"John wanted to believe that it was his craftsmanship alone that had made Mrs. Matthews—the owner of the Wedding Cake House—contact him, but she said she’d seen him on the news, too, after he’d rescued that little girl. Mrs. Matthews wore heavy rose perfume, and… lingered in the doorway when he arrived to begin work, inviting him to warm up with hot cocoa and coffee brandy, talking to him as he tried to get back to work. First she had him restore the rest of the wall… But then she called him for odd jobs… to keep him around: leveling out a washing machine that bucked during the spin cycle; asking him to haul a rotten old wicker porch swing to the dump, her boney hand on his knee as she rode next to him and his hand politely moving it away. He was used to women flirting with him—even women her age, older than his mother—but the part of him that could… respond had been in hibernation since [his wife] Grace died. Each day, Mrs. Matthews wore a lower-cut blouse than the day before, the skin of her cleavage like fine crepe paper. How had he known what to do to get them off the ice like that? she wanted to know.And how is that little girl doing?"
- from The Mending Wall
– by Jennifer Genest
Jennifer Genest has a lovely, quiet grace about her. She smiles easily, her head tilted to listen, an earnest gesture. Her writing mirrors that initial impression, until one turns the page. Quickly setting and character are challenged by complication, and the story flies forward with intention and strength, as well as beauty and eloquence. Jennifer speaks here of her writing process, as well as her inspiration and influences.
Your novel, The Mending Wall, takes place in a small town in Maine. The details of place and the types of characters seem deeply rooted in the quiet and solitude, as well as the strength of community, one might find in a New England mill town. In writing the novel did you draw from your own experiences of growing up in Sanford, Maine?
Sanford gave me a lot of inspiration. I also had fun creating experiences I wished I’d had – inspired by places in or near Sanford. For example, Indian’s Last Leap (“The Leap”)—a wooded gorge—is a real place in Springvale, Maine (Sanford’s neighbor). In high school, The Leap was where the cool kids went to party. Far from being cool, I was never invited to those parties—but often imagined what it would be like. So I included it in the novel. I didn’t expect it to become such a significant place in the story.
Jennifer, her brother Matthew, and their Old English Sheepdog Dudley
I understand you are presently writing short stories. Your stories have a range of emotional depth, humor, even darkness. Could you speak about this emotional range and about the difference in the process of working on a longer project vs. a handful of shorter, unrelated pieces?
As far as range, I think that when a writer knows what a character would do in almost any situation, and truly feels with the character, then organic emotion (and, I suppose, emotional range true to that character) finds its way to the page. I am in awe of great short story writers; it’s something I work to become better at. Writing long is more comfortable for me. I feel like there’s more space, more time, less pressure (although of course, that’s really not true, since writing short can take a very long time—and vice versa). For the novel, I took months to map and figure out the characters before I wrote because there was simply more to keep track of in the story; I knew I’d get lost without a map. With short stories, my process includes more free writing as a way of finding the story.
It’s easier to workshop short stories with my writing group than it is a single chapter at a time; in that respect, I find writing short stories to be a bit less lonely. You get to come out more often with a complete story to share. It seldom means you’re done with the story—it just means you get to come out of the writing cave.
Why do you write?
As humbling as the writing process can be, it makes me happy. It’s thrilling to pretend, to be someone else on the page. Research for writing can bring new people into your life and open your heart. When you write, you have a reason to explore things you might never have otherwise.
Jennifer in Maine
Five great children’s books.
One Morning in Maine by Robert McCloskey
Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
All photos permission of Jennifer Genest.
Jennifer Genest grew up riding horses and playing in the woods of Sanford, a mill town in southern Maine. In college she studied equestrian science before moving on to earn her BFA (Roger Williams University) and MFA (Antioch University Los Angeles) in Creative Writing. She is a Peter Taylor Fellow for the 2013 Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her novel, The Mending Wall, was completed in 2012, and a synopsis and a sample chapter can be read at jennifergenest.wordpress.com. She lives with her family near Los Angeles, CA.
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
This interview first posted at Hothouse Magazine.