How Are You Going to Save Yourself - A Conversation with JM Holmes '12 and Alfonso Carney III '12

Alfonso Carney: Hi, to all the people listening to this in the future!  My name is Alfonso Carney.  I went to Amherst, I graduated in 2012, and I have the honor and privilege of interviewing the upcoming author for his book release: Jeffery Holmes.  I’ll let you sort of introduce yourself to the people…

Jeffery Holmes: Yeah, first off I’m excited to be on this.  I follow Amherst Reads, so it’s really great, so many alumni write so many amazing books.  Pen name: JM Holmes, first book is a short story collection called How Are You Going to Save Yourself?, it comes out August 21st, but I guess this podcast will be much after that, so I don’t know why I mentioned the date.  It’s a—

AC: [Laughs] important date!

JH: It is an important date, it’s important to me.  It follows the lives of four friends who grew up in the same city and their lives kind of take diverging paths but they’re inextricably linked kind of by legacy, and by circumstance, and just things they went through in their adolescence.  And, you know, it delves into some topics I care deeply about.

AC: Yeah, cool!  Thank you for that.  A little background on us, we were both in the same class at Amherst and, what, I’ve probably known you for a decade now?

JH: Getting old, yeah…

AC: Yeah, getting old.  And we’re out in LA at another Amherst graduate’s bachelor party.  So, we took the opportunity, and Amherst was nice enough to allow us to do this interview for you.  So, obviously I want to ask you about the book, Jeff.  I think that it’s an amazing book.  But I think that before we get into that, can you talk a bit about, sort of, your pa—I know you wrote at Amherst.  You won an award—what was the award you won?

JH: The Burnett Howe Prize for Fiction.

AC: I know you were a celebrated author at Amherst, can you talk about—

JH: Basically [laughs].

AC: [Laughs] Can you talk a bit about sort of how you got into writing, sort of when it was that you kind of made a decision, like “I can do this as a career,” and, your path from Amherst?  Maybe you have some other Amherst students listening or some other people that have thought about writing a book…

JH: I would say do it if you love it.  But yeah, I started off rapping a lot when I was younger—Fons is already smiling because we made some music together in college—

AC: [Laughs]

JH: But I really, you know, I love—the part of it I love most was obviously the lyrics, you know?  So, when my homie in high school said, “You don’t really have the charisma to be a performer, but you’re really good at writing.  You should try something else,” I started kind of writing poetry, and I was a big nerd, too, so I wrote fantasy when I was in high school. 

AC: Oh, I didn’t know that!

JH: Yeah, and then I never really got to take a creative writing class until I got to Amherst.  Then, I tried freshmen year and didn’t get in, which was probably for the best; those spots are for more serious students.

AC: Yeah, you have to submit like a—

JH: Yeah, and I don’t think I was ready, and I didn’t get in.  And then, you know, as it happened, when I did get in, I got to work with Judith Frank and then, later, Amity Gaige, and it was Amity who told me, like, “You might be able to do this thing for real if you wanted to.”  And so she has been—I think she’s actually returning to Amherst, which is awesome.  She’s going to be back there teaching, so that’s great.  But, she kind of pushed me toward the MFA path.

AC: Yeah, so, first of all, I remember you talking about Amity.  I feel like she’s a big influence in your life.

JH: So big, man, like every…she’s one of the wisest people, like her wisdom around writing and about maintaining it throughout your life with kids, with a career, with other jobs.  She’s been instrumental.  And she also said she pulled all the punches on the rec letter to Iowa, so…

AC: [Laughs] So, yeah, so I guess I wanted to get into…we have your little history in high school--started writing, you got to Amherst—obviously blossomed, you mentioned Iowa, I’m leading towards there, but what sent you on the MFA path?  And can you talk a bit about Iowa, and what that program looked like, sort of what you gained from the other writers?  I know a little more than the people listening, so

JH: Yeah, well, straight out of college, I needed make money, and this isn’t to dissuade anyone from being an English and Russian major, but they’re not super lucrative [both laugh].  So, I got a job teaching, and I was in Salem for two years, and just being a young teacher and being really largely trained is kind of anxiety-inducing.  So, I was having panic attacks and I wasn’t writing a lot and it’s something I really wanted to do and I felt like I was losing sight of it, so an MFA, especially one like Iowa, affords you the time and space and resources to really focus on it.  So after my second year of teaching—or during, I guess, my second year of teaching—I started applying places and hitting up Amity and other people, and Judith, and whoever--

AC: --For a recommendation [both laugh].

