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Jan English Leary

Jan English Leary's short fiction has appeared in Pleiades, The Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, Carve Magazine, Long Story, Short Literary Journal and other publications. Her novel, Thicker Than Blood, was published in 2015. She has received three Illinois Arts Council Awards and taught fiction writing at Francis W. Parker School and Northwestern University. She lives in Chicago with her husband, John, an artist and former teacher.

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“Leary is a truly fine storyteller.”

– Lori Ostlund, author of The Bigness of the World and After the Parade

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Skating on the Vertical

Skating on the Vertical: An Interview with Jan English Leary

10/24/17

Jan English Leary and I met in the mid-1990s, in Fred Shafer’s short story-writing workshop in Evanston, Illinois. Week after week, we’d sit next to each other and compare notes: about writing, about reading. We drank lots of coffee. We talked about our kids. Jan had already been working with Fred for a few years, and as her classmate, I was immediately struck by — and inspired by — the assurance of her prose, which combines evocative description with a clear, direct voice. These qualities are abundantly evident in her new collection of stories, Skating on the Vertical (Fomite Press), a sympathetic exploration of what it means to be a teen, the connections (and misunderstandings) that exist between the generations, and the very human quest to find one’s place in the world. Jan and I chatted recently about the book, its themes, and her caffeinated beverage of choice.

* * *

JD: Your new collection, Skating on the Vertical, draws together stories from different points in your career. The stories’ themes—connection, belonging—are timeless concerns; do you think your perception of these themes has changed in the years since the first of the stories was published?

JEL: Yes and no. Since I’ve matured as a writer, my writing has changed and, I hope, deepened. On the other hand, connection and belonging, as you say, are timeless. I just think I’ve found new ways of exploring them in my writing. I like to think that I’m always learning about myself and about the world. Plus ça change….

JD: You taught writing to high-school students for several years. You are a parent to two boys, now grown. Jan, you have an uncanny sympathy for what it means to be a young adult; how do you think your experiences as a teacher and parent have informed this understanding, and thus the work?

JEL: Of course, my experiences have shaped my writing. My entire career was spent teaching high school. I enjoy that age and am drawn to situations involving someone on the brink of adulthood. We all pass through adolescence, and the strong imprint of that formative period stays with us for life. But my fiction also deals with issues such as marriage, infertility, infidelity, and miscarriage. I sometimes find it easier to explore a character whose experience is different from mine: an infertile woman who paints graffiti on the windows of her town, a man who has had an affair, a woman who cuts herself to ease her psychic pain. I think that my life experience as a teacher and as a mother has fed my writing, but I also think that being witness to the dramas of life around me has influenced me just as strongly.

JD: Your stories are distinguished by powerful, insightful endings. Do you generally know the ending when you begin a story, or do you “find” your way to it while writing?

JEL: Endings are hard and absolutely crucial, obviously. I tend to have an idea of the ending early on. That’s how a story often occurs to me, but I also think it gives me an anchor. The ending sometimes changes, but I like to know where I’m going, even when I don’t necessarily know how I’m going to get there. And I have to be open to changes along the way; otherwise, the whole thing can feel too determined and therefore rigid and lifeless.

JD: The book’s title, Skating on the Vertical, is drawn from a story of the same name in this collection. What prompted you choose this as the book’s title?

JEL: For a long time, I planned to name the collection Frequent Losers after a story I particularly liked. I thought it reflected the losses and missteps of life. However, that story left the collection and was revised to become a chapter in my novel. I needed a new title, and I toyed with Eunuchs because I also like that story, but my editor, Marc Estrin, didn’t think it represented the collection as a whole (and he was right). Besides, I wanted my husband, John, to give me one of his paintings for a cover image, and I don’t know what he would have done with Eunuchs! So I chose Skating on the Vertical because it evokes disequilibrium, movement, and energy. And it’s a title I’d never heard before.

JD: What was it like to revisit stories you wrote earlier in your career? Did you revise those earlier stories for this collection, and if so, what do you think informed the changes you made?

JEL: It was both satisfying and dismaying. There were things I liked which pleased and surprised me and other things I found clunky. I did what I could to hone the language while still keeping the original feel of the stories. I didn’t want to undertake major overhauls. That seemed both overwhelming and unnecessary. With practice, every writer improves in terms of craft. I tried to bring what I’ve learned into the older stories. And I removed some stories I thought didn’t quite work anymore. In that way, the stories felt fresher, and the process allowed me to re-engage with the material more deeply.

JD: Preparing this collection has brought you back to the short story form, after a recent focus on the novel (Jan is the author of the novel, Thicker Than Blood, published by Fomite Press in 2015, and is currently working on a new novel). How did that feel? Does working on short stories versus a novel demand different habits or approaches, in your view?

JEL: The short story is still my first love. I like the process of working on a novel, of having a big mass of material that I can stretch and manipulate and into which I can thread strands. I like the task of building a world and populating it with more people than I can comfortably put in a short story. However, I also love the tautness of a short story, the intense payoff of the shorter time frame, the small dramas that have large consequences. I like being able to hold the arc in my head and tighten the elements, the language, and the rhythms. They say novels take longer to write, but I spent about seven years on the novel while the short stories span nearly 20 years of writing.

JD: What is your writing routine at this time? And I’ve got to ask: coffee or tea when you’re writing?

JEL: Chinese black tea only these days. Too much caffeine is no longer my friend. I am a morning writer, almost exclusively. I can revise in the afternoons, but the mornings are my best times for generating material. I mostly write at the Writers Workspace, which is a cooperative space three blocks from my house. I am lucky to have that resource nearby. It’s a great quiet atmosphere where I can really concentrate, unlike my home where I’m easily distracted.

JD: Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?

JEL: I am working on a novel with two alternating points of view: two women who grow up in the same rural college town. They exist on parallel tracks due to social class, but their lives intersect over a shared experience. I am interested in the ways in which two people can grow up in the same small town but because of income and family expectations, their lives take very different paths. There’s been a lot of attention lately given to the “Two Americas,” and I want to explore this theme in a “town-and-gown” setting. I enjoy research, and this project has allowed me to read about the Iraq War, homeschooling, and the anti-vaxxer movement, as well as Caribbean literature, Greek mythology, and massage therapy certification programs. Ultimately, it’s a novel about forgiveness and what constitutes home and family.

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