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In Conversation With Jessica Stilling
From:
Norm Goldman --  bookpleasures.com Norm Goldman -- bookpleasures.com
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Montreal, QC
Saturday, October 22, 2022

 
Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Jessica Stilling, who has authored ten novels, fiveliterary novels under the pen name Jessica Stilling and five youngadult fantasy novels under the pen name JM Stephen. 

Her novels include TheWeary God of Ancient Travelers, Betwixt and Between, The Beekeeper’sDaughter and the soon to be published Between Before andAfter.


 Jessica grew up InMcHenry, Illinois, a small town nestled between endless cornfieldsand sprawling Wal-Mart Mini-Malls. 

She moved to New York Cityto attend The New School University and stayed in said city forfifteen years. 

Jessica is a graduate ofthe City University of New York’s MFA program. She has worked atThe Frances Goldin Literary Agency and the Global City Press, a smallpress out of City College. 

She has taught CreativeWriting at The State University of New York, City College, QueensCollege, The Gotham Writers Workshop and The New School. 

Her work has appeared inmany publications including Ms. Magazine, Bust Magazine, TheWriter Magazine, Wasifiri and The Warwick Review

She currently lives inrural Vermont with her two children, a dog, a cat, and something like20 chickens, 7 of which are roosters.

Norm: Good day Jessicaand thanks for taking part in our interview.

How did you get startedin writing? What keeps you going?


Jessica: It’s funnybecause I remember a time when I couldn’t write (because I was achild and didn’t know how yet) but I also remember ALWAYS feelinglike a writer.

From the time I wasincredibly young I loved reading stories and telling stories on thenursery school playground.

When I was in the thirdgrade, I entered The Young Author’s Competition through my schooland wrote a story about a horse.

That was the first time Iwrote something I truly fell in love with. The act of writing itselfkeeps me going.

I love diving into newworlds, it’s like living twenty, thirty lifetimes in a single one.I’ve become very busy over the years, but the love of writing iswhat keeps me going. 

Norm: What, inyour opinion, are the most important elements of good writing? 

Jessica: Characterdevelopment is by far the most important aspect of any good story.

If your characters don’tmake sense, aren’t relatable or likable (at least in some ways),then a reader isn’t going to buy into your story.

We hang out with people weget along with, and we also want to read about people we like. Allaspects of a story, from plot to setting to narrative voice, comemost strongly from great character development. 

Norm: What did you findmost useful in learning to write?  What was least useful or mostdestructive?  

Jessica: The most useful:I hate to be cliché, but it’s writing every day. It’s makingtime for your work and showing up for it at least once a day.

That’s the best thingyou can do for your writing. The rest will come.

The second most usefulthing, and these two go hand in hand, is to finish. You can’t editand make something better, or make it great, if you haven’t writtenit. So, finish what you start. 

The least helpful: Thewrong workshop, the wrong editor, the wrong mentor can be a disasterfor a writer.

I say these are the leasthelpful because the right workshop, the right editor and the rightmentor are so important to a writer’s development and when a writerdoesn’t mesh with a workshop or editor or mentor it can bedevastating.

Most of the time, when anew writer encounters one of these, they give up. I’ve been inworkshops that tore me down in unconstructive ways and I’ve seenstudents in various workshops I’ve attended leave and never comeback after an unconstructive workshop.

An unconstructive workshopis not a workshop that points out a work’s flaws, that’s the jobof a workshop because it helps an author make their work better, butsometimes, an author is torn down unnecessarily, that’s when it’sa problem.

I remember when Iworkshopped a story in my MFA program. I was around twenty-eight atthe time and I had a two-year-old son. I wrote a story about a littlekid who started playing with his toys as his little brother was inthe next room dying.

A twenty-year-old kid, whohad probably spent zero time with young children since he was one,looked at me and said so dismissively, “Kids don’t do that.

They don’t play when badthings are happening.” It was the way he thought he knew better,with absolutely zero as a point of reference, that wasunconstructive.

He dismissed the scenebecause of his conception about childhood without understanding thescene at all.

That comment was so badthat the instructor, who rarely said anything during the workshop,stepped in and said, “Actually, I have young kids and that’sexactly what they do.”

When a comment is meant tosay something more about the person saying it, than the story, that’swhen it’s a problem.

