Archives For jac jemc

How does a writer go about constructing such an elaborate puzzle, pacing out the clues without it feeling cheap, tying in character names without hitting the reader over the head with the answer?

Dear Ellen Raskin,

I wanted to write you a note of gratitude for writing The Westing Game, because it felt like a real milestone of a book for me when I was a kid. Even though it was short, it felt challenging and it built my confidence in a major way. I felt ready to read anything after that. But then I got nervous.

What if I’m misremembering? What if the book is full of racism and weak female characters and I was too trapped in the story to notice when I was 9 or however old I was when I read it? I mean, let’s be honest, I’ve only started noticing that sort of stuff in the past decade after years of looking, only now am I beginning to see some of it. Even a whole grade before The Westing Game, when I read Jean Marzollo’s Soccer Sam, whose purpose it is to talk about accepting people from other cultures, I was like, “We can all like something new!” I didn’t get that it was about racism. I was oblivious, but that doesn’t mean those lessons weren’t there, quietly doing their work.

But, you! You accomplish so much with such a light hand. Turtle Wexler, the youngest character in The Westing Game, is a strong, female kid: a whiz at investing, a marvel of self defense tactics, defiant of authority in her refusal to conform to her mother’s prescribed beauty norm, but still sympathetic to her older sister who has fallen prey to that sinister web, Turtle is 100% role model, and your editor, if the story is true, was smart to tell you to amp up her presence. Turtle provides an easy point of access for kids, allows them to believe a kid is on the same level, if not superior to all the adults teaming and scheming throughout the book. But you don’t stop with Turtle. Judge Ford is cast as a single woman of color. The immigrant character, Mrs. Hoo, is way smarter than people give her credit for. The disabled character is multi-faceted and afforded plenty of agency. The book provides opportunities to talk about all of these different identity definers, but the book isn’t actually about any of these issues—they exist as facts of the characters lives, just like in real life.

jacket1As a children’s bookseller at a feminist bookstore in Chicago, parents would often ask for recommendations of books showing kid characters of different races and family structures and economic backgrounds. They were always grateful when I handed them books that weren’t Heather Has Two Mommies or a biography of the childhood of Martin Luther King. They didn’t need an education; they just needed some diversity in the background of the whodunit. Of course, you stopped short of having a queer couple in the book, but you still pushed boundaries, ones that I’m sure seemed risky in 1978, and sadly still bear discussion today. But you let the mystery lead the way, and the details of identity fill up the stakes.

Rereading The Westing Game as an adult, I caught onto some clues of the puzzle a little earlier than I did when I was a kid, like the “America the Beautiful” word game that drives most of the plot, and the delicate wording of the will, but my maturity only allowed me to marvel at these gymnastics all the more. For one: how does a writer go about constructing such an elaborate puzzle, pacing out the clues without it feeling cheap, tying in character names without hitting the reader over the head with the answer. The short version of my question is, “Where did you begin?” You must be an outliner. I’m not, and your book makes me mourn the years I’ve lost not trying to cultivate this skill, not because I think I could approach your genius, but because this book is such a clear example of the value that’s added by structure and surprise, meting out narrative pleasure in such perfect intervals.

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I found a copy of the copious notes you took while planning the book and I’m really just floored by the thought you put into each character’s name and the way you mapped the clues. Even more though, I’m impressed at the extent to which you thought carefully about the design. Of course, you were also an illustrator, so it makes sense that you sketched your idea for the cover early in the process, but you went so much farther: You recommended the margin width to match that of an eleven-year-old’s thumb so they could hold the book open easily. Say what? That takes some some serious UX consideration. You wanted to break up the text, adding lots of line breaks and bullets so that readers could rest their eyes and not become fatigued by monster blocks of text. As an adult reader, I can tell you I appreciate such courtesies even now. My favorite books are generous with the line breaks. It’s an intuitive choice—give people the space to think while they’re reading—but it’s a tactic I use myself now often and always breathe a sigh of relief at finding in the books I pick up to read.

It seems like an obvious thing to say that writing a children’s book is a lot harder than it looks. The pacing has to be spot on. The characters have to be credible and silly at the same time. There’s no option to leave mysteries unsolved or loose ends untied, but lots of pressure to teach lessons and leave the reader with an easily summarized moral. If pressed, The Westing Game could be said to be a book about greed, about the importance of sharing. One might also say it’s about pushing ourselves not to think the lazy thoughts, but to dig deeper: into our consideration of others, as well as into each problem posed to us.

Thank you for writing a book that holds up so well, that was so compassionate and smart, and that demonstrated such faith in your readers. I’m sure I’m not the only child whose confidence was shored up by this book. Thank you.

Your devoted reader,

Jac

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[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

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Jac Jemc is the author of The Grip of It, forthcoming from FSG Originals in 2017. Her first novel, My Only Wife (Dzanc Books) was a finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, and her collection of stories, A Different Bed Every Time (Dzanc Books) was named one of Amazon’s best story collections of 2014. She edits nonfiction for Hobart.

