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, 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.

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