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“Authors are just notoriously difficult,” says the publicity director in Jessica Francis Kane’s story “How to Become a Publicist” from her 2002 collection Bending Heaven. While this might be true of some writers, we can’t imagine anyone saying it of Kane, who was warm, cheerful, and funny when The Voice spoke to her on the phone about her wonderful new collection, This Close (Graywolf Press). The book’s 12 deftly told stories are quiet, tender portraits of characters who find themselves in difficult, often heartbreaking situations and the new truths they must invent in order to cope.
Kane, who lives in New York with her husband and two children, is also the author of The Report, which was a 2010 finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. Tonight, she will read from and discuss her collection at 7:30 at Greenlight Bookstore. She talks to us about her love of difficult characters, being a guinea pig in an e-reader experiment, and how she got over her fear of talking on the telephone.
You worked in book publicity for several years before becoming a full-time writer. Can you talk about those experiences and how you came to quit your day job?
I was an English major in college, and right after college I came to New York to work in publishing. At the time I was debating whether to apply to an MFA program. But I wasn’t sure how I would pay for it or that it was what I wanted to do. I was convinced at the time—this was the early ’90s—that maybe I should just work in publishing and write on the side and somehow I would succeed in that way with time. I tried very hard to get a job as an editorial assistant, which is what I thought would suit me best temperamentally. But I couldn’t get one. So, the job that I took was as a publicity assistant [at W.W. Norton]. I went from a person who really truly as a teenager was afraid to use the phone to order pizza—I mean, I would make my mom or my brother do it because I really didn’t like to be on the phone—to suddenly making cold calls to book-review editors and radio producers to get press for our books.
How did that go?
I did it for a couple of years, and it did kind of work out the way I had hoped. I was meeting writers and editors, and I was taking workshops at the Writers Studio and writing in the mornings before work and in the evenings. “How to Become a Publicist” really is one of my most autobiographical stories. I was surviving on ramen and peanut butter. My starting salary in 1993 was $18,000. So I was barely making enough money. But still, I remember those years very fondly.
And then I married my college boyfriend, who had gone to law school in Virginia. We’d stayed together but lived apart and were missing each other very much. When he asked me to marry him I thought I would leave New York and try writing in Virginia, which I thought might be a little easier, and I’d be able to eat more than ramen noodles. So I lived down there and worked at the Barnes and Noble. I think I was their first events coordinator because it had just opened. And I was still trying to write.
Was it hard to juggle a full-time job and writing?
Well, that I thought it was at the time. But now that I have two children, I don’t think that it was really that hard. I don’t know what I did with all that spare time. I guess everything you do expands to fill the time you have. So I thought that it was hard. But I look back on those years now and I think, God! I had so much time. What was I doing?
That’s very funny. Many of the female characters in This Close are rather tragic. Some have lost a child, others are suffering from depression and alcoholism. What is it that draws you to these sad women?
That is a good question. I am drawn to sad women. It’s funny. I see them as sort of making the best of their circumstances, almost not admitting how sad things really are. I suppose, in life, people like that intrigue me. I’ve known many difficult women, and I’m fascinated by them. Even in fiction I love difficult characters. Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge comes to mind. I thought she was a fantastic creation. She’s a very difficult woman. And so I guess my characters come out of a certain fascination with making the best out of life even if it hasn’t gone the way you’d hoped. Another theme that interests me is the stories we tell ourselves to explain our own lives and how problematic that can be when your loved ones tell a slightly different story so that the stories don’t always overlap. So, in a family, it’s like a Venn diagram—everybody’s story of the family is different, and there’s maybe only a little overlap about what’s really true. It’s that constellation of narratives that really interests me.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Next in Line,” which is told by a mother who believes her baby died because she came into contact with the Grim Reaper at CVS. How did that story come about?
That is the very first story I wrote after my daughter was born. It took me awhile to get back to writing after she was born. I was having a hard time merging the mother and the writer and figuring out how I was going to balance both of those things. It was as if I had to imagine the worst thing that could happen as I tried to bring these two selves together. I have heard other writers talk about this superstition that if you imagine the worst thing then it won’t happen to you. I suppose it was born out of some sense of that.
Who is your favorite author you wish more people knew about?
Can I do a couple?
The novel I read most recently that I just fell in love with is Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder. It’s so fantastic. I thought it would be on all the shortlists, and it hasn’t been. But many people I know thought it was a fantastic novel, and I thought it was overlooked and it shouldn’t have been.
And then there’s the writer Michael Downing. Sentence by sentence he is the most wonderful writer. His most recent book is a beautiful memoir called Life With Sudden Death. His father and brother both died suddenly of heart failure. So he makes the decision to have genetic testing to find out if he’s predisposed to having the same thing happen to him. Ultimately, he decides to have surgery to have a defibrillator implanted in his chest, and it just sends him down this horrible road of medical disaster.
I keep hearing authors say that now is the most difficult time in years to be publishing literary fiction. From your experience, do you feel that’s true?
It is very difficult if you have in mind a very traditional path of publishing. The traditional path is changing by the week, it seems. It’s a business in so much transition. The big houses are having a harder time publishing literary fiction. But there are so many smaller houses that are doing such amazing work. If I were starting out of college right now I would be confused about the path to follow and what to do. It seemed like maybe it was simpler 20 years ago when I had graduated. But from my perspective now, I look at places like Tin House or Coffeehouse Press or Graywolf Press, and I just think these smaller presses are publishing such amazing writers—and it’s all literary fiction. They don’t have a business model that allows them to publish a cookbook or a celebrity memoir or something that’s going to make a lot of money to support the other books. So, if you look around, in one way it feels like there are more opportunities for literary fiction to be published.
When your first collection came out in 2002, the Kindle didn’t exist. Do you see e-readers as a good thing for the short story?
I’m really fascinated by this. The U.K. publisher [Portobello Books] that is bringing out This Close felt the short-story scene with e-readers was really changing and very dynamic, and so they wanted to try something brand-new. So I’m sort of their guinea pig. This Close is the first book they’re releasing as an Amazon Single individually week by week until the collection is done and available as a whole at the end. They’ve designed different covers for each story. There will also be a paper edition distributed in the U.K., but it will actually be the U.S. edition. So my U.K. publisher is only going to publish these stories as Amazon Singles.
How do you feel about being the guinea pig?
At first I thought, really? I love books. I want something I can hold. But when they agreed to allow the U.S. edition to be distributed there that made me very happy because then people who don’t use e-readers can still get the book. But it does seem like there are all these new opportunities and Portobello has thought really hard about this and they are very creative and are trying to keep up with the times and even be ahead of the times. And I think they may be onto something. I love the idea of the covers being different. So, we’ll see!