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

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

That Question Is too Intimate

A friend of mine occasionally asks how my characters are faring. How’s Joel today? she’ll write in an email.

At first her questions took me aback. They felt personal and deeply intimate. But now those questions make me giddy.  Even when I haven’t had much time to write, instead of seeing those questions and feeling guilty because I haven’t had the opportunity to give my characters the attention they deserve, I pause for a moment and think, How IS Joel today?

I just finished my last major read-through of The Crossing.

I take notes as I go, instead of editing as I read. That way I’m able to maintain the novel’s flow in my head; I’m able to tell if sentence follows sentence, paragraph follows paragraph, scene follows scene, seamlessly. When I get to the end I look at my notes, usually a dozen pages of what needs to be changed. But this last time around I had less than one page.

That’s how I know I’m getting close.

From now on I’ll be looking for minor edits, keeping an eye out for stray commas and homophones. I’ll also make sure that the novel’s structure makes sense; in an earlier draft, Joel’s life was measured by James’s semesters. But now I’ve blocked the novel differently, and I want to make sure that works. I added a few moments during my last read-through, too, and I want to make sure they make sense when read against the novel as a whole. After my photography shoot in May, for example, we ended up with some great photos of James (Addison Roush) peeling off his coat to give to Joel (Evan Shaw) on the night of his 25th birthday.  (Look at this photo in dim light, so you can really see what’s going on.) That moment never happened in the original scene. But we ended up with those shots courtesy of Josh Baker and they were so perfect that just yesterday I added it in. I’ll make sure when I read through the novel that the addition wasn’t a mistake.

I don’t think it was.

Then I’ll be ready to work with my designer to get this novel into your hands. We’re already revamping my website in preparation.

Soon you’ll be able to see for yourself how Joel’s doing.

p.s. While you’re waiting, give I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden another look, and in the comments below, tell me what you thought. Did you love it? Did Adam make you crazy? (Oh, you still haven’t read it? Click here to purchase.)

Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Delaying Gratification

I promised to tell you more about my photo shoot. But I’ve been holding back.

I could lie, and say that I’ve been keeping those magnificent photos all to myself, but that’s not the truth.

I haven’t looked at them even once.

A few years ago, just before I published I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden, I scrawled one hundred pages’ worth of what will eventually be my third novel. Then I got busy publishing and promoting, and then I went back to The Crossing, which you’ll get to read later this year. Those hundred pages of my third novel I saved on my laptop, and I’ve only looked at them one time since.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about Joel and James and Adam, or what’s happening to them. I think about them all the time. But reading through those pages: that brings me too close. Until I have the time to work on that novel in successive days, there’s no point in opening the document. If I do, if I read those pages again and again for my own gratification, then by the time I can really sit down and work, the words I’ve written might be dead to me.

I’m not willing to take the risk.

I feel the same way about the photographs from my shoot. For more than a week I’ve had an email in my inbox from Amie King, the friend who hooked me up with Josh Baker of AzulOx Photography. The subject line? Top Ten. She’s given me her ten favorite photos from the three hundred Josh took, and she wants to know mine.

But I’ve been delaying gratification.

That shoot was just so fantastic, and the photographs themselves are so enthralling, that I don’t want to treat them lightly. I want to look at them; of course I do. But I want to do so with reverence. I want to lock myself up in the darkness of my closet (which from a metaphorical standpoint I find pretty hysterical), and just let myself go.

At the same time, I don’t want them to lose their glitter. And I know that the more I look at them, the more I lose that moment when everything is so new I’m breathless.

I have more to tell you: about the spring, about the last-minute revisions I’m going to make to my novel because of what Addison and Evan brought to the shoot. About what I have coming for you later this summer.

But I’m going to delay that gratification just a little bit longer.

Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Twilight

*The photographs in this post are intentionally shadowed and are best enjoyed in dim light.  

In I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden, Adam thinks back on his relationship with Bobby and says,

If I let myself, I could spend my entire life reliving those six years. If I let myself, I could crawl inside and never come out.

I’ve had the same feeling the past few days, as I’ve scrolled through the photos from my shoot last Thursday; I have the same feeling about my work in general. If I let myself, I could crawl inside and never come out.

Sometimes it takes a seriously concerted effort to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Last Thursday a cold front swept through Austin, breaking all kinds of records for the date. But instead of freaking out as I shivered on my deck that afternoon, I couldn’t stop smiling. The scene we were shooting takes place late in October. Of course the universe would deliver up a blustery day to match.

Josh Baker of AzulOx Photography showed up at Zilker Park ready to work. I hadn’t known what to expect; I’d never worked with Josh, and I had no idea how I was going to marry the vision I had in my head with what Josh might be thinking. He hadn’t wanted to read the scene ahead of time; instead he wanted the barest of directions (tunnel under Barton Springs Road, for example), and emotion (desire, guilt, attraction). But I could see from the beginning that he was willing to do whatever it took to get the perfect shot.

What really blew me away, though, was that Josh disappeared into his work the same way I disappear into mine. I could tell by the expression on his face, and the way he was setting up. I could tell by the way he answered my questions, and talked to his assistant, Austin.

Except that we were working on a scene that I had created, so in a way it felt like we were disappearing together.

I stood at the back of the tunnel, Josh sprawled on the ground in front of me, belly down on the tracks. Ahead of us, James (Addison Roush) leaned against the railing. Across from him, Joel (Evan Shaw) lit a cigarette. Josh started shooting (click, click, click) and I couldn’t help myself. Holy shit, I said. Because this scene, the one I’ve had in my head for so many years that Zilker Park has become synonymous with this moment between Joel and James, came alive right before my eyes.

I mentioned in my last post that Evan Shaw, an actor currently studying at David Mamet’s Atlantic Acting School in New York, was a pro from the very beginning. How do you feel about a wig? I wrote to him in an email as we were preparing for the shoot, and he said, I’ll wear whatever you want. Are you going to be too cold? I wrote on Thursday morning, and he wrote back, I’ll keep warm, don’t worry. He was too focused on the character to let himself get preoccupied with anything else, and he took up the role the second he stepped into the tunnel.

Playing opposite him was my own version of a Hail Mary, a friend of a friend of a friend who said he was willing to step in after the actor I had previously booked canceled on me. I actually considered having a third actor on set, just in case Addison couldn’t deliver.

That would have been a bad decision. Addison could not have been any more nonchalant about the role–or any more perfect.

The chemistry between Evan and Addison was so tantalizing, and the photos were so beautiful–Josh stopped every so often so I could see the magic he was conjuring and tell him what I wanted to see next–that I decided to go with a little more light. My original idea was to keep the actors in shadow, because when I read a book I want to use my imagination. And while Addison is very much like James, and Evan is very much like Joel, neither actor looks exactly the way I envision those characters. But when Josh gave Evan and Addison more light this happened.

JenHritz-251-2 copy

Are you in awe yet? I am. Just writing this post I can feel myself sinking deeper into this world.

I have more to share with you, I promise. You’ll want to see some of the shots from the spring. But you’ll have to stay tuned.

Because for now I’m pulling out.

I’m teasing you, I know.

It’s my own little form of foreplay.

Copyright © 2013 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved