Interview with Jennifer Savran Kelly: “I like to compare my first drafts to clay.”

Jennifer Savran Kelly is an author and bookbinder based in Ithaca, New York. She writes primarily fiction, with a focus on sexuality and gender, including gender roles and identity.

Her debut novel, Endpapers, has been recently published by Algonquin Books. The novel follows the story of Dawn Levit, a genderqueer bookbinder and artist coming of age in 2003 New York City. In addition to her writing work, Jennifer also works as a production editor at Cornell University Press.

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Hi Jennifer! We’re delighted to have you as a guest on Famous Writing Routines. For our readers who may not be familiar with your work, could you please give us a brief introduction to yourself? 

Hello, and thanks for having me! I live in Ithaca, New York, where I write, bind books (sometimes!), and work as a production editor at Cornell University Press. I primarily write fiction, both short stories and novels. My work tends to focus on sexuality and different aspects of gender, including gender roles and identity.

My debut novel Endpapers, published February 7, 2023, from Algonquin Books, follows Dawn Levit, a genderqueer bookbinder and artist coming of age in 2003 New York City. While Dawn struggles with her gender identity, her fraught romantic relationship, and her artist’s block, she finds a queer love letter hidden under the endpapers of a book she’s repairing.

It’s written on the back of a torn-off cover of a mid-century lesbian pulp novel with an illustration of a woman looking into a mirror and seeing a man’s face. Hoping it might help her make sense of her own identity, Dawn becomes obsessed with tracking down the person who wrote the letter.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing routine and how you balance your time between writing, bookbinding, and working at Cornell University Press?

I work full time and I also have a teen-age son, so for years the balance has been between parenting, working, and writing. Out of necessity, I’ve had to mostly let bookbinding go. I still head into my bindery occasionally to make things for fun, and someday I hope to get back to it more seriously. 

In the meantime, my routine is to wake up around 5:30 on weekday mornings. I make coffee, feed the cats, get the fire going in the wood stove if it’s winter, and sit down to write for about an hour before everyone’s up and I have to get ready for work.

It’s my only writing time during the week, so I cherish it. And when time allows on weekends, I fit more writing in. My family is very supportive, so I also get away a couple of times a year for weekend writing retreats.

Your debut novel Endpapers has received recognition from several literary awards programs. Can you talk about your writing process and how you developed the story for the novel?

I like to compare my first drafts to clay. The words don’t often come easy to me the first time around, and my brain does not like to outline, so I tend to have only a vague idea of where things are going as I write. The only way for me to get through it is to forge ahead and not look back until I have a full draft.

Once I finally have all the words, or the clay, I mold and shape them and smooth them out over the next several (or many!) drafts. I’m also in two writing groups, so sharing my work with other writers and getting critical feedback is an important part of my process.

The kernel of the idea for Endpapers came from a fascinating bit of trivia I learned in the first bookbinding workshop I took. The instructor told us that binders used to sometimes find personal letters hidden under the endpapers of books, where they could never be found unless the book was destroyed. I found that idea to be so moving, the push and pull between wanting to express something to another person but only being able to do it in a way that might never be discovered.

It stayed with me for years. I’d also wanted to write a queer story. So eventually I put those two ideas together. I came up with the story behind the letter Dawn finds by researching a few important historical times along with personal stories from those times. I found inspiration in different pieces of different stories.

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With your short fiction having been published in a variety of literary journals, how do you approach writing short stories compared to a full-length novel?

My process is actually quite similar. I get an idea and I explore it in the first draft. But the big difference is that I approach short stories with more of a sense of experimentation. Whatever I establish in a novel, I have to sustain it for eighty thousand words, so I tend to write in a way that’s most comfortable for me in terms of voice and style.

But with short stories, I get this small area to work in, and it makes me a lot more playful and inspired to take risks; I love to try out new things. So my short work tends to be very different from my longer work. It’s often more surreal and the styles vary. Someday I’d love to publish a collection.

