By Robert Birnbaum
April 12th, 2013
Author Jessica Francis Kane (@JessicaFKane) was born in Berkeley, California; grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and graduated from Yale. Her first short story collection, Bending Heaven, was published in the US (Counterpoint, 2002) and the UK (Chatto & Windus, 2003). Her first novel, The Report, was published by Graywolf Press in September 2010. This Close is her second story collection, published last month by Graywolf Press. It has just been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
Awards and honors for her work include the Lawrence Foundation Prize from the Michigan Quarterly Review, fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her stories have been presented on BBC Radio 4 and published many places, including VQR, The Missouri Review, McSweeney’s, The Yale Review, A Public Space, Narrative, and Granta.
Robert Birnbaum: Say something.
Jessica Kane: Hello, it’s good to be back.
Good. Are you related to Caleb Kane?
Being facile with the search engine, I came across a Caleb Kane who had written a song called “This Close.”
Oh, I did not know that.
I wondered why the title of the story collection, This Close, did not come from the title of one of the stories?
I can tell you a funny story about the title.
I had a hard time titling this collection. I don’t like to title story collections after one of the stories. It’s just a quirk of mine. I feel that it places too much emphasis on one story. And so I have always tried—in my first collection and in this collection—I have tried to find a title that would be overarching. We were this close to actually calling this one Evidence of Old Repairs, which is my editor’s favorite.
Which is a story in This Close.
Yes. So I was about to give in, but I decided to think just a few more days. And one day I was on Twitter and I tweeted that I was this close to settling on a title for my collection. And Larry Dark, the director of the Story Prize, happened to be on Twitter at the same time. He tweeted back, “This Close isn’t so bad for a story collection. That’s a pretty good title.” Out of the blue, out of the blue. But honestly—
Not a bad name for a band either (laughs).
—a light bulb went off in my head. I hadn’t considered until that moment—that’s what the stories are about. About friends and neighbors and family members, and the closeness and the not very closeness of those relationships, and so that seemed to be a title that worked.
I can’t help but think that makes the title arbitrary—that I may be able to come up with a simple sentence that you could make work as a title. If fiction posits some universality in human encounters, almost any title will do. Can do.
Noooo, the title has to be better than that. It has to echo the stories.
Had Dark read the stories?
I am not sure if he had read stories of mine.
I’m guessing he hadn’t read the collection.
Certainly, not as a collection. He may have seen a story or two of mine—
Let’s twitter him right now. (Both laugh)
I did see him recently and gave him a copy of the book and thanked him for the title.
I didn’t see that anywhere in the acknowledgments.
Shame on you!
Probably should have.
The CFO of Facebook has a book out. Noreen Malone chose to hilariously review it through the lens of it being a 140-page book with 7 pages of acknowledgments.
So I must compliment you on the brevity and succinctness of your acknowledgments.
I have followed Lean In publicity. I think acknowledgments are terribly important—because I write short stories, I am firmly in the less-is-more camp. I think you don’t have to go on and on about everything that happens in the course of all the years it took to write a book. It’s sufficient to name the most important people.
Jeez, that’s so old school.
(laughs) And the book is dedicated to your children and your husband?
I did, this one.
Given a choice, would you rather read short fiction than a novel?
I love both. I really love both; I hope to continue writing both. I thought for years I might just be a story writer because it took me a long time to figure out how to write a novel. But having done it, I would like to do it again. Very much. I am at the beginning of a new one. But I also have a few unfinished stories.
Are you able to go back and forth easily?
I can, I like that.
When you say “I would like to do it again” in the context of telling me that you are writing another novel, that suggests a certain uncertainty and, dare I say, a lack of confidence.
It depends on the novel. I certainly have more confidence now having done it once. But I think every novel is different, and this novel will not be a historical novel. And some of the tricks I learned writing The Report aren’t going to work for this book. I do have to reinvent it. I have more faith now that I know how to do that. But it’s still like a new game. And I have to learn the rules of this game. And I think I can do it.
It’s an amazing part of the life of creators that it is so difficult to hold on to that confidence that you can finish what you start.
Right. It is. And that’s why a lot of us won’t talk about new projects until we have reached a point of no return.
The way some people view announcing pregnancy.
