The Author Spotlight Series shines a light on writers creating heartfelt and original work across genres, giving them an opportunity to talk about their books and why they do what they do.

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Jennifer Morales

“Jennifer Morales [any human pronoun is fine] is a queer Latinx poet, fiction writer, and performance artist based in rural Wisconsin. Her short story collection, Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories, was Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 “Book of the Year.” She’s president of the Driftless Writing Center, in Viroqua, Wis”.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was about 7 years old (about the time I noticed I was queer, too, perhaps not coincidentally).

Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?
I was a little poet. I found a seagull feather on a swimming outing with my much-older, married sister and her husband when I was seven. He trimmed the feather’s rictus so it could serve as a writing plume. I knew that was how old-time writers, like Shakespeare, wrote–with a quill and ink–and so I wrote a fanciful poem about a unicorn with the feather pen. It was tedious and I soon switched to ball point.

How did you develop your skills?
I write and I read. I devour a book or more a week, which gives me models. And there’s no substitute for the learning that comes from just showing up to the work of writing and revising. My longtime writing group, which meets every 6 weeks or so, is a huge influence on my work, helping me see where my gaps and weaknesses are. We have been together for years and I trust them to tell me the absolute truth about what is working and what is not. In 2009, I enrolled in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. At age 39, I was one of the oldest people in my MFA cohort, but I think all the life experience I had–everything from raising children to serving in elected office–informed my learning in a powerful way. In the MFA program, I learned new writing skills, but more importantly, I became a better reader. I can break down why a book or story or poem is working, or why it is not, faster and more precisely than before my graduate studies.

Who are some of your biggest literary influences?
Do you have a favourite book/author? One of my big role models is Barbara Kingsolver. I am in awe of her gifts, such as capturing all the nuances of a character’s voice or seamlessly weaving science or politics into a seemingly character-driven story. In a time that requires us to think closely about the political import of our writing, she shows a way to  both tell a powerful story and get the reader thinking about how the protagonist’s experience reflects or contributes to our collective story.

How would you describe your work?
I write to wrestle with questions about gender, identity, complicity, and harm. I’m deeply interested in intergroup connections and conflict. I’m fascinated by the ways humans choose “teams” and defend and act out on the (perceived) interests of the group, conflating them with the best interests of the individual. Whether I’m writing about race, sexuality, gender, or US identity, my work is always asking, “What group do you belong to and why? And is that serving you?”

What’s your writing process like?
I do a lot of walking! I start with a seed idea–a character or a story line–and then I walk, asking myself a few pointed questions along the way. I might ask, “What does this character want? What is the intention of the story?” I might take notes on my phone during my walk as insights appear. Then when I get home I use the notes to begin to formulate a story. The same goes for poems. I definitely do my best thinking and writing planning during a long walk.

Tell us about your most recent work.
I’m deep into two projects right now: 1. I’m revising a novel about a mom whose two teen children become activists fighting climate change and theocratic, anti-LGBTQ movements; and 2. I’m writing a short story collection about the trailer park I live in. I’m particularly interested in the ways my neighbors express their masculinity.

The fifth annual Naked Heart LGBTQ Festival of Words will take place in Toronto from November 22, 23 and 24 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop and Buddies in Bad Times.