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Nancy Jensen: As soon as I was able to write, I started writing down the things I imagined.

June 15, 2009 by · 1 comment

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer’s interview with writer Nancy Jensen

Nancy Jensen is a graduate of the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. Her short stories and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Northwest Review, Other Voices, Under the Sun, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, and The Louisville Review.

She is presently at work on a novel, for which she has won an Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council.

Since 1994, she has taught writing and literature at University of the Cumberlands, where she has developed and implemented a highly successful mentoring model for courses in the undergraduate creative writing program. In the six years since the program’s inception, several of her students have published in national literary journals and have been accepted into graduate writing programs.

Nancy Jensen lives in south central Kentucky with her ten rescued cats and one dog. She and her black Lab-mix, Gordy, work as a pet-therapy team with Pawsibilities Unleashed of Kentucky, visiting hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and daycare centers.

Congratulations on publishing your first book, “Window.” Please tell the readers of Public Republic about this book.

Thank you. It’s been an exciting few months. Among other things, I think Window, as a whole, invites the reader to consider the nature and strength of the line that divides fiction and nonfiction, or, as I think of it, the line between imagination and memory. In organizing the collection, I placed the essay, “Forgetful Snow” in the middle, after the short stories, but as the first of the essays, because “Forgetful Snow” is about my feeling an allegiance to the literal truth when writing nonfiction, wanting to be honest and truthful about what really happened, while at the same time having to deal with hard evidence—in the form of old journals—that proves my memory is faulty.

I especially admire the cover photo for the book, because the photographer—just from reading the manuscript and without any prompting from me—picked up that idea of the blurred lines. Is the woman at the window real or imagined? Has she been come upon unexpectedly in a moment of private contemplation or is she posing to create the image of herself she wants the viewer to see? The longer you look at the photograph, the more questions it raises—which for me is the most interesting thing art can do, raise questions.

The book contains both stories and essays. This is a multi-genre book. Why did you decide to structure it like that?

I can’t take any credit for the initial idea of a mixed-genre collection. That belongs to the editor of Fleur-de-Lis Press, Sena Jeter Naslund. She was aware that I had published fiction and nonfiction and, when she first approached me about submitting a collection to Fleur-de-Lis for consideration, she said she’d been thinking of doing some sort of mixed-genre collection for awhile. At first, I thanked her, but said it was impossible, I couldn’t do it.

I was only just beginning to think I might eventually find my way to a cohesive collection of essays, but at the time, I had maybe ten pieces, only two or three of which I could see joining together in some way. I thought the same was probably true of my fiction—a few pieces that might link up, but not enough for an entire collection. But Sena persisted, even suggesting that the pieces be arranged with no clear line between the fiction and nonfiction.

Though ultimately we decided together to place the stories in one section and the essays in another, the idea of arranging them thematically without reference to genre was the most helpful suggestion I could have had. It was an enormous challenge, but having the goal of a more thematic arrangement forced me to recognize that there were significant links I hadn’t been aware of.

It also helped me see which of my previously published pieces belonged and which didn’t—something I’m not sure I would have recognized if I’d started out just dividing stories and essays. Had I done that, I think I would have ended up with two very short books rather than one.

These are discrete stories and essays. Is there a common thread across them, besides you being the author?

One thing that strikes me is that, if the pieces are read in order of their arrangement, there’s a sense of a maturation of vision, or the maturation of a soul. It’s not just that the first short story starts with characters in early childhood and the last essay ends with the narrator—me—in middle age: the progression isn’t that neat; it’s more recursive. And I don’t think there’s any discernable maturation of writing style.

But I do think that insofar as I exist as the creator of all these pieces, there is an evolution, as I think there is in a lot of people’s lives, from timidity about one’s place in the world, fear of mistakes, toward independence and acceptance of self, which includes acceptance of one’s failings. There are clearer thematic threads—for example the complexity of relationships of all sorts.

Which is your favorite story or essay, and why?

I really can’t say, any more than I could tell you what my favorite book or film is or which of my cats is my favorite. My relationship to each one is different. I can tell you that I’ve lately come to enjoy the short stories “Loving Galahad” and “The Ones I Married” because these have proven to be real crowd pleasers at readings. I can tell you that the title essay “Window” is for me the most intimate because it examines spirituality, which for me is a very personal subject.

If I make myself stand back from the book as a teacher of literature, I’d probably choose the essay “Notes of an Expatriate Daughter” because it’s about becoming aware of prejudices I didn’t know I had—and was horrified to recognize in myself—so in a classroom it could inspire debate and perhaps some self-examination among the students. (That’s if someone else had written it: I would never assign my own work for a class because it would put students in an awkward position and prevent them from expressing themselves honestly.)

What can you tell us about your publisher, Fleur-de-lis Press?

Fleur-de-Lis Press is housed at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s a specialty press that, with the exception of a couple of anthologies, publishes only first books by writers who have previously been published in The Louisville Review. I wish every writer could be blessed by an editorial staff as competent, patient, and generous as the staff of Fleur-de-Lis.

