“‘Between Crisis and Life’: A Conversation with Jacquelyn Stolos” – curated by Wendy Chen

Jacquelyn Stolos is a writer living and teaching in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in fiction from New York University where she was a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow. Jacquelyn has won fellowships to attend the New York State Summer Writers Institute, the Community of Writers, and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her short fiction has appeared in The Atticus Review, Conte Online, Bodega Magazine and more. Edendale, her first novel, was published with Creature Publishing in October 2020. Find her at jacquelynstolos.com.

Wendy Chen: It’s been such a privilege to witness your novel, Edendale, evolve. Congratulations on its recent release with Creature Publishing! First off, the title is brilliant. On a literal level, it refers to the particular district in Los Angeles where the characters live. On a metaphorical level, it’s so evocative in terms of this idea of paradise as an enclosed, illusory space full of contradiction, temptation, and seduction. Violence, too, lingers at the edges of paradise. How did you arrive at this title? What does the title mean for you and the characters within the novel?

Jacquelyn Stolos: Thank you! Edendale had many many many working titles. The very first was Megan Goes to Mars, because, back when I started chipping away at this project, I was inspired by Mars One, a real, private initiative that asked civilians to apply to relocate permanently to Mars. People actually applied! You could watch their application videos on the internet. I was fascinated by the psychology of a person who’d apply to leave Earth forever, and I thought I’d try to write my way into it. Obviously, I wandered away from that original premise and into very different territory. 

Edendale’s an old name for a pretty big area of L.A. that’s northwest of Downtown and east of Hollywood. As far as I know, no one besides Google maps, the post office, and the library still use the name anymore. I started using it because the setting I was conjuring up felt sort of like Echo Park—a smaller neighborhood within what used to be called Edendale—but decidedly wasn’t. I’d only subletted there for a short time and, though enchanted by the place, wasn’t the right writer to capture the neighborhood in all of its complexity. Somewhere along the way, Edendale became another working title and stuck. 

WC: For me, one of the most striking qualities of your novel is the intensity and complexity of your setting. In the first chapter, for example, wildfires begin to encroach upon the city of Los Angeles. The slow encroachment of these wildfires throughout the book creates an atmospheric pressure that intensifies the emotional pressures on the characters. In a later chapter, there is a mention of snakes infesting a house. One of the most captivating aspects of the novel is the suggestion of violence and danger creeping in. What was the process of crafting this kind of setting for your novel? Did it evolve over time?

JS: Thank you! It’s very cool to hear what elements of Edendale stand out to readers.

When I was fumbling blindly through early drafts, setting and atmosphere clicked into place well before character and story. At the time, I was new to Los Angeles and obsessed with how exhilaratingly strange the city felt compared to anywhere I’d ever lived. So, the novel got its true start as an outsider’s sketches of her new city. When the characters arrived, they had to be outsiders too, since most native Angeleno’s aren’t going to wax poetic over the grime that coats your feet when you walk around in sandals or the fact that fruit trees grow in people’s yards.  

Looking back, I don’t really know where the violence and danger came from. Maybe it crept in on me, too? If I had to boil down my writing process, I’d say that 50% of my material is just weird tidbits I encounter (in life, the news, dreams, and other art) and can’t shake. The house infested with snakes bit is a recurring stress dream of mine that I googled and found out is an actual thing that has happened to a few, unfortunate people. So, I mentally collect this stuff and then, when I’m writing, it splatters out—usually significantly altered by either my imagination or my bad memory—onto the page. Then, because I love structure, I further stretch and change and generally mess around with these tidbits over and over again to shape, hopefully, some sort of narrative arc. So, I think the violence and danger in Edendale comes from the fact that I’m drawn to terrifying tidbits much more often than I’m drawn to nice ones. 

WC: How do you conceive of the relationship between the setting of your novel and the characters within that setting? Does the setting primarily mirror and reflect the inner states of the characters? Or rather do the characters react to the violence of the setting? As a reader, I feel that your setting encompasses both of these relationships and many more. Indeed, the setting feels very much like a character of its own.

JS: Oh, I love this question! My high school had a semester-long assignment called “The Junior Essay” which was a big, scary deal. It was our first long paper and the first time I had to do an author study followed by literary analysis. For mine, I essentially asked this very same question of Steinbeck’s body of work. Though I cannot remember what argument I made back then as a sixteen-year-old Steinbeck scholar, I do remember, a few years into writing Edendale, finding my junior essay, noticing the common theme, and thinking that interaction between setting and character was a wonky thing to be interested in for over a decade.

I think my answer to your question is: Yes! Absolutely! Both! A story is an ecosystem where everything tugs on everything. I’m obsessed with the loop, the feedback, the magical-thinking-ness of it.   

