Jeff Fearnside is interested in almost everything and works in many genres. Glad he can live vicariously through research and character development, he allows pieces to determine their own form, whether poetry, short fiction, long fiction, or essay. An avid teacher and traveler, Fearnside is as passionate about learning and experiencing new things as he is about writing.
Fearnside won the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award in 2005. We caught up with him to find out what his writing life has been like ever since.
Santa Fe Writers Project: After winning the grand prize for your short-story collection, Making Love While Levitating Three Feet in the Air, it took 11 years to actually publish the book, though you had many other publishing credits in the meantime. Was that process a tough one?
Jeff Fearnside: Publishing is a funny business. When I won, I really felt publication for the collection would come not too long afterward. Four years went by, and it was named a finalist for another national award, the New Rivers Press MVP Award, and I thought I was really close then. But I now feel that books are like babies. Some babies come shooting out ahead of schedule, while others cling to the womb and insist on being late.
While on the surface it might not appear that the SFWP award helped much, it was actually a huge boost to me at that point in my career. It validated what I was doing early on and gave me some much-needed confidence. Because of the award, I made a decision to commit even more seriously to my writing. I was at a point where I could have committed to a nine-to-five job instead, but my wife and I together decided to take some risks and try to create the kind of career and life that I really wanted, and she really wanted for me as well.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in looking back on it now, I see winning that award as the real beginning of my literary writing career.
“While on the surface it might not appear that the SFWP award helped much, it was actually a huge boost to me at that point in my career.”
SFWP: You have taught writing for many years in several places, including Oregon State University, Prescott College, Western Kentucky University, and more. How has teaching influenced your own writing?
JF: The only thing I’ve enjoyed doing more in my career is actually writing, so in that sense it’s been a perfect fit. Naturally, when I’m teaching creative writing or literature, there’s a lot of crossover—the students’ enthusiasm for their work is inspiring to me, and I really enjoy being able to bring my experience as a publishing writer to these classes for them.
While I’m comfortable with solitude and working alone—as a writer, I think you have to be—I’m not someone who wants to be alone all the time. Teaching brings some balance into my life. There’s a healthy give and take there—I give of my knowledge and experience, and in return I get to participate in a larger community and share the energy of the students. I love it when one thing feeds into something else like that. That’s ideally how everything should be in life.
SFWP: You’ve traveled a great deal. After growing up in the Midwest, you moved around to Idaho, Washington, Kentucky, and Arizona. You’ve spent time in China, India, Turkey, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. How has seeing so many places affected your writing?
JF: Travelling changed my whole outlook not just as a writer but as a person. The cliché is that travelling broadens the mind, but it really does, along with the heart and soul, if one is open to it. It facilitates personal growth. I suppose that could and should happen anywhere, at any time, but travelling really speeds up the process by forcing you to live outside of your culturing conditioning, challenging you with new places, people, customs—new everything.
In strictly practical terms, since I joined the Peace Corps and travelled more extensively, a whole new world opened up for me in terms of the places and people I feel comfortable writing about. My host family [in Kazakhstan] during my Peace Corps training really was like a family to me. I’m still in touch with many friends I made there. I’ve already written a lot about it, and I’m certain I’ll write about it for years to come.
“Everyone is different, and what works for me might make awful advice for someone else, but this bears constant repeating: write, write, write.”
SFWP: What are you working on now?
JF: I just completed an essay collection about my time overseas that I’m currently sending around to publishers. I’ve finished a draft of a novel set in Kazakhstan that needs another round of editing. I’m about four stories short of a second short-story collection. And I’m in progress on a third short-story collection, one set in Central Asia.
On top of that, at this point in my life I’ve produced enough poetry to put together what I think will be a strong collection. I never lack for ideas, and I’m never bored!
SFWP: Do you have any advice for writers about writing in general and/or submitting to contests?
JF: Target those contests that really fit your work well, just as you should for any submission to a journal or publisher. Don’t just carpet bomb contests with submissions. Do your research. And if you find yourself feeling jazzed and thinking, “I have a piece that’s perfect for this,” then you just might consider it. As I mentioned about winning the SFWP award, to win a respected contest, or even be named a finalist for one, is a nice validation of your work and a great way to advertise what you’re doing.
Everyone is different, and what works for me might make awful advice for someone else, but this bears constant repeating: write, write, write. We live in a world with so many distractions and so few rewards for writing, and somehow, we’ve got to fight our way through the distractions and write even if the only rewards are intrinsic—the satisfaction of creating something new and doing it well. If you can do it every day, even for short periods of time, you’ll be amazed at what you accomplish.
At the end of certain days, when my back aches and my eyes are buggy and my fingers sore, I can’t say I’m having fun in the normal sense of the word, but I always enjoy the satisfaction of working with my imagination. I love the creativity. I love being part of the lineage of writers going back five thousand years, of trying to leave my own small mark, so to speak, as part of that lineage. To me, it’s a real privilege that I even get a chance to do this. I don’t want to blow it.