Introduction by Kayla Cannalonga. Interview conducted by the students of ENL 422: Amanda Tombino, Brittany Andrade, Sabrina Baumann, Alec Connell, Alexandre Da Silva Filho, Noah Edmunds, Sam Flaherty, Kayla Gilbert, Crystallie Guillermo, Wanning Sun, Christine Read, and Han Wang.
The state of Maine: that’s the setting for most of Jefferson Navicky’s new short story collection, The Paper Coast. Navicky’s Maine isn’t the tourist-lobster-cracking-L.L.Bean-lighthouse driven stuff of cliché, but the more mystical elements of the state and the sea. It’s a paper coast. Navicky successfully combines these elements and creates micro stories that range from a page or two to stories several pages long. Each story weaves a tale unlike anything you have read before. Navicky writes about a boy born with a full set of teeth, a wedding between Day and Night, and a drifter who finds a kind of love only drifters could find.
Navicky was born Chicago and raised in southern Ohio. He earned his BA from Denison University in Ohio and his MFA from Naropa University in Colorado. He currently works as an archivist for the Maine Women Writers Collection as well as teaching English at Southern Maine Community College. Navicky is the author of The Paper Coast (Spuyten Duyvil 2018), and the novel The Book of Transparencies (KERNPUNT Press 2018), as well as the chapbooks Map of the Second Person (Black Lodge Press 2007), Uses of a Library (Ravenna Press 2018).
Prof. Alexandria Peary invited Navicky to participate in an interview conducted by her ENL 422: Fiction Workshop students. He drove all the way from Maine to read select stories from his book, The Paper Coast. Navicky had a calm energy when reading, one that informed us of the tone we should be using to read his beautiful stories. Navicky was interviewed by Amanda Tombino on April 18th, 2019.
AT: How long did it take you from start to finish to write The Paper Coast?
JN: It took me probably ten years, I think. I had the idea to do it in, maybe, 2008 and started a couple stories. I think The True Outskirts of Home and Fischer’s Return and The Owl in The Road are some of the first ones. I thought, well, I’m just gonna write this book about Maine and it’ll get done fast. Then, I couldn’t do it, and it was stretched out for many years before I finally finished it around 2017/2018.
AT: Which is your favorite piece in this collection and why?
JN:It might be An Absence of The Mouth, because it’s the most recent and it’s kind of surprising to me, and a little bit gross/disturbing. I always like it when I can make myself uncomfortable. And I have fond memories of that church in Portland on State Street. Yeah, if I had to choose, I’d choose that one, but it’s kind of like asking a parent, “Who is your favorite child?”
AT: Which part of the writing process do you personally enjoy the most and why?
JN: That is easy. The initial part of getting a story down and writing it into my notebook is definitely the most fun. Getting that initial “download”of ideas. The rest of it, once I start typing it up…the computer is the place where the story goes to die. I love to just get it down, and then watch it go somewhere else.
AT: Which part of the writing process do you enjoy the least and why?
JN: Probably assembling the collection, the late end stuff. It’s so easy to change your mind and doubt, you know, should I order it this way, or that way? What should I title it? Those kinds of things, not so fun.
AT: Do you stick to a strict schedule for writing?
JN: Not too strict, although, I work a lot, so I have to be diligent; I try to write most mornings for an hour or so if I can do it and any time on top of that is bonus.
AT:Do you have an invention method for coaxing out ideas for new stories?
JN: An invention method? I do have this little wooden box of mirrors and painted triangles that I kind of shake like dice, then roll them out and try and define what they tell me. I won’t tell you what they tell me! But, that’s about as close as I can come.
AT: What type of feedback works best for you?
JN: Honestly, probably very little. The feedback that works the best is “yes” or “no.” I don’t workshop too many of the pieces, maybe I’ll send them to a few people. Mainly I just send them out for publication, and if they take them that’s great, if not I don’t really want any feedback. I rather be like “Okay, I’ll try somewhere else.”
AT: To what extent are your readers on your mind as you draft or revise?
JN: Most of the time, not very much. I get the story in my head and try to create the most true self of the story. However, there’s one piece in The Paper Coast [“The Night Rides of Jimmy DeMillo”] that’s for Kevin Sweeny who’s my Department Head at the Community College where I teach. I had him in mind when I was writing that. But most of the time I don’t. If I think of people reading a story while I’m writing it…that’s bad…I would get too squirrely and probably not be able to finish it.
AT: How did you come up with the title, The Paper Coast? Could you walk us through your process on creating titles for stories or larger manuscripts?
