Interview with Jenn Shapland: “I’m happiest when I’m in the middle of writing something.”

Jenn Shapland is a writer living in New Mexico. Her first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Award and the Southern Book Prize, and won the 2021 Lambda Literary Award, the Publishing Triangle Judy Grahn Award, and the Phi Beta Kappa Christian Gauss Award.

Jenn has a PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin and she currently works as an archivist for a visual artist. Her second book, Thin Skin, will be published by Pantheon Books. Her essays have appeared in New England Review, the New York Times, Outside, Guernica, and Tin House. Her research and writing have been supported by residencies at Aspen Words, Yaddo, Ucross, and Vermont Studio Center and by fellowships from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Howard Foundation.

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Hi Jenn, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Congratulations on your incredible success with your debut book My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. How has the experience of being a National Book Award finalist and winning several awards affected your writing process for your upcoming book, Thin Skin?

I recently heard Ali Smith describe being nominated for and winning prizes as akin to someone being really nice to her in a department store. Something unexpected and lovely and completely random that has nothing to do with writing the book. I’m trying to think about awards this way. On the practical side, I do think it helped me secure a contract for my second book more easily. 

Thin Skin combines historical research, interviews, and personal experiences. Can you talk about the process of weaving all these elements together in your writing?

My first book, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, took shape in and through actual institutional archives, and it was a process of writing into the absences, the spaces where information was missing from the records. With Thin Skin, I often felt like I was creating my own archives to work from.

In the title essay, I used recorded conversations with a variety of people to build a narrative oral history about nuclear toxicity in New Mexico and environmental illnesses in my own family. For each essay, I read deeply across a variety of subjects, my own life (in the form of journals) included. The process of writing the essays felt much more accumulative, accretive this time. As a result, the essays are long, multi-sectioned, and range widely. 

Your research and writing have been supported by several residencies and fellowships. Can you share with us a particularly memorable experience from one of these programs?

Residencies have their own time zones, maybe their own dimension—a way to exist in time differently than I do at home. I finished Thin Skin at the Aspen Words residency, alone in an apartment on an artist’s property in Woody Creek, Colorado. I made friends with the dog who lived there, who came up the stairs to visit me every day. I called him Snacks.

Each day I hiked up the mountain that was right out the door, or I sat by the pond, or I wandered through the vegetable garden that was just springing to life, cutting asparagus to eat. It snowed a lot even though it was May, which made it seem even more otherworldy, separate from my life in Santa Fe. I was writing about my decision not to have children and I was writing about my mother.

My mom had died very suddenly nine months earlier. So, finding myself entirely alone each day for a month, I also cried a lot. I cried and wrote and did yoga and hiked and cried some more. It was intense and it was transformative. And it was how I finished my book. 

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Your background as an English PhD and an archivist for a visual artist seems to inform your writing. How has your professional experience shaped your writing, and what role do you see archival work playing in your writing process?

My work as an archivist was what got me started writing in the first place years ago, with an essay called “Finders, Keepers” about theft from the Harry Ransom Center and Albert Einstein’s molecular model kit. Now, my work as an archivist supports my writing.

Monetarily, in that it enables me to support myself without relying on my writing to make money, which takes pressure off my writing to be a successful “product” in the “marketplace.” But it also supports my writing practice, by giving me something to do in the afternoons that forces me to spend time not thinking directly about writing. I have found this not-writing time to be essential for writing. 

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

I typically write a few pages longhand in the morning in my journal, whatever I’m thinking about. I often do this in bed, while drinking tea and waking up. Then I meander to my office and, when I’m in the middle of writing something, I work on that. I wish that were what I was doing now.

Right now, I just finished a book and it hasn’t come out yet, so I’m in between projects. There are still too many emails and things to do with the finished book for me to fully dive into something new. I’m happiest when I’m in the middle of writing something, when everything I read and hear and see filters through it. On those days, I’ll write until lunch, or through lunch, and then I’ll go to work on the archive. 

These days, in limbo, I’m doing a lot of what my friend Andi calls “productinating” (keeping busy with work-adjacent tasks that aren’t actually work). Some mornings I’m reading and highlighting and typing parts of my journal for a new project, or I’m typing quotes from things I read on a newly acquired, beautiful green typewriter from the 50s.

I type them onto index cards and file them in a yellow card file I found in a thrift store recently. I thought I would use it to file “ideas,” but it turns out my ideas are just favorite sentences from whatever I’m reading. The typewriter keys have to be pressed with a lot of force, which slows me down and makes me more aware of how the sentences, even the words, are constructed.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favourite recent reads?

I’m just finishing Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet novels, which I have absolutely loved. Winter was my favorite. I’ve also been reading a lot of books in translation. Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses, Vigdis Hjorth’s Is Mother Dead, and Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story were recent favorites. And I’ve been reading through Octavia Butler’s novels and stories, which are wonderful, after first reading Lynell George’s marvelous dive into Butler’s archives, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I write in a converted garage in my house in Santa Fe, NM, where I live with my partner, Chelsea, and our three cats. I recently got a door, which was a big development. I have a wall of bookshelves, and on the other wall my desk faces the windows out onto our bird feeders in the front yard. My computer is on the desk, along with a lot of notes to myself.

Next to my desk is a big table I use for my sewing machine, my typewriter, or doing jigsaw puzzles when I feel stuck. This room is also where I do yoga each day, and aerobics when it’s too cold or hot out to walk. And it houses our record player, so it’s where Chelsea and I sit some evenings listening to music. It’s a multi-purpose room. 

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