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10 Questions for Jessi Lewis

“‘C’mon, ladies. It’s not fun for me either,’ Marina called. ‘Bend over and touch your toes.’ The wet nurses complied, their rumps rising up in a line of mottled curved. The lights weighed on them, all nude except for cotton underwear.”
from, “The Milkmaid,” Volume 63, Issue 2 (Summer 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
For some reason poetry arrived before fiction. I wrote a poem about a tractor covered in snow when I was eight that is surprising because generally that’s not an eight-year-old’s go-to. I might have peaked then as a poet. Though, to be honest, I often look back at pieces I wrote as a kid and I hope desperately that I held onto whatever it was that brought that direct simplicity forward.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
It’s difficult for me to really know the answer to this question and sometimes I still surprise myself when I reread something from my undergraduate literature courses and realize how much the work influenced me. Pieces by Virginia Woolf and Nikky Finney are good examples. Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” influenced me so much as a teenager and I had forgotten this until teaching it recently. It was important that I read Bierce’s story at the time that I did and I often have to remind myself of this. Strong writing is always strong, but there’s a question if it is right for you and your world.

In the last three years, I’ve started to better understand the connection between my writing and reading, so it’s much clearer how my universe has shifted after reading Carmen Maria Machado, Mohsin Hamid and Rebecca Makkai. And others—so many others: Edwidge Danticat, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, George Saunders. I’ve reread, highlighted and dog-eared their works. I love going back and considering a character’s entrance and the finesse the writer used to introduce them.

And, when I watch excellent television series, I find myself in the same place, recognizing similar storytelling strategies in unique structures. The show Barry is one I want to study. I can’t tell you always how these works have influenced my writing directly, but I can say each time I witness a narrative that’s really captivating—makes me put down my tea and lean forward—I want to understand its mechanisms, emotions and magic.

What other professions have you worked in?
I teach college writing and lit, but I’ve also dabbled in editing, freelance and public relations work. My first job was a blueberry picker and market cashier, which says something about me, but I’m not sure what.

What inspired you to write this piece?
Breast feeding is a bizarre concept. At the time I wrote the first draft of “The Milkmaid,” I had decided that I did indeed want to have children. For a woman deciding this, there’s a sense of bodily and social sacrifice that comes with it. Pregnant women are both treasured and demeaned, which is confusing, to say the least. I used the plot of this story to process how our social structure belittles and manipulates women, often pitting them against each other. The commercialized lactation element of this story, though, really shows how anxious I was about early motherhood. A lot of my short story writing is built out of what I worry about in the world, and what I feel is just out of reach in our reality, but close enough to brush up against.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I am constantly influenced by a changing sense of environment. I’m not sure this is a real answer to your question, but every day I walk the same field I walked in as a kid and I recognize the massive and miniscule changes that have happened here. I am fascinated by witnessing change and how we somehow believe we are separate from nature when we are, very much, part of it.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Any rituals I’ve started I’ve also easily abandoned since nothing seems to really work. I have a toddler and if there is a ritual, it’s simply to regularly ask myself when I sit down to write how I’m doing. I always aim to find balance in my time and be present for my family and myself. It’s tricky, though. To work on this, I have a group of writer-friends who email each other monthly goals for our writing and lives. It’s a way to be accountable in publishing, revising and producing new work, but it’s also to help each other find purpose and balance. And, of course, to celebrate success when that’s in order—that is so freaking important.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I have a few insightful friends and family members who will read when they can. But, recently, probably thanks to a pandemic, I’ve fallen more dependent on myself when it comes to fiction. It takes me longer, but I’m finding better luck sorting through my intentions this way.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I am quite obsessed with the art world and I’ve always loved woodblock printmaking. You just can’t beat the kinesthetic joy of carving a negative image into a flat surface.

What are you working on currently?
I’m on the last draft of a novel that I’m so excited about, I try not to talk about it too often to avoid breaking the spell. It features potato dumplings, ghosts, grief, and deceit.

What are you reading right now?
On my nightstand, I have Otsuka’s The Swimmers and Hall’s Burntcoat. I’m listening to Johnson’s My Monticello. I just zoomed through Erdrich’s The Sentence and I need to go back to reread her earlier novels. Her language makes me float.

JESSI LEWIS grew up on a blueberry farm in rural Virginia. She was Oxford American’s Debut Fiction Prize winner in 2018. Her essays, short stories, and poems have been published or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Hopkins Review, Zone 3, Sonora Review, The Pinch, Yemassee, and others. Jessi’s novel manuscript, She Spoke Wire, was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

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