I love a memorable collection of short stories -the list of the ones that have stayed with me through the years such as Ann Hood’s An Ornithologist’s Guide To Life , Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Alice Munro’s Open Secrets is now joined by Jessica Keener’s Women In Bed. With its provocative title, Keener’s stories are close to the surface, haunting and uplifting. I have enjoyed getting to know Jessica since first interviewing her about her novel, Night Swim. With all of the back and forth on Facebook, twitter and email I feel as though we are old friends. Here is the print version of our chit chat. Enjoy
Q: Women in Bed is quite the title. How did you come up with that and was it the first suggestion?
A: I was looking for a common, thematic thread, a symbol or phrase that could embrace all the stories in some way. At first, I considered using one of the story titles, but as I was brainstorming ideas with my husband, he blurted out what is now the title. I liked the simplicity of it. And, I liked that it’s provocative, too. Also, there is, literally, a woman in bed in every story. Additionally, I liked that a bed represents intimacy, love, illness, recovery—all themes influencing this collection
Q: Are stories written in a specific time period? What’s their connection to each other?
A: The time period is meant to be contemporary and not more specific than that. It could be now, twenty years ago, or next year. The connections have to do with women spanning their 20s to 40s struggling to understand who they are within the context of a close relationship, whether that relationship is with a parent, a lover, husband, mentor or friend.
Q: What are some of the ways writing a novel differs from short stories?
A: The obvious thing is the brevity of a short story compared to a novel. This brevity translates to a kind of intensity and rawness. There’s a heightened sense of the moment, everything swirling into a tight vortex of present time in a short story. A novel feels more expansive. It can absorb more characters; it has more time to work things out
Q: What are some of your favorite collections of stories?
A: I’ll start with fairy tales—Grimm’s and Anderson’s. Shirley Jackson’s chilling story: “The Lottery.” Anything by Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro; she’s a longtime favorite. Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bowen; the Irish writer, Frank O’ Connor; Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, is a huge favorite and influence. Edith Pearlman –a contemporary master. Racelle Rosett is a new writer whose work I admire. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Clarice Lispector, Machado De Assis, Chekov, of course. –Too many favorites to list here.
Q: Please talk a little about your time here in Rhode Island
A: I spent two years at Brown University getting a master’s degree in creative writing. I lived up on the hill in Providence. This was back in the 80s before the city underwent a massive redo. I loved the town for its history and architecture, its proximity to the ocean, its art and food. Rhode Island is a beautiful gem of a state. It has everything: theater, music, literature. I’m particularly fond of Jamestown Island.
Q: The Boston book festival was last weekend and there are others that you participated in. Which have been some of your favorites?
A: The Boston Book festival has been going five years strong now and gets better every year, so I have to put that one at the top. It’s in my favorite town, in architecturally sublime Copley Square. The range of authors is fabulous. This year, Salman Rushdie was the Keynote speaker. I was inspired and moved by his words. Arizona’s Festival of the Book is huge and well-run, offering a great variety of authors. Miami’s festival leads the way. I’m looking forward to attending both Newburyport Literary Festival and Virginia’s Festival next spring.
Q: Grub Street and the Boston-based writers – How long have you been involved there and who are you “besties” of the Boston area writers?
A: I’ve been a manuscript consultant for Grub Street for about 1.5 years but have watched this writing center grow into a true literary force over many years. I believe it’s the second largest independent writing center in the country now. It offers courses and services for every kind of writer. I’m guessing Boston has one of the highest concentrations of writers per city block. It’s a literary-rich city. Because of this, I’m lucky that some of my favorite writers are also friends who live close by, close enough to meet for coffee and walks. I won’t list names because if I inadvertently forget someone, I’d be upset with myself for days; plus, every year, I meet authors who become new friends.
Q: The question we just cannot do without -what are you working on now?
A: I’ve recently completed a new novel set in Budapest in the mid-1990s. This is something I’ve worked on for the past five or so years. My agent thinks it’s fantastic. So, I’m happy right now.
(editor’s note – me, too!!)
Q: How much time and energy do you give to social media?
A: I struggle to keep my Facebook time from taking over my psyche. I try to keep it to 1 hour a day, but it’s more likely two hours.
Q: I love your Facebook postings of flowers etc -any thought to a book of photography?
A: Yes. How did you guess? In fact, I’m collecting those photos and phrases into a book I’m calling Blooms Not Bombs: short, daily meditations on life and living. I found myself needing to take flower and nature photos after the Boston Marathon bombing, which happened three miles from where I live. My town was one of the towns that went into lockdown. It was my way of counteracting that negative, destructive force with something deeply positive and, as I see it, more powerful and enduring than the stupidity of bombs. All around me, I felt this creative outpouring of life in the form of flowers, trees, sky and clouds—every day, hour, minute—persisting in their endless variety of beauty. I’ve been surprised by the exuberant response these photos have engendered on my Facebook author page.
Q: And finally, what are you reading now?
A: I’m currently reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton. It’s dense and fascinating.
For more information please visit http://www.jessicakeener.com