An Interview with Literary Contest Winner 2015 Winner

We Speak with Samantha Dauer

  1. How did you first get interested in writing?

I knew I wanted to be a writer as early as elementary school, when my fifth grade teacher took me aside on the last day of class and told me to never stop writing. I still haven’t forgotten the look on her face — she was very intense about it. I was a really shy ten-year-old and I worshiped her a little bit, so naturally I nodded my head and agreed. From that point on, I threw myself into all the creative and journalistic projects that I could. Mostly journalistic. Honestly, the op-ed and the narrative essay are my strong suits, so to have my fiction chosen as grand prize winner is very humbling.

2) What do you prefer to write about thematically and subject wise?

No matter what genre I’m writing in, I like to stick to a core set of focuses and values. For instance, in my nonfiction pieces, some of my oft-visited subjects include representation (and humanization) of minority groups, combatting injustice and hypocrisy, and why being a young person these days very often sucks. Which is very Token Liberal Millennial of me, I’m sure, but I don’t write to transcend my identity as a queer and mentally ill individual. I write as a form of therapy, as a way of reaching out to those like me (and those far less fortunate), and, to a lesser extent, as a way to educate those who might not be familiar with the subject matter I tackle. In the case of “J.J. Jones,” I wanted to write about queer romance, gender/identity roles, family issues — things like that, which are familiar subjects to me.

3) Do you have previously published books and stories out there already?

I don’t! This is actually the first formal publication of my fiction, which is very exciting. Hopefully there will be much more to come.

4) Where did the inspiration for “J. Jones” come from?

If you want the honest-to-God truth, it was a fairly last-minute piece that I wrote while in the face of a looming deadline. I know that sounds terrible of me, but when I say that I spent straight days and nights working on it, I’m not exaggerating. I just remember having a “WHAT DO I WRITE ABOUT?!?!” moment of panic and going for the first, most self-indulgent thing that popped into my head, which was a lesbian coffee shop romance. But it ended up taking on more layers than I would have expected going in, which was cool. I got to explore stuff like complicated family relationships, how tragedy shapes us, and how we deal with the subliminal shame associated with our identities.

5) You have a talent for snappy yet realistic dialogue. How do you craft that? What advice do you have for other writers about dialogue?

Thank you for saying so! I worry about my dialogue — I think every fiction writer does. It’s easy to fall into the Oscar Wilde/Wes Anderson trap where your characters become mouthpieces for clever aphorisms and rapid-fire punchlines, and as someone who adores both Wilde and Anderson, I’m quite aware that I am neither of these writers and cannot pull it off. Joss Whedon tried to employ that technique in Age of Ultron, and we all know how people felt about the characterization in that screenplay. My first advice, therefore, would be to resist the temptation to just be clever, and to look for it in your writing. If your characters don’t have distinct voices, that’s something to address. In this story, I think Margot errs on the side of wry, sarcastic, and a little prone to self-consciousness, whereas J.J. is more upbeat, empathetic, and flirtatious. You have to let your characters’ personalities shine through in their speech, and I think a lot of that just comes from interacting with people on a regular basis and creepily taking mental notes on their vocabulary and tics. As with anything else, you’re bound to get better with practice.

6) What are you opinion about strong women characters and do you feel we lack them still in published works like books and short stories?

Frankly, whenever I’m plotting or free-writing something, there is no point at which I check off a box in my head for “strong female character.” Female characters with depth and dimension are just such a given to me. In a literary climate in which female authors often receive far less recognition and stories about realistic women are much less likely to sell, I don’t understand the mentality of an author who thinks it’s acceptable to not feature multifaceted women in their writing like women aren’t, I don’t know, people? People who should be able to perform the same roles in fiction as their male counterparts? It boggles the mind, it really does. And pretty much everything I just said holds true for queer characters and characters of color, too.

7) How do you think writers can work harder to also makes sure that well-rounded women characters actually interact with each other and that conversations that do meet Bechdel-Wallace requirements?

First of all, the timing of this interview thrills me, as I’ve recently become enamored with the soundtrack to Fun Home, the new Tony-winning Broadway musical chronicling the life of Alison Bechdel. Interestingly, when I submitted “J.J. Jones” for the Bechdel-Wallace theme, I had no idea that Bechdel is a lesbian — I think this factoid is something a lot of straight feminists would prefer to downplay the significance of. But to answer the question, if writers don’t want to use lesbians as an easy way to ensure they’ve passed the Bechdel Test (and seriously, why wouldn’t you?), then it’s simply a matter of creating female characters who are fully formed people. Give your female characters families, friends, interests — things that prevent them, in other words, from existing solely in the context of the men in their lives. If you need practice, just write scenes featuring two or more women and eliminate men as a conversational topic, even if you don’t end up using these scenes later. Over time, you should find yourself getting stuck less and less.

8) “J. J. Jones” also plays with expectations and subverting some of the romantic comedy tropes. Are you a fan of those generally?

It’s…difficult for me to get behind most romantic comedies, as they all tend to be marketed as Silly Shallow Lady Entertainment for the Gals and often rely on all the same tropes and antiquated gender roles. That’s kind of why I poked fun at those tropes with the setting of Margot and J.J.’s date — it doesn’t get much more painful than Italian food and soft, put-you-to-sleep jazz on the Upper East Side. I figured, why not transplant a gay couple into that setting? Why not have the self-described “lesbian Casanova” show up in the attire of the quirky romantic lead and, to complete the image, the tiny feminine girl dressed like the Colin Firths and Matthew McConaugheys of guilty-pleasure cinema? It was fun, especially because you rarely find such characters in that particular genre.

9) This short story is a clever play on the beginning of a relationship. What do you find is the most important part of crafting a believable relationship in fiction?

I care a lot about crafting believable romance in which the characters are equals, which enables them to challenge each other. Romance in general that isn’t overwrought or melodramatic is important to me, and queer narratives with substance are possibly more important still. To me, as silly as it might sound, what matters most in writing relationships is showing that the two people actually like each other. Do they enjoy spending time together, do they want to get to know one each other better, do they work well not only as lovers but as friends? A lot of people overlook that part and kind of smush their characters together like making Barbie and Ken dolls kiss (or Barbie and Barbie, as it were), but on a fundamental level, writing natural interactions shouldn’t be like pulling teeth. Or at least any more like pulling teeth than the rest of the writing process.

10) What are you working on next?

Right now I’m focusing primarily on developing my portfolio through the various clubs and organizations that I’m a part of, as I’m still in school and not living off my writing yet. I’ve been writing a lot of essays and opinion pieces, as I mentioned above, so the idea of an anthology is something of a glimmer in my eye. And hopefully, because I’m a creative writing student, I can finally work on the novel I’ve been dreaming of since that fateful day in fifth grade.

11) Where can readers find you on social media?

The project that’s kind of my baby at the moment is my blog. That’s where I post my work that isn’t affiliated with any particular publication. My professional social media presence is still in the works, but when I’ve set up such accounts, those will be posted in the “About Me” section of my blog (where you can currently find links to my other work). Thank you for the terrific questions!

This was our pleasure to host the 2015 Literary Contest. We’ll be announcing a new contest, something a bit different, coming in December, and then look for announcements about the literary contest 2016 in the spring. Also, we still have a few literary interviews left from the stretched out literary month so please do watch for those as well. Thank you so much to all our 2015 participants and we’re very pleased to be able to host Ms. Ainslow, Ms. Nobles, and Ms. Dauer’s amazing works. See you all soon with new contests and new writers!

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