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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

#44 Kaylie Jones

20 Questions with Mourning Goats


Kaylie Jones

Kaylie is fantastic. I've known her for years and finally went to her for some knowledge. Between a new imprint, second black belt, a novel competition, and everything else in her life, I was elated when she said that she would answer a few questions from a sad goat. Check out all of her books, especially one of her newest stories in Long Island Noir, released earlier this year.

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

We always call our dogs “the goats” because they act more like mountain goats than dogs. So I think first of my two dogs; then I wonder immediately if I am meant to think that this moniker applies to a writer who is mourning his lost goats, or whether the goats are in mourning.

2. Which of your writings are you most proud of? Why? 

Usually I am most proud of what I have last finished. This is a bit like asking a writer, “What is your favorite novel?” It is an unfair question and depends entirely on my mood that day. I think my novel CELESTE ASCENDING was the most complex book, structure-wise, that I will ever write. It took me six years. But, in terms of courage, I’d have to say LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME. Memoir leaves the writer more exposed, more open to personal criticism. I realized, however, that the subject of denial and alcoholism is such that, in taking this on, I was not going to open the eyes of the world – those that are standing on my side of the fence, who have been forced to deal with their own denial, don’t need the book; those who are still on the other side of the fence would rather shoot themselves than have to face the truth.

3. How did it feel to have one of your books turned into a movie? What was that process like? 

Having A SOLDIER’S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES made into a movie was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. James Ivory and Ismail Merchant are literary filmmakers and they involved the writer whenever they could. My family traveled all over with them and the film; we were on the set; we went to the Venice and Deauville film festivals. It was the most amazing year of my life. I am only sorry that my daughter was too little to remember any of it.

4. What was it like writing a screenplay with your husband, Kevin Heisler? Do you think you'll do more collaborations? 

At heart I am not a screenwriter, though I love movies. This was difficult for me, because my instinct is always to add more. Kevin was always cutting, cutting, trying to explain that a screenplay is just the template for a film. We sold several screenplays, but the films were never made. So I’ll never know if we succeeded in our screenwriting endeavors, or not.

5. Your students have had some big successes, what do you think you do differently, to help them in the right direction? 

As a teacher, I think the most important thing is to never get in the way of the student’s vision. Offer technical advice, suggestions, give emotional support, but allow the student to write the book s/he intended to write. It’s about trying to remain objective, not take over the project and impose a different vision on it. I very rarely suggest a major change in the story. Most of the time, I try to get a feel for what the writer is trying to get to. I think part of being good at this is being able to discern what the writer is trying to get at, rather than what is actually showing up on the page.

6. How do you think growing up in Paris influenced what you write and how you write? 

I believe every writer should speak at least two or three languages. The ability to express myself in another language has been very helpful to me as a writer. Also, when you grow up in a foreign country, and you are always an outsider, even when you can assimilate pretty well into the culture, you learn to watch and listen as an outsider. Most writers are outsiders in one way or another; I have found this to be true almost across the board. Growing up in France also made me open-minded toward other cultures. Open-mindedness toward other cultures is something I feel is sorely lacking in the US.

7. Who's your first reader and why? 

I have four or five people I give my early drafts to for feedback. They are great readers, very intelligent, usually writers, and are not afraid to tell me what they think. I give the same pages to different people for different reasons. I have an old friend, a former athlete, who doesn’t read fiction much, and I give him my pages to whether my work a) can be appreciated by men who spend their free time watching football and basketball; b) will put them to sleep or keep them awake.

8. Do you feel that you're compared to your father, novelist James Jones, a lot? 

The only thing our writing has in common is honesty. We had completely different educations, different influences. My father loved the great American novels of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I like books that are tight, light on their feet, at their perfect fighting weight. I sometimes wonder what he would have thought of my work. I believe he would have liked my books. The thing I regret most in life is that I never got the chance to sit down and discuss my work with him. How I wish I could have asked him why he did this here, and that there, and why did he think Tolstoy did this in this in his battle scenes, and what did he think of, for example, Edith Wharton? Oh, the things I would have discussed with him. My heart still aches at the thought of that loss.

