Jessica Hollander: English Instructor

Jessica Hollander
Jessica Hollander

Author of In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place and winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, Jessica Hollander grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and received her BA from the University of Michigan. She holds an MFA from The University of Alabama. Her stories have appeared in over fifty journals, including The Cincinnati Review, The Journal, Quarterly West, and Web Conjunctions, and she will be anthologized in The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers. She also teaches at The University of Alabama along with juggling a number of other titles such as mother and wife.

What is a day like in the life of teacher, mother, wife, and award-winning author Jessica Hollander?

Busy! One way my writing process has changed since I became a mother and full-time teacher is that I need to be a lot more structured if I want to have any writing time at all. I’m up on campus all day teaching on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then I split my time on MWF with writing in the morning, picking up my son from daycare, lesson prepping during his nap, and reading at night after he goes to sleep.

Seeing that you are an author yourself, how do you prepare your students to be better writers?

One thing I try to teach my writing students is to pay as much attention to the micro-level as to the macro-level and consider how each choice they make in their writing is going to influence theme and meaning. So we don’t just discuss plot and character; we think about language, image, setting, and structure, and consider how all these things work together to create an overall effect for the reader. We want to make use of our art form, so it’s important to think about how writing differs from movies or paintings. We discuss how we don’t just want to write a “good story” but to create literature that reveals itself to the reader on many levels and offers complex insight into humanity, relationships, social roles, isolation, or whatever it’s examining thematically.

What gave you the start on the road to becoming a successful writer?

I took my first creative writing class, Introduction to Creative Writing, my first semester senior year. It was my fun elective, and I think that was important, not to put too much pressure on writing right away. I haven’t stop writing since. I still have to remind myself, when I’m struggling with a story or saddened by feedback or rejection, that when it comes down to it, I would still write even if I never showed my work to anyone. The creative process is the most exciting part of being a writer, and following my creative instincts and experimenting in various ways I think has made my writing more dynamic than it would have been if I had put too much pressure or worried about pleasing people.

What inspires your writing?

Sometimes I will have a specific image or scenario that I know I want to write about, but often when I sit down to a blank page, I start with style. Maybe I want to try out a modular story or write about characters who have titles instead of names, or I will try a particular point of view I haven’t written from in a while, or I will write a sentence and see if I’m interested in the voice. I have to be engaged with the writing more dynamically than it would have been if I had put too much pressure on it or worried that I was not writing in a way that would please more people.

What tips or motivation do you have for inspiring writers?

Getting positive feedback on your writing feels great, but loving the writing process is what will ultimately sustain you. Try to push yourself occasionally outside your comfort zone and write pieces unlike what you have written before. Take risks. Pay attention to language, image, setting, minor characters, details, and consider the effects they have on the reader. Make sure the feedback you listen to fits with your own goals as a writer.

How does your personal life reflect your writing?

Of course everything in the collection is fiction, and anything resembling my life is skewed or exaggerated to the point that it wouldn’t be recognizable to most. I think the anxieties I write about are, to some degree, true to anxieties I have or have had in my own life, so the questions and worries reflect my own thoughts, even if the plots and characters don’t. I do have trouble writing about things that I am currently going through, so it often seems that I write about past anxieties that I still am hung up on or anxieties I have for the future. Whatever is swimming around in the back of my subconscious.

How does your writing career inform your teaching?

My writing career has taught me that every reader out there has different aesthetic that will appeal to them, so you can’t shape your own work to fit a particular audience. My approach to teaching is to inform students about the effects of choices they make in their writing and to suggest changes based on their own writing style and interests instead of trying to create uniform stories.

What inspired your thoughts to write and publish In These Times the Home is a Tired Place?

I wrote the pieces in the collection over the course of about four years, mostly while I was in grad school at Alabama, and wrote several other pieces during this time. When I started going through my body of work to prepare a collection for my thesis, I saw that there were strong connections between themes and stylistic interests in many of the stories. I wrote a couple more to fill out the collection, and I thought a lot about ordering and what I wanted the shape of the book to suggest thematically. The title changed a couple times. Then, when it felt ready, I sent it out to contests and hoped for the best.