|"When you've chased the weird and you know the weird, then you've earned the weird," says Jessica Anthony.|
Sometimes novelist Jessica Anthony says really vivid and amazing things. “Writing a novel is like going into a cave for four years. It’s dark, it’s cold, and there are scary dripping sounds, but at some point it becomes your home.”
But in case you start thinking she’s too brainy and brilliant to have a beer with you, just know that she played the French Horn for way longer than it was cool, and when you talk to her you can tell that her inner nerd is still quite present.
And she also says things like, “I can sign. I went to deaf lesbian episcopalian camp.”
I sat down with Jessica, who lives in Portland, (that’s Maine, not Oregon) on June 18th to talk about her latest collaborative project, the interactive novel and app, Chopsticks, and what she’s working on now.
|Jessica Anthony, right, proving that she's totally willing to talk literature over a beer with fellow novelist Jason Ockert.|
You published your freaky cool novel The Convalescent in 2010, and then you and Rodrigo Corral won App Magazine’s App of the Year Award in 2012 for your interactive novel, Chopsticks ($6.99 on iTunes). How did your writing process change between the two?
It wasn’t a matter of the process itself changing but rather instead what I was writing. It turned out to be directions for a narrative, which is really different from a narrative itself.
The project came to me through my agent, Jim Rutman. Jim, Ben Shrank, and Rodrigo Corrall were having lunch in New York and they knew they wanted to tell a story that could work as both a book and an app, but they didn’t have a writer, and my agent said I might be interested because it was different.
I’d never done anything in the Young Adult genre before, and we decided that we wanted to focus on New Adult, which is a fairly new genre that bridges the gap between YA lit and adult literature. I said I’d be happy to do it so long as it wasn’t going to be a cheesy teen story. From the beginning, I wanted it to be about real characters, not stereotypes.
What was it like writing for a form that was- and still is- fairly unexplored territory?
I got to sit down and dream about what the project might look like, and I eventually came up with three proposals. The first was about two people next door to each other who become close through the song chopsticks.
I had just seen an iPad for the first time a few weeks earlier, and one of the apps was a little piano that you could play with anyone else in the world, and of course, what do all these people play? Chopsticks. So I wanted there to be some interactivity in the app where maybe people could experience in together.
When I write prose, I have to be alone in a really quiet place, but for Chopsticks I took my computer to a public library in Maine. I needed a different atmosphere, so I sat down in the library for about three weeks and wrote the first draft.
I treated it like it was a script to a movie, and it was very directorial. Spread one, we see leaves blowing across the page and a line of text at the top that encourages us to continue, and so on. In a sense, I was directing Rodrigo. I learned that Rodrigo and I shared a similar aesthetic, so we were usually very much on the same page. I was writing scenes for him to create, and then he’d send back images that would inform what I would write next.
Let’s talk about Rodrigo Corral, the graphic artist for Chopsticks. How was it working with him? And are writers control freaks?
Why, yes! Yes, we are! Rodrigo was amazing, just amazing, We were working so hard against cliches. We were trying to make choices that would create a different kind of narrative experience. When we encountered something that would feel much like typical YA fare, we would make a choice in the other direction. We agreed on that from a foundational level.
Writing prose is a really solitary practice, so this must have been different, yeah?
Absolutely. We’re co-creators here, although my part was more behind-the-scenes because the images are really what gets seen. Behind the pictures, though, the count was between four and six hundred pages of direction for the novel. Not all of it was used, and there was a lot of rewriting. And I was surprised at how often the images I would get from Rodrigo would change what I was writing! A quiet image of a lamp on a table would change how I felt about the character. It was a really interesting kind of writing experience, I’ll probably never have one like it again.
You spent time with five separate artist colonies. Millay, MacDowell, Ucross, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Anderson Center. Or is an artist colony like Fight Club, and the first rule is you don’t talk about it?
I can totally talk about it! I never thought I’d be the sort of writer who went to colonies, but you’re able to achieve so much more in four weeks at an artist colony than you can in months on your own. You’re at a place where your writing is the first priority, and you get a taste of community after months of writing on your own.
And you get a really amazing dinner every night. You go for the food, the food is delicious, and it doesn’t hurt that you meet a lot of really great writers at dinner.
And is there a collaboration among the writers there?
No, I don't think anybody collaborates at artist colonies, unless they go there for that purpose with another person. You make connections, whatever that means, and friendships, and you might give a reading. The cool thing is that you can wander through other people’s studios, and if you’re at a colony where there are paintings and sculptors and stuff then you can maybe draw inspiration from that.
So what next, hot stuff?
I’m working on a book of novellas, four, novellas, and each one deals with the aftermath of an unexpected arrival. It’s like writing four short novels all at once. I’m enjoying the creative challenges, and it’s kind of hard to talk about because no much of it hasn’t been written yet, but I have these four central stories I want to tell. It’s called Enter the Aardvark.
Wow. You have the title before the work is finished?
I always have the title. The title is the handle for your story. Sometimes it changes, but you always have a working title. The title is the heartbeat, it has voice, it has direction. I can’t write without a title. The Convalescent never changed. It was the first thing I wrote, and it was an experience of deciding who the convalescent is. The approach to Enter the Aardvark is similar. All of the novellas have titles and each of those titles carries a principle questions I’m trying to answer. I have drafts for two of them, but I’m still trying to answer some questions. It’ll be interesting to see where it takes me.