9. Are you a fan of e-books? How do you think they're going to change literature?

I used to go on vacation with five or six books in my suitcase or carry-on bag. I am delighted to have a tablet on which I can carry as many books as I like. I spend way too much money on e-books, but I don’t feel nearly as guilty as I used to, bringing home bagsful of books, to this little apartment where the books were already three deep on the sagging shelves. When we moved two years ago, I said, “That’s it! No more books!” We got rid of 75% of our library. I can’t say I miss them. They gathered dust and exacerbated my bronchitis. I no longer feel the need to identify myself to others by the books I’ve read. I couldn’t care less what people think of my erudition or lack thereof. In a way, it was a huge relief to get rid of those books.

In terms of whether e-books will change literature, it is hard to say at this point. Everyone can self-publish nowadays. But that doesn’t mean the work is worth reading. It’s a veritable tidal wave of self-published books. Hopefully, we’ll figure our way through this, just as we figured our way through the invention of the printing press. However, the option of not having to answer only to big publishing houses, or to distributors, is quite refreshing to me as a writer of literary fiction. Many of my students have had a hard time finding publishers. This is extremely distressing to me, when I know how good their work is. Because a book is not ‘commercial enough’ does not mean it is not worth publishing.

10. Do you think you would be a writer today if you hadn't grown up rubbing elbows with some of the biggest writers in recent history? 

They were rich, they were famous. I never knew any struggling writers. I thought people could make an excellent living as writers. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening! Writers used to be taken much more seriously than they are now in our society. After 9/11, no one asked the great American writers what they thought. They asked the actors!

11. You've done readings all over the world, what's your favorite part about them? Least favorite part? 

I enjoy meeting new people and discussing books. But I don’t like walking into a strange bookstore or library, not knowing who is going to be there, and how many people are going to show up. It can be very uncomfortable, going to a new place and having only one or two people in the audience. I no longer just randomly agree to do readings in unknown venues anymore. It’s too nerve wracking. 

12. You spoke in another interview about thinking it's better that someone else adapts a book into a screenplay, and not the original author, can you go into more detail on why you think this way? 

Novelists are often too close to their own work to do a good adaptation. Screenplays are all about structure, and ultimately, the director’s vision. Writers often can’t see the proverbial forest for the trees when they are adapting their own work. I advised on the screenplay of my novel, but I am glad Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and James Ivory wrote the screenplay.

13. What's it like being a chair for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship? What do you look for when judging this? 

This contest is a lot of work, but so rewarding. We have many, many talented readers who initially read the manuscripts. I often ask my graduate students to read for us. It helps them identify what they shouldn’t do in the first 50 pages of their novels! We whittle it down to the top 10%, then down to the top five best manuscripts. Often, if it comes down to two manuscripts, and one is clearly more commercial and has a better chance at getting published, we pick the more literary, more difficult sell, because that book needs the help more than the other one.

Calling the winner is such a life-affirming gift. Every year, we ask one of the judges to make the call. Everyone loves getting a chance to do this. Imagine, you get to call a total stranger and say, “Congratulations, you just won $10,000 and we loved your novel.” People sometimes burst into tears. Sometimes they drop the phone. Once, the woman was speechless. She literally couldn’t talk and I had to wait several minutes, trying to convince her that it was not a hoax. One winner told me she was about to throw her novel  out, she was so discouraged by the rejection of publishers and agents. After she won the award, her novel was published and became a best-seller.

14. Do you still have a writing group that meets at your house? Do you find them necessary? 

This master class has been going since 1989. Some people leave and come back; some have been coming for twenty years. Most of these writers have published but they still relish the feeling of community and support. It’s also a trust issue. If you’ve been working with the same writers for many years, a certain bond develops, and it is very helpful to the struggling writer who feels alone. Most writers are ‘different;’ their friends generally don’t write, and they feel quite isolated in their process. Most of these people have become my good friends; I no longer think of them as students or of myself as their ‘teacher.’

