A PEN Ten Interview with Debut Author Jaclyn Gilbert
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week Hafizah Geter, PEN Ten guest editor and editor at Little A from Amazon Publishing, speaks to Jaclyn Gilbert, author of Late Air, her debut novel published this week by Little A.
1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
I’ve always been known to be a quiet person, but on the page, I feel I can be louder, if even in a quiet way. I’ve never liked overt drama or conflict as the source of a story, but rather look for it within the inner experiences of my characters, by what is unsaid, repressed, and silenced by fear or denial of the truth. In embracing these conflicts in my characters, I am also crossing boundaries of self, and gaining strength through the other unfamiliar and unknown voices that live within, an act of resistance that asks me to take ownership of my fear in surprising ways. In taking that leap of faith, in trying to say what I think I cannot as someone I am not, I become bolder and braver, empowered by the otherness of my own experience as a writer in my work. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a writer’s identity, at least as something that’s singular and measurable, because so often I can’t predict the ways in which I feel my own identity shifting, my own ideas about truth and love, tested in far more ways than one on the page.
2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I navigate the question of truth in light of the idea that we live our lives in denial of death, in denial of truth. The era of “alternative facts and fake news” only highlights this sad fact. I turn to the words of Toni Cade Bambara and others who remind us that we have to lie to tell the truth. I see fiction as just that—an opportunity to test what we believe to be true on the surface by designing an entirely new lens to peel back each layer of self-denial determined to keep that truth hidden from us. In my work, I try to access the bodies and minds of characters blind to the lies they are set on living, desperate to protect themselves from the countless losses and contradictions that have shaped them over time. By working alongside them, in their journeys to reckon with their lies, my writing tries to allow for a process of self-transformation and self-knowledge, the first step, I think, for beginning to heal from the past and move forward in an individual, honest way.
3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
It’s a very tenuous line, I think. Whenever I am stuck in my writing, I often turn to the words of others for inspiration, but I know there is only so much reading and re-reading I can do, before I have to leave the past behind and create anew. One thing that has always helped me is thinking of this process as a kind of practice in translation. I try to absorb the spirit of another’s words, more often than not, the courage and honesty in them, more than the words themselves and take that with me to begin writing again. I like to think of it as a kind of homage to the vision another might have had I can trust in as I continue to refine my own particular way of communicating with the world. I guess this is also why I believe we are never writing alone. I’ve always felt I am in conversation with writers and readers, building my own voice out of other stories that resonate with my own but still could never stand for my own, and vice versa. If I can make my process as spiritual as possible, I’ve also found that I am less prone to get blocked by my own fear that I am overly relying on someone else’s work to build my own. One thing I’ve found to help me is copying down the words and images I like from my favorite books and meditating on them for several minutes, and then starting a fresh sheet that draws energy from what I love to take a risk I might not have otherwise, structurally, tonally, or most simply at the sentence level and seeing what I can craft from there.
“I’ve always felt I am in conversation with writers and readers, building my own voice out of other stories that resonate with my own . . .”
4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
Some part of me is always resisting saying or doing what I think I am not permitted to do, but I know each time I deny myself this way, I am doing a larger disservice to the world. I try to use my writing as often as possible to go toward the wound, the pain and shame and discomfort that I know my growth and healing depend on. When I studied with Melissa Febos during my MFA at Sarah Lawrence College, she consistently asked me to practice sitting with my body, digging up the buried stories I’ve always been too ashamed to articulate in words, yet they are the reasons I write, the truths my pen is always circling around. The story I know I struggle to embrace, or the one I must resist, is the pain of telling my story through my body, especially as a distance runner able to push herself to unhealthy limits to escape the loss of my relationship to my father when I was in college, and the deeper fear that this truth makes me unlovable. I am afraid of conflict, afraid that love is as conditional as my father’s is on giving up myself for him, or this idea that I am only loveable as much as I am obedient and good, willing to sacrifice my own needs and desires for his gain. I am always working to resist the idea of conditional love so that I can find unconditional love, and forgiveness, really, for myself for no longer being the person I should be in order to be “good” and “loveable” in my father’s eyes. The moment I resist this past narrative, this ghost of myself, I know is also the moment I begin to speak most openly, boldly, and honestly in my work. I stop apologizing or living my life in fear of approval, hungry to take ownership of my own voice and all of the stories waiting to unfold out of that process.
5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
The closest I’ve come to not feeling free to express myself has been through my father’s bullying. When I was a young girl, he tried to convince me I wasn’t smart, because through that basic insecurity, it became easier to try and manipulate me through college, to achieve his own financial gain. More recently he has tried to threaten me by suggesting a negative response to my work. Though he has never read my novel, he has tried to ask if it’s about him, as well as insinuate his feelings of anger and betrayal if it were to be about him, and while this threat did prevent me from writing at the time, terrified of his potential reaction, I knew that I had to move forward, not just in publishing my first book, which isn’t about his direct influence over my life, but publishing a piece that brought to light all the truths my father has asked me to silence at the detriment of my own freedom. Deciding to publish this piece was a long, intense journey, but it was only after the fact, in letting go of what I’d been holding onto for so long in fear, that I knew I’d begun a process of freeing myself and hopefully helping others feel less alone in their desire to do the same.
