Friday, November 18, 2011

Nancy Jensen

Nancy Jensen, who received an MFA in Writing from Vermont College, has published stories and essays in numerous literary journals, including The Louisville Review, Other Voices, and Northwest Review. She was awarded an Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and teaches English at Eastern Kentucky University.

Her new novel is The Sisters.

Jensen's response to my recent query about what she has been reading:
A few years ago I read Rosemary Ashton’s George Eliot: A Life. As literary biographies go, this is a good one, exhaustively researched, smart, and well-written, but I recall only a single detail from the book with clarity. In a letter to her friend Charles Bray, Eliot describes a typical day in the home she shared with George Lewes: “[We] are happier every day—writing hard, walking hard, reading Homer and science and rearing tadpoles. I read aloud for about three hours every evening.... We breakfast at ½ past 8, read to ourselves till 10, write till ½ past 1, walk till nearly 4, and dine at 5, regretting each day as it goes.”

The letter has stayed with me out of the pure power of envy. How could any serious writer not long for such a life? It’s a life, of course, that requires a stable, independent income to fill in the gaps that Eliot’s and Lewes’ modest writing income couldn’t fill—a life with ill-paid servants busy in the background making the beds, washing the clothes, preparing the meals, sweeping the hall, running the errands. I try not to think about the servants, because the sensibilities born from my American working class background recoil from the idea, but still I linger over the vision of a day that turns on reading, writing, and the long walk conducive to conversation and contemplation.

Alas, my life is nothing like that. Maybe one of these days I’ll earn enough from my writing, consistently enough, to quit my day job, but for now I have to cling to my position as a university professor—and it’s this job that governs most of my choices about what to read. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the books I teach—I do. This semester alone, I’m teaching a course in the family novel, beginning with Sons and Lovers and ending with the just-released Justin Torres novel-in-stories, We the Animals. I’m teaching another course I like calling “Gods and Monsters” because it focuses on literature, from Genesis to 1984, that grapples with the monstrous consequences of man’s passion to challenge the power of the gods. In addition to the demands of those courses, there’s my usual scramble to keep up with the short works I assign to my creative writing students as good models for various techniques they can try in their own work.

I’m luckier than many, I realize. Though I work 60-70 hours a week when I’m teaching, I have my summers off—summers for writing, with days that sometimes include a good bit of reading and maybe a long walk. My reading in the summer, though, is usually some form of research for something I’m writing or thinking about writing. Indeed, I read the Ashton biography of George Eliot because I stumbled upon it while I was following up the possibility of writing a novel about—well, I won’t say what about because I still haven’t made up my mind.

On my bookshelves right now, waiting for the next moment I can spare for research, are histories of American women in the 1940s, photographic studies of Midwestern cities from 1850 to 1950, oral histories of soldiers from four wars and of female social activists from the 1920s. There are books on the Spiritualist movement in late 19th century America and Europe and biographies of writers and other notable people who were a part of that movement. There are books on the politics of Southeast Asia, books on Islam from its origins to its modern expressions. A tour through my library, which overflows my available shelf space to settle in great piles on the floor, will reveal dozens of strange, obscure titles covering multiple angles of any subject that has struck me, however briefly, as a possible subject for a someday novel. These books snug up against works of English, American, European and non-Western literature from the ancient Greeks to the 21st century—books I’ve taught, books I’ll teach again, books I may teach someday, and these books lean against the many books I’ve bought that I want to read for myself—just because I want to. Books like my just-purchased copies of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights—books that make me pray for the academic’s favorite gift: a snow day.
Visit Nancy Jensen's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Sisters.

--Marshal Zeringue