We caught up with Jessica Barksdale Inclan, whose short story, “The Possibility of Fire,” was a prize winner in Carve’s 2013 Esoteric Awards. Since taking home her trophy, it seems that she has yet to give her typewriter a break. The result – more. More of everything. Short stories, poetry, teaching and best yet – a new book release.
Jessica’s latest novel, How to Bake a Man, will hit the shelves in October. Before it does, we corned her to find out how she does it all, and what she has in store next.
Throughout your long career in publishing, what is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Honestly, I’m still learning this one lesson. I keep re-learning it about once a year. The lesson is to be patient. This has been hard to learn and to practice, as by nature I’m a get-it-done-now kind of person. I want things to go chop chop. I write, I revise, I send it out, it gets published. Many times in my long writing career, this has been the case. But from about 2010 to 2012, I was in a dry patch that made me frantic. My editor died, which was horrible for her, of course, but without her, I was a bit unmoored. Then my agent and I parted ways. For the first time in years, I didn’t have a project in the shoot or anyone to shoot the project once I was done. Who was I, I wondered, if I wasn’t being published?
So what did I do? I didn’t wait. I pressed on, writing stuff that wasn’t meant to be published. I thought it should, of course. But I was wrong. Finally, I went back to square one and took a number of classes at UCLA Extension, where I teach. I gave up on failed projects. I wrote poems and short stories. The short stories started getting published (one of them in Carve!). The poems, too. I read a lot. How to Bake a Man came out of this desperate yet fertile ground.
But my learning wasn’t over. With my current manuscript, I sent it out to agents and editors too early. One small publisher wanted to publish it, though, and sent me a contract. Before I signed, the editor and I started to talk about the edits. Right then, I felt this wasn’t a right fit. The story suddenly didn’t seem ready at all. So I didn’t sign with the publishing company and pulled way back. In fact, I’ve been working on it for several months since that offer. I’m rounding toward the final draft (for now) and an agent I’ve had contact with is waiting for it. All of this feels right. I waited. I gave the story its due.
I’m sure, though, I’ll have to learn this lesson again, sometime soon.
You’ve successfully published literature in all forms. Is there one you favor?
I’m truly in love with the short story. It’s a remarkable form. Everything has to read as full as a novel but be as clear as a poem. I love how the form sometimes allows for moments. Years, too. But things that would make for a very boring novel make for exceptional short stories. The sparse lushness of it never stops being intoxicating.
In your newest book, you’ve created a character, Becca Muchmore, who is a passionate baker, grad school drop-out, and a magnet for complicated relationships. Did you draw from yourself or someone you know to create her?
I’ve been teaching college for 26 years. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go over the years, some of whom had no business in the classroom. They had talents and skills ripe for the world. I am dismayed that almost “mandatory” college is necessary for “successful” life, when it isn’t. Or shouldn’t be. There’s a lot to learn out there that doesn’t happen in an institution. Yes, Becca has her undergraduate degree, but she doesn’t need graduate school to teach her what she already knows. That said, I’m just finishing up my MFA, my third degree (I have a fantasy about the University of Bath low-residency PhD. We will see). I love school, except for anything math related. I love being around people learning, and while writing can be learned in the “real” world, it’s great to have help. But with baking, the results (success and failure) can be measured in one day, in one bite. Writing sometimes takes a bit longer to measure, no pun intended.
What’s your dream Hollywood casting for her?
You know, I’m in a support Jennifer Lawrence frame of mind, so I’d say Jennifer.
Can you give us a quick snapshot of your writing process.
For a novel, it involves staying connected to the plot every day. Lately, I get up at five and try to write for an hour before my husband and dogs get up and all hell breaks loose. I don’t have the luxury of writing in long stretches, so before I leave the house, I print out pages from prior days and take them with me to the gym, work, appointments. In the afternoons, I make time to do the revisions. By the time I’m done, I’ve caught up with myself. But the revisions also help generate writing I haven’t done yet. I get ideas and see the nuances I don’t usually when I’m pushing through.
You’ve written 12 traditionally published books, published countless short stories, released e-books, written essays, and taught. Having nearly done it all, what does your future in this industry look like when you close your eyes and imagine it?
Truth is, I’m not sure. The publishing world has changed so much since I signed my first contract in 2000. The publishers of How to Bake a Man are revolutionaries in this new publishing landscape. Print, digital, more environmentally sound publication model. Social media. All that. But to be honest, in my true dreams, I’d like to just be able to write something, send it to my publisher, and then arrive at the Pulitzer Prize awards in my limo. Okay! You said my imagination.
What’s next for Becca Muchmore? Does her story end here?
Becca is over, at least for now. But I see her as happy and settled and on her way to her full and new and wonderful life. So much came together even as her old world broke apart. She needs a break from me, time to just get to literal business.