(Our first print version, NEW POP LIT Issue one, due to sneak preview at our table at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit starting June 19, contains several terrific stories by exciting writers. The best of them might be “Danny Boy” by underground writer Jessie Lynn McMains. Quite a find for us! NPL’s Karl Wenclas caught up with Jessie for a few fast questions-and-answers about her story and her writing.)
QUESTION: “Danny Boy” is about an online affair between two young women– one who believes the other is a young man. This situation creates surprising suspense for the reader. The narrative is plotted and tight. Did you work at that, or did it just happen?
The affair between them is not actually online – it is an affair through handwritten notes left in a secret place, and later, text messages. But yes, they have an affair that is not IRL, in the sense that they haven’t met in person and one believes the other is a boy. The seed of the story came from something that happened to me in middle school – a (female) friend of mine told me about a boy who lived in her neighborhood, had seen my writing (and my picture) in our town’s newspaper and developed a crush on me. She’d bring his letters to me at school, and I’d send my responses home with her. When I said I wanted to meet in person, she broke the news to me: He didn’t actually exist. She’d been writing the letters all along. I was devastated, and couldn’t understand why she’d trick me like that. It wasn’t until years later that I wondered if maybe she’d had a crush on me but didn’t know how to tell me. The idea for “Danny Boy” came to me from thinking about that experience, but of course the rest of it is entirely made up. If anything, as a teenager I was more like Danny than I was like Lorelei – getting crushes on girls I assumed were straight and wondering if they’d like me if I was a boy.
I worked at the narrative. I am always open to having a piece of writing surprising me – I jot down notes and a basic outline, but once I start writing, I let the momentum of the story carry me along, and sometimes it takes me places I hadn’t initially known it was going to. After I finished the first draft, I had a friend of mine (thanks, Jonas!) read it over and give me feedback. His help was invaluable, as he suggested that one scene seemingly came out of nowhere, and that I might want to include a little more lead-up to it. I set the story aside for a few days, then went back, added more description as per his suggestion, and took out a few details that didn’t add much to the story or move the plot along.
QUESTION: What’s the difference between zine and literary writing?
For me, there is none, at least not as far as how I approach the writing itself. I spend as much time planning, writing, and editing poetry, essays, and stories for my zines and other people’s zines as I do for pieces that I am writing for more ‘legitimate’ publications. For instance, my story “Insect Summer,” which was published on the New Pop Lit site was originally written for my zine.
The only real difference is that, when I’m writing something for my zine, I have ultimate control. That has both benefits and downsides. The benefit is that I can be freer in how I write and what I write about, and include things that a more traditional publication might tell me to take out. The downside is that if the story or zine ends up being sub-par, I have no one to blame but myself.
QUESTION: “Danny Boy” reminds me a little of the writing of Mary Gaitskill at her very best. Was she an influence on your work? If not, who was?
Mary Gaitskill was definitely not an influence on “Danny Boy,” as I have never read any of Mary Gaitskill’s writing! Certainly, I’ve heard her name before, but really know nothing about her and, as I said, have not read any of her work. Though now I’m curious about it and have added her books to my never-ending list of Things To Read.
It’s always difficult for me to say which other writers are an influence on my own writing. Partly because I never try to write like anyone else, so I often don’t notice that someone has had an influence on me until years later, looking back. Partly because I feel that I am in some way influenced by everything I read. But, I will say that there are definitely certain writers and/or certain books that have made me stop and say: “Yes, this is what I want to do.” Meaning, not write like the particular author, but write as well, and write something that makes people feel the way their writing makes me feel. Since we’re talking about a short story, here, I’ll give you a few books and writers whose short stories have had a profound effect on me – and then a couple more who aren’t specifically short story writers but who have influenced me.
Carson McCullers and Raymond Carver were two of the best short story writers of all time, in my opinion, and pretty much everything I’ve read by either one of them has stopped me in my tracks. Especially Carver’s short stories, my god. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love kills me every goddamn time. Next to What We Talk About, my other all-time favorite book of short stories is The Dubliners by James Joyce. Kelly Link is one of the best short story writers currently writing. I adore Black Coffee Night by Emily Schultz, All the Pretty Girls by Chandra Mayor, and Deliver Me From Nowhere by Tennessee Jones. I’ve also read a number of short story collections in the past year, two of which had a pretty big impact on me: The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier (particularly the story “Andrea Is Changing Her Name”), and The Palace of Illusions by Kim Addonizio. The two other writers who I’d say have most heavily influenced my writing are Michelle Tea and Aaron Cometbus. For Michelle Tea, it has more to do with her subject matter than her writing style – when I first read Valencia, I got really excited by the fact that she’d written this novel about fucked-up queer girls who did drugs and made art and got into tumultuous relationships, and it was all heavily autobiographical. It showed me that I could one day take the stuff of my own messy life and turn it into a publishable story. And Aaron Cometbus – well, reading Cometbus back in the ‘90s was one of the things that made me shift my zine from a typical fanzine to a ‘perzine.’ In later years, the fact that he published novellas in zine form and also clearly spent a lot of time honing his craft made me realize that there didn’t have to be such a hard and fast distinction between zines and ‘real literature.’