TreeHouse: A few months ago you started writing your novel 29 BBQs using the website JukePop, which offers authors the opportunity to publish their work online one chapter at a time, via the annual Summer Writing Project collaboration between 1888 and JukePop. JukePop writers attract readers who can offer their support and comments about the unfolding storylines, which gives authors the ability to shape and mold the stories they tell based on readers’ opinions. What made you interested in entering a project that involved a site such as JukePop? Considering the similarities, did your experience in creative writing workshops influence your decision at all?
Jonelle Strickland: Good feedback is hard to find. Period. Actually, because each reader is unique–and even a single reader’s tastes can vary over a lifetime–JukePop and site likes it–Wattpad, I’ve been told, is the more famous one–help to fill in these gaps in readers’ tastes, really quite simply, by leveraging all of them, so that an author or a writer can take what she will. JukePop offers free beta readers who are able and willing to read your work without your having to cough up a small fortune that you, as an emerging writer, probably don’t have. For me, having gone through an MFA program in Creative Writing several years ago, I knew that I wanted to continue receiving feedback on my writing in its earliest stages. I don’t know a single writer who just spits out their best work and, voila, the audience is stunned–well, maybe Kerouac–or maybe not, as telling details now reveal entries in Kerouac’s diary that span several years, along with early drafts of On the Road, which was rumored to have been completed in its entirety in just three short weeks; such rumors are now further debunked by the fact that Kerouac was corresponding with editors and shopping for an agent for over a more than three-year period. Spontaneous? I think not. JukePop, and sites like it, simply takes away the illusion that authors are infallible creators who can put together a polished product without even stopping to go the bathroom. I am grateful for the humility that JukePop can bring to an author of any standing. And, of course, it is a very democratic process to involve the readers in the outcome of the story, but it’s not a new process. Audience participation is a tradition that literally goes back thousands of years–in fact, I don’t think it was until the Renaissance that people in the Western Canon really started to care about taking ownership of their work by a single individual. Stories were yarns that people spun around a fire, in a tavern, wherever, and yes, occasionally, some bloke called “Homer” (although that is also up for debate) and a few other “classics” got to become the frontrunners.
TH: Do you consider your involvement in the Summer Writing Project a continuation of your creative writing education? How do you feel workshop sessions such as these can help keep the writing process for former or current students who have come to enjoy and rely on a structured, social atmosphere in order to create?
JS: First, no human being lives in a vacuum. There was a boy in a bubble once, but even that environment was filtered, not isolated. When I was a younger writer, I needed complete silence and large chunks of time–usually hours, sometimes days —once I even quit my job and dropped out of a graduate program so that I could have an entire month to myself, locked up in a room with my thoughts and my legal pad. Sometimes artists need the time and space to be able to process and put down our ideas, but other times, we need community. We need to surround ourselves with the people who can remind us that there’s absolutely nothing criminal or psychotic about wanting to tell a good story. In the early days, I think my family worried about me–“come out of your room,” they used to say, the therapist’s number in the back of their pockets. And now that I have a family of my own, I can definitely see their point, although it’s been a long time since I’ve found myself writing in isolation. Back then, I don’t think I trusted myself enough to open up my writing before the scrutiny of others. Even in workshops, I’d already scrubbed a piece down to what I thought was the bone, which really was doing myself a disservice–because it’s hard to change something you’ve already plucked and plucked. Nowadays, I realize the benefit of early intervention. In this particular piece, 29 BBQs, I think it was around chapter five or so, that a reader who said he was, more or less, enjoying Carol come alive on the page, gave me the opportunity to further develop Carol’s counterpart, Kyle. I didn’t even realize that either character might be underdeveloped because I didn’t even realize that either character was going to become a central viewpoint character. I don’t think that it’s cheating to give early readers a chance to tell you what your story needs or what matters to your characters; personally, I think it’s cheating to go through life with our eyes closed, pretending that we’re just one character.
TH: You mention in an interview with 1888 that 29 BBQs is 8 years in the making. Tell us a bit about the storyline and your future plans for it.
