Interview With Jessie Powell

I’m Jessie Powell, a 35 year old author whose book Divorce: A Love Story was published by Throwaway Lines in November of 2011. I believe in true love, blunt honesty, and chocolate. I’m married to Scott, and we have two children, Caroline and Sam. I started this adventure when I was trying to win the chance to speak in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods tenth anniversary audiobook. I didn’t win, but it was a truly awesome experience, and I think the woman who did win was a really talented speaker. The blog has become an end of its own, and I love to hear comments there, and in:

1.       How did you attain the title “The Jester Queen?”

This has a multipart answer. When I was seventeen, I wrote a story called The Jester King which featured a king going around disguised as his court jester. He wound up in a duel with the pirate king. I was scrambling for a Halloween costume that year, and so I went as the Gypsy Pirate Jester Queen. (I threw the gypsy in there for laughs, because the costume was such a complete cobbled-together-mess.) Halloween is the only nationally significant holiday I enjoy. So there was no question of skipping trick or treat. But I got stuck on that one costume, and I have worn it every year since, cobbling on more details as I found them. (I turned 35 this year, and yes, I have gone trick or treating every year since. I have begged and borrowed children to come with me, and when I couldn’t find any, I have walked around giving out candy so I could go door to door in a costume without getting raised eyebrows. Oddly, I’ve never attended a convention that involved cosplay. I need to remedy that.)

When I was twenty two, I met and started dating this guy whose last name was Merriman. Yes, the name derives from the moniker for court jesters. Then I married him. So I made my Halloween costume come true. (No gypsies or pirates yet, but I’ll keep you posted.) And I love the identity of ‘jester queen’. It fits me perfectly. Keep in mind that the jester wasn’t just the funnyman in medieval times. He was the guy most able to tell the king the truth without getting strung up by the toenails. I’m funny, yes, but I’m also blunt, and it’s a trait that seems to catch people off guard when they first meet me.

2.       Who is the King?

That would be my poor husband Scott, he of the last name Merriman. He is, by the way, the first guy I ever dated. I was such a total nerd. I had all these relationships in my head, but I had no intentions of ever marrying or even going out. I deliberately developed crushes on guys who were unattainable. I’d watched my parents emotionally abuse each other my whole life. They never got physical, but I thought, “Jesus, if that’s love, I’m not buying.” So I had outrageously high standards, and nobody I met could approach them.  And then I met Scott. I think I believed he was in the unattainable category, which meant that when my office mate realized I was interested and gave me the perfect pick up line, I had no trouble delivering it. When he accepted, I had to make her come on our date because I’d never been on one before. She left midway through once she was sure we were fine.  And he was a feminist and intellectual who laughed at the same things I did and pretended like I hadn’t just brought along my friend to chaperone. I knew within a date that we’d get married, though I hid from that certainty for the better part of two years.

3.       Who is Madame Syntax?

Alter Ego. Basically, I have three personalities, but to keep from scaring people, I call them my alter egos. (OK, they are alter egos. Seriously, I have complete control of the body. Mostly.)  Anyway, she’s the maniac who loves library cataloging and perfect grammar. I put her in charge of my work when I was a cataloger, and I turn her on when I’m line editing. To be perfectly honest, she isn’t very thorough, but don’t let her hear you say that.

4.       If a magic genie granted you the power to correct the spelling and grammar of everyone on the internet, would you do it?

Nope. Just certain things. Like “lay/lie”. That one bugs all three of my personalities. But mostly, people’s grammatical foibles delight me, especially if they reveal something linguistic. There are two sides to the study of the English language, and I have been cursed with an enjoyment of both. Linguists don’t have problems with ‘bad’ grammar, as it is typically indicative of language shifts, which are inevitable. They instead study those changes for fun. English teachers get all huffy about grammar and syntax. I do both.

5.       Does The Bitch Who Lives in Your Head have anything in common with Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club?

