Apr 19 2011
Greetings, Cool Peeps:
This week, I’m jazzed to introduce author Jen Knox. This super fab credit to the female species earned her MFA from Bennington’s Writing Seminars. She works as a creative writing professor at San Antonio College, and has served as Fiction Editor and Workshop Coordinator at Our Stories Literary Journal. Jen is the author of Musical Chairs, a thought-provoking, courageous, and gritty memoir. Jen is also the author of To Begin Again. Join me as I grill Jen for all of the juicy details.
You’ve just published your second book, To Begin Again. What can you tell us about it?
To Begin Again is a collection of short stories and narrative essays that are, though quite eclectic, similar in that they all deal with some character who is on the verge of transition—specifically, each character is at that last decision before his or her entire life shifts. I think we all have those moments that are somewhat absurd and yet so pivotal. Each of the main characters that make up the stories in TBA is captured right in the middle of just such a life-altering decision, and I zoom in just as or just after the decision is made.
Your first book, Musical Chairs, is a raw and honest memoir in which you talk about mental illness, alcoholism, strip dancing, class definition, identity and so much more. Your work has received stellar praise. This couldn’t have been an easy book to write. Please, tell us about the book and the story behind it.
Writing a memoir is tough-going, at least it was for me. Emotionally, it can be difficult to revisit old memories in the way writing demands you must in order to recall them thoroughly.
Ironically, the parts of my past that were very difficult to revisit were the same ones that seemed to demand place on the page. I suppose this is what happens with the self-study that is memoir—the tough stuff surfaces.
I remember that I began to write Musical Chairs, thinking that no one would ever read my words, and I think this is the only reason I finished. When I attended Bennington, I learned the art of adding cohesion to narrative and, perhaps more importantly, I was introduced to some of the best nonfiction writers. These writers: Joan Didion, Mary Karr, Phillip Lopate and Tobias Wolff to name a few, made me realize the power and importance of creative nonfiction to the world of storytelling. I realized, reading their work and so many others who inspired me, that personal stories deserve to be shared.
Despite the excellent reviews for Musical Chairs, I’m guessing there were people uncomfortable with your story. Have you received reaction that you didn’t anticipate, either positive or negative? How have you dealt with that?
Most negative reactions that have come from Musical Chairs have come from a purely topical point of view. I have received personal emails calling me “amoral” due to the fact that I was a stripper for a short time. I have also had people, women primarily, tell me that I obviously don’t know who I am and that I was obviously deserving of what upsets occurred in my life given that I gave up so much. I think that some people missed the point of my memoir.
I didn’t write Musical Chairs to be shocking, nor did I write it to sell books. I wrote it to share my story, to share it with young women, in particular, who might be in a similar mind state to my own as a young woman. I have suffered from severe anxiety my entire life, anxiety that piqued when I was in my young twenties. What compelled me to trace my story was to try to figure the reason for some of my actions as a fifteen year old runaway on to a young stripper and binge drinker. What I saw, personally, was a pattern of anxiety and irrational behavior. What I saw was my pattern, and this has helped me appreciate my life so much more, and to live with the anxiety that still plagues me from time to time.
Jen, you write both fiction and nonfiction? Tell me, how does the emotional process and delivery change from work to work?
Fiction, to me, is like a vacation. It’s like enjoying the sand and feeling the sun on my shoulders and using bits of life without worrying those bits will come back to haunt me. Much of my fiction comes from real life experiences, both my own and others; but some of it comes from pure imagination, and this is what makes writing fiction so much fun for me. It’s always interesting to me how organic fiction writing is, yet how loose the limitations—how neatly a novel’s ending can be. There is no neat ending to a life in-progress. There is only hopeful speculation.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on social media. I think many of us have a love/hate relationship with it. How do you feel about it?
Social media can suck the lifeblood out of a person. But, it can also offer a person friendships she might never otherwise have had the opportunity to have (like ours). But again, it can be very draining. I recommend that anyone limit the number of hours spent on social media sites each day.
Word has it that you teach Creative Writing. Can you share with us what you consider the most important lessons for your students?
Listen to your reader. Do not be defensive. Consider others’ opinions. Most importantly: read, read, read.
What do you know now that you wish you knew five years ago?
That I might’ve been coming to college from behind, but I was capable of catching up. I remember being so self-conscious about myself in college. I honestly thought I was stupid. Looking back, I wasn’t lacking the tools at all. I was only lacking intellectual confidence.
What do you hope to know in five years that you don’t know now?
What it’s like to have a real vacation.
I’ve been forever called picky, but I maintain that we’re all picky creatures. What are you picky about?
Everything. I don’t eat meat, nuts, non-organic milk; I don’t eat anything with soy, ever; I burn easily, so I don’t like too much sun. I like to go to bed early, wake up early; I like my favorite spot on the couch, but my dog knows this and therefore is always occupying said spot ☺.
Molly, what I’m saying is, I can relate. We’re destined to be long-time friends.
What’s your idea of the perfect day?
Waking early to coffee with cinnamon, honey and milk; writing until my wrists become sore; working out, either yoga or weights; taking a nap then having a nice dinner with my husband; finishing the day by meeting with friends or settling in with my husband for a movie. I’m laid back as they come.
What project is next for Jen Knox?
It’s a secret.
Any parting words for the masses? Any shameless plugs?
Be true to you. And for everyone out there, keep watching my friend, Molly, here. I think she’s a superstar in the making. (You’ll print this right, Molly?)
Oh, and I’d love for you to visit me at any of the following sites: