by Evelyn Somers
In 2013 the Missouri Review, where I serve as Associate Editor, accepted Jane Gillette’s story “Visiting,” about two women whose forty-year-friendship is drawing to a close because one of them is dying. It was the magazine’s first introduction to Gillette and her work. The opening lines of “Visiting,” one of twelve stories collected in The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories, invoke the New Testament command to visit and minister to the sick and dying. That is what Judith, the protagonist who survives her friend, dutifully does. The scenario is common enough; but then Gillette turns a familiar situation on its head: Judith’s method of consoling her dying friend, it turns out, is to entertain her by fabricating a steamy tale of a midlife sexual liason with an ex-Episcopalian Republican—an engaged ex-Episcopalian Republican whom she met in a book club— “the best lover I ever had.”
The story delighted the entire editorial staff of the magazine. But Gillette had a lot of other unpublished stories, all equally daring and smartly written. Over the space of two years, as she continued to send work out and to gain more acceptances, the Missouri Review published several more stories, including “The Trail of the Demon,” a tense and potent drama set in Washington, DC, that examines racism, both overt and suppressed. The story was chosen by an outside judge, crime novelist Michael Kardos, for the magazine’s best-of-volume William Peden Prize in fiction, adding to Gillette’s growing number of awards for her fiction.
Gillette was not a newcomer to writing and publishing. She’d published her first stories in the early 1960s, while still an undergraduate at Vassar, with the encouragement of a faculty mentor, William Rose, who sent her work out to journal editors—an early publication landed in Shenandoah—and urged her to go to graduate school. She dedicated her debut collection to him. She went on to earn a PhD from Yale. She raised two sons, and later worked as an editor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, where some of her fiction is set. Other work is frequently set in the Midwest (she grew up in Muncie, Indiana), and on the West Coast, where she lives now with her second husband, the landscape architect Peter Walker. Over the years she continued to write—an extremely long novel found an agent but was never published—and publish stories. As Gillette says, there were dry periods of little or no writing, but eventually her desire always revived; and in the past decade and a half, she began to publish a series of stories that were wickedly original.
TMR had talked off and on about a book imprint, but the impetus for finally launching Missouri Review Books was Jane’s body of high-quality stories, along with Editor-in-Chief Speer Morgan’s concern that because Jane was now in her seventies she might have a harder time finding a venue for a book that the staff all agreed needed to be published. Finally, funds were raised to publish The Trail of the Demon and Other Stories in October of 2017 (though the imprint continues to seek funding for future projects).
In January, Jane was featured on the Bookworm podcast. And last week I talked with her about her long writing history and her book debut.
Evelyn Somers: You began publishing your stories very early—as an undergraduate, in fact, during your years at Vassar in the 1960s. Can you say a little about that, and the mentor who encouraged you in those early years?
Jane Gillette: My sophomore year, in 1962, I took a creative writing class (the only one I’ve ever taken) with William Kent Rose (1924-1968). I took his class on Modernism in 1964-1965, when I was allowed to write a collection of stories for my senior thesis. Mr. Rose got five of my stories published between 1963 and 1966.
ES: When did you first think of yourself intentionally as a writer? Was it in your twenties, as a student? Or did the intentionality come later?
JG: I’ve always felt I was a writer. After all, I published a poem in the Muncie newspaper when I was eight or so. But I haven’t always felt that I was a good writer, and sometimes I haven’t felt like writing at all. Mr. Rose made me feel like a good writer, but for graduate school I went to Yale rather than Iowa, in part because I sort of felt written out and thought I’d be more likely to get a job with a PhD. I worked on novels in the 1970s and the late 1990s, on stories from 1985-1990 and from 2004 to the present. In the interim periods I worked at various magazines. Frequently I’ve felt written out, but then I’ve revived.
ES: You’ve told me in conversation and said elsewhere in interviews that you once worked on a very long novel. What inspired that project, and why did you leave it behind?
JG: In the late 1970s I wrote an 1,800-page novel, La Soupçonneuse: A Pastoral Romance, about a private club at West Chop on Martha’s Vineyard. I had an agent, and she tried, she really did, but I gave up on it. A few years ago I lifted some stories out of La Soup. One of them, “Grace,” was published just last month in the Antigonish Review, almost fifty years after I started it.
ES: Fittingly the stories in The Trail of the Demon are all, in ways, dark. Can you say a little about that aesthetic choice and how it complements or contrasts with your own worldview?
