Excerpts / Features / Interviews

Giving Herself Three Years: Jennifer Wisner Kelly

by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

I haven’t actually met Jennifer Wisner Kelly, but I have worked with BkMk Press and admired their publications. I reached out to publisher Ben Furnish to see if he had some exciting new books to share, and among those he mentioned was Kelly’s. I interviewed Kelly by email. In addition, an excerpt from her forthcoming debut story collection, Stone Skimmers, follows the interview.

CHS: This is your first published work, but you do have an MFA and a number of short story publications and so have been working on your craft a while. How long have you been writing? Can you share your publishing journey?

JWK: I began writing fiction after my first child was born, nearly 20 years ago now, and I had decided not to return to my high-intensity career as an employment attorney. I was raising two kids, so writing always had to fit in around that priority. At first I wrote during nap time and took online classes, then moved to more advanced classes in Cambridge/Boston, and went to summer writing conferences. When I felt that I was becoming stuck in my development as a writer and I had more time because my children had started school, I went for my MFA. I chose the low residency program at Warren Wilson College that not only gave fantastic, one-on-one writing instruction but also taught me how to balance writing with the rest of my life. In the decade or so since graduating, I have continued to write fiction, finishing the story collection that is coming out this fall and working on two novels that, sadly, have not panned out.  

CHS: Can you tell us a little about your book?

JWK: Stone Skimmers is a collection of seven loosely-linked stories. I write slowly and take a long time to decide that a particular story is ready to be called done. These stories were written over a ten-year period. They are loosely inspired by my own childhood and adulthood in two New England towns, but are not in anyway autobiographical.

The book opens in pristine Old Stonington, Connecticut, where a peculiar 15-year-old girl swims for hours each day across the town reservoir, lost to her own obsessions. The popular crowd spies from shore, mocking her strangeness, cozy in their camaraderie, until one betrays the group by befriending the outsider. The remaining six stories follow this splintered clique into adulthoods rife with isolation and loss, exploring the lives of those who stayed in the sheltered world of their childhoods and the challenges faced by those who chose to leave.

CHS: Your first book is coming out when you are over age 40. Welcome to the Bloom community! Do you have words of encouragement for other writers still aiming for that first publishing contract?

JWK: Getting a first book published, especially a short fiction collection, is a challenge at any age, and it only gets more challenging over age 40. There are biases in the industry; it tends to value youth and dismiss late bloomers as being of lesser talent, seriousness, or worthiness. And, in my experience, mothers are often devalued even further as being dilettantes  It’s all nonsense, of course, and I take solace in reading work by other writers who first published at this age.

My advice will be familiar: patience, perseverance, and perspective.

For me it was useful to find ways to stay active in the writing community even when my own writing was slow to find a publishing home: I attended conferences, workshops, readings, and residencies; I taught writing and took on editing projects; I volunteered to write book reviews and eventually became the book review editor and an associate fiction editor at a literary journal. Most importantly, I stayed close to my writing friends.

On a practical level, I think it’s critical to not become overly fixated on publication. Good work doesn’t always rise to the top the way we wish it would. It can be painful. When I was seeking a publisher for my story collection, I carved out a particular time block each week to work on submissions. I kept careful records of where I had submitted. I gave the process three years and decided that if I hadn’t found a publisher by then, I would consider that particular project done. I had several tantalizingly close calls when I was finalist in contests, for example, that kept me going until I ultimately won BkMk’s contest right at the end of that three year period. And on the days when I wasn’t submitting, I tried to focus on writing as if publication didn’t exist.

CHS: What’s next for your writing?

JWK: Right now, I am exploring ideas for a next long project and am also experimenting with essay/memoir/creative nonfiction. Mostly, I’m focusing on enjoying the writing process over the product.

*

From “Thaw,” from the story collection Stone Skimmers by Jennifer Wisner Kelly, BkMk Press, University of Missouri–Kansas City, November 2019.

Adeline can smell snow from twelve hours away. She can smell piecrust five minutes from burning. She can smell rust in water and blood in wood. But like all gifts, this one comes at a cost—there is no stink that Adeline can escape. Today’s warm weather has let loose the foul farm smells that winter usually hides: oil from the blacktop driveway softening in the sun, mildew on wet straw, roadkill on Route 79, and chicken shit, always chicken shit. When Adeline steps onto the porch, the smells assault her nostrils. It is tempting to run inside and hide beneath the yeasty aroma of baking bread and the staunch cleanliness of Clorox, but weather this warm doesn’t come to northern Vermont in February unless God is showing some mercy, and Adeline needs any mercy on offer. It has been a long winter of silent perseverance. She has waited for storms to pass. For snow to stop falling. For the phone to ring. The letter to come. The queasiness to subside. Today Adeline will wait at the mailbox for the school bus, something she hasn’t done since November, but has decided to do now in honor of the weather, in honor of good omens. She hopes to make her little Lizzy smile. A rogue northerly gust sneaks down the open collar of Adeline’s sweater, chilling her clavicle, her nipples, her navel, like snow wriggling under your clothes in a snowball fight. It reminds her that today’s temperatures are just a tease. You can’t count on spring until May.

