Author Interview: Jessica Karbowiak—In Praise of the Little Fish


                           Jessica K photo               

Jessica Karbowiak is an author I know through working with Pink Fish Press. I am happy for the fact that I had no say in publication decisions or the editorial process, nor do I have any financial stake in whether or not this book does well. I am really really grateful for this because I feel like everything I say about the book is at the same level as what I say about Marco Vassi or Erica Jong.


In addition to my admiration for the writing and decisions the author made about how to structure these narratives (something I find separates the books I like from the ones I rave about), I loved this book because it did something I have struggled to do for years, and that is to handle—but in a new and novel way—personal topics that as Jessica herself mentions, have been done to death. A couple of days ago I posted a book review on my blog. Now through Saturday April 27th, you can download the e-book for free on Amazon.

these things i know cover (3)


SM: This was a beautiful and unique book. What gave you the idea to mix in real events with stories featuring such different women as Ilse Koch (The Bitch of Buchenwald) and Saartjie Baartman? Did you use any models for the structure?


JK: When I started the collection, it read much like the old-school ‘navel-gazing’ of the Romantic period—that is, the whole first section dealt with my own traumas, my own losses.  When I think of the first section, I think of that part in Catcher when Holden Caulfield is sitting at the bar and gets really drunk.  Salinger writes:



I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in their guts. I kept putting my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place.  I didn’t want anybody to know I was even wounded. I was concealing the fact that I was wounded sonuvabitch (195).



I wanted the arc or shape of the whole work to move away from the madness and isolation that trauma often causes.  I wanted to move away from The Concealment, and have the work flow much like the cover illustration flows—from the personal ever-outward into some sort of holistic spiritual place.  Moving beyond myself and my small hurts into the larger world.  This was so important to me, and why I chose to shape the collection the way it is including the creative nonfiction accounts of famous people who have suffered back to my own, hopefully more informed, little life in section three.  No formal models but my own weird movement, in writing and in life.


SM: The reviews on Amazon are all very positive. Two stories in this collection were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. What a great validation before the book ever came out. Since its publication, what type of feedback have you received from readers?


JK: Due to the lack of an agent and advertising know-how, the book has had little critical reception.  This often makes me sad—and let me clarify, not really from a bloated ego—just that I do think it’s a weird, sharp little book.  I wish it could reach more people.  But still, I am grateful to have it out there.  To move on to the next project.  I feel like for me, if Renda Dodge and Pink Fish Press hadn’t published this work, I would be paralyzed and still in that place of trying to write out this overall narrative.  That can happen.


SM: You open These Things I Know with the account of your rape. I appreciated your including the details that you did, especially the ones where you watch yourself from years later, judging the decisions you made. Much of that felt very familiar to me. In my own work I am only able to get events like these down in fiction, removing myself from them in that way, but also being able to see them more clearly for the distance. How long after it happened did you feel you were ready to write about this in any form?


JK: I wrote snippets about the topic of rape for years without any clarity or insight—I believe I was still in the middle of things, so to speak.  It took a long while, years even, to be able to write about trauma in a way I thought spoke to the trauma.  Like sort of trying to marry form and content in my own way.


SM: Had you talked to other women or read many other accounts before you wrote yours down?


JK: I’ve read lots of Survivor Tales over the years.  They never speak to me.  Like that quote from one of Joy Williams’ novels—one of her characters says something that speaks to this: “’I’m a survivor,’ she said.  ‘People dismiss me as a survivor.’”


SM: I completely agree, it seems like once people slap a label on someone; victim, survivor, whatever, it makes it so much easier to discount what they say. These words come with so much baggage already.


JK: I think this is where the danger is writing about The Big Things—people can easily dismiss you as writer. I’ve been told that these topics are so potent that writers can bring little to them that isn’t already done or there.  My favorite eloquent response is Bullshit.  Every writer I have ever admired writes about the big things, maybe through the small things, but yeah, it’s still there.  That’s what writing is.


SM: Exactly. A post I put up a few weeks ago where I reflected on what both Junot Diaz and Chris Abani do with material like this proves your point. It seems that the actual events are not really all that important, but more how they affect us and what we do with them that matters. This is why I was so impressed with what you did in this book. It was so mature, and magical. It made me think I could look at the events of my life and use them to make something that will matter as well.


SM: Who do you admire the most among writers and other artists? 


JK: I’m a Salinger fanatic—mostly his stories and novellas.  I love William Gay’s stories.  Junot Diaz is a more contemporary favorite. 





