Jeanne Lyet Gassman on The Landscape of Faith
Interviewed by Wendy Gist
Date of Interview: December 14, 2014
Photo: Jeanne Lyet Gassman
Photo Credit: Christopher Barr Productions
Jeanne Lyet Gassman lives in Arizona where the desert landscape inspires much of her fiction. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has received fellowships from Ragdale and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. In addition to writing, Jeanne teaches creative writing workshops in the Phoenix, Arizona, metropolitan area. Her work has appeared in Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Red Savina Review, The Museum of Americana, Assisi: An Online Journal of Arts & Letters, Switchback, Literary Mama, and Barrelhouse, among many others. Find her online at Jeanne Lyet Gassman’s Writing Classes and Writing Tips – Jeanne Lyet Gassman’s Writing and Advice
Blood of a Stone (Tuscany Press) is Jeanne Lyet Gassman’s debut novel, slated for release in January, 2015.
Available for purchase via eBook, paperback and hardback from Tuscany Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and bookstores everywhere.
I understand you grew up in Winslow, Arizona, a small town on Interstate 40, about an hour’s drive from where I grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona (it seems we have a great deal in common). How has your childhood, spent in the remote American Southwest, influenced your writing?
JEANNE LYET GASSMAN
I suppose some might say one small town is like any other small town, but I think growing up in Winslow, Arizona in the 1960s and 1970s provided me a unique perspective. For your readers who may not be aware, both Winslow and Flagstaff were on Route 66. In the 1970s, before the Interstate bypassed town, thousands of cars drove through the heart of downtown every day. Located on the edge of two Native American reservations–the Navajo and the Hopi–Winslow is populated with a broad diversity of cultures and ethnic groups, including Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian-Americans (descendants of the Chinese who helped build the railroad), and Caucasians. The predominant religious groups are Mormon and Catholic. My exposure to these many different groups, as well as the cross-sampling of middle-class Americans traveling to California, gave me a deep appreciation for our cultural differences. A lot of my short stories are set in the Southwest, populated with characters based on people I encountered in my childhood.
Although Winslow was a crossroad during my childhood, it was also fairly isolated with limited options for young people. Most activities centered around church and school, and the primary employer was the Santa Fe Railroad. Books were my escape to places far more exotic and interesting than my small town. I was and am still a voracious reader. I can remember scouring the shelves of my high school library, searching for new fiction to read. I think I was fourteen when I pulled an intriguing title off the shelves, a Russian novel called Crime and Punishment. The high school librarian informed me that she thought the book was “too mature for someone my age.” Of course, I checked it out! That proved to be a pivotal choice, for my debut novel has been pitched as “Crime and Punishment in first-century Palestine.” And my reading made me hungry to write stories of my own, stories that could entertain and inform as powerfully as the ones I read by flashlight in my room after my mother told me to go to bed.
The high desert of northeastern Arizona is a hard taskmaster, an unforgiving place that is both beautiful and dangerous. As a child, I learned to respect its lethal attraction: get a flat tire on a lonely dirt road and you could be in serious trouble; go hiking without water and you could die of heat prostration; reach for that pretty rock in the shade on a summer day, and you could get bitten by a snake. I’m still fascinated with that dichotomy. In fact, much of my fiction is about characters making poor choices that create a crisis.
Our Fiction Editor selected your short story, “The Importance of Color,” for publication in Red Savina Review’s back issue (Volume 2 Issue 1) due, in part, to your ability to describe Southwestern landscapes and people in a powerfully familiar and evocative manner. Do you see the landscape as a character in your new novel, Blood of a Stone? If so, what character does the landscape play? If not, how does landscape function in your forthcoming book?