(laughs) That’s true—as the story goes, you don’t want to say you have had a miscarriage. The same might go for a novel. You don’t want to have to say, “No, that novel isn’t going to pan out after all.”
I read story collections—
—I’m curious did you read mine in order?
I tried so hard—you were meant to.
I understand. I understand I risk missing some piece of code. My reason for not doing it is because I am not committed to reading the whole collection at one time. And it’s been rare that the whole of a story collection has been greater than the sum of the individual stories.
The only reason that this time it mattered to me was because there are sets of stories. And the table of contents is meant to reflect that—there are groupings of stories that are meant to show the sets and those sets follow the same characters over time. So I was hoping the cumulative effect would mean something. I know you can’t control a reader—
I might have killed myself by the end of the collection—there is a somber portrayal of old age. (laughs) There are two stories that did really grab me. The last one, which I read first. And as always I wonder how a writer can really reach the empathy for something that is foreign to them—in this case, you have characters in their seventies. And your story makes it clear why people sour in old age. I found it remarkable that you hit all these notes.
The other story was “Lucky Boy,” where a protagonist’s girlfriend mentions that some relative’s florist who had served the family for years was looking forward to doing one of the family member’s weddings, seeing that transaction as if she were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. An outstanding insight.
What else is there to say? (pause) What’s the meaning of life? (both laugh)
Well, to me. Making stories. Looking beyond my own life.
You seem to be drawn to—was there even one upbeat story?
Upbeat story? Nooo. (RB laughs) Who wants to read an upbeat story? My stories—I guess I am not interested in reading happy stories, and I don’t write happy stories. I am interested in the misunderstandings of life and how they happen.
Well, that means you have a lot to choose from.
Right. My grandmother—I was very close to her as a child, and she used to tell and retell stories, and would forget that she had told me before about her cousin Jenny. And overhearing her cousin Jenny referring to my grandmother as not looking very well in the color maroon. This was a minor insult that she carried with her for the rest of her life. I just think it’s amazing—those little misunderstandings. And there was another story about her hands being too large. She was a great gardener, and she had strong, wonderful hands. These things fascinate me, and I find I turn them over in my mind until I find a character that suits the thing I am interested in. And then I make a story out of it. And, invariably, the story isn’t happy. But there are some hopeful endings. Where a character may be off on another path.
That [hope] is another issue. It’s all hopeful until you are dead. (JK laughs) You have recommended Christopher Beha’s novel, as have others. I read it and did not get what was so outstanding about it.
I was grabbed from the beginning by the narrator’s voice. I felt very pulled in. It was such a confident opening. It reminded me of Graham Greene, and the moral questions of the story are very Greene-like. I enjoy that. I do think the ending is a bit flawed—there are too many steps that lead to the end of the book. But overall, I was excited by that.
OK, we don’t agree. But I don’t think less of you. How is it that some public conversations and exchanges on the merits of particular books seem to rise to high levels of animus?
Where people hate each other because they disagree?
One can on occasion read bitter and angry exchanges—
I don’t know, I don’t know people like that. (laughs)
—he wrote what I read as a precise account of the failings of her work. But it was a vivisection, within the bounds of literary analysis with supporting quotations. And it turned into a partisan battle where Ohlin’s cheering section expressed outrage, and what they were not shy about expressing were Giraldi’s maledictions.
That seems to be a concern—in a general sense, people are concerned with the criticism of “niceness” that seems to have taken over.
The anti-snark manifestos and campaign of the early aughts (00’s).
Yeah. I understand it. I engage in Facebook and Twitter. I really don’t do much reviewing. There is so little space for reviewing and coverage, I question why a book would just be destroyed in the little space that we have. Why not write a more positive review? It doesn’t have to be glowing.
Well, that’s an overview one can have as a creature of the literary planet—that there are a lot of good books that deserve attention and there are too many that get none.
That’s the [righteous] view of people who are intimately involved in the world of literature. But if I am just a reader, I don’t think about that. And I suppose if I am a book editor I probably don’t care, do I?
Some editors might.
I am not referring to specifically literary journals. Are we expecting that from the New York Times or the Washington Post? As an ambient fact of interest, my conversation with Giraldi at my blog Our Man in Boston consistently gets hits, more than any other item, other than my recent George Saunders chat.
Really? They say the only bad publicity is no publicity.
