Jacqueline Vogtman’s work has appeared in Avery Anthology, Berkeley Fiction Review, Copper Nickel, Drunken Boat, Emerson Review, and The Lifted Brow, among other journals, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, and she currently teaches and writes in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband, Joe, and her terrier, Teddy.
Interview with Jacqueline Vogtman and Meg Tuite
Your work blew me away when I read it. Powerful, raw, completely visual and characters that make me want to live in a world that includes them. WOW! You delivered three mesmerizing flash stories that encompassed entire universes within them. “Saint Carmelita of Camden,” “The Legend of Nurse Polly,” and “Winifred the Prophetic.”
I remember reading “The Lives of Saints,” when I was a kid and these three stories you wrote are the modern day heroines that could match any one of those warriors. Carmelita is dealing with grief and survival on her own terms and somehow manages to transform her neighborhood. Tell me more about this amazing character and how she came to be.
First of all, thank you so much for your kind words! And I’m so glad you mentioned Lives of the Saints, because that was actually a huge inspiration for these stories. I, too, remember reading about the saints’ lives when I was younger, and being enraptured by the miracles and the suffering, how the magic and the pain seemed to go together.
As for “Carmelita,” I actually owe a huge debt to my father for the inspiration of this story. My father has always been a big storyteller, telling true stories about his past or stories he makes up, though a lot of time it’s never quite clear what’s true and what’s not; there’s always a huge gray area between fact and fiction, which I think informs my work now. But anyway, one day we were talking and he began telling me about this woman in Camden who was using dogs to kind of clean up the city and keep gangs out of her neighborhood. At the time, he made it seem (or so I thought) that this was some true news story he came across, or at the very least, I figured, it was some mostly-true story he had heard from his mother, my grandmother, who lived in Camden until her last days.
So that was the initial spark for the story. I loved the image of a little old woman with an almost comically-large pack of dogs. I saw her as becoming a sort of heroine in this crazy-violent city, and in her ordinariness I saw so many women who are unacknowledged saints, who suffer and never leave their city and are never written about...and so I wanted to write about her. Of course, the funny thing is that months after I wrote that story, my dad mentioned it again and it turned out that it was not “based on a true story” at all—there was not a grain of truth to it! My father actually made up the scenario himself, and I guess I just assumed it was something he read about or heard about on the news. So, in essence, I guess this story is sort of co-written by him.
A quote from “The Legend of Nurse Polly:”
“When she found her ankles swelling again, and felt that familiar fatigue, and passed only a trickle of urine in the Lysol-smelling ladies’ room, she thought about her brother and his children and thought, No, I can’t tell him. If he found out, she knew, he’d be the next to give his kidney, and then all of them, her entire family, would be walking around missing something, a part of them gone, their bodies with big jagged scars along their backs, all some misshapen like misfit toys, except their defect would be invisible, inside, irrevocable, the kidney they gave could not be given back, their brokenness could never be fixed.”
What was your inspiration for this story? It feels very personal and yes, that’s always the sign of a great writer, but once again, I am wondering about the inspiration for Polly.
That’s a great question, because more than any of the other stories here, “Polly” does come from a personal place. These stories are all part of a larger work, and I wrote “Polly” when I was maybe halfway through writing drafts of all the stories. At that time, I was starting to think about what I was really doing with all these stories, and it occurred to me that in some way—subconsciously up to that point—I was writing about women I knew and loved. So I kind of said “screw it” to the idea that what I was writing was strict “fiction” in the sense that it should not, ever, by any means, under any circumstances be influenced by my own life experience or people I know.
So when I was writing “Polly,” I wrote with the clear knowledge that I was writing, in part, about my Aunt Patty, who passed away when I was young and who I remember as a mysteriously beautiful giver of candy. Of course, the actual events in my narrative by no means mirror the actual narrative of her life, but members of her family did give her their kidneys. That sense of sacrifice—what it must mean to willingly give someone else a part of your body—was partly what inspired this story, but it was also inspired by other things: the doll my Aunt made for me (which is now gray and ragged, and which I still sleep with, to the chagrin of my husband), and a hospital where I briefly worked, teaching English to nursing students late at night.
In “Winifred the Prophetic,” like the other stories, you blast the reader right away with a crisis and it moves so fluidly into this beautiful exchange between the narrator and Winifred. Do you have a certain structure that you work by? Maybe a character that you have in mind or a first sentence that sets you rolling forward?