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Ellen Raskin
was a writer, illustrator, and designer. She was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and grew up during the Great Depression. She primarily wrote for children. She received the 1979 Newbery Medal for her 1978 book, The Westing Game. Raskin was also an accomplished graphic artist. She designed dozens of dust jackets for books including the first edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time.

 

 

How Jac Jemc Became a Writer

November 11, 2012 — 3 Comments

I love to read, and so I want to write things that I would like to read. It’s the only thing more rewarding than reading for me.

Jac Jemc lives in Chicago where she makes monsters and writes fiction and poetry. Her first novel, My Only Wife, was published by Dzanc Books in April 2012 and a chapbook of stories, This Stranger She’d Invited In, sold out at Greying Ghost Press in March 2011 .  Jac’s writing has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, finished 2nd place in the Marginalia College Contest and placed as a finalist for the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Contest and Sentence Firewheel Chapbook Contest.  Her story “Women in Wells” was featured in the 2010 Best of the Web. Jac received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has completed residencies at Ragdale and the Vermont Studio Center. She is poetry editor at decomP and member of the editorial team at Tarpaulin Sky. She has served as a guest editor of Little White Poetry Journal  and and Hobart Web, and worked as a reader at Our Stories and The Means. In 2012 she was the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grant.

Visit her web site: http://jacjemc.com

Read more by and about Jac:

Novel: My Only Wife

Novel excerpt: My Wife, the Weight at Melusine

Story: The Grifted at Collagist

Story: Prowlers at Necessary Fiction

How Jac Jemc Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jac for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was in the third grade, I told my teacher my dream was to write a 100-page book. Then I forgot about that for a while, and tried some other things: music and acting, but I continued being a big reader. When I was in college I started writing again more seriously, and I realized how important it was to me, and that I could accomplish what I wanted to express in a way I hadn’t been able to achieve before. The more I read, the more ways of telling a story there seemed to be, and that made writing more and more attractive to me. I was finishing out a degree in theater, but I discovered that I really preferred working alone.  I think I might not be a terrific collaborator because I tend to want to follow through my own idea from beginning to end, and theater had a few too many variables for me. I think the short answer though, is that I love to read, and so I want to write things that I would like to read. It’s the only thing more rewarding than reading for me.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

So all of the things I just said go into the actual steps to ‘becoming a writer.’ But I started a double major in English Creative Writing and worked with some terrifically supportive professors in undergrad. I made a couple independent studies in novel writing and playwriting (which I realized was not for me) that seemed super important to my development. The novel writing independent study was with a poetry teacher, so I was already on the road to hybrids. When I started looking at grad schools, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago seemed ideal because they’re one of the only schools that doesn’t make you choose a concentration. You can take a poetry class and it might be full of painters who want to talk language and you can take a fiction class that’s full of poets, and the world just opens up. Luckily (haha) it was the only school that I was accepted to, so I wasn’t given the chance to mess up that decision. At SAIC, students have the option to meet weekly with advisors, which I found to be the most valuable part of that program.  I started by setting goals for how many hours a week I want to write. I try to stick to a schedule – if not a regular time every day to write, a certain number of hours a week. Of course, life intervenes and messes with the schedule often, but setting that expectation and working for it is what makes me feel like I can call myself a writer. As soon as I stop making that time a priority is when I’m in jeopardy of “writer” not being a word that applies to me.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Those advisors in grad school were huge helps. They taught me how to ask the right questions, and the right question is usually, “Is this what I want it to be? How do I make it what I want it to be?”  Advisors that were invaluable to me were Beth Nugent, Janet Desaulniers, Carol Anshaw, Ellen Rothenberg, Bin Ramke. I could go on; the whole community was just life-changing. My peers are my biggest motivator now. I’m surrounded by people that write AMAZING work that is exactly what I want to read. I see how hard they work and how true they are to themselves, and I makes me want to work harder.

by Edward Gorey

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Edward Gorey comes to mind. What an entirely singular vision. He made what he wanted to make even though there was no category for it, and he lived his life in a way that seemed just wholly true to himself, too.  And he LOVED to work! That is so exciting to me.

Eileen Myles, too. Her novel, Inferno is about her life, and she is such an inspiration. She was so fearlessly herself. Patti Smith, too. Lynda Barry. Andy Warhol. All of these people have a way of weaving their work so seamlessly into their lives. That sounds like the perfect world to me, to erase that divide between my creative life and the work it takes to live and keep going.

Book trailer for Eileen Myles, Inferno:

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

I’d say: Read. Write exactly what you want to write, even if it seems like a piece of crap while writing it. Learn how to listen to criticism in a way that allows the writing to become better, but learn how to recognize the suggestions you do and don’t want to follow through with. See lots of art and watch movies and be with people and live your whole life. It’s easy to feel like you need to accomplish everything immediately, but you need to live, too.  There is time. So much time. You can be Woody Allen and put out a movie every year, whether it’s good or bad, or you can be Terrence Malick, making a film a decade: whatever works for you. Read and write.