Jen Conley’s Amazon bio says she “lives in New Jersey.” Weak gruel. Jen Conley is of New Jersey. She captures the essence of her natural setting as well as anyone writing today. Her new collection, Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens, gives everyone else a chance to figure out what those who have read her, or heard her read at any number of Noirs at the Bar, already knew: this is a girl who don’t pump gas.
Jen's short stories have appeared in Thuglit, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Crime Factory, Beat to a Pulp, Protectors, Pulp Modern, Trouble in the Heartland: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Bruce Springsteen and many others. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Review of Books and is one of editors of Shotgun Honey.
With all that going on she still found time to visit with OBAAT to talk about Cannibals. As with everything else she writes or says, it’s worth your time.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens
Jen Conley: It’s a collection of fifteen linked (loosely linked, actually) short crime stories that take place in Ocean County, New Jersey, the northern end of the Pine Barrens. It’s a large area of protected pine forest that encompasses several central and southern Jersey counties. It’s pretty desolate, for New Jersey anyway, and it makes for great crime stories.
OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
JC: I’d been playing around with horror and literary for a few years until I wrote “Home Invasion,” the first story in the collection and originally published by Thuglit. It was a real turning point for me because I realized that crime was the better genre for me. I’m a pretty raw and gritty writer so it makes sense that I would feel at home in this neck of the woods. Soon I began setting most of my stories in Ocean County/The Pine Barrens with the distant goal of putting a collection together.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Cannibals, start to finish?
JC: A few years. I wanted to make sure I was happy with each and every story rather than push myself and write mediocre tales just to create a collection.
OBAAT: Among the reasons I write so few short stories is how hard it is to keep coming up with characters that can carry a story. You knock them out snowflakes: in plentiful supply, yet always different. How do you do it?
JC: I have no idea. I could always do it—I was making up horror stories as a kid—but it does take me time. I wish the snowflake analogy was true. Usually, in order for me to write a decent story there has to be something floating around my head that bothers me—something I read or an image I saw, an old memory that pops up in my brain. From there, if it’s worthy, if I keep thinking about it without forcing too much, I’ve got a story.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Cannibals set and why was this time and place chosen?
JC: It spans from the early 1960s to the present. I have a tiny universe in my head with all these characters and they’re all somewhat related to each other. Not so much by blood but by place. For example, Janine Finn briefly shows up my story “Pipe” but in my other story, “Finn’s Missing Sister,” she is the missing sister. As for the place, I grew up in the same area I’m writing about—Ocean County, New Jersey. I think I’m one of those people who has a strong tie to home, which is probably why I write about it.
OBAAT: How did Cannibals come to be published?
JC: I was at BoucherCon in North Carolina and I read at Eryk Pruitt’s Noir at the Bar in Raleigh. Eric Campbell heard me read and he approached me, introducing himself. But it wasn’t until the next day, when Ron Earl Phillips, the head editor of Shotgun Honey told me that Down and Out might be the way to go and he re-introduced me to Eric. When I returned to New Jersey, I emailed Eric about my story collection and he liked it and that was it. Working with Eric Campbell has been a breeze. A great, wonderful experience. Truly.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JC: I tend to go for gritty fiction with a strong connection to place. I like stories about people who are working class and having a hard time going through life. I love Annie Proulx, Edward P. Jones, and Ron Rash. But I’m also partial to writers like Tessa Hadley, who writes about women living in England. (I’m an Anglophile.) I think I like certain books more than writers. For example, I loved Sue Miller’s Lost in the Forest and While I Was Gone but her other novels didn’t grab me. Overall, I do love mystery but not so much cozies. I suppose I’m one of those readers who is drawn to “women’s fiction” but the darker section of this area, like Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Winter Girl: A Novel by Matt Marinovich, which both came out pretty recently.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JC: I don’t remember not wanting to be a writer. I just didn’t tell many people because, honestly, I didn’t want to get laughed at. Still, I was writing stories when I was a kid, as a teenager, in college. I stopped in my twenties because I didn’t think I had what it would take to write. I didn’t think I was smart enough, clever enough. I hadn’t been a stand-out student. I wasn’t in the honors classes and so on, so I think when I was young, self-doubt plagued me for a few years. But the stories kept coming and after I settled down—got my teaching job, had my son and figured out motherhood—my desire to write came back like a bear. And although it took years of self-training by reading a heavy dose of literary fiction and participating in good NYC writing group run by writer Karen Heuler, I started to gain some confidence. By my late thirties, my stories were being published.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JC: There are probably so many answers to that but I’ll give you one: from about 1993-2000 I worked at this really rough bar in Howell, NJ, on Route 9. (“Highway Nine” for Springsteen fans.) But this place was nothing out of a song. It was just…just rough and crappy, a broken down sports bar with an attached liquor store set in a brown strip mall. I remember my bar manager’s boyfriend came in one night and said to me, “I don’t know how you work here. I can’t even drink here.” I think that sums it up. I can go on for hours about the people I served but I’ll just say this: a few were good people but most were just absolutely either extremely creepy, downright frightening or just so terribly heartbreaking. I’m still mining ideas from my tour of duty there.