News · 08/29/2011

Writer In Residence, September 2011

As luck would have it, I received a book review query from “an American living in Wales” in April of this year. The writer, Jess Stoner, was really excited about the book (Richard Froude’s Fabric) and because there were elements of the book that other reviewers had found difficult to engage with, she wanted to see more people in conversation about it. Note to other reviewers: this approach will work with me every time because I think this is literary conversation at its best. Take a book that elicits both admiration and uncertainty, then question it, discuss it, wonder at it, puzzle over it, get worked up about it, get angry with it. Repeat.

This is what Jess Stoner does. Her review of Fabric was excellent; scholarly but also quite playful, it opened doors to Fabric and the book’s project that other readers might not have even noticed as possible points of entry. I invited her to review for us again and to my delight she agreed. She tackles books that many other readers often shy away from and the way she writes about these books reveals how engaged she is with each reading.

So imagine my delight when I discovered that Jess Stoner is also a fiction writer and a poet. I learned about the creative side of her writing work because between her query and the time we published her review, the publication of her first novel became a reality (her novel, I Have Blinded Myself Writing This will come out from Short Flight/Long Drive Books in February 2012).

Based on what I’d seen of her critiquing work, I was really excited to read her fiction and poetry. And I was not disappointed. It was a joy to see the same combination of academic and whimsical reveal itself in her fictional and poetic universes. There is a really compelling emotional texture to all of Stoner’s work, which I think comes from the fact that she is both intellectually rigorous as well as creatively ecstatic. Her work involves a mixture of heady rapture and rational scaffolding; her pieces—whether poetry, short fiction or memoir—tend to exhibit, however subtly, a deep tension between intellect and passionate instinct.

For example, here, from “Metals: A Love Story” which appeared in Alice Blue Review #14:

He warned her, attempts to divide anything in two ought to be regarded with much suspicion. He wants them to be an unswept galaxy. “Remember when music came out? Lights flashed?” It was their first-time-building he wanted her to remember. Her halo of backscattered light. Between the sun and a cloud of water. She did her best to separate herself.

Soon after, they thought she would never be found again. Too much energy shakes apart chemical bonds. A collision frozen in the headlines: “A Bond Called Murder.” A beacon of light sent out for help from her flame.

Or here again, in a story from Caketrain 8 (Nov 2010), “This One Thing Truly Makes.”

She said it is inessential to our welfare whether we know space is curved, or whether a star is a giant or a dwarf. She said even Kepler knew that the Earth was insignificantly small.

He reminded her that Kepler said the Earth was borne of the stars, and that can‘t be reduced to something unbeautiful.

Something I really enjoy about her work is how much of her imagery moves toward the surreal or fantastic, but manages, at just the right time, to focus on something concrete, something understandable. She engages with whimsy but knows when to throw realistic anchors.

Through email conversations with Stoner, I’ve seen her passionate admiration for the work of others. Not all writers are as excited and interested in what other writers are doing. Her enthusiasm is contagious and she’s already introduced me to a number of writers I’d never heard of. I know that she will bring that sense of literary ecstasy to her month as Writer-in-Residence and I am particularly interested to see, alongside her own work, the unique comparisons and compilations she will put together.