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Author Jessica Anthony Reads at Hallwalls

Jessica Anthony, author of The Convalescent, inaugural recipient of McSweeney’s coveted Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, and part of Barnes and Noble’s “Discover Great New Writer’s Section” is currently an Iowa Arts Fellow, living in Iowa City. She has previously won fellowships to the Millay Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the MacDowell Colony. Anthony will be reading at Hallwalls on Tuesday, April 12 at 7pm as part of the Exhibit X Series.

AV: Who, out of the literary world, would you say influences your writing? Does music influence your writing?

Anthony: Music affects my moods, which, in turn, affects my writing. I’ll often play something to get me in the mood to write (for The Convalescent, it was usually Queen). But this is a tough question to answer. For me, writing is so closely born out of reading. Influence, aside from books, means you’re looking at your friends and family, which means ultimately that you are looking at yourself and examining your own understanding of how people think and work. Those people very close to you and those very distant. I people-watch constantly and am usually alert, listening for some bullet of a conversation to hit me sideways. Eavesdropping can be marvelous fodder for fiction these days…

AV: In The Convalescent, Rovar is in some ways sympathetic: short, subject to bullying, having health problems, unlucky in love. In other ways, he is not so admirable: he steals, for example. Is Rovar a projection of someone you know (or of yourself?)

Anthony: It’s hard to say precisely where characters and plots come from. They are rather helplessly born as you’re writing them. But Rovar’s stance in the novel, his general attitude and bitterness about his world is an emotion, which I (and I think others) have felt from time to time. So I lingered there for 200 pages.

AV: Was it difficult for you to put yourself in Rovar’s shoes at times?

Anthony: Oddly no. I’m not sure what that says about me or Rovar, but it was never difficult to imagine being him. However it was difficult at times to imagine what would happen to him.

AV: I’ve read that you’ve been to Hungary—is that where you started to get ideas for The Convalescent?

Anthony: Yes, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was living in Prague and went to Budapest with a good friend. But she was mainly there to visit her boyfriend, so I spent most of the trip wandering the city alone (which is now my favorite way to travel). Four years later, I was enrolled in an MFA program at George Mason University, and (again) wandering in a mall in suburban Virginia. I walked past a McDonald’s and saw a photograph of an old school bus that said “MEAT BUS” on it. Something clicked. I went home and started writing.

AV: Did you research Hungarian history prior to writing the book? For how long?

Anthony: I had no idea that the book would require so much research when I began. The opening chapter of the historical sections was written with very little research actually, but I slowly began to realize as the months passed that I had made a structural decision to alter the past and present, and then there was no going back. I enjoyed the research though—many times, my interest reading about 9th century Hungarians overwhelmed my interest in the novel, and it took a good deal of effort to restrict the research to 30 minutes a day.

AV: How did you get involved with McSweeney’s?

Anthony: In 2004, I was very lucky to be selected as the winner of McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award. I submitted the first 40,000 words of the book and two stories, and was utterly astonished when I got a call from them. From that point, I knew McSweeney’s was interested. There was just the small matter of finishing the book, which took, after that, another two or so years.

AV: Can you give us a very brief insight as to what Chopsticks will be about? Are you excited for its launch?

Anthony: Chopsticks is totally different from The Convalescent. It’s a multimedia novel (aimed for ages 18-22) designed by Rodrigo Corral. The novel is told in images, music, text, and film. Over the past year, I wrote about 150 pages of directions for Rodrigo to interpret. It’s been an incredible experience so far, and we’re nearly done. Launch, I believe, is in October. It’s incredibly exciting.

AV: Do you have any advice to handle rejection from literary magazines?

Anthony: For young writers, getting rejected is healthy. It’s important to know early that not everyone will love your work as much as you do. It’s an important part of becoming a humble writer (or striking the right balance between confidence and humility). Writers who succeed, I think, learn from rejection by going back to their work and asking themselves if they really write the best story they could possibly write. The answer is usually “No.” So then you revise, and revise again, and again, and then you get better. It’s important to remember that editors at all levels want to publish great fiction. Your job is to give them what they want. Writers who don’t succeed (and I’ve seen this, sadly, over and over) are the writers who believe the editors are morons not to publish their story. They take rejection like a personal assault, and either refuse to ever submit to the magazine again, or ambush the poor editor with a dozen more mediocre manuscripts…I’d advise young writers to submit to places they can genuinely imagine liking their work. If they get rejected, go back to the story, revise, and submit it elsewhere. Just keep going.

AV: Do you have any other advice for young writers?

Anthony: Write the story you most desperately want to read. The story that is not out there in the world but needs to be.

michael koh