Sherril Jaffe on the Exquisite Pleasure of Peeling Back the Layers
Sherril Jaffe would like to be writing novels but more often finds herself moving in the direction of the short story. Her last novel, Expiration Date, came out in 2011, and her latest collection of stories and 10th book, You Are Not Alone and Other Stories(winner of the Spokane Award for Short Fiction), in 2013. Her first book of short stories — some as short as a line — entitledScars Make Your Body More Interesting, was written to be read to poets, and still can be. She is the winner of the Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence, a PEN Award, as well as a MacDowell fellowship. A Professor of Creative and Literature at Sonoma State University, she lives and writes in San Francisco.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
I’m a fiction writer. I write literary fiction, both novels and short stories. Right now, I’m working on short stories, though I’d like to be writing a novel, because it is the more optimistic form. Because I’m writing stories right now, I can tell I am not in the most optimistic space, but that’s okay, because the privilege of being able to craft stories is a huge compensation. Because I publish mainly with independent presses, I do not earn my living directly from my writing but by teaching fiction writing — as a professor at Sonoma State University. It is summer now, and I am able to write every day and also to walk, with ample time left over to try to get into a little trouble, which is important for me to do, as art needs life.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Work and otherwise are interconnected, aren’t they? My biggest struggle is to uncover the truth, touch God, and have it feel good. I struggle to live with purity of intention so I can do this.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Take a very long walk every day.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes, because when I reread my books I usually enjoy them. Of course, I usually don’t reread them. At the moment I am considering myself successful because after a year of troubleshooting the crises in my mother’s life, a period in which I was unable to write because of the emotional turmoil I was in, things have finally settled down so I can think again. Right now I count myself as successful because three stories are choosing me to write them, and I’m having a terrific time writing all three at once. I don’t feel quite human when I’m not writing, so I am really grateful for the recognition my writing has received over the years, because this has given me permission to continue.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Sea-kayaking from island to island in southeastern Alaska, whales and salmon leaping and the sea teeming. We came to an island that had once been inhabited for thousands of years, and now there was not a trace save slight depressions in the loamy soil — the spongy perfect carpet in the forest of cedars in every stage of growth and decay. The berries were red and ripe. Nothing was wasted here; everything was used. I wanted to live there then. Now I try to live there on the page.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I strive to make every story a striptease — and sexy, on one level, in the way that dreams are always about sex on one level. Real stories of course consist of many levels which peel back, one after another. We read them for the exquisite pleasure of peeling these layers back. I’m always aiming to seduce my reader.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
This question gives me an opportunity to mention the fact that I am a widow and really miss the company of a sexy, smart man. I do not believe in art as sublimation.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on three stories. “After I Died,” I believe, is almost finished — if I can ever read it through without changing anything, it will be. I started this story the moment my mother’s crises started to abate, but they had been going for so long — a year — that everything was pent up inside me, so when I began to write it all came out as completely unmediated unconscious material. My job in developing it has been to make the connections and draw out the meaning. I’ve had to question every word, to polish and re-polish. It has taken me very deep. One of the joys of working on this story is that the form for it came to me early, and that is always magical, when it happens.
The second story, “The Cure” is still a sketch, I think, but its form also came as a gift. I think of it as a sonnet, actually — three movements like quatrains, each providing a reversal, and a final couplet-like movement that concludes in a surprising way.
The last story has not really found its form yet, except that it mimics a science fiction story. After obesity and overpopulation converge and there is no more elbow room, those only slightly obese get to emigrate to another planet…