Boston native Jane McDermott has 100 things to celebrate. Her first book, Look Busy, a collection of one hundred 100-word stories, won the 2014 Michael Rubin Book Award from SF State’s 14 Hills Press and was the No. 18 fiction bestseller among Small Press Distribution titles for January and February.
McDermott is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in Creative Writing. She is completing her thesis project and applying for residencies.
When did you decide to come to State? I saw in your bio that you had a career in marketing before?
I did. I’ve been in the Bay Area for a long time, and I really was focusing only on Bay Area schools. I’m married and we have a house and all that jazz, so I wasn’t going to uproot everything. But it was easy for me, because I liked San Francisco State and I thought, How lucky am I to have this great school here. …
One of the criticisms that I’ve heard about the program is that it’s big, but I think that’s a bonus, because if you’re in a small program that only has maybe two or three faculty members, if there’s no chemistry there, you’re screwed. Whereas there are plenty people to choose from here. … It was a delightful and pleasant surprise how big a part of the whole experience has been the people I go to school with.
I’ve found that as well. It’s been great for me.
They make you bring your A-game. It’s great to be around so many good writers.
What did you do previously with marketing?
I got a B.F.A. in filmmaking, and I managed to parlay that into marketing communications by doing corporate videos and that kind of stuff. Then I tended more toward the script part of it, brochure writing and all that jazz. I did that for years and years. When I finally sold my soul and took a job with a division of the University of California legal publishers, I continued to do marketing writing, but within three years I was in the administrative side of marketing, like market planning, customer satisfaction.
What was the inspiration for the hundred 100-word stories?
I’ve been writing stories since I was a little kid, as we do, and not thinking. I think it, I write it and then not worry about it. … While I was a marketing writer I continued to write creatively, but when I finally joined the dark side and became an administrator I found that it was increasingly difficult to free my mind enough to write creatively. I just couldn’t … right brain, left brain. I just couldn’t do it and I despaired. I stopped writing for years.
I still considered myself to be a creative type — I subscribed to Poets and Writers and all that stuff. It was, in fact, a Poets and Writers, in the back, one of the classified calls for entries, they were looking for a 100-word story, nature based, blah, blah; they were very specific. And I was like, Wow, that sounds like a spec, which is the kind of marching orders I was given as a marketing writer. So I thought I’d give it a shot, as an exercise more than anything else, and I was able to do it remarkably easily. ...
I started doing them by the millions. I just started writing and said, just 100-word stories. Not 99, not 102. One hundred-word stories, just do that. It spoke to my anal-retentive OCD side. ... This book was rejected no fewer than six times. Every time it came back I tweaked it and it got a little bit better.
What does the title mean? Is it one of the stories?
Each story has a de facto number, but it’s not a title.
People hold up books when they’re at bars or something like that when they are, in fact, asleep or they’ve got it open and they’re doing their shopping lists. It’s that “don’t-bother-me-I’m-busy” kind of thing.
Do you have any favorite professors, or professors that have influenced you greatly?
I’ve had nothing but good experiences with my professors, and they’ve all contributed. They’ve all made a contribution. Even in classes where I wondered why I was taking it that semester. Toni Mirosevich and Chanan Tigay are probably my two biggest fans. They demonstrate such grace and such kindness and generosity. …
I enjoyed working with ZZ [Packer], too. She was here briefly and I’m hoping that she’ll come back! She’s a Radcliffe fellow. Nona [Caspers] is incredibly insightful in startling ways, but that’s good.
I’m just so impressed that because it is a big department, because there is a lot of us, but I always feel like they’re bringing their A-game, the faculty here. How they manage to pull that off, rather than being like, “Oh no, not another coming-of-age story to wade through,” you know? They do it, and they do it lovingly.
Any challenges that you’ve had with writing, particularly within the 100-word form?
I actually found strength and liberation in the confines of it. It had the opposite effect of what I thought it would. I thought it would make me nuts.
Do you have any hobbies?
Well, I raise chickens and bees. So they’re hobbies. If you can call living entities hobbies.
Do you sell the eggs and honey?
No. It’s interesting, we have four chickens and two hives so we produce more eggs and honey than we need, but not enough to go into business. So that’s been an interesting problem, though It’s not hard to get rid of eggs and honey. People want it. It makes good Christmas presents.
Do you have any particular genres that you read in or find yourself writing in? Other than straight literary fiction?
No, I wouldn’t say genres per se. I have found myself increasingly compelled by the first person. Which is odd. But that’s not a genre. We’re told to avoid genre, but the novel that I’m working on is in the third person, but then it goes into the various characters’ voices. Writing from them, from their actual voices, has been really interesting. You know gay men, kids, all kinds of different voices. So we’ll see if it gels, if it hangs together.
Do you have any thoughts for fellow M.F.A. students?
Get to know everybody. Talk to everybody. … Go to all the reading events in the city, and there are so many of them. Many of them are actually run by State people who have come out of the program and would be happy to see you, happy to have you come read.
Take advantage of every opportunity there is to get out and read, learn to be a good reader, learn to read your work well. Learn to be the best advocate that you can be for your own stuff, which is hard. Especially since so many of us are socially adept introverts.