Jillian Weise gets some of her best ideas when she’s driving her car.
No wonder her poetry and fiction cover so much ground.
Until she took a college course about the Holocaust, Jillian Weise thought she wanted to be a broadcast journalist. Disabled people, she learned, had been the first to be exterminated by the Nazis using the cyanide-based pesticide Zyklon B.
“This came as a shock to me,” she says, “and it also felt a little like hidden history.” She started thinking: Where is disability history? Where does it reside? Why isn’t it taught? What does disability history even mean? Who would write it? These were the questions that would eventually lead her to write her first novel, The Colony.
“Then I went to New York for six months,” she says, “and realized that in order to be a broadcast journalist you have to always tell a story on someone else’s schedule. You have to be where the story is. And I would rather the story come to me.”
When she came back to college at Florida State University, she took courses in fiction and poetry. She loved it. She knew what she wanted to do: write. She was ready to go anywhere. At the University of North Carolina Greensboro, she found a small family of writers. She says, “I really love the idea of being in conversation with other writers, other artists, finding ways to propel a conversation forward, so that it’s not the same old thing, so that it’s something no one’s ever considered before.”
She also found attention, direction, mentorship, and honesty.
“It’s difficult to find teachers who can be brutally honest with you about your work,” Weise explains. “Your family will never be that for you. Your friends will never be that for you. They’ll never be that honest, because there’s too much at stake.”
The Amputee’s Guide to Sex
In graduate school, she realized, “The people who write disabled characters for the most part are not themselves disabled. So we see disability in film and literature and culture, but these representations are inauthentic.”
When The Amputee’s Guide to Sex was published, she was twenty-five and working on her Ph.D. She was also as a part-time editorial assistant at The Paris Review and had written several one-act plays that went on to be produced.
“I had no intent to write about being disabled,” she says. “I had no intent to write from an autobiographical viewpoint. But once I realized that there really wasn’t a model of how to do it, it was liberating. I could start anywhere then. It didn’t have a canon. It was brand new.”
Although critics received The Amputee’s Guide to Sex very well, Weise found having her poetry published difficult on a personal level. “When I would read from the book, people would want to know if it’s true, or which parts are true, what really happened.”
Fiction, on the other hand, operates under different parameters. The expectations that the content will relate to personal experience are gone. It’s safe. So that’s when she decided to really take some of the research she’d done, dive into fiction, and pursue something else—a Fulbright.
The application process was rigorous. Weise planned her writing and her travels, then was selected for an interview. She also needed a mentor located in the country she was visiting.
Weise’s mentor was a woman named Delfina Muschietti, a poet, critic, professor, and director of translation at the University of Buenos Aires. Weise had previously worked with her on a translation of Bob Dylan’s Tarantula. “Because she really loves Bob Dylan,” Weise says, “and she wanted to bring it into Spanish in an updated, contemporary vernacular. Anyway, she was lovely. And it was great fun to work with her on Bob Dylan’s first novel, deliberate with her over a word he used in English and what it would mean in Spanish.”
Dylan’s novel Tarantula has speed, spontaneity, and snippets of poetry that informed her work, Weise says. She also admired how his “sentences were alive with spirit and syntax,” and she wanted that to be present in her own writing.
Jillian Weise received her Fulbright and went off to Argentina to follow in Darwin’s footsteps.
Before the HMS Beagle sailed to the Galapagos, Darwin’s ship first landed in Argentina at Tierra del Fuego. Darwin observed local cultures, examined the geology, and collected specimens to send off to Cambridge. At the time he was writing The Red Notebook, which contained his theoretical writings.
Weise read The Red Notebook and lived for seven months at the end of the world in the southernmost city, Ushuaia. Darwin’s image was everywhere, from buildings to bars and beers. The work Weise did in Argentina inspired her interest in genetics and engineered the premise behind her novel.
This novel had been a long time in the making. What finally gave her both the impetus and the time to complete it was a breakup. “The world does not want you to write a novel,” she says, laughing. “The world would rather you buy something or drink something or go out with your friends. But, after that breakup I really didn’t want to see anyone or do anything, so I really had time to dig in. It was very helpful, actually.”
