Welcome to FictionFeed’s first ever behind-the-scenes author interview!
Today we’re chatting with author Jenny Wales Steele about the process behind her phenomenal short story “Where Was I,” which appears over at Compose Journal.
Go read the story at Compose Journal and then check out the Q&A below!
“Where Was I”: Behind the Scenes with Author Jenny Wales Steele
Let’s start with the basics: what was the timeline of this piece, from the initial spark or idea that triggered its creation to the moment when you said, Yes, it’s time to send this out?
Once I had the kernel of this story, the writing, through several drafts, flowed smoothly (in contrast to other stories I’ve had to wrangle with and curse and cajole). This story blossomed within me (a lovely feeling), though usually when a story comes, I have to navigate and whittle. And then came a point where it locked in neatly, in a pleasing way to me, and that was the time to send it into the world.
Your story is rooted in the process of a newspaper crossword puzzle. That’s a really great structure, and I can’t help but wonder how you got this idea?
The idea for this came because I myself do crossword puzzles, but as I do, my thoughts are always delving elsewhere, into memories both recent and distant, into schemes and regrets and yearnings. So I thought: how about a character doing a crossword? Then I thought: really? Not exactly action-packed, but I knew that an entirely internalized story could have a kaleidoscope of drama and joy, turmoil and twists, because as with all of us, our gray mundane days are colored by the continuous images in our minds. So who would this character be? An academic, a widow. And where? In a cabin. Not much there, but enough to let loose a glut of ideas.
One thing that stands out is the extremely refined (I would say electric) style in which the piece is narrated. Your attention to diction and linguistic detail is clear. When it comes to style editing and line-editing, what are some strategies you exercise to ensure that each sentence is absolutely top-notch and unlike any other sentence out there? Do you have a system or something?
When it comes to editing, let’s say that I’m kindly ruthless. I’ve learned to trust my style to the point where I can cut even a nicely crafted sentence instead of considering it too precious to abandon. That’s the hard-liner in me. If a sentence or passage doesn’t serve the narrative or it interrupts the trajectory, then I throw it out.
This story: truth or fiction?
Fully fictional. And yet scraps of myself are scattered through it (even if I’m constantly telling myself to get out of the way).
This story is both a leisurely, conflict-less narrative of a woman doing a crossword puzzle and an emotionally wrought story of family complexities, of wants and tragedies and strained relationships. When you set out to write this piece, did you intentionally write a story about a former academic and widow who’s “up in her head” about family stuff while she does her crossword? More directly: is this the story you intended to write?
Yes, this is what I intended to write. I sort of fell in love with this character and was able to enrich her backstory in ways both fantastic and real.
That’s all I’ve got for nuanced, text-centric questioning. The next few questions are just filler:
Do you eat while you write? If so, what? I’m a bagel person, myself.
I don’t eat while I write. Only coffee: the most important meal of the day.
Do you smoke, drink, or ingest psychotropics while you write? (I’m thinking no, but I’ll let you answer.)
In the morning, again, coffee, and a few smokes, to prime the brain to confront (or welcome) that blank page.
Do you have an MFA? More importantly: Do you think MFAs are legit, bullshit, or a little of both?
No MFA for me. I’m a bit skeptical of MFAs. It’s hard to consider writing as an assignment that earns a grade. In the real world, it’s either rejection or not. That’s harsh, but hey.
Final question: without thinking about it or doing any prep-work, write a haiku poem:
Pencil, hand, and mind
Pulse with character and plot
Until it’s written
About the Author:
Jenny Wales Steele was born and raised in Sedona, Arizona and has lived in Colorado, Hawaii, and New York. She attended school at The College of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she majored in Theater and minored in Music.
She has been published in 23 literary journals and nominated 3 times for the prestigious Pushcart Prize. Her work can be found online and in print journals including The Ampersand Review, Quay, Salt Hill, Harpur Palate, The First Line, The Bullfight Review, Pebble Lake Review, and Sou’wester. Discover more of her work by visiting her author website: