Categories
Talks

Jennifer A. Howard

Jennifer, if we could meet in person, where would you choose to sit and talk? A cafe? A bench facing the ocean? Your place? Or somewhere else?

Being out in the world sounds amazing these days. Can you imagine, a cafe! I do have a nice backyard, with a firepit. We could throw horseshoes, and sometimes deer visit. Let’s hang out there. (P.S. I don’t know that the ocean would ever come to mind. I’m a lake person. My town sits on Lake Superior, which is pretty glorious. Instead of sitting in my backyard, we could walk along the lakeshore and geocache.)

Somewhere I read, “Jennifer A. Howard is a first-generation Yooper”. What does that mean?

That statement is a little tongue-in-cheek. People in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, or the UP (or “Yoop”) are called “Yoopers,” and sometimes old-timers can be very rigid about who they consider a real Yooper. I was born here, in Escanaba, on the Lake Michigan shore, but since my parents were from downstate Michigan, I wasn’t really an insider like folks who’ve lived here for generations. I feel less of an outsider these days, though, living in Marquette, which is a college town with more influx of people from all over. In fact, maybe I’m an old-timer myself now.

Let’s talk about Passages North. You currently work as their editor-in-chief. Is that a full-time job? Would you please describe your workplace for me? What exactly are your responsibilities there?

My job as EIC of Passages North is a third of my full-time job. I’m a professor in the English department at Northern Michigan University, where I teach fiction writing and run the magazine. I get to work with grad students and undergraduate interns to build the magazine together, and it’s the best, most delightful part of my job. This year will be different, with a lot of our editing work moving online, but in regular times, we have a lovely office on the third floor with huge windows for snow-gazing and a blank wall for projecting poems and stories in meetings. I’m nostalgic for office times right now, but I’ll be patient about getting back there.

I know your father was an editor, too. I’d like to know more about him if that’s ok.

Super nice of you to ask. My dad was an English teacher at a community college and a poet. He was part of the crew of young teachers who founded Passages North in 1979, when it was more of a regional magazine, and I was ecstatic to join the magazine crew when I came to NMU, and even moreso to become its editor, because I remembered the days of those editors meeting in my living room when I was a little girl, overhearing adults talking about poems. I was hooked. My dad passed away a year ago, and I’m still — happily, gratefully — going through his papers, his own poems, his notebooks of meticulous and funny lists.

THE LEGACY
(To my daughters)
 
by Alan C. Howard
 
My last will was my first.
What I would give to you
I gave, so long before
You knew I’d know what gift
I’d give, or why or when.
 
There’s no exchange, no blame.
So don’t regret, but know
My will: once you have got,
Forget, beget, and give,
And give again, your gift.
DAUGHTER
by Alan C. Howard

Day darks, night brights, my mind thinking indrinks
      you in your crib justsleeping, breathing sighly,
      undriven dreaming, and I clockstuck grasp refracting
      rainbowed mindbeams of your justbornness,
      and I brainstrobe laughcries.
 
My brainstrobe timeprobes, kaleidostops,
      lasers by brightnow, rightnow flashes as I
      reeling touch you feeling my alwaysness—the
      of-my-self Eastermornborn newdawn no! -denial smile of
      you in your crib justsleeping—slidelike stillframed,
      sealedbeamed and everyhued.
 
But brainbeams also black refract, and I,
      forwardfilming, shuttershudder the toofastflicker,
      dreading and stalling the cradle-and-all downfalling
      and farewelling the nowmine mindpeace of
      you in your crib justsleeping, while I shun
      the gray, dark, dun someday youknow of myworld,
      insecuring and fearing your howcomes,
      and my dontknows
 
Dontknows die though, unthings unseen unsought
      by the reflecting spectral under-ultra, over-infra
      pastel prism of birthshine, and I breathe
      an aura of aurora’s child—
      you in your crib justsleeping—dawndreaming in your liferise,
      swaddled in tomorrowness, the echo of futurity
      and voice of starlight.

And you have some published works. As far as I know, they’re both short story collections. Right?

I have two chapbooks: How to End Up, published by New Delta Review, and You on Mars: Failed Sci-Fi Stories, published by The Cupboard Pamphlet. A third — Flat Stanley Reports Back to His Third-Grader — is completed but unpublished.

“I didn’t have a big idea for a book, so much as a series of little ideas over many years that grew like a tunnel of hard skin around a massive splinter in my finger. Or, to be less gross about it, I only realized I was heading toward a book when I decided to frame the fact that I wrote about a lot of the same concerns – motherhood and heartbreak and doubt — over and over again as a positive.”

