Holly Goddard Jones

A Conversation With Holly Goddard Jones

Holly Jones is a young writer whose story “Life Expectancy” appears in our Winter 2007 issue. Other stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Southern Review, Epoch, and Gettysburg Review. She is a graduate of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Ohio State University and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Denison University. Holly was born in Kentucky and lived there until coming to Ohio for graduate school. She has received grant support from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. This past summer she was a recipient of a Peter Taylor Scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Transcript

NANCY ZAFRIS:
Hi, Holly. It’s a pleasure catching a talented young writer as she begins what is sure to be a stellar writing career.

HOLLY JONES: Thanks so much.

NZ:
The Kenyon Review story (“Life Expectancy,” Winter
2007) is your second publication, I believe?

HJ:
“Life Expectancy” was what I think of as the second acceptance
of my real writing life. Before the piece in Southern Review,
there were two others: one in Limestone, which is published by
the English Department of University of Kentucky, and one in American
Literary Review
. Both were fine experiences, the first a result of
a reading I gave in Lexington as an undergrad; the second—and this
was the best feeling—plucked from ALR’s slush pile.
I don’t regret the publications because they were signs of encouragement
at times when I needed encouragement, and because the editors both times
were wonderful to work with. I don’t think I’m that same writer,
though, and those stories aren’t part of the collection I completed
in grad school.

NZ:
Tell me a little bit about that collection.

HJ:
There are nine stories at this point, though I may need to cut one for
length. I tend to write long, and many of my stories cover spans of years.
I like seriousness and sweep and—to one of my professor’s
constant aggravation—exposition. When I talked about my “real”
writing life, I was referring largely to my discovery that short fiction
could be generous and soulful, in the manner of Andre Dubus, and not just
a brief glimpse at some moment or idea. I think the collection reflects
that interest. I wrote “Good Girl,” the Southern Review story, at the beginning of my second year in graduate school. It was a
leap forward for me. I learned something about the writer I wanted to
be in the process of getting that story down, and I can look back at it
two years after completing the draft and think, Yeah, that’s not
bad. That’s still me.

NZ:
“Good Girl” is a fabulous story. When I read it in Southern
Review
, I was awestruck. It’s a story that follows a retired
widower, Jacob, in a tiny town. His son is in trouble with the law. What
is it in that story that is the “writer you want to be”?

HJ:
Well, the generosity of vision is certainly part of that. I was told a
few times that it could be a novel—frankly, I get that a lot about
my stuff—but I knew that it wasn’t a novel. I didn’t
need 250 pages to tell Jacob’s story, so why force it? A short story
can have something of a novel’s breadth and richness, and it can
also address heartbreak—frankly and painfully—in a way that
maybe a novel isn’t always meant to do. Let me qualify that. I’m
not willing to spend years working on a book that doesn’t have hope
at its center, and as a reader, I don’t tend to enjoy that sort
of extended abuse, either. I think stories can go darker, or at least
I’m willing to go darker in my stories.

NZ:
That’s very interesting. I’ve never thought of that before.
I think you have something there. I wouldn’t classify “Good
Girl” as a dark, depressing story, however. Would you?

HJ:
I think it’s hopeful in the sense that Jacob is a truly decent man.
He’s flawed and he probably ends up making a bad choice at the story’s
end, but he does so thinking that it’s his duty as a father to put
his son first, no matter what that ends up costing him. And it does cost
him, which is the depressing part. It hurt me to leave Jacob with so little
at the end of that story, because I cared about him. If “Good Girl”
had expanded into a novel, maybe I wouldn’t have had the fortitude
to finish things that way, even though I’m fully convinced that
any other ending would have been insincere.

NZ:
“Life Expectancy,” the Kenyon Review story, takes
on a high school coach embroiled in an affair with one of his students.
Both “Good Girl” and “Life Expectancy” seem written
by someone much older, if I may for the moment equate age with wisdom.
Where does someone in her twenties come by such maturity and empathy?
Most writers your age seem to stick with writing about people similar
to them.

