Jackie Shannon Hollis grew up surrounded by wheat fields, four siblings, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, fowl, and even a fawn for a short while, on the Oregon ranch that her great-grandfather homesteaded. She currently lives in Portland. Her writing has been described as natural and graceful, with an unassuming approach to character. Short stories and essays by Hollis have appeared in literary journals, including The Sun, The Rambler, Rosebud, South Dakota Review, Inkwell, Flashquake, High Desert Journal, and Oregon Literary Review. Her work has been recognized for several awards and she has been a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook. Her novel-in-progress, At the Wheat Line, is near completion.
Superstition Review Editor Britney Gulbrandsen conducted this email interview with Jackie Shannon Hollis. She says of the experience, "I first came across Jackie Shannon Hollis's work last fall in the Summer 2006 issue of South Dakota Review. 'Chicks' moved me in many ways. Hollis creates stories that stick in your mind. Her characters are so richly developed, so well thought out. These characters make her stories become reality. I am patiently awaiting the release of her novel At the Wheat Line and cannot wait to read it. She is a remarkable writer and I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to interview her."
Superstition Review: In "Chicks," you spread the characterization throughout the story so that by the end readers get the whole picture of the character. Halfway through the story you write, "Kitty Cross had a strong jaw and chin, and she'd learned to hold it proud. After all these years, she didn't even have to think about it. Her chin led the way to the post office, and Lydia Sawyer Cross followed." How do you decide on the perfect spot for bits of characterization? Do you find yourself adding and removing it?
Jackie Shannon Hollis: I don't think it works to learn about a character purely by physical description. As a reader, I find that too much of that gets in the way of my own ability to bring myself to the reading experience. I don't want to be told the character has shoulder length black hair, or a long chin. I want to know how she uses that feature, so that it reveals something about her, or about the person observing her. Each time we see a character we should learn something more about her and this happens by showing how she is in her world, or how she is changing. Each of these bits of characterization needs to have a purpose (especially in the economy of a short story) and build upon what has come before so that the reader is carried along, bit by bit, and so that what happens next feels authentic, not forced. All of this is necessary in order to earn the ending of the story, whatever the ending is.
As to adding and removing…YES! That is the writing process. When I first started writing, I thought a story should come out, fully formed. And, very occasionally, one did. But usually not. Back then, because I didn't know what I was doing, the idea of revising and editing was daunting. Fortunately, I found the Pinewood Table teachers, Joanna Rose and Stevan Allred. They had a wonderful approach to critique and editing. I learned that the biggest part of writing, the best and most revealing and rewarding part, is revision. So I cut, I paste, I delete, I add. I read out loud to myself. Then I cut, paste, add and delete some more. Then I read out loud to my critique group, and edit some more. And so on. Until it feels just right.
SR: I love the way "Chicks" ends. How do you know when a piece is finished?
JSH: Hah, that's a good question to ask, particularly about "Chicks." The first draft ended as it does in the published piece. I took it to my group for critique. They asked, "Are you done?" I said, "I don't know." That next week I wrote past that ending with a scene that went ahead in time and the baby was a young man and Mother Cross was much older and ill and Lydia had become a competent farm wife and the woman in charge. Then I realized I was pushing the story too hard. The story as it was had already accomplished what I wanted to tell.
There are moments in our lives that can seem very small and quiet, but they are moments when we are changed, or our relationship to another is changed. If I feel I've captured that and the reader can sense that without being told, then that is where the piece is complete. That last scene in the chicken coop is the place where we see that things have changed and get a sense of how things will be going forward.
SR: I love that "What I Did on Summer Vacation" has a surprise ending. It also leaves a little bit to the imagination. Discuss how you feel this surprise completes the story.
JSH: This story is small moment in a young woman's life that will have huge consequences. She is witnessing something that has clearly happened before, her father drunk, her mother upset about it. But this is the time where she feels her own power, the power to really witness her parents, the power to hurt her little sister and, more importantly, the power to get up and walk away. I hope the reader feels that that was the best option she had. But she had to have something help her make that choice. The surprise at the end of the story is what helped her. Sadly, as often happens in these situations, she is walking into what will likely be a bad choice in the long term. Speaking of a character being changed, this is a specific moment when this girl does something different and everything has been building up to this. Her story will go on beyond that moment, the dominoes that were set up have been begun to fall. The reason I ended there, with that bit of surprise, is to that the reader can imagine beyond.
