From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: Jennifer Marie Brissett

Has the pandemic and/or current events impacted your writing practice? And how have you adjusted?

I’m not gonna lie to you; it’s been hard. This whole notion that because we’ve all been locked up in our homes it “should be a great for our writing” is utter nonsense. I used to: get up-write-lunch-write-nap/errands/chores-dinner. Now my writing routine is all over the place. I mean, how does a normal human being not be affected by a freakin’ pandemic that is killing thousands of people?

My husband and I both got Covid at the very beginning of the outbreak in early March of last year. We actually didn’t know what it was. We thought of it as a really, really bad flu. We both had temperatures around 103°. I coughed so hard that I lost my voice for a week. After we recovered, we debated on whether my husband should be working at home or not. Then the debate was over, no more questions—he’s home. We just didn’t know how long this was gonna last. We still don’t. I basically gave up my home office for my husband to work, since he has Zoom meetings and phone calls and such. So I’ve been writing on the bed, which is a bit uncomfortable. We’ve both tried working at the dining table and it also doesn’t seem to work. We are still figuring things out.

But what’s been interesting is that the pandemic has forced us to rethink how we as a couple work. He used to commute to work two hours to and two hours back. That, plus the work day itself meant that I didn’t see him much. So now we’re talking about a more balanced work week, where sometimes he’s home and sometimes he’s in the office. I would miss him if he went back to the old schedule because I like having lunch with him.

You started writing in your 30s, but I am guessing you were reading long before that. What were the books that were significant for you when you were younger, and do they still hold up? Do you see their influence your writing?

I don’t think I was assigned enough reading in my pre-college education. So I spent a lot of years feeling very behind in my reading. I loved reading, though, and spent years trying to figure out what would be good to read. When I was still in college, I once asked an English teacher—a black lady who was teaching high schoolers in the summer program I was a TA in math and science in—if she would recommend some books to me. She laughed and joyously wrote down about 10 or 12 authors and titles. I carried that list around for years, ticking off the books and authors as I read them. People like Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and James Baldwin were on that list. Reading Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison and Bailey’s Café by Gloria Naylor opened my mind to the possibilities for how black people fit into the literature spectrum. These were beautifully written, powerful books that left me sitting still in the quiet to take it all in when I finished them. Later on I read Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I guess you could say after that my fate as an author was sealed.

You have an MFA from Stonecoast, and more recently did the Sycamore Hill Writers Workshop. Have these programs had a significant impact on your craft, process, or career?

After my bookstore closed, I felt pretty beaten up. I know there were a lot of forces at work to make that happen, but I couldn’t help but feel depressed about it. People tend to treat someone who tried something that failed like it’s a disease that they can catch. (Once an old customer who used to talk to me all the time saw me and crossed the street.) So yeah, my confidence took a hit.

I began writing as a coping method, sneaking out of bed at night to work at my computer. I wasn’t sleeping much, anyway. This went on for a few years. I wasn’t doing it seriously, just writing what came to mind. There may have even been a novel attempt in there. I never showed anybody anything. It was just for me. Octavia E. Butler’s death shook me into taking my writing more seriously. I had heard about Clarion before, but now I finally understood what Clarion was about, so I applied. I was rejected three times. I figured, hey, three times is the charm, right? I’ll try something else. Applying to the Stonecoast MFA program to me was just to see what they would say about my work in the rejection. I didn’t think I’d actually GET IN!! I remember my hands shaking and having to drink a beer just to calm down the night I received the acceptance.

Really, it was my mentors who were the most important part of the program for me. They seemed to realize quickly that I had a confidence problem and that I needed to know that I actually was a good writer. The structure of the deadlines and the encouragement of Stonecoast really helped to reinforce a sense that writing is not a hobby but a discipline. That if I want to be good, I have to keep at it, be persistent. I tried really hard while at Stonecoast to take advantage of the multiple disciplines of the program by attending seminars for poetry and creative non-fiction as well as my popular fiction seminars and workshops. It’s a multiple-genre practice that I maintain to this day.

You also have a Bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Engineering: Electrical Engineering with a concentration in Visual Art. Does this background often show up in your fiction?