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JC: I absolutely love when I complete a story and I can feel in my gut that it’s a contender.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JC: I’m a big classic rock fan, music fan in general, so I think music has influenced tone and atmosphere for me. I also love film and great television, anything that tells a great story with style. I was obsessed with Mad Men for a while, especially the DVDs where Matthew Weiner explains the choices in scenes, etc. Every episode of Mad Men is a fantastic short story and I really listened to pretty much every single thing Matthew Weiner had to say. But mostly, I read and read and read over the years and I found that The New Yorker usually can be counted on for a good, high end story that can help with technique. Still, Thuglit has published some fantastic stories over the years. With the grittiness and strong endings—it really showed me where I could go. After reading several issues of Thuglit, I realized exactly what I wanted to do, what I could do, and what I needed to do.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
JC: Never by the seat of my pants. I outline loosely. I wait until an idea grows in my head and when I have the arc—the beginning and ending especially—I scribble it down in this little black book I have. I need to have the arc before I write. I used to write by the seat of my pants but I found that I wasn’t finishing or if I did finish, it was forced and no good.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
JC: I blow through the first draft and then I go back and “decorate” as I call it. But, I need that arc in my head, solid or vague. I found that if I sort of know what I’m doing in my head, I can save myself a lot of time and headache later on. I learned from Matthew Weiner that it’s important to lie down, rest the head, and think. I follow this advice often. As you can tell, I’m one of Matthew Weiner’s superfans.
OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
JC: The best endings leave a sense of hope. Or, a life justified—good or bad. But in my work, I tend to write sad endings so when you do that, you have to justify it. There has to be an observation that something was learned—whether the character learned it or the reader learned it about the character.
OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
JC: It depends what I’m writing. I mean, if I’ve been asked to write something for an anthology or a specific publication, then I’m going to try my hardest to impress the editor. They have a specific audience in mind so if I can impress the editor, I’ll impress the audience. When I’m on my own, though, with no publication in mind, I guess it goes back to what I’m writing. My short stories would be more for the crime fiction audience. The novel I’m working on is probably more towards women who like dark “women’s fiction.” I probably write the stories I would want to read, or maybe I write the characters I would want to read about.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JC: I love Annie Proulx’s advice—no one should write until they’re 50. Of course what she means is live your life, get experience, understand the cycle of life, how it all works. Take your time. Ambition is important but you still have to learn to write a good story. I’m ambitious but I’ve learned to accept that my path is the slow, long, steady one. And I might not get to where I want to be but not without trying. And trying. And trying. If I were a musician, I’d probably being playing the small bars clubs right now. But that’s okay because the small bars and clubs are cool.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
JC: I’m not sure. I think I usually get a spark for a story idea, but then I quickly find the character. Character development is a big component of my writing. I love backstory so I’m willing to spend a lot of time on my character, even if it never makes it to the pages. I did a little acting when I was in college and I learned from an excellent drama teacher that an actor should always have character backstory in their heads, even though the audience will never hear or see it. I’ve always gone with that idea. As for the rest, eventually the setting develops with the story, narrative pops up—first or third person—and tone sneaks in after that. But truthfully, this is me analyzing myself. It’s more like a swirl of ideas and me moving them into place. My brain is a circus.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
JC: Wow. That’s tough. If I’m being serious and writerly, I’d say The Road or Sophie’s Choice because both books hit me hard—both deal with depravity and humanity. But honestly, I wish I wrote High Fidelity. It’s just such a crackup of a novel, especially for me. Like Rob, I used to be a music snob with relationship problems that were on a consecutive loop. I’m good now, involved with a terrific, sweet, normal dude, but I was a disaster in the old days. High Fidelity is so close to my psyche, if I were a guy, I’d be Rob.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JC: I like going to NYC with my son. He loves the city, doesn’t complain if we walk too much, and enjoys exploring new streets, etc. It’s very rare to go to the city with someone who loves meandering around like I do. I also like hanging out with my fiancé. And I like to garden, even if half of my plants die.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JC: A very dark women’s thriller novel. A little bit of horror thrown in but I’ll see if I’m going to keep that. Bad man stuff. I said to one of my oldest friends that I was writing a novel and I could use a reader. She asked me what it was about and I said, “It’s dark, about a women who meets up with an old classmate, gets involved with him, he’s good-looking but he’s not who she thinks he is, he’s bad—”
She cut me off and said, “Oh, yeah, I’ll read that.”
So here’s hoping I can pull this off.