Featured image: A tomato hornworm being devoured, “casually,” by wasp larvae in their cocoons. Courtesy Wikimedia Foundation and the penultimate chapter of Miss Jane.
We were fortunate this week to air a phenomenal interview with author Brad Watson, Professor of Creative Writing at University of Wyoming and acclaimed novelist with two short-story collections and two books. His newest work, Miss Jane, just came out in July 2016, so we took the opportunity to ask Brad about the writing process and how he came to think of the world from Jane’s perspective. The conversation meanders through questions of gender identity, nature and Southernness, and feeling like the odd one out–it’s a thoroughly fascinating talk, so listen to the audio above and don’t just take my word for it.
The novel centers around Jane Chisolm, born on a cattle farm in 1915 Mississippi. From her first hours, Jane is defined by a birth defect: it leaves her incontinent and incapable of sex. Modern surgical technology could remedy a condition like this immediately. But in her day and age, Jane is left without recourse. The novel captures its heroine’s full arc, and over its course Brad explores the many consequences of Jane’s affliction.
A character like Jane is hard to relate to, especially for an author writing a century later with little to go off of but a childhood in the South. The story’s inspiration comes through a great-aunt, a mysterious figure that Brad only met once and knew mostly through old photos. Because of the lack of information, the novel took 13 years to write, only beginning seriously in 2013 when Brad connected his great-aunt’s story with a plausible medical condition that made her feel more concrete.
Even then, Brad couldn’t get a good look at who Jane might have been as a person without developing the story’s supporting characters. A small cast of dynamic personalities, including Jane’s nuclear family and the doctor that treats her, bolster the novel and give Brad different lenses into seeing Jane. He makes a point that characters shouldn’t be written into a story unless they help the reader understand the protagonist–and in this sparse collection of characters, Brad’s writing makes everyone seem like a piece of the puzzle, not just illuminating Jane but giving shape to the novel’s central conundrums.
The writing stands out for its perceptive descriptions of the natural world. Jane finds solace in the Southern forest near her home, where Brad remarks that everything is strange if you look hard enough: from mushrooms in the soil to fish that sift water through their gills to breathe. To a character that feels like an outsider in the human world, the oddities of wilderness are a comfort.
We talk a while about the strangeness of the South, too. It’s a place Brad doesn’t think
he’ll be able to get over, even now that he lives in Wyoming and only visits his childhood home occasionally. More than anywhere else in the US, the South maintains its own mentality, and the roots of it are deeply twisted around a history that Southerners spend their lives trying to process. Brad doubts he can stop writing about the region, since he has such a backlog of stories it has inspired.
On my mind as I read Miss Jane was the plot’s intricate connections with the American dialogue on gender identity. Brad clarifies that he began the novel years before this debate became mainstream, though he did wonder about Jane’s possible intersexuality in the course of defining her as a character. In the end, he writes Jane as a heterosexual female–which is fitting for the times, since 1920s Mississippian culture had no notion of the gender spectrum. Still, the foil between Miss Jane and our modern conversation is an important one, since Jane’s life was severely affected by a lack of medical technology that nowadays gives us the power to perform, say, sex reassignment surgeries.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough–not only is it an entertaining and beautiful read, but the wholeness which Brad builds into his characters is obvious from the start. For more information on the rest of his book tour or on Miss Jane, visit Brad’s website here.
Our show-closer comes from a listener who asked, semi-seriously, if the grass is truly always greener on the other side. Semi-seriously, we answer: the phrase came first from the Billy Jones tune above. Statistically, of course, your grass is probably about as green as everyone else’s, but Stevie brings us back to the real meaning of the phrase (comparing your well-being to others) and how it might explain Trump supporters.
As always, the playlist is on WPRB.com or below.