Author Q&A: Lori Jakiela

Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (2016), which received the 2016 Saroyan Prize for International Literature from Stanford University, was a finalist for the Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses Firecracker Award and the Housatonic Book Award, and was named one of 20 Not-to-Miss Nonfiction Books of 2015 by The Huffington Post. Her next book, a collection of essays called Portrait of the Artist as a Bingo Worker, is forthcoming from Bottom Dog Press in Fall 2017. She is the author of two other memoirs: Miss New York Has Everything and The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious, as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist, and several limited-edition poetry chapbooks. Her latest chapbook, Big Fish, was published by Stranded Oak Press in 2016. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Rumpus, Brevity, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. Her essays and poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize many times, and she received the 2015 City of Asylum Pittsburgh Prize, which sent her to Brussels, Belgium, for a month-long writing residency at the Passa Porta Literary Center. She has also received a Golden Quill award from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, fellowships to the Bread Loaf and Bennington Writers Conferences, and was the winner of the first-ever Pittsburgh Literary Death Match. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the writer Dave Newman, and their children. A former flight attendant and journalist and bingo worker, she now directs the undergraduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, where she is a professor of English and Creative/Professional Writing. She co-directs the Chautauqua Institution’s Summer Writers Festival and curates the Saturday Poem section for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She is at work on her first novel. For more, visit her author site at http://lorijakiela.net or follow her on Twitter @lorijakiela.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Lori Jakiela

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

What drew you to writing?

I was lucky because I couldn’t do much else. I could play the piano a bit, but in every other thing I was hopeless. From as far back as I can remember, though, I loved reading and books and writing. I read everything—cereal boxes, the dictionary, the World of Knowledge encyclopedias my dad bought from a door-to-door salesman, the bargain paperbacks my mom would let me buy from Woolworth’s. I was in love with words, maybe, because I was an adopted, sickly, only child and a little lonely and words and stories made me feel less so. One time I really lucked out with one of those bargain paperbacks, too. They came five for a dollar and had their covers torn off. My mother wasn’t a reader herself and so she never checked for content. Which is how, at about 10 or so, I ended up reading a novel about the Marquis De Sade. It was a total bodice-ripper but with S&M too, way before 50 Shades of Grey. If there’d been a cover, I’m pretty sure Fabio would have been on it. I also had an early encounter with Judy Blume’s Wifey, which was not at all like her children’s books. My early writer models were hugely age-inappropriate. I loved that, the forbidden nature of that, that writing and reading could give me my own secret worlds and a little power when, as a kid, I had none.

You have many nonfiction books out. It’s a little like choosing a favorite child, but do you have a favorite creation?

My most recent book—Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth Maybe—is maybe the most personal and was probably the most difficult one for me to write. It’s about adoption and motherhood and what it means to form a family and what people will do to one another in the name of family and so forth. It was the book that taught me the most about myself. That discovery aspect of writing—the ability to learn something new about my life or understand maybe a bit of what’s true about being a person—is the thing I find most worthwhile. Writing is so hard, but that payoff, that moment when I can say, “Ah, maybe that’s what that means,” or “Ah, maybe that’s why I did that,” almost makes it worth it. The world’s very confusing. Maybe you think that, too. Writing helps a little with the confusion. Writing helps me sort like-things with like-things and find some order there.

Why did you become a teacher?

I went to graduate school for poetry and was lucky enough to have been awarded a grad assistantship. As part of my assistantship, I had the opportunity to teach. I discovered I loved it. It’s a magical thing, having the chance to teach writing to young writers. I get paid to talk about what I love—books, writers, writing. My students care passionately about things like nouns. They carry on about the uselessness of adjectives and the beauty of the Oxford comma. A few semesters back, a bar fight almost broke out when my students got together after class and someone said something snarky about the Oxford comma being disposable. Imagine any other place in the world where people care so much about commas and words and meaning. It’s a lucky life. I’ve had more than my share of luck when I think of it—knock on everything. Years ago, before I was a professor, I was a flight attendant. My flight attendant friends and I would have this running joke. We’d be somewhere crazy-beautiful, like in Greece on the Plaka eating a Greek salad, and we’d turn to each other and say, “You know, we’re getting paid for this.” Now, on the ground, in the classroom, I still feel that. When everything’s good in the classroom, when the students are really there and I’m really there and we’re connecting over this insane devotion to words, I think, “Hey, I’m getting paid for this. Isn’t that nice?”

What do you feel like you are first: a teacher or a writer?

Those two selves co-exist. I couldn’t teach writing well if I wasn’t writing and publishing. I couldn’t write if I didn’t have the kind of human interactions I get in the classroom. And so. And so.

Has teaching writing in the secondary education environment affected your writing at all?

If by secondary education you mean universities, sure. I teach new books all the time. Every semester, I work with new writers who bring new passions and challenges to the workshop. I’m around writers who see the world fresh, who write it fresh. I grow. I keep growing. I’m in an environment that nurtures writers and writing in a world that feels more and more anti-intellectual, anti-book, anti-truth. I’m reminded of those images of our current president’s empty White House bookshelves, for instance. The university reminds me every day why writing and stories and storytellers matter, why the truth matters. There’s a sense of urgency and vitality there.

How long did it take you to write your first published book? Which one was it, and could you tell us why you chose the themes you did?

