Interview With Jen Volant

Jen Volant
Jen Volant
Jen Volant attended Clarion West and currently resides in the birthplace of roller derby. She works too much, sleeps too little, and attributes her continued existence to coffee, microwave dinners, and the kindness of friends. You can email her at Jen.volant@gmail.com, or read her journal at tacithydra.livejournal.com.  Her story “An Organization Man in the Time Long After Legends” is in Issue #12.

How did you celebrate your first sale?
I went quietly incandescent for about half an hour. Then I sent my friends emails filled with exclamation points. I’m hoarding Shimmer’s check, and still take it out every couple of days to look at, which I’m sure whoever’s doing their accounting loves.

Does your work tend to explore any particular themes?
The world is the original Rorschach blot. People discard so much information, and privilege only certain pieces of it, to get through life (organizations and cultures do the same); what they chose and what they deny or ignore says all you need to know about who they are, what they love, and what they want to destroy. A lot of what I’m doing engages with this in one way or another – what must we defend our narratives from, what decisions make other actions obligatory, what, and who, are we willing to sacrifice to keep our worldviews intact?

What people have helped you the most with your writing?
I have been incredibly lucky in finding a number of wonderful and supportive writing communities. My Clarion class (CW2K shoutout!), the Semi-Omniscients in Chicago, Turkey City in Austin, Rio Hondo, and my current group of irregulars (you know who you are). All of you are fantastic.

Favorite book you’ve read recently?
I loved Losing my Religion by William Lobdell. Lobdell’s chronicle of his journey out of faith stood out in its empathy and concern for others. I also recently read LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, and wowza was it awesome. A more recent work that really lit up for me was The Heart of Veridon by Tim Akers.

Did you ever want to write “just like” someone else?  Who?  Or was there any book that made you say “I can do better than this!”?
There are authors whose writing hits me in the chest like an ice pick – Jorge Luis Borges and Maureen McHugh’s among them – but I don’t want to be them. Other people do have effects that I love and would like to mimic, of course, but the people who I love most, I do not want to be. I want to write just like me, but better.

Do you have favorite characters?  Any characters, yours or others, are applicable.
It’s funny, but what’s been sticking with me for the last few years hasn’t been characters, but systems of characters. I just finished Nobody’s Family is Going to Change by Louise Fitzhugh (and hello, why is everyone reading Harriet the Spy? Why aren’t we all reading this?) and it does such a beautiful job of setting up a family as a group of people all tangled up in each other, rather than a set of completely independent people who just happen to live together. Douglas Coupland’s group of friends in Microserfs is another good example, as are Tom and Hester in Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles, Sam and Gilly in Kristopher Reisz’s Tripping to Somewhere. Oh! Although one character does stand out as, well, standing out – Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s D. J. Schwenk, in the Dairy Queen books.

Have you ever been disillusioned by a character or a book?
Too many books to name. I fall in love with everything a book might be, but at the end each has to be just one thing. It’s so easy to see the things I wanted it to do as things it failed at doing.

What was the absolute worst piece of advice someone gave you about writing?
I’m not a big fan of ranking advice – advice that would ruin me might be just the thing someone else needs. The worst advice someone could give me would be “there’s only one way.”

What was the best?
For me: Butt in Chair. Internet off (I’m still struggling with that one!).

You mention reading Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean books in your childhood. Were you drawn to spec-fic before Eddings? Do you remember the first spec-fic you really connected with?
Eddings was one of the first huge fantasy series I read, though many more followed. There were two books I read over and over – William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig, and The Key for Nonesuch. I later found out that Sleator’s actually been writing YA since the 1970s (and is still in play – check him out!), but at the time I only had Pig, and the tension and creepiness of three people stalking a teenager as he uses his knowledge of his town to try to outsmart them really grabbed me when I first read it. Nonesuch was my first exposure to the idea of multiple interconnected worlds that I remember enjoying later in Weis and Hickman’s Death Gate Cycle and the Planescape universe in D&D (my geekiness, let me display it!).

Finish the sentence: I wish I could ____, because _____.
fix every major social problem in the world; a wish is the only thing that’s gonna get it done in our lifetime, or probably any lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where the UN sent out massive alerts because “China seemed kind of gloomy last week,” or tremendous humanitarian efforts were mobilized because a recent crop shortage meant people might have to have one, instead of two cherries on their sundaes? The people who are fighting to make the world better for themselves and others are heroes, and I wish they didn’t have to fight nearly as hard, or sacrifice nearly so much, to accomplish their goals.

Where have you visited that you would like to return?
My girlfriend wants me to say New York! And she is right – New York is vibrant in a way that’s hard for other cities to match. But  really I’ve fallen in love with most of the places I’ve been. Seattle is a gorgeous, rainy city, growing increasingly full of people I know. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Kyoto twice, and it stops my heart cold every time – particularly the way you’ll find centuries old temples nestled in next to a fast food joint or ATM. I think in my ideal world I’d have a home big enough to hold all my books, and I’d just travel seasonally through about 5-7 cities, stopping back occasionally to restock on reading material.

You talk in your journal about dead text and living text–i.e. text that is contributing to the story or not. Do you think there is such a thing as zombie text, not wholly dead or alive?
Definitely. I remember struggling with sentence-level pacing when I first began writing in earnest. How much text to get someone across a room? How much to get them to Idaho? Another dimension? I didn’t instinctively know how to telescope the narrative – there was a lot of wasted space. My writing from those times could probably quite easily be described as not wholly dead, not wholly alive. You could say that as one’s skill as a writer grows, the text you create is more alive – the sentences and words not only do more, but the story itself is fuller of meaning and resonance. Zombie text may be the text you’re seriously considering skimming, but that never get so dull that you actually do.

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