Until the publishing process began, I had no idea how much I didn’t know about what it takes to get a book into print. In the first several weeks, I think I must have sent Managing Editor Karen Mann two, three, sometimes four emails nearly every day—whenever a new question popped into my head—and she answered each immediately, clearly, and very kindly. If I got that many emails from the same person I would lose my mind—or at least my patience—but Karen never did.

Though Window has been out now for six months, Karen continues to shepherd the book and help me with anything I need. Ellyn Lichvar, the editorial assistant, has also been a great support. She created my beautiful press kit. Ellyn is amazingly efficient and resourceful, too. It doesn’t matter what I ask her to do or what possibility I ask her to investigate—she hops on it immediately.

Who are the people or authors who have influenced your writing the most?

My first and greatest influence was my grandmother because she recognized my eagerness to learn to read and write when I was not quite four years old, and she made up her mind to teach me. As soon as I was able to write, I started writing down the things I imagined. As soon as I was able to read, I couldn’t get my hands on enough books to satisfy me.

By the time I started studying writing seriously in college, I was frustrated with people who would simply praise what I wrote without giving me any real criticism. I knew that most of my writing wasn’t working, but I didn’t know exactly why, how to recognize it, or what to do about it. I was in a few workshops that were marginally helpful, but it wasn’t until I took a class with Sena Naslund that I really began to believe I could develop as a serious writer.

She has the gift of being able to recognize what the writer is trying to do—even in a work that’s really a mess—and then communicate clearly and directly what’s going wrong and how to fix it. And she does this with such warmth and graciousness that you’re willing to slash your most treasured sentences to please her. One of my teachers in graduate school, Sydney Lea, proved to be prophetic when he said I would one day write essays.

I’d never even thought of it before, and for a long time I dismissed the remark, but it remained in my mind. Sydney was also very tough on me, which I needed at the time. He never let me get away with a lazy scene or a clumsy sentence. When I did start writing essays, as he had predicted, I found myself especially drawn to the work of Edward Hoagland, trying to keep in mind how unsparingly he takes himself and his actions to account. He’s able to do this without sentimentalizing, without rationalizing, and without sensationalizing.

I’d have to say James Joyce was the first literary influence I was really conscious of. As soon as I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I wanted to understand how he had created that voice that electrified me. I still marvel at his stories “Araby” and “The Dead” and never tire of reading either of them. Though it would be hard to name a writer more different from James Joyce than Raymond Carver, I also feel Carver’s influence because I so admire his ability to find the few, exact small gestures that bring his characters instantly to life.

You just finished a novel. What can you tell us about it?

The working title of my novel is Tread Softly, which comes from a poem by W.B. Yeats: “I, being poor, have only my dreams; / I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” The title came to me fairly early in the process—within the first year—and became a kind of thematic anchor for me while I worked.

The book is about three pairs of sisters in three generations of the same family, and so it’s not only about the relationships between the sisters, but the relationships between mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces, grandmothers and granddaughters. Much of the tension in the novel comes from the ways that misunderstandings, misinterpretations of others’ feelings and actions can set off chain reactions that reverberate through the generations.

As each of the characters began to take shape, I realized that what they really wanted to say to each other, but what they can never quite say, is what Yeats says in his poem. They don’t express it to each other well—or listen very well when another is expressing a need—but they are in various ways spreading their dreams at the others’ feet.

Who is your favorite character of the novel?

On the one hand, I don’t have a favorite, and I don’t want have a favorite. On the other, my favorite character is the one whose voice I’m working in at the time. I really want the novel to be balanced and for the reader to be able to empathize with each of the six point of view characters.

Of course I know I’m not ultimately in control of what a reader’s experience will be, but, as the writer, I knew that I had to really love every character—flaws and all—and be able to feel myself in her corner when looking through her eyes because of the kind of story this is—the story of a family trying to define what being a family means. So there aren’t any absolute villains in this book, and though there are some heroic acts, there aren’t any pure heroines either.

How long did it take you to write it?

So far, it’s been about four years. I say “so far” because I’m only just now preparing to begin the process of finding a publishing home for the book. Depending on how that goes, there may be many more years of work ahead. We’ll see.

How has publishing your first book changed your life?

For one thing, it’s made me really busy! By nature, I’m a nester. I love to stay tucked up at home, so, the travel I’ve done related to promoting the book has shocked my system a little. Not that it’s been really extensive—two or three events a month, all of them in-state—it’s just not what I’m used to.

What’s been really wonderful, though, is the way publishing the book has put me directly in touch with readers. All the pieces in Window—and several others that aren’t in the book—have been published in various literary journals, but only once have I heard from a reader. Now people come talk to me after readings or email me through my website: to tell me how a particular piece touched them. It’s not like anything else I’ve experienced.

What do you wish for the readers of Public Republic?

An abundance of books—and the unrestricted right to read them, to write them; to talk about them, celebrate them, criticize and respond to them. I shouldn’t just say “books,” really, because what I say applies to art in all its forms and expressions.

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