Sunday, October 15, 2023

Q&A with Jody Hobbs Hesler




Jody Hobbs Hesler is the author of the new story collection What Makes You Think You're Supposed to Feel Better. She teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville, Virginia.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your collection?


A: I had to browse through the table of contents before I could answer this one. Most of these stories are from the past five or so years, but a couple are older. “Damage” might be the oldest.


Any story I write goes through rigorous rounds of interrogation, revision, and polishing. Compiling a collection starts that process over again, so before any of these stories found their place in What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better, I re-questioned every premise and scene.


That doesn’t mean I tore them all down to the pegs and started fresh, the way I often do in earlier revisions, but it does mean that most stories experienced drastic change on their way to inclusion.


So, in a way, all the stories, no matter how old, are also at least a little bit new, too.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title appears as a line of dialog in “Sorry Enough.” In that story, Buckley tries to atone for the hit and run accident that sent him to jail for a year. Ida Nevins, the woman he injured, speaks the line, calling Buckley out for seeking her help to excuse him, on the one hand, but also for failing to realize that true accountability hurts.


If we did something bad, if we hurt someone, we have to face it, to feel it, before we can move and grow and become a better self who won’t keep repeating the same damage.


All my characters find themselves in deeply uncomfortable moments that simply “feeling better” won’t cure. They all have something to face that can’t be shied away from.


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the collection?


A: The order of these stories underwent a thousand changes while I put the collection together. One version I sent around early on included only 10 stories. The final includes 17.


One tactic I used was to write the title of each story onto a slip of paper along with its first and last lines. Then I moved those slips of paper around on a table, trying different combinations.


The first and last lines reminded me of each story’s overriding mood, the precise juncture it would share with neighboring stories, how old its main character was, if it was a contemporary setting or from a farther past, its point of view and narrative distance, and more.


My goal was to link stories at moments of mild dissonance so the reader would be instantly aware of when they were entering a new story without losing traction on the overarching sensibility.


Picking which story came first was the hardest decision. I landed on “Alone,” which features a young mother narrator, set in a facsimile of the neighborhood I lived in when I was a young mother.


Though it’s not autobiographical, the story borrows from some true events—the death that’s depicted was based loosely on something that happened in that neighborhood shortly after I moved away.


I didn’t think of it when I chose it for the opening story, but in retrospect I think opening with something fairly close to my own experience is a way to earn the reader’s trust for stories that step outside it.


Q: The writer Celeste Mohammed said of the book, “Hobbs Hesler writes stories that are disarming in their simplicity yet devastating in their tenderness.” What do you think of that description?


A: One of the most surprising and moving parts of birthing a book into the world has been interacting with people’s reactions to my work more directly than I have before.


I’m humbled by and deeply grateful for the lovely ways other writers have described my work. I love the suggestion that my stories can be graspable and disarming at the same time, and that readers can sense the tenderness beyond each story’s devastation.


This range of emotion and experience is exactly what I hope to access when I sit down to write.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Lightning does occasionally strike twice, and shortly after my story collection got picked up, so did the novel I was shopping around.


As I launch What Makes You Think You’re Supposed to Feel Better into the world, I’m hammering out galleys for Without You Here (Flexible Press, November 2024), about a niece who grows up in the shadow of her aunt’s suicide, setting her up for a dangerous marriage she must either succumb to or escape.


Beyond ushering two books through various stages of publication, I have another novel in the latter stages of revision, several new stories on their way to final drafts, and a new novel-in-progress I can’t wait to dig deeper into.


I like having lots of projects in different levels of readiness so, no matter what writing mood I bring to the desk, and regardless of how much time I have on a given day, I have a project that matches it.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: About a month before Cornerstone accepted my story collection, I published an essay on rejection at Atticus Review—“A Red-Headed Stepchild Reflects on Rejection.” It deconstructs the social media vision of the writing life, which revolves around picture perfect successes.


The truth is, we spend a lot more time with rejection than acceptance in this business, and, while it’s essential to thicken our skin, it’s also impossible to prevent some of those rejections from resonating down fault lines of earlier, more personal hurts.


While I’m thrilled with this shooting-star-streak of having two books coming out in a row, and overwhelmed with the graciousness of those who are sharing my joy, I don’t want to gloss over the effort and doubt it took to get here. All of us producing creative work take huge risks, and hits, to our egos.


So, enormous thanks to the venues that welcome our work, to our fellow artists and friends who share the journey from pitfall to peak, and to everyone who reads any of this.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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