"1-On-One" with author Jessica Keener

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Advice, confessions, reflections, fantasies, delights and flashes of brilliance from Jessica Keener, author of Night Swim.




1. Is it possible to be a good writer without being a good reader?

 Hard to imagine how--

2. According to a report of the Independent Book Publishing Association, over five million American adults belong to reading groups. What, do you believe, is the basis for this country’s love for literature and books?

The power of story.  Stories get us through our days, our weeks, our lives. When we talk with our friends, we share stories to help us understand a problem or overcome a challenge. This is why literature will never go out of favor. We need stories like we need blood and air.

3. Have you ever belonged to a reading group?


4. What advice do you have for reading group members when it comes to selecting books for discussion?

Pick books you truly want to read. Look for a feeling of community and excitement around your selection.  Also, consider a variety of sources for your choices—online book sites (like this one), recommendations from friends, local newspapers, Oprah, favorite book bloggers.

5. What book(s) are you reading now or planning to read?

I’ve just finished several books that I highly recommend: The Suicide Index, which is a memoir by Joan Wickersham; The Call, a novel Yannick Murphy; Moving Waters, a debut story collection by Racelle Rosett; Dawn Tripp’s third novel: Game of Secrets; A Free Life by Ha Jin; We The Animals by Justin Torres. New books in my reading queue include Maryann O’Hara’s debut novel, Cascade, and Ilie Ruby’s second novel: The Salt God’s Daughter.

6. If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only bring one book with you to read, what would it be and why?

The impossible question! But I think it might be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a novel I’ve read about seven times now. I’m a sap for stories that deal with emotional roadblocks and struggles in relationships and how individuals manage these obstacles that are either in their control or not in their control. Austen’s novel deals with complexities of family life, but also society’s constraints that interfere with freedom of choice—freedom to choose who we love and how we live.  Her characters are challenged to reach beyond who they are or think they are. There’s also a surprising wash of forgiveness in this story that’s riddled with people who, like humanity, are constantly tripping over their own foolish, impulsive, misinformed decisions.

7. If you could have dinner with 3 writers (dead or alive) who would they be and why?

I’ll choose three writers no longer living: Flannery O’Connor, Helen Arendt, and Shakespeare (if he is, in fact, one person). I admire O’Connor’s potent, visionary qualities that she brings to her fiction and her essays. She has a spiritual, otherworldly essence that I’m attracted to. Arendt is the person who helped me understand how genocide happens. In her seminal work: Origins of Totalitarian, she helped me see how group dynamics can lead to fatal social sickness and perversions. Shakespeare-well, he helps me understand different personality types and through drama has taught me how common emotions like jealousy can erode humanity’s spirit and destroy us. All three are passionate and unflinching about our human condition.

8. Have you ever read anything you're too embarrassed to admit (except in this interview)?

I don’t think so.

9. Favorite book when you were a child?

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White; The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders (aka Margaret Saunders); Grimms’ Fairy Tales; A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle; and Hurry, Hurry by Edith Thacher Hurd. (Sorry—I couldn’t pick just one.)

10. If you have children, is this the same book you read to them?  If not, what is your favorite book for your children?

No. My son (now nineteen) loved Paul O. Zelinksy’s The Wheels on The Bus. It’s been chewed on, ripped and wrinkled, but we have so many wonderful memories reading that book to him.

11. Favorite heroine in literature and why?

Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.  She has intelligence, wit, passion, and yet—she is flawed, stubborn, blind about herself when it comes to love, and able to make amends and forgive.

12. Favorite hero in literature and why?

David Copperfield.  He was also flawed and blind, too; yet honest and searching; and despite life’s difficulties, he never became bitter.  He maintained his dignity and faith in the goodness of others.

13. Favorite first line from a book?

”Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”  David Copperfield

14. Favorite last line from a book?

Don’t have one.

15. Book that changed your life?

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.

16. Words to live by?

Be true.



Jessica KeenerJessica Keener has been listed in The Pushcart Prize under "Outstanding Writers." Her fiction has appeared most recently in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Night Train, and Wilderness House Literary Review. A recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist's Grant Program, and second prize in fiction from Redbook magazine, her feature articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Design New England, O, The Oprah Magazine and other national publications. Night Swim is her debut novel.


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