SR: You choose such a unique perspective to describe how divorce affects others with "The Words That Would Fix This Thing." I love that the godmother tells this story. How do you decide who should tell the story?
JSH: When I started that particular story, I had just been on a hike near the Columbia River Gorge. I'd seen the salmon spawning and it was quite a sensory experience. I wanted to write about it: the fish stacked in so close, the rotting smell, and the feelings it brought up to witness all that dying in order to start new life. I also wanted to talk about the awkwardness that can happen as kids begin to mature, how the relationships the adults have with them change and there is this period of time of trying to figure that out. And finally, of course, I wanted to write about how the end of a marriage doesn't just impact the couple or the children. Their friends feel the fragility of their own relationships, or the strength of them. So, possibly because it was about my own experiences of these things, the story just seemed to naturally come from a woman's voice.
But, to be honest, I don't really make a conscious decision about who will tell the story, it is just who is speaking as I begin to write. They introduce themselves to me and, as I develop the story and the character, I learn more. There are times when a story isn't working. That is a time to look at point of view, to see if someone else should be telling the story, or several someones. Rewriting from a different point of view is a great way to learn more about the story.
SR: In "See the People on the Other Side," you tell the story from the perspective of a young girl. Explain the process of creating the voice of a child.
JSH: It's a challenge to tell a story from the perspective of a child, making the voice authentic, not too wise, not too self-aware. This is balanced with trying to avoid making the voice so childlike that is irritating to a reader and you can hear the writer TRYING to sound like a child. So I was very, very careful with this. I read it out loud a lot to hear how it sounded. Always I had to ask myself (and my critique group asked me), would a nine year old understand this, say this, think this? It helps to hang out with kids (though kids back then, when that story was set, had a pretty different awareness than they do now).
SR: I absolutely loved "Swim." I thought the use of the different strokes as subsections was so unique. Where do you get your ideas and inspiration for stories?
JSH: My ideas come from everywhere: an image, a memory, an overheard piece of conversation, or from someone telling me about something they once did and I say, "Hmmm, can I use that in a story?" Sometimes a sentence that will come into my head and it becomes a line in a story, often the first line. Often I have an idea or a concept that I want to write about. I have a story, not published yet, that is a love story set around a conflict in a small town in the 60's, where the town is up in arms about a decision of whether to transition from diagonal parking to parallel parking. The idea came from when I was thinking about conflict and how people pick a position and then see everything filtered through that position. I like to use seemingly small things (like parking) as a metaphor for these deeper things.
The idea for "Swim" came because I wanted to work on something new and I wanted it to be something with a particular frame I could follow (I do well with structure and rules). I was driving back to Portland after a visit to my home town of Condon, in north central Oregon. Interstate 84 runs east to west on the border between Oregon Washington and is defined by the beautiful Columbia River. It's a drive I've taken many, many times. I never tired of it. Having all that time next to the water brought swimming to mind. I'm not a good swimmer, but I know some of the strokes and thought it would make a good frame for a story. I get many ideas while I'm driving alone and especially on that particular drive. Something inside opens up, there is expansiveness.
Reading beautifully written stories or novels or essays inspires me. Sometimes it makes me green with envy (in a good way, in the "Wow, that is so beautiful I wish I'd written it" way). I encourage anyone who wants to write short stories to read a lot of them. With just a quick glance at my bookshelf I see a few collections by wonderful writers who have inspired me: Alice Munro, Benjamin Percy, Amy Hempel, Charles D'Ambrosio, Elizabeth Strout, Miranda July, Rebecca Berry, Lewis Nordan, Lorrie Moore, and, of course the short story writer who really made me want to write, Raymond Carver.
SR: In "How the Story Goes" you have a section that repeatedly states, "Dad would tell you…" I love this section. How did you get the idea to fill in information that you don't remember or weren't present for?