JG: I think we all have the potential for behaving very badly, and there’s plenty of evidence that we do. I can’t really say that the stories in the collection got darker as they proceeded, but I did add an occasional passage to make sure darkness was visible in every story.
ES: I can’t think of a Jane Gillette story that isn’t at its heart profoundly ironic. While you were writing the stories, were you aware of irony as an engine that drives your fiction?
JG: Not really, but I suppose most of the people I know—and hence most of the characters I write about—coat their enthusiasm with ironic self-protection. After all, we don’t live in a nice, safe, open, honest, romantic world. Besides, irony in fiction ensures a certain level of complication, although not necessarily sophistication and beauty.
ES: You worked for a number of years in Washington, DC, as a writer and editor for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and you work currently as an editor for a landscape architecture firm. This interests me because so much of your professional career has been devoted to the question of place, but your stories are commentaries on social interactions—on people. Are there ways in which the career and the fiction mesh?
JG: I’ve written a few stories about preserved places and preservationists, designed places and designers, but on the whole, writing about historic preservation and landscape architecture has provided a pleasurable, healing break.
ES: One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Meditation XXXI: On Sustenance,” a story that’s partly a satire of the locavore movement. In that story, as in many of your others, the irony makes a sudden sharp turn to poignancy toward the end. Is that an intentional move or something that just happens intuitively while you are writing?
JG: Almost everything in that story really happened, one way or another. I knew some people who failed at starting a locavore restaurant; I knew some others who successfully started a restaurant that was about as anti-locavore as you can get. The most fictional part of the story happens at the end at McDonald’s. I think poignancy frequently erupts from irony. We protect ourselves, with irony, politeness, evasion, and then emotion breaks out at the end. I’ve compared the short-story to a garbage can with a rat inside; you can hear the rat hit the can again and again, and then at the end he lifts the lid off the can and breaks free.
ES: As a social satirist, you deal with topics that are sometimes high-stakes or border on taboo: race, in the title story of the collection; social class; religion. Do you worry at all about offending readers?
JG: It seems to me that if you write honestly about anything important—race, gender, religion, social class—you run the risk of offending someone. After all, we still haven’t come to terms with these things. Maybe one role of fiction is to investigate conflicted subject matter, the evil as well as the good.
ES: To piggyback on the preceding question, do you consider yourself a political writer, even though you don’t write explicitly about politics?
JG: Not really. I lived in DC for thirty years, and I still consider politics as having something to do with governing.
ES: You had a collection accepted for publication some years ago, but it turned out to be a near miss. What did you decide to do then?
JG: I didn’t know what to do. I asked around, and I was extremely lucky Missouri Review Books decided to do the collection as their first publication. I had a number of near misses when I was young, and in those cases I just gave up. I didn’t ask around. I just threw a lot of the stuff away. Now I carefully preserve everything and talk about failure whenever it’s appropriate—in part because it’s very common, and we shouldn’t ignore it.
ES: You’ve said you prefer to write in the short-story form because it’s not as large a commitment and one is less likely to make big mistakes. Do you see yourself, though, possibly working on a linked collection or novel-in-stories?
JG: I’ve written linked stories in the past, also long stories and made lots of time-consuming mistakes. I’ll be taking a new look at these, but I think I’ll continue to write short stories one at a time. I can work and work and work on each one and make it as good as it can be.
ES: Many of your stories are somewhat experimental in form, featuring layered or fragmented narratives or sometimes intrusive narrators. What attracts you to alternative ways of telling a story?
JG: Narrative trickery is part of life. We all tell stories each and every day. And in life we ask, Who’s telling what to whom? Why? Who’s lying? Who’s leaving stuff out? Every written story can be interrogated in the same way. Why is the narrator telling the story this way? To whom? Is the narrator lying? Is the writer? Close reading is a fun habit it’s hard to give up.
ES: How has the publishing a first book in your mid-seventies changed your perspective or your plans for future work?
JG: I’ve put together another collection of stories and I plan to revisit some of my old work.
Evelyn Somers is associate editor of the Missouri Review, where she edits fiction and nonfiction and advocates for emerging writers. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, Southwest Review, the Millions, the Collagist, Florida Review, Copper Nickel, and Bloom, among others. Her novel-in-stories in progress, The Band Leader of Covington, is about music, magic, and the divine in a small town of eccentrics.
Author photo credit: Michael Dellis