Today I welcome to my blog Jesse Falzoi whose lovely literary lyrical collection of short stories, A Place to Be we are very proud to have published.
What do you write? Why this in particular?
The first thing I wrote was a novel, or what I then took for a novel because it had 200 pages. I began to write when I was pregnant with my first child, in the middle of studying, freshly separated from the future father (because he didn’t want to have children!), broke, and lonely. I first thought that I either kill myself or the baby, then I had the idea to write about a foetus that wouldn’t want to be born to a half-crazy mother. After 2 months the book was finished and I was ready for my real baby, Lilli-Brontë, now 25. This would-be novel (I didn’t know anything about form and revision then) was the first in a huge row of other would-be novels, fortunately deeply buried in my real and virtual drawers. But they were important for my journey to become a writer and that’s why I can’t throw them away, despite my fear of some dumbass wanting to publish them after my death.
I began to write short stories shortly after the birth of my child but this was also more a playing around than serious work. This began when J discovered my bible, Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I literally studied the book, did all the tasks, and many more from their wonderful website. I even went to NYC for a day-workshop, leaving Berlin on Friday afternoon after school, had my 6 hour workshop on Saturday, flew back on Sunday and was back at school on Monday morning. It was my born-again experience as a writer. Since then I studied all books on craft I could get hold on. The first story I wrote (and rewrote many times) got accepted right away. Many short stories later (and many acceptances later) I decided to ask at Bridgehouse (they’d published one of my stories) if they would publish a collection of my stories, and this now my home for A Place to Be.
Despite my first failure with novels (after 8 attempts I never wanted to write one again) Alexi Zentner, my first teacher at Sierra Nevada College, where I made my degree in Creative Writing in 2015, persuaded me to give it one last try. At first I fought it tooth and nail, I was still calling a 40 page manuscript a short story and proved it to myself in abruptly ending it. But Mike McCormack, who was my teacher a year later, said after the workshop where I had presented my short story: “I want to know what happens in Mexico.” I was devastated. I didn’t want to know. My laptop broke down, around my mouth grew a major herpes, my eldest daughter was moving out, I had other stuff to think about. Nevertheless I went to Saturn straight from the airport, bought a new laptop, sat down at my desk, wrote for 2 months, and the first draft was finished. At 3 o’clock in the morning I sent Alexi an e-mail, “It is done, I wrote that damn novel.” And he wrote back, “I am so proud of you!!!” I cried the whole night through. Even today he is still the one I inform first whenever I finish a novel.
But this isn’t a romantic love story and it doesn’t have a good ending either, even though also lots of good things happened. Since half of it took place in Mexico I fell in love with a Mexican ballet dancer with whom I share my apartment and life now. I miraculously was invited to a radio station in Mexico City and was able to promote my book on the radio show Los Contertulios, in Spanish. I have a new wonderful Mexican family. But writing the novel also made me lose a lot, not only, as it is so often said, hair and a tooth. I missed much valuable time with my then growing up first daughter, I neglected my second daughter to such a degree that she never recovered, I missed dancing, flirting, loving in my younger years. I lost friends. I was not living in the real world. I had to learn to live again. I had forgotten what it meant to have fun, to just sit around and relax. And the whole publication process drove me crazy. As usual, I translated the novel into German in order to make the last revisions, but this takes much longer with a novel than with short stories, and I was too lazy to bring the revised version back to English. Instead I submitted it to publishers here and that is why it is only published in German. But it doesn’t feel right. It lost so much. Even my daughter says that it seems translated the whole way through, translated without love. Which is true. The love was waiting for me to translate it back. In a last attempt I brought it back to English and submitted it to a Publisher in San Francisco but with corona, the project seems to be buried despite the contract I signed 2 years ago. So after all, this baby will never see the world in English and this breaks my heart too.
After that there were two other books, a memoir which I wrote in the wonderful, peaceful Heinrich-Böll-House on Achill Island, Ireland, where I had a 2-week-residency, all by myself, totally isolated except for my chats with the sheep I met on my daily walks. And another novel, which I half-heartedly submitted to a few agents and then buried in my virtual drawer. That was so far my last attempt, at least for the long form.
I also write poems. But they are just for myself. Poetry and memoir are the forms I don’t share. I need that. Writing that doesn’t have the purpose to console others for a change, purely egoistic writing. At the moment I am finishing a collection of photographs for my daughter Helena, most of which were taken in her childhood, randomly accompanied by my memories of her and her siblings, in the style of Joe Brainard’s I Remember. I cried a lot during the process. I am coming back to where I was at the beginning, more than 25 years ago. I am coming back to the joy of writing, without a purpose, without thinking of submitting, publishing, marketing. But writing isn’t important anymore. Teaching writing is important. Helping others to tell their wonderful stories. Like a midwife. At least for now.
Do you have a particular routine?
Routine is everything. I write novels in daily sessions, as many hours as possible. The first draft is done very quickly, without thinking, editing, or revising. I loved NoNoWriMo; it really felt like being encouraged and protected by a large –secret – community. For a short story I also sit down straight, no more that 2 sessions (I usually write stories of in between 4000 and 6000 words). The first draft is done in trance, a bit like a drug-addict, the revision though as a cold, matter-of-factly scientist. It’s normal for me to revise a short story at least 20 times. I leave it untouched for weeks or months in between revisions so that I forget most of what happens to be able to look at it with fresh eyes.