HJ:
That’s really kind of you. I feel sometimes like I have a better
lock on the empathy part than the maturity part, so I’m grateful.
If it’s there, and it’s authentic, I can’t say for sure
what inspires it. I suppose it could have something to do with the fact
that I married young—I was nineteen—and went through most
of my undergraduate years as a married woman, living on financial aid
and trying to figure out how to do laundry at the same time I was figuring
out how to be a wife. But actually, it makes more sense to me that my
interests as a writer come from the same place—the upbringing and
experiences and personal quirks—that made me decide, rightly and
luckily, that getting married when I did would work for me.

NZ:
Did you get feedback when you were younger—teachers commenting on
your “insightfulness,” for example?

HJ:
I remember my father telling me I was “tenderhearted” when
I was a little girl, and that seems right. It’s the tenderhearted
part of me that wants to tell stories, and the characters who inspire
that quality are folks like my dad—good people trying to figure
out how to do the right thing in difficult circumstances.

NZ:
Does that mean you’re more at home with older characters?

HJ:
I’m interested in characters who have dignity and intelligence,
even when they’re making self-destructive choices. You can have
dignity and intelligence in a twenty-something narrator or even in a teenage
narrator, and I write about those characters, too, but there’s not
the same sense of permanence. The stakes can’t be as high. Part
of Theo’s tragedy in “Life Expectancy” is that he’s
beyond the point of a true fresh start. He set certain things into motion
when he was younger—marriage and parenthood, his career—and
those things can’t be undone, even if he’s unhappy.

NZ:
So are stories about younger characters fated to have less consequence?

HJ:
No, certainly not. It’s a different sort of consequence, though.
My younger characters are often forced into an unwelcome understanding
about the adult world—a preview of that permanence I mentioned before.
I’m fumbling my way through a novel right now, and recently I was
writing some exposition from the point of view of a teenage girl who realizes
that her mother’s boyfriend is being kinder to her, in giving her
money for a school trip, than she and her mother deserve from him. And
I felt heartbroken for that man, that minor character who will probably
never make another appearance in the book, because I knew something about
his goodness and his sadness.

NZ:
You write a lot and you talk a lot about goodness and good characters.
I’m sensing Erin McGraw’s influence on you. She was one of
your professors, right? I love her narratives because she’s one
of the few writers whose riveting and usually very funny stories ask such
an intelligent question—what does it mean to be good, to lead a
good life?

HJ:
I adore Erin. Yes, she was one of my professors at OSU, and she is as
wise and sharp as her fiction, which is saying a lot. A person might be
tempted to think that her dialogue is too brilliant and snappy to belong
in a strictly realistic fictional world, but if you’ve ever been
engaged in a conversation with her, you know that’s not the case.

NZ:
That’s absolutely true. My son adores having a conversation with
her because she can get him laughing so.

HJ:
Oh, same here. She’s been an enormous influence, a mentor, and also
a very good friend. I hope she wouldn’t mind my putting it that
way.

NZ:
Let’s call her right now and ask. Sorry, not a very good line. Erin
would have come up with something much better. So, Holly, stories in the Southern Review and the Kenyon Review. . .that’s
pretty impressive. I know other young writers out there must be reading
this and going CONNECTIONS! Let’s deal with that. Did you go right
through the slush pile?

HJ:
With “Good Girl,” I was going to the slush pile with a recommendation
from one of my professors. I’d workshopped the story at OSU, and
she was supportive of it. She told me where to send it, and she told me
to use her name. I’m not sure what the process was once the story
got to the Southern Review office, though. “Life Expectancy”
did bypass the slush pile, as you of course know, because I was lucky
enough to take a workshop you offered in Columbus.

NZ:
Gee, those people living in Columbus, Ohio, get all the breaks. It’s
not fair.

HJ:
Oh, yes. It’s the hub of all things literary. In all seriousness,
though, that was a great opportunity. I went into it after you’d
rejected another one of my stories, so I had no clue what to expect.

NZ:
Please, don’t tell me it was that Southern Review story.

HJ:
No, it was the one about the boy whose father takes him to see a peep
show.

NZ:
Oh, I remember. Yes, that was nice story. But there was something about
the way you structured it that seemed kind of academic, all the images
in place or something.

