A few weeks ago, I sat down (virtually) with short story writer Jen Fawkes to discuss her debut story collection, Mannequin and Wife: Stories. We talked about the origin of her writing career, strange road signs, and her desire to capture the spectacular mundanity of everyday life through fiction.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
When did you start writing?
I started writing seriously fairly late in life. I was raised by a woman whose greatest aspiration was to be a writer. My mom was a voracious reader and a champion of English literature and world literature. So I grew up with someone who was very focused on [writing] as her big dream and it kind of scared me. It seemed so difficult that I really didn’t ever let myself think in those terms until I was 30.
I was working in a series of jobs that I wasn’t really satisfied with and I had been thinking about a story, about a couple different storylines, and I thought, why not just try to sort of turn inward and see what I can do? I worked for, you know, a year or longer on this book and was so thrilled that I’d finished it, but then I realized that I really didn’t know what I was doing at all so I decided I needed to learn how to write. So I started reading and writing a lot more short fiction. And then I also took my first community writing course at that time.
I took more classes and I stuck with it, and then I applied to MFA programs. I was one of the oldest people in my MFA program, but I think coming to it that late and having lived that life and sort of having made a living working at various restaurants and sales and whatever kind of jobs I could do, having gone through that experience and then turning to something and knowing that I really loved it and really wanted to try to devote myself to it, I was so ready to do my MFA.
I was able to just produce an amazing amount of work. Looking back on the two years of my MFA, I now see that those were the best two years of my life because all I did was work really, really hard. That time of being given permission and space to work… it does wonders.
Your author bio lists some of your past experiences: from a waitress to a tax prepper, from a museum interpreter and then to a college professor. You kind of talked about how some of these experiences may spill into your work. How conscious or unconscious are you when that happens?
Well, I think it’s more unconscious for me. Although I think that one of the tenets of writing, particularly if you write fiction, is that most people spend most of their life at work and so in terms of capturing the human experience, work is huge. It’s one way to think about fiction. I think it feels more real to people, so using work is a smart move in fiction, but I think for me, usually my experiences do come indirectly.
I listened to and observed everybody around me for years and years and years and years and years. Without knowing it, I was storing up all this material, you know—looking at how people react to each other, the kinds of things they say. There was this storehouse of things that I didn’t even know about that were just kind of waiting to be tapped into. So I think that if you are meant to—I think of it like anybody could write, but I think if you’re meant to you’re storing things up all your life, at some point, you know, it’ll sort of break forth.
I have never written about restaurant work which I did for so many years. I think restaurant work gave me the ability to blend and fit myself in with people and that is one of the best ways to listen and observe. It also made me learn how to deal with different personalities coming into conflict. You’re the one thing that has to remain calm and keep it all together. Being immersed like that in people is a real eye-opener and I think that is the thing that comes through the most in my fiction — what I learned from my work indirectly about how people work and that’s what I bring to the characters in my work.
Alright, so let’s shift to your debut short story collection. What was the inspiration behind Mannequin and Wife?
So I have two short story collections. one of which is coming out next year. That one — the second one — was my MFA thesis project. It’s called Tales the Devil Told Me.
Mannequin and Wife, though, is most of the other standalone stories I have written over an 11 or 12 year period, so starting back then when I was in my MFA and then up through the most recent story in the book which I wrote last year. What I think links [the stories] together is they’re mostly speculative stories.
I love to have my expectations totally defied. So I am drawn to work that likes to, in some way, shift reality, but I also am incredibly fascinated by the mundanity of our daily lives. So I think in all my stories, I’m trying to walk this line between the fantastic and the really mundane.
My work [captures] the sort of bifurcated nature of everything that’s happening. Terrible things are happening while wonderful things are happening. I think there’s a way in which all of our emotions are intensified by their opposites, like could we be as joyful as we are about some things that make us happy if we had never known pain? So I think that there’s a way in which the negative parts of our lives inform [or] are attached to the positive parts of our lives. The stories in Mannequin and Wife are linked by the fact that in all of them I’m asking those questions.
One of the reasons that I chose Mannequin and Wife as the title of the book — it’s the title story, which is the last story — is that I think each one of [the stories] has this very central human pairing at its heart. There’s a mother and child. There are siblings. There is a husband and wife. There’s a mentor-protege. All the stories in Mannequin and Wife have a central pairing, an essential human pairing, and I think I’m trying to get at what the pairing means and how it works and I tend to do that through indirection.
Something I noticed was that you tend to use a lot of nautical imagery [and] the fluidity of water is one way that maybe you can navigate and contend with those contradictions. I would love to hear how that sort of imagery works for you.
You know, no one has asked me that but it is absolutely true. Let me state, for the record, I’m pretty much terrified of water and I am just terrified of the ocean. I think the ocean is the ultimate example of something that is potentially the most beautiful, awesome, awe-inspiring thing in the world, and at the same time the scariest. I’ve always had this obsession with nautical things, with boating, with pirates.
Water is this fluid substance that allows things to move together. Water is a way that you clean what is dirty. If you wet a thread you can fit it through the eye of a needle. Swimming — you know, it’s unlike running which is so hard on your body. Your body is moving through the water and the water is doing a good portion of the work for you. It’s cushioning you. It’s helping you. Water is this substance that is helpful and beautiful and life-giving and at the same time could kill you in an instant. So the idea of water and the imagery of the ocean or of dealing with the ocean permeates everything I write.
Could you share a little bit of your writing process, especially when you’re piecing together a collection versus writing an independent story?