The short answer to this question would be that, no, I don’t really have a certain structure I work by, in general. That being said, many of these stories did grow out of the character first, and in particular the name or image of the character. Sometimes it was simply a name and its connotations that got the story rolling. As I was writing these stories, I was researching the names of different female saints and their miracles, and sometimes that was really what planted the seed. In “Winifred,” it may have been the name that led to the title, because I liked the way the two words sounded together, “Winifred” and “prophetic.” So sometimes it’s sound, sometimes it’s image, sometimes it’s character, sometimes it’s emotion or memory...though most of the time it’s some mysterious combination of these things that will start a story for me.
I’m really hoping that you are working on a collection of these. I so LOVE them! What projects are you entrenched in at this time?
Thank you so much, and yes, I am working on a collection of these! I’ve finished a first draft of the collection and am currently working on revisions. The manuscript is tentatively titled The Real Lives of Imaginary Saints, and I’m hoping to finish revisions and have it ready to send off (to who, I don’t know!) in the next six months or so.
In the meantime, I’m also working on two other projects: one is a novel that I actually began over a year ago and then, because it seemed too big a project and I felt the need to procrastinate, I abandoned in favor of working on the stories we’re talking about here; the other is what I might call an “erotic” novel...something that, again, I started in an attempt to procrastinate writing the “big” novel, and that is proving rather fun to write, but who knows what it will come to!
Who would you say are your most important inspirations in writing?
This could take awhile, but I’ll try to narrow down the list! I’ve always been inspired by poetry as well as fiction, so some of my earliest inspirations/literary loves were Li-Young Lee, e.e. cummings, Rilke, Hart Crane...I was actually just telling a friend (via Facebook, so I’m not sure the correct term is “telling”) how Li-Young Lee was a huge inspiration on my writing from a young age because when I was in eighth grade one of my teachers mailed me his book The City in Which I Love Youafter I had given her a handwritten book of my poetry. Lee’s poetry hit a chord with me, and his lyricism is something I still aspire to in my fiction.
In terms of fiction, the Queen and King of my literary heart are Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I’ve always been hugely inspired by Modernism, more so than any other –ism I’ve ever encountered. I feel such strong connections to their work. Other writers that have had huge impacts on my own writing: Bruno Schulz, William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, Aimee Bender, Anthony Doerr. I’ve also always been inspired by fairy tales, mythology, and religion, which I suppose comes out in these stories.
No one has ever mentioned Bruno Schulz before in any of my interviews and he is my favorite writer of all time. I keep his two collections on the shelf my desk for easy access. He is true inspiration. And I have to say that your entire group is in my YES list.
How did the MFA program work for you? Was it a positive experience?How do you hold your own voice when you are surrounded by teachers and students throwing their opinions your way?
I got my MFA from Bowling Green State University, and I have to say it was probably one of the best experiences in my life. Did I have unlimited time to write while I was there? No, but I think it’s better that I didn’t, because it prepared me for balancing my writing life with my working life after leaving grad school. Was I influenced by the teachers and my fellow MFAs? Sure, but I think I was more inspired by them than influenced by them, if that makes sense, and I’m still inspired by the work they’re doing. Writers like Anne Valente, Matt Bell, Stephanie Marker, Catherine Templeton, Callista Buchen, Dustin Hoffman, Brandon Jennings, Joe Celizic, Bess Winter, Jessica Vozel, Michelle Zuppa, Brad Felver, Alison Balaskovitz...the list could probably go on longer, but they all had such a positive impact on my writing, and they’re all such amazing writers themselves. Whether their writing was similar to mine or very different, either way it had some impact on where I wanted to go with my own work.
I think it’s true, though, that sometimes it is hard to hold on to your own voice when you feel like your work is under a microscope every few weeks, and there might be a danger that you are writing to impress someone or live up to something, or perhaps the workshop atmosphere gives rise to a creativity-killing critic in your own head. For me, I think that’s partly why I chose not to go the PhD route for now: I felt like the MFA gave me so much, but that I was ready to go it alone for a while without the extra voices critiquing my work. In some sense, those voices will always be there anyway.
If you had to encapsulate your writing life in one line what would it be?
Being indecisive, I’ll give two quotes from greater writers than myself:
“We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves” (James Joyce, Ulysses).
“It is part of my existence to be the parasite of metaphors, so easily am I carried away by the first simile that comes along” (Bruno Schulz, “Loneliness”).
Those are both exceptional quotes. Tell us how we can follow your amazing work, Jacqueline.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending), I’m sort of a Luddite in the sense that I don’t have a website or a Twitter account or anything like that just yet. But I would be very happy to become Facebook friends with anyone interested in following my work, as that’s really the one place I promote my work. So search for me on there!
Thank you so much, for sending Connotation Press some of your brilliance. I am honored to feature some of your incredible stories.
Thank you! I appreciate all your kind words and thoughtful questions and am so happy to see my work here.
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