JN: The title of this one was easy to come up with because my wife just said, “You should call it The Paper Coast.” The original title was “As I travel up and down the Paper Coast of Maine” and she said that’s too long of a title. She was right. So I said okay and just went for it. She has lots of good ideas, and I listen to all her ideas very closely. How do I title things? It’s kind of like “how does this thing feel?” [pretends to be picking up a paperweight] If the story title feels right, I’ll go for it.
AT: The cover of this book is intriguing. How did you go about selecting or designing the cover? Did you design this cover or did you work with a designer?
JN: I didn’t design it but my friend, Alina Gallo, she’s a painter and I knew that she would probably have something really good. She used to live in Maine, and she had a residency on Monhegan Island. She created certain paintings from that time, and [the cover of the book] was one of them. When she sent it to me, I thought, this is a beautiful thing and that’s the one I want. The designer for Spuyten Duyvil, t thilleman, did the layout; he has a very good eye, and is a talented designer.
AT: When compiling a book manuscript, how do you organize the individual stories?
JN: Considering that it’s my least favorite thing, that’s a hard question. I know some people who lay them out on the floor and think about the order in that way. I try to do it by putting longer stories with shorter ones, and trying to vary the length of the pieces. I knew that I wanted to end with “The Journey of The Swim” and I thought I could start with “Elstor.” From there I could work my way into the middle.
AT: The setting of many stories in The Paper Coast is coastal Maine, yet you grew up in the Midwest. Is your perspective on the Atlantic coast different as a writer because you didn’t experience it so closely during earlier times in your life?
JN: Yeah, it definitely is. I have a romantic feeling towards the coast of Maine. I’ve been to all the places where the stories are set, but they’re not autobiographical. A lot of those places have a certain magic to me and I was trying to get some of that magic into the stories.
AT: Many of your characters names seem historical or unusual. How do you select the names for characters? Were the names meant to create an allusion?
JN: I don’t really mean to create allusions. I try to find a name that feels right. I’m not one for naming characters and places conventionally. I like messing around with names, because there is so much power in a name. If you can add light to a name, it can become powerful.
AT: What’s your general approach to dialogue in fiction?
JN: I love dialogue. I try to do as much dialogue as a story can stand. There something musical about dialogue, something rhythmic in its cadence. And I love how a line of dialogue can break up a block of text almost like a physical therapist breaks up stiff cartilage, (though to be honest I’m not really all that sure about what a physical therapist actually does).
AT: The length of the stories in this collection spans from micro fiction to multi-page stories. What’s involved in deciding to write a brief story such as “Kites,” or “A Response to These Disappearances”?
JN: It’s unusual for me to write long things. Short is more of the norm for me. I’m most comfortable in short forms, particularly poetry and prose poetry, and so when I start pieces, they usually swirl around that 500-word limit, and then sometimes go beyond that. I thought the “Owl in the Road” was going to become a novella, but decided it was better as a short story.
AT: Is your story, “Fall of an Usher,” an international parody of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher?”
JN: No, not really an intentional parody, but I do like Poe’s story a lot, and thought I could play off the title. For the actual story, my wife and I went to a wedding, we ended up being ushers, and I found that interesting.
AT: With the final story in the book, “Journey of the Swim,” did you intend to leave the end of the story (and book) open-ended?
JN: Yes, I wanted to leave it open-ended when a reader gets to the last paragraph. A woman once came up to me after I read that story aloud, and said, “all the mothers in the room were cringing.” I wasn’t trying to get them to cringe, and was a little surprised by that response, because I find the end quite hopeful, but I guess that’s what you get when you leave it open-ended. Who knows how people will take it?!
AT: Is working on a collection of short stories a different kind of writing experience than working on a novel.
JN: Yes, very different. In a story collection, each individual story has to generate its own energy, and you have to do that again and again. With a novel you have to keep it going – it’s a matter of endurance, and the long haul. But for each story, you have to generate new, individual energy, or you cannot keep it in a collection.
AT: Who have been your mainstay literary influences: which authors have you turned to throughout your writing career?
JN: Jorge Luis Borges for sure. I loved his short stories when I was in my twenties and I still go back and read them. I love Virginia Woolf. Deborah Eisenberg, Under the 82nd Airborne: I love that collection. Stanley Crawford is another author I admire; he wrote a small book called Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine; I love that one. Those are some of the ones I go back to.
AT: What was it like to study for your MFA at Naropa?
JN: Alex and I were talking a little about this. For those of you who may not know Naropa, it’s a Buddhist-inspired alternative school in Boulder, Colorado. In one of my MFA workshops I turned in a poem. The teacher was trying to inspire me to write a new poem, and so she directed me up to the board and asked everybody to picture a yellow light on the top of my head. I had to stand up at the board for what felt like hours but was probably a couple of minutes, and everyone had to envision this yellow light on my head. Did it work for a new poem? I don’t know, but that’s the sort of thing that would probably only happen at Naropa. And if those are the kind of experiences that you like, Naropa is a great school. I loved it. It’s a great place to go, especially for creative arts. There’s a unique way Naropa uses contemplative education that’s very applicable to creativity.