JH: Yeah, like, remember me?  And then Iowa was just…I was very prolific there comparatively, like I had so many—

AC: --Prolific?

JH: Like, I wrote a lot. 

AC: Oh, got you, got you.

JH: Yeah, just the space and time to write was so valuable; I can’t really put a price tag on it.

AC: So, what was the program like?  So, you would write something and then bring it to workshop…

JH: Yeah, I mean, each workshop runs a little bit differently.  You can go up a bunch of times, you can go up only once or twice a semester, depending on what you’re looking for and how much you like the kind of chemistry of the workshop you’re in.  A lot of it is learning who’s a good reader for you and who’s not.  And so, learning, like, which kind of voices you want to have a dialogue with and who you think can help you and kind of following up on that.

AC: I guess, yeah, Iowa kind of…well I guess what I’d like you to answer is: what’s your writing process?  How do you get into the mode?  How long does it take you to write?  Was that influenced by Amity?  Was that influenced by Iowa?

JH: Yeah, I mean, I think the best advice that Amity ever gave me was, “Go live, go get a job, and figure out how to write in the in-between times, and if you can figure that out, you’ll be okay.”  But at Iowa, it was kind of learning, I guess, to make a routine out of it because you had so much time.  It was really easy to be like, “Oh, I’ll write later, I’m going to go to the gym or whatever, I’m going to go get some food,” and then before you know it, you don’t write.  So at Iowa, it was more like structuring a lot of free time.

AC: The gym? [Both laugh]

JH: Not anymore, not anymore.  I used to.  So, it was learning to kind of be disciplined about your writing life, which I think is really critical because as a young writer, like at Amherst College, I would just wait to be inspired by something, and I would just go off on a tangent, and then…

AC: Yeah, exactly, it’s more like you have to get these words out, right?  Like, there has to be some sort of deadline?  Do you self-impose deadlines?

JH: Well, now I’m in the editor’s and the publishing company’s—[both laugh]

AC: Now, you’re big-time.  You get paid to impose deadlines.

JH: Before that, no, it was more of like an emotional, cathartic response.  I felt like I needed to get a story out.  I mean, I really like that way of writing, but I don’t think it’s sustainable for a career.  You got to…it’s just a tough emotional place to be, and you got to learn to write when you’re uninspired, otherwise you’re not going to write enough.

AC: Interesting.  “You have to learn to write when you’re uninspired.”  That’s a good quote right there.  Alright, man, well thank you for a little bit of the background.  Let’s get into the book.  So, it’s a collection of short stories.  Why short stories?  Why not a novel?

JH: Novels are harder, man. [Both laugh] No, I think it’s just kind of the way it came out because, like I said, when I first started writing at Amherst, it was inspiration-based.  So, like, every time I’d get a wave of inspiration, it seemed right to get it out in a short story form, and then I liked some of as I got older and I wanted to use them in some way, shape, or form, so it kind of dictated the genre.

AC: Okay, that makes sense.  You touch on… I don’t know whether to talk about this book as if people have read it or not—I’m going to go with not.  You touch on a lot of, like, pretty intense topics, yet there’s a lot of comedy.  So, for example, the second story.  I was cracking up—I feel like your stories have sort of an arc to them, right?  They start out—you kind of jump back and forth between different scenes, right?  So, you’re describing a situation and then you’re talking about the history of the people in the situation.  You jump back and forth.  And it starts out with the levity high and the drama low, and then as the story goes, it gets to drama high, levity low.  So, I was out loud laughing reading the stories, and then thinking about the stories at the end like, “Wow, that hit me hard.”  How do you think about story construction when you’re…?

JH: I mean, I think short stories can originate from a lot of different kernels (?), I guess I would say.  I lot of my process is, I envision a single scene and go from there.  That’s why I’ve had professors say that my structure isn’t very tight and cohesive, kind of meandering in that way.  But I also think that all of my favorite art has both the levity and the drama, because that’s the reality of life.  You’re laughing on minute and then you get some news and you’re at a funeral, that’s just how shit goes.  I think for a lot of people it will be a really tough read, and I understand that, but I think—

AC: --Tough read of what?

JH: That, like, the drama at the end is always kind of like a haymaker.

AC: Yeah, 100%.  “Haymaker.” (??) [Both laugh] “And another punch!”

JH: Yeah, exactly, exactly.  But I always tried to stay true to the fact even in those…not necessarily in those situations, but around those situations there is humor, there is still ….??? You might always have some dark spots. 

AC: Yeah, I think I got the sense that there’s a lot of observation, so there’s a lot of internal, you putting yourself in other people’s shoes.  So, some of the similes you use, the way that you describe things, for me, I don’t think I could ever…I mean, I’m not a writer, so obviously I could never do what you did, [JH laughs] but I could have never gotten into someone else’s skin like is sounds like you did.  Is that something that you try to do?  Is that something that you—for example let’s talk about…so, let’s just get into it.  The Tayla story.  When you talk about her. You’re describing things from an 18-year-old girl’s point of view. 

JH: Yeah.

AC: How do you sort of get into that?  How do you put yourself in someone else’s skin and do it so convincingly?

JH:  Well, first of all, writing is a great act of empathy in general.  If you take it seriously and you’re doing the work, that is what it is at its base.  It’s interesting a lot of the conversations around appropriation right now and, “I cannot write this story,” and I’ve had white students who want to write about Native Americans, or they want to write about Black people, or they might want to write about women, and I think when commerce gets involved, maybe it becomes a little trickier because you’re making money off of someone else’s experience.  I think as an act itself, it’s a great ?  If you’re treating people like would want to be treated with the respect and depth that you would want to be treated with, then it is a great act of empathy.  So, for that story in particular, I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of women who are writers and they just kept giving me notes and notes.  But the best piece of advice was the simplest piece of advice, and Rebecca Makkai, she has a new book out, The Great Believers, shameless plug, she was like, “Just imagine it’s happening to you.”  It’s like that kind of depth.  And sometimes it can be because I was trying to transport myself to some kind of different experience, but sometimes, especially when it’s trauma, imagining that it’s you ??

AC: Well, I think you did an amazing job; I was blown away by the way that you took ?? So, I’m reading this book, and I’m thinking back to English class in middle school and high school.  I hated English class.  I would read a book and I wouldn’t understand how people could see symbols and symbolism in the book because I was like, “If this is what happens, why are we…then this is what happens.  Why are we talking about…? [JH laughs]  But in your book, I felt like I actually saw symbols in it.  Maybe that’s the result of me being 28 instead of 14? [Both laugh] I don’t know.  Many of your stories have interesting relationships with their fathers.  Can you talk about sort of how the father-son relationship…or why that plays such a prominent part in the book?

JH: Yeah, I mean, I think that originated from a personal place, as you said. You know, Lonnie—

AC: --Lonnie Lion!

JH: Lonnie Lion!  Yeah, he’s kind of the emanate father in it, and he’s modeled after my father, loosely.  I mean I grew up…in high school all my closest friends, we were all raised my single mothers.  So, when I got to Amherst and I had the great privilege to meet people from different walks of life and kind of see intact in different kinds of familial units, it was really interesting to me, and I really started to think about what kind of role that does play on your children.  But obviously, Rolls, the character Rolls, he does the most heinous thing, really, and he has the best father on paper.  So, I don’t think it’s a direct 1:1 correlation. I’m really interested in fathers and sons, and in mothers and sons’ relationships, too.  Parenting is probably one of the hardest things a human being can do, to do it well, you know?  And so, it does inform a lot of the action of the book.

AC: I love that line…the line you had…it was like, “Nigerians say American expect too much from their fathers.”

