Jac Jemc has written much of her work while living in the city of Chicago. Her second story collection, “False Bingo,” is another imaginative foray that offers a follow-up to her critically acclaimed “The Grip of It”—her 2017 novel rooted in a couple’s encounter with a haunted house. Jemc, who recently started a new post as a professor at University of California-San Diego and is preparing for the release of her next novel “Total Work of Art” in 2021, spoke with Newcity about “False Bingo.” A few stories draw on supernatural elements in “False Bingo,” and Jemc talked about happy stories, complicating the idea of pastoral writing, Greek classics, the guilty pleasures of television, microaggressions and the art of crafting good sentences.
I was really intrigued with “Gladness Or Joy” because it grapples with the idea of telling and hearing happy stories. If there’s a happy story you love, please tell me more about it.
This is a great question, and I just read such a story from Nina MacLaughlin’s new retelling of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” “Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung.” The story is called “Baucis” and it’s a retelling of “Baucis and Philemon,” and it’s all good in there. There’s sadness in the story, but the sadness is shared between two people in such a way that it feels conflict-less.
A compelling story for me was “Pastoral,” which starts with the main character filming a sexually explicit scene with another actor set in an artificially pastoral scene. The story then makes a transition into her real life as a family-oriented pastoral scene underscored with italicized quotes from Virgil and Theocritus that punctuate passages like haibun. So, the quotes from classical Greeks evoke pastorals much like the ancient Japanese nature-oriented poems of haiku and haibun. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
This is terribly embarrassing, but I was unaware of haibun as a form until now. Thank you for making me aware of it. My goal ultimately was to illuminate the notion of the pastoral—an ancient ideal of life—with a profession and lifestyle that is usually loaded with all sorts of preconceived notions of trauma and shame. By using the actual quotes from Greek pastoral poetry, I hoped to highlight how visceral that ideal is and how it can be translated into modern life outside of the country, if we can just subtract the elements of toxic masculinity and sanctified motherhood.
I love that premise. Also, throughout “False Bingo,” you aren’t just talking about these speculative and supernatural moments, but the dark little things people do in everyday life. How did that develop as an idea as you were writing?
I’m guilty of being an observer in my own life. When people behave badly, I silently thrill at the opportunity to bear witness to it. So many of life’s horrors, if we’re lucky, I guess, are microaggressions. I’m interested in the way people bond over bad behavior. In pulling this collection together, I was thinking about different scales of evil, and how we seek out even very minor evils in others to absolve ourselves of the guilt of not being perfect.
I appreciate that you don’t shy away from a straightforward, declarative sentence. I’d love to hear your thoughts about creating sentences.
Thank you! I love declarative sentences in fiction because I’m always tempering my own opinions and even factual statements in real life. It’s a conditioned part of being female, to a certain extent, I think. I was just staying with a friend over the weekend and she’s so declarative and I felt so alive with her. I aspire to that. In the meantime, I love a variety of sentences. Sometimes I trick my way into a sentence with language-gathering and pre-writing. Sometimes I just say it like it is. I play with patterns and rhythm and run-ons and fragments. Sometimes I let myself boldly state something that I’m not sure is accurate and sometimes I meander around something that is more certain. I love manipulating sentences toward the goals and themes of each individual story. Playing with language and thinking about the unit of the sentence is the most fun part for me.
If there is one, or even several, what guilty pop culture pleasures inspire your writing?
So many, but I’ll answer simply: “The Real Housewives”—all of them—and “Columbo.”
Yes, the television gives us other storytelling too! What’s a bit of advice that you’d give people who want to write speculative fiction and how does that differ from writing a more realistic story for you?
I don’t think about this line between speculative fiction and realistic fiction when I’m writing a story, and perhaps my greatest bit of advice is that other writers don’t either. Write what the story wants to be. Wherever it lands on that spectrum is where it belongs.
Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.