I was a seasonedworkshopper at the time and knew to take his comment with a grain ofsalt, but someone less seasoned may have given up.

The same is true with badeditors who chop up your work. I just edited a woman’s novel thathad been butchered, just butchered, by her previous editor and shewas so demoralized by it that she has all the kudos in the world forkeeping going. 

Norm: How many times inyour career have you experienced rejection? How did they shapeyou? 

Jessica: Constantly, allthe time. I still experience rejection.

My first novel wasrejected by something like one-hundred agents before a small presspicked it up.

Now I have a publisher whois really behind me and my work, but I still experience rejectionfrom reviewers or magazines I pitch. You have to let it roll off you.

If I took it personally,I’d be a very bitter person and if I let it get me down, I wouldn’tbe writing now. That old Virginia Woolf quote, “in order to writeone must first develop a very thick skin,” is so right on. 

Norm: What does atypical writing day look like for you, from waking to turning in atnight, and how does it compare to a conventional 9 to 5 job?  

Jessica: When I take theday to write I wake up early. I have two children, they’re not soyoung anymore so they can entertain themselves, but just having theirenergy around can be disruptive. So, I write early in the morning.

Then I’ll usually breakfor some physical activity. I’ll go back to it in the late morningand write until about noon.

After lunch, I’ll spendsome time reading over what I wrote. I usually write fiction in themornings and more editorial stuff, like book reviews and articles inthe afternoon.

I don’t really write atnight; I find I’m much too tired by then. I’ve always been amorning person. 

Norm: Do you write moreby logic or intuition, or some combination of the two?  Pleasesummarize your writing process.  

Jessica: I believestrongly that the story is some sort of thing, creature, entity,energy, that exists outside of me on some level.

It’s my job to find thestory, the truest version of that story.

Much like Michelangelo’sidea that the sculpture exists in the stone, and it is the sculptor’sjob to find it and dig it out of the stone, I believe the bestversion of the story exists and it’s my job to chisel away until Ifind it.

That is to say, I get anidea, and they usually fall into my head, out of thin air, just…poof!Then I start to craft it. I do think logically during the prewritingprocess. I consider character traits and what plot holes I mightencounter. As I write though, I’ve learned to let the story takeover.

The characters will speakto you, the story will tell you what it is, you just have to listen.However, when I go back to edit and rewrite, that’s when the logictakes over once again. 

For instance, when I wasworking on my current novel, Between Before and After, I wrotea scene where a fourteen-year-old boy is sitting in a public parkalong the Seine in Paris with a girl he really likes.

He wants to impress her sohe brings a picnic lunch with a bottle of wine (the story takes placein France in the ‘90s, so I figured a kid could do that then).

In my first draft, thisfourteen-year-old kid, who has never opened a corked bottle of winein his life, opens it with a flourish, as if it’s nothing.

When I went back to editthat scene, I realized that there is no way this kid would be ableuse a corkscrew that well on the first try.

So, I rewrote the scenewhere the kid struggles and struggles until some kindly strangercomes and opens the bottle for him. Much more realistic. 

Norm: Are you a plot orcharacter writer? 

Jessica: I tell mycreative writing students that there are plot driven stories andcharacter driven stories. Plot driven stories are more related togenre fiction and so when I do my young adult fantasy writing, it isdefinitely more plot driven.

I like my characters and I do developthem in my fantasy work, but the plot drives the story. However, whenI write literary fiction, those stories are almost completelycharacter driven.

Those stories rely on the human condition toconnect with the reader. The entire story boils down to who yourcharacter is and how they navigate this crazy, human world. 

Norm: How much real-lifedo you put into your fiction? Is there much “you” in there? 

Jessica: I believe eventhe most outlandish writing holds a kernel of its author inside itand most main characters are at least a composite of their author.

Even when I try to pushit away, a little of myself always sneaks in, from a character whoputs entirely too much sugar in her coffee, to a character who longsto remember a five-year-old child chasing pigeons in Paris. 

And yes, everyone I knowwho I put in my fiction ALWAYS recognizes themselves, even if I’vejust used a kernel. Sometimes I think I’m safe, because I just useda few of an old friend’s personality traits, maybe a little oftheir childhood, but they

ALWAYS see themselves. Noone has ever been offended by it, however. 