JSH: There was a wonderful moment, years after the events of this story. Mom was in the hospital and Dad and my brother Pat and I were all in her room visiting her. We began to talk about the time my sister, Leanne was injured. I learned more than I'd ever known about that day and the days that followed. Everyone had their own story to tell, so I gathered more than I'd understood from my eight year old perspective. Later, I asked Leanne about it, and my other brother Brad. My younger sister Cris was so young she had no memories of it at all. It was really cool to hear these different stories. I was struck by how we each carried our version of the story. Some of it had become part of the bigger story that we all told and some of it was the part we held onto was only revealed when someone asked just the right question.
Writing non-fiction is a challenge because you never really know exactly what was said or what happened, it's just your memory. So those repetitions, with Dad and with other family members as well, were my effort to tell the story as fully as possible, but not to "own" the memory as my own. I had to have all of it filled in for me and the experience of the others makes it a richer memory. For me, it's more interesting to know what others were experiencing because I already know what it was like for me.
My dad was a great story teller. I like to think I got the drive for creativity from my mom, who is a talented artist and mixed that with some of my dad's joy in taking his time to tell a good story.
SR: I loved your words in "Before." You alternate sections where you write to your father using "you" and where you describe him and his life simply using "he." I think this really enhanced the piece. Explain why you chose to format the essay this way.
JSH: After Dad died, the missing of him was so strong. I wanted to talk about him, to tell his story, as a way of honoring him. He was a special man. He lived his entire life in a small town and, even though he did not do any great "thing," he was a man who made a difference, who was unique and particularly loved. Using the "he" format was a way to tell about him, as though speaking to someone else. But the loss of him, his death and his absence felt so huge to me, to all of us, that I wanted to speak to that too. When I thought of him, his dying, it was as though I was having a conversation with him, telling him that the story went on, and we would continue to tell it. That is the "you," me talking to him and telling him what happened next.
SR: Especially in the beginning of "How the Story Goes," you have so many different sections and memories of your childhood. Describe how you decide which memories to include in which piece of writing.
JSH: What ends up in a story has to serve the story, no matter how much I love it. Writing a non-fiction piece this is a challenge because I may have a fondness for a memory that I'd like to have in there. This story was part of a book length memoir I wrote when I first started writing. I'm not sure if I did such a great job of editing this piece, but I had much more in that was edited out. I've learned even more since then.
When I edit, I constantly ask myself, "What would happen if this wasn't here?" I'll cut something out and read the section without that part. Often I find that somehow the essence of it is there and it works without the word, sentence paragraph (and in some cases, the whole chapter!). I'm certainly learning this as I revise and edit my novel-in-progress "At the Wheat Line." I'm on the third major revision. I've cut out huge chunks that I thought were essential but, in the end, were just placeholders. I could not do this on my own. I'm grateful to be a part of two critique groups, one of which focuses on an entire manuscript at a time and the other focuses on short pieces or sections of larger work. I've been working with the writers in my critique groups long enough that their voices are in my head, they help me ask just the right questions—who should be telling this story, how can she know this, is this needed, unpack this, put this on the body, and so on.
SR: The narrator of "Sharper" has a great voice. Explain your process of becoming the character and creating the perfect voice for them.
JSH: I had fun writing "Sharper." It was part of a challenge that the Pinewood table hosts, called an Intentional Ducati. As I said earlier, I love structure and rules. These challenges are all about the rules. A word limit is set as well as certain elements that must be in the story. For instance a specific item (like bourbon or a train passing or a three legged dog), there may be a requirement for a particular sentence structure (like it must have a 40 word sentence followed by a three word sentence). It's great fun to hear the variety of stories that come from these very specific rules. For "Sharper," one of the elements was to start the story using a line from the poem, "Need for Secrecy in Secret Societies" by Dara Weir. Well, as I look at it now, I didn't follow the rules exactly because I included "inside the black silk envelope" in the first sentence but it wasn't the whole sentence. So not quite exact…but close, that describes how well I follow the rules: almost but not quite. Anyway, "black silk envelope" just seemed so unusual and kind of sexy and very particular and that's where the voice came from. The voice is something that comes from the grace I spoke of in a first draft. For me, it just is. I imagine this person and what he or she sounds like comes through that image, the sense of them inside me. I don't know if that makes sense, but that's how it works. The part I am very conscious of is once I have the voice, remaining consistent with it. Once that beat is in me, I want to keep it for the duration of the story.