Working as a production editor must also involve a lot of attention to detail. How do you think this has influenced or impacted your writing style?

When I’m drafting, I try to ignore the writing itself. I don’t always succeed, but that’s the goal. When I’m editing or even just reading other people’s work, I tend to notice extraneous words or filler words. So having that copy editing experience has encouraged me to pare down my language in revision.

While overall I think this is a good thing, I’ve also had to come to understand that creative writing is not always served by the efficiency of prose. For example, for a character who’s neurotic or socially awkward, it might make more sense to write them and their story using too many words. 

Can you talk about the experience of winning a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Foundation and how it has helped in the development of your novel?

This was a pivotal moment not only in my writing of the book but also in my writing career. The Foundation offers grants to individual feminist women in the arts with primary residence in the United States and Canada. It was the first national (or international) grant I’d won.

I don’t have an MFA, and I’ve been receiving lots of rejections from agents and publishers for Endpapers—as well as the previous novel I’d written. I was beginning to lose confidence in my chances of publishing a book, and then this award renewed my hope. That a group of people felt my project was worth supporting financially was something I did not take for granted. And that it’s a feminist organization felt like meaningful recognition that work focused on gender is worthwhile. 

I used the money for research. Endpapers is set in Manhattan, and street art plays a big role in the novel, so I went to New York City for a weekend and did a private walking tour of the street art of the Lower East Side. I also visited a few other locations where the novel takes place. Although I grew up very close to New York City and lived there for more than four years, it had been a long time since I’d immersed myself in some of those places, and it felt important to be able to do that. New York is a crucial character in the book for me.

How do you find inspiration for your writing, and how do you stay motivated to continue writing?

I’m endlessly fascinated by people. What makes us believe what we believe—about ourselves, the world, other people? What and who has the power to call those beliefs into question, and how do we react when it happens?

I love to dream up characters and put them in situations that test them because it helps me work through my own beliefs and reactions. Even though I write fiction, it always teaches me something about humanity and about myself. And I like to think it helps me have more empathy.

My motivation comes from a deep-seated need to keep answering questions. Or trying to. I explore one and it raises another. It’s never ending, and as long as I have questions about people, about what it means to be alive in a particular body in a particular place and time, I believe I’ll need to explore them in some creative way, because that’s how my mind processes.

For the past decade I’ve been drawn to doing this through writing fiction, and that doesn’t seem to be changing. The truth is, it’s like meditating or exercising for me. If I don’t make a regular routine of it, I don’t feel as healthy.

As someone who lives in Ithaca, New York, do you find that the location and environment have an influence on your writing?

Ithaca is small and accessible compared to New York City, where I lived before I came here. But because of the regional colleges and universities, it’s a lively place. Artists, writers, scientists, mathematicians come here from around the world to teach, do research, and make art.

When I began to write seriously, with the goal of publishing my work, I was able to tap into a community of generous writers who accepted me into their classes, mentored me, invited me into their writing groups, and introduced me to other writers. It’s been very nurturing, and I always aim to pay it forward.

I’m inspired by the landscape here as well. The rolling hills and huge stretches of farmland. When I write, I can sit anywhere—in a quiet room or a crowded café. But when I’m working out an issue about a character or a plot point, I need quiet. My best ideas come to me when I’m walking outside in nature, nothing to focus on but sky and trees and open fields. So in that sense, the location and environment have an enormous influence on my writing.

What does your writing workspace look like? 

I have a lovely old desk from an antique store in town. It sits in the corner of our living room next to a set of French doors that look out onto the small wooded area on the side of our house. But I’m more comfortable on the couch, so I tend to sit there most of the time instead!

Since I do most of my writing before everyone’s awake and/or ready to start the day, I don’t need a separate room, and I enjoy looking out the glass doors and being near the wood stove in winter. Once a little silver gray fox walked right past me outside the glass doors while I was writing, and sometimes I see deer or bunnies go by. I also have two cats, and they like to sit with me on the couch.

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