April 25th, 2011 / 3:00 pm
Author Spotlight

A Conversation With Jac Jemc

Jac Jemc‘s novel, My Only Wife, is forthcoming from Dzanc in 2012, and she is also the author of the just released These Strangers She’d Invited In, a beautiful chapbook published by Greying Ghost Press.

I loved These Strangers She’d Invited In. How did this project come about and what’s really going on in this chapbook? I had so many questions.

The project actually started as a class exercise a few years ago. We were supposed to imitate a classmate’s work and there was this filmmaker guy who kept turning in these character names with a bulleted list of traits. My way of ‘copying’ him was to look up a bunch of names of Russian stage actors and make up details about them. Then I turned the details into stories instead of lists. I made a lot more than are in this chapbook, but when I started looking at them as a whole, these were the ones that made sense as a collection.

The word that kept coming to mind as I read this chapbook once and twice and a third time was “impeccable.” The writing is quite crisp, almost intricate. Each sentence almost had an aphoristic quality. This actually felt really different from a lot of your other writing I read. Do you think this book is different in style?

Oh, man, that’s so kind. I tend to think I’m a pretty messy writer. As for the aphoristic quality, I’ve always been pretty obsessed with the idea of the ‘quotation,’ which I realize is quite different from an aphorism, but growing up I’d sort of obsessively write down statements of truth that really struck me when I was reading and watching and listening. They didn’t even have to be things I agreed with or believed in, as long as they seemed insightful or surprising or exciting. I think that aphoristic statements show up in a lot of my work; oftentimes as the last line of a section or story. I feel like I’m confused in life a lot of the time, but if you can tidy up an experience by slapping it with a lesson, you can move forward to get confused again, which is a really enjoyable place for me: new confusion.

Yevgeny Valerianovich Samoilov thinks, “If every reason starts with ‘because’ then every woman starts with a reason. Of course, every fight starts with a woman. Every reconciliation starts with a fight.” Do you agree with his logic?

I don’t think each element of that train of logic makes sense, but the way he’s trying to reason is familiar to me. I like a puzzle, but if it’s taking too long to solve, I’m open to making up new rules.

I enjoyed saying the names in TSSII aloud. How did you come up with them?

As noted, they are names of older Russian stage actors gathered from good old Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Soviet_actors. It should be noted, and perhaps has been noted elsewhere, that before I became obsessed with writing down quotations, I copied the baby name book obsessively by hand as a child. Over and over. I love names, but when it comes to naming characters, I’m pretty awful. So for this series I stole them from Soviet actors, and for the past couple years I’ve mostly been giving my characters the names of birds.

The thirteen sections definitely spoke to one another but each section also read really well individually. Did you intend that effect? Which section was your favorite? (I loved them all but I think I love 12, about Yaketerina Golubeva, most., followed closely by 8, then 1, then, oh hell)

Well, I don’t think I intended to make a collection when I started. I think I just found a way of working that felt good to me, so I kept doing it, and then the stories had all come from the same place, but had been written on their own terms. I don’t think I have a favorite. I like parts of each of them.

This is the first Greying Ghost title I’ve had a chance to read. It’s gorgeous. What was it like working with them? Were you happy with how your book turned out?

It was great working with Carl at Greying Ghost, but the process was a bit of a mystery, in the best way. I got to proof the PDF of the chapbook, but Carl kept the design a secret until he announced it was printed. Having been a fan of Greying Ghost for quite some time, I had the utmost faith that whatever he did, it would be awesome. And it is. So simple and pretty and one-of-a-kind. It’s so nice to write a thing, and then have the press make it into a better thing by putting so much thought into the physicality.

You have a novel forthcoming from Dzanc in 2012. Is the wait driving you crazy? What do we need to know about this book?

