Transformation of the Chaos: An Interview with Jane Delury

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Writer Jane Delury is not one to skim the surface. Her narrative landscapes, the product of a life spent in California, France, and Baltimore, are lush with atmosphere and magic; the reader is transformed by Delury’s meticulous detail and subtle gradations in her character’s interior landscapes, traits that have won her the prestigious PEN/O. Henry Story Prize. Delury’s work appears in the Yale Review, Narrative, and The Southern Review, and she is currently the Klein Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Baltimore. Jen Michalski, host of Starts Here! (the new Ivy Bookshop reading series held at Artifact Coffee), interviewed Delury about her story collection, novel-in-progress, and the strata of chaos that forms the basis of her work. Delury reads with Gina Frangello and Rob Roberge at the Artifact Coffee, Monday, February 10th at 7 p.m.–visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website for more information.

Jen Michalski: I am in absolute love with your story “Transformation of the Matter,” which appeared in The Southern Review a few years ago, about an unexpected snowfall in a French village and a terrible turn of events that follows. It was one of those times when a story transcended my relationship with you as a person, as in “I can’t believe I know someone who wrote such an incredible story.” It’s so good that I can’t even be jealous I didn’t write it because I am incapable of writing it. So, imagine my delight in finding out it is part of a larger story collection! All set in France?

Jane Delury: Thanks, Jen. You made me blush. Yes, I’ve been writing stories for this collection since grad school. I took a class on Joyce’s Ulysses with the wonderful Judith Grossman. She had the students write a scene in the spirit of the book, and I ended up with a stream-of-consciousness piece about a man who lives near a forest in France, where I lived for much of my twenties. This forest figures in all of the stories, though not always as the literal setting. For example, a more recent story has the setting of Disneyland and the forest is an imaginary place in the mind of a character.

JM: Yes, you have mentioned in other interviews that you are “sometimes working with an atmosphere, rather than a particular place.” Does Baltimore figure in your work, or perhaps its atmosphere? How would you describe it?

JD: Baltimore figures big in the novel I’m working on, which takes place here and in France. The Baltimore chapters are mostly set along the Jones Falls. I almost fell down an embankment near the streetcar museum on one of my research expeditions! Baltimore’s smokestacks, chicken bones, brick and lawn, and neon signs are in the novel. Funny, though, I think the atmosphere that most affects my character is that of the woods along the Falls. Clearly, I have a thing for forests.

JM: You said once in response to your limited use of dialogue, that “characters are given more power in the narrative.” It’s very intimidating for readers, I think, in reading and in viewing a physical page, to see a large, dense block of text without any breaks, any breathing room that is often provided by dialogue. But I find, in your work, even though it is thick in narrative, that you ask the reader for a long-term relationship and that you deliver on the intimacy and richness of it. Is there any writing that you don’t like, that you feel asks too much or too little of you?

JD: I love what you say about a “long-term relationship’ with the reader and about intimacy. I think that’s exactly what I try to do in my stories. I read and admire many stories that are dialogue heavy, Junot Díaz’s work, for example. But that isn’t what happens when I start to write. There’s something magical about being pulled under by a paragraph and submitting to its tide. I’m reading Stephen Dixon’s His Wife Leaves Him right now. The man never saw a paragraph he didn’t want to not break! He makes the reader work, and it’s so worth the effort. As for what I don’t like, I don’t like writing that treats me like an idiot, writing in which I can feel the narrator trying to manipulate my emotions. Make me laugh. Make me cry. But don’t tell me that you’re doing it.

JM: What advice do you give most often to writing students at The University of Baltimore? What was the most important piece of advice given to you?

JD: Well, that idea of making the reader do interesting work is one bell I’m always ringing. Also, the idea of no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. I tell students when they’re drafting that if they know exactly where the story is going, their reader is probably going to figure it out too. How boring! I also mention the word chaos a lot. I think you have to write into chaos to find the interesting material. I’d much rather they write a splendid mess of a draft than a well-ordered, predictable story. As for the most important advice I’ve ever received, it would be from Italo Calvino in his memo on Lightness from Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I won’t try to explain it. I’d just suggest anyone interested in writing read that book.

JM: What writers do you read for absolute guilty fun?

JD: Forgive the lame reply, but I really don’t read anyone for guilty fun. This is only because I am engaged in a constant struggle to find time to read. There are three unread books by my bed right now, sitting there making me feel bad about myself. I think guilty fun is important, though. Taking yourself too seriously is never a good idea and a particular problem for writers. One of my guilty pleasures is watching a show while eating ramen (the cheap kind) with a bunch of random stuff thrown in. My poet friend and I do this every week. We stop each other from critiquing dialogue and character development. Couch. Ramen. Easy Plot.

JM: For the big finish, no pun intended, you often talk about revising and revising your work. When do you feel it’s finally finished?

JD: When I can read it through and not identify any moments of fakery. Actually, that might be one of the most important things for a writer to learn about revision: cut out all the parts where you know you were faking.

Don’t forget: Jane Delury, Gina Frangello, and Rob Roberge will be reading and signing copies of their books on Monday, February 10th, 2014 at Artifact Coffee at 7 pm. For information, visit the Ivy Bookshop’s website.

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  1. Wonderful Q and A. I plan to purchase Lightness from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, as suggested. I also now want to read the story that appeared in Southern Review. Thank you both for a tremendous and insightful read!

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