Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection, “This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love.” and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Her work appears in TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train, Electric Literature, Copper Nickel and elsewhere. She serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. An Ohio native, she lives with her family in Lafayette.
The following is an excerpt from “Love You. Bye.”, a short story from the collection “This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
I wrote the stories in this collection over many years and didn’t initially think in terms of them being part of a larger manuscript. Over time, though, I gathered enough decent stories with recurring themes to make a viable collection. As the title suggests, these stories grapple with love in its various dimensions, particularly its edgier and darker sides, as seen in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones. Depression–and its social and existential implications–is also a driving force in the book. I’m fascinated by how moods can shift our perception of self and other, and what that says about the nature of reality. And I’m inspired by our shadow selves, by the murky depths of the human mind and heart, by all I know and will never know about myself and other people.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
This is the first few sections of the first story in the collection, “Love You. Bye.” I chose it because it contains motifs that appear throughout the book: obsessive love, addiction, depression, the limits of knowledge, the strength and fragility of human connection. It’s also one of the more recent stories in the collection and comes closest to my current sensibility and skill. I’m a compulsive editor and wish I could keep editing: even in this excerpt there are lines I’d like to strike, but fewer, maybe, than in other places.
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
I’m not much of a researcher and I didn’t do intentional research for this book. That said, the animal psychic in the title story, “This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love.,” came out of hours of watching “The Pet Psychic” on Animal Planet back in the day. I used my vast knowledge of the show in the story only after the fact. Other influences are mostly literary. My longtime love of novelist Walker Percy probably shows up in some of the pieces. There might be hints of wannabe Flannery O’Connor and Alice Munro in the older stories. John Edgar Wideman’s story “Weight” had a big impact on the story “Which Truth, Patricia?” and on me personally. The teachings of the writer Steve Almond, especially his counsel to “slow down where it hurts,” have had an enormous role in this collection, as has the smart, sensitive mentorship of my former professor Steven Schwartz. I love Maggie Nelson; my writing isn’t much like hers, but I hope some of her influence crept in. And I never underestimate the power of unconscious influences, which in my case could be anything from growing up Jewish in rural Ohio to my decades in thrall to “All My Children” — and lots of other bad soap operatic television.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Given the wide time span in this book’s completion, it was hard to revisit the older material and try to improve it while maintaining the stories’ integrity. I felt good about the chance to give the older stories another go, though, and like the improvements I made. One surprise I encountered: I didn’t realize depression and anxiety had such a strong presence in the collection until long after I’d constructed it. I’m also surprised by how many readers have responded to that element: it’s struck a chord.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
It’s March 2020 as I write this. I’m home with my kids and my husband and the coronavirus has upended any sense of routine. I try to write some each morning, as I did before, but my time and space are truncated. It’s unfortunate, but no tragedy. I’m grateful that my family and I are healthy and safe and fed—knock wood—and I wish others were, too.
Before the pandemic, I would write in a communal office space I had the good fortune of renting with fellowship money. I could focus there and feed off the pleasant environment. Before that, I’d write in my home between getting the kids off to school and my doing my work-from-home gigs (online teaching, freelance editing). At home, when the writing gets challenging, it’s easy to fall into distractions. When I was at my office, there wasn’t much to do but write my way through it.
Sometimes I listen to music. When my brain gets really wacky, I listen to this terrible “music to help you focus” track on YouTube. It does nothing for me musically, but it helps keep me on task. Some of my stories—not in this collection but elsewhere—are inspired by certain songs, and I’ll often listen to those songs as I compose the stories they’ve summoned. For instance, I have a story called “The Dead Musician” in the wonderful Denver-based lit journal Copper Nickel, inspired by Jeff Buckley’s “Lover You Should Have Come Over”; I played that song nonstop as I wrote the piece. But most of the time, silence is golden. My mind is noisy enough.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a novel-in-stories, tentatively called “Dreams of My Dead Husband,” about a mother of two who loses her husband to cancer, then sleeps around and has borderline paranormal experiences while impossibly hoping he’ll come back. It’s about the madness of grief and desire and middle-age, and a bunch of other things I haven’t figured out yet. I’m also putting the final touches on a flash fiction collection I hope to send out soon.
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— Read an excerpt from the short story “Love you. Bye.” by Jennifer Wortman