Jenny Drai : An Interview

Jenny writes from the heart about history, love, and life. She has fascinating stories to tell through her lyrical poems and stories. 

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Who are you and what do you do?

 Jenny Drai

Jenny Drai

I write fiction, poetry, and also the occasional essay, lyric essay, or cross-genre piece. For money, I work as a copywriter and translator (German to English). I also consult on poetry manuscripts. In the past, I’ve written a number of book reviews, but I’m currently feeling a little burned out on those. At some point, though, I’d like to go back to that. In my non-writing life, I’m an amateur shutterbug, a throw-it-in-the-pot-and-see-what-happens kind of cook, and I’m kind of sporty. I also blog about literary and historical oddities and life with a schizoaffective disorder on my website, where I also post photos from my travels. I live in Germany, and have been taking advantage of proximity to visit various European cities.

Let's start at the beginning. What inspired you to write in an epistolary way for your novella Letters to Quince? 

I chose the epistolary form because I wanted Alice, the protagonist of Letters to Quince, to be able to directly address Quince. But Quince doesn’t want anything to do with Alice (and probably has some very good reasons for that). She has an amusing way of putting things, sure, but she’s also pretty unhealthy. And yet healing often involves being able to speak our minds. So it seemed important to me that Alice should be able to express her anger, hurt, and grief directly to Quince, even if he never ends up reading her letters. It’s the getting it out that’s important.

One more thing about the epistolary form: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is one of my favorite books of all time. In fact, my reading of that novella plays a big role in The New Sorrow Is Less Than The Old Sorrow, my chapbook which came out the same year as Letters to Quince. And of course, Goethe’s Werther is written as a series of letters. So I’ve been aware of the power of the form for a long time. It seems like a good way to create intimacy, both between characters within the work itself and between author and reader.

How long have you been writing poetry? 

I started taking poetry seriously when I was about 17.

 Photo by  David Klein  on  Unsplash

Photo by David Klein on Unsplash

What do you love about the poetry form/structure? 

I think, more than anything, I love the process of figuring out how to marry form and content. And how meaning can be conveyed through syntax. Of all the genres, poetry seems most suited to this. I have a tendency to write long, in other words, series, book-length projects, and multiple poems on a single subject. But lately, as a bit of an experiment, I’ve also been trying to embrace poetry as a medium that can convey an awful lot through brevity. I’ve just started posting those experiments, every once in a great, great while, on Instagram.

Do you think it's necessary for a poem to rhyme? 

Definitely not necessary. But I’m also not anti-rhyme. I’m hugely in favor of internal rhyme.

Your latest book The History Worker was inspired by themes and history at Hearst Castle. What made you want to talk about immigration with the juxtaposition of Hearst castle? 

Hearst Castle is full of artifacts purchased from the owners of grand old houses in Europe. Most of the acquisitions took place after WWI when a lot of people in Europe were looking for cash to rebuild. And the provenance of each of those artifacts has been recorded. But Hearst Castle also occupies a piece of land, and I think it’s worthwhile to think about land as an artifact that also has provenance. The film they show tourists at Hearst Castle describes how George Hearst acquired the land and the road there is called the Chumash Highway. The Chumash were the people indigenous to that area. So I think it’s almost stupid not to think of the land that way.

Immigration, at least in my mind, connects to the idea of land having its own provenance because wide-scale immigration to the US such as the waves that brought my own ancestors during the nineteenth century really only became possible because of land-theft on a massive scale. A lot of people’s existences are tied to that.

 Photo by  BICAD MEDIA  on  Unsplash

Photo by BICAD MEDIA on Unsplash

But I’m also interested in the sometimes very compelling reasons people have for leaving their countries of origins. In The History Worker, I write about the Romanian Revolution of 1989. I was thirteen when that happened. I knew we still had family there and that my paternal grandfather’s sisters remained in touch. But they lost contact with them during the Revolution, which was violent. My relative good luck at being safe and secure in my middle-class suburban home loomed large in my head that year. All of that and a lot more come to play in The History Worker.

