20 Questions with Mourning Goats
INTERVIEW FORTY FIVE
Holly Goddard Jones
You asked for an interview with Holly, and I'm here to please! Not only is she a fantastic short story writer, but she also has a novel coming out the day before Valentines day called, The Next Time You See Me. Check out the interview, buy the short story book, Girl Trouble, get the novel next month, and take note of Holly, she's one to watch!
1. What comes to mind when you hear, "mourning goats?"
When I first saw your Facebook friend request, I misread it as “Mountain Goats.” I have some friends who are really into that band.
2. Your first book was a short story book, back in 2009, in February, your first novel, The Next Time You See Me will be published, how was writing and publishing the books different?
I was a grad student when I was working on the stories in Girl Trouble, and the book went through a few different incarnations. I took away a story, completely rewrote one, and heavily revised the others. But there was never, during all of this rewriting, the panicked sense that one move could unravel the whole project. There were plenty of other kinds of panic, but I never doubted that I was making a collection that would eventually hold together.
The novel, on the other hand—75 percent of the writing experience was believing I would never finish it, that I didn’t have the skill or the wherewithal necessary to pull it off. I can admit this now only because I did finish it. At the time, though, it was years of feeling like I was playing pretend. It wasn’t until I got to about the 250-page mark of the rough draft, and went back and did a structural overhaul of those first pages, that I saw the way the rest of the book would go and started to feel some confidence.
As for the differences in the publishing experiences, I’ll probably be able to better answer that a few months. This book will be out in hardcover, whereas Girl Trouble was a straight-to-paper release, and that feels significant in an entirely superficial way. If there’s a negative, I guess it’s that I probably no longer have the automatic goodwill that comes to a young person publishing a first book, especially a less commercial project like a book of stories. The pressures are more acute this time around.
3. What's it like being married to another academic?
Well, that’s a question I never thought I’d be asked, if that tells you anything. It’s still really hard for me to think of him that way. Brandon worked for years at architectural firms, he seemed content in the professional world, and he’s frankly not a stereotypically bookish, professorial type. But when I got my current job in North Carolina—this was 2008—the economy was tanking, and architectural firms were letting people go, not hiring. So he decided to go back to grad school. Two years later, this teaching job happened, and he’s great at it. It’s a luxury for us to both be on academic schedules, and it’s good to finally have a partner who really understands me when I’m griping all the usual gripes. The bad side is that when he gripes to me, as he has every right to do, I feel almost as stressed on his behalf as I do on my own. I’m hoping this will go away with time.
4. What was it like studying under Lee Abbott, a master of short fiction?
It was terrifying and exhilarating in the way that you see students in movies getting terrified and exhilarated by larger-than-life, brilliant teachers and mentors. He was confident, encyclopedic in his knowledge, and analytical in a way that really resonated with me, as I’m not (and especially wasn’t then) a touch-feely, spiritual sort of writer. He was plain about what he hated and even plainer about what he loved. I was smitten with him.
5. Another interviewee of the Goat, John Mantooth, just reviewed your upcoming novel, what's it like getting reviewed by other writers? I can only imagine it's a huge compliment.
Oh, of course. It’s a compliment, and it means something extra, just because you know what a writer is having to sacrifice to make time to study and review someone else’s work. And you feel that a writer understands what you’re trying to do, and can at least give you credit for that, in a way that someone who doesn’t write might not. I’ve not had the courage to step into that reviewing role myself, though.
6. Do you think an authors success these days circles around their willingness to embrace social media as well as their talent?
This is something I’ve thought a lot about, and even despaired over some, and I just don’t know. I deleted my Facebook account a few months after my first book came out and stayed off for 2 and a half years. I felt embarrassed about how I’d presented myself on social media and how hard I’d promoted that book. Then, the new book got picked up, and I felt some pressure to go back. So there ended up being this paradox: I thought I needed to be on social media for the sake of promoting my book, but I didn’t want to be the kind of person who promotes herself on social media. What I decided to do was have a personal FB page, where I’d post dumb stuff and dog pictures and connect with friends and other writers in a non-professional (and sometimes unprofessional) way, and I’d also create a Twitter account and a Facebook Author page, and the author page is where I’d post the blurbs and the reviews and the reading dates. Then, I was on Twitter recently, and this group of writers was talking back and forth about how gauche it is to have a Facebook Author Page. I just crumpled with humiliation. So really, I have no idea what I’m doing and what effect it’s having and to what extent I look like an asshole.
7. LitReactor.com just mentioned you as one of the top ten authors you've never heard of, how do you respond to that?
I think it’s an honor but also really funny. I don’t disagree that most people haven’t heard of me.
8. What was it like winning the Hillsdale Award? The presentation is coming up in April, are you excited? Nervous?
The email notifying me I’d won came out of nowhere. It’s not something you apply for, and I hadn’t known I was in the running. So I was thrilled, of course. What a gift. I’m excited to go to this conference in Chattanooga, because I’ve heard about it for years, and I have friends in nearby Sewanee.
9. Girl Trouble was featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, what was that like and how did it happen?
I don’t know how or why it happened. Getting reviews—that’s mysterious to me. With Girl Trouble, I’d just suddenly hear from the publicist at my press, usually by email, with a PDF scan of the review attached. And you can tell when the review is going to be just so-so because the publicist says something like, “Here’s a very winning review of your book!” With O Magazine, I remember I was actually called on the phone by the publicist a few weeks before the review hit newsstands, and I could tell she was just as excited as I was. So that was a great day.
10. If someone who wasn't familiar with your work picked up one of your books, what would you tell them to expect?
I’d warn them that it’s pretty dark stuff, usually. And I’d say that I love to develop characters, but I also enjoy a good page-turner, and that’s what I try to give a reader.
