Jackie Gorman’s collection of stories, The Viewing Room, based on her hospital chaplaincy experiences, will be published this fall by University of Georgia Press as the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her memoir, The Seeing Glass, was published in 1997 by Riverhead Books. She has an MFA in Fiction from Spalding University and lives in Los Angeles. Her story “Blood Rules” appears in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story, “Blood Rules”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I wrote each of my stories in the month that they occur in the book, so I could viscerally identify the tone of that month through all the senses. Initially I thought the September story’s main focus would revolve around school sports and the concurrent terrible amount of senseless deaths we see in Emergency Rooms. Each of my stories holds up to view a margin of our society that we don’t want to see, and I thought the story would be about our forcing our children to risk death or permanent injury for the sake of a high school game. And then, the media was flooded with of the tenth anniversary of 9/11, particularly the controversy raised about re-building near a Mosque. It was distressing to hear spiritual leaders of other religions spout hatred and ignorance concerning Islam. As an interfaith chaplain, I had been invited to take part in a service in a local Mosque and I was profoundly moved by that congregations welcoming embrace during such a chaotic time.
The hardest part about writing this story, as is true with any story, is meeting my own expectations. I believe that writing is a sacred trust. In this case, I was also writing about a sacred ritual in Islam from a non-Muslim perspective, a very controversial choice. I wanted to pay tribute to the beauty of this ceremony where the living can express their love for their beloved dead one last time.
Your story in KR takes place on the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks. What challenges or new possibilities did you encounter in setting a story against this weighty backdrop?
My collection is about ways of seeing a universally experienced event—the death of someone we love. This subject is quite difficult for people to examine. However, the long-range view of a catastrophic event, and our attempts to re-frame it in palatable terms is fascinating to me. So the challenge was to make this event personal to each of the characters.
That is why Maurice, a minister who fails to be ordained because he has the desire to kill, as a response to his mother’s murder, was the ideal point of view. Although he has such bitterness and desire for revenge in his heart, he is forced to bear witness to another unjust death, a young girl on a basketball court. However, the Muslim girlfriend transcends the moment with her own kind of graceful understanding. In making Maurice face this challenge to his theology, I was forced to confront mine as well.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Mostly, I learned that my process is messy and disorganized, but somehow it works for me. I have tried to follow the prescriptive advice of incorporating writing in my daily routine, during a zealously guarded protected block of time. It sounds lovely. I have never been able to do that. I could come up with all sorts of excuses, being a parent, having a chronic illness that debilitates me at unforeseen times, another job, blah, blah, blah. The secret confession—you read it here first—is that I am a binge writer, and I have made my peace with that. In a sudden burst of creative energy, I immerse myself in the process and walk like a zombie through my regular life, leaving pens in the refrigerator, keeping a blanket over the television, things like that. My children called the expression on my face during these trances my “space-face, book look.” So, these phases have to be short-lived, or I will lose all my friends and family in my relentless self-absorption.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I am intrigued by this question—by the term “non-writing-related” aspect of life, which for me does not exist. Every aspect of my life feeds into my writing. I don’t know how to turn off the writing part of my brain, which essentially observes and takes notes on everything I feel and see and do, and then uses the notes the next time I happen to be near a keyboard.
Of all things you can be doing, why do you write?
Now, I have to make another confession. It is painful for me to write and I do all sorts of writing avoidance things, like alphabetizing my spice rack when I don’t even cook. What finally happens is what I call the triumph of the lesser pain theory. It simply hurts more not to write than it does to write, and so writing is an exorcism for me.
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
This is such an intimidating question, and one I do not feel the least bit qualified to answer, as I am not a literary critic. I have to come to my credo as a writer and reader.
For me, it is essential to read as much as humanly possible, in all genres, (not just the one I am writing in) in all venues, (print, audio, digital), and so if I have a required daily practice for writing, it is reading. I always read before I go to sleep, no matter what the circumstances. This is where illness (mine or others) never interrupts that practice, especially now that I have books on my phone. This is not just about my writing, and me but also about being a supportive member of the literary arts community. We have less and less readers, and even the readers we do have are reading less and less, and that distresses me.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
Yes, gladly, and thanks so much for asking! I have written two books, a memoir, The Seeing Glass and this story collection that contains “Blood Rules,” called The Viewing Room. I have periodic bouts of blindness (severe bilateral optic neuritis) as a symptom of MS, and so an underlying theme of all my writing is about vision, all of the components of vision, and how faulty a sense it can be, although the one we rely on for most of our information. So, we do not see anything unless we set intent to look for it.
I am working on novel, entitled Looking for Lavender, which is about the desperate and in my view, unattainable search for a safe home. I was privileged to serve the homeless community, and it changed my view of the world. In my character’s quest for secure ground, they find that the only sure thing is that there is no sure thing as a guaranteed safe place. Anybody who thinks they have such a thing is delusional. However, there is great strength to be found in realizing that this is part of our human condition, and we become more human, in the best possible use of that term, if we let go of the illusion of personal safety.