Hutch gets off the bus first with Lance Stone’s boy, a developing relationship that Thomas said they should nip in the bud, but the school isn’t big enough for them to dictate Hutch’s friends. Maybe there will be better choices when he switches to the regional high school next year. Maybe not. Still, you don’t move back to a town like this and expect the other kids to be well-heeled intellectuals. Here their children will have to navigate in the real world, full of real people. Sure, some of those “real” kids are potheads shooting BBs at cans behind Jackson’s Grille. But some will go to Ivy League colleges and marry rich boys. Adeline knows all about that possibility. Her own escape had been lucky. And though she held no romantic ideals of what Ashbury was all about, she had gone along with Thomas’s plan to move back to her hometown five years ago. Yes, she had agreed, the benefits of a rural childhood would outweigh the dangers, especially when the home environment could be so rich. Both of them would be there all the time, full of their loving-kindness. It was a return to simplicity. Adeline tells herself that the Stone boy will be fine for Hutch. Adeline has known his father all her life. Lance Stone had played football in high school, but six shoulder dislocations in two years took college off the table. Instead, he started a job at Gesky’s gas station and managed to buy out the old man a few years before Adeline moved back with Thomas. Lance wasn’t a bad guy, then or now. He was an Ashbury guy. His son surely was just more of the same.

Hutch and the Stone boy, whom everyone calls Stony, shuffle past Adeline up the driveway deep in quiet conversation. Hutch lifts his hand in a limp salute and says, “Hey” without making eye contact. To Adeline, this new standoffishness suggests illicit behavior, though Thomas would say that’s just where boys are at this age. They don’t need their mothers knowing everything they’re up to.

Lizzy gets off the bus wearing her trademark glazed expression behind lopsided glasses and a crooked smile for which Adeline takes credit. Lizzy greets the world enthusiastically, but with a tad of confusion, like a newly arrived exchange student. She’s ten but looks younger, partly because she’s inherited Thomas’s slight build over Adeline’s sturdy one, and partly because of her quirky way of being in the world. When they first moved back, when Lizzy was only five, Adeline’s mother started calling her Baby Bird. Thomas thought it was a term of endearment, but Adeline knew it to be a criticism. To Adeline’s mother, there was nothing less appealing than a weak, dependent creature begging for worm after worm.

Today Lizzy has tied her pink windbreaker around her hips and mounted her backpack on both of her boney shoulders. It’s heavily laden with reference books from Thomas’s study that Lizzy insists on hefting to and from school each day—a hardcover dictionary and thesaurus, a world atlas. All that lugging is probably causing her back all sorts of trouble, but Adeline has decided it isn’t worth arguing about.

Adeline wants to gather her daughter into the safe place under her outstretched arm, but before she finishes kissing the top of Lizzy’s head, inhaling the lemon smell of her frazzled hair, Lizzy shrugs off both her mother and her backpack.

“I need to feed my chickens,” she says, leaving the bag at Adeline’s feet and running ahead down the long driveway, past the boys, who punch each other in the biceps as they walk toward the house. Adeline wants to comment on this minor violence but doesn’t, heeding Thomas’s old admonitions to give the boys some space for God’s sake. When Lizzy veers right, Adeline follows, taking a shoveled path that leads across the barnyard to the chicken coop, snow still piled waist high on both sides. Lizzy’s jacket wriggles loose and lands on the snow-packed, slushy path.  If Adeline weren’t pulling up the rear, it would be left there, just another piece of flotsam requiring replacement.

Halfway to the coop, Adeline picks up a new scent: a familiar, raunchy smell. Musk. Fox. She mentally traces it down the slope from the house and the big barn, past the chicken coop and farther down to the woodshed. The smell seems nearly visible, like the poisonous green vapors in the cartoons Lizzy watches on Saturday mornings, the same ones Adeline once watched. Having spent most of her life on the farm, Adeline knows the rules: if there is a fox, there is some delectable thing to keep him around, trash cans without lids or mice or a broken latch on the henhouse. If she wants to get rid of him, she’ll have to get rid of whatever it is that keeps him interested. Or she could kill him.

© Jennifer Wisner Kelly 2019

Jennifer Wisner Kelly grew up in Connecticut, where most of the stories in Stone Skimmers are set. Her work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Greensboro Review, Massachusetts Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal. She is a graduate of Harvard, University of Chicago Law School, and Warren Wilson College’s MFA program. She now lives in Concord, Massachusetts and practices law at a domestic violence advocacy nonprofit. Stone Skimmers is her debut book.

Photo by Tucker Kelly

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