Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On Bears, Camus and a Mutual Love for Emily Dickinson: Interview with Jenny Torres Sanchez

I'm so happy to welcome Jenny Torres Sanchez back to On The Verge. Jenny's novel Death, Dickinson and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia made me a fan, and later led to our friendship (I mean, who else can I talk to about my love for Emily Dickinson?) At a recent writing retreat Jenny and I learned we had other things in common, besides Emily D. We were both English teachers, for example. Also, we both have a weird fascination with bear attacks.

Jenny's latest novel, Because of the Sun is a glorious, heartbreaking magical-realism blend of a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship with the hypnotic, dream-like tone of Camus' The Stranger.

Plus, it features a metaphorical (and possibly literal) bear.


Jody: Okay, so you know that I am obsessed with Sid Fleischman's Two Sticks Theory -- that just as it takes two sticks to build a fire, it takes two ideas to spark a story. What were the two ideas that sparked Because of the Sun?

Jenny: There were actually four sticks: An old short story about a girl and her mother I started when I was about twenty years old, but never finished and that just kind of followed me around all these years. There was the unrelenting Florida sun as summer approached. There were headlines about several black bear/human encounters near where I live in Florida. And definitely, definitely there was The Stranger by Albert Camus, which I read in high school and have always loved.

Jody: I read The Stranger a million years ago. I honestly don't remember anything about it except that I felt like I'd fallen into a dream when I was reading.

Jenny: I had a similar impression. I’ve reread the book a few times over the years but I had just reread about a year before I started writing this novel. That book was so weird to me when I read it in high school, but I was completely fascinated by the main character. Meursault is so . . . weird! And interesting. I felt then like I didn’t quite get him, but I wanted to figure him out. So I thought about that book a lot over the years, and reread it several times, and it ended up inspiring this book in so many ways.

Jody: I can see the similarities. There's this feeling of dreamy detachment in the voice of your main character Dani.

Jenny: Yes, and Meursault's lost his mother too. And there's the blazing hot sun that makes you do/think crazy things, and the question of what it means to have or-- not have hope.

Jody: What was your process for writing this book? Was it different from other books you've written?

Jenny: I was kind of in a weird writing place. A book I had worked on for a while and struggled with, but finished, was on submission. It didn’t look like it was going anywhere and I knew I needed to get myself into a new project or I was going to drive myself crazy. So, the weather had been really hot. I was thinking a lot of The Stranger because the sun always kind of makes me think of that book. I was also thinking of that short story I told you about. I remember vividly sitting down at my kitchen table and playing around with the concept of that short story and getting some opening lines down.

Jody: And then the bears came into it?

Jenny: Ha! Yes. The headlines of bear encounters had been on the morning news lately and when I started writing, all these things started clicking into place. Each time I sat down to work, Dani’s story kept coming together. There wasn’t a whole lot of frustration with this novel. Maybe there was more than I’m remembering, but I think it was less than I’d felt with my previous books. This book felt like it’d been waiting to be written and now was the right time.

Jody: That's a nice feeling.

Jenny: I know. I read or heard Sara Zarr talk about one of her books once (I think it was How to Save a Life) where she said that book felt like a gift. That’s how I feel about this book. It came together strangely and kind of quickly.

Jody: Those days when it's more difficult though, or with other writing projects that are more of a struggle, do you have certain activities that help you to push through?

Jenny: I like to sit outside and think about the story and try to get into my characters’ minds. I like to read poetry and wonder how it might relate to one of my characters. I also like to take short drives while listening to music (usually songs that are related to what I’m working on because I make a playlist for each book I’m working on). Short drives because I usually need to get home and take some notes. All these things help me a lot. I feel like they’re a way to tap into my characters better and get to know them and how they feel.

Jody: Your books are very character-driven rather than plot-oriented.

Jenny: This is true. I love to write the small quiet moments, when a character is very reflective, almost inside themselves wondering about something or discovering something. Those are my absolute favorite scenes to write. Which I guess explains why action scenes aren’t really my thing. They’re not terrible to write, but I don't enjoy them much.

Jody: Switching topics a bit--  you've got three kids, including a little one at home... how do you balance writing and being a mom? Any tricks of the trade you've learned along the way? Is this an unfair question? I mean, would I have asked this of a man? hmm...

Jenny: I don’t actually think this question is so much unfair as I think it’s a question that should also commonly be asked of men. Writing is difficult and it is done at all kinds of hours and for any writer who has a family, it can be a challenge. For some fathers who write, perhaps it’s as much of a balancing act as it is for some mothers who write. And for some, it’s not and they don’t even realize the vital role their spouse has in their ability to do what they do. I think men should be asked to reflect on this as much as women. As for me, yeah, I definitely have to balance work and family like any working parent. But my family understands writing is my work. My husband and kids respect that I’m a writer and writing is my job. So, they get it. That makes the balancing act easier.

Jody: And we have to balance other aspects of our lives too. I know you're concerned about social justice and care about the potentially scary turn in our country's politics. How do you balance writing with being a human in a dark world? Does it affect your writing? Does it show up in your work?

Jenny: I observe. I let myself feel the emotions that stem from it all, my emotions and those of others, the anger, the fear, the hopelessness and hopefulness. And then I use it all, even if what I’m writing might not deal directly with social justice issues (though some of it does). The darkness of our world definitely shows up. In some way or another. And it inspires me to seek answers and solutions and find beauty and light.

And I try to balance all of that out with other creative pursuits. I like to take photos, and listen to records, and paint (I do this very badly, but it’s still fun).  I collect things but nothing specific. Just little trinkets and cool little items that seem interesting to me.

Jody: Such as Emily Dickinson postcards...

Jenny: Yes! I was so happy that you sent that to me. I pinned it up next to the photo I have of her tombstone.

Jody: Favorite good book you've read recently?

Jenny: I’m reading Idaho by Emily Ruskovich now and it seems exactly the kind of book I’m going to love. I read Kathleen Glasgow’s Girl In Pieces this past summer and that is an amazingly raw and painful and beautiful book. Also, I love Edwidge Danticat’s Untwine and was really excited to read a YA novel by her because I’m a big fan of her work (Claire of the Sea Light is another one of her books that's a favorite of mine). The story of those sisters in Untwine broke my heart and I loved the way she weaved in the Haitian culture. I also recently read Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson and that is a powerful, hopeful punch in a very slim book.

Jody: On a lighter note, any guilty pleasures? What's the last TV show you've binged?

Jenny: I don’t binge on tv shows much. I mostly watch the news these days and get angry and a little depressed before making a plan to call my senators. Then I watch reruns of The Golden Girls and King of Queens. I’m the life of the party, Jody.

Jody: I see we have even more things in common!  Before I let you go, can you share something about your next project?

Jenny: It's called Crows Cry Emilia and due to publish in 2018 by Philomel. I am so, so excited about it. It’s a story about sixteen year old Emilia who thinks she’s over her tragic past until it comes back to haunt her. Having survived a brutal attack on her elementary school’s playground when she was eight years old, she is caught off guard once more when the police reveal they’ve convicted the wrong guy for the crime. The story follows Emilia as she comes undone and we see the lasting effects of the past on not only her, but those she loves most. My editor, Liza Kaplan, is amazing and I think this book will be better than I ever could have imagined because of her guidance. I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

Jody: I am so looking forward to that, Jenny. Thanks for chatting with me today, and dear readers, if you'd like to find out more about Jenny Torres Sanchez and her work, please see below.


JENNY TORRES SANCHEZ is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children.

Twitter: @jetchez

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