I’d never seen the movie when she erupted, but yes, when I eventually did, I saw parallels. She doesn’t make me blow up buildings. Whew. But when she gets an idea stuck in her craw, I can’t do anything but go with it. She wanted to nurse Caroline. I did NOT. I wanted my body back. I had post partum issues that went a lot deeper than depression. And nursing was physically painful and extremely difficult for Caroline, who never learned to latch. But The Bitch was clear. We would nurse, or She would quit my job for me. The things she makes me do seem to be things that are good for my family, like nursing the baby and not-quitting my job; and things that are good for me, like writing, but God help me if I ever think otherwise, because I’m not sure I can act against her.

6.       There’s a theory out there that all writers, indeed all those who need to do something creative full-time, are at least a little mentally ill. Do you think that’s true?

I’m bipolar. And I think that’s dumb. Writers and creative types get press for it because it’s a little hard to understand how we tick anyway, so as soon as somebody finds something resembling a common thread, they just go all crazy making assumptions. “Where do you get your stories” has a built in answer if people think it’s “from my crazy”. While mental illness may help SOME people create art, it inhibits me. When my bipolar is winning, I cannot write. At all. I went through a period of about four years from early in grad school and until Caroline was born, when The Bitch said We Would Be Taking Zoloft From Now On Because The Doctor Said So, when I was not a writer.

7.       When your daughter was being evaluated for special needs, did anyone tell you “Girls don’t have Aspergers?”

Mercifully, no. Some family members were in complete denial about  her specifically having it, but Scott and I come from intellectual tribes. They read up and knew that it affects both genders. And we have been … I’m not religious, but the correct word here is blessed … with professionals who recognized her symptoms. Indeed, Caroline’s symptoms are so classic that while I got quite a lot of “I would never have known she had autism” or “she doesn’t look autistic” (as if there is an autistic ‘look’), everybody who knew anything about it knew she had it.

8.       Why are you the only one who looks neurotypical Sprocketink crew page?

It’s meant to be a funny question, but I haven’t got a funny answer. There isn’t an ‘autistic’ look. I adore the goofball profile pics of the other crew members, who are embodying the humor and snark in their pictures. But no, those things don’t look autistic any more than this does…


Or this

9.       What is  Studio30 Plus and how did you become involved with them?

Studio 30 Plus is a social media website aimed at writers and bloggers. You don’t have to be over 30. You just have to be cool with those of us who are. Our members submit guest posts to be featured in the community blog, and they can submit a link to a blog post of their own every week and the site owner Kelly Sajonia of Naked Girl in a Dress features them in a weekly spotlight. We also feature a different member every week, and I get to do the write-up for that. It’s a growing community with a lot to offer in terms of networking and support. I got involved because, as I’m sure you’re familiar with from working at Write on Edge, volunteer based organizations have a revolving cast of helpers. It’s difficult to sustain a commitment to a group when work and family are all placing demands on your time, and the person who did the write-ups stepped down. Kelly posted a call for help and I jumped at the chance to become more involved with one of my favorite groups.

10.   What is the Trifecta Writing Challenge and how did you become involved with them?

Trifecta is a twice weekly writing linkup that focuses on the number three. Every Monday, editors Lisa Harvey Empty The Well and Joules Freiboth Lucid Lotus Life pick a new word. Everyone writes a story of between 33 and 333 words using the third definition of the chosen word. On the weekends, they issue some kind of zany challenge, often only requiring 33 words of text. I’ve been involved with them in a sort of side role, giving detailed critiques to people who submit stories. That’s winding down for now, though it may launch anew sometime next year.

11.   What was the path to publication for Divorce: A Love Story?

In 2010, I’d been writing this manuscript for about five years, and I had the first fifty pages finished, solid. The rest of the book was drafted and outlined but not really complete. A friend of a friend got together with somebody in England and started a press. I felt like this might be my best shot to connect with a publisher who didn’t expect me to pay to go to work. (This will be my career. I will never pay to do my job. I will be paid.) I sent the pages off, and the editor wanted the rest. Which didn’t exist except in rudimentary form. So I scrambled and finished the book in three months, and then the press fell apart. But it re-formed last year as Throwaway Lines, and mine was one of the first ebooks released. Hopefully, we’re going to get a paperback version out there soon.