JH: Yeah, yeah, I really got that line at Iowa.  Someone genuinely said that to me after reading one of my stories.  She wasn’t a big fan of my writing.  [Both laugh]  But it really made me think.  And it is a cultural expectation in our country.  We do expect a lot of parents in general.  I think, depending on what culture you come from, the expectations can be really vastly, vastly different.  I mean, I remember listening to the Obama book, actually.

AC: Never heard of him.

JH: Oh, Barak Obama?  Yeah, he uh… [Both laugh] Seems like forever ago, now, right?  But yeah, he has a bit about that when he returns to Kenya and one of his siblings kind of says something similar: that “You’re being too hard on your father.  You just don’t understand because you’re American.”  And I thought that was really interesting that, like, he was coming from this American place and expecting, you know, an American ideal of a father and he was kind of blindsided by his other family that was like, “You just don’t get it.”

AC: That is really interesting.  ‘Cause you read that book Dreams of My Father, or Dreams from My Father or something?

JH: Something like that, yeah.

AC: Alright, well thank you very much, I’ve got one more question for you.  I think that…obviously, it’s fiction.

JH: Yeah.

AC: The book is fiction, but is loosely based on things that have happened to you, situations you’ve found yourself in.  First of all, how do you think about your family, friends, exes—you talk a lot about your exes…. [Both laugh] Yeah, so, how do you want people close to you to interpret this book?  And then, more generally—you kind of talked about it earlier, when we started—that some people are your target audience.  What do you think…what is that target audience?  How do you think people should think about Jeff Holmes when they’re reading this?

JH: Well, I guess I’ll start with the first one.

AC: JM—I’m sorry—JM Holmes.

JH: Well, I mean, you were loosely in the book.  How did you feel? [Both laugh, mumble] No, but in all seriousness, I think it is almost more important to me than the reviewers and random stranger reader comments when I have people I love, whether it be friends or family read it, and, you know, their response and reaction and analysis and critique is way more important than a stranger’s.  And I think the main thing I want those people who are really close to me and in my life to take away from it is just to feel like they were dealt with honestly, and to feel like they were dealt with with love. Like, they weren’t raked over the coals, or they weren’t slandered, you know?  I mean, I tried to fictionalize it enough so that everyone should feel protected in it if they do see themselves in it.  Hopefully, the majority of them won’t see themselves, ideally, because it is fiction.  But as far as target demographic audience…I really hope—

AC: If I’m a random person reading your book, what am I supposed to thing about Jeff Holmes?

JH: I mean, I don’t know if it’s so much what I want you to think about me, but hopefully, that you find something in the experience of reading the book that keeps you as--whether you’re a biracial person, or whether you’re a Black nerd, or just someone who feels a little bit on the outside of the culture you were born in—if that validates your experience in any way, shape, or form, I always like to hear about that.  And just, like, it’s cool to be weird, bro.  [Both laugh] I mean, I’m always jealous of my younger students, like I guess they’re finally kind of in their 20s now, or maybe they’re just in their late teens, but it’s way cooler to be weird now.  You can like the things you like.  Like in high school, I couldn’t be walking around with Lord of the Rings.  I would get punched for that. [Both laugh]  Now kids they can like what they like, and I think that’s a beautiful thing and it’ll solve a lot of social problems that we have with each other if we just let people like what they like.  Like Mary Oliver said, “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

AC: Mm!  I was going to ask something else, but let me just end it on the quote, bro! [Both laugh] I appreciate it.  Thank you to Carly who sort of organized all this.  Listen, we didn’t get into the specifics of the book because I didn’t think that was really the point.  I wanted to talk about the view and sort of the background, what drives the book.  And also because people need to read it!  So, thank you, thank you Jeff.  I appreciate it.  I appreciate the book.  I appreciate that you wrote it.  It was amazing.  And, cool.

JH: Yeah, man.

AC: So, what our—we’re not the Lord Jeffs anymore—what’s our mascot?

JH: Mammoths, man.

AC: Go Mammoths, man!

JH: Go mammoths!