Friday, February 2, 2024

Q&A with Jessica Bryant Klagmann



Jessica Bryant Klagmann is the author of the new novel This Impossible Brightness. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Whitefish Review. She is based in New Mexico.


Q: What inspired you to write This Impossible Brightness, and how did you create your character Alma?


A: I’d been thinking about the advice to “write what you know,” and I realized that what I know, and what I was curious about exploring more, was what it’s like being an introvert in what sometimes feels like an extrovert world.


I thought that quiet people are often good listeners, too, which is where the idea for Alma to tell the Echoes’ stories came from.


After reading about a real town in New Brunswick where the residents once heard broadcasts from a shortwave radio tower through the appliances in their homes, I started thinking about why radio transmissions like that might be meaningful to someone who is grieving and dwelling in memory.


This is where Alma’s search for her lost fiancé came into the story, and the threads started to come together.


Q: The writer Anne Valente said of the book, “At once haunting and visionary, Jessica Bryant Klagmann's This Impossible Brightness asks us to consider ghosts in their many forms--literal ghosts, the ghosts of grief that follow all of us, and the ghost of a present-but-disappearing earth amid climate devastation.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love this review so much that it’s become my go-to when people ask me what the book is about.


I wish I’d come up with the idea of “ghosts in their many forms” myself, because it touches on all of the important themes of the novel, and if you replaced the word “ghosts” with “voices,” it would still be the perfect way to capture the heart of the story, which is listening to our inner voices, the voices of others, and the voice of the natural world.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I outlined what I thought was the complete novel, and I knew how I wanted the themes to tie together, but plot-wise, I didn’t know exactly how it would end.


I made a lot of changes along the way, mostly because when I do research, I find so many things interesting that I want to include all of them, which of course I can’t.

But the story turned in a new direction, for example, when I read about the town that heard radio transmissions through their household objects.


Another change happened when, after I’d written about half of the book, I asked my husband—who always reads my work first—to read it and tell me if he thought I should keep writing. He had the idea to jump forward in time quite a bit and show Alma as an older woman. I wasn’t sure about it at first.


Shortly after that, I was reading a collection of family biographies that my grandmother compiled going back to my French-Canadian great-great-grandparents, and I stumbled upon a distant relative whose childhood nickname was Kricket.


When I imagined a character with this name, the idea came very quickly to use this outsider as the catalyst for Alma’s salvation, and then leaping into the future suddenly seemed like the perfect ending.


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


A: This Impossible Brightness was not the original title. It was initially the title of the character Hayden’s book within the book about Violette’s radio tower.


When my editor and I discussed new title options, she said it was too bad This Impossible Brightness was already taken. I thought it was a great title, though, that encompassed many of the themes.


There are a few literal instances of brightness, such as when the lightning hits the tower and when Alma first meets Alex. But there is also a reference in each of the Echoes’ stories to their “brightness,” which is like their spark—what makes them who they are.


It’s tied to a regret, or a darker piece of their history that they turned into something light. The book is about Alma eventually finding her brightness as well.


This Impossible Brightness pulled all of these ideas together for me. We decided to go with it, so unfortunately for Hayden, he had to change his title.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a novel set in Alaska. It’s about resilience and adaptation and finding a sense of lightness in the way we live every day. There are definitely magical realism elements, but it’s less speculative and more grounded in reality. It will be published by Lake Union in the fall of 2025.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for having me to discuss This Impossible Brightness!


I guess I’ll end by saying that I hope your readers enjoy it, and I hope it leaves them with the impression that, while telling stories is important, listening is also essential, especially in this often loud world. And maybe that means listening to ourselves, to others, or to the natural world, but hopefully all of them.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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