The Artist in the Office Interview: Noria Jablonski
NORIA JABLONSKI is the author of the story collection Human Oddities (Counterpoint, 2005). Her stories have appeared in FiveChapters.com, Swink, Monkeybicycle, KGB Bar Lit, and the anthology Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories.
What day jobs have you had, what job do you have now?
The only day jobs I’ve had—that is, jobs I’ve had while pursuing writing—were teaching and working in bookstores. Before I decided to be a writer I worked at a coffee roasting company, weighing out one-pound bags of beans. I was a quality controller, inspecting pants (Chi Pants, which had an extra panel of fabric in the crotch, so you could do yoga or tai chi or whatever got your chi flowing, and you could also have a tiny crystal sewn into the back of the waistband to power-up your chakras) and children’s clothing (lint from the velour outfits would turn my snot purple, teal, bright pink, or deep green). I lasted three days canvassing for an environmental organization. I worked in a movie theater. I sold socks.
Now I am unemployed! I was a lecturer for several years at UC Santa Cruz, but I got laid off last summer. I call it my recession sabbatical. It’s been a blessing. I’ve been teaching in some capacity for eighteen years, first as a high school English teacher, then teaching college. This time off has given me time to explore creatively. Most importantly, it’s allowed me to play, which is what I think is, or should be, at the heart of creativity.
I know there was a time when you were teaching high school and not pursuing your writing. Can you talk about what changed for you and why you decided to commit yourself to being a writer?
It took me a while to figure out that I wanted to write. Like, seriously write. Like, write an actual book. I was not one of those people who always dreamed of being a writer. I always had a talent for it, but growing up it didn’t occur to me that it was something I could actually do. What I really loved was reading and I read whatever I could get my hands on. Fairy tales, the Oz books, cereal boxes, the TV Guide. Trashy Judith Krantz romances, Agatha Christie, The World According to Garp. But in junior high I had a terrible English teacher who made us diagram sentences and I lost my love for reading. He had greasy hair, he wore the same shiny disco shirt every day, and shoes with pilgrim buckles. His voice was nasal and flat. He had no affection for language. He made words a chore.
During my sophomore year of high school I had an amazingly cool English teacher. She liked the band X and told me I looked like Exene [Cervenka, the leader singer of X]. She lent me her copy of Black Tickets and I rediscovered my love of language. I decided I wanted to be an English teacher, like her. When I told her I wanted to teach she said, “Don’t do it.” (She quit after her first year of teaching and went on to law school.)
At 22, I started teaching high school in San Francisco. Six classes a day, 35-40 students in each class. It was exhausting. In photos of me during that time my eyes look buggy and manic. One night during my second year of teaching I went to hear a friend of mine and her writing group read stories at Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Cafe. I was so jazzed! I went home that night and began writing a story. And then a member of the writing group left for grad school, so I auditioned for a spot and got in. We met weekly, drank a lot of wine. We put out a zine. We did readings at Red Dora’s, the Paradise Lounge, the Chameleon. (All those places are gone now.)
Writing was a way for me to reclaim a part of myself, or to claim part of myself that I’d never really had a chance to express. I’d been devoting all my energy to my students, helping them find their voices, but I hadn’t ever done that for myself.
What was the next step? Can you talk about the specific steps you made to make writing a career?
I decided that the next step was to get into an MFA program. After my third year of teaching I quit and took a job in a bookstore so I’d have more time to write.
For three years I applied to MFA programs, and for three years I didn’t get in. After my third year of rejection I drove cross-country to take a summer workshop with Elizabeth McCracken in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I’d begun writing stories about the body and she was an author who covered similar terrain in her books The Giant’s House and Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry. I felt a kinship with her in terms of our subject matter. After the workshop I stayed on the East Coast (this was during the dot-com boom and San Francisco no longer felt like home) and spent a year teaching at a vocational high school in Western Massachusetts. I applied to grad school one more time. When the director of the MFA program at UMass-Amherst called me to tell me I got in, I burst into tears. She said I was their top candidate and offered me a fellowship.
Fast-forward to the end of grad school. I sent a query to Elizabeth McCracken’s agent, Henry Dunow. He also represented Aimee Bender and Mary Gaitskill, two other writers I love. I told him I’d give him my left tit to have him represent me.
