I've gotten to know Jen Conley over the past few years through conventions and working alongside her at Shotgun Honey, and as a big fan of her work, I'm very excited to see her debut collection, CANNIBALS: STORIES FROM THE EDGE OF THE PINE BARRENS, hitting shelves this May. It was a pleasure catching up with Jen and discussing the book. Check out the pre-order via the stellar cover image below.
Chris: You are well known in the short crime fiction world, but for those who don't know, who is Jen Conley and what's CANNIBALS all about?
Jen: I write crime fiction, usually peppered with a bit of horror. Most of my fiction takes place in the Ocean County area of New Jersey, where I grew up and still live. For a few years I’ve been one of the editors of Shotgun Honey, a flash fiction site that publishes crime fiction. In my other life, I have a fourteen-year-old son and I teach seventh grade Literacy, otherwise known as English.
Chris: Many of your stories are set in or around the Pine Barrens. I don't know too much about New Jersey and its geography, but I found this setting to be fascinating. Can you talk a bit about it? What draws you to it? What does it mean to you?
Jen: The Pine Barrens is a large region of forested land in central and southern New Jersey. Because of the sandy soil, or “sugar sand”, it wasn’t great for farming so it’s been pretty much been left undisturbed. It became protected land in 1978 under the Pinelands National Reserve, which also protects the watershed areas. (Although, sadly, a gas line was just approved to run through part of it.) Anyhow, in the 1700s and 1800s, there was some industry--sawmills and iron--but it was a difficult place to live, so towns would pop up and go abandoned. Today, it’s the largest body of protected area in the mid-Atlantic states. The trees are scrub pines, which are pygmy pines, and that, with the sugar sand and the lack of development, give the area a ghostly, desolate feel. Especially at night, when you can hear all sorts of wildlife--several types of frogs, toads, insects, owls. It’s really a great place to visit, just bring your bug spray. The mosquitoes and pine flies, especially the pine flies, are downright relentless. Those things hurt.
I guess I’m drawn to it because of the spookiness--lots of “ghost” towns of abandoned settlements. This area used to have a pretty strong iron industry until it moved to western Pennsylvania, so, like I said, it’s pretty desolate. I’m also attracted to the drabness, too, because it’s not pretty forest at all, but it makes for a wonderful setting for crime fiction. The people who live in this area are usually not wealthy, it’s pretty middle class and working-class, and for someone who likes to write about ghosts and working-class people, it’s perfect for me. Plus, it’s where I grew up, so I tend to be sentimental even if it doesn’t come completely across in my stories.
Oh, one more thing--the famous Sopranos episode, “The Pine Barrens,” that wasn’t filmed in the Pine Barrens. It was filmed in upstate New York. It’s a fantastic episode but the first time I saw it, I was really pissed. I could tell it wasn’t filmed in the Pinelands because the trees were wrong, and when the camera panned out, there were large hills in the background. There are no large hills in the Pine Barrens. It’s mostly flat.
Chris: Your stories featuring your character Officer Vogel are some of my favorites. In the past we've talked about you doing more with her. Any plans?
Jen: I’d like to because I love her character but I don’t have any definite plans yet. She’s a very reticent person, compassionate on the inside, but cold and tough on the outside. It’s a good mix for a character of a crime novel but I need a plot and I haven’t wrapped my head around an idea yet. I’m working on it.
Chris: I love how you tackle trust/mistrust in your stories featuring Vogel, and even more so in "Pipe" and "June." What draws you to these stories?
Jen: I’m a big fan the theme of betrayal. I guess that’s why I love The Godfather I and II, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos. Even my all-time favorite, Mad Men, works on this theme because Don Draper spends his entire adult life betraying himself.
But in both “Pipe” and “June,” we’re dealing with kids, kids who are betrayed by adults. There is another level of tragedy in that and I think it breaks my heart--I like to write stories that break my heart on some level, even if I’m ending it on an upswing. I also like writing about kids but I’m aware that creating sympathy for them is an easy gig, because everyone feels bad for a kid in trouble. So I have to tone down my kid story ideas, not write so many.
Chris: Talk about the process of forming the collection, the selection of stories, etc. Any must-haves? Anything not make the cut?
Jen: It took me a long time to put a collection together. I tried before but I found I was writing stories to fill the collection and they weren’t all up to par, so it’s almost as if I had to wait until they all came to me. Until I was happy with each and every single one.
As for selecting stories, I wanted to pick the stories that actually took place in the area I was writing about. I have stories that take place in London, in New York City too, and those didn’t make the cut because they didn’t take place in Ocean County, NJ, which is part of the collection’s signature. In addition, some of my Pine Barrens stories didn’t make the cut because their themes were too close to something I’d already chosen.