WC: I have—along with many others I’m sure—been anticipating a future wave of novels and stories set during the pandemic. As a writer who deftly addresses natural disasters within setting, I’m curious to know if you’ve incorporated the pandemic in any way into your writing. Or, conversely, has witnessing the progression of the pandemic influenced or affected the way you write about setting?

JS: I can’t stop incorporating the pandemic—or, at least, the observations I’m making during these pandemic times— into everything. Mostly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how, in my imagination, I would have guessed that living through a crisis like this would have been totally consuming and I’d spend all my time and energy “fighting the pandemic,” whatever that means. I have a theory that this is because the crisis story protagonist I’m most used to is pretty adjacent, if not central, to the crisis: the soldier, the scientist, the one who can save us all. 

I am certainly not the protagonist of this crisis story. For those of us on the fringe, I’m thinking a lot about the push and pull between crisis concerns and the pre-crisis concerns that hold on during the crisis. Or, maybe more accurately, the way that crisis concerns warp pre-crisis concerns and vice versa. I recently re-read Severance by Ling Ma and Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodorera. In different ways, Ma and Rodorera both shed brilliant light on the relationship between crisis and life, what slips away, what changes, what remains. 

WC: As a writer, I find it so difficult to address events as they are happening. Time and distance help me process events and, consequently, work through them in writing. Do you have any advice for writers who want to incorporate the pandemic as a setting in their work?

JS: My advice is...do it! Record everything strange and fascinating and weird about what you’re experiencing and see if you can’t make some art out of it. 

One wonderful thing about fiction writing—at least at the pace that I do it— is that it takes so long that it’s impossible to be the same person when you finish the thing as you were when you started it. I began Edendale when I was 22. Now, I’m closing in on 30. When I started the story, the concerns of the novel felt essential, immediate, and universal. Towards the middle of the process, they began to feel humiliatingly juvenile and naive. Now, they feel foreign and slightly less humiliating, though it’s still a little difficult for me to engage with the manuscript without feeling any shame. Anyways, the fact that Edendale is less of a product of my current mind and more a time capsule containing the work of many of my former minds—all expanding, correcting, and refining one another—hopefully means that the book is a more intelligent object than I am. 

WC: I have also found it challenging to write and focus in general during the pandemic. I know you’ve been revising your novel this year in preparation for publication. What was that process like for you?

JS: Oh gosh, I was not revising during the pandemic, thank goodness. I turned in my final major revision in February, when I was feeling anxious and waiting for the shoe to drop, but before the pandemic was something I navigated every day. 

Even pre-pandemic, the revision process broke me, which came as a total surprise. I’m an enthusiastic reviser. Breaking things down and then rebuilding them is my favorite part of writing. Plus, my editors at Creature are brilliant and generous and guided the book to completion in a way that I’m really jazzed about. Still, during revision I was wracked by indecision, insecurity, and anxiety. I struggled to sleep and cried whenever I was alone. I barely hung on at my (kind, literary) job. I leaned heavily on my husband–who’s also a writer–for everyday things like keeping myself fed and, ultimately, writing support. 

I’m still trying to process what happened. I think that because Edendale had, for years, been the place where I experimented, learned, and often failed away from the pressure or belief that it would ever be a real book, the sudden prospect of making decisions in the manuscript that I could no longer unmake was psychologically jarring. All that said, when the pandemic shoe dropped, I’d already unraveled and was limping towards re-raveling. I was about a week or so into doing daily exercises from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (which I recommend!). So, Julia Cameron carried my writing practice through the first couple months. Now, I’m onto exercises from Alan Watt’s 90-day Novel (which I also recommend!). I’ve never structured my writing time like this before, but it’s all that’s working right now. 

WC: You’ve mentioned before that part of what drives your writing is curiosity about human behavior. Personally, I feel like the last few years have broken down a lot of my assumptions about human behavior and shown me how much more I have yet to learn. Has witnessing the pandemic, and other recent events, changed or affected your understanding of human behavior? If so, has your writing process changed in some way to accommodate that shift in understanding?

JS: My favorite paradox – I think, the reason that I’ll never get tired of the ridiculous, impossible task of sitting down at my desk and trying to re-create the world—is that studying life precisely enough to get it down always seems to make the whole thing incomprehensible to me. Creating believable human beings out of words, or at least trying to, leads me to more questions about human behavior than I started with. The questions I circle back to tend to relate to personality and the way our environments (meaning everything from wildfires to pandemics to structures of power) influence how we behave.

The way that people around me, including myself, have reacted to the pandemic is wild. 

I don’t understand it, but I’m fascinated and obsessed with it. Again, I’m looking closely, trying to capture its essence, and throwing myself into a state of confusion. My plan is to write into this confusion until I can’t bear it anymore, see if I can jury-rig in some plot, and maybe a second novel will emerge.