Jen Fawkes has been a waitress, a tax preparer, a bartender, a museum interpreter, a cleaning woman, and a college professor. Her debut story collection, MANNEQUIN AND WIFE, was published in September 2020 from LSU Press. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in One Story, Crazyhorse, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Michigan Quarterly Review, and other journals. She is the winner of the 2019 Pinch Award in Fiction and the 2019 John Gardner Memorial Fiction Prize from Harpur Palate; her stories have also won prizes from Salamander, Washington Square Review, and others. Jen is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee as well as a two-time finalist for the Italo Calvino Prize in Fabulist Fiction. She lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, with her husband and several imaginary friends.
It was great to ask Jen a few questions and present a story from her new book.
The Monsters love hearing stories of influences and sharing those magical times where we’ve been energized by something we have read, something we have to tell each other about as many times as we can before it gets too awkward and we have to politely shush a Monster. I’m interested in your influences and aha moments and how they have changed in your progression through MFA, Ph.D, to teaching.
I think that when we’re very young, we’re more open to influence and less prone to epiphanies (a-ha moments), and that as we age, the two positions flip. I never planned to be a writer, as I never imagined anyone would care to read anything I’d written. But the idea (of being a writer) was implanted by my mom – a voracious reader and would-be writer – and at age thirty, I turned to writing fiction out of desperation, as a means of survival. As such, I’d already encountered and been impacted by many of my influences before I got anywhere near a graduate writing program.
And with all due respect to Charles Baxter, I dig the epiphanic model in fiction because I myself experience epiphanies. When I was deeply immersed in the study of writing (during MFA and to a lesser extent PhD), I was beset by them, but I wouldn’t say that that the texts that provided me with them are necessarily those that have influenced my work, or vice versa.
A handful of the innumerable works that have influenced me, and/or driven me to epiphany: The Handmaid’s Tale, The Golden Compass (and whole His Dark Materials trilogy), Neverwhere, Go Ask Alice, Sula, Lynda Barry’s Cruddy,Karen Brown’s “Galatea,” Katie Chase’s “Man and Wife,” Breece D’J Pancake’s “Trilobites,” The Bloody Chamber, Moby-Dick, Pale Fire, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Martian Chronicles, Chekov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals,” Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation,” The Loved One, Pastoralia, The Remains of the Day, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, all of Italo Calvino’s fiction and his “Levels of Reality in Literature” essay, much of Stephen King, all of Kurt Vonnegut, all of E. A. Poe, every word Alice Munro has written.
In short, I can be influenced and/or amazed by anything that finds a seemingly new way to examine ideas with which we, as humans, are already achingly familiar.
Maybe similar to the above, but what are your favorite works to teach? (This might be a ploy to add to our reading lists)
I’m going to answer with an anecdote: in the spring semester of 2020, I taught American Romantic Literature to sixteen undergrad women, and we read the full version (whale classification/anatomy, cannibals, spermaceti squeezing, blubber chopping, and all) of Moby-Dick, and it was the most wonderful teaching experience of my life to date. THE END
The Monsters also love to talk about Pop Culture. Things from the past that stick to our everyday consciousness and influence probably more than we even know and we also like to share things we are discovering while procrastinating/researching current works in progress. Do you have some all-time favorites like this and have you been able to discover any new escapes during this awful thing called 2020?
My first ambition was to be a Solid Gold Dancer, and my second was to be a Fly Girl, so yes, I’m with pop culture. I’ve long been fascinated by the way the “low art” of one generation tends to become the “high art” of the next (see: Shakespeare, opera, poetry, etc.). Here’s a smattering of my own pop culture obsessions: television – Bewitched, Little House on the Prairie, The Golden Girls, Columbo, Moonlighting, In Living Color, Arrested Development, Schitt’s Creek; movies – Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Hunger, The Lair of the White Worm, Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner, Purple Rain, Pulp Fiction; dances – the Roger Rabbit, the Running Man, the Electric Slide, the Wop; bands – The Monkees, Bad Finger, ELO, Heart, Yaz, Too Short, L’Trimm, The Go-Go’s, Fleetwood Mac, New Order, The Alan Parsons Project, Toto, OutKast.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of Mannequin and Wife. Not sure if this is a question, but the idea of having a book come out in 2020 reminds me of when books have come out during such large world events like the folks who had to sell a new book around November 2016 and it makes me sad to think there may never be days again that are “ideal” for selling fiction, but maybe in some ways that makes it the perfect time? So if that is an actual interview question, maybe what’s your thoughts on that, how long did you work on Mannequin and Wife, and what would Current Day Jen like to say to Jen from the Past, dreaming about completing a book like it?
