story they will put up and you know who will say what about each.
My friend Andy and I complained to each other about how Workshop was “getting old” and couldn’t we do something to spice it up. So we agreed that for the following week that we both had to put work up for discussion, I would write his story and he would write mine. So that’s what we did. He wrote a Filipina in the US story, and I wrote a White Man and Sexual Dynamics story. I remember consciously trying to imitate his style and cadences. I think he did the same. And the class workshopped it.
It was fun for both of us, but doubly fun for me as the evening progressed. The class basically said my story (which was his) was the worst one I’d ever turned in, and his story (mine) was really interesting and the best they had seen from him. Which couldn’t have been that fun for him, now that I think about it. After all the discussions were over, we told the class what we had done, and they were not happy either. I guess no one likes that kind of a prank. The teacher was sort of miffed, even though we sort of proved the theory that people do tend to say the same kinds of things each time. But, well, you can see why that was a “best” experience for me and certainly a memorable one. The sad part is that I lost the story—otherwise, I’d put it in my second collection and put “For Andy” underneath the title, which was “Hangman.” Sometimes I think about recreating it, but it probably wasn’t all that good.