HJ:
I actually got a lot of grief about the structure of that story in workshop,
so I thought at the time that I was resisting some of the conventions
of condensing the chronology, having a traditional boom-boom-boom story
arc. I think that image thing you refer to was my way of trying to justify
the other, less “academic” elements, like the leaps forward
in time. It was a good lesson. I’ve done a lot of revising to that
story since then, and—maybe doggedly on my part—it’s
still one of my favorites in the collection.

NZ:
When I saw that you were in the weekend workshop, I immediately identified
you with that story because of your unusual name, Jones. Good, though,
good for you. I’m glad you’re sticking with the story. Never
shy away from revision. I’ll be anxious to read the final version.

HJ:
Thanks. I hope you get the chance to.

NZ:
There were a lot of good writers in that weekend workshop.

HJ:
Definitely.

NZ:
And all of them living in Columbus! Why don’t they ever submit?
There were more than a couple stories that with a little rethinking and
revision could get into the Kenyon Review or the equivalent.

HJ:
I have no idea! I just consider myself lucky that you liked the story
enough to have me formally submit it.

NZ:
We’re so delighted to have your story. I hope people take note.
Don’t you have another story coming out this fall?

HJ:
Yes, a rather long story called “An Upright Man,” in Epoch.
Michael Koch, the editor, read “Good Girl” in the Southern
Review
. He solicited a submission, which I was all too happy to provide,
because I think Epoch’s a terrific journal. Each acceptance
has been an enormous honor. (Editor’s note: The day after completing
this interview, Gettysburg Review accepted another story of Holly’s.)

NZ:
That’s great. That’s how it should work. First thing, though,
you’ve got to have a great story. So getting down to the actual
story level, how do you think getting an M.F.A. has helped you?

HJ:
There are so many ways, and I can’t say enough in praise of the
program at Ohio State. I didn’t know what an M.F.A. was until a
couple of months before I started applying to schools, and even then,
I didn’t really think there was much I could formally learn about
creative writing. I’d taken workshops as an undergraduate, and there
wasn’t a lot of emphasis on craft at that level. It was all about
conversation and inspiration and support—wonderful, of course—but
I didn’t know what exposition was, for instance, or the many complexities
of point of view. So one of the first things I learned in grad school
was a vocabulary. It was empowering. I learned how to revise my work,
which was critical, because I’d despised the revision process before.
I think you can get good drafts down using pure instinct, but it takes
a more conscious knowledge of craft to be any good at revising, and I’d
lacked that before.

NZ:
So inspiration and talent gives birth to the story and knowledge of craft
takes over in the revision?

HJ:
That seems to have been my process, anyway. I know that revision became
a lot easier and pleasurable for me when I was able to consciously consider
issues of structure or point of view.

NZ:
Speaking of craft issues, I’m curious: Do you write more often in
first person or third person?

HJ:
Third. I wrote quite often in first person when I was an undergraduate,
and as soon as I started to understand my style and interests more, I
became wary of it. For a while, suspicious of it. I’ve since backed away
from that stronger reaction, and the story coming out in Epoch is narrated in first person. Even so, I’ve had to figure out the circumstances
in which I’m willing to write a first-person story.

NZ:
You mean if you need an unreliable narrator or something like that?

HJ:
Not exactly. I guess it goes back to that whole issue of who I am as a
writer, the kind of story I want to tell, the characters who inspire me.
For one thing, I think my narrator has to be at least as intelligent as
I am, which perhaps isn’t saying much, but that’s all I’ve got to go on.
No little kids, no empty-headed rednecks. That latter, especially, is
what soured me on first-person stories. I write about home, which for
me is working-class southern Kentucky, and I have a lot of respect for
that place, for the people. I think it’s a little too easy to find a voice
that doesn’t really exist—the rube-with-a-heart-of-gold, for instance—and
to exploit that for something fake and degrading. First person can be
a window into that, though it’s certainly not the only window.

NZ:
There’s immediacy with first person, certainly, but third person
can be immediate as well.

HJ:
I’ve found that third person is the point of view that lets me have it
all: intimacy, distance, the spectrum of understanding in between. There’s
so much versatility. Most of the stories in my collection are told in
a deeply embedded third person point of view, which allowed me to grasp
a character’s mental state without sacrificing a more sophisticated authorial
voice. What’s so rich about that approach is that you can occasionally
adopt the point-of-view character’s language—just a turn of phrase
or a precise way of seeing something—and it’s like a direct injection
of that character, a spiritual possession.

