Tuesday May 21

KnoxJen Jen Knox works as a creative writing instructor, editor and writer. Her short fiction earned the Global Short Story Prize in 2011 and was chosen as one of Wigleaf's Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions in 2012. Her work can be read in A cappella Zoo, Ardor, Burrow Press Review, Fiction Attic Press, Gargoyle, Istanbul Review, JMWW, Narrative, Pank, Superstition Review, Thrush, and The Adirondack Review. Jen’s chapbook, Don’t Tease the Elephants, is forthcoming from Monkey Puzzle Press in 2014. Her website can be found here.


Jen Knox interview with Meg Tuite

“The Shape of a Star,” is another exceptional Jen Knox story. There’s a beautiful movement to your stories, a labyrinth of backstory, and the characters to set it off. The relationship between the mother and daughter is complicated and yet they share a deep love and respect for each other. Here are a few quotes from “The Shape of a Star”:

“Mom was tough. I was four when she read an article in American Mothers Magazine titled, “How to Tell Your Child is Slow.”

“Estelle was a painter, and she had no respect for my “odd fascination with science,” which, she said, would not serve me well when I went to look for a job in the real world

“Estelle liked to say her personality was similar to the dark chocolate she ate each night with green tea.”

Can you share the inspiration for this story? And your knowledge of oil changes was impressive. Have you ever worked in that capacity before?

“The Shape of a Star” began with the first line you highlighted above. I’d just come across an article in a current online magazine that was titled something along the lines of “How to Tell Your Child is Gifted,” and I wondered what parents would do with the results, especially if they found out that no, in fact, their child was not gifted. Then I thought about a character who might take such a questionnaire in the first place. Estelle was the story’s catalyst. As I began to write, I realized I needed a strong foreground because the main character’s self-realization requires quite a bit of reflection. I picked an auto repair garage because I knew it could be a lively setting that suits the main character. Further, the setting shows contrast to the life Estelle believes her daughter should have.
I have owned two cars in my lifetime (I keep cars until they die), and I have successfully avoided changing my oil for the duration of both automobiles’ lifetimes. I hope to continue this avoidance. I was going to attempt to change my oil once, so I watched an instructional video, read a few articles, and got all set to tackle the job on my CRX. But, I can happily say, I went to a garage instead thanks to a time constraint combined with an apartment manager’s warning that I was not allowed to change my oil in the apartment parking lot. I revisited the step-by-step process in order to write this story.

Your stories tend to be more character than plot driven, which makes me extremely happy. How do the ideas come to you? And how do you work on the structure of a story?

I rarely have a plot in mind when I sit down to write. Instead, I have a character or two and an inkling of the journey I want these characters to take. Many of my characters appear in more than one story, and I find this happening more and more as my writing years accumulate. Where any of my characters go, however, tends to be revealed in the writing of the first or maybe second draft. This is pure magic to me—the fact that the momentum of a well thought-out character can sometimes turn into a story, even a novel.

My stories do not always work, but I make a point to never throw anything away. I have three story starts (minimum) for every story I complete. Sometimes I return to these incomplete stories and sometimes not. Sometimes it takes a long time for the right ending to arrive, and sometimes the ending is the first scene I write. As my body of work grows, exponentially, I am building on a sort of self-nurturing series of ideas. I always tell my students never to throw anything away, and I try to take my own advice because, well, you never know when an idea will come in handy again.  

You are extremely prolific. Do you have a set schedule for writing? I know you’re teaching quite a bit and that’s a hard one to juggle. I’m guessing you write whenever you get the chance and the inclination?

I work at a research firm (full-time) and a community college (part-time), which is fantastic because it means I can pay my bills. It also means that I have very little time left to write. So, I write after getting home some weekdays, after walking my dog, cleaning, and making dinner. And, I write on the weekends. I do not have the luxury of a set schedule, no, but I like to think this might work in my favor. In economics research, scarcity value is the idea that value increases as supply lowers. I think of my writing time this way. I treasure this time, and this is partially because I have so little.

Who would you say are your biggest inspirations?

Writers who change minds by appealing, psychologically, to an audience they do not necessarily agree with. Such writers include Baldwin, Didion, Montaigne, and Nabokov. These writers and so many more inspire me to think.

Those people who inspire me to actually write are not writers but people I know whose motivations and behaviors I do not feel I could ever understand. This includes people I read about as well as people I know. It is a desire to understand them, the collective struggles and joys of being human, that drive me to tease out thoughts on a page in story form.

Have you always been writing since you were a kid or was there a time when you realized how cathartic and necessary it was in your life?

I have always loved to read, but I came to writing relatively late. It seems most writers say they were penning tales shortly after they left the womb, but not me. I didn’t begin writing—really writing—until I was around nineteen. I was going through a lot of transition at this time, and I found that writing things down made everything seem more manageable. So, I continued. I figured out that writing, in any genre, creates this cool dichotomy between escapism and meditation that is, for me, gratifying.

Who are you reading right now?

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. I started reading the book for research for a short story and have continued absorbing the ideas. I am also reading the latest copy of Glimmer Train.

What is the most rewarding experience you’ve had as a teacher? As a writer?

As a teacher, it is when a student comes to me and says, somewhat baffled, “I didn’t know I could do this.” Realizations such as this happens often, and it is gratifying each time. These moments are why I teach.

As a writer, it would be the actual act of writing and creating. To put it simply, I love the feeling of writing, especially the freedom of the first draft, and it also feels quite nice to finish a story (even though nothing is ever truly finished).

What advice would you give to a novice writer that you wish someone had shared with you?

Don’t beat yourself up. Just keep going.

If I give you five words can you write a micro piece for us?

dare, artificial, grope, dilemma, freedom

Wax Apple Circus

With her eyes closed and nostrils filling with tepid water, future congresswoman Andrea Martin groped around for the apple. She had done this so many times before, but this time it felt different; she realized it was wax, as artificial as her extensions and breasts and the admiration she’d receive for biting the damn thing and lifting her head out of the water to display it between shiny over-whitened teeth. Someone had thought this would be funny, probably her boss, Tina T, who made her wear these stupid short shorts with the company logo on the ass to bring in more customers. It was Andrea’s 24th birthday, and she was drowning in the feeling of succumbing to yet another after show to excite an audience of people who would never care to know it was her birthday, who would never care to know her name. She had the freedom to tell them all to fuck off. It was up to her, after all, to trade water for breath, but she’d always held her breath.

Her teeth grazed the waxy surface, and she cringed. Instead of biting, Andrea lifted her head, heavy with long, wet hair, and plucked the apple from the lukewarm water between two acrylic nails. She balanced the apple on the nail of her middle finger, flicking off the crowd in a trademark way. She threw the apple into a crowd of confused but indifferent faces and sauntered away from this circus, passing sad elephants and underweight acrobats with early onset arthritis. Her head high, she ignored the fact that she had no destination and just continued to walk.

LOVE THIS! Thank you, Jen!

What is one characteristic of Jen Knox that might surprise us?

Though my math skills are not very sophisticated, I can add numbers in my head incredibly quickly.

How about ending with one of your favorite quotes.

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect."

Anais Nin

Beautiful! Thank you so much, Jen, for sending Connotation Press one of your outstanding stories. I’m honored to have you as the featured fiction writer for this issue.

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