6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
The aforementioned essay, titled “Core Being,” in Tin House. The hardest part will always be sitting down to write it. For a long time, I struggled with overuse injuries and a chronic pain cycle from so many years of competitive distance running, and I vividly remember one night when I went to see a play with two of my closest friends. I could barely sit to watch the show as waves of pain radiated around my pelvis and down my legs. Shortly after, I decided to trace the path of that pain and write about the stories of the injuries to which it was connected, and in the process, I felt myself slipping deeper into the story of my relationship to my father, my body, and the story of addiction that had shattered my family. I realized that so many of us were connected to scoliosis too, a structure and a framework for the narrative, that was inextricably linked with my own journey as a runner. The Tin House essay is a segment of that journey, and one day I hope to find the courage to expand the story of my body into a memoir.
7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
Last year I wrote a story from the point of my mother about her first years of marriage to my father. I used bits from her life she had told me through my own memories of my father obsessed with casinos and making calls to his bookies. My mother came across the story through a copy I sent to another family member. I deeply regretted that she had read it, but my course of action wasn’t to stop revising it or submitting it for publication; it was to step back and consider why I had qualms, and what I was really afraid of. I realized the reason I felt guilty about the story was not so much because of its autobiographical elements, but because I felt I hadn’t stepped outside of the immediacy of my past to write a story that was true of a more universal human experience. I realized I had to see what other truths lay hidden behind my memory, to uncover what potential for change might live in this story outside of fact or what I have always believed to be true about my parents.
8. Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?
Throughout the five years I spent writing Late Air, I was on social media very little, mostly because I found it distracting to my creative process. But after I found out my book would be published, I knew I had to decide how important having a public presence as an author on social media was to me. And as someone who hadn’t yet established an audience, it was worth it to me to slowly start trying to build one in a way that felt natural and what I was trying to achieve with my first book. I started following authors whom I admired and asking some of them for advice in person and on the phone. Their own experiences gave me more courage to tell my story as a runner and writer in community with other runners and writers that I might not have discovered otherwise. I’ve also come to enjoy seizing moments of inspiration as I go; I try not to force a post, but pay closer attention to the images, words, and ideas that remind me why I love to read, write, and run. Yet, I also know that I have to set clear boundaries around the amount of time I am on social media to carve out ample head space for getting rooted into my next project. Generating new material is about unplugging and not thinking too much about a potential audience, and so my relationship to social media has to be flexible, open to improvising with the moment of my work, at times in solitude as it finds its footing, and other times drawing energy and community from other writers and readers, staying engaged in our shared journey as storytellers.
9. Can you tell us about a piece of writing that has influenced you that readers might not know about?
Christine Schutt’s experimental novel Florida affected me deeply. I was haunted by the voice of the narrator, Alice Fivey, who somehow manages to balance the raw innocence and naivete of a seven year old with the wisdom of a woman who has survived the traumas of Alice’s youth and lived to tell us about it. Schutt’s language is beautifully lyrical and piercing, and moves with continual surprise—unhindered by the rules of chronological time and linear narrative. When I hit a road block with Late Air, unsure of how to compress a decade into a single chapter, I thought of the fearlessness of Florida, and decided to write a more emotionally driven, imagistic chapter, grounded in longing and memory, in the middle of an otherwise more linearly and chronologically structured time line. Many readers claim this chapter is their favorite of the book, and I remain indebted to Christine Schutt’s vision for her work, for being able to communicate the dark reversals inherent to parent-child relationships and the power of memory to transcend that pain, to not let it become the story that defines us but rather the one that makes us human, allows us to be parents and children, old and young, blind and aware, at once.
10. If you could require the current administration to read any book, what would it be?
Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, without a doubt. Laymon writes about his struggle to reconcile the story of his body with history, through the lies he’s had to tell to survive an ongoing narrative of violence, abuse, and addiction. He writes to embody the ambiguous space between weight and lightness instead of clinging to those false objects, or illusory extremes—the binaries that seek to deny our humanity, reduce our individualism, block our ability to love ourselves. His voice challenges the reactionary, fear-driven nature of our current administration, beckoning us to work toward honest truth-telling, not so much as a means of denying or erasing the past, but for embracing the depths of our wounds, working out of that painful self-knowledge and truth rather than fleeing from it. Heavy reminds us of the power we have to write our own stories, to fearlessly and patiently revise our broken narratives into a more truthful whole, by learning to take ownership of our own words over the generations of stories that might have tried to quiet them. In the process, Laymon also challenges us to broach seemingly impossible dialogues with those we have abused and our abusers to open up new possibilities for collective storytelling, allowing multiple perspectives to exist at once, resisting—in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—“the danger of a single story,” which to me is the most important work we can be doing as writers in these times.