Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Novella Project: Joan Tierney Interview

Today for the novella project, we're talking to Joan Tierney:

Joan Tierney is a writer and flight attendant based out of eastern Virginia. Her work can be found with Nightmare Magazine, Lulu Press, Neon Hemlock Press, and Kristall Ink Press. Her latest novella, The Second Law, comes out this year.

You’ve written in multiple formats and forms so far in your career - how does novella compare?

The novella as a medium really hits my sweet spot in terms of fully developing a story while still holding my attention. I'm one of those writers who has dozens of ideas constantly percolating, so it can be tricky to settle on just one and give it the time and focus it deserves. Novellas (and short stories, though my novellas always began as short stories who then outgrew their page limit) really bridge that gap for me.

What does the process of writing look like for you when you get to that point - how do you decide that this idea can outgrow into a novella, vs something that just needs trimming? And do you find you need to make other changes when you get to that point?

As far as the writing process goes, I usually know the general gist of a story and how long it will probably take when I first sit down to write it. It becomes clear early-on if my guesstimation was wrong, in which case I don't have to change anything beyond my expectations. For me, writing is a fairly kinetic experience. I tend to write very linearly, so if the story turns out longer than first anticipated, it just continues to flow to its natural end.

Is this how you approach poetry writing as well? And do you think your experience with poetry feeds into your prose writing at all? There are several poets among those I'm interviewing for this project, so I'm starting to wonder if there's a pattern.

My approach to each poem is different. Sometimes I know exactly what the poem is going to be, and sometimes I start writing with no idea where it'll end up. My years writing poetry have definitely influenced my prose. Poetry, especially concise structures like the haiku, has made me much more aware of the importance of each specific word. When writing a poem, every letter, space, and punctuation mark matters because you're packing as much narrative baggage as you can into such small luggage. And with many poetic forms, the physical structure of a poem--what it looks like on the page, or sounds like when spoken--matters just as much. In long-form storytelling, you can get away with some amount of extraneousness. With poetry, that isn't the case. And poetry also tends to be more forgiving when it comes to playful word-building. I enjoy the creation of individual words just as much as the art of putting those words together, and poetry has heightened the value of both precise and invented language for me.

On the flip side to this, what do you think writing novellas has brought into your skillset?

Writing a novella was never really a specific goal in mind, it just happened. I'd always assumed that with narrative storytelling the options were a short story or a novel. My experience with novellas has helped me let go of the impulse to either shorten or lengthen a story in order to meet one of those two constraints. Now I feel much more confident in letting a story reach its natural conclusion, however long that may take.

Do you have any thoughts on working with a small press specifically - strengths, weakness, differences, things you might not have expected?

I've never worked with a large press, so I can't compare the two. But it's hard for me to believe that a large press would give the author--especially a first-time or little known author--the same amount of creative leeway. Being able to have final say over any editing of my work means a lot to me. I've been consulted on each decision at every turn, and even got to choose the photograph used for The Killing Grounds cover, taken by an artist I've been a fan of for a while. I certainly didn't expect that! After experiencing the one man show of self-publishing, working with a press was such a relief, and I had resigned myself to not being involved much past the point of actually writing the story. But to my surprise, it was a very collaborative experience, and still is, both with Neon Hemlock and Kristall Ink, who will be publishing my second novella. So I tend to think small presses are like that across the board.

The point about involvement in the cover choice is something that's come up with several authors I've spoken to. Neon Hemlock seem to have a great set of covers generally, so it's really nice to know that the authors get to have their voice in the process. Can you tell us a little bit about the artist?

Yes, Neon Hemlock covers are always pretty lush. My cover is a photograph by Tema Stauffer, whose collection Upstate (taken in various places in upstate New York) I discovered while living upstate, myself. My parents are both from upstate New York--specifically farm country--and unless you're from there or know someone from there, it really is the forgotten part of the state. So I hadn't ever seen those familiar places portrayed like that before, artistically and with an honest bittersweetness. When dave asked me for cover ideas, her work was the first thing I thought of, and originally I just asked if we could use a photo "like" one of hers--but then he went and got the rights to an actual Stauffer!

Following on from that, how did you come to have The Killing Grounds published with Neon Hemlock? What did the process look like for you?

