Musical Chairs was the first work I read by any of the other authors at All Things That Matter Press. I was blown away by the honesty in Jen's writing. Her book is a memoir of a young woman growing up in a blue collar family. She covers conflicts with her father, panic attacks she suffered through, her choice to dance at a strip club, living with a boy friend and his porn addicted father, and many other dark places she was led to through binge drinking.
Jen Knox writes both fiction and creative nonfiction. She never writes poetry, not on purpose (she asked me to include this detail), but she enjoys reading it. Jen is a graduate of Bennington's Writing Seminars and currently works as a Creative Writing professor at San Antonio College and Fiction Editor at Our Stories Literary Journal. Jen is here today to answer a few questions about her current title, Musical Chairs and her experience as an emerging writer.
Steve: Jen, tell us, what compelled you to write a memoir?
Jen: Hello. I didn't want to be bothered with plotlines. I'm kidding! I wanted to tell my story because it's a hell of a story, and although it's a hell of a story, it's not unique. Teenage girls, especially those who are prone to depression or anxiety, have it tough to begin with. There is a lot of confusion during this time, and when a person is depressed, the desire to 'escape' is prevalent. If undiagnosed, however, the dilemma compounds. It's common to seek escape. My family wasn't perfect, no, but I was not abused. Yet, I was sure that my life would be better, if only I got away from my parents. My memoir is about the tumultuous journey that follows this decision. Honestly, I did not set out to write a memoir. When I began writing, when I returned to college, I wrote fiction. Meanwhile, my personal stories were surfacing in the characters. Once a phenomenal teacher introduced me to the art of essay and memoir, I decided to give it a shot. Memoir is a tough genre, but incredibly rewarding.
Steve: In telling your story, has it made life easier or more difficult for you?
Jen: Interesting question. I can't say my life has become any easier, but I do feel as though the process of memoir writing, if taken seriously, allows more perspective on the past. I have received quite a few unsolicited diagnoses from readers. I suppose they might've been solicited, in a way, seeing as how I chose to publish, but either way, I had some really interesting responses. One man accused my father of molesting me, he said it was the sub-text he had read in the book. This did not happen, and so for my father to read this review was incredibly painful. Moreover, I have had quite a few people accuse me of being an amoral person, a person who "needs Jesus" or some other sort of saving, and this can be a little tough to take. The truth is, I'm very happy now, and I wouldn't trade my decisions for anything. My memoir was important because it gave voice to my younger self, a girl many other girls may relate to. And the positive feedback I've received, those who've told me that they have a similar story but are ashamed to share it; those who tell me that I am a tough girl for having the courage to change my lifestyle; those who have also abused alcohol or drugs, they make up for anything negative others might say. They are my audience.
Steve: What is your favorite color?
Jen: Gray-blue, like the sky just before it storms.
Steve: Did you experience writer’s block during the writing process? If so, how did you overcome it?
Jen: No. I wrote the draft in a summer. It took five years to revise and refine. I did have many days in which I didn't want to revise though, but it's my feeling that if a writer hires a ghostwriter for a memoir, it shouldn't be considered a memoir.
Steve: What advice can you give to those who suspect that they too could be suffering from some form of mental illness?
Jen: Talk to someone you trust. If you don't feel comfortable talking to someone, then write it down. Record how you feel and when you are most depressed, and then bring this information to a reputable psychologist. I am not a huge advocate of quick fixes, and I highly suggest that a person who wants a lasting cure pay close attention to how the mind works; study for yourself. The fact is, depression is not a rational thing, and so you cannot fix it with a quick, rational cure. It takes time and support. There are support groups and physical tools that will help, such as regular exercise that helped me immensely
Steve: What was the most difficult part of the writing process for Musical Chairs?
Jen: Figuring out which scenes to cut and which to include. It seems that a memoir would be easier to write than fiction, because the story is already there. But life doesn't follow a clear narrative path, and therefore a writer must impose one--this is no easy thing! The structure of memoir requires a lot of reworking and adjustment in order to maintain integrity and best tell a personal story.
Steve: Did you ever feel that by distancing yourself from your family, you might be able to avoid mental illness?
Jen: No. I feel as though distancing myself from my family did give me more appreciation for them, but I was a depressed little kid; it was with me long before I could name it. I strongly believe that mental distress, to a certain degree, is chemical. This doesn't mean that a person cannot find a personalized cure, and it doesn't mean I advocate medication as a quick fix, but it does mean that it's not wholly sociological.
Steve: How long did it take you to research, write and have your memoir published?
Jen: Five years, in total. A few months of writing; years of fact-checking and research; more years of revising.
Steve: What do you hope that your readers will take away from your book?
Jen: I hope that they will better understand what it is like for a young girl to deal with depression. I hope women will read this book, and chose to tell their own stories (in whatever way) rather than staying silent. Behaviors repeat if we don't address them, and the dangers that exist for a teenage girl will not go away. Awareness, however, can decrease a girl's odds of endangering herself.
Steve: Do you have any new books planned for publication in the next few years?
Jen: I plan to release a collection of short stories in early 2011 with All Things That Matter Press. It's entitled To Begin Again. I am currently working on a novel entitled Absurd Hunger. I hope to release this one in 2012, but I'm not sure this is realistic. We'll see.
Steve: Thank you, Jen, for your time. Musical Chairs can be purchased at Amazon.com at: http://amzn.com/0984259422
Check out Jen Knox's website and blog: