Black Lawrence Press
November 12, 2015

NaNoWriMo Feature: Jenny Drai

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured writer is Jenny Drai, author of the novella Letters to Quince.

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Excerpt

I should have known things were changing between us when you traded in your Honda Civic for a Lincoln MKS “Starships Don’t Need Keys” shortly after you were promoted into management. The morning before we drove to the dealership, I snuck out of the house with my steaming coffee and crammed myself into the back seat of the gray, unassuming little Civic and thought about our first kiss after an evening of sushi as we sat parked outside my apartment. For some reason, you seem to be under the impression that I made the first move, but I am pretty sure the way you turned your torso at me with that dopey grin slathered all across your face was invitation enough.

*

A lot of events take place in a car. For example, that time you rushed me to the emergency room after finding me unconscious on the kitchen floor, naked from the waist down. If memory can serve (before I blacked out), I had spilled vodka down the front of my favorite gray corduroy pants and decided to throw them in the washer right then and there. The alcoholic liquid had permeated through my top layer of clothing and left my underwear wet as well, so I raked the cotton panties down along my legs. But my feet got caught up in the trousers as I tried to snake one leg past my ankle after another, or I slipped on the kitchen linoleum, made slippery by the spilled vodka. At any rate, my entire body wiped out and came crashing to a halt against the hard floor where I hit my head with a resounding thud and promptly passed out. I can’t help thinking that your horror over the event had less to do with any danger I may have faced than with the fact that when you arrived home, you were accompanied by your friend Madeleine Carruthers, and that she saw my pubic hair as I lay unconscious in the kitchen, and that she then knew in an instant just how untidy our household really is.

*

When you drive away from the curb in your brand spanking new Lincoln MKS “Starships Don’t Need Keys,” I feel the loss of the Honda Civic acutely. I can’t help noticing that you have not bothered to inform me of the numerical code to unlock the door although a spare key to the Civic always rested in the blue china bowl near the door with the other keys. If you are worried about my blood alcohol level, are worried that I will get drunk and drive the Starship right into a happy family of four, killing all of them with myself as the lone survivor of the wreck, and that you will be held liable in court and your insurance company will be forced to pay punitive damages on my behalf and you will lose your home and all that is dear to you, I can only say that that DUI three years ago was a one-time deal. I learned my lesson when I wrapped my forest green Saturn around a telephone pole in a single-car accident and had my license suspended. I had to go to DUI class for months on end after that and missed all my favorite Thursday night television shows. I can assure you that even drunks can learn their lesson.

*

When I came to from my drunken blackout on the kitchen floor—you slapping me gently—I told you I was fine but Madeleine Carruthers insisted you take me to the emergency room. I just need to sober up and put ice on the bump on my head, I protested (which is exactly what the doctor in the emergency room said, along with, “Alice, have you heard about our chemical dependency program here at Kaiser Permanente?”). Madeleine Carruthers seems to have an inordinate amount of influence over you. She didn’t even have the decency to turn away as I was rearranging my underwear and pants back onto my gaunt frame.

*

I am the sole survivor of a wreck. I was so drunk, I barely even felt the air bag explode into my face. But suddenly, there I was in the dark, the deflated air bag like a silvery fish fin in the moonlight. Shit, I thought to myself. Shit.

*

This morning you have driven away from the curb in your Lincoln MKS “Starships Don’t Need Keys” to meet Madeleine Carruthers and a few other close friends for brunch at a new breakfast place on Telegraph Avenue. Aren’t I supposed to be one of your close friends? We started out that way, but once we started sleeping together, I couldn’t help but notice that I always played second fiddle to your other human interests. This bind traps me into a vacant sort of loneliness, a feeling that, at one point, directly resulted in a flagrant and unseemly display of my pubic hair while the proprietor (if you will) of that pubic hair lay strewn across the kitchen floor.

*

I’m not always drunk. In fact, I’m not drunk most of the time. I’m so sober that I can’t help noticing you slowly pull away from me, just as the Starship slowly glides away from the curb in front of our home on its way to the new breakfast place on Telegraph Avenue. Really, I would consider this walking distance. With your high cholesterol, you should take every opportunity to exercise. But I suppose you want to show off your new toy.

*

Madeleine Carruthers is a paralegal. In one year she generates three point seven five times more income than I do as an assistant to the manager at a well-known furniture store. With my income, I cannot even afford a Honda Civic, let alone one of the leather reclining sofas with matching loveseat sold at the place of my employment. But the purple pillows were a triumph! When I brought them home, even you liked the way the shirred fabric brightened up the beige sofa and white shag throw rug in the living room. You kissed me and fed me Mexican chicken soup, with lime and cilantro and sour cream, and later that night we peeled off our clothes and fucked until my bodily fluids left a small wet patch on the bedspread and you arched your back as you came.

*

By my count, that was one month and six days ago.

*

I think about one month and six days ago the entire time you are at brunch with Madeleine Carruthers and a few of your closest friends. I have been dying to try the new breakfast place on Telegraph Avenue since I read the menu in the window three weeks ago, and I believe I was the one who actually alerted you to the restaurant’s existence. But you have never invited me to partake of the hearty fare of biscuits and gravy, omelets, grits, and/or huevos rancheros, and frankly, my feelings are a little put out by your lack of initiative on this point. You have to see past the incident on the kitchen floor and Madeleine Carruthers finding out about how untidy I am. You’ve forgiven me before. Offer me absolution again. I can only try to do better.

*

The salesperson at the Lincoln Mercury dealer had a bold handshake and desired to know if I would be test-driving the vehicle as well. You quickly said, No, that won’t be necessary. I can’t help but notice, since you’ve been promoted into a more senior position, how you seem to want to manage me as well. But I am not one of your employees. I am your live-in girlfriend. Who did not even embarrass you at the last one of those awful corporate Christmas parties despite all the Cape Cods I’d drunk. Although you did accuse me of 1.) flirting with the bartender (true), an art student who seemed to understand how out of place I felt amidst the loud overtones of the band performing covers of Earth, Wind, & Fire; and 2.) doing coke in the bathroom (false). Not even mediocre food and tables and tables of poker and blackjack—when, I ask you, will “Casino Night” finally go away as a party theme?—could persuade me to snort coke in the bathroom. I believe I have explained to you a number of times that as a young girl I read in number forty of the Sweet Valley High series the tale of Regina Taylor who dies after doing two lines of coke at a party because she has a heart murmur. I also have a heart murmur. I do not want to be the girl who dies at the party. Enough said. My overexcitement on the night in question was due merely to excessive external simulation.

*

I have gotten used to writing you letters instead of speaking to you. I do not want to die. I just want to feel better. I wonder if they serve mimosas at the new breakfast place on Telegraph Avenue.

*

The night before you traded in your Honda Civic for the Lincoln MKS “Starships Don’t Need Keys,” I drove the dingy gray coupe to the parking lot of the Safeway and had a good cry before I entered the store to purchase bread and milk, yoghurt and eggs. I selected the special kind of yoghurt with fiber added because fiber is good for your heart and you have high cholesterol. I doubt Madeleine Carruthers worries about your triglycerides or whether you are getting enough vegetables, but I am sure she will love your new car. Maybe you will even let her punch in the key code so that she can take the Starship for a spin around the block. If your let me drive your car, I would take it to the moon.

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Craft Notes

I wrote Letters to Quince so long ago, that I barely remember process. But I do know that I wrote in short bursts and preceded each writing session by reading some of what I had already written, in order to sink back into the tone of the book.

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Q&A

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

The hardest part, for me, about writing long works of fiction is that I don’t really have a writing community. My MFA was in poetry and most of my writer friends are poets. The next step for me is to branch out and find people I trust to share my fiction writing with and who would be willing to share their work with me in turn. The thing is, I know people who write amazing fiction. So far I have just been shy about asking any of these people to share with me. It seems like such an imposition. But I think I really need to get over this. Meanwhile, the way I compensate for my lack of fiction-writing community is by reading as much and as widely as possible, focusing on the novel, but I also read history and other non-fiction, which I think can add depth.

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

The best writing advice I’ve ever received came from a novelist and friend who told me that if there were days when I was feeling really uninspired, it was probably okay to skip writing on those days. I’ve found this has worked for me, kept me from producing reams of dead, dull words. (The truth is I do feel like writing on most days. But I allow myself to take short breaks when necessary.) Along these lines, I’ve sort of given myself the advice to read at least a little bit every day. Constant reading becomes a source of constant inspiration.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft?

I’d love to say more about the process of writing Letters to Quince, but I barely remember writing it. I will say that I wrote it in a very short time (about a month plus time to revise) then set it aside for five or six years before I submitted it to a contest at ADP. I was trying to be funny and sad, to say something about addiction and loneliness. I know also that I was really concentrating on maintaining a certain tone. But to be honest, it’s also something of a one-off. My writing has developed a lot since then. I like where I’m going.

4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?

Historically, my favorite writing time beverage has been coffee, but I’ve started to branch out. One thing I really like is fresh mint with hot water and a little honey.

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Suggested Reading

This is easy. I am over the moon about The Art of the Novel, edited by Nicholas Royle, published by Salt. But also, just read a wide variety of novels.

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IMG_2520Jenny Drai is the author of Letters to Quince (winner of the Deerbird Novella Prize from Artistically Declined Press, [the door] (poetry, Trembling Pillow Press), and two poetry chapbooks: The New Sorrow Is Less than the Old Sorrow (Black Lawrence Press) and :Body Wolf: (Horse Less Press). Two additional full-length collections of poetry are forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2016 and 2017, respectively. She is a sometimes frequent, sometimes infrequent contributor to The Poetry Question and tweets about the absurdities of life @jenny_drai. She has worked every odd job imaginable and has lived all over the place in both the US and Germany. Currently she lives in Bonn and is at work on a novel.