On overcoming rejection, and sticking it to nasty writing teachers: A conversation with author Jillian Medoff

Unknown-3I met Jillian Medoff back when we both lived in Park Slope, and our daughters both attended Beansprouts preschool. For her daughter’s birthday, Jillian threw an art party in her home, and kids got to fingerprint and draw on large sheets of paper tacked to the floors and walls. I recall picking up my five-year-old B, her hair mussed and cheeks delightfully smudged, who breathlessly gushed how that was the best party everevereverever all the way home. And I remember thinking: Wow, that mother is really brave.
     And she is! Not just for throwing an art party in her apartment for preschoolers—although I should say again: KUDOS—but for writing beautiful (and often hilarious) fiction that traverses intense, challenging emotional terrain. Jillian’s most recent bestseller is the sublime I Couldn’t Love You More.
MY FEARLESS YEAR: Name one thing you are afraid of. Do you tend to face it, or flee it?
Jillian Medoff: While I’m unabashedly, almost perversely, honest on the page, I find it excruciating to be as forthright in real life, particularly when I’m angry. I could tell you this is because I’m polite (partially true), or because after 30 years in corporate America [note: Jillian has a corporate day job], I’m trained to temper my reactions (also partially true). Or I could lie and tell you I’m just an easy-going, live-and-let-live kind of girl. But the real reason I can’t speak my mind is because I’m petrified of offending someone,  and having them—God forbid—dislike me.
      As a writer, my rage fuels my art; my novels are free of artifice, risky and raw. As a person, though, I accommodate and equivocate. I rationalize, I let things go. as I get older and more centered, increasingly I find myself saying, “Wow, that was rude,” and “Stop taking advantage of me,” and “You’re standing on my foot.” I’m getting so bold, in fact, someday I might even say this out loud.
MFY: Your last novel dealt with a woman facing a parent’s worst fear (a Sophie’s Choice moment;iclymcover-hthumb I still get chills thinking about it). How do you keep the process of writing about something terrifying from tumbling over into your real life?
JM: If I write about my deepest fears, they can never happen in real life. Thus, I’ll never have to choose which of my children to save in a freak accident. Nor, for that matter, will I ever be betrayed by my closest friends, watch my family implode, or experience the death of a family member. My plan is to write a novel about immortality so that I’ll never die.
MFY: What book, movie, piece of music or other form of art has helped you get over or cope with a fear?
JM: Years ago, the act of creating art—of pushing through—helped me cope with terrible anxiety. In my first year of college, I applied to study with Robert Coover (very eccentric literary writer, Professor Emeritus at Brown, wore offbeat bolo ties and cowboy boots despite hailing from Iowa). He accepted me into his seminar, despite even though I was only a freshman. “I never accept freshman but you have a brilliant imagination,” he told me, which was thrilling until he added, “but at this point you can’t write for shit. Hopefully one day you’ll grow into yourself.” The class was a nightmare. My stories—admittedly, purple and overwrought—were eviscerated week after week. I was scorned and laughed at, but Professor Coover just shrugged, as if to say, What did you expect? I told you so. I probably should’ve dropped the class, but instead I stayed and stewed, embarrassed at being such a lousy writer and also petrified. God, I was petrified—of him, of the class, of being humiliated by all those juniors and seniors. But every time I got that fluttery, panicky feeling, I’d think, “You know what, Coover? Fuck you. Fuck you and your odd neckwear and stupid boots. Just watch me. I am gonna be great one day.” Even now when I’m too nervous to write something especially risky or revealing, I remember Professor Coover and his bolo tie, take a deep breath and press on.
MFY: What common fear doesn’t resonate with you at all?
JM: I have no fear of meeting new people or finding my way around/moving to an unfamiliar city. I moved a lot as a kid—17 times (seven elementary schools, two junior highs and two high schools)—so I just bear down and deal.
MFY: What’s the scariest part about writing?
JM: Early in my career, I believed the scariest part about writing was rejection. Now I believe it’s—wait, before I tell you, a vignette:  My first novel, Hunger Pointwas my MFA thesis that I sold to a famous editor for a lot of money. I had a feature-film deal (the novel was eventually made into a Lifetime movie), invitations to book parties and movie premieres, requests to write for film and TV, and dinners with celebrities (ask me about Billy Bob Thornton’s teeth). Most of all, I had the promise of a grand life ahead—a real writer’s life—which makes what happened next so poignant: my then-agent couldn’t sell my second book, my third book sold and promptly tanked. I couldn’t sell my fourth, and I spent the next 10 years writing novels, getting rejected, trying again, failing again. I was exhausted, resentful and desperate to quit. (The irony, of course, is that throughout these painful, punishing years, I was living a real writer’s life, only it wasn’t anything at all like the life I’d imagined or wanted.)
       I offer this story to illustrate how, as a novelist, I was forced to face my deepest fears: I was rejected (countless times), my promising career was derailed; I failed, basically. And yet, having gone through this experience and survived, I still believe the scariest part about writing is rejection. My husband thinks this is crazy: What’s the worst that could happen? You’ve been through this before. But the act of showing my writing makes me panic. Maybe if I always wrote the same book, maybe if I hadn’t fallen so far and so hard, maybe if I wasn’t so anxious to push forward, it wouldn’t feel so frightening. But if you’re not shaking in your boots [when you write], then you haven’t bled enough on the page, you haven’t risked anything. So for me every novel I write is its own crucible.
      I’ve been working on my current book for five years. Not only is it a new direction for me, I’m broaching issues few women have covered fictively. It’s big in scope, a risk and a reach and the kind of novel I’ve wanted to write my entire career. And I am utterly petrified. Petrified. And yet—look at me Professor Coover! I’m about to jump.