Joel & Jennifer

Sometimes I wonder what Joel would think of me. What might we have said to each other if by some quirk of fate we’d ended up at the same party in college, or run into each other at BookPeople?

We’re not far off in age, just about a year and a half. Joel goes to the University of Texas and I did my undergraduate work at Southwestern University, just north of Austin. In 1990, when Joel’s a freshman, I could get from Georgetown to Austin in less than twenty-five minutes, a feat anyone familiar with current Austin traffic would find shocking. I went to Sixth Street; I hung out at the same bars where Joel talks for hours with James. What if we’d somehow been introduced?

I can’t imagine Joel would have liked me. In 1990, I was quiet and self-conscious. I liked my Gothic Literature class and read The Monk aloud; when I paused, my roommate called “don’t stop” from her bedroom upstairs in the condo we shared. I had a black cocker spaniel with a white goatee. My boyfriend went to Texas A&M.

I was boring as hell and Joel would have thought so, too.

Fast forward seven years. In 1997, Joel’s working his way out of what happened with James. He’s meeting Adam. He has his first art show, his first bad review, his first taste of cocaine. In 1997, I was taking my qualifying exams for my PhD. I was buying my first house, in suburban Fort Worth. I was obsessive about getting to the gym. I have a hard time picturing Joel coming to my pink brick house for a dinner party. I don’t think he would’ve been able to sit still. I think whoever he brought–Jess, most likely–would have put his hand on Joel’s leg under my glass dining room table to stop it from jittering.

Jump with me to 2002. Joel’s actually in a pretty good place: free from his father, living with Adam, painting in his new studio. I, on the other hand, had brain surgery that May, when I was pregnant with my son. I was still thinking about Joel, but for the first time since I’d started writing in his name I couldn’t get in his head. Hormones, probably. I was all MOTHER. Meeting me, Joel would have been polite; he learned small talk from his father. He might even have been nice. After all, living with Adam teaches him a certain amount of patience. I just don’t think he’d want to see how I decorated the nursery.

Let’s look at 2007. I don’t want to spoil what’s coming in Slow Burn, but I can tell you that Joel spends time in Austin, Chicago, Greece and Buenos Aires. Did I leave the city of Austin in 2007? I’m not sure. My son turned five that year. I bought another house, closer to Pearl Street than ever; I’m always trying to get closer. (Ten years and three houses later, I’m a mere 1.6 miles away.) I wrote when I could, mostly during the few hours a week my son was in preschool. I was struggling to find balance between writing, motherhood and a gym membership I wasn’t quite ready to relinquish. Maybe Joel and I could have bonded over yoga; I was just beginning my practice in 2007. Otherwise, we were no kind of match.

I know Joel so intimately, and still I crave more. Sometimes ours feels like such a one-sided relationship. Joel’s a gift I get to unwrap daily: receive, receive, receive.

Of course, I also give him life.

Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Closer Than You Think

It’s always a little heartbreaking to finish writing a novel.

For years I feel as if I’m in the middle of something. I can open my laptop, find my place in my draft and instantly be somewhere else. The unfolding is exquisite. I’m a voyeur, on a ride I don’t want to stop. That I don’t write chronologically–meaning that the first scene I write might be one of the last, the last scene one of the first–just adds to the delight. No matter how much I think I know what’s going to happen, my characters still manage to surprise me.

Most of the time I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

The end always comes fast for me. I’ll think I still have a good month or two of writing, and a week later I’m done. I’ll send out copies to my beta readers, then listen to what they have to say and assume I’ll need a few weeks to incorporate their suggestions. Days later I’m drawing out the editing process just so I can spend a little more time before I have to say goodbye.

I feel unmoored when I’ve finished writing a novel, emotional and off-balance. Joel and James and Adam: they center me like nothing else. When their story ends, I flounder. I need to know how I’m going to get my next breath.

I’m waiting for my last beta reader to give me her feedback. She’s been with me since I wrote The Crossing, and her honesty borders on brutal. She’ll likely have suggestions; fingers crossed. That will give me a chance to play just a little bit more.

Then the time will come to share this story.

I’m going to ensure that as many people as possible can read what happens next. So stay tuned. You’re closer than you think.

Copyright © Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

 

Slow Burn

jenhritz-184I finished writing Slow Burn.

