This interview with Janice Tuck Lively was conducted during the Spring of 2017 by Jet Fuel Review Editor Bree Scott.
Janice Tuck Lively was a visiting author at Lewis University in March 2017, alongside poet Elizabeth Powell. She read an excerpt from a story she had been working on at the time, including an emotionally intense passage about a mother supporting her child through childbirth.
I had the chance to catch up with Lively after the reading — I took a class of hers for one semester at Elmhurst College before transferring to Lewis University. To say that she had a hand increasing my interest in micro-fiction is an understatement, as I had strictly been a poet before meeting her for the first time.
Janice Tuck Lively resides in Chicago. She specializes in fiction writing, creative nonfiction writing, multicultural and post-colonial literature and American literature from 1865 to modernism—with a particular interest in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance, 19th and 20th century female writers, and African-American folklore. Her work focuses on the joys and struggles of black women’s lives, and has appeared in journals such as Jet Fuel Review, Perspectives on African American Literature, Journal of Black Studies, Valley Voices: A Literary Review, and Obsidian III: Literature in the African Diaspora; and in the anthologies The Thing About Love Is… and Hair Trigger: 16.
Lively also has a strong interest in writing stories about the mother/daughter dynamic. Her awards include Ragdale Artist Colony, Callaloo Writer’s Workshop, Summer Literary Seminars 2014 Editor’s Choice Award and 2015 Semi-Finalist of the Dana Award in the Novel. She received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and currently, she is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Elmhurst College.
Scott: How long have you been teaching at Elmhurst College? One of the biggest things I miss about EC is the opportunity to take more of your classes in addition to the Writing Fiction course that I took. What other writing classes do you teach?
Lively: In August, I’ll be starting my 10th year teaching at Elmhurst. In addition to the Beginning Fiction Writing course that I teach, the one you took with me, I also teach Advanced Fiction Writing and sometimes the English 410 course, the Advanced Writing Seminar. This class rotates among the writing faculty, so I don’t get it often, and the focus varies depending on who’s teaching it. When I teach the class, I usually focus on the personal essay, primarily, family.
Scott: I remember how you spoke with such passion during your lectures and how excited you’d become when you heard the growth in your students’ writing whenever we shared our work in class. What do you love most about teaching aspiring writers?
Lively: I think it is the opportunity to help students nurture an idea through the process of becoming a story. It excites me to watch my students struggle with the germ of an idea and through many revisions a full-fledged story materializes. I had one student who was a poet who wanted to write fiction. When she turned in the first draft of her story it was a mess. I had no idea what to say to her regarding revisions; had no idea where we should start. I let a colleague look at it, and my colleague said it was hopeless, and she should stick to writing poetry. I couldn’t do that because as bad as the draft was there was something beautiful about it; there was a story buried in there somewhere. I felt like, “We can do something with this,” and we did. At the end of the semester, my student entered that story in a writing contest sponsored by the English Department and blindly judged by the faculty. My colleague nominated that story for the 1st-Place award. I later told him that was the same story he thought should be trashed. That’s what excites me about what I do.
Scott: I understand that you are the advisor for the MiddleWestern Voice, the literary journal for EC. Can you tell me what that’s like? How long have you been working with Elmhurst students on this journal?
Lively: I’ve been the Literature Advisor for the past eight years. The responsibilities for the journal are divided between the English Department and the Art Department. The English Department students solicit and edit fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction submissions then they pass them along to the Art Department who comes up with the design for the journal and the layout. The Music department now also contributes musical contributions to the Journal. It is more of an arts journal now than a literary journal.
Scott: I understand that there is a Lively Award for Creative Nonfiction, and the winner is also published in the MiddleWestern Voice. Can you briefly talk about this award—how it came to be and what you look for when choosing a winner?
Lively: I established the William Westley Award in honor of my husband who died seven years ago. He was a family therapist and social worker who worked primarily with young people. He especially loved that population that he called the “knuckleheads.” These were those kids who everyone else had given up on. He always found a way to reach them and get them on the right track. He had always wanted to write down some of these kids’ stories because they had experienced such traumatic lives and had survived. He had planned to do it when he retired; he never got the chance to do so. In the Department of English, we have the Carlson Awards for Fiction and for Poetry but there was no award for creative nonfiction. I wanted to fill that gap and honor my husband at the same time. Originally, I was going to have the department select the semi-finalist, then my children and I would select the winners from among them. I later decided to let the department select the winners through a blind judging as they do with the other two awards. The essays that win the Lively Award are those that tell us something about the human condition and what it is to be “us.” The past winners have told the “stories” of individuals who are survivors of something, yet have chosen to move forward in life despite the scares.
