We’re chatting with Jen Conley, whose latest novel Seven Ways to Get Rid Of Harry is reviewed in Mysterious Book Report No. 375. Thanks, Jen, for speaking with us today. Our readers and fans are eager to hear your thoughts, writing tips and opinions, so let’s jump right in. Here’s our first question:
Why do you write?
I was writing as a kid, so I’m not completely sure why I write. I wrote in high
school and college but I stopped in my 20s and didn’t return to it until my 30s. In
my 20s I was very busy and I also thought I wasn’t smart enough to write, even
though characters and stories kept popping into my head. I still don’t think I’m
smart enough but I truly enjoy writing. I guess in a nutshell, I honestly love
making up stuff.
What do you write about?
I write about New Jersey, more specifically, Ocean County, New Jersey, where I
grew up and live now. Ocean County is mostly blue collar and middle class and I like to write about everyday people who struggle to survive. I also think Ocean County is a very
interesting place to write about. We’re a big tourist area because of the Jersey Shore, but if you go inland, you’ll hit the Pine Barrens, which is a huge swath of scrub pine forest. It’s a great place to set a crime story.
As any fan of Boardwalk Empire will attest to. Are any of your characters autobiographical?
Not completely. But I use a lot of myself in all my characters—male or female,
older person or kid. I’m a big fan of authenticity and the easiest way to get that
sometimes is to rip it from your own experience.
Do you plot-outline or wing it?
I don’t do a traditional outline but I have notebooks and papers and sticky notes
where I scribble things down before I sit down to write. I don’t start anything until I have
an idea, a feel for my character, and then a basic story line. I find that when I sit in front
of a blank page with not much direction, I end up abandoning it. So I need direction,
definitely. I wish I were neater about it but I’m your typical messy creative person who is
more organized in the brain then it looks on the desk.
Does a MFA Degree play into success?
Good question. I think that if you go to an Ivy League or an esteemed college for a MFA in creative writing, your chances of getting published increase ten-fold. I never got my MFA in creative writing, despite really wanting to. It’s just too much money and I could never justify those loans. However, there are ways to be successful without an
MFA—you have to read a lot and work hard. For me, because I write about everyday
people who struggle with money, like myself, my writing feels more authentic to what I
write about. So it’s sort of like a loop, in a sense. Had I gotten my MFA, maybe my style
would’ve changed, disrupting what I’m trying to do. I think if you can’t afford an MFA,
then don’t get it. Get into a writing group, go to good workshops, read and read, and you
can do well without it.
As far as luck, yes. Luck is the wild card in any situation in life no matter what you’re
trying to achieve. But I also think if you work hard, are professional and positive, try to
do readings as much as you can and do them well, you can get your name out there and
that will increase your chances of getting noticed.
I think being professional and good sport is really important. You can’t win everything.
Do you use humor in your work?
Yes, yes, yes. In my earlier work, I wasn’t confident using humor. I wanted to be
taken seriously and I wasn’t sure my brand of humor would translate into my writing. But
humor gives the reader a break and everyone loves to laugh. I have a dry, sometimes
demented, sense of humor. I like to write characters who are angry and ornery, and that
sometimes makes for some funny lines. Archie Bunker was one of the funniest characters
on television and it was mostly because he was pissed off at something.
Are you more comfortable writing in the first, or third person POV?
When I write men, I almost always feel more comfortable using third person.
When I write women, I tend to use first person. I’ve been using first person more and
more lately. I can’t really put my finger on it other than I feel like I can really dig into
someone’s head. Most times, when I’m in my brain and a story idea starts to form, the
voice of the narration will form too. Sometimes it shows up in third and sometimes in
first. Sometimes I’ll write something in third and then if I feel like it’s not popping, I’ll
flip it the first and see if that helps. That happened with Danny Zelko, who is the main
character in SEVEN WAYS TO GET RID OF HARRY. Originally the novel was a short
story, written in third person and written for adults. Yet when I sat down to turn it into a
novel for kids, third person didn’t work at all. I felt like Danny Zelko was too much of a
fun character to stand outside of. He has many ideas and thought and his own unique way
of looking at the world—I just wanted to be in his brain for a couple hundred pages.
Thanks again, for your insights and expertise Jen, and for taking time to speak with us today. Please keep us in your contacts list and let the MBR know about your next literary project.
JEN CONLEY has published many short stories in various crime fiction anthologies, magazines and ezines. Her short story collection, Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens, was nominated for an Anthony Award in 2017. She lives in Brick, NJ.
The Down & Out Bookstore page has purchase links for her book …