I keep typing that sentence, then erasing the words. I’m thrilled, of course, and so ready to share with you what happens next for Joel, James and Adam. At the same time, I’m mourning the way I feel when I’m in the middle of something good.

Slow Burn isn’t what I expected. I expected to see more from Adam; I expected to write in his voice. I expected to fall in love with James. (I didn’t.) I envisioned this novel ending in November of 2009, not the previous spring. I thought that after reading Slow Burn you’d have the whole story.

Then, four months ago, I realized I was struggling with the end because I’d already written the end. I moved the seventy pages that comprised the beginning of Part Three into a blank document, which will eventually become the fourth novel in this series. Doing so changed the narrative arc, and the focus. Everything I’d written up to that point became the point. I thought I’d just been writing context. I was wrong.

Now I’m ready to read through the novel, from the beginning. I’ll do that more than once. In a couple of weeks, my beta readers will receive copies. I’ll give them a month, then take their comments into consideration (or not). I might revise a bit, though I’m not anticipating any major restructuring. I know these men. I know what happens to them. There isn’t much more to say, not in this novel.

Over the next few months, I’ll be keeping you updated: on this blog, on social media, and with videos I’ll be posting soon. Get excited. What made you crazy in The Crossing and I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden you’ll find amplified in Slow Burn. What felt hot will burn you better. The tears you cried you’ll cry again, because Slow Burn tells a story of circles, and what happens when the labyrinth never ends.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

I’ll Take It Any Way I Can

Someone recently asked what inspires me, and I’ve been contemplating the question ever since. My answer is nothing grandiose. I might hear a story of great travail; I might bear witness to a friend’s evolution following a period of trauma and feel amazed. Those aren’t the moments that make me want to write.

InspirationWhen I first saw Katherine Torrini’s Narcissus, I knew I had to have the mixed media piece for myself. Her work inspired my first short story, and introduced me to James’s voice. Every time I see this piece–which hangs on my living room wall, across from my desk–I’m newly enthralled.

But I don’t need something visual to move me. A year ago I was talking to a friend of mine, who told me I didn’t need to get too entrenched in negotiations with the buyers of a property I was then leasing. “They’re just trying to sugar talk you,” my friend said in his perfect southern drawl. I immediately snagged on his words. Sugar talk? I’d heard of sweet talk, but never sugar talk. What a quintessentially Texan phrase, the sort of phrase James would use–and does, in the novel I’m currently writing.

Then there’s scent. Swing & SmokesA year or so ago, out with friends on a Friday night, we sat drinking wine at a local bar where porch swings hang from the trees. Porch swings, like the one that graces Joel’s house on Pearl Street in college. I was already intrigued, and of course my friend Amie, who knows me well, suggested we have a seat. As soon as I caught the scent of a freshly lit cigarette from a table nearby, I borrowed one for myself. I don’t smoke–ever–but the lure in the moment was too tempting. Someone snapped this photo at the perfect time.

I like the details. Jeans torn around the ankles, a smile like a fish hook, a scent so slight it’s almost imagined. I don’t want the story already told, however beautiful or transformative. I want the prompt, the promise of seduction. Make it subtle, so I can play.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Chocolate and Tears

Some of you know that I tutor children in creative writing. I’m very careful about selecting these students, in part because I don’t profess to have a set of rules about how to write well. Honestly, I’m not even sure good writing can be taught. Encouraged, perhaps. But the writing processes of the authors I know don’t add up to any sort of rubric. What I offer the few children I work with on a weekly basis is the freedom to write what they want, without fear. I give guidance, certainly. But mostly what I do is hold space for them to get to know their characters and feel their way forward as writers.

Last week, when I arrived at Isabel’s house for our two-hour session, she had a tea party laid out for us.

tea party

We chatted for a while, and then she told me her news. She’d finished writing her novel.

Isabel is twelve years old, and she’s good. Edge-of-your-seat good. There’s no doubt in my mind that you–or your children, because she writes books for young adults–will read her books at some point. The novel she just finished is her second. She started writing it the first week of November. It’s 91,000 words. If I could write that fast, you would’ve had my third novel years ago.

After Isabel told me her news, she added, “And that’s why I spent Wednesday crying and eating chocolate.”

I knew instantly how she felt. So often, people don’t understand. They think the finished product, the book launch, the reviews, the sales… are the point. They’re important, of course. I love sharing my books with my readers, and those of you who take the time to write to me personally to tell me how these men have affected you have a special place in my heart. But there’s something about what happens between a writer and her characters when the last word has been written but the book hasn’t yet been shared.

