Uncategorized | September 14, 2015
An Interview with 2014 Smith Prize finalist Jeff Wasserboehr–by Mallory Brown
Jeff Wasserboehr’s essay “Possess Stone Wall” was a finalist in our 2014 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize Contest. We were impressed with the powerful story of Jeff’s experience in South Korea and his fraught relationship with his father—a man making a difficult recovery. “Possess Stone Wall” appeared in our Summer 2015 issue. You can read it here. Recently, TMR summer intern and journalism student Mallory Brown interviewed Jeff about the challenges of writing this very personal essay.
Mallory Brown: What prompted you to write about something so personal? Had you been thinking about writing this essay for a while?
Jeff Wasserboehr: There wasn’t any prompt for me. The blank page was really just a place for me to think things out. When I first started writing “Possess Stone Wall,” what I was really doing was taking a break from my fiction writing. There was no real long game in mind; I knew nothing else besides the fact that I wanted to write something about the year and a half I spent living in South Korea. Past that, I’d say that the deeply personal nature of this essay just emerged. And when I saw it all, laid out there on the page, the totality of it seemed right—even in all of its messiness. And so I thought I’d better not reel back my sentiments in any major way, personal as they are, or else I’d be watching the whole thing come undone. So while I can’t say that I’d been “thinking about writing this for a while,” I can say that this essay eventually became a space for me to connect a whole bunch of dots in my head that I’d hereunto seen as unrelated or disconnected.
MB: How was the revision process different because of the deeply personal nature of the material? Did you encounter any unique difficulties while revising?
JW: I consider all my writing—fiction, poetry, and, in this case, creative nonfiction—deeply personal in nature. In terms of revising this essay, I really suffered over accuracy. My impulse, as a fiction writer, is to always bend narrative in a way that keeps things interesting for my audience. Here, I let interest take a backseat to accuracy. Fact-wise, I felt like I was working with all these loose ends, each of which was “real” and each of which presented itself like a stand-alone little memory. For me, it was difficult to tether any one piece to another in a way that made collective sense. But dreams aren’t linear, and memories aren’t either, and to me keeping that untidiness, the nontraditional timeline, felt crucial. I guess this is part of the reason why this essay skips, flips, and loops back around.
MB: What was most difficult part about writing this story?
JW: In spite of everything I wrote, I wanted it to be clear that I still have great respect for my family and, especially, for my father. That was the greatest challenge for me: to maintain enough distance from this highly sensitive material that I would still be able to see, from a remove, what respect looked like. I intended to leave just enough emotional distance between my real self and the self I’ve presented here, that it would be possible for my readers to discover their own conclusions.
MB: Had you written nonfiction about your family members before?
JW: Not really. I’d say this is a first for me. I am, of course, not counting my angsty teenage journals—because then my answer suddenly becomes a resounding and painful “YES.”
MB: Has writing objectively about something personal changed how you perceive things at all?
JW: Writing “Possess Stone Wall” didn’t at all open up new boxes or present for me additional demons to confront. On the contrary, it really served the purpose of letting me come to peace with things as they lay. To me, this piece of writing is crisscrossed, jagged, untidy, and heavy. Above all, it is imperfect. Writing it and leaving it in that way has allowed me to give the benefit of the doubt, and to—hopefully—come to view more things as “lined with silver,” even in all their confounding messiness.
Jeff Wasserboehr’s work can be found in Passages North, the Massachusetts Review, New South and the Midwest Quarterly, among others. He holds an MFA from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. He lives, writes and edits in the Boston area.
Mallory Brown is studying strategic communications in the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She has served as Outreach Coordinator for the Environmental Leadership Office and as a writing tutor at the Student Success Center.
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