The art, and importance, of storytelling is central to J.C.D. Kerwin’s writing. In her fiction, she creates fantastical worlds and moments inhabited by vibrant, recognizable characters. All while searching for words that “explode and make your insides flip”. Her short story, “Then There Was That Time With the Elephant”, published on Drunk Monkeys in April of this year, is filled with those sort of literary landmines. It’s at once fanciful, elegant, and brutally heartbreaking.
Recently, Kerwin spoke to Matthew Guerruckey about growing up in a “Leave it to Beaver” town, her writing, and the storytellers who inspired her.
Drunk Monkeys: Where are you from originally?
J.C.D. Kerwin: The Middle of Nowhere, New York. Actually, I’m from one of those weird “Leave it to Beaver” towns smack dab in the middle of farm country. You can spin around and see nothing but farms and rolling hills in every direction. The only distinguishing factor about my hometown is the giant eyesore Turning Stone Casino, which lets you know you’re approaching any sort of civilization as you’re driving down the 90.
Now I live in the city, though. But not the one you’re thinking of. Go north a bit. A bit more. Okay, stop. Albany. Although anyone who lives here will tell you it’s about as much of a “city” as my hometown. Hey, it beats getting sugar rushes off of Jolt soda and renting B-horror movies from Blockbuster on Friday nights.
Come to think of it, the best thing my father ever said to me was, “The smartest thing you ever did was get the hell out of here.” Thanks, Dad. No, seriously; that’s one of my favorite memories.
DM: How do you think living in a smaller town has affected the way you look at the world, and in turn, your writing?
JK: It’s definitely instilled a travel bug in me. Since money kind of prevents traveling the world from happening, I turn to stories—the book kind and the movie kind. It’s then been reflected in my writing. Sometimes I write about places and people I’ve never been or seen. It could be reality or fantasy. It’s just about the unknown; that travel bug, y’know? I think the world is so much bigger than its measurements. The world’s peoples and cultures could fill pages of books. That’s what I enjoy so much about writing. There’s always something to explore, even if maybe you’ve never really seen something or been there, you can imagine it. Words can define worlds, after all.
DM: If money was no issue, where would you travel? And what draws you there?
JK: Oh that’s very tempting. The first place that pops into my head is Japan. I have always wanted to visit Japan; when I was young I was completely hooked on these anime shows. I went so far as to embellish the stories and play out scenes with my younger cousins. As I grew up, I fell in love with the country’s history and culture. I’d also love to visit all the places of my heritage: Scotland, Ireland, the Gaspe Peninsula off Quebec, Wales (again; I visited once already). I’d like to walk the footsteps of my ancestors and hear stories from locals. I’d like to pass on the tales of my adventures in those places. And I’d also probably visit every tropical place I could think of because, well, who doesn’t love white sandy beaches, crystal blue water, and those fancy drinks with the little umbrellas in them?
DM: When did you begin to write?
JK: I think the more accurate question is “when did I begin to tell stories,” and that was as soon as I knew what the phrase meant. I was acting out intricate plays with my hands as puppets at four-years-old, when I was going through my non-speaking phase; later it was enacting dangerous rescue missions with GI Joes (who undoubtedly had elaborate back stories) with my cousins. Everything around me was a story: that squirrel in the bush, that couple walking a dog, that plane soaring high overhead. Nothing was out of reach of my imagination.
It was when I realized pencil and paper were tools for my imagination that I began to write everything down. I still have crumpled papers in my study: the first drafts of young J.C.D. Kerwin’s writing: various remnants of children going on adventures and cutesy animal romps in the woods. I wrote my first novel when I was twelve. It was when my family got our first computer—a Compaq Presario. I still remember the god-forsaken AOL screeching log on sound to the internet. (Lucky kids these days will never have to hear that damn sound.) Unfortunately, that 100-something page summer camp adventure has been lost to the cruel hands of technological abyss.
DM: I’ve had a similar experience with writings that have been lost to time and technological failure. Does digital work seem in any way less permanent that printed work?
JK: I think it’s a catch-22 for either mode. In the Great War between the Printed and Digital Word, I tend to sit on the side of the printed. There’s just something about flipping those pages and sniffing that antiquated aroma. Yet, there are people who will tell you that paper fades into nothing and that digital lasts forever. But computers have their faults, too; things fail and break. I suppose there’s no real winner in that particular war, and I don’t think I’d like one. As long as people are enjoying what they read, does it matter how they read it?
DM: When did you start thinking of writing as a career, and how did you make that transition?
JK: Honestly, like every child, I wanted to be everything from a paleontologist to a monster slayer when I was a kid. I wanted to be a painter and a veterinarian; a writer and a teacher. Though, as I grew older (at least to me), I realized all those professions required storytelling, in some way, shape or form.
I think I was lucky to have that wondrous epiphany one day, in my teens: “I am meant to be a writer; I am meant to tell stories.” I suppose after that, the rest is history. I went to college for writing, received two degrees in English, one in Creative Writing, and was lucky enough to land a job writing for a magazine. Thankfully caffeine and a stubborn desire to succeed keeps me writing my own stuff, in my spare time. I think I get my stubbornness from my father. My mother says I get it from her. I guess they’re both kind of full of it.
DM: So what is storytelling to you, then? What role does it play in our lives?
JK: To me, storytelling is two-fold. On one hand, it is the little girl reading a fantasy novel by flashlight under her covers, eyes-wide and head full of wonder. On the other hand, it is having an in-depth conversation with your best friend at the coffee shop about the upcoming political election. It is through stories—more than that, through words—that we make sense of our world, yet also escape that world. I feel as though stories allow us to take all the chaos and gobbledygook we see, hear, think and fear every day and turn it into something that we can understand.
DM: In our Patreon Newsletter interview, about your story “Then There Was That Time With the Elephant”, you mentioned that you tend to create male lead characters. Why is that? And what is the main difference, for you, between a male character and a female character?
JK: In all honesty, it’s just because I grew up with male characters. When everyone around me was reading The Babysitters Club, I was reading Chronicles of Narnia and wishing I was Prince Caspian’s best friend. Then it turned into imagining I was tagging along with Legolas and Faramir in Lord of the Rings. After that, I happily blame it all on Ray Bradbury.
I don’t personally see a lot of difference between female and male characters. (Well, unless you’re talking about romance novels, which is a different animal altogether. I don’t particularly read romance novels though.) I just think a character has to be written strongly; she/he has to be able to pull me into the pages. I’ve met some guys and gals along my reading lifetime who have done just that. Cherie Priest’s Briar Wilkes of Boneshaker immediately comes to mind. I followed her around a few months ago and absolutely fell in love with her.
DM: What are your greatest artistic influences?
JK: Music and caffeine are the “what’s,” for sure. I don’t think I could ever go a day without music. I suppose I could call it my muse. It’s anything from jazz to hip hop; European techno to 60’s pop. Music is one of those things that lets me think of something other than what I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll hear a beat and it will inspire me: it will sound like the backdrop of some sci-fi story; make me suddenly see a character for the first time; or place a missing puzzle piece in a plot. And caffeine, ‘cos, well, you can do anything with a lot of caffeine.
The “who’s” are deeply important to me. Hands-down they are Tolkien and Bradbury. I remember reading them by flashlight. I also remember that they are the two men whose stories let me escape when things pretty much sucked in my life. In a sense, they saved me. I always wanted to be like them; I wanted to tell stories that would save people, too.
DM: What are your favorite works by those authors, and why do they mean so much to you?
JK: Well, I have to pick Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as it was the first book I ever read that allowed me to “escape.” I do also adore his Roverrandom. It’s harder to pick favorites by Bradbury, but Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, and Fahrenheit 451 (of course), are up at the top. I think these books are closest to my heart because, to me, they are story-telling at their finest and were, as I recall, the ones I constantly “disappeared in.” More importantly, they were the first books that made me think, “I want to do this, too; I want to save people.”
DM: Do you think their influence shows in your writing?
JK: I suppose so, yes. I think at one point or another, we all try to emulate our idols, either by trying to do exactly what they do, or just being inspired by them. I don’t think I’ve ever tried to write exactly like Bradbury or Tolkien, but I have hoped my work has come across as exciting and adventurous. I’m not sure if I have yet succeeded, but their stories have often been in the back of my mind. I think, though, they’ve influenced me more in the sense to not give up. I feel that more strongly than any desire to use the same words; put the same sentences together; or use the same themes as they did. It’s a rather powerful feeling.
DM: What do you hope that people take away from your writing?
JK: I don’t know if I would say I want people to take something away from my writing more than I want them to bring themselves into my writing. I want them to jump inside the sentences and swim around for a while; pour themselves a drink and sit back for a few.
I want to write words to rattle in peoples’ heads and cut their hearts so deeply that once they’ve finished sounding them out, these people feel like they’ve been kicked in the gut and feel like it was the most beautiful beating they’ve ever received. I want my longer stories to be a means of escape; I want people to disappear for hours and when they finally emerge they look around and wonder where the hell they are.
I want people to walk away from something that I write and say to themselves, “I gotta go back there again.”
Find out more about JC.D. Kerwin's work at her website, jcdkerwin.com.