Monday, June 11, 2018

Ink-Quisitions with Jen Conley

Q. I know you’ve been dedicated to crime writing for some time now. And Down and Out Books published your story collection CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS two years ago in May. But when and where was your first story published? And how did that impact your writing life going forward?

A. My first story was published back in 1988 at college. I won first place in the campus fiction contest. I remember calling my mom and saying, “They gave me fifty bucks too!” It was a good day.
I think that win gave me confidence. It made me want to keep writing. I didn’t write much in my 20s but each time I messed up in life—and I did that a lot—I always reminded myself that I could write. So I can’t find a teaching job. So I can’t interview well. So I can’t lose 10 pounds … but I can write! It took me four years of subbing and temporary teaching jobs to find something permanent. I was pretty down on myself in my 20s and one of the things that kept me above water was thinking about how when I got my life settled, I could go back to writing. Which is exactly what I did.

Q. If I understand correctly, you're working on a novel these days. But at one point in your writing life you questioned your abilities to write one. I've pondered this conundrum as well. So how's this endeavor working out for you? And what have you learned about yourself and this particular writing process?

A. Sometimes I think I have a short attention span or something, which is why I struggle with the long form.

Actually, I think some of my difficulties in writing a novel stem from the fact that A: I love short stories and I’ve always wanted to be a short story writer, and B: I trained myself to be a short story writer.

I have a Young Adult novel coming out with Down and Out next year. So I can write a novel. I just find a novel tough to pace. I’m used to summing up a bunch of stuff in a character’s life in two sentences. In a novel, you need to stretch that stuff out without boring people to death. Right now I’m working on a novel and I think I’ve got the hang of it. It’s a mystery so I’m actually having a harder time planting clues and so forth. But I did decide that my next novel will have more of a short story format. Each chapter will read like a short story—that way I can kill two birds (or people) with one stone.

We’ll see how that all works out. My YA novel called, “SEVEN WAYS TO GET RID OF HARRY,” is about a thirteen-year-old boy who comes up with seven ways to get rid of his mom’s dickhead boyfriend. Each chapter is devoted to a “way” and I found keeping it in that structure made it easier for me to write.

Q. Like most of the authors in this Ink-Quisition series to date, you're one of the contributing writers in the Anthony Award-nominated Johnny Cash tribute anthology JUST TO WATCH THEM DIE—edited by Joe Clifford on behalf of Gutter Books. How did you pick your title, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”—and did you write this story before or after choosing this particular Cash song?

A. I googled all the Cash songs and the title, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” caught my eye. I read the lyrics, listened to the song which is actually an old folk song, and thought I could do something with it. It’s a dark song and it called for a really dark story.

Q. This story also chances to be the first I read by you. What immediately caught my attention was your decision to tell this tale using a first person male narrator. In my reading experiences, a lot of writers lack the ability to convincingly capture the voice of a character who is opposite in gender from their own. And what strengthens your narrative is that all the central living characters are male.
So how did you go about "channeling" the various male mindsets you needed to successfully spin this tale?

A. I actually prefer to write third person male characters. That’s my favorite thing to do. It comes very easily to me and I have no idea why. Maybe it forces me far away from my own self.
I had originally written this story in third person but it didn’t have the punch I wanted it to have so I tried it in first person and thought it worked better. I struggled with the opening—making sure the reader knows it’s a guy and not a female. If I were a male writer, then it wouldn’t be such a reach, like when I write first person female characters.

Back in the day, I bartended for about eight years and the place I spent most of that time in was one of those beer and shot bars with a strong customer base of blue collar men. It wasn’t the easiest time of my life but I definitely toughened up working there. There were some scary ass guys who used to come in, guys I would never talk to had it not been for my job. Their way of thinking, the things they said, used to shock me but after a while, I just go used to it. I think when I wrote this story, I was probably channeling those years. Actually, I often channel those years into my writing.

