This week’s artist interview was conducted with Jeannie, a writer living in mid-Michigan. Jeannie and I met at Kalamazoo College and studied abroad together in Rome junior year. Jeannie and her husband are raising a gorgeous baby daughter in Lansing, and she’s also writing a novel. I’m definitely impressed with her devotion to the craft, and her blog is a great source of writing tips and ruminations. Thanks for sharing, Jeannie!
What is your name and city of residence?
I’m Jeannie Miernik from Lansing, Michigan.
What medium do you work in?
I am writing a fantasy novel based on European folklore. The working title is Briars and Black Hellebore. On one level, it’s a retelling of fairy tales like many writers have done before, but on another level it’s a story about storytelling itself, about oral and literary traditions and the transmission of culture. It’s about the power of words and narratives to shape our realities. As I work on this novel, I am exploring what I call “metamyth,” the stories behind stories.
How often do you work on your art–is it a full-time endeavor or something you work on in your spare time?
Right now, I am a total guerilla writer. I have a six-month-old baby and two jobs, so I steal minutes here and there to write, only up to a few hours a week. It depends on how long my daughter naps!
How does art fit into your life, in general? Is it something you think about and talk about every day, or every week, or only in certain situations, etc.?
Writing is solitary work, but I think about my plot, characters, and word choices every day—in the car, in the shower, during lulls at work, and even in dreams. Films, paintings, architecture, plays, nature, and all kinds of unlikely experiences give me ideas. Although I don’t have much time to sit down and write, I do read about European history and myth at every opportunity. I keep books and articles packed in my breast pump bag and my nightstand. I talk about concepts and interesting stories and history facts all the time with my family and friends. They will probably be bored with everything I’ve learned before I’ve finished my book!
When you start on a piece, what kind of end result do you have in mind? Does it get performed or published, put in a permanent form or is it more temporary?
I would like to see my book published one day. I hope to craft a novel of high enough quality and broad enough appeal to land a contract that could lead to an ongoing fiction writing career. I realize that such publishing deals are going the way of tenured professorships, but they still do exist, and that is my dream.
What goals do you set in relation to your art, both short- and long-term? Is it something you hope to make money doing, or is it something you want to keep uncommercialized? Does the term “sell-out” hold meaning for you or do you see the art/commerce relationship as a necessary one?
In the short term, while I’m caring for a baby, family is my top priority and takes most of my energy. So my goal for the next year or two is just to keep the writing momentum going, adding something to my manuscript every few days.
In the long term, I hope to reach many readers through publication of many novels. I hope to make enough money to support myself in continuing to write fiction—without having to maintain two “day jobs” in the meantime. It would be a great pleasure to reach a large readership who might enjoy my stories and interpret them in different ways.
Selling a work of art is not the same as selling out. I have always understood the term “selling out” to mean compromising a work’s integrity for a profit. But the difference between selling and selling out is complex and subjective. Not all changes or amendments to a work to prepare it for sale compromise its integrity. For example, an editor’s suggestions to fix errors within a manuscript to improve its quality for sale would likely improve the work from an artistic standpoint and not subvert its purpose. On the other hand, product placement within a novel that has nothing to do with the story would be a sell-out. But there is plenty of gray area between those obvious examples. I think it’s a distinction made in the gut of the artist in relation to each individual work.
The art/commerce relationship is not always necessary; many people express themselves creatively without selling their works. But the creation of any piece of art does take time and money, so if the artist cannot independently support her or his own work, it must be made possible through sales or grants or patronage, which are not entirely different arrangements. For me, selling my novel could give me the freedom to spend time writing more and better novels and improving my craft in a way that would be difficult or impossible if writing time were always forced into the periphery of my daily life.
What role does collaboration with others play in your art, if any?
The text of my novel itself I write completely on my own. But indirectly, many others have assisted me. My writing has benefited from a good critique partner who is encouraging, honest, and skilled at close reading and reviewing. Every time she says, “I don’t like this,” she points out a way to make the scene or chapter a hundred times better. Other help has been even more indirect, but no less important. My husband has been supportive in providing me some time and space to write, and I have learned a lot from networking online with authors and readers.
How conscious are you of your artistic influences? Who are your artistic influences?
