Smoke and Mirrors: An Interview with Ruth Joffre

by Megan Giddings Read the Story December 19, 2016

One of the things that impressed me about “Softening” is the length of your paragraphs. I know, that’s such a writer thing to say, but those two big paragraphs made the story feel much longer to me. The paragraphs made me take my time while I was reading and made me remember it as something much longer and very intricate. Was the story always in this two paragraph format?  And who are some writers that you think are the best paragraph writers writing today?

I’m the kind of writer who likes to sink into the story. This is especially true when I’m writing in the first person, where making the voice believable means understanding the character’s thought process. Too many writers think “voice” merely means diction, dialogue, and verve, but, for me, voice is about letting the character think at their own speed and connect things that readers might not connect. One example of this can be found early in the first paragraph of “Softening”, where the narrator says, “I open the window to let the air lap at my legs.” It would be a mistake to put a paragraph break there. That break would punch an image (the narrator’s bare legs) that isn’t really worth punching. The narrator herself would never linger on this. She would instead start thinking about the air lapping at her legs and move from one sense (touch) to another (smell). This is how her mind works. The paragraph continues until the only logical break—the revelation of the ants in the narrator’s cereal. Were it to break before then, the paragraph as a whole would lose focus. It’s not about the individual acts the narrator performs on this morning. It’s about how all of them lead up to the kiss mentioned in the first sentence.

Some of my favorite paragraph writers are: Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth McCracken, Charles D’Ambrosio, Charles Baxter, Annie Proulx, and Alice Munro (in spite of the fact that the last two have threatened never to publish again). Lydia Davis’ paragraphs are especially brilliant when you take into account that many of her stories are only a paragraph long. This has the same effect you mentioned: of giving the story depth.

In 150 words or less, tell a very brief story about your writing life.

In middle school, all my friends had hobbies: music, dance, sports, art, or writing. I was poor, so I picked writing because it was the cheapest. I already had the paper and pencils for school, and I could practice my craft without having to buy instruments, paints, or special equipment. I kept at it through high school mostly because I was stubborn and needed an expressive outlet. In college I began to publish flash fiction and poetry in small literary magazines. Senior year, I got my first big break: I got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and won third in a Glimmer Train contest. I’ve been publishing steadily since. 2016 has been my biggest year so far: three stories published, two more accepted, one poem accepted, and six book reviews published. On top of working full time. You could sum up my writing life in two words: endless production.

Reading past interviews, it sounds like you’re currently writing a novel, The Soft Stuff Last. How do you balance short story writing, poetry, and reviewing with the much longer work of writing a novel? What advice would you give to writers struggling to balance all the different ways to be a writer?

Ahh, I was wondering when somebody would ask about The Soft Stuff Last. This project is half-abandoned, meaning that I still pluck away at it sometimes but have no real intention of sending it out into the world. Right now, I’m writing a story collection, Nitrate Nocturnes; doing research for a novel, Viral; and periodically writing book reviews, as well as poems. Here’s how I do it:

1) Plan Ahead

I’m a very regimented writer, and I like to set schedules. I’ve been writing long enough now that I know going into a project how long it’s going to take me. Book reviews are two weeknights, give or take. Poems take about an hour for the initial draft, followed by an incalculable number of big edits. And short stories, depending on the projected word count, generally take me a month. The last one took three weeks. Many beginning writers won’t be as certain of their own numbers, but can still make a schedule by padding the dates with generous estimates. This isn’t to say that I’m always right about how long a piece will take me, but does let me: pencil in time for research and reading, carve out time for submissions, and meet deadlines for grants, contests, etc. Having this writing and submitting schedule is invaluable—and keeps me motivated.

2) Set Achievable Goals

You might’ve noticed that I don’t schedule for book-length manuscripts. Exact dates for these are too hard to predict, because you can never be sure how many stories or chapters you’ll need, how many you’ll have to cut, or how much editing you’ll have to do. Instead of saying, “I will finish a short story collection in a year,” I set myself a more reasonable and less daunting goal: finish the short story I’m working on in a month. This is an achievable goal. I can approach it without ever getting discouraged or taking my eyes off the big picture. And, as it happens, I did write most of the stories in Nitrate Nocturnes in a year.

3) Know Your Limits

It shouldn’t be a surprise that my writing schedule allows for very little free time. This fall, while wrapping up Nitrate Nocturnes, I did allow myself a number of nights out (the opera, a Tegan & Sara concert), in addition to teaching a two-day class at the Hugo House here in Seattle. Overall, though, there hasn’t been much socializing. Most writers I know would go mad if they stuck to a schedule like mine. So, even though I’m advising you to be super regimented, I don’t want you to burnout.

4) Always Be Researching

Part of knowing your limits is knowing whether you’re intellectually or emotionally prepared to write a piece, whether it be a story, a poem, or book review. For example, my novel-in-progress, Viral, is about an AIDS-like virus that spills over from the animal world and sparks an epidemic in the human population. This leads to entire neighborhoods and cities being quarantined, with a large portion of the quarantined left to die. The protagonist, a Puerto Rican drag queen, attempts to escape. Obviously, this is speculative fiction, but in order to make it believable, I’m reading a lot about viruses, diseases, AIDS, the NIH, and the processes by which cures are developed. My research isn’t always this involved, however. Sometimes “research” means staring at a town I’ve never visited on Google maps. Or trying to understand why someone would forgive their child’s murderer. My point is that pretty much anything counts as research. A terrible Thanksgiving with a family full of Trump fans can, for instance, be a fascinating study in psychosis-level delusions. So, keep your eyes peeled for something you can use in your writing.

What made you decide that “Softening” was going to be a flash story? It’s one of those stories that I think is remarkable because it’s in the shape of an anecdote that tells so much about the main character. And it’s such a big story that it’s easy to think whoa, I could read at least twenty more pages about this character and what she’s doing now.

“Softening” probably went through a dozen drafts before I settled on the size and the structure. It was inspired by a real experience I had (of finding ants in my cereal) and grew from there, using that hunger as foundation for the story. I suppose I always knew that it was going to be a piece of flash fiction. Originally, because it was based on such a small, disconnected moment, it consisted solely of the first paragraph and of the offer of food from Ms. Laura, the concerned teacher. Only after I sat with the story a while did I understand that the narrator wasn’t really craving food but intimacy—any kind of intimacy, even an inappropriate sexual advance—and once I knew that it was easy to see where the story had to go.

About the Author:

Ruth Joffre is a writer and a critic whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Nashville Review, Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, The Millions, and The Rumpus, among others. She's a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and she lives in Seattle, where she teaches at the Hugo House.

About the Interviewer:

Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly  and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016.  She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.

About the Artist:

A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia's writing and art have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Five:2:One, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden's Ferry, matchbook, Medium, McSweeney's, Necessary Fiction, North American Review, Per Contra, Points in Case, Popular Science, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly, Up the Staircase, and others.