JS: 29 BBQs started May 28th in South Korea, so maybe it was May 27th in the States? This was 2016. I was having a conversation with Krys Lee at the university where she teaches, Yonsei–a campus so beautiful that I’d like to think I could have come home bustling with ideas after talking only to the trees and great halls. But I happened to be talking with Krys, the author of Drifting House and soon-to-released How I Became a North Korean. She’s pretty famous, and I could hardly believe that she was even talking to me, sitting next to me on a bench, buying me iced tomato juice–which is pretty good, by the way. Then she started laughing. We were discussing some people and situations that I’d been privy to at the beach. She casually mentioned that I should write those stories down, or at least be doing something with the material that I was sharing. The Summer Writing Contest, put out by the folks at 1888, was about to start in a couple of days. I’d created an account the previous month, but I didn’t have my story until I started writing it. Then I had chapter one. That’s all. By chapter sixteen, my epilogue, only then did I realize that I’d been carrying around the character of Marv all along. I knew when I wrote the closing scene that Marv was actually a preliminary character, Kal, whose story I had tried–and failed–to capture in my early days as a graduate student in creative writing. That story, unpublished except in the manila envelope that I’d sent to the Orange Country Director of Homeless Services, curiously enough the only other time I’ve attempted to write a novella, followed the protagonist backward on his journey from bum on the beach to happily married husband learning that he has just became a widower. It was called In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb, but readers could also literally turn the book over and read the work backwards under a similar but different title, In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion. I’d met the man who ending up influencing the development of my central character only once and really just briefly during a Count-the-Homeless survey in, I want to say 2008, but it may have been 2007? He said the reason he was out on the streets was simple. “After my wife died, I just couldn’t go home.” It’s a story that needs to be told, and retold, I think, until enough people can get it through our heads–probably covered by a roof right now–that homelessness is a problem that affects everyone, even the savvy businessman. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered–myself included–who can chock up a person’s dire circumstances to his repeated choice to become an addict. Usually, in less than a minute, we all tell ourselves that same shamble of a story, more broken than the man we’re often judging. And maybe that is someone’s story. Or maybe it’s just easier to tell ourselves that’s everyone’s story. They chose it themselves. They don’t want to be helped. We’re wasting our time, our money…but it’s not always the right story. It wasn’t this man’s story, and I would add to that, after meeting this absolute stranger on his bike with his dog in a park, we probably are wasting something else by not helping; by just standing by, we are wasting our soul.
TH: You wrote part of 29 BBQs while traveling across Korea and Thailand with your husband and two young children. An obvious question is how did you manage your time between creation and caregiving while still taking in the sights, but also: how did the immersion into other cultures while writing influence your work?
JS: Ha, ha. It wasn’t easy. Because I was traveling, I wrote the majority of 29 BBQs in transit. In a cab in Krabe, in an airport in Bangkok–sometimes I had the luxury of writing in my hotel room while my one-year-old was taking a nap, but that also depended on what my two-year-old was doing. Thankfully, we had some extended family with us, which helped with the logistics. The writing of this book simply wouldn’t have been possible without a husband, grandparents, and an aunt and an uncle. I think my favorite writerly moment was somewhere in Northern Thailand, just outside of Chang Mai, where the road was particularly windy, and for the first time in my life, I became car sick–probably because I was writing in the back of a van. Needless to say, a ginger tablet was offered, and I took it. Then I went back to finishing my chapter. To your second point about the influence of my travels on the words themselves, well, I think that any reader could figure that out the answer to that question is yes. One of my lead characters, a foster child, ends up being from Thailand, and that scene when he’s remembering himself in an orange robe, praying with the other child monks, well, that’s probably what I was seeing in the day or so before I wrote the scene. Similarly, one of the Mexican officers, sir name Jimenez, ends up letting Marv go with a suspicious looking trailer, which turns out to be…no spoilers here! Anyway, the reason the officer lets Marv go is that he has a mother-in-law whose last impression is the kimchee she cooked before she died; needless to say, this is all happening around the time when I am sampling the best pickled vegetables I’ve ever had in a Korean noodle shop with no English and no chairs–everyone eats on the floor. And so in my story, yes it’s a bottle of the same pickled veggies sticking out of the tent where… again, you’ll have to read it if you want to know more. But in the end, it’s all there. My literal travels, my intellectual travels, and my subconscious travels, which are my favorite kind, by the way, to discover in my writing.