SM: Did I tell you that I got to meet him?This never gets old!I doubt any other experience will top that. He is one of my favorites and I’ve used him as sort of a virtual mentor more times than I can count. He gives incredible talks for young writers and is always reminding me to pay attention to what is going on in the world. I didn’t know we had this in common!


JK: I also love magical realism like in Marquez and Bombal—I can thank a UT-Austin professor, Pete LaSalle, for that.  I love Borges and George Saunders.  I recently got turned onto a Michigan poet, Robert Fanning. I dig his stuff. I don’t have any parameters—anything that tells a narrative in a way I can follow and appreciate.   I love poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction.  Not a real fan of plays, though.


SM: I am a writer and an editor; I know how much gets removed at the editing stage. Were there any topics that did not make it into the book and if so, what were these? 


JK: There was one snippet of an essay about my hearing that got cut out for clarity’s sake; the fact that I was born 60%-80% deaf and had to have an operation as a child which in turn led to Super Sonic Hearing.  It clouded the narrative’s purpose so my editor proposed either elaboration or omission.  Omission made sense.  Also, a narrative I wrote called “Lady of The Waves” got cut—it was about the 1900 Galveston storm in Texas and an orphanage.  It didn’t really fit.


SM: The cover artwork is striking. Can you tell me some about the image?


JK: The image on the cover was illustrated by my brother, Matt Karbowiak.  He is a carpenter by trade, but initially went to school for his BA in Illustration at The University of Hartford.  He did all the illustrations throughout.  He’s wicked good though he forgets to remember this sometimes.  It was a great collaborative experience.  I wanted the cover to show what I spoke about in terms of the shape of the collection itself—the rugged and beautiful terrain of moving outside of oneself.  I definitely think of it as a flowering of some sort, so that’s where he got the idea for a weird cocoon-ish woman.


SM: Your use of language is one reason I will read this book again, hoping to absorb something I can use to make me a better writer. I loved the way you worked so much hope in—especially at the last page. I am eager to know about anything new you are working on and when you will have that out.


JK: Hope is essential for me; I don’t feed off it or live by it desperately.  Most people who know me well think of me as cynical in relation to how people can behave, how we choose to treat one another. 


However, hope becomes, well hopeful and not a crutch through beautiful things in my life like my students, my animals, my teaching and my art.  These are the aspects of my life that never betray me.  So different from lovers, friends, family, myself.  I don’t know.  Then getting beyond heartbreak becomes an experience leading to wisdom and can be eased by these things, rather than the idea of hope erasing pain.  That doesn’t happen.


I’m percolating new ideas this year and moving beyond this first collection.  It is taking longer than I expected it to.  I’m not sure why this is—perhaps because the reception was small and people I thought would champion me chose not to, and some people who I didn’t know well became dear friends and confidantes by receiving my voice and work with loving-kindness.  Weird how that can happen sometimes.


SM:  As I spend more and more time working on essays and my next novel, I find it more difficult to balance promotion work with creative work. It is hard for me to switch from the introspective contemplative space to the outgoing personality I need for be for promotion. Since you are a writer I admire, and you are juggling career, work and promotion, do you have any words of advice?


JK: No advice.  I am horrible at promotion.  In some essential way, I feel like it is bullshit writers of small presses and books have to go through so many hoops to be heard or appreciated.  I have no delusions of grandeur; however, I bristle at the whole carnival atmosphere—like running in circles it feels like sometimes.  I take part when I can—I have a Facebook page (mainly devoted to my dogs), and I’m on Amazon, Goodreads, and a few other places.  I put my book out there for some small awards and hope it gets noticed.  I’m not holding my breath. 


I mostly rely on the kindness of people like you, Sarah (!), my editor and friend Katie Flanagan, and readers who end up claiming me.  I claim them right goddamn back.  Everything else falls away.  I’m not going to give up my day job—I wouldn’t want to—but we don’t live in an atmosphere where I could if I wanted to anyhow.  I’m a small fish.


SM:  Where can we see or hear more from you, I am speaking here mostly about how readers can get in touch with you and learn about your next steps.   


JK: I mostly show up online this year.  Google me if you like me.  Write me on Facebook.  I love hearing from people.  They tell me their own stories.  I value them and honor them in my own small way, I hope.  One awesome aspect of being a small fish is you are relatable to people, not anyone they cannot reach out to speak with or become part of their writing experience.  Because of this, I don’t mind staying a little fish forever.

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