Today we're talking to Jan Elizabeth Watson, the author of ASTA IN THE WINGS and WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU.


Please tell us a little about yourself.

I was born in Washington, DC during a time when my father was working in that area, but for all intents and purposes, I grew up in Maine; my parents, my four older brothers, and I moved back there when I was still a baby. I spent nearly ten years living and working in New York City and ultimately came back to Maine for what I thought would be a temporary return. That was in 2003, and I'm still here. I spent so much of my early life feeling that I was at odds with Maine and have now reconciled with it in a grudging sort of relationship, like a contentious old married couple that has hearned to enjoy sparring with each other. Mainers have this quiet, observant, deadpan way about them, and so do I. It's no wonder this is such a breeding ground for writers.

 

How and when did you become a writer?

I never quite know how to answer the question of "When did you become a writer?" because there are so many different ways to measure that. Do you become a writer once you feel in your heart that writing is a true vocation? Do you become a writer the first time you get paid for your work? I do know that I started writing stories when I was about four years old, and by the time I was seven, I'd announced to my second-grade teacher that I wanted to be novelist. Not just a writer, mind you: a novelist. Very specific. From an early age, I loved books and had a facility for words and knew there was nothing I liked better than putting words together in a way that could make people think or feel. I used to write stirring poems and stories for my mother and my teachers just to see if I could make them cry. When I did, I knew it was an artistic triumph. What heady power for a little kid to have! I wrote book-length manuscripts all through middle school, high school, and college but did not feel quite confident enough to put my work out there until 2008, when I started shopping ASTA IN THE WINGS to agents. I suppose that was the point that I was finally comfortable in the skin I'd been in for so many years.


What genre do you write?

I write fiction with a litearry bent, but I have ideas for nonfiction projects that I'd like to execute at some point in time. I'd love to dedicate myself to a true crime research project or something related to silent movie history-- two subjects about which I have heaps of unused (if not utterly useless) knowledge.

 

How would you describe your writing style?

I once described my writing as Dorothy Parker meets Victorian fairy tales meets MAD magazine. I have a dark and intense sensibility but have a strong satirical sense as well. Neither of my books are what you would call comic novels by any stretch of the imagination, but each has mordant bits of humor tucked here and there, almost in spite of themselves. I'd like to shed some of my inhibitions and eventually commit to writing a project that's flat-out funny in a dark, velvety, voluptuous sort of way. Writing comedy takes guts!

 

What makes you different from other writers?

I think I'm a lot different from other writers, though it's tough to pinpoint exactly how. I hate networking, for one thing; I am just horrendous at that. I think my point of view and voice are unique to me and thus come across as somewhat odd-- though I like to think it's a good kind of odd rather than the fully offputting kind. I'm deeply introverted, highly observant, and I lead a very interior sort of life where the morbid and eccentric are often sources of great amusement to me. One reviewer on Amazon gave me a one-star review with just two words underneath it: "Very outre." I thought this was a huge compliment! My favorite subject matter are outcasts of all types. The greatest challenge for me would be to write a story about a normal suburban couple with nine- -five jobs and/or a family and the resultant stressors and conflicts that arise from that. Nothing wrong with that kind of domestic fiction; these just aren't the characters who come to me. My characters are lonely people who come to me in what I consider 'visions,' for lack of a beter term. I see pieces of them at first: a mannerism, a look in the eye, a feeling they have inside. Then a name comes. I usually spend months, sometimes more, just getting to know this character who has emerged before I even attempt to put them on the page. They accompany me into the shower and go on long walk with me. I guess you could say that my writing process is character-driven... and slow.

 

Who is your favorite character in ASTA IN THE WINGS and why?

I'll always have a soft spot for Asta, the eponymous character of my first novel. She is a seven-year-old girl who, despite living in peculiar circumstances, has an awful lot of my early worldview. I remember being such a serious child, very fanciful and pragmatic at the same time. I was also somewhat critical. I related more to other adults than to other children for the most part but also silently disapproved of the things a lot of adults were saying and doing. It was fun to give voice to that mindset through Asta and to sneak in so many little memories from my own school days and from the neighborhood I grew up in. FOr instance, in the novel there's a mention of a "Satan church" and a school crossing guard who committed suicide, and both those things happened in my town when I was a child. It was a strange town at that time... lots of weird goings-on that I'm sure inspired me in some way. My friends who grew up with me there can attest to that, I think.


We live in divisive times. Should your religion/politics influence your writing?

This is probably not going to be a popular answer in this particular moment in time, but I usually don't let politics inform my writing. I see my writing as more about the life of the mind and quiet human interaction rather than a large-scale representation of where we are at or where we should be politically. I write about life in miniature. I suppose one can always apply a political interpretaton to someone else's writing, but it isn't really my intention to wax political in my work. There are plenty of other writers out there who are better equipped to do so than I am. I remember once reading a customer reivew of WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU where the reader complained that the main character, Vera, is not really a good role model for other women. And I thought to myself, "I'm supposed to be creating good role models? Sheesh! Did I pick the wrong career path or what?"

 

What are you working on now?

I am working on a third novel.. slowly, as you can imagine. Right now I have a teaching load of about 120 college students per term, so finding the time to move forward with this is a real bear. I may have to open up my schedule to allow for more concentrated writing time in the near future. It was six years between the publication of my first novel and the publication of my second... and at this rate, I'll guess it's going to be about six years between the publication of the last one and of the one that's currently in progress. Hopefully it will be worth waiting for!

 

 

 

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