TH: Our culture is becoming increasingly more dependent on platforms that offer instant gratification, while our definition of “instant” has become a lot quicker. Live streaming and tweeting, auto responses, immediate potential date matches, same day delivery, the list is endless. How do you see a site like JukePop playing into this phenomenon?
JS: This has been my favorite question to answer so far. Maybe it’s because I married an information analyst, then I’m suddenly interested in the ways we consume data, and the ways it consumes us. But anyhow, I do enjoy the deep analysis that goes with understanding an entire system, a cultural change, if you will, that we are undergoing within our own lifetimes, a change from “I carry a prepaid ten-minute emergency only cell phone in the trunk of my car” to “I really want to pull over because if I don’t I’m going to miss that important reply to someone’s Facebook update.” Strange to even think about what might come next. All this being said, I don’t think of Jukepop, or the process of producing a work in serial installments, as so much a facet of the instant gratification culture as it is an attempt to challenge, or at least question, the viability of a hierarchical, don’t call us, we’ll call you culture. What I mean by this is it’s hard being a writer, journalist, or anyone who wants to advance his artistic career without first developing the right connections, along with the craft. Picture this. A foster care high school drop-out finally works up the courage to tell her story–and a damn good one too, a story that needs to be told–but she never had the aunt who was the agent, the friend’s cousin’s coworker who was the editor, nor a group of early supporters and mentors, not even a cohort of readers who could build her up with what was or wasn’t working in her creative writing classes. She wasn’t in creative writing classes. She was in a holding cell for teens that are in line for their trials determining if they’ll be going to juvey (juvenile hall) or back to their foster families. Where can she learn? Where can she attract the readers who can tell her when her story is compelling and when to take it further: JukePop is where I discovered just such a story, Runaway, a memoir written by Eliza Knightly. Now I’ve read the reviews for these kind of sites, some of them pretty terrible, suggesting that perhaps not every Dick or Jane deserves the credit of being called a writer or even the opportunity to learn how. The sites are further faulted for providing a platform for self-indulgence, poor writing, shallow reviews, and insanely divergent comments. So? The platform is still in its infancy. The readers, I’m proud to say, aren’t just those of us who’ve had the luxury of time, money, or drive– a compendium of suggestions that we like to think of as our own character by the time we’re reaching adolescence—although I like to think that we, “privileged folk,” are making a sizeable appearance too. Some of my readers, I know for a fact, aren’t the people who normally read fiction or who read, period. “This is my first book since high school,” writes a successful middle-aged business man. “I tend to read medical literature, not fiction” writes another zealous medical professional. “I didn’t know books could be funnier than television…”. What the literary community should and hopefully does recognize while sites such as Jukepop and Wattpad continue to grow and evolve is that readers and writers will evolve too. It’s like the Internet; at first there were only a few…but then what happened? In other words, we’ll all get better together, but, at the same time, one thing will be different and that’s this: there will now be more of us who aren’t afraid to try.
Jonelle Strickland is a wife, mother, pet chicken owner, and daily writer. Formerly the Academic Director of Innovate Learning Center, Jonelle now divides her time between the education of her two young daughters and supporting her students as a freelance tutor. Jonelle remains active in her local Rotary Club, raising funds and awareness about homelessness, and other issues affecting our local and global communities. Coincidentally, she wrote the first half of 29 BBQs while traveling to and from the International Rotary Convention in Seoul, South Korea. Jonelle holds an MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University, degrees that she chose to pursue after translating Greek and Latin poetry as an undergraduate at Oxy, which, go figure, turned out to be really hard. Her essays, fiction, and verse have appeared in Sage of Consciousness, Elephant Tree, and 1888. 29 BBQs, a Summer Writing Project finalist, is her first comedy.