Talking with Jessica Keener

Last year, Jessica Keener published her first novel, Night Swim, a moving and wistful tale of memory and nostalgia, both their comforts and pitfalls, all focused on the Kunitz family in 1970s Boston. She has now released a collection of short stories, Women in Bed, nine stories, or better I say portraits of women, brief glimpses of their lives and loves, forming a many-faced character study. The prose is lucid and lovely, meditative and melancholic, and makes a perfect companion to the novel. Our conversation took place over phone and email and—at least for me—partially in bed.

—Scott Cheshire

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INTERVIEWER

Some of these stories are new and some are older, yes? Were you always imagining a collection, or did you one day realize you had one?

JESSICA KEENER

From the beginning of my writing life, I imagined publishing a collection. But I wanted to assemble a group of tales that I felt worked well together. At the same time, I began writing novels and feature articles for magazines. So, time passed. As you pointed out, some of the stories are old and some new. Every year or so, I’d make a list of stories I’d published or I’d pull out newer stories that needed revision and I’d work on them for a while, then put them away or submit them for publication. Finally, a few summers ago, after I finished a story called “Heart,” the collection felt complete.

INTERVIEWER

The title is subtly provocative as it plays on our more sensual instincts. But I soon realized, while reading, most of the time we spend in bed has very little to do with sex. Did you knowingly write stories in which bed played important role, or did it just work out that way?

JESSICA KEENER

I was seeking a title that contained an image or phrase that could resonate for all of the stories as a larger unit. I also liked calling attention to “the bed” as object and then as subject. What does a bed represent in terms of our emotional responses to it and also our need for it? Certainly, the women (and men) in these stories spend a lot of time in the vicinity of beds—bedrooms, hotel rooms, a boarding house, hospital intensive care unit, a beachside cottage—and since I was mining the stories for what I imagined to be intimate situations and dramas, a “bed” was a natural emblem for those dramas. I’ve been amused by people’s first reaction to the title and assumptions made around it, and, you’re right, I fully intended to play on the title’s sensual ramifications.

INTERVIEWER

The stories depict so many moments in bed—those of fraught vulnerable moments (“Secrets”), sleep and sleeping pills (“Boarders”), sickness (“Woman with Bird in Her Chest”), recovery (“Recovery”), love and love affairs (“Shoreline”), and the strangely intimate experience of sleeping in an anonymous bed (“Heart”). Can you talk to me some about beds and how they figure in the work?

JESSICA KEENER

It’s funny to think about a piece of furniture figuring in my work because, to be clear, this wasn’t a conscious thing. Not at first, anyway. But, on a serious note, I am a homebody who is fascinated by living spaces and the furniture we put in those spaces. Why does this intrigue me? I guess I see furniture and rooms we live in as private stages in our private theaters. A bed is part of that set-up. I see these stories as mini-theaters—one act plays, or improvs—where the players are given a few props, the bed being one of them, to help them enact the emotional issue at hand. For instance, in the story “Recovery” the bed functions as an anchor, something solid for the character, Elizabeth, to hold on to. In the story, “Heart” an old lumpy, hotel bed serves as an agitator. All the beds in these stories are silent witnesses to human dramas occurring in and around them. It’s also where much of the truth emerges. I mean, if beds could speak, they might disclose everything we need to know about living and dying.

INTERVIEWER

The flux of time permeates your novel, Night Swim, and the notion of time is threaded throughout these stories. There is an interesting play with time happening in a few stories. I’m thinking specifically here of “Shoreline.” Can you talk some about the attempt to represent two narrative times at once?

JESSICA KEENER

I’m glad you brought this up. Time intrigues me to no end. I see it as circular or spiral, not linear. Or maybe it’s shaped like a double helix. The idea that it’s linear is, to my mind, an illusion. Maybe I have chronos-dyslexia? (I made that up.) I also see time as moving in many directions: backwards, sideways, down, up—all of those things at once—and at varying paces and rhythms, like music. Having said all that, it’s natural that I play with time elements in my work because telling a story requires using the material of time. Narrative is a form of time. Story is a form of time and asks the never-ending question (at least for me): how does the past and future intersect with the present? This was, in part, the question Laura, my character in the story, “Shoreline,” is asking. How is her past intruding on her present and vice versa? How is her present reinterpreting her past? Time is an ongoing phenomenon, a universal current that feels mysterious and grand and affects decisions people make or don’t make. It also signals our mortality and because of that, time is, to my mind, all-powerful. I have just completed a novel I’ve been working on for about five years. It’s set in Budapest in the mid-1990s. Time is a big factor in this one as well.

INTERVIEWER

How different was the experience of making this book than writing a novel?

JESSICA KEENER

Completely different in terms of writing a short versus a much longer piece of fiction. Short stories demand a different kind of intensity than a novel; yet some elements remain the same no matter what; the demands of craft, for one—attending to sentences and scenes, description, characters and dialogue.

INTERVIEWER

One of your characters makes a proclamation: “Death tells me who I am.” I love this line for how deadly serious it is, but in fact I happen to agree. It also seems to be something of an aesthetic motto for your work.

JESSICA KEENER

Absolutely. For whatever reason, I’ve been fascinated with death from an early age—starting at eight years old when I imagined I would die from a poisonous chemical that was sprayed on the trees in our neighborhood. I got so worked up about it, I ended up prostrate on my parents’ bed, taking my temperature every other minute, waiting for death to take me. (There’s the bed, again). As a teen, I wrestled with suicidal feelings. In my twenties, I got sick with a near-fatal blood disease and underwent a bone marrow transplant to save my life. I was hospitalized for three months. Because of these things, my sense of mortality infuses all that I write about in my short stories and novels. Without a doubt, I believe our perceptions of death, our fears around it, our comfort or discomfort around the reality of it directs how we interpret and experience life. I believe this to be true on a personal and spiritual level and, certainly, on a social and cultural level, too.

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3 comments

  1. I’m an author with new novel”Stop Here,” published tomorrow.

  2. My new novel “Stop Here,” will be published tomorrow

  3. my new novel “stop here” will be published tomorrow

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