Setting, Storytelling, and Serendipity with Jan Bowman

Read Jan's "Mermaids"  Here .

Read Jan's "Mermaids" Here.

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree, Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others. An upcoming publication is scheduled for Big Muddy. A recent story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also a story was a 2011 finalist for the “So to Speak” fiction contest. An additional story was nominated for Best American Short Stories in 1997. In 2012 Jan hopes to find a suitable publisher for a story collection.

Her fiction, "Mermaids," was published in the 2012 edition of the Roanoke Review and won first place for best fiction piece. Stephanie Spector speaks with Jan below.

What’s your favorite part about your character, Emily, in Mermaids?

 Emily is involved in making sense of the dysfunctional world of adults unfolding around her and she's trying to find her place.  I like that she is brave and open to life. I think of this as a coming of age story.  For a long time too few of those stories were available with girls as main characters.  In fact, at some point I can imagine this story forming an opening chapter in a novella, because I can see Emily as an adult a few years later and imagine who she might have become.   

 You know, someone asked me at a workshop if this story were autobiographical and I was surprised, because this bears no resemblance to me, or my childhood. This story grew out of me seeing an old (pink) beach house tottering at the edge of the shore off the coast of North Carolina a few years ago.  I thought it was an abandoned house until I saw a young girl come out of the house and walk up the beach while a slightly older boy came out of the house and laughed and jeered as she walked away.  I made a note of it in my notebook and began to imagine their story.  I particularly liked the images of the family dynamics mirrored in the decay of the beach house, but I didn't set out intentionally to do this. It was serendipitous.  

 Why did you decide to set Mermaids on the coast of Delaware?

 Originally I did set the story in NC until I realized I needed to set the story in a place that had a large city, like Baltimore, near enough that the father would have only a few hours drive between the city where he worked and the beach house.  Also the beaches up the coast of MD, DE and NJ have some isolated and rocky terrain. In addition, I had this image of the father fleeing across the Bay Bridge and I wanted to honor the power of that image.  Incidentally, when I was a kid my aunts, uncles, cousins (about 20 of us plus assorted friends) would all gather at a large beach house for a couple of weeks every summer and our fathers often worked nearby in Charleston (SC) and drove over to Folly Island every afternoon. But the beach terrain in that area is not particularly rocky or isolated except for salt marshes so that wouldn't work for this story.

Do you think there is a code of ethics in writing? 

I would hope that writers, just like good people in any line of work, have an inner compass that causes them to use their talents for good and ethical behaviors. John Gardner had some good things to say about that in his Art of Fiction. I can't speak for others, but I am a writer who believes, for example, that writers have an obligation to dig deep, find truth as they can tell it, and help people feel more connected, alive, compassionate, and relevant. I believe writers have an obligation to share their knowledge. Writers are privileged when they can help other writers grow in their writing skills.  I try to do that on my website and when I teach or attend workshops. I believe we have an obligation to help each other on this planet.

 I’m taken by the organization of your personal website. You currently have quite a few projects lined up. Is it always like this? Do you work on your projects simultaneously?

 Yes. I always work on multiple projects over the course of a year. I set up quarterly goals (which are broad and never really completed) and objectives (which are specific and measureable components under those goals). I try to focus on completing some each quarter.  For example, a broad goal: "to improve my writing" this quarter has as an objective: "to improve plot structure in a specific story ("The New Math") that I hope to complete as a first draft by the end of November.  Stories that I work on seem to sort themselves into topics and that has guided my list of current collections under development.  I can't seem to consciously decide to write a story for one of these topics.  Nothing happens when I try to do that.  It's only later after I've written a couple of new stories, that I see how my unconscious mind is moving me in a particular direction toward these projects.  I am respectful of the process.  But the process goes slower than it would if I were doing something as simple as baking a cake, planting a garden or planning a trip. Also other stories pop up that don't fit those categories so when I begin to have a cluster of those, I'll see a pattern unfolding for new projects. 

You wrote a post about how you identify yourself as a fiction (and, occasionally, a nonfiction) writer. Why do you think you relate to those two genres more than poetry?

 Well I am a short story writer.  I've heard it said that short story writers are failed poets, and that may be true in my case. My few attempts to write poetry have been soundly rejected. I sent a few out and one editor scrawled - "Give it up. You are not a poet." That was harsh and probably not true at all, but it gave me pause to think that I am not getting any younger and I probably should focus my writer's efforts on perfecting a particular aspect of my talents. Ironically, I have taught students how to read, write and look deeply into the beauty of poetry. I often sit down on a rainy afternoon and read a poetry collection in full. I love hearing, feeling the music of poetry. It inspires me to do this.  But the reality is that I truly love short stories. I love the complexity of the form. And I love to read novels, although I'm not "hot" to plot one.  And I am a competent creative nonfiction writer too, but it doesn't give me that surge of joy that I get from working on a successful story.  A good story has the heart of a rose, the sweep of a Monarch butterfly, the smell of a sweaty horse, the song of a highway and a fast car.

What do you think defines the contemporary creative nonfiction essay, and why do you think it’s such a popular form now?

 I have watched contemporary creative nonfiction essays take root and grow like thistle, mostly (I believe) as a result of several things.

First we are a nation of self-obsessed, navel gazing fools caught up in the technological generation of Face Book and Selfies.  

Second, a wave of successful memoirs over the past few years brought success and money to a whole crop of new writers so that's jacked up the attention and excitement for creative nonfiction in creative writing programs and among publishing houses. It's also brought in big money to the few remaining publishing giants who have gobbled up many of the smaller publishers who delighted in fiction.  And it is easier to find someone to publish creative nonfiction than fiction. (By the way, if you haven't done this already, you might want to take a count- not during a holiday season - of the number of fiction versus nonfiction books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review on any given Sunday over a couple of months. Mostly they review nonfiction. It hasn't always been that way.)  

Third, writing programs are offering more creative nonfiction courses. If you build it - they will come, whether you're talking about a baseball field of dreams or a class on memoir.  Once upon a time creative nonfiction was rare fare there.  

Fourth, readers are in a rush for a quick sound bite to learn about topics quickly, without too much interpretive effort and it seems to me that while I truly enjoy creative nonfiction like Diane Ackerman's or Annie Dillard's essays on natural phenomena, I can dip into them and dry off quickly. I've often wondered whether fiction readers over the past twenty or so years were so turned off by all the earlier focus on analysis in English, literature and fiction classes that they fell out of love with the genre to some extent.   \

What question have you always wanted to be asked as a writer?

What's your favorite color and why?  Actually - I'm joking about that, although I like almost every color, except French's mustard gold, Pepto pink and any shade of orange, unless it actually is an orange. And I don't mind the occasional orange colored pumpkin, but I wouldn't want clothing, a car, furniture or a house that color.

Probably a good question is one that makes me think and one for which I don't have an easy answer.  For example: Are there any topics that writers should not approach?  And actually I think everything is fair game for someone to explore, but some would not work for me for a variety of reasons. Writing freely and with great depth and no restrictions is an important - essential - part of our culture.  Censorship is a terrible thing.  But if I look deep into the heart of me, I know that there are topics I would not write about because they are creepy, or mean-spirited, or frighten me, or make me sick, or feel like a betrayal, or that provide no possibility that anything good could come from me exploring a particular topic.