12.   What was it like to work with a micro press?

There are pros and cons. The pros for me are that I didn’t pay to publish my work and I was able to get my first novel published. Those are both big deals for me. I will write for a living one day. One day soon, as the matter of fact. And to commit to that, I have to commit to some pretty stringent requirements, the first of which is that I’m not advancing my career on my own dime. My family needs my income too much for me to waste money on something that should be earning it. And yes, self-publishing would be a waste for me. (I acknowledge the arrogance of that attitude.) I lack the marketing ability to push my little short story in this America’s Next Author contest, let alone the savvy to market a book. I suck hard at sales. I would not earn a penny.

However, it’s difficult to get picked up by a major press, and it would have been unrealistic to expect a major press to pick up my first novel. A micro press was the perfect middle point between the two extremes. A first novel always has more hitches and bumps, I don’t care how professional you are or how long you spent writing it. I was (and am) flatly unwilling to pay for an editor. I will get paid to do my job; they will get paid to do their jobs on the same basis I do, the book’s success. It would have been unfair to set that standard for an editor I hired who had no other possible source of income from my work. But it’s the appropriate standard for an editor attached to a press. Also, any editor I hired would only have been accountable to me. So they would only have needed to edit the piece to my standards, which are high, but are only mine. But Jason Horger is both an editor and one of the press’s owners. He is motivated by his own standards which are quite a bit different than mine, and his financial motivation has nothing to do with whether or not he pisses me off. If I had been paying him, he would not have been as free to impose his standards on my writing, and I would not have been as compelled to either justify my decisions or make changes. Writing is a collaborative process, and having to make changes to match your editor’s needs is necessary and important to a work’s growth.

That said, there are cons. One of the biggest ones is that I still am responsible for a lot of my own marketing, and guess what? I still suck. I’m not an attention whore, and you have to be willing to do a bit of prostitution to sell a piece. I’m arrogant, but I don’t like to look at my own arrogance smack in the face. (And yes, going around saying “here, buy my book” feels arrogant to me in a way that snobbishly refusing to self publish does not.) Another is that the press is precarious. It could collapse at any time, and it did so once in the middle there. Finally, the road from e-book to paperback is hard won. The press has to be able to afford it. And that’s coming. Slowly. For me, paperback will feel real. That will be something I can actually advance. I can walk into the Montgomery Public Library and say “buy my book”. I can go to this bookstore that helps Alabama writers find an audience and say “put me in the hat”. I can’t do those things with an e-book. It will still feel arrogant, but I’ll have a tangible product attached to my attitude.

13.   How long have you been linking up with Write On Edge?

A little over a year. This was actually the second writing meme I found ever. I started my blog in April of 2011, but it was October before I figured out that blog hops and linkups and writing memes are the only way to acquire readers.

14.   Did you write Shallow Grave before or after hearing the call for submissions to Precipice?

Both. It was initially written for two separate writing challenges, a Trifecta piece and one from the now defunct IndieInk. The two pieces always went together, but it required a bit of rewriting to make them work well. So I would say the new piece (Frankenpiece) is really a distinct piece of writing.

15.   What have you done to promote your entry in the America’s Next Author contest?

Ugh. Not enough. Oooh looky, here’s my link. http://www.ebookmall.com/author/jester-queen I am so ambivalent about it. I hate contests. I hate competition. I want everybody to win always, especially my friends. And if I lose, that means I didn’t win, and if I win that means somebody else lost. I hate both emotions. Winning makes me sick, not high. I feel like the implication of such contests is that there are only a certain number of good writers out there. And assigning a ‘winner’ at this level of writing is like assigning a ‘winner’ in pizza decorating. It’s so subjective, and it depends on what toppings you like. We’re not talking about the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize here. Nor are the standards all related to writing. Sure, those cause controversy, but there is a clear standard, and the subjectivity factor is minimized. When the stakes are low like they are atTrifecta, I can manage that tension. But when the stakes are high, I freak out. The stories in this competition are drastically unlike each other. Look at mine and yours and Cam’s. Mine is a short story about a spunky thief who has to deal with her own nature. Yours is about a woman battling a major illness while she celebrates and comes to terms with the true meaning of her plural marriage. Cam’s is a love story, an epic romance with heartbroken lovers who have to fight for their love. Those three things have no common denominators to form a basis for comparison. If you don’t like fantasy, mine’s out. If the edgy topic of plural marriage freaks you out, yours is out. If you dislike the third person omniscient point of view or romance in general, Cam’s is out. So there’s that.

And then there’s the whole self-promotion is arrogant thing. I hate vote whoring. Hate it. My blog started because I couldn’t manage the anxiety of a contest I knew I was destined to lose. Popularity contests really upset me more than others because I was bullied as a kid, and I have a hard time asking for favors. Voting has nothing to do with skill, or very little. What my supporters are really saying is “I like you, Jessie”. I don’t need a vote to know they like me. But I have to ask them to vote if I want to win. To waste a favor on a writing contest where the REAL beneficiary is ebookmall, which gets tons of hits every day now for voting, smacks me wrong.

There’s this one woman who is getting her seventh graders to vote for and rank her. They put things like “We should go outside on Friday” in their comments. That’s unethical. It’s flatly unethical. And yet it kept her consistently in a top spot for several weeks, which meant there was one fewer honest entry for the judges to evaluate. (They don’t say, but my opinion is that other than the wildcards, they only ever look at the top ten.) One of her students came into my piece and ranked me down with a low star comment and I had to get ebook mall to remove the comment from my page. (I think that it happened more times than they could verify with IP addresses, and that the number of people VOTING against me just to support her was higher than the number commenting against me.) I don’t mind a low star review from an honest reader who didn’t like the piece. But this was clearly people just voting against me. Which infuriates me. The Ebookmall people feel like they have a solid algorithm to manage that kind of behavior, and I am willing to trust them on that. But the very fact that the behavior is taking place is nauseating to me. (Literally. I spent a weekend throwing up over this contest.) Competition brings out the worst in people, and at this level, we need to be out there gunning for each other, supporting our fellow writers who are all trying to get a foothold. It’s not like there are a limited number of people who can be published. That’s why I hawk my friends’ work as hard as my own. We’re all good. We all deserve recognition.

But I do want to succeed. If I’m going to attract the attention of a major press, I need to be out there, and participating in competitions is important. I submit to magazine based contests, and in 1998, I actually won a prize for my play The Nature of God from the National Society of Arts and Letters Ohio River Valley Branch. (Unpublished and unlikely to be published.) But I feel more comfortable with that type of judging. If I lose out there, it’s because someone was sincerely a better writer, or their writing appealed more to a professional. If I lose out here, it’s because not enough people liked me or I didn’t do enough things to make my work look pretty. Which upsets me profoundly.

16.   What is your favorite electronic or digital writing tool?

Besides Microsoft Word and word processing software in general? I don’t know that I have one. I’ve looked into Scrivener, but I don’t see the benefit for my work. It’s expensive and hard to manage when I can create confusing folders and complicated organizational schemes on my own, thanks to Madame Syntax. Possibly my blog, as it gives me a good drawing board on which to create characters.

17.   What is your favorite non-electronic writing tool?

I’m an office supply junkie. There’s a particular brand of pen I love, but I can’t find any at the moment. I believe it’s called Scripto fine point uniball or something like that. It feels so smooth to scrawl something with that.

18.   What is the most persistent distraction from writing?

My children and my job. Both of those demand a lot of my time. And beyond that, the business of ‘working’ my writing, the memes, the volunteering, and the social media time, all of those things are important tools towards success, but they are also distracting from the writing itself.

19.   How difficult was it for you to answer all these questions without cussing?

Actually, not very. None of these just begged for an F-bomb. Well, OK, a couple of times. But you introduced ‘bitch’, making it fair game, and I didn’t absolutely need the word I wanted in front of arrogant. Some things in life absolutely cry out for swears, and it drives me completely and totally berserk that people hide behind a 50 years outmoded thinking model about cursing. I mean, the president of our children’s parents’ association bought me Adam Mansbach’s classic bedtime story because my potty mouth runs away with every PA meeting I attend. And I heard Scott reading it to Sam the other night trying valiantly to avoid curses. And after the fourth time that Scott said “Go the F to sleep,” Sam pointed out, “You know, Mom just says the word, Dad. It’s a lot easier.” And Scott later said, “You know, you were never supposed to read that to an actual kid.” Which I knew, but just didn’t care about. My kids hear me curse all the time, and I’m teaching them to swear responsibly.