Well, Giraldi’s reputation is not at stake. His work at LARB is outstanding. He has a sharp mind and a dedication to literature. Is the takeaway that we are not prepared for this level of intelligent critique of books?
I don’t know.
Any sense of your own standing in the world of books? Are you a rising figure? (JK laughs) Why are you published by Graywolf?
Because I want to—because I am fortunate. This is my second book with Graywolf.
Who published the first collection?
Counterpoint. About 10 years ago. And the novel was sold many years later to Graywolf, and I thought they did a terrific job with it. So when I had this new collection ready, I was very happy to stay with Graywolf. I think they are wonderful.
I think they are getting better.
In the publishing world, there is Graywolf, Sarabande, Cinco Puntes, Tin House. And there’s the so-called Big 6. When George Saunders’ latest book was published, there was a profile in the New York Times which was packed with, uh, hyperbole. Soon thereafter Saunders’ publisher purchases a full-page ad in the paper. That represents a large monetary investment in a story collection. So if someone writes that yours is the second best book of the year, will Graywolf respond similarly? (laughs)
My collection may not be reviewed by the New York Times. [JK’s first collection was.] I don’t know, I hope it is. But regardless, Graywolf stands prepared to do that sort of thing. Look at the success they had with Out Stealing Horses by Pederson—when that was given the front page of the New York Times Book Review. They followed that with tremendous publicity and it became an international bestseller. They stand prepared to back their books—more and more. Yes, it is a smaller press. It doesn’t have the money that Knopf has. But the dedication is no less. In recent years, as there has been so much in transition in this business, I have felt that Graywolf ship is very steady and on the rise. While we have watched the Big 6 and wondered who is next to buy whom, I have felt very comfortable and safe at Graywolf.
I would surmise that a small publisher in Minneapolis is not under the pressure to deliver a 20% yearly revenue growth like the conglomerates operating out of NYC and beyond.
It’s very different because it’s nonprofit. They have to raise money, which is a different kind of pressure. But the business model remains interesting because their books are selling.
You were a book publicist early in your working life.
I was. I worked for WW Norton.
I have noticed that publicists are making the quid pro quos more explicit—almost demanding the details of one’s interest in a review copy request. And this is before one has had a chance to look at the book, touch it, read it.
Is that right?
Sure, “When’s the review coming out?” without me having anything but cursory knowledge of the book. And the whole attitude starts to imply that literary journalism is an adjunct to the publicity initiatives. I’ve had people contact me a day or two before an author’s local appearance asking if I was interested in an interview. I don’t think they have any idea if I am capable of hyper speed-reading, so I assume they don’t care if I read the book. For my part, I believe if I have an obligation, it is to read some or the entire book.
Much has changed since I was a publicist. We were still sending out black-and-white photos. We barely had e-mail.
I recall that time and I could feel the joy of the publisher that I showed some interest in a book.
It must be much more confusing now, with so many websites and bloggers asking for books. It might be very hard to figure out who is serious and who is just looking for a free book.
Because you have experience in the business end, do think about the business of getting your stuff out to people to read it?
Oh, I don’t.
How do you restrain yourself?
I write what I am interested in, and hope it will find an audience. I don’t know that it would make a lot of sense to do it the other way around.
No pressure to produce material on a timely basis?
Certainly no pressure that I don’t place on myself. I would like not too many years to pass before I have another book ready, mainly because that would be beneficial to a long-term career. It’s not like I have anybody saying I must have a novel next year, and another the year after that.
What kind of discipline do you impose on yourself?
I try to write every day, every morning. I am at a stage now where the children are both at school, so without any extra babysitting, I have about 5 or 6 hours a day. So that’s lovely—it represents a new era for me. I had to cobble together a writing schedule around babysitting. Now that they are in school, and I have that time, I am trying to be disciplined about it.
And how much have your children affected your writing?
I don’t know. I don’t know yet. A lot of my writing, if you look at my stories, it’s about the relationship between adult children and their parents. Until this point in time, I have spent a lot of time looking in that direction—up, toward the older generation. And maybe my own and my generation’s negotiations with them. Only now am I beginning to shift and look their way—now I am a parent and I certainly wonder what my children are thinking about and how it will all work out. That hasn’t come out in my work so much yet.
There is that story, “Next in Line.”
Where she loses her toddler.
I wonder how a parent can write that?
Oddly, that story was the very first story I completed after my daughter was born—the oldest story in the collection. I had a hard time getting back to writing after she was born and figuring out how I was going to do both of these things—write and mother. And that was the story that emerged. And I thought that was bizarre. My mind was working out the worst that could happen.
Some people are superstitious and think if you can name the thing and recognize it, it won’t happen. I am not sure that’s what I was doing in that story, but I was worried. And I did have awkward things happen with the baby and me—she was very fussy. And I was out and about with a crying baby, and I felt that I was being stared at. And the anxiety of being a new mother went into that story. There are certainly things that are coming out in the writing.
Did writing a story about a young child’s death require compartmentalizing? That’s a deep, dark place.
I think that’s how I function as a writer. I have always left the house to write, and when I am out, I am a writer, and when I return, I am a mother. That separation is required. In my novel there was a child who died, and it is very hard to think about those things. There are times when it has made me very sad. But I don’t know why I think about what I think about. I don’t feel like I have total control over it. (laughs)
Where you in a trance when you wrote “Next In Line”?
That story—it came fast if that’s what you mean. I was so delighted to be writing again. And I was able to use all this material that suddenly seemed at hand—worry about a child, nervousness about being a mother. There it was and then I was just happy to be writing again.
I can think of 2 novels for which children’s death is central. Stephen Dixon’s Interstate, which I could not read past the first chapter. And John Burnham Schwartz’s Reservation Road—
That’s a very important book to me. That book contains an epigraph to my novel—“When hope is lost, blame is the only true religion” comes from that book, and I used it in The Report. I know that book well.
Is that phrase original to Schwartz?
Yes, it was his.
I did read that book—I guess it was a little less unsettling than the Dixon novel. Do you know Lionel Shriver’s novel We Have to Talk About Kevin?
I have not read that. I know what it’s about. It seems compelling and upsetting.
I don’t usually shy away from that.
What are you reading?
Can I just say—you’re pressing me on why I write about these things that are so difficult to imagine. I think what’s interesting is what comes next. It’s the aftermath. It’s the endurance. A lot of writers when they write about a tragedy and what comes after—what they are writing about is how people endure. That’s a theme that is fascinating. If there is any link between my historical novel and my contemporary short stories, that’s the link—how people will endure, whether it’s an accident in wartime, or being a neighbor for 30 years, or having the same family members for 40 years.
That is the nub of it all, isn’t it?
Understanding endurance and durability seems not to be teachable—perhaps Native Americans understood it. We don’t teach our children about death and dying. Consequently, there is real aversion and fear about the inevitable. You were going to say what you have been reading.
At the moment I have been very busy reading the books by the authors I am appearing with over the next two months while I’m on tour.
It’s not constant—it’s back and forth. Little trips here and there. I am going to Nashville to read in Ann Patchett’s bookstore—it’s more of a literary pilgrimage than a reading. I just finished The Mothers by Jen Gilmore, which I thought was fantastic.
Patchett was brave to open up a bookstore.
She certainly was. And she has been such an advocate for all independent bookstores. I’ve loved her novels, particularly Bel Canto. I’ll read anything that she writes.
Who are other authors of whom you will read anything they write?
Ian McEwan, Peter Cameron.
Upon Joan Wickersham’s recommendation, I read Cameron’s recent Coral Glynn. It was excellent.
I’m reading it right now.
I always have a hard time with this—Elizabeth McCracken, Marilynne Robinson, and Alice Munro. I loved Penelope Fitzgerald and Beryl Bainbridge, but they are both dead. So I guess I won’t be reading anything more of theirs.
You’ve read everything by them?
Fitzgerald, yes. She is a favorite of mine. Not everything by Bainbridge. There is a new writer I love, Emma Straub (Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures). I am reading with her.
What’s that like? What if you read a book and you don’t like it?
That’s always a possibility, but I don’t feel the need to broadcast the books I don’t like. I will say anything, anywhere, about books I love. But I am not going to go on Facebook or Twitter and say this book was a huge disappointment. There is no need for that. That’s not my role.
That’s fine. There are so many deserving books that need to be talked about.
