Jodi Paloni interview with Karen Stefano
Jodi Paloni sneaks up on you. Her prose is hauntingly, deceptively simple and then suddenly the reader is clobbered with emotion and meaning. Here are just a few lines from “Sunrise, Leningrad, 1980”:
"I rummaged my pack recalling my father’s parting advice, use the brains in the head God gave you. I used my eyes, my gut. I used what some would call the weakness in the knees."
"I thought about the blank postcards in my pack, my poor parents, their worry. What would I write? Things are good, dear mother of mine; things are really good."
"I used my head, dear father of mine, the back of my head; I detected deception, a liar. I fingered greasy paper and torn cardboard. A hunk of cheese, I smelled it, while Jason’s two-day beard stippled the flesh of my thighs."
Jodi, tell me about when and how you started writing fiction.
I’ve always been an avid reader of fiction and wrote little bits-and-pieces my whole adult life, mostly character sketches and short scenes. After 911, I joined a writing group and wrote poetry as much as I could with a full-time job and two kids. In 2008, at the age of 46, I left a 25-year teaching career to figure out how I wanted to spend the second half of my life. I gave myself a year to dabble. My husband and I built a 10x10 sanctuary in the woods–––a room of my own. I studied poetry with Mary Oliver, did yoga and yoga dance, and took painting classes. All this is to say that I believe that freeing up time and space and using my body and brain in new ways allowed me to access narratives that I’d stored up for decades. My imagination has been running wild ever since.
What was the inspiration for “Sunrise, Leningrad, 1980”?
I’d been reading some flash fiction–––Ross McMeekin, Kathy Fish, Robert Vaughan, and Pamela Painter, to name some–––and became interested in how my love of writing poetry could marry my passion for story. Sure narrative poetry exists, but what about these micro-fictions, lyrical concise flashes of word play? Exploring the nature of concision was my goal. I submitted an original version of “Sunrise, Leningrad, 1980” (100 words) to 100 Word Story, but they passed. So happy it has found a home.
Do you rewrite your sentences over and over again? Or do they come out fairly finished in a first draft?
I write them over and over again, but often they end up back where they started! My longer short stories tend to have more sentences that land and stick. I find I tinker with flash endlessly. It’s weird how when there are far fewer words in a piece, a small change can completely overhaul the original intent and meaning, tone, even, and then everything after that needs to be addressed. It’s almost a Zen practice, yes?
What are your favorite craft books?
Narrowing in on “favorites” always gets me. But here’s a list of three that come to mind for different reasons.
Alone With All That Can Happen by David Jauss, reprinted as, On Writing Fiction (Writers Digest Books), is a collection of craft essays that I return to again and again. Dave was my teacher. He’s super smart and the examples he uses to make his point tend to stick with me over time. Plus, I can hear his voice when I read them, which feels, well, supportive.
I also love a book called The Mind of Your Story by Lisa Lenard-Cook. Her approach is to treat the act of writing fiction as if the story has this life of it’s own and it’s your job as the writer to get inside it, become it, think like it would think, speak like it would speak, act like it would act. It’s a twist on the same sound craft stuff. There’s mystery to the approach.
And for writing flash, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field is just that, “best practices,” no rights or wrongs, on writing flash from a variety of writers. Each piece is short. So when I want to dip into writing flash, I read one, grab some inspiration, and I’m off and running.
You have a short story collection that was recently released, They Could Live With Themselves. What might our readers expect to find in this collection?
These are eleven interrelated stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, Vermont. You can find a range of voices and experiences from the points of view of kids and teens, young adults, aging men and women, who all share small town living in a quaint and homey place with an underbelly side to it–––loneliness and longing, guilt, desire, and death–––the usual stuff of short fiction, that I hoped to expose. Each story stands alone, and then there’s this “the whole is greater than the sums of its parts” thing going on, or at least that’s what I’ve been told.
What were your favorite books as a child?
I loved this one thick illustrated book I can remember, a collection of The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales. Later, I read Ramona Quimby, The Box Car Children, and Nancy Drew–––read tons of those Drew mysteries and acted them out in the neighborhood–––and eventually books by Louisa May Alcott and Anne of Green Gables. I think the Grimm book was what was available early on, and then I got a library card. By middle school, I was into Greek myths. When I look at what these books have in common, it seems I liked stories in which characters were on a quest of some sort, actual and metaphorical, girls and women, in particular. I admired spunky female protagonists, and still do.
And here is my favorite question to ask Connotation Press contributors: What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you?
Maybe not the weirdest thing because I have a bad memory and there’s probably something weirder, but here’s one. It has to do with this guy I was dating. We’d had a hot and heavy summer fling that trickled out when real life started up again in the fall, and I should have totally let it go at that, but the following summer, I got to thinking about him and reached out and we rekindled. On Sunday evening, I was about to head home from his place after a little weekend retreat together. He’d taken off before me to go to a meeting, and when I went to get into my car, I realized I had a dead battery. This was out in the boonies, rural Vermont, back when it might have taken a couple of hours or a day to get an AAA service call, but I thought “what the heck” and headed back into his house to make the call. I searched all over for a phonebook, but couldn’t find one, so went looking in his desk. (This was before Smart Phones.) When I opened a large bottom drawer, something caught my eye, a file folder with my name written on the tab in thick black marker. I pulled it out and inside were letters I’d written him, a couple of poems, some emails printed out, scraps of paper with little notes, two photographs, etc… At first, I thought, Awwww…Then I noticed that the entire drawer was full of file folders with names of women written on them. And, yes, you bet I pawed through them. Same thing. Letter, photos, notes, memorabilia from dozens of women, and some of the materials were dated that summer that he and I had been hooking up. Ha! I actually wrote and published my only non-fiction piece to date, a flash, about the incident. It’s up at Shadow Box.
Oh, my. I will definitely check out that piece because this story gave me the chills! Yikes! Okay, shifting gears again, tell me, why do you think Fiction matters in this world?
What I think matters is story. Whether told through poetry, song, film, memoir, a play, art, or through short stories and novels, narrative has this incredible power to connect the consumer with a perspective on the human experience. Story serves as a mirror. Words and images light up our imaginations. Fictions, in particular, enable us to become one-step removed, and in the protection of that space, I would venture, we can get more easily inside the story, see situations we may not have the ability to see when they are in real life, or, are “true,” but now I’m stepping into slippery territory. I like the term Carve Magazine uses: honest fiction. I think fiction is important because it’s super honest.
I’m going to steal a question from the New York Times Sunday Book Review and ask you: if you could require our next President of the United States (whomever that may be) to read one work of fiction –what would you choose?
They Could Live With Themselves by Jodi Paloni. (Wink) Just being honest here. If I ever get that one shot, I’m gonna take it. What if she likes it and calls me up and wants to so an interview like POTUS Obama did with Marilyn Robinson? But, okay, if it can’t be my book, I’d say Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Here you see small town USA dealing with universally important issues of our times–––mental illness (depression, suicide, eating disorder), poverty, education, gun violence, drug addiction, infidelity, marriage, death. She covers it all and with such compassion. A previous novel of hers dealt with sexual assault and a subsequent book dealt with racism. But all of it is very small town USA, in your backyard kind of stuff, like this can happen anywhere, and does. In fact, just thinking about Strout’s work makes me want to read all of her books again.
Jodi, thanks so much for sharing yourself with our readers!
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