I feel a profound connection to my characters, and to the stories I’ve written. I live an alternate reality for years. When the story’s over, the heart breaks.

Isabel’s confession felt especially resonate because the day she finished her novel, I finished writing Part Two of my third novel. I don’t usually write in a linear fashion–as a matter of fact, the last scene of Part Two was the first scene I wrote–but for some reason Parts One and Two appeared first this time around. (Part Three remains to be written.) I finished Part Two, and I cried, and I started a read-through of what I have so far.

The read-through took a week, and I’ve had to take the last few days to recuperate. To cry and eat chocolate. What’s getting me through is knowing I still have Part Three to write. I’ve started, of course, and I know what’s going to happen.

But I have a little time before I’ll need that chocolate again.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Your Stories

pipeI’m not going to steal your stories.

I said I might, but I lied. I’ll listen to your stories; believe me, I’ll listen. I’m naturally curious and I ask a lot of questions. An hour with me might wear you out. I can’t help myself. I want to understand your motivation. You’re James from Joel’s perspective, a puzzle exquisite in its intricacy. I want to figure you out.

But I’m not interested in appropriating your narrative.

My relationship with my characters might be my most intimate. When I’m writing, I’m experiencing them. As them. The words that come to me aren’t mine. They belong to Joel, to James, to Adam. Whatever they’re seeing, hearing, touching, I’m seeing, hearing, touching. I can smell the smoke from their cigarettes, taste the beer in their mouths. I can feel Joel’s paintbrush between my fingers, grip the steering wheel of Adam’s BMW beneath my hands. I’m not sitting in front of my laptop in Austin, Texas. I’m Joel, watching his father light a cigar. I’m stumbling around a cemetery in Greece, drunk and jealous and pissed, and my name isn’t Jennifer.

If I steal your stories I have to get in your head. And I don’t want to experience you that way.

Your nuance: now that’s what seduces me. A gesture, the inflection of one word. A laugh I’m not expecting from your mouth. That look you gave me when you took your eyes from your cell phone… I don’t think you realize how far that’s going to go. All day every day I’m waiting for the moment that sticks, the one that makes me stop right where I am and pay attention. If you have it, I want it.

I don’t need to steal your stories. I like my own. But I’m taking you in anyway, the way Joel would take a hit from a joint. I want what you do to me. I want you to make me high.

Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Boundaries & Vulnerability

I had lunch with a friend today. He’s an insightful guy, and we tend to have intense conversations. I was telling him about a date I had recently, with a guy who spent most of the three hours we were together telling me about himself. “Didn’t he ask you any questions?” Dan asked, and I kind of shrugged. Well, yes, a few. But they were so general I didn’t know how to respond. “So you’re a writer” leaves me at a loss. I like specifics. I thrive on detail. Ask me about my process. Tell me you want to know something titillating no one else knows about my characters. “So you’re a writer” will just close me right up.

Dan begged to differ. Dan said I’m wide open and curious about other people, but reluctant to let anyone go too deep when it’s my turn to be explored. I tried to tell him he was wrong, but he was having none of it. I’m territorial, he said, and he backed up his assessment with specifics: I don’t always like to answer his (probing) questions. I’m a little crazy about my writing time. I wouldn’t share my curry with him. There might have been a pantomime, with Dan demonstrating the walls I’m apparently erecting left and right.

He also reminded me that I’m interested in boundaries, and explore them voraciously in my writing.

Here’s a snippet of Joel’s voice from my third novel, in progress.

Seven years of therapy and a flicker of faith in some sort of inherent self-worth made me leave Adam when I found out about his affair, and despite the current of pain that runs through pretty much my every waking moment, for the most part I’ve been grateful I didn’t stay. My boundaries suck. If I needed proof all I’d have to do is look at my relationship with James. I let those boundaries bleed all over the place and just when I think we’ve cauterized every last vein we start seeping.

Of course, when those boundaries start seeping… well, that’s where the story gets good. I suppose I have to remind myself of that every so often, because vulnerability doesn’t come naturally to me. My tendency over the years has been along the lines of suck it up. Case in point: the day before yesterday I was boiling a pot of tea and I poured the water directly into a glass pitcher. The glass exploded, and this happened.

Ouch

My first thought? How much writing time am I going to lose.