NZ:
Exactly. As a Kentuckian, you must appreciate how Flannery O’Connor
does that. She injects their southernness in a phrase, then backs off.
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the Misfit says to the grandmother,
“ ‘I pre-chate that, lady.’ ” That little word—“pre-chate”—that’s
all she needed.

HJ:
Oh, it’s brilliant. And she does that shift to the vernacular in
the narrative as well as in the dialogue: “She wanted to visit some
of her connections,” for instance. That story moves very subtly
between a narrative perspective that’s clearly more intelligent
than the grandmother, but also at times seems to be adopting her sensibility,
relating things to the reader in the way the grandmother might. I love
that move. I love when I’m able to pull off something like that. For my
novel, though, I’m growing more and more certain that I need a narrative
perspective that’s capable of greater range and distance, so I’m thinking
a lot about omniscience these days. Wondering what sorts of rules I can
write for myself.

NZ:
Now that you’re out of school, I guess you can make up your own
rules. How was the M.F.A. program for you in terms of atmosphere? Some
people feel crushed socially. Others thrive.

HJ:
I felt the support and the agony, both. I adore my professors, but those
relationships were earned, worked on. I wasn’t very good at making
myself vulnerable when I came to grad school, so it took me a while to
understand that the professors wanted to hear from me outside of workshop,
to see my interest and excitement. I was afraid to be too forward with
my peers, too, and it took a full year for me to participate in the community
that extended beyond workshop. It was immaturity, and I’m still
learning. But I have these friendships now, and I’m very protective
of them. One of my best adult friendships came out of graduate school,
and that’s significant, because I thought for a long time that I
wasn’t any good at that. Maybe I’m not, but she puts up with
me anyway, and we’re able to share the hopes and anxieties of trying
to be writers. We both get it. That, and she’s a very wise reader
with a sensibility that’s similar to mine but not troublingly so,
which means that she’s always able to surprise me with the right
kinds of questions and suggestions. Every writer should have someone like
that in her life.

NZ:
Do you think getting an M.F.A. has any disadvantages?

HJ:
That’s an interesting question. The experience was so positive for
me, finally—despite that difficult first year, and plenty of difficult
moments in the second two years—that my perspective is probably
slanted. Some people say there’s an “M.F.A. story,”
but my professors were so different as writers and teachers that I’d
be hard-pressed to come away from OSU with a sense that one aesthetic
was being advocated. Certain wisdom gets circulated, of course—mostly
structural principles—but you get to a point where you know the
conventions, you learn to recognize them, and you take them or leave them.
Maybe others would disagree. I don’t think that the credential could
really hurt you, though of course it might not help you, and I said from
the start that I wasn’t going to take out loans to finance grad
school. Looking back, I still wouldn’t.

NZ:
You also mentioned some of the social pressures.

HJ:
Oh yes, that’s part of it. I’ve known people who felt dissatisfied
with the grad school experience. It’s not uncommon. They feel like
they didn’t get enough support or like their work was misunderstood.
The workshop environment inevitably generates bad feeling, because your
ego is at stake, and people have different ways of offering criticism,
some less tactfully than one would hope. It all feels very dramatic when
you’re in the middle of it, and I certainly had my low days. I can
imagine a very different outcome for myself if I hadn’t received
the right kinds of validation at the right times. It’s easy to lose
sight of what brought you to the M.F.A. in the first place.

NZ:
What about networking?

HJ:
Well, it’s probably necessary—and smart—and I’ve
benefited from certain kinds of networking. I’m wary of it, though,
but maybe that’s because I’m bad at it.

NZ:
Bad at it? You, Holly? This from the woman who holed up in an Austin hotel
during the three days of AWP? I’m sure that if you had left the
room, you could have networked beautifully.