You might wonder how I did that with my teaching job and as a single mother of three. But problems came up when they started to leave the house. It seems that I needed writing to balance my busy life as a mother. The less they needed me, the less became my urge to write. In 2016, when both of my daughters had moved out and there was only my son left, who also wasn’t that needy anymore, I had my first writer’s block. I had all these free hours but nothing felt worth writing down. Since then I hadn’t written much. A few stories, that’s it. It feels as if I have told what there was to tell. Writing for me was strongly connected with raising kids. Maybe it comes back. At the moment I keep myself busy with taking pictures, composing inspirational stuff for writers, collecting ideas. I made material for teaching creative writing, among which a padlet with 100 prompts (so far only in German, but not for long).
I’ve taken a break from writing. I needed it. Art is a cruel, jealous lover. It feels like breaking out of prison. Most probably she’ll catch me again, locking me in again, putting me again in isolation, who knows for how long. But for now I am free. It feels good.
Do you have a dedicated working space?
I can write anywhere, anytime. As a single mother of three (small) kids you learn to open your laptop anytime, no matter for how long. And type away. I even wrote on the cold floor in gyms, next to my daughter playing football.
When did you decide you could call yourself a writer? Do you do that in fact?
I first called myself a writer when I’d learned how to revise and finish a story. I felt professional ever since. Here in Germany you can only call yourself a writer (officially) if you can live of your books. I tell my students to call themselves writers after the first lesson; they wrote their first story, created something out of nothing, like God; they have the right.
How supportive are your friends and family? Do they understand what you're doing?
Especially my daughters have grown up with a mother sitting at a desk. They excused me on the phone, they helped out at readings, they earned their pocket money selling self-made chapbook of my stories. As grown-ups they became my first readers. Especially my eldest daughter is my strongest critic. And both daughters contributed artwork. My son wasn’t always happy; for example while taking him back home on my bike I had to stop every five minutes or so in order to write down ideas. Now he often complains that I expect too much of him; “I am not a writer”, he then says. But there was a lot of fighting with my daughters too when they were in puberty. They always thought that I contrary to other parents was expecting too much of them – like reading a book from time to time. With my eldest daughter I now share my love for books. There was one holiday where we both read at least 5 books by Tony Morrison, exchanging once we were done with one. And afterward discussing. She’s already looking forward to getting an apartment of her own with many bookshelves, for which I promised her the books I’ve already read.
At my school, I am known as The Writer. I teach Creative Writing, which is unique in my country. They all know about my published book on craft, my boss was the first one to buy five copies to distribute them among my colleagues. They are a bit jealous, I guess. My courses are very popular, even for kids who cause a lot of trouble at school. My pupils stay in contact long after the courses are done. We have a special relationship. We belong to the same tribe.
What are you most proud of in your writing?
My patience and thoroughness in the rewriting and revision process.
How do you get on with editing and research?
See last question. For my novel that took place in Mexico I learned Spanish and researched in length; when I finally came to Mexico City everything was exactly as I wrote it, thanks to youtube, Google, and books. If there is a chance, I get to the places I write about. It’s also tax deductible. I wrote a scene inspired by the shirt scene in The Great Gatsby, so I went to KadeWe and had a very nice afternoon with the shop assistant who let me try on every short and helped me button and unbutton it. I went to office buildings and was let in. I called at hospitals, hotels, tourist information. For my short story All the Forms of the Radiant Frost about a woman, whose baby was still born, I talked at length with a nurse at the delivery ward. I spent a day in the rain near the Polish border, waiting for the only train back to Berlin; in the end the story took place somewhere else. Research is the fun part of writing; this is when I feel professional.
Do you have any goals for the future?
Get back to the point where I just loved to write.
Which writers have inspired you?
Flannery O’Connor, especially with her approach to generating stories and describing the life of an artist (see her essays Mystery & Manners), James Joyce, Gustave Flaubert & Virginia Woolf for their style, Alexi Zentner & Gayle Brandeis for their support and generosity, Raymond Carver in my younger writing years, and most probably German writer Max Frisch, whose novel Homo Faber I read as a teen (30 years later, a story of mine was published in the magazine Fiction, which he founded with Donald Barthelme in NYC)
The story that really turned me into a writer though was written by Shirley Jackson; I will never forgot how I read “The Lottery” on the Berlin U-Bahn at the age of 21 – and missed my stop. I fell apart reading it, thinking, I want to be able to do that, kill people with 6 pages.
In this haunting collection, one of Jesse Falzoi’s characters imagines the word “Wuthering” means “From all directions and never the one you anticipated.” Using this definition, these are Wuthering stories, coming at life from many angles, each one full of surprise and illumination. Falzoi’s characters thrum with yearning—for connection, for meaning, for a place to be, to belong. They will find a permanent home inside your heart.
"Jesse Falzoi writes with the authority of somebody who understands that sorrow and happiness can’t exist without each other. Her characters are as smart as she is, and like all good writers, the risks she takes on the page mean big rewards for her readers. Count me as a fan. - Alexi Zentner, author of Copperhead, Touch, and The Lobster Kings
This is a gifted debut. Stories which are so light and confident in their presence we can only marvel at how deep they delve into the hearts of their characters." - Mike McCormack, author of Solar Bones