23 August 2013

Interview with author Jay Ponteri (Part I)

I met Jay Ponteri in 2009, shortly after I began working at Marylhurst University, where he's Associate Faculty in the English department. For a while we both had offices on the same hall, and I knew him as the slightly distracted, somewhat-rumpled creative writing instructor who brought his adorable son to work with him on occasion. Although I never had the chance to work with him directly or to take a class from him, I was aware of the work he was doing - most notably, running show:tell, an AMAZING summer writing camp for teens - and had heard of him as a wonderful teacher.

When I heard a little over a year ago that Jay had written a book about the failings of the traditional model of monogamous relationship, my ears perked up. I'd been interested in and thinking about alternative models of relationship for five or six years at that point; I had no idea that was something Jay was interested in, too, and I was dying to hear what he had to say.

So when his memoir Wedlocked came out earlier this year, I was all over it. It was both wonderful and quite different from what I'd initially expected, given what I heard about it. It was heartbreakingly sad and truthful and well written, and it inspired me to write creative non-fiction again. I loved it. (Click here to read my recommendation for this book.)

I'm honored to bring you an interview with Jay, in two parts. Today's questions revolve around Jay's writing and writing process. Next Friday's questions are mainly about his experience finding and working with his publisher, Hawthorne Books. Enjoy! 

How long did it take you to write Wedlocked?  
It took me a long time to write this book. I wrote a collection of short stories that I didn’t end up selling (not for lack of effort!), and as I worked on peddling that collection to publishers and agents, I began writing in messy fashion long sprawling unparagraphed prose about my marriage. That was in 2004. I finished in 2009 and sat on it for a few years. During this “sitting” period, my marriage continued to heal from damage it had incurred due to my extramarital affair (among other things). My desire to publish this deeply private book and my wife’s consent to let me publish it was emblematic of that healing, but that took some time. My wife hadn’t read the revised version of the book, so during this time I read it aloud to her bit by bit, and that took like 18 months. I say this all to suggest this was a slow process.

How many revisions did you do before you started querying it?  

I don’t count drafts per se. I revised for about 5 years if you count the year of revising I did after Hawthorne bought the book. I write slowly. I build my work in layers. I expand and expand and expand. Any giving writing session for me entails going to any arbitrary place in my work and adding like four or five sentences or pages. I do an entire draft in which I print out a copy and write sentences in lovely pink-pen above, below, over the existing typed-written sentences. I fill the white space in margins with my scrawl. When I think I can't fit any more, I fit more. I practice a kind of radical inclusion. I like maximal expansion and imbalance. Towards the very end (right before Hawthorne began the line edits), I added like three or four sections I’d written in the blaze of a single day’s writing session. Other sections I worked on for years. Late in the process I revise by working over sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, word by word.

I think you've said elsewhere that you decided to publish this memoir because you wanted to start a conversation about the ways in which our traditional model of marriage/relationship doesn't work. Have you seen those conversations happening?  

Yes and no. A few handfuls of people, friends and strangers, writers and readers, have read the book and then contacted me, and we've had some very meaningful, long discussions, via email or over coffee, and there have been a few readings, well, two, in which I attempted conversations about monogamy with audience members, and those were fun too. My sense is that readers might enjoy and be impacted by my book if they feel ready to encounter their own private, contradictory feelings about desire, attachment, and monogamy. I have found that some people are ready to read my book, but might not be ready to talk about their own lives or even share their opinions of monogamy in any kind of public way. And maybe they're sitting next to their spouse and don't exactly feel safe to do so! And that's OK! In a way, I'm not sure if my book is causing people to talk about monogamy inside or across relationships. That’s a reality about publishing your work. Reading is a very intimate, solo act; readers experience it inside themselves (for the most part). I do think some readers feel a little weirded out by how much of my private life I reveal in my art, and that might give way to the silence of discomfit or embarrassment, and that's not a bad thing. The silence that bums me out was that neither The Oregonian, The Portland Mercury, nor The Willamette Week reviewed my book. They often review books by local writers. Such is life. There have been others! Bookslut wrote a nice consideration of Wedlocked and published an interview with me, and Paste and Los Angeles Review also published generously critical, thoughtful reviews too, and I’m grateful for that.

Did you have any moments of panic over deciding to publish something so personal and revealing?  

I had about 18 months of panic. I was not (am not) nervous about revealing my own inner life, but I was terribly nervous about revealing my marriage, even if what is revealed is so clearly and deeply distorted by the narrator's loneliness and sorrow. Anybody who knows my wife and me might read this book and feel disoriented by it, think, "This is NOT the XXX and Jay I know," and they'd be right. In Wedlocked, My perceptions of others (my wife, my parents) are more accurately revealing my own mental state and personality than anything about them. This book is about my inner life lost inside marriage. To my thinking I was publishing a book I hadn't seen elsewhere, and yet there is a destructive element to the writing in that the narrator, at the time, continues to write about his marriage and the writing itself is a form of isolation. It's not exactly pathological writing but it was writing that was part of a larger process of keeping my wife (and my entire family) at more than an arm's length. But I'm not nervous about my own self-revelation. I might reveal a lot, but the reality is it's a small snapshot of a larger whole, and the person doing this interview is different from that person portrayed in Wedlocked is different from the person who stands in front of a classroom and teaches writing and literature is different from the person who carries his pugs around the house like a maniac.

Referring back to the question on how long it took you to write Wedlocked, do you have a sense of how many copies of the book would need to be sold in order to have made minimum wage on it? Do you expect to get that kind of return out of it?  
Great question! I spent so many years writing this book and not to mention the hours I spent in therapy talking about all of this and all of the lattes I bought at various cafes in Portland where I wrote the book. I'm pretty sure if I did the math, it would come out way in the negative. I never had any expectations to make money off this book, which is NOT a healthy (from a capitalistic viewpoint) mindset. When somebody pays me for my writing, I’m usually shocked. I love literature so much. I LOVE IT. Reading other writers, other books has brought me immense pleasure and meaning in my life. It's hard to measure that in terms of dollars. To complicate my answer more, I get paid to teach writing and literature, which for me is DEEPLY connected to my own work. I need both. I can’t do one without the other. So in a way I do feel like my salary comes from my writing even though it actually doesn't. My point is I'm a great English major and a terrible math major...

As you know, I loved Wedlocked. I'm eager for your next book! What are you working on now?

I'm working on two manuscripts. The first is one that I've been working on here and there for five or six years. It's called Dark Mouth Inside Me (line from a Vasko Popa poem). It attempts to describe my experience of depression without depressing the reader. Tall order! It's comprised of very short sections, one per page, some as short as a single word or phrase. Writing short-short prose has offered me some relief from my default mode of writing long unparagraphed prose full of sentences that don't really end. Subject matter dictates form for me. The second manuscript is titled Lobes, and it's comprised of single-spaced page-long self-portraits. They are like a series (like a visual artists does a bunch of drawings) in that each day I write a single-spaced page of prose describing who I am in that present moment of composition. The ordinary is important in this new work. Carpools. Laundry. Empty rooms, that kind of thing. I’m also writing imaginative-critical essays (called Chitchats) about “prose.” I have a 15-page unparagraphed essay on unparagraphing. I have a half-page essay on navel-gazing. That kind of thing. They grow out of my teaching.

Read Part II of the interview.

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