Yes and no. No, in that, I don’t try to reference those parts of my background in my work. (Although one day I might. Who knows?) And yes, because the specifics of my training in each discipline come up in how I actually go about writing. For instance, the engineering comes up in how I sometimes look at my writing like fragmentary parts of a puzzle that I have to piece together. Sometimes my visual art training comes into play metaphorically in my writing, like how I was taught to draw a figure by lightly and quickly laying down a gesture line. It will be “wrong,” but it’s just to get a feel for the structure. Then keep laying down lines, looking closely at the object I’m trying to depict. Each line won’t be “correct,” but each will be closer to “correct.” Slowly the image will emerge . . .

Your first short story publication was “The Executioner” in 2009 (recently reprinted in Lightspeed) and you have a number of short stories out since then. Has your writing changed in specific or important ways since then? And if so, what do you attribute the changes to?

“The Executioner” still remains, to this day, a story that stays close to my heart. It’s a story that I hope evokes empathy in readers. I try to challenge myself with every piece of work to push harder to be clear and to feel each piece that I write. I think (hope) my writing has changed since I wrote that story. Any changes would’ve come from me growing as a writer and a person. It’s hard for me to say specifically how. I guess I leave that for readers to judge.

Your debut novel was Elysium, which came out in 2014 with Aqueduct Press. Did you learn things or have experiences with that book, on either the writing end or the publishing end, which informed or carried over into your upcoming book, Destroyer of Light?

I learned (and am still learning) a lot about the business end of the “Book Business.” I learned that it’s important that you and your agent be on the same wavelength about what is happening in your career and where you are going. When you’re writing, you’re doing it all alone. When you’re publishing, it becomes a team effort. I’ve lost count of how many people have been working with me to get this Destroyer of Light out there. There are people involved in this project that I’ve never met or spoken to personally. It’s hard to give up control over aspects of a work that you put so much of your personal feelings into, yet that’s the nature of this business: art and commerce working hand in hand.

Elysium had strong connections to history. It was based on the story of Roman Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous, and tapped into Roman motifs. Does Destroyer of Light have similar connections to history? What was the inspiration, how did the narrative start for you, and how did it develop?

The inspiration for Destroyer of Light was more myth than history. I did do some history research for the book, but the incidents I studied were more contemporary. I looked into the child soldier experience in countries like Uganda and Nigeria. It wasn’t easy to find narratives from girl soldiers, though. The few stories I found were word-of-mouth confessionals. Hearing a young woman talk about her experiences out there was pretty heart rending. After a while, I just knew that I needed to write about these girls, and that their story needed to be told, even in this fictionalized way.

What is your favorite thing about Cora, and the other characters in the book; what was the best thing about writing them?

I think the thing I love best about Cora was watching her grow up. It was also a painful thing to watch/experience/write. She goes through so many hard things in the book. But watching her begin to take on her own power was really elating for me. I was glad to author her into life.

In your Uncanny Magazine interview you said this book is “technically and emotionally the hardest thing I’ve done to this point.” What were the biggest challenges, and how did you deal with them?

Watching documentaries and reading about child soldiers. Seeing children being warped into killers, oh my God . . . I took several breaks while writing some of the more difficult scenes. I just needed to stop to take care of myself. At one point I just said, I’ve seen enough. It still kinda haunts me. I never want to look into that kind of darkness again.

What is really important or special to you about Destroyer of Light? What do you want readers to know about it, beyond blurbs and reviews?

I would like readers to know that, although this is a work of fiction, the practice of forcing children into becoming soldiers has happened all over the world—from Nazi Germany to Cambodia to Uganda, on and on. It’s a horror. As human beings, we must do everything we can to make sure, as a race, that our children are never forced into these situations.

What else are you working on, or what do you have coming up that readers and fans should look out for?

I’m currently working on my next novel. It’s the first time that I’ve been working on a real deadline, so it’s a bit scary. I don’t like to talk about this project too much, as it’s in that goopy stage and I feel like talking about it might “harden” it before it’s ready, if you know what I mean. I have a story coming out in Apex Magazine if their Kickstarter funds. It’s a story that’s been percolating in the background for me for a few years, actually. It’s called “The Healer” and I hope folks like it.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, where he’s been on staff since 2014. He joined the Lightspeed family in 2014 to work on the Queers Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, starting as a slush reader. He eventually worked his way up to associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He also reviews books for LocusLightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.