For three months I heard nothing and figured my query was buried in the slush pile. Then, after I’d given up hope of landing Henry as my agent, I got an e-mail from him. He apologized profusely for taking so long to get back to me and told me that a well-meaning intern had misplaced my query. He said he wanted to read my manuscript of stories and told me I could keep my left tit. A week later I had an agent.
I was under the impression that once I had an agent, selling the book would be no problem. I was wrong. I mean, I knew that short story collections were a tough sell but in my mind agents were the gatekeepers of the literary world and I thought that having one granted you entry into that world. My manuscript got seen by the right people but the rejections came swiftly. Most editors didn’t want to take a chance on short stories. Lucky for me, one editor did want to take that chance.
Like a lot of arty people in offices or more conventional jobs, for years I had the mistaken belief that teaching that thing you love to do (writing, art, etc.) wasn’t work, yet I’ve discovered that although it may be related to an artist’s work, it is still a day job. I know you’ve been teaching at the university level. Can you talk about what that’s like and how it either provides for your work and/or takes away?
Read this. (I talk about how teaching isn’t one of those jobs you can leave back at the office and how my students get under my skin.)
I struggle to find a balance between my teacher self and my writer self. In many ways teaching is easier for me than writing; it’s comfortable, whereas when I write I’m usually trying to push myself out of my comfort zone. Also, teaching comes with a paycheck. Writing often does not.
An odd thing I’ve discovered about myself is that I actually need a day job in order to be productive as a writer. When my time is all mine (as it is now) I’m much less prolific. Maybe I need the structure having a job provides. Maybe I work best with some time constraints. Or maybe writing becomes more urgent when I have other responsibilities—it’s a way for me to claim my identity as an artist.
Now that it’s years later from that moment you realized you needed to follow the dream of being a writer—how has that dream changed or has it? Is it all that you imagined or how is it different than you imagined?
I don’t think the dream has changed but the literary world certainly has. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for print publishing. The future is in digital media. Books as we know them are static containers of information, and digital books can be dynamic and interactive; this excites me but I’m not sure where I’ll fit in or how my work will adapt to this newfangled form. Pagan Kennedy has a terrific website devoted to the death and rebirth of publishing, Writer 2.0.
All of this has given me an intense nostalgia for books as objects. I like the weight and smell of books, the feel of the pages, the sound of pages turning. I want to make my own books, print them on a letterpress. When faced with the future of publishing my impulse is to go back in time.
A lot of writers, who yearn for publication, often underestimate the work it takes to not only write, but also to put yourself out there, submitting stories or queries, etc. The writer Ariel Gore likens a “professional” writer to an entrepreneur. How do you straddle that creative side and that business side? When do you find time to do both?
I’m terrible at the business stuff. I’m still the bookish girl who would rather read than do anything else. When my book was published I quickly realized that I had to put myself out there or else the book would sink fast. My publisher’s in-house publicist quit the week before my book came out. Even if he hadn’t quit, I should’ve hired an outside publicist. That’s one thing I know now that I wish I’d known then.
One aspect of the business side of being a writer that I enjoy is networking with other writers whose work I genuinely admire. We cheer each other on.
I’ve been fortunate in that haven’t had to submit my work much. Mostly I get solicitations for work. Partly this is because I have a book out, but it’s also part of the pay-off of networking with other writers.
What are some of the ways you stay motivated? Do you meet with other writers (i.e. a writing group)? Do you have a set schedule and/or do you write a certain amount each day/week?
No set schedule, no writing group. I write when I’m inspired to write or when I have what I call a homework assignment. Sometimes someone will ask me for a story to publish and I’ll use that as an opportunity to write something new. Sometimes the assignment is very specific; I’ve been asked to write about simulations, saints, and superheroes.
What are you working on now?
Woodcuts by Noria Jablonski
I’m working on a handmade book that I’m going to print myself. I want to do my own illustrations, so I’ve been teaching myself how to do woodcuts. I’m having so much fun with this! This is exactly what I meant when I said that the recent time off from teaching has given me time to play.
Any advice for a creative type with a day job?
I think the most important thing is to realize that just because you have a day job it doesn’t mean you’re not a real artist. Before I had a book published, when people would ask me, “What do you do?” I would say I was a writer, but there was always an upward inflection at the end, a question mark. Getting paid to make art is great, but it shouldn’t be the measure of your value as an artist.