Thursday, September 14, 2023

Q&A with Janice Deal


Photo by David Deal



Janice Deal is the author of the new story collection Strange Attractors: The Ephrem Stories. Her other books include the new novel The Sound of Rabbits. She lives in the Chicago area.


Q: The stories in Strange Attractors take place in the fictional town of Ephrem, Illinois--is it based on a real place, and how did you choose this setting?


A: Ephrem comes from my imagination, but it was inspired by the towns in McHenry County, which is located in northern Illinois near the Wisconsin border.


A few summers ago, it happened that our son (at the time a high school teenager without a car) would regularly visit a friend up in that area; my husband David and I would drive him up, then bomb around and get a bite to eat. Sometimes we’d do some hiking.


It became a Friday evening routine for me and David, and we got to know the area well; we developed a fondness for certain towns. These communities weren’t quite rural, but open countryside was right there; they weren’t exactly suburbs, either, even though some of the usual suburban amenities, like malls, were very much in evidence. I was fascinated by this.


When I began writing the stories in Strange Attractors, I didn’t immediately understand that the places we’d visited had become a springboard for my imagination.


But eventually I realized that McHenry County was steeping in my brain pan all along, informing the decisions I made as I created the world of Ephrem.


Q: The book has been compared to the work of Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, and Flannery O’Connor. What do you think of those comparisons?


A: I am humbled and delighted by these comparisons: these are all authors I admire, deeply.


Flannery O’Connor! The misfits and outsiders that people her stories have made an indelible impression on me over the years, and the great compassion O’Connor shows them in her work has been instructive as I navigate the worlds of my own rather dysfunctional characters.


Willa Cather was the writer who showed me what it means to embrace the Midwest as a writer. And Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, was the first collection of linked stories, or story cycle, I ever read.


Each of these artists has had a profound impact on my work, and I’m honored by the comparison.


Q: The writer Elise Juska said of the book, “With an honest and empathetic eye, Janice Deal mines the everyday and familiar for the extraordinary and sublime.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: Elise’s assessment means a lot to me, as it gets to the heart of something that matters to the bone to me in my work: I’m deeply interested in the profound changes and events that exist, inevitably, in the everyday.


I am drawn to humble people and places when I write. Deep human truths don’t always unfold on a big stage. Life happens to unassuming people, in modest environs, and I am intrigued by the revelations that can hide in plain sight under seemingly unassuming circumstances.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the collection?


A: I hope that they see themselves in these characters. Not literally, necessarily. More on a gut level. My hope is that the experiences and challenges these characters navigate resonate in some way, so that readers come away feeling the solace of: I’m not alone in the human experience.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I recently completed a short novel, called The Blue Door, that explores my interest in the role faith plays in our lives—and the parallels that exist between organized religion and fairy tales.


Loss. Redemption. Identity. Transformation. Both fairy tales and religion can lean into these themes, and I explore that intersection by melding a contemporary story with a fairy tale of my invention. As the novel proceeds, the lines between the two storylines become increasingly blurred.


That project was a lot of fun to work on: it allowed me to really think outside the box. There’s even a little magical realism going on, especially near the end, and mining that vein felt joyful and liberating.

These days, I’m poised to begin a new collection of stories, tentatively titled Whale Fall.


Late last year I went to an exhibit about death at The Field Museum in Chicago. The exhibit touched on the phenomenon of a whale fall, which is the carcass of a whale that becomes a haven, a sort of complex localized ecosystem sustaining other deep-sea organisms.


A whale fall can only exist under specific conditions, and it’s that very specificity that intrigues me.


I’d like to ask of these new stories: how does death affect a person? What conditions contribute to the ways in which the characters navigate their experience of death—and its aftermath?


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about patience. It’s one of the lessons I seem to need to learn again and again in life, and I suspect that writing has encouraged me to develop that muscle more.

A case in point: I have a novel out—The Sound of Rabbits—that during the writing process invited me to explore patience at a whole new level.


Working on a novel was, for me, a marathon rather than a sprint. I had to be patient with the idea that I didn’t always know where the narrative was going, or how all the pieces would fit together.


But even shorter forms like stories demand my patience. One does the work without any guarantees that a given project will come together, no matter its length. There’s definitely a leap of faith in there. So, yeah: patience. And faith. Those are two gifts writing has given me.

Deborah, thank you so much for your interest in my work!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Janice Deal.

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