Jen Conley reading at a Noir at the Bar event at Shade in NYC
The delightful Jen Conley is a writer and teacher from New Jersey. I first encountered her at a Noir at the Bar event, where she was reading one of her crime stories (which she did very well). She also edited an anthology in which one of my own stories appeared: “Shotgun Honey Presents Locked and Loaded (Both Barrels, Volume III)”
Jen, congratulations on your first collection of short stories! Tell us about "Cannibals: Stories from the Edge of the Pine Barrens"
Thank you! Cannibals is a collection of loosely linked gritty/crime stories that take place in central/south Jersey, Ocean County, which encompasses some of the Pine Barrens. Not every story has a typical crime, or a crime at all, but each one is a bit gritty.
Your stories all take place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Most of what I know about that area comes from John McPhee’s 1968 book, The Pine Barrens, which was originally serialized in The New Yorker. There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to ask a native of the area: McPhee wrote that Pineys tend to say something three times. For example, a Piney might say, “It looks like rain, looks like rain, like rain.” I’ve never heard anyone speak like that! Is it true?
Good question. But not that I know of. I’m not a real Piney, either, so I’m not really sure. I think the Piney culture has been infiltrated by modern times so I don’t know how many old school authentic Pineys are left. And I also think the term “Piney” has changed. Now it can mean people who live near the Pine Barrens, or even in them, but not living that old rural type of existence, or even something close to that. For many people “Piney” is a person who enjoys spending time in the Pines, whether it’s hiking, fishing, hunting, four wheeling, etc.
Sadly, writing short stories doesn’t pay much. Like most writers, you alsochave a day job. I understand you teach middle school English. Many years ago, I tried doing that myself, with little success. Have any of your students ever read your crime stories?
I don’t think so. I try to keep it on the downlow. They know I write and I’ve read them a little bit of my work, things that are benign, but not the hard core stuff. However last year I was working on a YA novel geared towards middle schoolers and I read them the first six pages. They seemed to really love it --- they gave me a round of applause—but they also appeared to be a bit surprised I could actually write.
Again, like most writers, you’ve probably had your share of rejections. Has that changed how you edit the work of others for Shotgun Honey?
We don’t edit the flash too much. We read the stories and have a discussion, and decide whether they are a go or not. Some stories are easy—yes or no. But some stories are in that middle area, that spot where a little help, suggestions, might make the story stronger. I’m more prone to give someone another chance if I see a story has potential. I hate getting rejected (as does everyone) so I do feel bad when we reject a story that seems to be on the line but ultimately just isn’t working. But Ron Earl Phillips, the head honcho, does give feedback from the editors, so I like to think if writers take our advice, then they can improve the story and try to send it somewhere else. “Home Invasion,” the first story in my collection, was rejected several times until another writer gave me a few tips so it would work better. I took her advice and it was immediately accepted at Thuglit and nominated for a Spinetingler Award.
Before they submit their work, many writers run it by either a trusted critique group or a cadre of beta readers. Do you, and how did you get them? (It took me many years to find a critique group that I found truly helpful.)
I used to have two writing groups, one up in NYC and one in the Red Bank area. Both are disbanded, or on indefinite hold. I found my NYC group because I took a Gotham Writing Class in the Village and after it ended, I emailed my teacher and asked if she knew of a writing group. She invited me into hers. That was writer Karen Heuler and I was with her for many years. I found the other group
through an ad in a magazine. Again, I emailed them and they asked for a submission and then let me in. Now I have no one but that’s okay. I’m busy and I have to do a lot of writing this summer—working on a novel—so when I’m done with the novel, I’ll probably look for readers but not a group. I also know it’s hard to find a writing group, especially one that meets consistently, so I’m glad you have one. I think every writer at one point needs to hook up with a writing group. It really does help.
Let’s finish up with a process question: how do you write? Do you do it in the same time and place every day?
When it comes to short stories, I don’t write them until I have an idea and an arc in my head. So I spend a lot of time just thinking. For a longer project which I’m working on now, it was a loose outline and I blew through the first draft as fast as I could. I write on my laptop, either in my bedroom or downstairs in my dining room. I have a fourteen-year-old so most of my work is done when he is asleep, preoccupied or if he’s at his dad’s house. He’s pretty good about not bothering me but he’s still a teenager, so it’s never fool-proof. And I’d like to write every day but there are days after teaching that I’m just too damn exhausted, so sometimes it’s best if I sleep and save my energy for the next night.
On the flip side, because I teach, I’m off in the summer so I consider myself a lucky writer. I would work a side job in July and August but I’d rather skimp on extras and focus on my writing. It’s very important to me. It’s my Mount Everest so I need as much time as I can to climb this huge, giant, almost impossible mountain called “breaking into writing.” Actually, I think it might be easier to climb Mount Everest.
We’ll look forward to your collection, which will be released in May. The official book launch will be at Manhattan’s Mysterious Bookshop on Friday 3 June at 6:30 pm. Thank you for your time, Jen!
Thank you. It’s been a pleasure!
You can follow Jen on her website or on twitter at @jenconley45
You can purchase her book at Amazon or Barnes & Noble or your local bookstore. It is published by Down & Out Books.