An interview with Jessica Barksdale from The Write Stuff series:
Jessica Barksdale’s fifteenth novel, The Play’s the Thing, and second poetry collection, Grim Honey, were both published spring 2021. Her novels include Her Daughter’s Eyes, The Matter of Grace, and When You Believe. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Waccamaw Journal, Salt Hill Journal, Tahoma Review, and So to Speak. Her work has been recognized and honored by The Sewanee Review, The Wigleaf, The North American Review, and The Ocotillo Review. Recently retired, she taught at Diablo Valley College for thirty-two years and continues to teach novel writing online for UCLA Extension and in the online MFA program for Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
Oh, such a great question. I’ve spent some psychic energy on this one. When I was first starting to get published, I thought it was a badge of honor or symbolic or a power move to say, “I am a writer.” Of course, this writing was something I did, but not what was keeping me afloat, at least in terms of money.
When my first novel came out, I thought I should say, “I’m a novelist.” But really, was that what I did?
But at my core and center is the work that has really sustained me financially and emotionally: teaching, which I currently do for UCLA Extension and Southern New Hampshire University. I also taught for Diablo Valley College for almost 32 years.
So after too much internal wrangling, I learned to say, “I’m a teacher and a writer.”
That feels really true.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
The struggle this year has been to stay away from despair and find the joys in the quotidian, the daily, the slower, the still. And yet, that has always been my struggle. I find that finally, I’m figuring it out.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Pay attention, take notes, and write. Be persistent. Don’t give up or give into despair.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
Without the real world, there would be no writing for me. I am constantly using the real world to create poems and stories. But it has taken education—formal courses of study and many, many, many writing classes—to learn how to present all that information to others. I am not a savant, a genius, a visionary. So they have both been necessary.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
Oh, that poor girl. Her father had just died. Her mother was devastated. One of her sisters was soon to develop a chronic and eventually deadly disease.
I would take this poor child out for a really good meal. I would let her tell me the story of how it all happened, and then I would suggest the people who could help her, those she never recognized on her own, folks at her swim club, school, and in her community. And I would encourage her to really put her mind to school. Also, I would tell her that her family’s mess was not hers to resolve. Maybe after I dropped her off at school, I would call a few of my mother’s friends and maybe some family members to tell them to pay more attention to her.
Why do you get up every morning?
I really want to know what is going to happen next.
What’s wrong with society today?
Likely, it is our dependence on technology and social media. Of course, I’m right there with everyone else online, scrolling my Facebook, watching videos of animals.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
In the early morning while walking my dogs in the woods as we make our way to the creek. I don’t listen to music or an audiobook or talk on the phone. Mostly, we are alone. Best part of every day.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
What I am worried about more than anything these days—aside from everything, really—is global warming and the ruination of the environment. I have slowly made personal decisions that might help if more of us made them, such as moving to a plant-based diet and dragging my family along with me. My next car will be a hybrid or an electric car, and in general, I’m driving less due to the pandemic and a different work life.
I know these are tiny changes. But they are what I can do. We have to do something.
What is the relationship between your identity and your desires? Perhaps related, perhaps not: why is sex (un)important to you?
I just can’t even answer this properly. First the world of medicine needs to focus its beam of light on menopause in a serious way. When that happens, I’ll get back to you.
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
I am currently wearing a t-shirt with a big sunflower on it and a pair of cargo shorts. Oh, and a pair of Keen sandals. Please see the answer above about menopause.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
I am writing a novel that came out of five years of writing another novel that will never be published. Took me that long to figure out what I really needed to say. Sometimes, that’s how it goes.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Traffic. Oh, traffic, the bane of going anywhere for fun or work, for need or necessity. Thinking constantly about what time it is and if it would be feasible to even drive to North Berkeley or to Contra Costa. Oh, SFO. Can we get there in one, two, or three hours? Is it a game day? What about San Jose? It’s commute. Will we make it? No, no we won’t. Let’s go home and watch Netflix.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
What is a night out on the town? Come again?
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Once, I was asked to be with a friend during her C-section. I am actually kind of squeamish, but I couldn’t not look past my friend’s head and at the operation. I’ve never had a C-section, so I was mesmerized. For some reason, the doctors pulled her entire uterus out, put it on her body, and delivered her baby. I’m not sure why it happened like this—something about potentially removing her uterus. But before the delivery, I stared at that uterus full of a baby. Wow. Still, so much wow. And that is the strangest thing I have ever seen.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Lavender, basil, bay, a baby after a bath. Bread just out of the oven. Citrus, cut grass, morning.
What are you unable to live without?
I really need coffee. Theoretically, I could live without it, but no one would really want me to.