Saturday Dec 02

KnoxJen Jen Knox is a professor of English at San Antonio College. She is the author of Musical Chairs and To Begin Again (2011 Next Generation Indie Book Awards winner, short fiction), and her shorter works have appeared or are forthcoming in Annalemma, Bluestem, Eclectic Flash, Gargoyle, Narrative Magazine, Short Story America, Superstition Review and elsewhere. For more about Jen, visit her website here.

Jen Knox book review/ interview with Meg Tuite

To Begin Again, a collection of short stories by Jen Knox
All Things That Matter Press
ISBN-13: 978-0984629787 - $14.39
August, 2011
In this extraordinary collection of short stories, To Begin Again, Jen Knox probes the inner lives of her characters with both compassion and precision. Every one of these twenty-three stories investigates the depths of the human heart through Knox’s power to catapult us, as readers, inside a place, a time, a crucial moment in these characters’ lives in which they gain insight through the habitual routine of life, which for most of us is working to survive. The characters push through to another place whether they are smacked, literally and figuratively, in the face or given a chance to break away from the known into unexamined corners of existence.

Jen Knox masterfully takes us by the hand through familiar alleys of familial angst, teenagers pushing the boundaries set for them, depression, death, elderly family members retracting in rest-homes, homeless, marital affairs and much more. Knox delves into all those areas that we have had experience with in some form or another. Her stories all share the same pinpoint accuracy of external detail and inner vision. This is a collection that should be read. Buy a copy! You will be quietly enveloped by her insight into all facets of the human condition!

Jen, this collection was mesmerizing! Did you have an overall scheme when you started to write these stories? Did you see them as a collection?

Thank you, Meg. Originally, I didn’t think of these stories as part of something larger, nor did I intentionally impose a collective theme. The collection came about when I decided to organize my work. It was an illuminating job, reviewing my stories and sorting them by length and subject, because I noticed a pattern emerging in much of the work. I created a folder and titled it “Moments”. The characters and storylines added to this folder ranged drastically, but the stories complement each other in that the climax of each story doesn’t occur at the height of action or emotional turmoil but rather as a character makes a simple, everyday decision that will ultimately leads to a drastic change in how the world for this character is perceived. In each story, I tried to capture the unexpected. I wrote a few more stories after making this folder, let it sit for a while, then sent it to my publisher at All Things That Matter Press to see if it worked as a collection. Less than a year later, I had a manuscript.

The title “To Begin Again,” works with the characters, but is it also a reference back to your life as a writer after the success of your incredible memoir, “Musical Chairs?”

That is a lovely thing to say, Meg, thank you. I have started over in many ways. And many times, for that matter. Writing brings me something that everything I worked at before it couldn’t, it brings clarity. My fiction is only a mirror of what I’m trying to understand as a person—taken not from what I know but what I do not. At the time I was writing these stories, I was also experiencing a drastic lifestyle change, and I found myself wondering where I might have been had I changed my mind last minute or second guessed some of the simple decisions. I used this wonder to explore my characters’ decisions, which is why some of the stories, such as “Angelique” and “Levity” don’t force an ending but rather imply one—both of these stories’ resolutions are easily interpreted in two distinct ways, depending on what the reader brings to the story.

Many of the chapters are flash fiction and many are short stories. What is the motivation for your stories? Do you have a visual or a character in mind when you begin? Or do they begin with a first line?

I almost always begin my writing with a character and a scene; a strong image and a vague idea. Sometimes these scenes lend themselves to story, other times not. Oddly, my first line tends to be one of the last that I write.

Do you have a special time or schedule that you adhere to for writing?

I wish! I write as time permits. That said, I tend to be most productive as a writer in the morning, when the world around me is quiet and my coffee is close at hand.

How different has it been for you to write non-fiction from fiction? How has the market embraced these two different arenas of writing a memoir versus a collection?

Writing nonfiction is far harder for me. Fiction is more fun because it’s freeing. Nonfiction comes with built-in limitations that do not allow for a clear plotline. Real life is messy and emotional, and writing about it is no different. Market-wise, I think short fiction is a tougher sell, if only because there is so much of it out there.

Does teaching help or hinder you in your own work?

I am of the opinion that a writer who believes teaching hinders his or her work shouldn’t teach. I am inspired by my students’ energy and enthusiasm, and I draw from my experience as a writer when making my lesson plans, but creative writing students really dictate their own education in that they can only get out what they put in. My job is to give them guidelines then teach them how to break the rules—what could be more fun?

My writing feels, and always has felt, somewhat separate from teaching, as it does from my day-to-day life. It’s a way to pan back and evaluate experience and emotion. Writing, to paraphrase hundreds of other writers, is a sort of meditation. It is my spirituality.

Were you thankful to get an MFA? How was that experience for you?

I’m thankful for my experience at Bennington, yes. It was an incredible experience to be surrounded by other writers who both inspired and challenged me as a writer. I needed the experience because I was not prepared for the literary world, and Bennington provided me with some much-needed context. I had the opportunity to meet some of my literary idols and truly test the limits of what I could do as a writer. In all truth, I don’t think MFA programs are for everyone. Some people are disciplined enough to self-educate, and such people should do just that. For me, it was necessary. In many ways I miss being a student in the traditional sense. There’s always so much more to learn.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on two projects. One is a novel starring Wallace, a character from “Absurd Hunger”. The other is a novel that was inspired by my grandmother’s upbringing. I have a lot of words written toward both, but I’m concentrating on Wallace’s story right now. The cool thing about having two projects going at the same time is that when I feel stuck on one story, working on the other feels like a break and offers me some distance and perspective.

Who would you say were your biggest influences in writing?

My mother, who is the best storyteller I know; my father, whose art inspires me; many, many authors I’ve read over the years; and my younger self, a girl I’m still trying to figure out.
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