Publishing with Neon Hemlock was and continues to be a lovely experience. I actually submitted my manuscript to the wrong novella contest, at first--I'd simply looked up presses that were publishing novellas, and the previous years' contest by Neon Hemlock came up. Also it was the last day of submissions. But dave got back to me very quickly, like "Hey where did you get this link? Here's the correct one." I was sure I'd ruined my chances by looking like an idiot.

And where did The Killing Grounds itself come from for you? What was your initial inspiration for it/why was it a story you wanted to tell?

The initial inspiration came from a dream, in which basically the whole first third of the story took place, up to the landfill of women. So I took that and ran with it, but I was writing at a time when I was also in therapy and dealing with my disorder and some other things for the first time, largely my relationship with my mother. I put a lot of my own history into The Killing Grounds, and my mother resembles Deborah's mother in a lot of ways; when she was having a good day, she was the perfect mom. But when she was having a bad day, it was a nightmare. As I got older, the bad days started outnumbering the good, and we had an extremely contentious relationship for all of my teen years, culminating in her kicking me out and disowning me at seventeen. As I got older and began to shape my life, our relationship got a bit better, largely because I had control over whether or not I would see or speak to her. But though we can have fun chatting and drinking wine together now, as two adults, we've still never really addressed any of the baggage our relationship carries.

This book was extremely cathartic to write in many ways, and when it was about to be released, dave and I joked about how my parents, especially my mom, would receive it. I now have the answer: not speaking to me for months. It wasn't completely unexpected, though it was disappointing. I didn't intend for her to feel vilified by the book, but hoped it might be the spark for some necessary conversations, some level of closure which Deborah and her mother could never have. We're on speaking terms again, but I don't know if that baggage will ever be unpacked, which is the sad fact of reality compared to fiction. Often, there is no satisfactory ending with all the loose ends tied up.

Is it a little strange having something so personal of yourself being put out in the world, and being critiqued and polished by someone outside of your very personal context with the story? Or do you find you put pieces of yourself in everything you write?

I do put pieces of myself into everything I write. Starting out in poetry helped me become comfortable with the autobiographical turns that my writing often takes. I think for many people, writing can act as a therapeutic exercise. Not all of my writing feels as personal as The Killing Grounds. Sometimes I simply use minor details from my life. But the personal aspects of The Killing Grounds never felt like they solely belonged to me. When I write about my experiences, I'm doing it to connect with others. People who have shared similar experiences, and might be touched to see that someone else understands, even in a small way, what they've gone through. For me, that's what writing is--a way to reach out. So it never feels strange to have people read or to have editors edit my work; that's what it's for.

That makes sense - interestingly you're the second person I've spoken to for this project who's drawn similar lines between poetry and novella writing. I wonder if there's something in that.

Is there anything you’ve learned from working on the book - and from working with Neon Hemlock - that you wish you’d known before, or advice you’d give your past self?

I think there is something to the relationship between poetry and novellas. As short form storytelling (shorter than a novel, at least), the care put towards packing a narrative into such a small story is shared by both. Especially if you start with poetry, it makes sense that the stretchiness of your prose might lend itself to a novella's length rather than a novel's.

As for things I wish I'd known before working with a press, I'm not sure. My experience with getting published has been a wonderful one, and it's been a joy to learn through. I don't really think I'd change a thing.

Do you read novellas yourself? If so, are there any you particularly admire, or ones you think more people should be aware of?

If yes, what draws you to novellas as a reader? What do you think makes a good one?

I do read novellas, myself. I love novels and even series but I have a very short attention span and a limited amount of time to devote to reading, so there's something very comforting about a book that can be finished in less than a day. Some of my favorites that come to mind are Lighthousekeeping and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson, Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Hybrid Heart by Iori Kusano and A Feast for Flies by Leigh Harlen.

And finally, can you tell us a little more about your most recent/an upcoming work?

It's been a pleasure! The Killing Grounds is a reverse murder mystery set in upstate New York in a near-future where America has been subsumed by the private sector. Deborah Morton is a autoline attendant--the travel industry's answer to the privatization of commercial airlines--whose life is thrust off the rails by the sudden death of the man who may have killed her missing mother years earlier. 

My second novella, The Second Law, comes out later this year and is a surreal rural fantasy that follows five people whose lives intersect across time while living at a sunflower farm at the edge of the world.

Thank you Joan!

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea