Why Jennifer Haigh Won’t Be Disclosing the Location of Her Writing Studio
In Conversation with Courtney Balestier on the WMFA Podcast
Writing can be lonely work; WMFA counters that with conversation. It’s a show about creativity and craft, where writer and host Courtney Balestier talks shop with some of today’s best writers and examines the issues we face when we do creative work. The mission of WMFA is to explore why we writers do what we do, so that we can do it with more intention, and how we do what we do, so that we can do it better.
This week on WMFA, we revisit our conversation with Jennifer Haigh, author of Heat and Light, about writing Appalachia, her secret hideout of a writing studio, and writing novels as an exercise in empathy.
From the episode:
Jennifer Haigh: Your writing life is much more chaotic when you’re writing short stories. I love the long, boring middle of writing a novel—year three, when the phone doesn’t ring and my agent has forgotten I’m alive and my editor isn’t talking to me. I love that part. That’s the sweet spot. The starting and finishing is always traumatic. So that’s the real problem with short stories, is the starting and finishing all the time.
On the other hand, there is this marvelous potential for discovery every time you begin a short story. It’s kind of like the difference between dating and a long, bad marriage. Most dates don’t go anywhere. A lot of them are not going to pan out. But there’s always the possibility of discovering something great. A novel is the devil you know. It’s like being married for many years, and you’re living with the bad decisions you’ve made in the past. You’re living in your mistakes when you’re writing a novel, and that can feel very oppressive sometimes.
Courtney Balestier: So going back to your daily writing practice, you said the thing about the blank wall and the earplugs. Can you talk a little bit more about sensory deprivation as a writing technique?
Jennifer Haigh: Well, you have to make the world around you so bland and uninteresting that the internal world is more interesting. For me, this is the whole problem with trying to write in a café. I don’t know how anybody does it. It’s way too interesting. I would much rather study people and eavesdrop; there’s just too much to distract me in a café. There’s nothing to distract me in my writing studio. That’s why I have it. There is no Wifi—terribly important. I never take a cell phone. Nobody knows where it is. If I die there, it’s going to take a while for them to find my body. I just don’t disclose that, because the whole point of having it is to be unreachable.
I think the great challenge for writers working in this particular moment is that we are always entirely too reachable, and there is an expectation from the rest of the world that we will be so. Now, if somebody sends you an email and they don’t get a response within the hour, it’s like, well, I sent you an email. That just doesn’t work for somebody who’s trying to write a novel. You cannot be constantly available to everyone. You cannot reply to every text and email and phone call the minute it happens. You simply can’t. The whole reason for me to have this studio is to get some distance. If we didn’t have all this technology, I probably would be able to work at home. But that’s never gonna happen again. That’s like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.
To listen to the rest of the episode, as well as the whole archive of WMFA, subscribe and listen on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcasts.
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the short-story collection News from Heaven and four critically acclaimed novels: Faith, The Condition, Baker Towers, and Mrs. Kimble. Her books have won both the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and the PEN/L. L. Winship Award for work by a New England writer. Her short fiction has been published widely, in the Atlantic, Granta, The Best American Short Stories, and many other places. She lives in Boston.