Scott: Can you talk about your experience in the Program for Writers at University of Illinois? What was the most valuable thing you learned that you still use today?
Lively: Two of the most valuable things I learned in the Program for Writers was the importance of community and the value of feedback. Even though as writers we create for the most part in isolation, when it comes to shaping that story and gaining perspective on it, we benefit from the insights others offer and gain clarity. Even now when I am working on a piece I will send it to a writer friend to get their take on it. It is so easy as a writer to become an “authority of one.” We think that everything we write is wonderful [laughs] and often need someone to tell us it’s not, but it can be if we address . . . They help us to see what is working and what is not. When I started the Program, I hated workshops. They could be brutal sometimes but that too was valuable. You learn how to accept constructive criticism and not take things personally. I was fortunate enough to take most of my workshops with Cris Mazza, and she made sure that in our workshops we were respectful of the writers during our critiques. By the time I completed the Program, I was no longer just looking for people to tell me what they liked about a piece. More than that, I wanted to know what wasn’t working in that piece so that I could address it. Toni Morrison said that the test of a true writer is during the revision process. We must learn to embrace it. I agree with her.
Scott: I understand that you and Dr. Simone Muench attended the same program at UIC together. Would you ever consider collaborating on a chapbook with her?
Lively: I’m not a poet, even though I do write a little free verse poetry occasionally. Simone is such a fantastic poet that could be a little intimidating. [laughs] I remember being awed by the fact that she was published in The Paris Review when we were still in graduate school. I could see us doing a chapbook that was a “Call and Response” to one another. I could write short pieces of fiction—flash/vignettes—in response to her poetry. In Jean Toomer’s Cane, he has two poems in between each fiction vignette. One of the poems is responding to the piece that just ended and the other introduces the theme of the next prose piece. So, I suppose we could.
Scott: What creative writing projects are you currently working on? What do you typically like to write about, and in what format? Would you say that you are mostly interested in writing stories?
Lively: I just completed a hybrid piece consisting of fiction, nonfiction, and haiku with two other writers. I also have been working on an essay with a colleague about our mothers. She is Irish Catholic and I’m an African-American Protestant. Our mothers both died within seven days of one another, so we are looking at the common threads in both women’s lives and our common experiences as daughters. It is a type of Call and Response. I don’t know if it is my African heritage or my Baptist church upbringing, but I’m very much interested in the idea of writing that engages the Call and Response. You see it in the Black Baptist Church all the time and in music. I love the idea of writing being a direct response to something else; this back and forth conversation that is affirming one another. I’ve developed an interest in alternative narrative structures and ways of telling stories and examining what constitutes a story.
I like writing creative nonfiction as much as I do fiction. As a matter of fact, my initial interest when I entered the PhD program was creative nonfiction, but there was no one for me to work with. Luis Urrea didn’t come to teach in the Program for Writers until I was well into my program. The first writing that I did was creative nonfiction essays. There is a short story that I wrote several years ago but never sent out that I’ve been revising off and on. It is about a little girl who is separated from her mother and the impact the separation has on her. I want to revise it and see if I can get it published. In fact, it is the very first short story that I ever wrote. I also have a couple of ideas for two more pieces of flash fiction—one is about a tightrope walker. I’ve put my novel aside for a while. The beginning chapters are wonderful, as are the last few chapters. The problem is the middle. It’s too messy, and I’ve reached an impasse and am not sure what direction I need to go in. I don’t like where it is going now. I must think about it. So, I’m working on some other projects, shorter pieces, to keep me writing until I do. That’s how I developed the interest in flash fiction.
I find that my biggest problem is finding the time to write while teaching. I am most energetic early in the morning, and by the time I get home at night from campus I am exhausted, then there is the grading and preparing for the next day. I have some friends who are writers and are teaching and they let nothing stop them. They write every day, including weekends! That’s where I need to get to.