Well, I say that it’s interesting because I have the experience of sort of doing both — the one collection that I wrote as an intentionally themed collection while working on the MFA, and I’ve written many many standalone stories as well. And, definitely, with my standalone stories, those can begin with anything.
For the thematically linked collection, I knew that I wanted to deal with a different literary villain in each story, but my approach in each one is totally different. I started with the character. I reread the source text for each one, like I reread the Odyssey when I wrote about Polyphemus. I reread Peter Pan when I was writing about Captain Hook. When I started the stories, I only knew that I wanted to try to recast the villain in a new way and make them a central character, and there are ways in which I think that those kinds of restrictions handicap you and there are other ways in which they sort of set you free.
When I write a standalone story, on the other hand, and these are the ones that are in Mannequin and Wife, those generally just start from one impulse. Like I usually start with an idea or a situation. For instance, the story “Iphigenia in Baltimore,” I started that story with the idea that I wanted to write about a virgin who wrote pornography, the story came from that impulse. Often, my idea will be to take two conflicting things and put them together, and it starts with this initial impulse but that’s not at all where it ends. Just like with “Iphigenia in Baltimore,” I did not know that it would end up becoming this insane female empowerment [story], like hold on to your power ladies and don’t let anyone, you know.
But my stories always grow organically. There’s never any pre-planning done and I don’t draft and then come back and come back and come back. I usually can’t move forward until I’m sure that it’s right, and a lot of times [the story will] go in a wrong direction and at a point I’ll stop and I’ll say okay this is not going [anywhere] and I have to back myself up and see where I went off the track and start again.
The issue that I’m having now as I’m trying to transition into novel writing is I think that story writers who work the way I do have a much harder time moving on to long-form fiction because I hold the whole story in my head at once, but a novel is too long for me to hold the whole thing. So now I’m trying to navigate those waters, how to jump from short form to long form when I’m not someone who’s comfortable outlining and drafting.
Why are you so drawn to the short story form? What are you hoping to achieve with a short story? And now that you’re thinking about novels, what do you want to achieve with novels?
With a short story, you can capture a lot of a life in a short story. I have written stories that cover long periods of people’s lives. There is a way in which if your main thrust is to get to know a character the longer you can spend with them the more you will know about them. But on the other hand, there are ways in which you can capture a character with a single gesture or a piece of clothing, you know? They are these deft ways you can capture characters in short fiction so that they stick in your mind.
I think it’s specific to the writing project, really, on how much we need to know about a character and how much we can successfully deliver to a reader via small gestures versus through a really long, immersive telling.
I say that most of what I wanted — like if we’re asking what is my thematic “big goal” of my stories — I want to sort of tilt the world a bit and I want to shift things for the reader because that’s what I like. I like to have for the world to just kind of shift. That’s what I like to do with short fiction. Now a novel project, like, is that enough to sustain a novel project? Or do I need to have a more grand idea in mind?
But I think that the best fictions for the writer don’t start out with the intention of teaching, they start out with the intention of learning [about] themselves and then organically, through the work, what you want the reader to know ends up rising to the top and it just ends up being this fortuitous, you know, magical occurrence that you’re able to show people what you want to show them, but without forcing it on them.
Like you were saying, you try and contend with contradictory things and some of your stories are quite unsettling because you do that, especially in the ways that [some stories] handle abuse and desire. Could you share more about the motive behind stories like “Possible Wildlife in Road”? If somebody found these stories off-putting, what would you say to that person?
The story was inspired by when I had been living in Asheville, North Carolina for years. That was where my partner at the time was living. So I would drive back and forth this four hour drive from Roanoke to Asheville, and in the winding mountain roads, there were these signs that said “possible wildlife in road.” The first impulse for the story was why did those signs say “possible wildlife in road” instead of saying something like deer crossing or animal crossing. And I was not planning to write a story about someone who maybe has an impulse that is wrong, but doesn’t ever act on it. But that is where the story ends up falling.
And I think that I don’t see any people as being evil. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an evil person. I think that making those kinds of judgments, that’s not what we’re here for. Now, I realize that our society puts people in jail and kills people. I know that on a societal level we do all these things. We say this is wrong. This is society, but I think as for myself—as an individual—I am more interested in trying to understand where impulses come from that are wrong on many levels, in many people’s opinion, including mine.
Generally, what I feel like what I’m always doing is, in the darkness of the story, looking for some sort of light or some sort of silver lining, some sort of something to lift it up out of the darkness. And I think that someone being unsettled or bothered by a story like that is understandable, but I don’t see it as being sympathetic to the abuser. I see it as being sympathetic to all of us who have had to deal with trauma on a daily basis like that character did.
I think I’m trying to sympathize with everybody in the story. I think that we all have unhealthy impulses, and it’s what we do about them that is our light, that is human. I have unhealthy impulses, everybody I have ever known has them. I think that everybody is fighting against some sort of dangerous dark impulse and it’s within our capacity to choose if we’re going to do these things or not.
I think I wanted to try to end that story on a hopeful note. He never acts on his dark impulses but I can understand how once we write something, it’s out of our hands. Writers, we only have control of half of our work. Half of the meaning of a story comes from the audience, comes from the reader, so I respect and sympathize with anyone’s reaction to this, you know, anyone who reacts to the story and thinks it is hurtful. That was not my intent, but I understand.
Jen Fawkes is a writer and college professor based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her debut story collection, Mannequin and Wife: Stories, was published this September and her second short story collection, Tales the Devil Told Me, is forthcoming in May 2021 from Press 53. Fawkes is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in journals such as One Story, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and Michigan Quarterly Review. She prefers to admire the ocean from afar.
Mannequin & Wife: Stories can be purchased here.