Bearded Book Boys: First of all let me just thank you for taking time to chat with us right as your book releases. Do you have a busy book tour planned?
Jac Jemc: Yes! I do. I’m a little all over the place for the next few months, but happily.
BBB: Let’s jump right into The Grip of It. The house is haunted, but not in the traditional sense. When did you know that the story was about the tenants experience of the house versus a straight up haunting?
JJ: Well, every story is filtered through experience, haunted or not, right? I’m always thinking about that, whether the story is supernatural or not: What’s reliable? Whose version am I hearing? My favorite spooky stories were always the ones where there ended up being a discrepancy between what happened and what was experienced. You know the story about the woman who gets dared to run into a graveyard at night? She’s supposed to drive a knife into a particular grave to prove she was there, but after she does, she tries to run out, and something is clutching her skirt, and she dies of fright. In the morning, when they find her body, they see she’d accidentally stabbed the knife through the hem of her skirt. There’s a gap between the reality of the situation and the experience of the situation. I like writing in those gaps.
BBB: A number of reviews have compared your writing and this novel in particular to Shirley Jackson and Mark Danielewski. Happenstance or did you draw inspiration from their famous haunted house stories?
JJ: What a crazy compliment, right? I love House of Leaves and I love all Shirley Jackson (and there’s a lot more than people seem to recall), yes, so both must have affected my writing, but I wasn’t actively aiming toward or pulling from either. For Jackson, I prefer We Have Always Lived in the Castle to The Haunting of Hill House and I think what appeals to me is the way the Blackwoods keep secrets and how that builds in the novel. I can see links between that and the way that James and Julie pull apart from one another in The Grip of It. For House of Leaves, the idea of inexplicable space echoes in my book, for sure.
BBB: How do you think small town syndrome plays into what happens to James and Julie?
JJ: I’m not familiar with that term, but if I’m guessing at your meaning, correctly, I see the town as being skeptical of James and Julie because they’re outsiders, and James and Julie aren’t used to that level of familiarity/gossip. That nosiness both helps and hinders their attempts to figure out what’s happened. I was just at a writing residency in a small town in Southern Germany for 6 weeks. A couple of the artists went to a shoe store, and before they even made it back to the residency, the shoe store employee had called the administrative office to talk about how some of the artists had stopped in to look at shoes. There’s nothing actually creepy about that, but it’s disconcerting for people who are used to a certain amount of anonymity in the city. Not to mention: Why did the shoe store employee call the office? What else was said in that conversation? We weren’t informed.
BBB: Once upon a time I read that aspiring writers should get satisfaction in their first rejection letter because it showed they wrote something worth submitting, even if someone didn’t want to publish it. You actively catalog your rejects, nearing the high 300’s currently. Are there any rejections that are more upsetting or have you gotten used to it over time?
JJ: I’m used to it by now, especially for stories. I think I would have been pretty disappointed if my agent had taken The Grip of It out to sell, and no one wanted it. That would have been more upsetting, but beyond that, no, I can’t think of a rejection that would really ruin my day. I have a story about getting an acceptance and reading the letter several times, confused that I couldn’t find the word “no,” before I realized it was an acceptance letter. It’s a comfortable spot to be in, to expect nothing.
BBB: What’s your favorite part about living in Chicago?
JJ: I’ve lived here all my life so I have a huge, warm community of people who do amazing things and are incredibly supportive. It would be very hard to leave that. The city has a good vibe to me. It’s creative and hardworking and open. I also love Garrett’s popcorn.
BBB: What is the one piece of writing advice that has stuck with you the longest?
JJ: It’s not really advice so much as a mode. When I was studying with Beth Nugent at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, every time I asked her a question, she just bounced it right back to me. She forced me to ask what it is I wanted of my writing, rather than thinking about what other people wanted. You’ve got to do it for yourself before you do it for anyone else, because there’s no guarantee of success.
BBB: You previously taught Creative Writing at several colleges and universities. What is the hardest section of creative writing to teach?
JJ: I still do! Honestly, I think all of the classes have their merits. I think Composition classes have the biggest hurtle to get through to the students because none of them are choosing to be there, but the rewards of seeing a student in one of those classes realize the importance of clarity in her writing? Thrilling. I had one journalism student turn in these tortured sentences that were absolutely obscuring her meaning so much, I couldn’t understand them at all. One afternoon, we sat together and I asked her questions about what she meant by each knotted sentence, one-by-one, until I saw the clouds behind her eyes part. She started writing clear sentences right there and her next paper was 100% better, and I was so proud of her. She wasn’t trying to impress anyone anymore. She was just saying what she meant. Intro to Creative Writing and Fiction classes are pure pleasure. The students are already at least a little bit interested, and I get to help them grow that interest and take it in directions they weren’t expecting. I like the students who push me and ask questions. I try to stick with what Beth taught me and bounce their questions back at them.
BBB: What are your favorite books so far of 2017 or ones that you’re still looking forward to reading?
JJ: I have so many! I can’t deny that I feel absolutely privileged to be on a press that’s putting out my favorite writing: Catherine Lacey’s The Answers, Amelia Gray’s Isadora, Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne, Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language. I tore through all of them despite my urge to linger on each sentence. Outside of FSG, Roxane Gay’s Hunger is such an important book to me. Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life had me earning strange looks with my raucous laughter on public transportation. I’m reading Dan Chaon’s Ill Will now and feeling creeped out. I’m super excited for Ben Percy’s The Dark Net and Kristen Iskandrian’s Motherest and Megan Stielstra’s The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. I’ll stop, but I could go on and on. I just read that the political climate has been really bad for fiction, and I think that’s so unfortunate because 2017 appears to be a wildly potent year for literature.
BBB: Any words of advice or encouragement for fans that read this interview?
JJ: Oh gosh, I’m barely holding it together myself. Far be it from me to tell someone else how to live their life. Seems like we’ve got enough of that going on in the US right now. The most I can muster is: Keep going.
You can learn more about Jac on her website here.
The Grip Of It is available at your nearest bookseller or on Amazon.