Interview: Jane Delury

Written by Andrew Keating
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Cobalt: From reading your short fiction, I would venture a guess that you’re quite the world traveler. Have you spent time in the settings of your stories?

Jane Delury: I was lucky to be raised in a family that traveled. We lived in your typical American suburb, but we spent many summer and winter vacations visiting Europe and the South Pacific. My father, a history aficionado, would read book after book before we left, and our trips became a smorgasbord of historical anecdotes–about the John Frum cult of Vanuatu, or the bullet holes from the Easter Rising near Dublin’s General Post Office. After he died when I was sixteen, my mother, brother and I continued to go on these trips, once rendezvousing from France, Connecticut and California in Papua New Guinea. I ended up living in France during my twenties and marrying a Frenchman, and my brother has settled in Seoul, with his wife, who is Korean. So the traveling continues, now with my children. And yes, my childhood travel and the traveling I do now inform my writing. My imagination is always flying away in space and time. But when it comes to a literal setting, I am sometimes working with an atmosphere, rather than a particular place. For instance, I’ve never been to Madagascar, the setting of my story “Nothing of Consequence.” But in addition to research, I channeled sensory experiences from other warm-blooded islands.

Cobalt: Speaking of Nothing of Consequence, the character of Rado fills the roles of foreigner, student, lover, bad poet, and, finally, great poet, all through the eyes of his teacher, Bernadette. How did you balance Rado’s many hats in your development of the character?

Delury: I’m glad you ask about Rado, because he’s a character for whom I have a lot of affection, though he isn’t the protagonist of “Nothing of Consequence.” The story is told from two perspectives: that of Bernadette, a middle-aged widow teaching French in Madagascar, and that of a group of other teachers, who resent Bernadette’s relationship with Rado, a young student. Writing the story, I was very aware that despite my showing Rado through these two perspectives, he has his own internal reality and future beyond the events of the story. That future is evoked in the last paragraph. As far as balancing hats, then, I guess you’d say that I was concerned with reminding myself that Rado would end up picking the hat he wanted to wear.

Cobalt: So, then, how aware were you of Rado’s future when drafting this story? Did his future change from one draft to the next?

Delury: The story started with Bernadette, so she had my focus in the first draft. And I never know how a story will end when I start. Bernadette surprised me with her action toward the end of the story, and Rado surprised me with that ending, which arrived a few drafts in.  But I recognized the force in both characters, their potential to act. And there were many drafts before I saw clearly. Stories are never a clear A to Z for me. I write through a lot of fog first.

Cobalt: Poetry – particularly turn of the century French poets – plays a significant role in Nothing of Consequence. Did Rimbaud, Baudelaire, or other poets influence your writing of this work? If so, how?

Delury: In the time of the story, Rado hasn’t found the subjects that will energize his poetry. His education has been in French poetry, but he’s from Madagascar, not France. His style is overly romantic, something Bernadette recognizes and criticizes in him, and something that he learns to harness as he continues on his path as a writer.

Now, in terms of the story as a whole, I don’t necessarily feel an influence of French poetry, but who knows. I can clearly see the role of travel in my sensibility, but there are all kinds of influences invisible to me that must act in my stories. I studied French literature in college and loved Les Fleurs du Mal. Maybe Baudelaire’s fingerprints are all over the beach in “Nothing of Consequence.” The fact that I don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Cobalt: Your stories tend to have significantly more narrative than dialogue. How do you approach the use of dialogue in your story?

Delury: I love thick, long paragraphs that pull a reader under. I remember reading Stephen Dixon’s Frog for the first time and feeling the euphoria of deliciously drowning. The paragraphs of Paul Harding’s tinkers have a similar effect. I think of dialogue as the ultimate paragraph break. The reader is asked to slow down and pay a different kind of attention. And the characters are given more power in the narrative. When I first started writing stories, I didn’t particularly like writing dialogue, but I’ve come to enjoy that moment when my characters demand to be heard. I try to create different spaces for them within a story. With dialogue, they get to move around on a line of their own.

Do you, as the writer, feel that you are forced to pay a “different kind of attention” to the story by writing in this manner? For instance, how might a story change if it were written for the stage, relying heavily on dialogue?

Delury: Yes, by writing one way I’m always not writing another way. And I’m always aware of what I’m not doing. I think of my friend Jim Magruder who’s a playwright and fiction writer. He switches modes beautifully in his stories. I don’t see myself writing stories that advance solely through dialogue, but I try not to make predictions about what I’ll be interested in doing with my fiction beyond what I’m working on now. Though I do suspect that if I wrote a story for the stage, I’d probably have a narrator dropping in from the ceiling to interrupt the actors.

Cobalt: You have been working on a novel of late. Which techniques carry over from writing short fiction to writing a full-length novel? Which don’t make the cut?

Delury: Each form has its delights and its challenges. What carries over? Blind faith that something is taking shape and will figure itself out. Persistence in the face of life’s distractions. The need to be spontaneous in drafting and relentless in revising. Novels, in my experience, require more patience, persistence and time than stories do. A month ago, I was so tired from revising my novel that I was ready to drop. But this week, I’m wondering whether one of my stories might be turning into a novel. There’s a chemical women secrete during childbirth that dulls memory. They forget the pain and the species continues. I’m convinced the same chemical is secreted in the last phases of novel revision.

Cobalt: Tell me a little about the process of finding and working with an agent for the first time.

Delury: Over ten years ago, I had a story in StoryQuarterly and the editor, M. M. M. Hayes kindly sent it to Anne Borchardt at Georges Borchardt, Inc. Anne and I had a phone conversation in which she said she’d be happy to read a novel. Time passed. My second child was born. I shelved an unsatisfactory novel and worked on stories. The Borchardt Agency started to feel like the one that got away. When I finished a solid first draft of this novel, I knew I’d do another revision on the manuscript and I knew I wanted an agent who would believe enough in my writing and in this particular book to take me on. I contacted Anne again, and I’m so glad I did. She and Samantha Shea have been wonderful. Their comments about the first draft of the book were smart and helpful. At the same time, they respect the fact that I’m the writer. Despite the changes I’ve made to the novel, it remains mine. And I know that doesn’t always happen, so I’m very grateful.

About Jane:
Jane Delury’s fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Narrative, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, StoryQuarterly, The Sun Magazine, and other publications.  Her awards include a 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize, a Barbara Deming grant, an artist award from the Maryland State Arts Council and a fellowship from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, she is on the faculty of the University of Baltimore’s MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts program.

Read Jane’s PEN/O. Henry Prize-winning story, Nothing of Consequence.