I corresponded with Jennifer recently about her writing.
Curtis Smith: I am drawn to the novella. What do you see as the form’s strengths? Its drawbacks? Was the plan always to have Dancelandas a novella? If not, can you tell us about its evolution?
Jennifer Pieroni: Danceland began as a short short, and I thought it was finished until a few incredibly generous readers told me to keep lurking in it. Somehow I found it easy to see who these characters were and what had led them there. I never set a goal, although as I moved through the book a few people advised me to make it as long as it could be. But one day it ended, and I couldn’t imagine taking it to the next scene. It just felt finished. Some readers have felt it should have gone on, and maybe it should have.
I have admired so many novellas too. I love its brief and bright relevance. To me it can be the poet’s novel, and hold that weight.
CS: Your writing style is so rhythmic and dreamlike and tight. Where does this language come to you? Early on? During revisions? Are there any questions/guidelines you use to help your work at the sentence level?
JP: I love words, and building with them. The language comes from me with honesty and purpose. The only rule I have when writing is: is this authentic, are the words cutting to the facts of the physical and psychological world I’m writing about. If they seem like junk to me, I’ll cut them.
CS: Can you pinpoint where this story started for you? A relationship? An image? What were the things you discovered along the way that became part of the finished project but weren’t part of your original plan?
JP: As finicky as I am about letting others influence my work, I did have two incredibly helpful readers. After reading my first draft, the writer Myfanwy Collins made some smart comments about point of view that led me to switch it in nearly half of the book. And my editor Erin McKnight was a force in polishing the book. She helped me in so many ways to incorporate what we called “British-isms” where they’d make sense.
CS: You mentioned that you drew from Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” What were your personal experiences with this work? How did you use this as inspiration for Danceland?
JP: I saw Firebird performed about a decade ago, and listen to it regularly. I’m not a student of music or dance, but I know when I am moved. I think art has the capacity to impact us in so many inalterable, unavoidable ways. To me, these two characters had to meet in this heightened and formal setting.
CS: I admired your characterizations—you use such quick yet telling strokes. Here’s one of my favorites: “Lynn was kind of person whose pain was loose, streaming all over her, washing her away or drowning her, as if she were one of those lonely Massachusetts towns, a sun-kissed and bucolic valley turned wet, forever sunk.” It seems to me that you must set some pretty high benchmarks for yourself in this area.
JP: Until Danceland, characterization had never been a focus of mine. As a writer I was obsessed with the idea or concept, the overriding inexpressible takeaway I was hoping to convey through language. What is this thing I am writing about and how do I make it just as true on the page as it is for me? Sometimes it was simply an emotion.
When I became interested in writing Danceland, I knew that I needed to focus on characterization, and I welcomed the challenge of mining their fictional lives for clues as to who they were, who they’d become, and what might be in store for them later. Many of my writing sessions were about understanding the motivations of these characters, their concerns, their ambitions, and their psychological flaws.
Learning how to do this has expanded my repertoire as a writer, and I think I had faith in publishing this book because I felt that the characters would make it more accessible to readers than much of my previous writing.
CS: I kept thinking about the clash of worlds as I read Danceland—the worlds we create with those we love and want to protect—and the greater, and at best, indifferent world waiting without. I thought of Lettie, the little girl, and I wondered what tides in the story reflected the thoughts/concerns/fears that were born from your own experiences of motherhood.
JP: It is impossible to deny the impact of motherhood on my ability to write this book. Foremost, because I was fortunate enough to leave my job and spend two years writing and mothering without other stresses. But also this joy and responsibility, connectedness and separateness, the confusion it produces—it is all so rich, and the experience so palpable during those early years. I dedicated the book to my son because he gave me this gift: to write and what about.
CS: You and your husband ran Quick Fiction, which was one of my favorite literary journals. I admired its size, its look, its content, and its dedication to very short stories. How did that experience influence your writing?
JP: Thank you! I loved editing and producing Quick Fiction. We built a wonderful network of talented writers and artists I’d have never met otherwise. Editing and writing are so different; I can’t say whether one has influenced the other. It seems to me that leaving editing was something I needed to do to let go of the negativity that so often involves that role. Writing Danceland required me to be open, flexible, and deliberately optimistic.
Purchase Danceland HERE.
Interviewer bio: Curtis Smith's latest book is Beasts and Men, a story collection from Press 53. In early 2015, Dock Street Press will release Communion, his next essay collection. In 2016, Aqueous Books will publish his next novel, Lovepain.