AT: How should a writer connect with other writers once they’re out of the workshop environment of schools?
JN: I think that’s pretty hard for a lot of people. Keep in touch with people who are in your program. Mainly, once I was out of school, I went to a lot of readings, tried to go to things that I liked and put myself out there in places that were kind of uncomfortable. I introduced myself and tried to talk to people. I think that on the most granular level that’s how you create community when you don’t have it built in. It’s somewhat awkward at first, but after a while it just gets easier and you know people and it starts to build on itself.
AT: Did you attempt publication before you earned an MFA? If you did, has the publication process changed for you since earning a graduate degree?
JN: I published one or two poems before I went to grad school. The MFA put me in touch with a lot of colleagues, people who I’m still in touch with now and who are really good friends. I finished my MFA in 2005, and there are 5 or 6 people who I’m still good friends with and that was most helpful. My MFA didn’t really change my idea of publication in general, but Naropa opened up a whole new world of writing and publishing that I didn’t know before. That certainly changed my view of things, and it introduced writers who are important to me now that I probably wouldn’t have encountered if I hadn’t gone for an MFA.
AT: Do you work with a literary agent? Or do you generally work directly with a publishing company?
JN: No literary agent, I just send things out on my own, and I work with the publishers myself. Mainly I just send things out and get rejected a whole bunch.
AT: Do you always follow the advice of editors?
JN: The romantic answer would be no, I do the thing that I want to do! But mainly that’s not true, I basically do whatever editors tell me. Unless it’s something that really alters the fabric of the story, then I won’t. Longform is a podcast I just started listening to, and if any of you are interested in long-form nonfiction, or just writing in general, they have an amazing interview with Kiese Lamon. As a young writer, Lamon would change everything they would ask when he was trying to publish his first book, and then at some point he sold his first collection. They were editing it, and he got halfway through the process, and the editors were like, “Ok, we like everything, but you have to now take out all of the racial stuff that is causing us problems.” And he was like “What? Really? Now you want me to do that?” so he said ok, and then he sat on it and got up the next morning and was like, no I can’t do that and pulled it out. So it seems like mainly following the advice of editors is a wise thing to do. But every once and a while they’re wrong.
AT: Is it necessary for fiction writers these days to have a social platform?
JN: I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s helpful, but it depends on who you are as a writer. If it comes easy to you, it’s a helpful tool; if not, it’s awkward, and people will be able to tell that it’s not really your thing.
AT: What is non-writing related hobby you take part in?
JN: Baking biscuits. I’m trying to perfect biscuit-baking. I wish I had more time for hobbies, but my Sunday mornings usually consist of baking biscuits.
AT: What are the best ways to balance writing with other parts of life like a personal life, a family life, and a job?
JN: I pretty much give 80%, maybe recently more like 90%, of my life to my family and job, and then I try to not let go of that one little bit of writing time and try to do it regularly. Most people, unless you’re pretty lucky with your situation in life, have less time to write the more they work. If you lose that little bit of time, it’s hard to get back to it, so I try to hold on to it.
AT: Has your work as an archivist at the Maine Women Writers Collection contributed ideas for your writing?
JN: Yes. As an archivist, we get to hold a whole bunch of letters and manuscripts and literary materials, and we put them in order, and occasionally we get to read the letters of a writer from 150 years ago, for example. It gives me ideas, for sure, but it’s also a combination of literary service and also a very relaxing, nice place to go to. It’s in a library and I love libraries. Every time I walk in there I think, “How is it I’m able to come back here again and again for work?” I feel lucky to do it.
AT: Who is your favorite woman author and why?
JN: Ruth Moore. She’s a novelist from the 1950s, from Downeast Maine. She grew up on Gott’s Island, and wrote Spoon Handle, a great novel about the intersection of historical Maine and the tourist culture of Maine, and how those two butt heads. She’s also really great with dialogue.
AT: What are your current writing projects?
JN: I’m trying to write poems about basketball. I played a lot in Ohio when I was young and it was a big part of my life that I haven’t written about much. It’ll probably take a while to work on it, but it seems like a good time now to do it.
AT: What is the number one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring fiction writer?
JN: Probably to build a good community of support. That could consist of fellow writers, family members, friends. Writing is a fairly lonely business and it’s pretty discouraging once you start trying to work your way into the system, so it’s good to have people to support you in whatever ways you need support.