by Nick Reilly
“Do more kindnesses than you ask for.”
Jac Jemc is a Chicago-based writer and educator. She just published her second novel last August, The Grip of It, about a troubled couple who purchase a possibly haunted house in a small town. The Grip of It has received positive notices in O: the Oprah Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Esquire, and Entertainment Weekly, among others. She also teaches creative writing and is the nonfiction editor of Hobart. Jemc was kind enough to sit down with UntitledTown Blogger Nick Reilly via an internet connection to talk a bit about her writing.
UntitledTown: What initially drew you to writing as a creative expression?
Jac Jemc: Ultimately it comes down to language. I was initially drawn to the theater, but I appreciate the way in which I’m allowed total control when writing fiction, while still working with narrative and the ways different language can shape story. I like exploring the freedom and surprise allowed by the constrictions of the page.
UT: Which writers have made the biggest impression on you? Which horror novels/ stories have done the same?
JJ: I love Mary Robison and Amy Hempel and Lindsay Hunter for their gorgeous, surprising sentences and humor. As far as horror: Shirley Jackson’s dread, Kathryn Davis’s willingness to experiment with voice and narrative braiding, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” was one of the first “literary” stories that scared the heck out of me, but, maybe, more than any of these, I love classic ghost stories and hearing people tell me what’s happened to them that they can’t explain.
UT: Writing a novel is an arduous process for most. What aspect have you found to be the most difficult? What part of the process do you find to be the most rewarding?
JJ: I think the most difficult aspect is usually the most rewarding. For The Grip of It, my agent and I struggled to figure out what was off about earlier drafts. Initially, three narrators told different aspects of the story, and after trying some other fixes, we realized it needed to be pared down to only James and Julie, the husband and wife. It was tough to cut a character’s perspective that comprised a third of the book, and to reorganize that info through the POV’s of the other characters, but I felt so relieved when I finished the work and I could see how much better the book was for that adjustment. It was an excellent lesson in not shying away from hard work.
UT: How has teaching impacted your writing?
JJ: It has helped my writing immeasurably. Reading student work and formalizing my thoughts on what works or doesn’t about a piece allows me to return to my own work with a more critical eye. I also just feel so grateful for all of the good luck and generosity I’ve received from teachers and mentors over the years, I’m so happy to serve in that capacity for the next batch of up and coming writers.
UT: What inspired you to link a domestic narrative with a haunted house tale in The Grip of It?
JJ: I’m not an outliner, so I didn’t plan it from the start, but I did know that I wanted to write about a haunted house, and ultimately all haunted house stories reflect and physicalize some dynamic of the people living in the house, so it developed quite naturally. I knew I wanted conflicting points of view from the start, and so that immediately draws attention to the ways in which these two people, who are trying to solve some issues in their marriage, experience these same events in very different ways.
UT: Which dynamic came first: the house, or Julie and James? Which proved more difficult to represent?
JJ: They really came simultaneously and the two elements drive each other forward. In earlier drafts, more elements of haunting existed both in the house and in the personalities of James and Julie, and revision revealed that those needed to be streamlined.
UT: As a writer in a more metropolitan area, what are some differences, if any, that jump out when visiting a smaller town arts community?
JJ: I’m always so encouraged by the way people in any size community band together to support each other’s creativity. In Chicago, that can take the form of multiple communities, each existing in a more specialized way, but in smaller towns it can feel like artists and writers of different sorts find each other and benefit from that interdisciplinary approach. It’s a model that speaks to my own values, having attended the School of the Art Institute, where all disciplines are integrated.
UT: What would be your advice to someone from a smallish Midwestern town intent on becoming a writer?
JJ: Develop a regular writing practice, whatever that means for you — a daily word count or a certain number of hours you’ll write each week. Read as widely as you possibly can. Pick up books you’re not sure you’ll like. Attend literary events and participate as a literary citizen. Submit your work, but also offer to read for a literary magazine you admire. Just about every single one of them could use a hand. Do more kindnesses than you ask for.
Jac Jemc will conduct a workshop at UntitledTown on Saturday, April 21— this limited-space available workshop for writers eager to hone their craft. Please register! Space is limited! She will also be featured on a panel, “I Can’t Even Right Now: Dealing with Writers’ Block.”