Norm: Is there anythingyou find particularly challenging in your writing?  

Jessica: Writing itselfhas always come naturally to me, but as I grow older, I really wantto put more and more of myself into my work, not just my personalitytraits or even my disposition, but I would like to explore thosedeep-down dark crevices that I’ve honestly been too scared toexplore. I’m working on that…it’s been a process.

One stepforward, two steps back sometimes. 

Norm: What was one ofthe most surprising things you learned in creating your books?  

Jessica: When I firststarted writing novels, I didn’t realize how little control youhave over your story, but also how amazing it is just how littlecontrol you have.

You have to listen to yourstory; you have to follow it. The times when writing has been themost awe-inspiring is when a character does something I didn’tthink they’d do. I love that and it always surprises me.  

Norm:  How did youbecome involved with the subject or theme of Between Before andAfter?

Jessica: Between Beforeand After follows a man, Sebastian Foster, who is, in essence,trying to relive his childhood through making art.

The theme of nostalgia isvery, very strong here. I was at the Orleans Airport, about to leaveParis, when I started thinking back to that time I’d spent in thecity with my children.

I remember thinking I didnot want them to grow up and that’s when the idea for the novelcame to me. I crafted a lot of Sebastian’s character on the planeback to New York. 

Norm: Could you tell usa little about the novel.

Jessica: Between Beforeand After follows Indie film director Sebastian Foster, son ofthe famous author Regina Foster, as he embarks on a project to turnhis mother’s award-winning novels into films.

As he works on his thirdfilm in the project, a biographical novel that takes place in Parisand deals with the traumatic death of Sebastian’s five-year-oldsister, the project and aspects of Sebastian’s personal and privatelife start to break down.

Sebastian is confrontedwith a man from his past who holds the purse strings as far asfunding for his films is concerned.

He also learns that hismother has more secrets than he realized and as he dives deeper intothis project, he learns that there was so much more to his sister’stragic death than he realized.

As the past starts tounravel before him, Sebastian must confront his issues with hismother and his desperate need to recreate a past that may not havebeen as idyllic as he remembered. 

Norm: What were yourgoals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel youachieved them?

Jessica: My goal was tofully explore the theme of nostalgia, that dull ache we all feel forour past.

I also wanted to show thatnot only can we never, really get our past back, but the past isn’talways what it seemed to be.

By end of the Book,Sebastian Foster definitely sees the signs of this, and it is thatknowledge that is the most heartbreaking for him. A few of my betareaders said the end made them cry and that was my goal. 

Norm: Where can ourreaders find out more about you and Between Before and After?

Jessica: You can find outmore about the book on my author WEBSITE, or my Publisher’s Website.

Norm: What is next forJessica Stilling?

Jessica: The Emergenceof Expanding Light, Book IV of my Hugo nominated young adultseries, The Pan Chronicles, will be coming out in February,you can also find the other books in the series on my and mypublisher’s website and other places, like Amazon.

I’m working on Book IIof my second young adult series, The Seidr Sagas. That book isa hot mess right now, but I’ll edit it down.

I’m also working on anew literary novel called Beatrice and Persephone about twowomen in two different timelines struggling with loss and the abilityto create.

The book takes someexperimental turns. I don’t want to give too much away, but I willsay that one of my characters ends up romantically linked to theOcean (yes, THE Ocean). 

Norm: As this interviewcomes to an end, what would you like to say to writers who arereading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, ifthey are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough toshare? 

Jessica: All voicesmatter, of course they do. As corny as it sounds you just have tokeep at it.

Keep writing. Keep sendingyour work out. Keep getting rejected.

But doing only that, andonly doing what you always do, might not be enough and so steppingout of your comfort zone, going to readings, participating in yourliterary community, reaching out to other writers, taking someclasses, joining a writing group, might be in order.

If you find justplugging along isn’t doing it for you, do something else, somethingmore.

There are so manyresources for writers, but you’ll also encounter roadblocks and thetrick is to not give up. 

Norm: Thanks once againand good luck with all of your endeavors

 Norm Goldman of Bookpleasures.com

News Media Interview Contact
Name: Norm Goldman
Title: Book Reviewer
Group: bookpleasures.com
Dateline: Montreal, QC Canada
Direct Phone: 514-486-8018
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