The wait is not driving me crazy. It’s a comfortable spot to be in, to know that a book is coming out and that you can just keep making new work without the pressure to line up something else. I guess I’m getting antsy to start editing it again, but that will start any minute now. I don’t know what you need to know about the novel. If you thought this chapbook was different from my other work, then this novel might be shocking. I wrote the first draft about six years ago, so it’s very much a different voice than I typically use now, but it’s one I still believe in, even if I’m in a different spot now.

You participate in a lot of readings or at least it seems that way because I often see you at readings. Do you enjoy reading your work for an audience?

I do enjoy reading my work for an audience. I’m a big fan of reading aloud in general. Alone in my apartment, I’ll read large sections of books aloud to myself, so just that physical act is really enjoyable to me. I don’t think I’m a particularly notable reader (I’m thinking of people that knock my socks off regularly like Amelia Gray and Dorothea Lasky and Scott McLanahan), but with a whiskey in me, I can do it without pissing my pants too thoroughly.

You have a rejection blog and yours was actually the inspiration for mine. Why a rejection blog? Does writing about rejection help you deal with rejection more effectively? Have you ever wanted to say something untoward?

When I was finishing up my MFA, and had had just a couple pieces accepted at magazines, I decided I should have a blog where I could provide links to my work, but I knew I had to put some content on the blog that would get updated relatively regularly. I’m real lazy, so I knew posting general op-ed type pieces was certain death. I wanted something that would force me to post regularly, so I decided I’d just note every time I was rejected: self-deprecation as self-promotion. I knew what fun it was to talk shop (i.e., rejection) with friends at the time and I also knew that I was always more likely to read about people’s tragedies than their successes, so all of this added up. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been too hung up on rejection. I remember being in school and my professors preparing me for what a horror rejection was, but it’s never seemed that bad. I think I lucked out for two reasons: 1) I think I expected everyone to be dicks, which they’re not, and 2) I found a group of people who were interested in the same kind of writing I was pretty quickly, all-told. Have I ever wanted to say something untoward? Well, I’ve had a number of people get pissed off that I’m ‘focusing’ on rejection at the blog, but those seem to be people that haven’t actually read it. When people write me angry letters about my false sense of entitlement and how I should stop whining about being rejected, I usually respond by asking if they’ve actually read even one post on my blog. Then, about ten minutes later, they apologize.

What is the last great thing you read?

I was real excited by Poum Poum Tralala by Joseph Mains (Poor Claudia) and also Clops by Devin King (Green Lantern Press). I’ve been reading big, fat novels lately, with tiny books of poetry interspersed, and there must be something about that reading rhythm that makes the poetry books really pop. Those poetry books are super-different from each other – but they’re both done so well. Mains’ book is so language—sparky and King’s book handles repetition in a way that excites me more than I’ve been able to be excited by repetition before.

What’s the Chicago literary community like?

Chicago is just the best. Everyone is so warm and supportive. There’s too much going on here – I have to talk myself into staying home to actually write, rather than just hear other people read what they’ve written. It’s wonderful. I can’t see a reason to ever leave.

If you had to plan a perfect day for someone who isn’t familiar with Chicago but doesn’t want to do typical tourist things, what would you suggest?

8:30 AM: Breakfast at Svea in Andersonville. You can get the most delicious Swedish pancakes, and their bacon and fried potatoes are my favorite breakfast sides ever.

10:00 AM: Museum of Science and Industry. This museum was my favorite growing up. It is really falling apart but it is still awesome. You can see real unborn babies at different stages of development in jars. You can see glass cases of slices of cadavers that are getting old and discolored at the landings of the stairways. You can see a ‘fairy castle’ that was the ongoing project of silent film star, Colleen Moore. You can go inside a real, captured U-boat. What a weird place. You’ll love it.

1:00 PM Get your buttocks on over to Brown’s Chicken on Archer. It is a little out of the way, but it is the best fast food in the country. Some people may try to tell you that a bunch of employees were murdered in a suburban Brown’s Chicken in the early 90s. It’s true, but that doesn’t make the chicken taste any less perfect. Also, their crinkle-cut fries. Salty perfection.

