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“Bright Things Still Exist”: An Interview with Jessica Lee Richardson 

Jessica Lee Richardson’s first book, a short story collection called It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides, won the Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize and is due out from FC2 this September. Her stories and poems won awards from the National Society of Arts and Letters and the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald museum and have been featured online at The Short Form, Ploughshares, and the Authonomy Sunday Shorts Series by Harper Collins. Her fictions have appeared or are forthcoming in the Atlas Review, Big Lucks, Caketrain, Hobart, Indiana Review, [PANK], Joyland, and Western Humanities Review, among other places. You can read some of these at www.jessicaleerichardson.com.

Her story, "Roebling," appeared in Issue of The Collagist.

Here, Jessica Lee Richardson talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about the marriage of half stories, to baby or not to baby, and the staggering beauty that is the first book.

There are a lot of great images in this story: an umbilical cord cut by teeth, tornadoes chasing their own tales, a baby’s survival like a whale tail breach. Was there a specific line or image that sticks out in your memory as the starting off point for this story?

This is a great question and it prompts me to tell you a secret. Originally Roebling was two separate stories. I began one of them when—not too terribly long after Hurricane Sandy—Seaside Heights and Seaside Park caught on fire. The childlike images of Funtown consumed by flames really haunted me for a couple of weeks. Somehow a baby born in a sink in the middle of a fire was born of this image haunting.

I may have been trying to work something out about disaster. How devastation, individual or collective, doesn’t so much delete beauty as correspond with it—even sometimes hold hands with it—despite itself. In emotional time, this fire was too soon after Sandy, which displaced my family, which was too soon after the Tuscaloosa tornado, which displaced me, which was too soon after someone I loved was killed in a bus accident, which.

Displaced a town’s heart. A couple of towns. Families. Mine.

This sounds really terrible and is a huge gloss, and is probably an ill-advised way to start off an interview. But the thing I was trying to work out I guess, on one level anyway, was how Funtown, imagistically speaking, is still there in the middle of all of this. Precious, vulnerable, bright things still exist. Must be attended to. You feel kind of guilty when everything has fallen apart for yourself, or worse, for others, and you still go to dance parties.

But you’ve got to still go to dance parties.

Good times and bad times, as it turns out, are at the same time, and are all the time.

Anyway, this is of course overly simplistic, after the fact thinking. In answer to your question, the images I started with were the baby in the sink and the fire, tangentially born of images like this:


Months later, I wrote the falling in love and the yoga scene. It was the voice of the protagonist more than her pregnancy that told me that I was writing the same woman. She was pissed about her love, about carrying it. The sound in her reminded me of the sound in the birthing woman and I retrieved the half-story and married them. There were whole other parts lost to the ages with ambulances and things. I really wanted a certain kind of pressure on the forward momentum. In disaster there is nowhere to go but forward into the next moment. Love is not so different in that sense.

There are of course metaphors about being consumed, about having your life and your fun/town consumed in the sex death continuum while it needs to stand and to celebrate that were at work in both original stories.

I really enjoyed the tonal shifts throughout the piece. Your narrator’s voice rides the spectrum of the poetic to the colloquial to the crass. These aren’t mutually exclusive of course, but within the story these shifts work really well in capturing the madness of love, as well as the distracted and chaotic nature of it. What was the process like in capturing this voice?

I had peeked ahead at the questions and so I already started talking about voice in advance. But here is another secret (you really aren’t letting me get away with anything) (I like you) the voice in this story is a voice not unlike what mine sounds like when I am in a disaster situation. Except it’s older. I think I took that—I can’t even call it a voice—just a driving pressure that I am now familiar with—a please be honest with me sound, a this is how it is now, right?,  an okay then hand me a chainsaw/what time is the dance party? kind of pressure, and I put it inside of an older woman who had to try to be responsible amidst this. And keep the kid alive.

Our whole existence is this beautiful rebellion against how the story ends and this voice is one with its fist in the air (while the other hand clings to the most precious living part of itself for dear life).

As a woman, you see the literal, external kids coming down the pike, too. Whether you decide to have them or not, to baby or not to baby takes up a lot of your existence at a certain age. My age. So there is maybe a cultural voice seeping into the main voice here too. That may be some of the texture you were hearing.

The main voice is a place I can go when necessary. A place I even want to go as long as things aren’t really being wrecked for me personally this-minute in real time, because there is great, shattering love in that lover/mother survival space. And irreverence. And bitter honesty.

Fire plays a big role in your story, functioning on levels both literal and metaphorical. Did this come about in the initial draft or was this something that evolved through the drafting process?

Initial draft, yes. Fire started the party. But I did try, in subsequent drafts, to allow form to burn content—thank you for noticing!

Fire is an onward pressure too.

It’s all saying go, basically. Go.

Your first book, a collection of short stories called It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides, is coming out this month. I imagine this is a very exciting time for you. I would love to hear more about it.

It is an exciting time! Yes, my first book is coming out right now.

You probably want to hear about the book, but I want to talk about having a book come out. It’s my first time so I am giddy about it. It really brings people together to make something, and that is the overall point, I guess, of making things, and that seems really obvious and dumb, but it is a staggeringly beautiful thing to witness and engage in such intimacy with readers. And I got to make a book trailer with my best friend, and all these other friends stepped in to help. And another jumped in with the cover art. Others have thrown or secured readings for me. People from high school who I haven’t seen in a hundred years are reading it and posting about it. I feel like I’m naked in front of a crowd sometimes and I get a stomach ache, but it is still better than the greatest good I imagined having a book published would be.

The book itself is called It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides. It places fabulist stories (like being made of grandfathers) next to realist stories (like taking a ride on a concrete boat) and asks is it really so far off for a girl to feel made of grandfathers, and is it really so realistic that you can take rides on a concrete boat? The stories are interested in power, as I guess all stories are.

I am not sure I believe in agency. I guess that’s a radical thing to just throw out there toward the end of an interview. Okay, I concede—I believe it can and does exist as a life construct for some people, and it is an excellent goal to have, but I think agency is a privileged conceit. I am supposed to infuse my characters with it, and my sentences, and I see the argument, but I am not sure it is accurate cultural commentary at all. Or it’s only a reflection of a relatively small part of the culture.

Many of us are lucky to try at our best impression of winging it.

I guess I am messing with the idea of agency and the language surrounding and enforcing the idea in this book. “Controlling the uncontrollable,” as one of my colleagues at Coastal Carolina called it, is both a stylistic and thematic project.

I try to make it a fun journey, though. There are lots of jokes and hopefully rich locales. It isn’t just an exercise.

What project are you currently working on?

Oh boy. I am really scattered in the projects right now! I almost have a second story collection. I’m working on that more than anything else. Roebling is in it. Instead of placing realism and fabulism side by side, like in It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides, this new book I’m working on mixes the rules in every story. It’s a bit more lyrical and less ruckus, for better or worse. The strangeness exists but is quieter:  swimming beneath airports and growing cloven hoofs and navigating musical dystopias. Nearly all of the stories take place in, on, or next to water.

I have two novels in process too. One is about emotional contagion and weather. The other is about a group of kids that think they are psychic. The first exists, it’s just messy. The second is only tiny and I shouldn’t talk about it too much or I’ll scare it.

I also have a book of prose poems and a book of poetry going.

I warned you.

I feel like a sham saying all this, though, because I am really busy and only dribbling along right now. Having a book come out is the best thing to have happen in some ways, but it’s the worst thing to have happen to a writing practice. I am going to just pick a time in the near future where I say, okay first book, I will always love you but you have to go and live your own life now. I have some writing to do.

What have you been reading lately?

I just talked about the books I’m reading for Drunken Boat and nothing has really changed except I am done with Geek Love. Finally! Not that I’m glad to be done with it, I was just embarrassingly late to the party, as I am with many books. But we all are, right? There are so many and it’s the most painfully deluxe luxury. What I loved most that I read this week was Natalie Eilbert’s poem in the New Yorker “The Limits of What We Can Do and Ursula LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which I have read thirty-seven times because I teach it. But it struck me so powerfully this last time. Again. I love her. A new (late to the party) poetry book I started was Carrie Lorig’s The Pulp vs. The Throne. So far SO delighted.

Thank you for asking.

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