June rolls in after thunderstorms and tornadoes roil the area where I live…maybe where you live, too. This month I’m so pleased to welcome a fellow writer whom I met a number of years ago at the Taos Writers Conference, when we were both working to get published. Now, Jill has her first novel — true stories at the smoky view — published and continues to pursue this obsession we share! Welcome, Jill.
Janet Irvin: Please share with readers a little of your writing journey. How did you go from reader to writer?
Jill Coupe: Writing has always helped me to make sense of this crazy world we live in. When I was young, I wrote down dreams I’d had. Sometimes I actually enjoyed writing a term paper. My efforts at creative writing began with poems. Short stories were next.
While working as a librarian at Johns Hopkins University, I was encouraged by several professors in The Writing Seminars to apply to the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, a low-residency program which would allow me to continue working full-time. My senior thesis at Warren Wilson was a novella; I’d quickly realized (as had my faculty advisors) that the mainstay of most MFA programs, the short story, was not where my future lay.
J.I.: For many of us, inspiration comes from the place where we live. How important is that place to your work?
J.C.: I grew up in Knoxville, TN, and have lived for many years in the Baltimore-Washington area. Not surprisingly, these are frequent settings in my novels. Maybe I’m being a bit lazy–writing what I know–but in a way I’m also honoring these places where I’ve enjoyed living.
I am especially fond of the Southern Appalachians, especially the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge. Years ago, on a brief visit to the Scottish Highlands, I quickly realized why my immigrant ancestors had decided to settle where they did. The blue mists of Appalachia must have reminded them of home.
More than half of my first novel, True Stories at the Smoky View, takes place during the Blizzard of 1993, which blanketed East Tennessee with record amounts of snow. An important chapter of Beginning with Cannonballs (to be published in May, 2020) is set in the Shenandoah National Park. The protagonist in my current project lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Yes, this Baltimore writer often dreams of higher elevations.
J.I.: In your award-winning first novel, an art history librarian and a ten-year-old orphan undertake a very personal search for justice. How did you select this topic?
J.C.: Actually, it selected me, during a time when my life was in complete turmoil. Amazingly, from the very beginning, I had all of my characters as well as the basic story. What took me a long time to figure out was how to go about telling that story. I’d read E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I’d read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Having taken one of his workshops, I read John Dufresne’s The Lie that Tells a Truth. But what was most helpful to me was the feedback I received from John and from the other workshop participants. Reading about what to do is one thing. Hearing what people think of what you’ve actually done is quite another.
J.I.: What does your writing process consist of?
J.C.: I sit at the desktop computer in my guest room and type away. When I’m out of ideas, I go for a walk or swim laps or just lie down in the dark. Once I’ve completed a first draft, I print it out and, seated in the living room, in my great-grandfather’s rocking chair, I try to read with a critical eye. I then type in my handwritten changes and additions and repeat the process. And repeat. And repeat again. My first two novels took me years to write. Recently, I was bombarded by an idea and wrote a first draft in five months. The writing just flowed. Scenes came to me as I needed them. It was actually a little scary. And maybe what I’ve written is complete balderdash. Or maybe I’ve finally learned how to go about this more efficiently. I’ll find out this summer, when I take the first revision of the first draft to yet another workshop.
J.I.: Do you think attending conferences is valuable for writers?
J.C.: I had wonderful experiences at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, which unfortunately has ceased to be. Over the years, I attended several workshops there given by John Dufresne and one given by Pam Houston. Both of these extremely knowledgeable teachers provide honest and helpful feedback. The contacts I made in Taos have proved invaluable. You, of course, were one of them!
In other situations, however, I’ve received feedback that was less than helpful. It’s important to know when to listen and when to turn a deaf ear. Years ago, after my work had been discussed in a very negative way, a fellow student told me what Francine Prose had once said to him: “That’s why God gave us two hands.” And he covered his ears.
I’ve received useful comments on my work in conversations with friends, readers whom I trust to be honest with me. I don’t always learn from them exactly what I’d hoped to, but I often hear something else that turns out to be equally valuable.
J.I.: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
J.C.: I have sometimes been advised to “slow down” in my writing. But I’m the slowest writer alive, I always wanted to reply. After attending a lecture given by Jennifer Egan (at Goucher College in 2016), I finally understood what people had been trying to tell me.
In talking about how to solve problems of structure, Jennifer Egan stressed the importance of waiting “instinctively” for a solution. She suggested trying to free up one’s instincts, warning that not all instincts are the right ones. Let the material stumble forward and find its own form, she advised. She went on to compare a writer’s ideas to islands protruding from a submerged land mass. From this hidden expanse (the subconscious?), the author must extract form and order.
I now have a Post-it Note taped to my computer, reminding me to slow down. “Wait instinctively,” the note says.
J.I.: Now, just for fun, what’s your favorite comfort food?
J.C.: I can’t seem to resist those dark-chocolate peanut M&M’s. Just two more, I tell myself, while reaching, again and again, for three or four.
J.I.: Jill, it’s been a pleasure to host you this month. Readers, want more Jill? You may contact her at