2:30 PM: Robin Richman. Listen we both know neither of us are wealthy enough to actually shop at this clothing gallery, but if you have any interest in looking at clothes and jewelry so one-of-a-kind that you finally understand why a person would pay $650 for a pair of shoes, this is the place to do it.

3:30 PM: Stop at my apartment around the corner to drink some whiskeys and meet my cat, Dinah.

5:00 PM: Zip on down Damen to Quimby’s and then Myopic. Quimby’s has the best selection of hand-chosen books, zines, and comics in the city. Myopic is the best used book store ever.

6:30 PM: Sultan’s Market. You’ve eaten a lot of shit today. Time for the best, and also possibly cheapest, falafel sandwich in the city.

7:30 PM: Inner Town Tavern. What’s that you say? You’re here on the second Tuesday of an odd month? Well then, we better get to Quickies. This is no surprise to anyone, but it really is the best reading series in the city, and after the quick 45 minutes of reading, you can hang out with the nicest people around.

10:30 PM: Danny’s. We are lucky enough that there’s an Off Chances Dance Party at Danny’s Tavern. Someone will spin soul. We will get sweaty and stupid.

1:00 AM: The Charleston. We are tired of it being loud and we need one more whiskey and also to remember this night with a photo booth strip. Sometimes the owners of this bar are nice and will let you stick around to drink while they clean the place up. This is happening less and less. The Charleston is dead. Long live the Charleston!

What do you love most about your writing?

Honestly, so much of my writing process relies on chance, that my favorite thing is being able to surprise myself. I’m always excited by the weird ways I’m able to figure out how to say something or the strange stories I didn’t even know I had to tell. I really do hate writing, but having written: there’s nothing better.


  1. stephen

      Hi Roxane, Hi Jac :)

  2. lindsay

      i love this woman.

  3. sadie r.

      This chapbook sounds great! I just ordered it and I’m pumped to read it.
      p.s. As another Chicagoan I can vouch for the greatness/strangeness of the Museum of Science and Industry.

  4. Scott mcclanahan

      Great interview. And congrats Jac on the new chapbook.

  5. Jac Jemc

      Thanks, again, all, for your kindness. It appears the chap sold out today, but I still have a small handful to distribute, so let me know if you’d like to order a copy directly through me: jacjemc@gmail.com

  6. Taylor Entwistle

      Jac, you are so very special and talented. I have ALWAYS thought so. Also, that sounds like a PERFECT day in Chicago!!! This is one of the best cities in the world. I, too, see no reason to leave any time soon. :) Love you! <3

  7. Jennifer Spiegel

      Love to hear about upcoming Dzanc titles–can’t wait to read Jac Jemc’s. I’d copy the rejection blog idea, but I already have an inferiority complex . . . . .

  8. Sean

      We post, it sells out. Literature. That’s how we roll.

  9. Cassandra Troyan

      Oh please, I want one!

  10. Richard Thomas

      This was great. Roxane and Jac, two of my favorite authors. If either are reading in your neighborhood, check them out. This is a really great chap, I enjoyed it a lot. It’s very cool that Jac is always reinventing herself, new voices, always fun, never boring.

      I’ll second the stops here in Chicago at Quimby’s and Myopic, two of my favorite bookstores ever. Quickies is always a blast. I like the MCA a lot too. Wicker Park has a lot of great places to eat too, if you’re at the bookstores: Cafe Absinthe, Piece, Bongo Room (breakfast), Smoke Daddy. Double Door for music. Sadly, places like Holiday and Borderline are gone.

      Look forward to My Only Wife, Jac.

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      […] Gray and Jac Jemc share their top five Phil Collins songs. (Kind of.) Ms. Jemc was also recently interviewed by HTML Giant; topics include Russian actors, rejection letters, and places to go in […]

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