I also made a point to bookend the collection with two stories: “Home Invasion” and “Angels.” In my first story, “Home Invasion,” the main character is haunted by a devil. In the last story, “Angels,” the main character is haunted by angels. So those two were definite picks. I suppose I was going for the classic ying/yang idea.
Chris: "Pipe" might be my favorite of the collection. How did this story come about?
Jen: Back when I was in high school, there was a small skinny kid who was bullied by some of the older boys. One of the older boys told the kid he was going to beat the shit out of him the following day. So the kid came to school with a pipe and hid out in the bathroom. I think he was caught before anything went down. I don’t remember much else about the incident, none of the names, etc., which is good because then I could write the story as fiction. Yes, there was a movie from ‘87 called “Three O’Clock High” with a similar premise, but that was comedy, and bad comedy at that because it wasn’t a good film. The real story from my school was very sad, and this sad, desperate image of going to school with a pipe to defend yourself against boys who were the size of fully-grown men just hung out in my head for years.
Chris: "Home Invasion" is another favorite, in which I get a strong "A Good Man is Hard to Find" vibe. Who/what do you see as your influences?
Jen: Definitely Flannery O’Connor. That has to be one of the best stories ever written, by the way.
I’m a big fan of the short stories by Annie Proulx. I also love the short stories by Edward P. Jones and Ron Rash. I think those three writers are my biggest influences, none of which are actually “crime” but there’s a sense of place and people who struggle constantly, which is what crime fiction should encompass, or at least, I think so.
But as for writers, or collections of stories that made an impression on me when I was young, I’d have to say the stories by Langston Hughes. One of my college professors had us read them and I remember I enjoyed the tales everyday people just trying to get by but more so, I was influenced by his style. His characters jump off the page, as do his descriptions. But his descriptions aren’t overblown, just very simple. One sentence and you can see everything. That’s what I like.
One collection that has stayed with me over the years is Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. She’s a beautiful writer but boy, does she hit you in the gut and that collection is relentless. I haven’t read everything she’s written although I read Veronica a few years ago. It’s gorgeously written (and I took some notes on her style) but that book depressed me for weeks. Hell, I think it stayed on my mind for almost a year. There are so many painfully beautiful images on those pages that to this day are forever planted in my brain. But the bottom line is that I was bugged out by that book. I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Maybe I’m just impressed by her power and as a writer, that’s a bar I’d like to reach.
One other thing--although I love my mob movies and TV shows, I’m not a fan of too much blood. I like stories about people’s lives, about what’s going on inside and around them, about how they got to the violence. Not so much the violence itself.
Chris: How has your work with Shotgun Honey influenced your writing?
Jen: I think so. Not everything that comes through the submissions process is successful and I think that’s what really hits home with me--sometimes I’ll read a story and start reworking it in my head and then I realize I can’t do that for every writer. What Shotgun Honey has also taught me is draw it tight. One or two scenes, one to three characters, one problem. And because we only accept 700 words per story, it’s very, very important to make sure every single word counts. Leave out the backstory--and I love backstory-- but you can’t do that in flash. So your backstory has to be a sentence or two and then your character in action has to show the rest.
Chris: Any plans for a book launch or readings around release this year?
Jen: June 3rd, I’m having a book event at Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan. Hopefully I’ll have more events. I’m new at this promotional stuff.
Chris: What's next?
Jen: I’ve decided to take a break from short stories. They’re my great love but I’m never going to get anywhere if I just write short stories. So I’m working on a thriller/horror book. It’s about a woman who gets involved with a bad guy--I know that’s vague--but she’s in transitional point in her life, she’s restless and also desperate to have a family, and he’s good-looking, cool, and all that good stuff. It’s got a horror touch so there’s more to it but I guess I’m going for a thread of reality--what happens when you land a guy who seems perfect for you, accepts you as you are (my main character has some horrible scars from a dog attack) but as the relationship evolves, he becomes darker, almost abusive, then abusive, and you have come to the realization that you have extricate yourself from it all. Of course, it takes place in Ocean County and I’ve got the “first draft” written but I’m in the process of slowly and methodically going through each chapter, rearranging, cutting, expanding, rewriting. My writing MO is this: blow through the first draft, then go back and do the “decorating” as I like to call it. This method works for me only because of computers--you never really have to write new drafts, do you? You just improve on the first. I have no idea how anyone wrote in the old days, before computers, before you could cut and paste and then cut and rewrite… what a pain in the neck.
Thanks for having me Chris! It’s been a lot of fun.