I primarily like to write stories about women and the struggle for identity and voice. As women, we fulfill so many roles, meet the needs of so many other people, historically we have always been defined by our roles and told by culture who and what we should be. I am interested in writing stories about women who resist, push back, and fight to get out of the boxes that they are placed in, and about those women who stay in the box and what it does to them. I am very much interested in writing about mothers and daughters because it is our mothers that teach us what it is to be a woman. Also, depending on the relationship with the mother, what type of woman we don’t want to be. I fell in love with my mother when I became a mother myself. I had no idea what her life was like, how strong and smart she was, until I stepped in those shoes. So, this is why I like to write about women, extraordinary women who are so because they have survived everything life has thrown at them and are still standing.
Scott: Where do you draw your inspiration from when you write your creative works?
Lively: Sometimes from the stories I used to hear my mother and grandmother talking about at the kitchen table. They had a cousin who had 12 children and when she found out she was pregnant again she jumped off a cliff. I would love to tell the story of the day she made the decision to do so. What was going on in her head? What had that day been like when she made that decision? I’d like to depict how suffocated she must have felt to do what she did. There is a story there. I find inspiration from people I see on the street. My daughter and I were walking downtown one day. It was August and had to be at least 100 degrees outside. Across the street from us I was a homeless old woman in boots, a coat and hat and a blanket wrapped around herself. She was sitting on a suitcase. I stopped and said to my daughter “there is a story there.” She said, “Mom you see a story in everything.” And she was right. I told her at one time that woman had been someone’s child; she had been held in someone’s arms; hopefully, loved. How did she get here? It is the job of the storyteller to propose an answer.
I find inspiration in many places. Someone once sent me a greeting card. It was a painting of a boy and girl holding hands and running in the moonlight. Suddenly, I imagined them being a brother and sister running away from home in the middle of the night from some danger. I started writing the story behind what was causing them to be out there running. I love it when inspiration comes like that. Sometimes I can hear a word, catch a glimpse of something, and I am inspired. It is wonderful when that happens. It that is not always the case. Sometimes it is just sitting down and trying to think of something to write. That is when the work is hard for me. I have tried to train myself to always have my antenna up and be watchful for stories that are floating around me.
Scott: What do you do in order to “get in the zone” to write? Do you journal daily or freewrite?
Lively: I keep a journal with ideas, names, words, and newspaper clippings in it in addition to my own free writing. I love collecting ads that appear in the personal columns in the back of cheap newspapers. When I sit down to write, I need silence. Sometimes I put earplugs in. I only want to hear the voice in my head and nothing more. I keep a copy of Toomer’s Cane and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on my desk at home. When I first sit down, I like to read aloud passages from either of these before I start writing. I love the lyricism of their writing, the voice, and the images. I like to get those voices in my head because they inspire me then I start to write
Scott: Do you have a favorite piece or collection that you’ve published?
Lively: No, not yet. Anything I write creative or academic is my favorite piece at the time. [laughs] Then I write something else and it becomes my favorite.
Scott: Congratulations on your publication of “Dust Tracks” in the 12th issue of Jet Fuel Review! In my Intermediate Creative Writing class with Dr. Muench, she stresses the value of using concrete language when we write. I especially loved these lines you wrote: “The ground hugging her restless feet promised to take her to see things beyond her mama’s porch, a field of black dandelions in Eden, three-eyed frogs in Inkwell, the coral caves in Mayweather,” “Something quivered inside her, panted like butterfly wings then was still,” and “Cars streaked past speeding to places too far for her to walk, stirring the red grit into vapors that dragged like shoe strings in the sky.” Do you have a kind of technique to come up with such great images or do they just come to you?
Lively: I think, Bree, they just come to me. [laughs] I’ve always talked in metaphors, loved interjecting vivid images into conversations so that people could see what I was saying and better understand me. When I started writing and learned about using specific details and descriptive writing, it came natural to me. I remember when I was expecting my daughter and the first time I felt her move. When I told my husband and doctor that the baby had moved, the doctor told me that it was probably gas and that it was too early for the baby to be moving. When I told him that it didn’t feel like gas but butterfly wings fluttering inside me, his eyes got wide and said that it was the baby stirring. It took the butterfly wings to convince him. That was thirty-something years ago, and I pulled those words out of my box when I needed to describe how it felt for a baby to move inside this young girl.
A huge thank you to Janice Tuck Lively for participating in this interview!
— Bree Scott, Jet Fuel Review Editor