JEANNE LYET GASSMAN
The landscape, perhaps more accurately the setting, which encompasses both geography and culture, is definitely a character in my novel. I would consider the setting to be a character who creates tension and introduces conflict: Culturally, there is tension among the Jewish people, the Roman occupying force, and the pagan (Gentile) inhabitants of the region. The threat of uprisings and rebellion simmers beneath the surface at all times, and in fact, the Jewish people did mount a major rebellion against Rome about thirty years after the book takes place. The geography, climate, fauna, and flora also play important roles. In the first scene of the novel, the main character Demetrios is threatened by a scorpion known as the Death Stalker. Later in the book, a violent dust storm chases Demetrios and his business partner into an oasis where Demetrios meets the love of his life. Common plants in the book are thorny or poisonous. Leaves used to brew a sleeping potion induce hallucinations and paranoia. A Palestinian viper kills a donkey on the Jerusalem road. During his journeys, Demetrios often contends with obstacles in the landscape, everything from treacherous trails to raging rivers. The setting is untrustworthy, often dangerous; it can turn on Demetrios when he’s not alert.
In the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of Blood of a Stone, you write, “We are all outsiders until we make a commitment to our faith.” In your opinion, how might one make an authentic commitment to faith in a world progressively infested by superficiality and the nihilism that is a necessary consequence of the relativity currently advocated by many in mainstream education?
JEANNE LYET GASSMAN
Wow, you ask tough questions! I believe the explosion of information and misinformation has distanced many people from a set of core beliefs because it has become increasingly more difficult to separate fact from fallacy. So how does one make a commitment to faith in the face of so much contradictory opinion? Perhaps the answer lies in removing distraction, in residing in a place of quiet contemplation, “far from the madding crowd.” Our beliefs arise from listening to the silence within, from thoughtful reading, and from recognizing that absolute truth, like life itself, is a mystery, a gift worth exploring. The discovery of faith is often a mystical experience unique to each individual. The commitment to a faith, whether that is Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or some other, is an act of trust, a leap into the unknown, that brings inner peace.
Can writing be utilized as a commitment to faith? Was your own faith affected by writing Blood of a Stone? Do you have any advice for young writers struggling to express faith through the medium of literary fiction?
JEANNE LYET GASSMAN
I think writing, especially the personal type of writing one enters into a private journal, can be a method for exploring one’s faith. Writing can also be used to express one’s faith, but the author must be careful not to become didactic or dogmatic, because that undermines the message.
To answer your second question, I would say, yes. In some ways, my faith was deeply affected by writing Blood of a Stone, for it forced me to ask questions I had never considered. The process also demanded that I define my own core beliefs more clearly. In his book, On Moral Fiction, John Gardner asserts that, “…art is essentially and primarily moral–that is, life-giving–moral in its process of creation and moral in what it says.” He also states, “Art, in sworn opposition to chaos, discovers by its process what it can say. That is art’s morality.” My own experience in writing Blood of a Stone meant probing and defining my moral beliefs. A central theme in my book is that of forgiveness: Can everything, even the most of heinous of acts, be forgiven? During my journey of writing and crafting this book, I found the answers I was seeking, but I leave it up to my readers to find their own answers from the story.
My advice to young writers is this: Story and characters come first. Always. The expression of faith should arise from the intersection of a good story and multi-faceted characters. Don’t tell everything, don’t explain, don’t lecture. An excellent example of expressing faith through the medium of literary fiction is Flannery O’Connor, who never shied away from her Catholicism in her writing but never failed to entertain and challenge the reader.
What are you writing next? What are your literary plans?
JEANNE LYET GASSMAN
I currently have two major projects in the works. The first is a more contemporary novel about a family of downwinders, people who were adversely affected by the radioactive fallout from the atmospheric atomic bomb tests in Nevada during the Cold War. This is a topic close to my heart, since I know so many downwinders (a large contingent are from northern Arizona).
My second project is a collection of short stories with the working title, What Should We Do with These Terrible Mothers? I’ve written about half the stories for the collection, with a couple of them currently under contract for publication. When I started looking at these recent stories, I realized they shared a common theme of dysfunctional mother/child relationships. The mothers in the stories aren’t necessarily abusive, but they are neglectful, inattentive, manipulative, ineffective, etc. In addition to my big projects, I am also continuing to write shorter pieces, including flash fiction, short fiction, creative nonfiction, and even a little bit of poetry. And I’ve been making an effort to do more focused reading, concentrating on quality fiction and authors who can teach me more about the craft. I do love everything about the writing life–except perhaps, rejection!
Thank you, Wendy and Red Savina Review, for inviting me to chat with you. It has been a pleasure!