20.   Who shot first, Han or Greedo?

Han. It was Han. I hate the remastered Star Wars. (I also loathe episodes I, II, and III). Lucas really needed to stop while he was ahead, and he has so utterly screwed his own dream that I think that DISNEY can do it better, which is sad, sad commentary. Star Wars was classic NOT because of the special effects, but because of the acting. The combination of new faces and Shakespearean trained actors made the bad lines gel into perfection. Lucas missed the point recasting Han as a good guy. He’s not. He’s a smuggler out for his own good when the story starts. He didn’t rob Jabba to feed the widows and orphans with Chewbacca. He either gambled himself into debt or spent Jabba’s money in gambling, and Jabba is hot on his tail. He knows perfectly well that Greedo isn’t going to kill him. It’s irrational for Greedo to try to do it, if you think about the effort that Bobba Fett goes to in preserving the guy in carbonite to deliver him alive as a wall ornament in Empire Strikes Back. Greedo wants to overpower him and take him alive. Han knows the only way to get the upper hand is to shoot first and save himself.  It’s the same principal behind his shooting out the communications center in the prison block on the Death Star later in the film and condensing a potential time-buying conversation with the head honchos to “Luke, we’re going to have company”. He’s headstrong and impulsive, and he would never have given Greedo the chance to shoot first. Not in a thousand years. He knows he can’t talk his way out of a negotiation, and part of his character growth is his ability in Return of the Jedi to throw away his blaster to save his friends, which the Han of A New Hope could never have done.

And now, a little shameless self promotion! And cross promotion, for both of us…

Precipice, the literary anthology of Write on Edge showcases twenty-one short stories and essays by seventeen members of the Write on Edge community.

This book, available in paperback and electronic format, includes Jessie’s story Shallow Grave and AmyBeth’s story Abandon.

Both of us also have stories in the America’s Next Author contest. There are only a few days left, and we would both appreciate clicks, votes, and reviews. Voting is simple, and only takes a click on the “VOTE” button on the entrant’s page. Reviews are wonderful, and require you to log in with some basic info. Clicking the pictures below will take you to either Jessie’s or AmyBeth’s contest page.

AmyBeth’s story is The Peanut Gallery Rebellion:

 Handcuffs aren’t only for the bedroom. Louisa struggles to come to terms with the disease that holds her body hostage, and the burden it places on her family. Once upon a time, handcuffs and bondage were playthings, but now the captivity is real.

Jessie’s story is Flori and the Tourist:

A young thief caught stealing a wallet must escape aggressive pursuit. She must reconsider her own boundaries and decide what she is willing to do in order to get away.

Postscript

Jessie and I both know what it’s like to be the mother of a child with special needs. The term neurotypical  was coined in the autistic community as a label for people who are not on the autism spectrum.[1] (Thank you wikipedia) Since “normal” is just a setting on the dryer, the term neurotypical is very useful.

Only one of my daughters has special needs, but both of them are absolutely adorable!

About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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7 Responses to Interview With Jessie Powell

  1. Thank you SO much AmyBeth! You’re an awesome interviewer and writer.

  2. Pingback: The Jester is OUT (but you can find me elsewhere) - Jester Queen

  3. Ilene says:

    Jessie, great to see you here and learn more about you. I have to admit – every time I went to vote for you for America’s next Author, I would start to create an account and inevitably, got called away from my laptop. I WILL get back there – I promise. And as far as I’m concerned, you should be America’s next author, without a doubt!

  4. PS AmyBeth, your girls are too cute for words.

  5. Cameron says:

    These interviews are just wonderful. AmyBeth, you are a MASTER of interview questions.

    Jessie, your straight shooting, deeply giveashit attitude has drawn me as much as your talent, which is … um… not small 😉 It’s a privilege to have our writing wound into the same fabrics, different as our voices and approaches are. Seriously, woman. You kick ass.

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