Q. After I read “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” I stumbled across an interview Steve W. Lauden did with you about this story. I felt both intrigued and saddened that the dark nature of this piece had left you feeling off-kilter for some time afterwards. One of your Pine Barren stories that involves the rape of a young woman is the only other considerably dark tale I've read by you.

So does writing dark tales tend to take a toll on you emotionally—or were your experiences after writing “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” unique? And if crafting dark tales demands a high price from you ... what compels you to write them nevertheless?

A. It’s not unique for me. Some stories hit me harder than others. This one definitely left me unsettled. I get emotionally involved in my characters and when I put them in such desperate situations, it can depress me. I’m more of a gut writer than a head writer. In order to write more with your gut, you have to go into your memories or more so, the feelings you had when something terrible happened in your life. Digging that up can leave you unnerved for a few days.

I think I do it because I like authenticity. I don’t like mimicking other writers or other books. I like to be inspired by other writers—and there’s a difference and I think that difference is authenticity. The best way to be authentic is to pull from your gut and your own sensibilities, even if it hurts sometimes.

One of my favorite things I’ve always loved in life, going back to when I was a little kid, is listening to really good music. Especially live music, although time and money has made it more difficult these days. Sometimes I pull up those old Janis Joplin videos on YouTube and it actually hurts to listen to her—she’s just that fantastic. It’s like she’s ripping out her insides when she sings. I think that’s the way to write. Break people’s hearts. Break your own heart too.

Q. Besides being part of the editorial gauntlet at Shotgun Honey, you're extremely active with Noir at the Bar in both New Jersey and New York. One recent event was on a Sunday night. And since you teach New Jersey kids at the middle school level, I couldn't help wondering what your Monday morning was like. For folks who aren't familiar with Noir at the Bar, can you give us an overview—and share some of your experiences with these events?

A. I love Noir at the Bar. Basically they’re readings where about 6-12 writers get-together at a bar and read their work. I think it’s a little different than other readings because most are held in more formal situations, like a small theater, and usually the writers are more established and they read longer. Noir at the Bar is also more genre-focused—crime, mystery, and so on. They’re also informal which I think takes the pressure off. And they give you a chance to hang out with other writers. I think most non-writers tend to think writers are eccentric, Stephen King wanna-bees, or just plain bizarre so it’s nice to find people who get what you’re into. Writing is solitary so Noir at the Bar is sort of like attending a mini Comic Con without the costumes.

The first time I’d ever heard about this type of event is through Facebook—writers Todd Robinson and Glenn Gray set up one at Shade Bar, which is just a block south of Washington Square Park. At the time I was in a writing group held in the West Village and afterwards I just walked over to Shade and introduced myself in person. I’d already known some of the people through Facebook so it wasn’t like I came off the street from nowhere. And Todd had published my story “Home Invasion” in his magazine, Thuglit. Everyone was super welcoming—such a nice relief because sometimes that’s not always the case in general in life—and they even let me read, too, but I read too long and I was a nervous wreck. I realized that in the future I had to practice reading at home and read something way shorter. It’s best to read something around the 5-8 minute mark because there are so many readers and the audience just zones out after some time.

Most of the events are done in a sort of pop-up basis. Someone decides to hold an event. From there they find the bar, or maybe a café or bookstore. They set that up and find the writers. The event spans about three hours, with two or three breaks built in. Remember, part of the fun is talking with everyone and the audience needs a quick break anyhow. Nowadays Noir at the Bar events are held in different parts of the country—Boston, DC, Raleigh, Los Angeles, Queens, Seattle (I’m missing some) and different parts of the UK, too. Finding them is a problem sometimes. If you type in “Noir at the Bar” in the Google search bar you’ll find information but Facebook is probably a better place to look. Again, just put in “Noir at the Bar” and you’ll find something pop up. People can follow “Noir at the Bar NYC” on Facebook—and when we’re having one in NYC, I will post. Unfortunately nobody has taken the lead in setting up a Noir at the Bar event page that would highlight every reading. It’s been suggested but it’s work, and a lot of us are already swamped with our day jobs and our own writing.