11. Do you feel that since you're considered a southern writer, you tend to be drawn to southern writing?
Of course I appreciate southern writing, and have drawn a lot of inspiration from southern writers, but I don’t seek it out in particular over other kinds of fiction. I’m just as capable of enjoying a dystopian novel or a novel about self-absorbed upper class New Yorkers. And I hope, in turn, that you don’t have to be a southerner to like my work.
12. If you were given one piece of advice before getting into your MFA program, what would it have been?
I think I intuited then the advice I’d still give now, which is to not amass a bunch of debt to get the degree. After that—once you’re in a program, committed to going—I would say to be kind (which is not the same thing as being falsely nice or a pushover). I was insecure and defensive, 23 years old, and there were too many times when I wasn’t a generous reader of my peers’ work. I’d take that back if I could.
13. How did you get your agent, Gail Hochman?
Gail is my second agent, which is a long story. She represented one of my grad school professors, and I sent to her before signing with the other agency, only to get a long and thoughtful email from her after I withdrew my manuscript from her consideration. So when things didn’t pan out with the first agent, I got in touch with her—this was a couple of years later—and she still remembered the book and me. Which is one of the amazing and wonderful things about her. She is so sharp, so thoughtful. I don’t think it’s simply a matter of having a good memory. It’s that she is a reader and not just a businesswoman, and her way into selling a book is first making an emotional connection with it.
14. I love how dark you like to go in your stories, should we expect the same in your novel?
Oh, yeah. And then some!
15. You're a pretty recent MFA grad, what do you think of MFA programs? Are they a necessity? Highly recommended?
Well, I teach in an MFA program, and I had a wonderful experience in my MFA program, and so I certainly see plenty of good in getting the degree. But of course they’re not a necessity. If you have means to attend, you can get some time to be serious about your work, make friends and lifelong readers, learn some stuff that you might not learn otherwise, or as quickly, and yes, make some useful connections. But all of that can be done in some configuration outside of an MFA. And programs are so different. The program where I teach is really different from the one I attended—just a completely distinct vibe. I think some students could be happy at both places, but not all. The people I’ve known who were unhappy with their MFA experiences either had unrealistic expectations for the degree—didn’t understand that it wasn’t a set path to publication or a college teaching job—or chose a program with a vibe that didn’t suit them.
16. Do you remember the first short story you sold? What was it like?
The first story I placed was at American Literary Review, and I was paid with contributors’ copies, and so the first story I literally “sold” was to The Southern Review. And that was probably one of the best milestones in my writing life, not only because it was such a great journal—and such a tidy little paycheck for a grad student!—but because that story, which would ultimately lead my collection, felt like the first achievement of my grown-up writing life. Seven years later, that still seems right to me.
17. What did the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award mean to your career?
It meant everything. Not just to my career but to my life. The day I got the news—I mean, that ranks up there in top life moments. Top five, easy. My husband and I had recently moved to Murray, Kentucky, where I had a teaching job, and we’d bought a little house. He didn’t have a job yet. The day we were signing the closing papers, I was on the edge of a panic, because we were making the first real major financial commitment of our lives, and I was suddenly sure we didn’t have the resources to do it. We left the bank, kind of shellshocked, and I checked my phone, and there was a message from Beth McCabe, who coordinates the prize. And at this point I’d known I’d been nominated for the prize—I got a letter requesting a writing sample and a CV—and so, though she didn’t come out and say I’d won, it felt like a very good sign. I called her back, managed to reach her, and she confirmed it, and I wigged out. I think of that day a lot, especially when I get down, or get passed over for some opportunity or honor, which happens all the time. And one of the things I think is that as many people as possible should have a moment like that, and if missing out on this or that means that someone else can scream with joy and relief, with the knowledge that someone is willing to make that kind of investment in what they perceive is your talent, good. It’s as it should be.
18. Workshops... love them? Hate them? Or, what is your editing process?
I’ve had my fill of them as a student. The thought of passing a pile of my freshly photocopied manuscripts around the table makes me feel a little nauseated.
As a teacher of workshop, I see a lot of good in them, though it’s not the same good I thought I was getting on the other side of the process. I don’t think now that workshop is about improving individual stories so much as it is about getting new writers reading and thinking critically. It’s a lab that allows us to talk about craft issues in a concrete way. There are things about the workshop process that I find harder to deal with, the longer I do this. In graduate workshops, I no longer uphold that old “the writer doesn’t speak until the end” rule. I’ll ask the writer questions, get him or her to reflect on some of the comments. There’s a theatrical quality to the old school workshop that seems designed to create the highest level of discomfort and anxiety possible, and I’m just worn out on it.
19. Your website says that you have a ton of readings already lined up, do you like giving them? Any fun stories from past readings?
I don’t mind the act of giving a reading. That can be fun, and I still have a bit of the old high school drama geek in me. But I have a lot of anxiety about the apparatus around readings. I almost never finish a reading and think, “That went well.” I don’t know how to react to people reacting to it. Oh, and I’m a blusher, so I tend to get bright red when I’m stressed, and that’s mortifying.
Bookstore readings are humbling. When Girl Trouble came out, I had a few readings with great turnouts and several readings with an attendance of only a couple of people. This time around, I think I’ll be grateful for whatever I get. Five people in the audience who aren’t my husband or a paid bookseller sounds like heaven.
20. What's next for Holly Goddard Jones?
I’m coming off a semester’s leave at the same time that my book comes out, so it will be a hectic spring: teaching, doing some traveling for events, reading MFA applications, reading theses. I’ve started a new novel, and I hope I can carve out some time to work on it.