An ACOW Interview; Jan Maher

Today author Jan Maher takes over my page whose short, “Dancing in the Dark,” was just published in the anthology “A Contract of Words,” which includes 28 authors from all over the world. Here is what she had to say about life, writing, and her story:

1. Besides writing, what is one thing you couldn’t live without?
I’ll trade one thing I couldn’t live without for two I wouldn’t be entirely happy living without: reading and gardening.

2. What was your inspiration for your story?
A book of ideas about how to write short stories. The suggestion was to place two characters who don’t like each other in a setting where they can’t avoid one another. I think the setting came to me first: a stuck elevator. Then came the characters: an about-to-be-divorced couple on their way to finalize their divorce agreement.

3. If a genie could grant you 3 wishes, what would you wish for.
I’d go big on this one. First wish: that my wishes not have unintended consequences that make things worse in the world. Second wish: world peace. Third wish: Successful containment of global climate change. Is that asking so much?

4. Has reading influenced your decision to be a writer? What book(s) made you want to write.
I very clearly remember being influenced by reading The Diary of Anne Frank when I was around 12. I was inspired and devastated by it. I started keeping a journal immediately after, and I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to write something worthy of being read and valued after my own life is over.

5. Would you describe your writing process? For example, do you write in a specific place, have music playing or is that a no-no, lean toward outlining specifics, or are you a pantser?
I am a chaotic writer, but there’s predictable process in the chaos. I love to write in coffee houses. I like writing in groups, too, which is interesting (at least to me) because I’m such an introvert. First drafts are almost always handwritten in journals. Then I transcribe. I usually write a short story quickly, then put it away for a while and come back to it to edit and revise. A novel, on the other hand, takes me years. Literally. I research and noodle for a long time before the shape of the piece emerges. I generate guiding questions for myself and follow them until some prove to be dead ends and others have what I call “sticking” power. At some point, the need to get it all into basic first draft shape takes me over and I get much more disciplined about it. At this point, revisions happen as much on the computer as in my journals.

6. When faced with the dreaded “writers block”, how do you push through and find inspiration? Is there a ritual or process you have to get yourself back on track?
I never have writer’s block, perhaps because I don’t have a fixed ritual of writing. If I’m stuck on one story, I switch to another and work on it, or take a break to research/read, or pull weeds in the garden. Sometimes, I write in my journal: “Turn the page and write a story.” Then I turn the page, look around me, and just start a story based on something I see in the environment. Sometimes I make use of writing books that contain prompts, such as the one that resulted in my ACOW story.

7. Did you know how your story would end when you started writing it? If not, did plans change while writing or did you improvise when you arrived?
I did not, not exactly. I knew that the elevator would eventually have to get going again, but I didn’t know at what point in the story of the two people stuck in it that would happen.

8. If a movie were to be made of your story and you were in charge of casting, who would play your characters? Who would direct?
Hmmmm. Jake Gyllenhaal and Janelle Monáe, Ava Duvernay directing.

9. How close did your story end up being to the original concept you had in your mind? What were the biggest changes? Why did you make them?
Since I didn’t have a clear sense of the ending until I got there, that’s difficult to answer. The biggest changes I made were tightening the dialogue to not overdo the bickering, revising to contain head-jumping, and increasing the vulnerability of both characters. I don’t think I expected them to remember what they loved or valued about each other, but they did.

10. What book were you reading when you thought, This stuff sells??? Oh, hell, I can do that…
I don’t remember. I do remember trying to “crack the code” of stories that sell to The New Yorker. I gave up.

11. Did you have to do any odd research for your story? How did you conduct that research, and then how was it used in your story?
I didn’t have to do specific research. I’d already learned about ear candling. (-:

12. If you could pick one place to sit and write, where would it be?
A coffee house that overlooks a flowing body of water, serves light meals as well as coffee, and stays open late.

13. How closely do you relate to/identify with your characters? What inspired them? Did they take over your story or did you direct them?
I relate to my female character pretty closely, though with the distance of time. I can draw on memories of negotiating terms of child custody, in particular, but the details in my story are different. Mostly, I put my characters in the elevator and eavesdropped, so I guess they took over.

14. What do you consider your all-time favorite novel? One that you would read again and again.
Hard to choose just one, but if I must: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

15. How much of your writing is outlined from the beginning and how much of it is ‘pantsed’ or written on the fly?
I only outline nonfiction work. All my fiction, short or long, is discovered as I write it.

16. What are your favorite snack-as-you-write or eat-as-you write foods? How do they help your creative flow or process?
I have a weakness for the carrot cake that my local coffee shop serves. At home, a cup of tea is more likely to be my choice. In both cases, I think it’s helpful because of the physical action of getting up from the table or desk, walking a short distance away, and coming back. Does that even make sense?

17. How is your ACOW story typical or atypical of your writing in general?
My work is definitely character driven, and in that sense my ACOW story is typical. The characters are typical of my short stories, in that in most of my short stories, the characters have some kind of clearly identifiable goal that someone or some force is getting in the way of, and the story has to do with how they get what they want. Another thing that is typical of almost everything I write is there are elements of humor in an overall serious story. In my novels, there’s much more focus on character development over time, and on the internal life and often turmoil of the characters as they deal with their secrets, their misapprehensions, their longings, and ultimately their breakthroughs.

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