I'm a fan of Indiana University's Break Away Books and last year's Elegies for Uncanny Girls by Jennifer Colville continues the positive streak they've had with me. Colville was kind enough to take some time to answer questions for us. We'll also have an essay from her later during our celebration of the short story.
EWN: Your short story collection, Elegies for Uncanny Girls, was published in 2017. What story within the collection had the earliest publication history outside of being in the collection, and what was that history?
JENNIFER: The story “Details’ was published in 2001 in The Literary Review’s website. It’s about a young woman trying to frame or narrate a confusing seduction by a creative writing professor, as the seduction happens. I’m interested in the everyday narrative moves we make to help us maintain order in confusing situation. The funny part is that this story about the comfort of storytelling, once it was published, kept coming back to bite me. It was published on the web, so everyone read it. My students read it, my family read it, my friends read, my fiancé read it and they all had either questions for me, or concerns for my sanity.
On a separate note, it was the only fully realized story that survived the piles of stories I wrote as an MFA student. It took me three year after my MFA to get it to a publishable place. After that, I didn’t publish again until 2008.
EWN: How did the publication of this particular collection come about? Were you solicited by the publisher, win a contest, agent submission, etc.?
JENNIFER: I finally had a group of stories that hung together. I’ve written many more stories than are contained in the collection, and though most of them are about women and the negotiation of self in a patriarchal culture, I guess I was looking for yet another kind of thread. I found that thread when I started thinking about my stories formally. I went back to school, did a PhD with an emphasis in narrative theory – and was finally able to take seriously the way in which the stories stood at the border of fiction and non-fiction. I found that treading this line wasn’t just self-centered, it could reveal interesting and universal things about how we perceive the world always and already through a fictional lens. Once I embraced my own inclinations, I wrote a couple more stories in this vein and then felt the collection was ready.
I started sending out feelers, letting my writer friends and mentors know that I was ready. I asked for their advice: “where should I send this?” or “do you know any small presses looking for semi-experimental books?” A half a year later I got a little note from Michael Martone asking if I’d like to submit to Break Away Books, a wonderful imprint of Indiana University Press that specializes in hybrid literary writing. I sent my book to a board of editors, and “hooray!” they liked it!
EWN: Where do short stories fit within your life as an author? Primary form to work with, or something you write when an idea hits, or …?
JENNIFER: Short stories are my primary form. I see short stories as a place to experiment – to push against traditional notions of form. There is less at stake commitment wise in a short story – less time away from your life (I have two kids, and my own press https://promptpress.com so my life outside writing is significant). Also, short stories don’t have a long history. Poe and Hawthorn started to invent and theorize the genre in the mid 1800’s. People (including me) have sometimes tried to apply Greek dramatic theory to short stories, but these theories don’t account for the way in which shorts are often born out of and carried along by descriptive details, atmosphere, interiority, and place. I think the short history and relative lack of theory make the short story a natural space for play. And I’m hyper visual. I love the collage form, which clusters super saturated a-linear moments through linking imagery. This structure is hard to sustain (at least for me) in a novel. But I can write short stories that work in this way.
EWN: Where do short stories fit within your life as a reader?
JENNIFER: I love the intensity of the form. I love that you can read a story in one sitting and come away feeling as if your world has been altered. It’s like coming out of a dark theater after a good movie, but somehow better. A story can be more internalized. You have to create the images yourself , you have to make more creative leaps -- the form requires more participation. But my favorite thing is to read entire collections. With a collection I feel as if a reader has enough evidence to begin to invent the life of the creative perspective behind the stories. To ask, what are his, her or their preoccupations? What kind of writer is this? From where are they borrowing their moves. I’m not really interested in who the author is outside of their writing, but I am interested in how they stage themselves on the page.
EWN: How will you be celebrating National Short Story Month this May?
JENNIFER: Thanks you for asking me this! Now that I know it is National Short Story Month, I will treat myself to some new collections. I just read Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies, and have been itching to read her collection Plain Pleasures. I will also go right ahead and buy The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, from my local book store, Prairie Lights.
EWN: Thank you very much for your time!
Jennifer Colville holds an M.F.A. from Syracuse University and a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from The University of Utah. Her stories have appeared in The Literary Review, theMississippi Review, The Iowa Review, and on the Huffington Post. A collection of short stories, Elegies for Uncanny Girls, was published by Indiana University Press in 2017. She is the founding editor of PromptPress, a journal for the interplay of visual art and writing. Jennifer has taught at The University of Iowa, San Francisco State, the University of San Francisco, and Coe College. She now co-organizes the Free Generative Writing Workshops in Iowa City.