I couldn’t possibly be conscious of all of them—in some way, I am influenced by every word I’ve ever heard or read—but I can name many that I intentionally draw upon.
A major influence of my current manuscript is Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and other creative retellings of fairy tales.
I try to read classic stories, old and new, in the hope that I can learn even a tiny bit from the literary masters. I like to read Shakespeare, the ultimate master of witty dialogue, and novelists like Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolfe, Tolstoy, and Jane Austen.
I also admire J.K. Rowling for her world-building, her whimsical names and made-up words, and her fun and accessible storytelling.
My favorite modern storytellers, famous but still underrated, are American Indian authors Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, who paint such vivid, inscrutable, and true faces of humanity. My own life experience is limited, and I feel that reading poignant stories of other people’s experiences, real or fictional, broadens my understanding of what it means to be human and helps me write better characters.
To keep my use of language fresh and interesting, I like to study prose and poetry in other languages as much as I can. Although I don’t read or understand Japanese, I enjoy the elegance of the haiku poetry form, and I like to read English translations of medieval Japanese love and Zen poetry. In Spanish, I have read some prose by Paolo Cuelho (translated from Portuguese) and Laura Esquivel and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. I love listening to Italian, French, and German opera and playing with different ways of translating the libretti into English to capture—or modify—meaning, tone, and lyrical rhythm in different ways. My husband and I practically worship the band Rammstein for Till Lindemann’s lyrics with their subversive and brilliant triple-entendres and wonderful turns of phrase. Some of the songs echo concepts and themes from medieval and ancient German folklore, which is perfect for my current project. Listening to Rammstein while writing has inspired a few of the scenes in my book.
With Briars and Black Hellebore in particular, I am drawing from extensive readings of Western European folklore, which is connected to the folk traditions and fairy tales of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia and the Far East. As a child, I loved the Grimm brothers’ iterations of German fairy tales and also modern Disney movies based on fairy tales.
As an adult, I am having a great time tracing those storylines further and further back into pre-Christian epic poetry and cross-cultural traditions. I read Homer and Ovid in college, and just now I am delving into Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied, the great Germanic epic that splintered into many of the fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. I am amazed at how downright entertaining and fascinating the Nibelungenlied is and how few Americans have even heard of it. I feel the same way about the story of Camaralzaman and Badoura in the Arabian Nights tales.
Old stories rooted in oral tradition have made me think deeply about the ways stories and cultural ideas evolve through time and across geo-political space, sometimes organically and sometimes intentionally by a single author. The stories within the Nibelungenlied and the Arabian Nights are influenced by true events and people, the stories of other cultures, bizarre misconceptions of other cultures, and editorial opinions and interpretations of the people who finally wrote them down. German fairy tales, often told by the lower classes and probably mostly by women, were edited, censored, and modified by the Grimm brothers in order to sell them in book form to a wealthy, male readership. (See “selling out,” above!) It is so exciting to plunge down the rabbit holes of revisionist history, cultural misappropriation, political and moral censorship, mistranslation, and divergent narratives following migrations and culture shifts.
I also have a fascination with sacred texts, Christian and otherwise. The “metamyth” of sacred texts is as interesting as the writings themselves. It is amazing how controversial and loaded the line between “myth” and “religion” is drawn in modern Western society, but the difference is impossible to define coherently or justify.
Since this is a travel blog, how does travel relate to or affect your art? (Themes in what you produce, road trips to perform your music, thoughts on what happens to your painting when you ship it across the country to a customer, etc.)
I love to create rich, purposeful settings for my stories. Traveling anywhere, to a nearby city or a distant country, to somewhere beautiful or ugly, for business or pleasure, stimulates my senses, layers and deepens my store of memories, and opens my mind and spirit to fresh insights and observations. Like a painter who builds up the “negative space” around the subject of a picture, I try to use setting to reflect and influence characters’ internal motivations, set moods, foreshadow, and become part of the action. As a novel reader, I like to be “taken away” on a journey outside myself, so I try to offer that experience in my own writing.
And finally, a right-brain question: If your art was a map, what would it be a map of?
It would be a map of Western culture. Ultimately, that is what I am exploring as I work on Briars and Black Hellebore.
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