Thirty minutes, as it turned out, just enough for me to clean up and post a Note to Self about the mishap on Facebook. Adrenaline might have carried me, but I wrote for over two hours and saved the sobbing for the afternoon. I was going to hold that boundary.

Negotiating the space between boundaries and vulnerability… that’s not easy for me. It’s not easy for my characters either.

I suppose the question I have to ask myself–and thank my characters for epitomizing–is, do I want to live a good story?

Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

 

 

When Characters Disappoint

Joel can be such a prick.

I love the guy, but there’s no question that his behavior in The Crossing leaves something to be desired. He’s manipulative and passive-aggressive, self-indulgent and self-loathing. I’ve had readers tell me that if they weren’t so sucked into the story they would’ve shut the book. He can be that despicable.

Of course, in I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden Joel comes off as the complete opposite. Maybe that’s why so many of my readers struggle with Adam’s infidelity. Joel’s so nice, and he’s doing everything he can to be there for his partner.

Adam can be such a prick.

Both novels I’ve written in first person, which means as the reader you’re getting a head full of the narrator. You’re seeing everything from one perspective and that perspective is wildly skewed.

On a weekly basis I work with a handful of girls on their creative writing. We meet one-on-one for an hour and chat about what they’ve been thinking over the past week, then read through what they’ve come up with and talk about what’s working (and sometimes what’s not). I love these girls. They’re smart and insightful and so captivated by the stories in their heads. And they’re so keen to share what they’re thinking. It’s a privilege to have a glimpse into their worlds.

About a month ago, one of the girls was freaking out. She’s twelve and she’s writing a novel—and before you say how cute, believe me when I say that this girl has what it takes. A handful of times I’ve wanted to steal her lines. She’s that good. So Kat was freaking out because she’s writing this book about two teenagers who get lost in the Canadian wilderness during a flash food, and she was at the point in her writing where her characters have become separated from each other. The story’s told from the girl’s perspective and for weeks all Kat could talk about was the girl’s boyfriend. What was he doing, what was happening to him, how was he going to find the girl again? I kept telling her to chill out, that she didn’t need to know what the boyfriend was doing. She just needed to concentrate on her narrator and when the boyfriend showed up he’d tell his story.

She didn’t seem to hear me. Every week she’d show up and say the same thing: what’s he doing, what’s happening to him, how’s he going to find her again? Every week I’d tell her to focus on her narrator and when the boyfriend was ready he’d show.

Then she told me she was afraid he wouldn’t. That he’d abandon his girlfriend altogether.

Oh.

As writers, we fall in love with our characters. We really do. We follow them through one ordeal after another and we just want them to be okay.

And we really don’t want them to disappoint us.

Kat had been so preoccupied with the boyfriend because she’d built him up in her mind as the kind of guy who’d do whatever it took to find his girlfriend after she fell into the river. She didn’t want him to be the kind of guy who gave up.

Now, you might be thinking that she’s the author so she gets to decide. But that’s not how it works, not for many writers. These characters have lives of their own. They make their own choices. We just tell their stories.

I’m about halfway through the writing of my third novel, and this one has three narrators. Joel and Adam both have a voice, and this time James does, too. The only time prior to writing this novel that I’ve written in James’s voice was when I wrote “Mixed Media,” which won the Chris O’Malley Fiction Prize a few years ago. If you read that story (subscribe to my blog and I’ll send you a copy), you’ll want to wrap your arms around James. And the way Joel goes on and on about him in The Crossing you can’t help but think he’s a good guy, even though he makes some mistakes along the way.

A few days ago I was at Steeping Room with a beautiful green coconut tea and my laptop, my conversation with Kat fresh in my mind. I was ready to write a scene, one I’d been thinking about for a long time. Told from James’s perspective, this scene takes place on Christmas in 2006 and has a very specific, disturbing end. All I had to do was get to that end.

But nothing was coming. I couldn’t even see the scene I’d envisioned anymore. Instead I was being pulled in a different direction and god, was I fighting it. Because James wouldn’t behave the way the scene wanted to be written. He wouldn’t make the mistake he was about to make. He was better than what he wanted me to write.

I had to squeeze my eyes shut when I touched my keyboard. I’m sure I was cringing as I wrote. Every so often I’d have to stop and catch my breath.

And let go.

James doesn’t belong to me. I’m in his head right now but I don’t get to make his choices. He makes his own.

And he can be such a prick.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved