Monday, August 28, 2023

TBR: Trick of the Porch Light: Stories by Jessica Barksdale Inclán

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


Trick of the Porch Light is a story collection full of small, odd situations populated with people who really want to understand their lives. Of course, they go about trying to uncover truths in ways that cause them more pain and perhaps less clarity, though at the end of it all, there is the glimmer for them, hanging just out of reach.


Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?


I’m not sure enjoy is the word I use when I am “into” writing something. It seems more like being embroiled or consumed or taken over by an idea or character or situation. I often come up with a character with a problem, and then I want to see how they can get out of it or recover in some way.


The story I feel so satisfied with is “I Would See Everything.” It’s a story I started a very long time ago, one that encompasses some of the issues I had as a younger mother, one with small children. My character, though, is recently widowed and trying to come to terms with the problems in her marriage (now forever unsolved) and the issues with her youngest child. She doesn’t know how she will figure anything out, but then, a glimmer.


The stories that caused me the most trouble were the titular story “Trick of the Porch Light” and “Murder House” because they are linked through setting and, fleetingly, characters. The larger story is in “Trick,” and “Murder” is actually a short story one of the characters in “Trick” is writing. It’s all very meta, but I wanted each story to stand on their own. I’m not prone to meta anything, so I spent a lot of time working on both.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


For over twelve years, this collection of stories—in various states, with various stories, in certain and very different orders and with different titles—was a finalist, semi-finalist, and honorable mention (not to mention short and long-listed) fourteen times, and those were the contests I actually wrote down. All of these stories have been published, some very well, many have won prizes that have included money, a rare thing indeed. A couple were nominated for Pushcart prizes; another other academic awards.


And yet, I could not push this collection through to publication.


During this process, I received many lovely notes from editors. Some notes were not so lovely. One editor wrote me a very long letter about how my characters needed to get a grip! After all, he himself had lost an arm in Vietnam and still managed to have a good life. What is your issue, lady writer, he seemed to be saying.


What sustained me over the years were my readers, those people who helped me with various iterations and my faith in the individual stories. I also published novels and poems and individual short stories. But after a long while, I decided to give this collection one more serious push. For one, I considered all the comments from readers over the years, including the one from the man who lost an arm. I took out one story that he mentioned specifically, something I don’t regret. Then I gave the collection to two faithful readers for final comments, revised a bit more, retitled a few of the stories and the collection itself, and sent it out on its final voyage. This time, it all worked. Maria Maloney from Mouthfeel Press is giving Trick of the Porch light a home. Case closed.



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


My first fiction teacher was Anne Lamott, back in the day when she was teaching out of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California. I took two of her night classes and wrote the first draft of “I Would See Everything” for one of those classes (I still have the draft she read, and she wrote on the top “You are the real deal.” I should frame it).


One night when she was lecturing, she said, “Three hundred words a day, and in a year you have a novel.”


There is a math problem in there that works. She made sure to let us know that the first draft would be really horrible, but it would be a draft, something whole.


Three hundred words is doable, even during illness and upset and odd times. Also, often 300 words turns into more, sometimes many. But it can also just be 300. An obtainable goal that works. It wasn’t too many years after her class that I wrote my first novel Her Daughter’s Eyes, using her exact formula, this during a time when I was teaching five classes a semester, raising two small children, and trying to scratch out a writing life. And I think about her advice every day when getting ready to write.


How did you find the title of your book?


It wasn’t until I changed the title of “Trick of the Porch Light” from another, lesser title that I realized how the new title spoke to the entire collection. These stories are typically about home, a place that is familiar, and yet, look at the sleights of hand, the tricks, the mysteries right there in front of us in the places we call home.


I also loved the play on the old saying trick of the light. Adding porch in there really changed things. Maybe it’s a bit clever, too, which feels nice. But again, how many titles has this collection had? One was Tuna for the Apocalypse, but that short story no longer appears. Good title, though, right?


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


One story that once appeared in the collection is titled Starving, and it is really about food or sustenance: a woman stands in front of her fridge and thinks about meals and food. She also thinks about her baby that died. There were recipes in that story, but not too many in the stories that remain in the collection.


I am a vegetarian, and I have to adapt many, many recipes for my purposes. Here is a chili that I make topped with cornmeal biscuits that uses Impossible Burger—Beyond Burger works, too. My husband and I cook a lot, and he has most of our favorites on his recipe website. Here is the Cast Iron Chili and Cheddar Biscuit Recipe link but feel free to look around!













READ A SHORT STORY, “Monsters in the Agapanthus”:




DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.