HJ:
That’s exactly what I mean. I wasn’t a complete hermit, but
yes, I have a difficult time in environments like that. I enjoy the AWP
book fair—getting good deals on a stack of journals, picking up
a souvenir back-scratcher, you know. But there’s a lot of networking,
too, and some of it seems so misguided that it’s painful. As a grad
student, I took a turn manning our department’s journal booth for
an hour or so, and I had several conversations with writers who were clearly
trying to make a connection, plant their names into my subconscious, whatever.
And I wanted to say, “Look, you’ve got the wrong person! I
don’t have any power or influence!” Or course I couldn’t
say that. Even if I did have that power, though, I doubt that my judgment
would be influenced by such a superficial meeting that has nothing to
do with the work itself.

NZ:
What kinds of networking have worked for you, then?

HJ:
It’s easy for me to sign up for a workshop like the one you offered
in Columbus, because it’s structured, it has a purpose, because
I stand to learn something. I can put my work into the mix, and if I’m
not charming—and that’s pretty much going to be a given with
me—it’s not a total bust. I went to the Sewanee Writers’
Conference this summer, too, and that was an amazing experience. I met
my literary agent there. Again, though, it was very structured, and I
functioned best in the parts of day that didn’t involve standing
around with a canapé and a mixed drink, though certainly I enjoyed
the canapés and the mixed drinks. Grad school worked for me because
I was able to form bonds with professors who believed in my work and were
willing to act on my behalf, and that seemed OK, too, because that’s
what the teacher-student relationship is all about, and because I liked
my professors very much. If I’m ever in a position to help my students
that way, I’ll pass the favors along. That said, I’m not good
at that whole “face-time” dynamic I talked about before. I
don’t see the value, the pay-off, in making myself uncomfortable,
just to have an awkward one-minute exchange with someone I hardly know.
I’ve done it, and I’ve realized the futility as soon as I
walked away from the person. I don’t have the right temperament
for that kind of interaction. I fret, I dwell. I beat myself up for saying
something stupid. So I try to avoid it.

NZ:
Those are very wise remarks, Holly. I’m glad you’ve learned
to play to your strengths. One last topic: You’ve graduated and
now you’re teaching at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. How’s
being on the other end affecting your writing?

HJ:
I had to teach one course a quarter through my second two years of graduate
school, so I went into the job thinking I had a grasp on how much work
was ahead of me: multiply effort times three. I knew it would be hard
and draining. I knew that the commute would become a nuisance after a
while. I’ve been surprised, though, by how much teaching takes out
of me emotionally. It’s not really an issue of “time for writing,”
because I can always carve out an hour or more a day to spend with my
own projects. Logistically, it’s more than possible. I take teaching
personally, though, which means that I’m always dealing with a lot
a disappointment but also a lot of joy. I come home some days thinking,
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got to give. Of course, I’m
wrong. I say that not to set myself up as extraordinarily generous with
my students, because I don’t think I’m at all extraordinary
in that regard. I do believe, though, that some teachers are better at
disconnecting their sense of self from their perceived success in the
classroom, and I haven’t yet figured out how to do that. But that’s
OK, maybe, because I appreciate the successes all the more for the frustrations.
If it came easily to me, I’d suspect that I wasn’t working
hard enough.

NZ:
Let’s at least end on one of your successes.

HJ:
I was watching my freshman seminar students give presentations a couple
of weeks ago, and I had a moment in class that was sort of beautiful and
surprising. They seemed very earnest up there, doing their PowerPoint
on rhetorical analysis. Very young and full of good. It was instantaneous:
this realization of how much I cared, how much I wanted them all to succeed,
in my class but also in life. I couldn’t write an epiphany like
that into a story, because it would seem trite, probably, but I felt it,
and it was powerful.

NZ:
That sounds a lot like writing—those moments of sudden understanding.

HJ:
My approach to writing is actually pretty similar to my approach to teaching.
I figure that it’s the passion that makes the lows so low for me,
the highs so high. I see it, perhaps incorrectly, as proof of my commitment.
I lead a pretty balanced life, the kind of life that would make terrible
fiction. I have a great husband who makes me laugh. I have a dog that
everyone hears way too much about. I run on a treadmill four times a week.
I get along with my folks. The writing’s where I go to imagine the
loss of those things. It sounds morbid, but it’s my way of reminding
myself of what matters.

NZ:
Thanks, Holly. It’s been a pleasure talking with someone so talented
and thoughtful.

HJ:
Thank you, Nancy. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

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