Jen Knox is the Writers in Communities (WIC) Program Director at Gemini Ink in San Antonio. She also works as a creative writing instructor and contributes regularly to Fiction Southeast. Jen’s short fiction has been published in over seventy print and online journals, and her most recent collection of short stories, After the Gazebo, is published by Rain Mountain Press.
Susan Tepper had the chance to ask Jen a few questions about her experience as an Ohio author, After the Gazebo‘s characters, and some of the inspirations behind her work. Here’s what they had to say.
Susan Tepper: It has been stated that the reader brings the sum total of her/his life experience to each book they read. Do you think that’s also true for the writer? I ask because you have placed each of the very different stories in this collection in the state of Ohio, where you are from, I believe.
Jen Knox: As for Ohio… something about Ohio doesn’t leave a writer alone. James Thurber, Toni Morrison, and Sherwood Anderson – to name a few – all revisited their heartland home state in fiction. I think this is only partially the reason, because writers tend to revisit what they know. Ohioans are honest and tough, inventive and socioeconomically injured by a decades-old market shift that redefined a blue collar factory worker’s ability to achieve The American Dream.
Tepper: Ah, The American Dream. Marginalized into nothingness now. Yet it does seem that every time you turn around you’re tripping over an Ohio born writer – is it something in the water supply there?
Knox: The biggest reason Ohio is rich in its creative output may be that not much is going on in the way of landscape. As a kid, I remember taking the ride from Columbus to Toledo to visit family; the scenery during this three-hour drive comprised a few cows, a few trees, quite a few farms, open fields, and an “adult mega store” that I remember thinking sold apple cider (one of my mother’s colorful and sheltering lies). Such a drive begs for creativity to achieve balance. To pass the time, we told stories.
Tepper: A family telling stories to pass the time is so retro-America, and sweet. After the Gazebo, your latest story collection, is family-oriented in the sense that many contain family themes, or themes where family hovers ghost-like in the background of the protagonist. You say your mother told “colorful and sheltering lies,” which is very interesting to me. Does that type of sheltering character appear in any of these stories?
Knox: I think the character that most resembles my mother is Miranda, from “The Suit.” Much like Miranda, my mother can make just about anyone smile. She has the gift for gab, and her goal is to create comfort in others as a way to remedy the difficulties she’s living through. But, for the most part, my characters evolve from an idea I want to explore. My curiosity about other people, how they think and cope and survive, is a large reason I write. Family dynamics have always interested me because they’re so complex and, often, strange.
Tepper: Your story “Lying to Old Men” really grabbed me hard. You gave the older guy the name “Rattle,” which colored the story immediately. You wrote:
“He didn’t know how old I was till after, you know. I don’t think I told you that. And we were safe (condom), so there was no reason for him to look back or think I’d end up at your establishment.”
This girl/woman who narrates is a risky voice yet I found her to be a reliable narrator. I believed her. That’s often hard to pull off when the narrator is involved in unsavory or out of the ordinary behavior, yet you pulled it off with finesse. She was naughty, yet naïve. Was that your intention in the story?
Knox: I think everyone makes mistakes, especially teenagers, especially when they don’t feel good about themselves or don’t feel they have definition in the world. The aimless seek, and sometimes they look around the wrong corners. Rattle is a recurring character in my fiction who is extremely complex but affects others’ lives in simplistic ways. He’s charming but distant and mysterious, and he draws people to him but doesn’t know what to do once they’re drawn (he has his own demons), so he runs. He too made a mistake in this situation; their mistake was mutual, not one in which the girl is the victim. This was important for me to communicate.
Tepper: Your girl character here is clearly not a victim. Which is interesting in light of so many women, in real life, who are blaming men for their own poor choices.
Knox: Situations are not always black and white, and these two were both in pain when they found each other. Accordingly, they both forgive each other. Although at the end of this story, Rattle remains ignorant to the fact that she was pregnant.
Tepper: Did you know how this story would unfold, and ultimately end?
Knox: Kind of. I live in South Texas now, and I used to drive past Planned Parenthood every day on my way to work. Many days, there was a crew of protesters holding up baby face signs and calling abortions murder. I was intrigued by the fact that this group, mostly elderly white men, contained a single woman who seemed to yell the loudest and protest with the most grit.
Tepper: It’s probably the most politically charged women’s issue on the table today.
Knox: So the scene of the mother and daughter entering the abortion clinic is where this story began in my mind. I thought, what if a young woman were to have a single fling and end up having to face such loathing just to get checked out and explore her options? I wasn’t sure when I ended the piece if she’d have the abortion or not, and I suppose that’s up to the reader. Either way, I think of the nurses and workers of Planned Parenthood establishments as true heroes when it comes to women’s rights, and so the epistolary framing emerged from this character’s journey and ultimate desire to say thank you.
For more from Jen Knox, check out her website at JenKnox.com.