Where do you typically write? 

 Photo by  Thomas Martinsen  on  Unsplash

I write at the desk in the office nook of the apartment I share with my husband. I write on a laptop, which I have set up as a desktop, with an additional monitor, regular mouse, and keyboard. I usually start from scratch in MS Word. The blank white page inspires me. I compose exclusively in Book Antiqua.  I love this font and sometimes even feel inspired by it. It’s really pleasing to the eye, in my opinion. Even my tattoos are in Book Antiqua. If I’m required to submit something in a different font, I just reformat after I’m done. However, I do make a lot of handwritten notes on index cards and Post-it notes and in a notebook.

Where do you find inspiration from for ideas? 

History, myth, fairy tales, other works of literature, sometimes even film (as in Letters to Quince). Most of the poetry I write definitely draws, either in large or small ways, on my engagement with those themes. I’ve also just completed a novel about the evolving relationship between Beowulf and his estranged foster daughter (who I’ve obviously invented) that tries to engage with and explore (and hopefully overturn) some of the damagingly masculine aspects of its source material. (So yeah, I’m sort of writing about toxic masculinity, using Beowulf as my medium.) My work-in-progress is a collection of short stories in which a lot of the protagonists escape in their imaginations to other times and places, real or imagined, or they channel historical or mythical figures or connect to characters in books they’re reading as a way to mitigate the large and small indignities of daily life. And of course, they’re also figuring out something or other about their places in their current worlds.

Who are some of your favorite writers? 

Aaah, so many. Here are a few who I’ve read recently (or who have work forthcoming that I can’t wait to read): Ali Smith, Marina Warner, Marlon James, Pattie McCarthy, Helen Oyeyemi, Maria Tatar, Franny Choi, Zadie Smith, Quan Barry, Han Kang, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman, Kimiko Hahn, and David Mitchell.

Who are you reading right now? 

I am currently reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, and The Postmodern Beowulf, ed. by Eileen A. Joy and Mary K. Ramsey. I am also slowly making my way through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I really like it, but only a bit at a time. I just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther comics and am starting World of Wakanda. It’s hard to get my hands on poetry collections, but I try to stay abreast by reading various online journals and through subscriptions to a few literary journals.

Fun Questions

If you were stuck on an abandoned island what five items would you want with you? 

A portable device like a tablet with a detachable keyboard, with as many eBooks loaded onto it as will fit. A solar-powered charger for that device. My polarized, prescription sunglasses. A lifetime supply of meds and medical supplies. And coffee, a French press, and a lifetime supply of creamer. (Kind of cheating with that last one, that’s actually three things.)

If you had the power to go back to one day in your life and redo it which one would it be? 

Well, I have had this day, and it was kind of terrible. Suffice it to say, there was one time when I was particularly cavalier with someone else’s feelings. I would go back to that day and be more careful.

Do you think Pluto should be a planet again? 

I am content to abide by Neil deGrasse Tyson’s decision on the subject.

Are you a coffee or tea person? 

Coffee. Coffee all the way. Tea will do in a pinch, but I love coffee so much that I sometimes lie in bed at night and look forward to the next morning because then I will get to drink coffee. However, if I didn’t work at home, I don’t think I would feel quite as excited about waking up.

If you could travel back in time where would you go? 

Provided that there was a stipulation that  I would be immune from catching anything that could kill me, and ignoring all the many moments in history one might be tempted to return to in order to right a grievous wrong, I think I would satisfy my curiosity, once and for all, about whether or not Richard III was responsible for killing his nephews. (Perhaps strangely, Richard III also ties into The History Worker.) Don’t get me wrong, I think he was almost certainly responsible. But Ricardians, those societies of people who have dedicated themselves to proving his innocence, drive me a little wild. Why not just accept that someone who may have had a number of positive attributes (piety, he gave us tort law) could also do something really awful? The unwillingness to admit this signals to me a pretty basic misunderstanding of human character. I also think it would be cool if one stipulation of the time travel were that I would magically be able to speak the English of the time period.