She says she also stopped reading during that time. She says, “It can feel almost suffocating, having all these things you ought to be reading, but to say, ‘I’m not going to read anyone’s recommendations or any books right now’ allows another kind of freedom.”
This also helped her turn off the insidious, editorial side of her brain. Apparently it worked, because, she says, “Before, when I had written prose, it always seemed laborious and too difficult. But then, when I had that emotional gravity, it seemed easy and carefree. That’s what I want to achieve anytime I go back to prose.”
At the same time she was writing The Colony, she was also very aware of two movies that had won Oscars: Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside. The former was American and the latter was an international film, but both have a similar message. Weise says, “The answer at the end of both is, if you’re disabled, euthanasia is the only option for you. They’re both endorsing this narrative, that is, if you’re different, you should die. And that’s a really quite terrifying prospect.”
The Colony was published when she was twenty-eight.
“Cathedral by Raymond Carver”
Her next project took a new turn. Initially, she was afraid no one would take her eight-page poem, “Cathedral by Raymond Carver,” because she’s stealing Carver’s story and characters. The original “Cathedral” is a short story about a blind man who comes to visit a married couple. The husband is jealous of the blind man, because of a decade-long audiotape correspondence between the blind man and his wife.
Weise loves the short story but hates how it’s taught. The blind man is usually seen as this noble character and his friendship with the wife is interpreted as being platonic, she says. So Weise formed a hypothesis: “It’s because we can’t imagine a disabled person being anything other than noble or platonic. This is what led to me to write the poem.”
Carver, known for his minimalism, didn’t provide the contents of the audiotapes. This is what gave Jillian Weise the in that she needed to get started. “It’s a great prop,” she says, “just to imagine what these two people are sending each other through the mail for a decade.”
The poem will appear in The Literary Review, published by Fairleigh Dickinson University.
The Book of Goodbyes
Her other current project, The Book of Goodbyes, is nearly finished. Weise’s manuscript was solicited by BOA Editions and judged along twenty-five other semi-finalists before it was awarded the Isabella Gardner Prize. Isabella Gardner (1840–1942) was a great patron of the arts. In addition to leaving her money to many charities, she left an endowment for her museum with strict orders that her permanent collection should never be altered and all the main exhibits should remain as she left them.
The Book of Goodbyes contains poems Weise wrote when she was writing The Colony. “I like having multiple projects happening at once,” she explains, “so you can never get discouraged about one project because you always have something else to go to.”
The collection is structured like a play with four sections: Act I, Intermission, Act II, and the Curtain Call. As for content, it traces the arc of a relationship with a character named Big Logos. “He functions as a sort of Johnny Depp, John Keats character,” Weise says. “But also, metaphorically, he’s the word—he’s the word of classically male canon, the medical establishment, and so on. He has many connotative values.”
The obvious connotative value is religious. Her family was, she says, “extremely Christian,” but her relationship with her faith is more comfortable now. She self-describes as an Augustinian Christian: “Let’s challenge everything. Let’s question. Let’s have lots of doubts. I guess, the term for what I am is an apologist. I bring that to my work too, a belief in a God, a belief that science and religion are not irreconcilable, that they can be in conversation.”
But for all those big concepts, Weise says, “At its heart I hope The Book of Goodbyes is a great love story told in poems with the structure of a play.”
The Book of Goodbyes, her third book, will be coming out in 2013. Jillian Weise will be thirty-one.
Weise has a new novel, she says, “But I don’t know anything about it yet. Except that I’m some pages into it and it has momentum. But I’m really superstitious. So I won’t tell you anything about it, because as soon as I tell you something, it will annihilate itself.” She laughs. “Or that’s my fear, at least.”
Jillian Weise is an assistant professor of creative writing in the Department of English in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities. Her poetry collection, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, was published by Soft Skull Press in 2007. The Colony was published by Soft Skull Press in 2010. Her newest collection, The Book of Goodbyes, won the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award and will be available from BOA Editions in fall of 2013.