15. When do you know that a book is finished? 

Never. I generally don’t go back and reread my published books, because my instinct is to get out a pen and start editing. Akashic did a beautiful reprint of A SOLDER’S DAUGHTER NEVER CRIES, and the first thing I asked was, “Can I change some things?” I even added a new story, which was blatantly missing from the first edition. A story about the mother, which I was not ready to write when the book was first published in 1990.

16. New York City; what does the city mean to you and your life in publishing? Is the location key? 

I have not found another place in the US where I could live and this has nothing to do with publishing. If anything, the New York publishing world feels provincial to me. But to live -- I tried New Orleans, Florida, Long Island. I feel at home in Paris. I feel at home in New York. What I love about New York is the neighbors don’t come knocking on the door with cookies and the expectation that you are going to invite them in for coffee. I love the anonymity of New York City; I love that a person can walk around with purple dots on his face and no one says, “Get the f***k out of here!” Walking my dog this morning, I heard Russian, French, Arabic, and some other language that might have been Hungarian. I love that. Particularly what I love about New York is that no one tires to shove evangelical Christianity down your throat, which seems to be the case in many parts of the country. Just driving down the highway in Indiana or Illinois, posters yell at you to repent now and what have you done for Jesus today. That kind of religious zealotry makes my skin crawl. My daughter gets school vacation days for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She wants to get a menorah this year, even though we’re not Jewish. I’ll have to ask my Jewish friends, is it okay to get a menorah if you’re not Jewish? We also have a little statue of Ganesha and a bronze Christ figure, as well as a Buddha. That’s what I love about New York.

17. Do you think you've taken any of the things you've learned earning your black belts and incorporated them into your writing? 

Earning my two black belts was probably the thing I am most proud of. I started very late in life, so I will never be a great martial artist, but the mental control and overcoming fear (fear of failure, fear of being laughed at, all kinds of fear) has been an immeasurable gift to me. I can truly say, after that experience, I fear very little. And I’ve gotten used to getting laughed at, my martial arts instructor laughs at me every day.

18. What would you say if your daughter decided to become an author, as well? 

My daughter is an excellent writer but I have been trying to convince her to be a rocket scientist since she was two. No acting, no singing, no dancing, no painting, and definitely no writing. Someone in this family has to learn to make a living.

19. You're a creative writing professor at a low-residency program as well as an in-residence program. How do you feel the programs prepare students for the real world, differently? 

I don’t think they are very different. The in-residence program meets at night, so most of the students have day jobs, just like the students in the low-residency program. My feeling about MFA programs in general is that we don’t prepare students enough for the brutal reality of what the world of commercial publishing is like. I believe students come to MFA programs thinking they are going to be the next Stephen King, or the next Margaret Atwood. They have no idea how hard it is to find a publisher, let alone a good agent. I try to help my students as best I can, but it’s an uphill battle. Some of my very best students have not been able to find publishers, which breaks my heart.

20. What's next for Kaylie Jones? 

I’m starting an imprint at Akashic Books. I am going to publish emerging writers whose work, for whatever reason, is considered a ‘hard sell’ by mainstream publishing. This is a very exciting endeavor, and we’re all set to go with the first novel, which will be published next fall. It is a historical novel set in 1917 rural Illinois, by Laurie Loewenstein, a graduate of the Wilkes MFA program. The novel is called UNMENTIONABLES, and is about a dress-reform activist who goes on the Chautauqua lecture circuit and in her rousing speech, urges conservative Midwestern matrons to free themselves of their corsets and other confining undergarments and join the 20th century. 

Thank you!



  1. Fantastic interview! Honest, insightful, passionate. We should be grateful to Kaylie Jones for her dedication to the craft, her support of emerging authors, and her courage in approaching her writing.

  2. The warmth and honesty I feel through this interview makes me very comfortable with Kaylie, like she is an old friend. I appreciate her passion which is evident through her responses.