My first memoir took, give or take, seven years to write. It’s called Miss New York Has Everything, and it’s a memoir about growing up in a mill town—Trafford, PA—and dreaming of going to New York to become a writer, going to New York to become a writer and becoming a flight attendant instead, then moving back home and becoming a writer. The themes are family, home, work, dreams. Those are pretty much the things I write about all the time. I’m not sure I ever have much of a choice. I’m not sure any writer has a choice when it comes to themes. Our themes choose us.

What was the publication process like? Could you walk us through the steps?

I came home from New York and my flight attendant job in late 2000. I’d taken a leave of absence because my father was dying. Then 9/11 happened, and my airline extended my leave of absence from one year to five years. In the meantime, a local university branch campus hired me for a tenure-track job. It was a fluke and, to this day, I can’t explain why they hired me but they did.

On my first day, my department chairperson asked what my book project would be. I needed to write and publish a book within five years to get tenure. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at the time. I’d been writing short essays, long narrative poems, sort of incoherent things, many on the backs of bar napkins in restaurants I visited on flight-attendant layovers. I needed an answer, though, and so I told my department chairperson I would write a memoir. I’m not sure why I said that—maybe because I’d heard the word batted around a lot and thought maybe some of the essays and poems and napkin-bits I was working on, since they were first-person based and true, would fit the category. Anyway, it was a double-fluke, and I got to work trying to pull the essays into some kind of coherent narrative.

A senior faculty member whom I thought was a friend but who was not a friend gave me a list of goals: “get in the New York Times now, get an agent today, get a book contract with a major press now, build an unassailable dossier.” Looking back, the list of goals was cruel and crazy-making, designed to induce stress and maybe make me quit. But objectively, back then I thought they were good goals, lofty-ish sure, but I didn’t see the list as impossible. And so I put my head down and worked off the checklist.

I wrote the manuscript, got an agent, who had also agented a dog-memoir some people have heard of called Marley & Me. I’d imagined my manuscript as an essay collection, but it turns out not many people want to publish essay collections (although I do have a new one coming out in Fall 2017). My agent helped me work my manuscript into a more traditional memoir. She put the book up for auction and it sold—triple fluke!—to Warner/Hatchette. The editor there was wonderful. Amy Einhorn. Bless her. She helped me shape it into an even more coherent narrative, filling in gaps in time and such. I received what back then was a modest advance and what now, when advances are rare, seems like a lot. I never know if it’s OK to talk money, but it seems helpful to other writers to do so. My advance was $25,000, which seemed like so much but, again, if I could do the math on seven years of writing, it wasn’t. Here’s the thing though: My advance meant that as a new and unknown author, I’d need to sell 25,000 copies of my book to break even. My book sold over 12,000, which seems OK when I type it but pretty much means my book tanked, though I did everything I could to save it. I did a lot of book signings and touring and such. I did a reading at a 4H fair. I did a reading at a bar where everyone was armed with Nerf guns so they could shoot the writer if they didn’t like what they heard. I wrote an essay about my worst-ever book signing—a case of mistaken identity at Sam’s Club. LitHub published it a while back. Here’s the link.

Anyway, I got pretty sad-sacked about the experience for a while, then I wrote another book. And another one. And another one. These were published on smaller indie presses, and some of these books won some prizes and such. Overall, my experiences on small presses have been very mixed. Small presses can take risks big publishers can’t or won’t, but they also sometimes don’t have the resources or stability or desire to support the books they publish. I could write an entire book on my experiences, good and bad and worse, with presses, but I’ll leave it with saying that writers should try to find the best homes for our work. Try to publish your good work with good people who will give your book a good chance out there.

What did it feel like to hold your published book for the first time?

I sniffed it a lot—nothing like that new-book smell. I slept with it. I carried a copy with me at all times, like a good-luck charm. I kept a copy in the passenger seat of my car, like a friend. I would visit bookstores and see my book there and I’d turn it face out or re-arrange it to a better spot on the book table when the bookstore manager wasn’t looking. It all seemed very real and surreal, a little velveteen-rabbit like. I had this one crazy moment when, after a reading in New York, I started handing out free copies to strangers on the street. I don’t know why. Maybe so they’d confirm it was, in fact, a real book, that I hadn’t dreamt it all up.

What do you look for in good writing? What qualities or characteristics must it have

One of my favorite writers, Harry Crews, used to say you have to get naked on the page. He meant the writing has to be honest. The writer can’t withhold. Good writing gives me the sense that the writer is completely giving himself/herself over to the page, to the reader, to me. I like to feel the writer is doing everything in his or her power to tell me something urgent and true. I like writing that doesn’t mess around. I like writing that understands readers are busy people. I like writing that grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me and says, “I need to tell you this right now.”

What advice do you have to give to people just discovering writing? Trying to get published? Trying to finish their novel/collection?

Don’t stop. So many people have talent, but fewer people have resolve. Writing is hard. So what. You have to keep working, always. You have to work when you feel shitty, when you have laundry to do and your job stinks and your cat threw up a hairball on the couch and you want to pull the covers over your head forever, amen. If you want to be a writer, you have to refuse to quit. Remember, the world doesn’t want you to write. Harry Crews said that, too. If you want to be a writer, you have to find the time and strength within yourself to resist everything the world throws at you. You have to skip happy hour and be a lousy neighbor sometimes. You have to look out your window at that beautiful spring day and then draw the curtain and get back to the page and deal with your vitamin D deficiency later. You have to believe writing matters that much. Some new writers think, if I can just get published that will be it, but publication isn’t the end game. There is no end game for a writer other than death. You have to keep writing until the words won’t come.

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