Also, I don’t see myself as a critic. I appreciate that there are critics and there should be smart criticism in the country. Those people shouldn’t feel hampered to say nice things about everyone.
I have wondered why The Report hasn’t been made into a movie—it’s the kind of story the BBC does well.
The film rights have been optioned by a young British filmmaker. It may yet be. I’ll keep you posted. He is going to be the producer and director, and he has hired a screenwriter who is at work now adapting the book. The stage rights were also optioned. It exists as a play now, too, by Martin Casella. I saw a table reading of it and I think it’s magnificent. It’s a large cast—for twelve, which I gather is large. I hope some theater out there will take it.
Will I turn on Dancing With the Stars one day and see you?
Noooooo. They are all past their prime, those people, aren’t they? I don’t watch that show.
I don’t know. Do you think about writing for film?
Never. I don’t watch television, but I read about it.
You don’t have to watch TV.
I am aware there are some great shows.
Have you seen Girls?
No. I read about it a lot so, I stay in touch with the culture. I don’t want to be entirely outside the culture. But I can’t figure out how to find time—that’s the thing that gave. When children, writing, some modicum of exercise —the thing that gave was TV watching.
I do what is called “binge” watching.
Where you watch a whole season at once.
I never watched Girls but what I read reached a kind of critical mass when I read Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation) in New York magazine and then Megan Daum’s response, which made me very curious. I too want to stay in touch with the culture.
I agree. There is utter saturation. You have to choose.
Why are you on Facebook?
Originally, so that I would see pictures of my nephew. My younger brother was on Facebook from the beginning. When his son was born, I thought the only way I am going to see pictures of this baby is if I’m on Facebook.
Where does he live?
Michigan. And I was in Germany at the time. I thought for a few days I would keep it just as a family thing. That quickly became impossible. People just find you and then it feels wrong not to accept a friend request. Then it became a professional tool. And so now I like the writers and the booksellers who are on there—I have read things I wouldn’t have read because of links they put up. It’s a very strange mixture of personal and professional. I find it compelling—I think all writers talk about finding a balance with the social media requirements and just doing the work. Having the quiet and peace to do the work.
I actually did first.
Why isn’t the verb “to twitter” rather than “to tweet”?
I don’t know. (giggles)
I found the balance—I suspended my Facebook account. Too many posts from people reporting quite trivial things. Writers announcing how many words they wrote that day. All these new media impose a speeding up—as if you are obliged to respond immediately to an e-mail or twitter—
It can feel that way. I don’t text and I enjoy that freedom.
My 15-year-old son doesn’t e-mail. He texts. I keep telling him I am in front of a computer throughout the day and I don’t always know where my phone is.
He still texts.
I wonder what it will be with my children.
Any grander plans or ambitions than continuing your writing career?
Grander than another novel? Unthinkable!
Is writing your whole life?
No, I have 2 children. At the moment the writing and the children take all my time. Now that the children are a little older I might like to try teaching. I see that on the horizon as something I’d like to do. I would love to do more magazine writing.
What I mean is I’d like to write essays.
Could you spend the rest of your life in NYC?
I love NYC, but I love to travel. There are many places I want to see. I miss the mountains. I really want to go back to the mountains. After living in Munich for a year—we did a lot of hiking in the Alps. I can’t wait to go back.
Did you learn how to yodel?
C’mon, you did. You’re holding back.
We did see those long, long Alpine horns. They are haunting.
Do your kids understand what you do?
I think they do, yeah. My daughter certainly does and she likes to write stories. They are both aware and both ask for me to sign a copy of the books for them that I keep on their shelves. Which is very sweet.
They haven’t discovered eBay yet?
Not yet. I am sure that’s coming. At the moment they are treasured on their bookshelves. But that will change, no doubt.
Well, once again it’s been a pleasure. Thanks.
Yes, thanks for talking with me again.
About the interviewer: Robert Birnbaum’s Social Security number ends in 2247. He lives in zip code 02465 and area code 617. He was born in the 2nd month of a year in the 20th century. He doesn’t social network (used as a verb) except through his Cuban retriever Beny (named after Beny More, the Frank Sinatra of Cuba). Izzy Birnbaum also has cloud storage and uses electronic mail. He hopes his son Cuba is the second coming of Pudge Rodriguez. He mutters to himself at Our Man In Boston.