These events also vary with audience attendance. Sometimes you get a great crowd and sometimes you don’t. But in the end, even if your audience is just the other writers and maybe their friends, it’s okay. It’s fun and again, you get to hang out with people like you, and network. However I’m not a big fan of approaching every writing event as a time to do hard-core networking—using a “what can you do for me?” type of philosophy. You’re better off showing up in a professional manner—meaning you practiced your reading and you’re not a time hog, if you be yourself, if you’re not an asshole—then maybe eventually someone might help open a door for you because they like you and your work enough to reach out to their agent. Or maybe not. I guess I’m a fan of organically networking: write well, work hard, don’t be a jerk, show up prepared. Actually in real truth, I’m just a fan of hanging out and shooting the breeze with other writers. Whether we’re talking about the business or a new book or a movie we like. Or dislike. Or whatever.

As for the drive to New York, it’s not too bad. If I do a reading in the city, I can zip home in a little over an hour. I’m not a teacher who goes to bed at 8:30—I should because I get up at 6am for work—but it’s not in my nature. I’m more of a nocturnal person. As for school, usually I plan a lighter lesson on those Mondays.

Q. When any mention of the name Jen Conley arises, the two words I most frequently hear are "sweet" and "nice." So imagine my surprise when I visited your Facebook Page one night and discovered you'd apparently answered a Food Questionnaire. And when answering this questionnaire you referred to about five different foods made anywhere other than the state of New Jersey—including pizza—as "shit."

WTF?

But I quickly intuited that if Angel Luis Colón can't hammer some sense into you that New York-style pizza is the best then I ain't even gonna try. But seein' as how I might be on the Jersey Shore in September—where are your top three best places to allegedly taste the best pizza in the World?

A. Ha! It’s true. Pizza from out of state is terrible, or in the best circumstances, just okay. 

As for my neck of the woods, any true local will lead you to the Sawmill in Seaside Heights. It’s on the boardwalk, at the south end. Big giant pizza slices and you can sit and watch everyone walk by.
Pete and Elda’s is another local favorite. That’s in Neptune City.

But as for the little places, Rondos in Brick. Great pizza, in my opinion. My son loves La Fontana, which is across the street from Rondos. That’s a great place too.

The Brick Oven, in Brick, is a terrific BYOB Italian restaurant. It’s mobbed in the summer but worth it. Food is terrific and the coal-fire oven pizza is not something I usually like, but I like theirs. It’s usually crowded with older people originally from north Jersey or Brooklyn and Staten Island. You always know an Italian restaurant is great when the former New Yorkers are eating there.

But honestly, most of our pizza joints are great—at any exit.

Thanks, Jen. Interested readers can buy JUST TO WATCH THEM DIE—which includes Jen's story “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Just-Watch-Gutter-Books-Anthologies-ebook/dp/B075KKGT7H/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

You can also read Jen’s story “Hatpin” for free at Shotgun Honey:
https://www.shotgunhoney.com/fiction/hatpin-by-jen-conley/

Obstinate souls who want to argue pizza with Jen can find her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jen.conley

More rationally-minded folks can learn more about her writing and related activities like Noir at the Bar by visiting her web site at: https://www.jenconley.net/

Meanwhile, anyone interested in the History of Noir at the Bar can read Jen's article in the Los Angeles Review of Books here: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-roomful-of-half-bagged-semi-literate-knuckle-draggers/
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8 comments:

  1. Feed the authors, show em some love.

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  2. "God's Gonna Cut You Down" was a highlight of that collection for me. In fact, no disrespect to the other AMAZING authors, but if you FORCED me to pick a favorite? That's it.

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  3. As always, an interesting interview! I hope to work with you again at a Noir at the Bar event, Jen. I'm reading at one on Thursday, but it's way out in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Last time I drove out there I got stuck behind an Amishman in a horse-drawn buggy...which I suspect might aggravate you a tad!

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    1. Yes, most likely. I have no patience when I drive. ;)
      --Jen

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  4. Thank you Mark for having me!! It's a great site.

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