We’re fast approaching the release of our inaugural publication, My Dinner With Andrea, and to help share our excitement, Hybrid editor Madison Scott-Clary sat down (well, exchanged emails) with author Jen Durbent to learn more about her and her book.
Madison Scott-Clary: Tell us a little about yourself? What got you writing?
Jen Durbent: I started writing in earnest in High School. I had a couple teachers that were more tolerant than others of silly “use this word in a sentence” takes than maybe they should have been. Then I went to Illinois State University and got all in on the Post-Modernism bandwagon. While I was there, David Foster Wallace was teaching. While I never had him for a teacher, his presence was always keenly felt. His influence was undeniable on my earlier work. I hope I’ve been able to grow through that.
That was about 20 years ago. I’ve been writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction nearly constantly since then. Mostly short form, but I have a couple unpublished novels and a movie-length screenplay in my past, too. I also write and perform stand-up comedy. My day job is a technical writer.
You mention growing through your David Foster Wallace influence. What did you like about his work? What did you dislike?
I liked his mastery of the language. How he wrote long, discursive sentences that you could get lost in. The footnotes and all-over timeline. I also disliked that he often wrote long, discursive sentences that you could get lost in.
Something that stuck with me is how one can mine cliché for not only new meanings but to revisit the often over-used metaphors they are built upon.
For a while, I used footnotes extensively in my work. That was fun. But ultimately it was a crutch. Sometimes I do use them (especially in sci-fi with truly background things). I just had to consciously break from that habit to grow and be my own writer.
What’s the story behind your book?
I woke up from a dream and wrote “My Dinner with Andrea” in an Evernote note and went back to sleep. In the morning, I looked at it and I planned to make it a short story of a first date. I left it aside for a couple weeks because I wanted to know if the idea would stay with me. Then, as I was writing it, it became obvious what it was going to be. So I just went for it.
I really wanted a book that was for, by, and about transgender people. I was still going through my first year (indeed, first few months) of being full time as Jen. I wanted polyamorous and disabled representation because those things are important to me and people in my life.
The process behind My Dinner With Andrea has involved trans and nonbinary folks from start to finish — the author, the editor and publisher, and the cover artist. This was important to the production, and also incredibly rare. Best guess, do you think this will be visible to the audience? Would a cisgender reader come away with a greater understanding?
I hope I am wrong, but I do not think that will be visible to a cisgender audience, unless they are already allies in a strong sense. I think that is important to trans people to even see that this book exists, even if they do not read it or engage with the text in anyway. We can do this. We do not need gatekeepers.
I do not know if a cisgender audience will come to a greater understanding. I hope so. I hope they do not see this as a way to not support trans artists, because “they can make their own thing.”
What was your writing process? How long did it take, how was editing, etc?
I tried to write it as fast as possible. Not merely because I was interested in getting it done (though that was true). I wanted the narrative voice to be slightly manic, unreliable, and scattered, so I just plowed through. I had a false start but I ended up using that for another novel I am working on now.
Looking back on metadata, I started writing mid April and had my first “complete” draft in early August, so about 4 months of writing. As far as technical details: I did all my work in Evernote. I used Markdown formatting, too. I like Evernote because I can use it on all my computers and devices and didn’t have to manage dealing with files and revisions, though the length of the document became an issue eventually. Also it let me have an alpha reader who had a read-only link to the note. They kept up with it and kept pushing me and I don’t know if I would have finished it without them.
That was writing. I spent a few months editing it, too. The editing process was difficult but I ground through it. Because I wrote it so fast, some of my known grammar habits popped through. Not to mention that the narrator themselves has their own voice that is not quite my own.
The sense of an unreliable narrator comes through in the text, especially in the sense that they are a third character with a vested interest in the story. Did you have anyone in mind — real or fictional — when writing their voice?
While I haven’t been diagnosed professionally as bi-polar, I tried to channel that manic state into that narrator. I wanted it to feel like it could go off-the-rails at any time. I hope that came through. It was almost performative sometimes how I felt after a long session. Very exhausting.
If you could ask a question of your main character(s), what would you ask? Sans spoilers, of course.
I wouldn’t. We have enough questions in our lives. Let them speak about what they love and want and do.
Though, if pressed, I would ask how did they get so cute? And where did Andrea get those boots?
What would advice would you give new authors?
Read. Listen. No, seriously: shut up and listen. And do other things. Draw. Perform. Play music. Re-read. Write. Edit. Delete. Repeat.
Any final thoughts?
If you think there is a reference in the text to something else, it probably is.
Jen Durbent is a poet, writer, and stand-up comedian who grew up in and is based out of the greater Chicagoland area. She lives with her wife, children, three cats, and a very old dog. She uses “she”, “they”, or “it” pronouns.