It is always a splendid thing to have visitors here in the bayou, but it is thrilling to have some as talented as Jan Maher drop in for an interview. Jan is Jan Maher is the author of Heaven, Indiana and Earth As It Is. She has written several plays and is a senior scholar at the Institute for Ethics in Public Life, SUNY Plattsburgh. She holds a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies: Theater, Education, and Neuroscience. She most recently taught interdisciplinary seminars, education-related courses, and documentary studies at Burlington College at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Furthermore, she is currently a senior scholar at the Institute for Ethics in Public Life, State University of New York at Plattburgh.
- Do you have any writing rituals?
I always write first in longhand, in my journals. As a daily, or nearly daily ritual, I write in coffee houses. If I’m really in an intense phase of writing, I might begin in one place for morning coffee, write till I’m momentarily tapped out, move to a second place for lunch and write more till the flow stops, then move to a third place for the afternoon. Usually, though, it’s just one coffee house for two hours. A seasonal ritual is to take a long-distance train (usually round-trip Albany, NY to Seattle, WA and back) and regard the time on Amtrak as a writing retreat. Sometimes I’m already working on a particular project, other times I use overheard snippets of conversation in the observation car as writing prompts for new stories or poems.
- Which of your characters would most likely be a member of the Phunny Phorty Fellows? Why did you pick this character?
Definitely Jacque. She’s a minor character, but the most likely to want to be in costume in public. She’s from Dallas originally and lives in Chicago when we meet her in my novel, Earth As It Is. Of the small band of cross-dressers who meet for tea, cookies, and conversation on the near north side of Chicago in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, Jacque is also the one who feels a need and makes a decision to transition to female in the 60s. Her willingness to flirt in a Chicago gay club with a man who turns out to be a gay basher distinguishes her from her friends (including my main character) who are far more focused on blending in than on standing out.
- How old were you when you wrote your first story? What was it about?
My ready answer is that I wrote before I could read. My mother was a commercial artist and she had beautiful handwriting. I was fascinated that her marks on paper were both elegant and meaningful to others. I would have been around 3 or 4 when I filled several pages with loops and swirls in imitation of her cursive and asked her to read the story to me, explaining that though I could write, I couldn’t yet read. It turns out the story she read to me was about a little girl who was sent to reform school because she never cleaned her room when her mother asked her to! I complained, of course, about the content. She told me if I didn’t like the story I’d have to learn how to read as well as write. So I did, though not till a couple of years later. And after that, when I was sent to my room to clean it, I would instead hide behind the bed and read books.
(Thinking about it now, for the first time it occurs to me that this primed me for receptivity to Toni Morrison’s comment that if there’s a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it. I’ve loved that idea ever since I first heard it decades ago.)
In sixth grade, we had an assignment to write a poem. I played clarinet at the time, and I remember only the first line of the poem I wrote. “Mozart, why do you torture me?”
- If you could bring one of your characters to life, who would it be?
This is a fascinating question. At first, I thought it would be difficult to answer, but very quickly I settled on Helen Breck. Helen is a woman who lives her life in fear that her secrets will be revealed and ruin her. I would like to tell her it’s all right. That history will move on and the things she felt and did will be understood and forgiven.
- What was your favorite childhood book?
This is a toss-up between three answers: The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, Heidi by Joanna Spyri, and just about any Nancy Drew mystery. I always wanted, and never had, a horse. I read every book about horses in the Fort Wayne, Indiana public library, but The Black Stallion was the first. As I remember it, the appeal was the close relationship between the boy and the horse. Heidi I loved because I loved to think about living on a mountaintop, living simply and self-sufficiently, living in tune with nature. Nancy Drew was always solving mysteries which generally involved getting into trouble and back out again. I vaguely remember one in which she infiltrates a Klan gathering and figures out who the villain is by looking at shoes. I have no idea if my memory is accurate on this.
- Do you have any writing mentors? If so, who are they?
Though I never had the opportunity to work with her in person, I consider Carol M. Bly to have been a mentor. I discovered her book, The Passionate, Accurate Story, in a Chicago used bookstore about the same time that I’d begun to turn my attention from playwriting to fiction, and found it to be amazingly perceptive and useful. Shortly after, I met her online in a writers’ board on AOL, back in the mid-90s when AOL was the only game in town and there were special discussion boards similar to today’s Facebook groups. One was called “Integrity and Art in Fiction” and Carol was a regular poster there. This led to an online and email friendship that lasted until her death in 2007. I still have the note she wrote me after I sent her a copy of my first novel.
- How important is it that you portray diversity in your characters?
Very. That takes a lot of different forms, depending on which of my writing projects is considered. In my play, Most Dangerous Women, for example, the words and songs of close to 80 women are included, and they comprise a wide range of nationalities, ethnicities, and ages, as well as a range of historical eras. In my novel, Earth As It Is, the focus is mostly on gender diversity. My main character identifies as a heterosexual and is a cross-dresser. That character’s friends include other heterosexual cross-dressers as well as one, Jacque (mentioned above), who will eventually transition m to f. In Heaven, Indiana, the characters in my small, fictional town are dealing with the legacy of slavery times even when they don’t realize it. Indiana is a state with a complex and contradictory history with regard to race, having been one of the free border states pre-and during the Civil War and home to a large anti-slavery population and extensive Underground Railroad system; then becoming a state completely dominated by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. That mix of influences is something I was very much aware of growing up in Indiana during the 1950s and is still in evidence today in the culture and politics of the state. That legacy impacts my characters’ lives in a variety of ways.
In another sense, I would say that I’m interested in always portraying the diversity within an individual character. Sometimes that includes gender or racial diversity within a single character, but I also think of it in terms of a complexity of inner life.
- How do you measure your growth as a writer?
Hmm … I guess that goes back to what I just said about complexity. I think my writing when I first began tended toward more simplistic characters and situations. There was little or no moral ambiguity. Good guys were good guys and bad guys were bad. I was young enough to think I knew what the world needed and brash enough to think I had at least some of the answers. The older I get, the more it’s the questions that multiple, not the answers. I would measure my growth, then, by measuring my ability to feel empathy for and create empathy for a wider range of characters and my ability to create stories that leave readers or audience members in a place where they are encouraged to think more openly and broadly than they did before they read my book(s) or saw my play(s).
9. Lightning round: Pick One
- Rex or Zulu? Zulu
- Pecan Pie or Lemon Icebox Pie? Pecan Pie
- Okra or tomatoes? Tomatoes but I’m going to try to give okra a chance in 2018
- SEC or ACC? Do I dare admit I’m not a football fan?
- Dixieland or Swamp Rock? Swamp Rock
- Muses High Heels or Krewe of Carrollton Shrimp Boots? Krewe of Carrollton Shrimp Boots, definitely!
10. How can readers discover more about you and your work?
It has been a true pleasure to have had this opportunity to interview Jan, and I thank her for sparing the time.
Don’t forget to visit Creole Bayou again. New posts are made on Wednesdays. If you have any questions or suggestions about this post or any others, feels free to comment below or tweet me at @dolynesaidso. You also can follow me on Instagram at genevivechambleeauthor or search me on Goodreads or Amazon Authors.
Life’s Roux: Wrong Doors, my steamy romantic comedy, is available at Red Sage Publishing. To order, follow the link to http://bit.ly/2CtE7Ez or to Amazon at http://amzn.to/2lCQXpt.
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Don’t have much time for reading or in a hurry? Check out my microfic, “Country Club Charades” in Fake For You at https://www.hottreepublishing.com/flash-fiction that also was released this week.
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