Jennifer A. Howard on her flash fiction chapbook collection selected as the winner of NDR’s Annual Chapbook Competition by Jim Krusoe.

Jennifer, I do enjoy writing stories that take place overnight and it’s always raining in my works. Is there anything in your stories that appears again and again deliberately?

I realize you didn’t mean to limit me to weather, but I’m in love with snow on the page. Snow in stories, and in music, on TV. People are more beautiful with snow in their hair, snow makes everything more romantic and nervy. Can’t get enough of it. (Though I can certainly get enough of it in real life, especially when it’s spring other places and the UP is expecting yet another blizzard and I am in no mood to shovel yet again.)

Besides your published books, do you have some other works (available online) that readers can read for free?

Here’s a Flat Stanley story from last year: http://www.smokelong.com/flat-stanley-trusts/. Most of the Flat Stanley stories deal with true crime, but this one is a little more personal. 

Which one is more challenging? Writing or editing? And which one do you like the most?

Oh, writing is so much more challenging. Editing the magazine is finding other people’s magic and being the lucky person who gets to share it with the world. I hate the blank page. If I could write a first draft in my sleep and then get to only be conscious for the revision part (which I love), that would be ideal.

Do you talk with yourself (to elucidate everything) when you start writing a new piece? Or do you just keep quiet and scribble down the work?

Definitely keep quiet. I don’t want to mess myself up by being articulate or clear about anything early on. 🙂

Do you think writers (because of the stories they read & the worlds they create in their minds) study every human as a distinctive character? Do you examine and study the people whom you meet?

Maybe a little, but I don’t walk around consciously thinking of people as characters. Though my stories don’t always have traditional characters. They feel more like little meditations. Certainly relationships with people build empathy and expand (I hope) stories beyond my own narrow brain, and sometimes people use fabulous and unusual phrasing that I’m happy to steal for the page, but nah, I think the people around me are mostly safe from being transcribed in my work.

And my last questions: what is Jennifer A. Howard like? (How would you describe your own character?) And who could be your close friend?

What a difficult question. I’m an introvert, I like a quiet routine and a close circle of friends. A person could become my close friend by actively and attentively playing in my fantasy football league, by only rarely being late when we have plans to meet, by going on a road trip with me and not making me listen to new music I don’t already know but instead playing some sort of crack-the-case game with me. Though I’m sure there are other ways in too.

Categories
Tales

One Summer Night

The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead. He had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture — flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation — the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.

But dead — no; he was only very, very ill. He had, withal, the invalid’s apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him. No philosopher was he — just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference. The organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So, with no particular apprehension for his immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.

But something was going on overhead. It was a dark summer night, shot through with infrequent shimmers of lightning silently firing a cloud lying low in the west and portending a storm. These brief, stammering illuminations brought out with ghastly distinctness the monuments and headstones of the cemetery and seemed to set them dancing. It was not a night in which any credible witness was likely to be straying about a cemetery, so the three men who were there, digging into the grave of Henry Armstrong, felt reasonably secure.

Two of them were young students from a medical college a few miles away; the third was a gigantic negro known as Jess. For many years Jess had been employed about the cemetery as a man-of-all-work and it was his favourite pleasantry that he knew every soul in the place. From the nature of what he was now doing it was inferable that the place was not so populous as its register may have shown it to be.

Outside the wall, at the part of the grounds farthest from the public road, were a horse and a light wagon, waiting.

The work of excavation was not difficult. The earth with which the grave had been loosely filled a few hours before, offered little resistance and was soon thrown out. Removal of the casket from its box was less easy, but it was taken out, for it was a perquisite of Jess, who carefully unscrewed the cover and laid it aside, exposing the body in black trousers and white shirt. At that instant the air sprang to flame, a cracking shock of thunder shook the stunned world and Henry Armstrong tranquilly sat up. With inarticulate cries the men fled in terror, each in a different direction. For nothing on earth could two of them have been persuaded to return. But Jess was of another breed.

In the grey of the morning the two students, pallid and haggard from anxiety and with the terror of their adventure still beating tumultuously in their blood, met at the medical college.

“You saw it?” cried one.

“God! yes — what are we to do?”

They went around to the rear of the building, where they saw a horse, attached to a light wagon, hitched to a gatepost near the door of the dissecting-room. Mechanically they entered the room. On a bench in the obscurity sat the negro Jess. He rose, grinning, all eyes and teeth.

“I’m waiting for my pay,” he said.

Stretched naked on a long table lay the body of Henry Armstrong; the head defiled with blood and clay from a blow with a spade.

***

This flash fiction story was written by Ambrose Bierce.