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I’ve tried to make this author interview series as diverse as possible, from both a gender and a racial perspective, since writers aren’t just expressing their own voices, but are creatively representing their community as well, both online and offline.
So as I wrap up this series soon, I’m happy to include bona fide “Jersey girl” Jen Conley, an author with whom I share a geographic background as well as being co-contributors to an anthology paying tribute to the late, great William E. Wallace.
But Jen’s byline is a far more frequent and familiar sight than mine when it comes to the tightly knit but broadly themed world of flash/short fiction collections. She is well respected in the indie lit universe, building that reputation with both exceptionally fie tuned talent and an easygoing personal style, at least in social media.
I’ve yet to meet Jen in person, but I feel like I have already. And after having read this exchange, you will, too. She’s just that down to Earth and authentic, as both artist and human being.
You’ve contributed to two anthologies inspired by famous musicians (Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash). Do you see a thematic/spiritual/aesthetic connection between music (specifically rock) and contemporary crime fiction?
I think I see all three connections. Rock music, which pretty much comes directly from Blues music, is in itself spiritual, rebellious, and working class. I think most contemporary music--classic rock, metal, grunge, rap, country, R&B--originates from the working class. Crime fiction can cross all class barriers, but I think crime fiction at its heart is about people who struggle with money, who have had it tough in life and still have it tough and even when we get to the end of their story, they’ll probably still have it tough. Or they’ll be dead. Take “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s a fabulous song but it’s a classic gallows story, complete with the despair of knowing your end is coming. Great crime fiction captures that same feeling--the desperation to survive, the deep fear of death.
As a woman in a patriarchal culture working in a genre often criticized for its frequent depiction of violence against women, what is the appeal of the noir field to you?
I’m not totally sure why I love this genre--I’ve always been attracted to stories in all forms, fiction and non-fiction. I think the appeal for me is that I like to kick and shout in my writing, and crime lets you do that. I’m not so sure a high level of rage is acceptable in other genres. There are exceptions, but in general, that’s my take. You can dial up the anger in crime and that appeals to me.
The other thing is that it’s a dangerous world for girls and women. I like to write about that danger because, well, I am a female. And like most women, I’ve experienced some pretty shitty situations. So I get it. The trick is to get that on paper without losing control of your story--you’ve got to move up and down the dial with the rage. So it’s really important to me not to be exploitative or shocking for entertainment purposes. My goal when I write is to show how crime affects a person, the aftermath of it, not so much the crime itself. I like a realistic thread running through my work even when I’m pushing up the rage and violence. Crime fiction allows for both of realism and a high amount of fury. I suppose this is why I love the genre.
Given the increasing competition for shrinking attention spans in a complex, fragmented, multi-media, sensory overloaded culture, do you think flash/short fiction is the way to go for aspiring authors, and do you find it creatively satisfying?
Yes, flash is the way to go for new authors. Writer Angel Luis Colon called flash fiction your “circuit training” and I completely agree. That low word count keeps you from going off the rails, forcing you to tell a story creatively in a box, so to speak. It’s great exercise and every writer should do it.
Usually I find spinning a flash story satisfying. Sometimes it’s frustrating because of the low word count and sometimes I start something off as flash but then decide to stretch it out to a bigger story. I actually think, well for me, because I trained myself in the early days to stay within a specific word count, I learned to automatically write low, place down the skeleton of the story first. Most of my first drafts are short and I go back and blow it up...sometimes too much. But I think it’s easier to blow things out than cut. I think learning how to write flash will make your writing life easier down the line.
This is a good way to remember to write Flash:
1. Main character and problem in first line.
2. One to three characters in your story. No more. Maybe a fourth but try not to.
3. One to two scenes only. (You should have no breaks or only one break)
4. Twist or cool line at the end.
These are my personal rules but I’ve found they work very well for keeping everything economical and tight. If you write enough of these stories, you’ll find your longer stories will also take on that same economy.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
Oh, wow. Everything ebbs and flows with me. I think if we’re going back to when I was a kid, which is when I got the writing bug, it’d be Judy Blume. She had a great talent for drawing you completely into her world within a sentence or two and I’ve always tried to emulate that. She also had a fabulous talent for connecting you to her main character. Right away you were there, feeling like you’d known her main character your entire life. Connection to character is everything for me--that doesn’t mean they have to be likable either. Personally, I’ll read unlikable characters but I don’t like writing them. I find it too difficult. You might not like my characters but I always do, even if they do terrible things.
But getting back to influences, I think it’s more stories or novels I’m inspired by. One of my all time favorite stories is Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun.” It’s a heavy story, and very sad. One of the characters is just so full of this horrifying fear that her common-law husband is coming to kill her and the people around her are horrendously indifferent to the situation. I read that in high school and I’ve never forgotten it. I think it’s perfect.
But I also adore “High Fidelity” and Nick Hornby’s humor as well. I’m trying to write more humor into my stories. Maybe because I’m getting older and I want to laugh more.
What’s next for you?
I have a new YA novel coming out in June or July. It’s called “Seven Ways To Get Rid Of Harry” and it’s about a 13-year-old boy who comes up with seven ways to get rid of his mom’s asshole boyfriend. I’m excited about this one. I think kids will like it.
I’m also working on short stories, started what I hope will be a new novel, and fixing up some old stuff of mine. I’d like to say I’m dedicated to all of these three things but I don’t know. I have a bad habit of spending hours on one thing only to say “This is shit” and abandon it. When I die someone is going to find a lot of half-finished stuff on my flash drive. But I’m pretty sure that’s the long rough road for every writer.
All of which explains why you aren’t just another flash in the proverbial pan. Cheers!
Jen Conley’s short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, Out of the Gutter, Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen and many others. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books, was shortlisted for Best American Mystery Stories, and is one of editors of Shotgun Honey. She lives in New Jersey.
Find Jen Conley online …
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New Orleans, LA