The stories in Mannequin and Wife were written over an eleven-year period, and each was written as a stand-alone piece. This is the opposite of my other collection, Tales the Devil told Me, a planned, thematically-linked book that I wrote over a two-year period, during my MFA. Because I came to writing so late in life; or because my work defies categorization, classification, and indeed all reason; or because I come at my subjects indirectly, I’m not someone who’s ever concretely dreamed of writing a certain sort of book.
And although our current struggles may feel brand-new and insurmountable, they aren’t. I once waited tables with a guy who’d spent years developing a television project and had finally managed to set up a meeting with a company that was eager to produce it. The meeting was supposed to take place at 10 a.m. on September 11, 2001, in Tower One of the World Trade Center. This is just to say that there’s never an ideal time for anything. The word ideal should probably be expunged from our vocabularies (except when used ironically).
Also: I would never go back to the past. Not for a bazillion dollars. I would sooner die. So I’m afraid Jen from the Past is entirely on her own. Bless her heart.
Thanks Jen! Readers, check out her website.
Chrysalis by Jen Fawkes
Technically, it couldn’t be classified as a coma. Hypersomnolence, a resident suggested. Trance or spell or sopor, said others. Not even the hospital’s old guard spoke of the girl’s condition with anything approaching certainty. The most she merited at rounds was a shrug of weary shoulders. Hibernation? Hypnotism? Rapture? Inevitably, one of the residents suggested a classic case of colossal torpidity, and everyone sniggered and moved on. Everyone but Dr. Bok.
He’d been on duty the day they found her prone on the waxed floor of the downtown library, A Field Guide to Butterflies of North America clutched in her right hand, index finger marking her place. His grandfather, an avid lepidopterist, had owned the same guide. Vanessa atalanta, about which the girl had been reading before she sank into her stupor, was quite striking, but the girl was no prize: dishwater blond, crooked mouth, wan, pitifully thin. Dr. Bok had intended to return Field Guide to the library when he left the hospital; instead, he carried the book to his cold two- room apartment and tucked it under his pillow. Each night, before removing his glasses and switching off the lamp, he perused the entry on Vanessa atalanta. In his dreams, the girl’s pale eyelids fluttered like polychromatic wings in flight.
He spent his spare time studying catatonia. Stayed abreast of the latest developments. Sat beside Vanessa, as the nurses dubbed the girl, reading aloud from medical texts, mysteries, fairy tales. He shooed away orderlies, turning and bathing the girl himself. He arranged her hair and painted her nails. Dusted her pale cheeks with blusher. The other residents ribbed him mercilessly. When they dared him to wake her Prince Charming style, he rolled his eyes, but he thought about it. Kissing her cheeks and fingertips. Elbows and toes. Stomach. Thighs. Lips. He told her things he’d never told a soul. How his sister’s stillbirth had destroyed his mother. How his grandfather, the lepidopterist, had been denatured by Alzheimer’s.
When he entered Vanessa’s room one spring morning to find the window wide open and the mattress littered with strands of blond hair and skin- hued fragments of casing, Dr. Bok wasn’t really surprised. Before calling in the staff to ready the room for another patient, he sat beside the bed, studying the remnants of Vanessa atalanta. He wondered how long she’d perched on the cusp of her split pupa, damp from the chrysalis, drying her new body, waiting to take flight. She would never recognize him, nor would she recall anything he’d said or done—she was a brand-new being. This did not sadden him, however. Unlike most butterflies, Vanessa atalanta flies on sunny days even in winter, and Dr. Bok was certain that he would see her again. When he bumped into her on the street, whatever her outward aspect, he would know her. This conviction would sustain him for years to come.
From Mannequin and Wife: Stories from Louisiana State University Press and original published by the Southeast Review in winter/spring 2012.