Interview: Jill Talbot
Jill Talbot’s A Distant Town was the winner of our 2020-2021 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award. (Available for purchase here!) Nicole Neece and Mirek Stolee, PhD candidates in UCF’s Texts and Technology Program, asked Jill questions about her process, themes, prize-winning entry, and what makes for a standout submission.
The Florida Review:
A Distant Town explores the role of written letters in human life from multiple angles. “No Return Address” takes the form of a letter, and you even pull one of your epigraphs from a letter sent by Joyce Johnson. What draws you to the letter as a literary form?
The distance a letter implies, but also the intimacy of it, the way a letter often details a yearning or communicates a desire or a decision. The delay of it—those days or weeks between dropping a letter into a mailbox or through a slot at a post office and the day it arrives. The imagined moment of that letter being read. But also for the recipient, seeing the handwriting on the envelope, the anticipation of opening it and unfolding the pages—the tangible experience. Recently I re-read the letters my maternal grandmother, who passed in 1995, wrote to me during the last good years of her life. Holding and reading those pages brought her back, her loneliness, her love for me, the disappointments in the way she lived her life.
Distances between people, places, and times are central to many of the stories. The title A Distant Town implies a distance between the setting and the reader. Do you feel that, in writing these stories, you’ve left the themes you’re writing about in the past? Is this “town” now distant from you, the author?
I selected “A Distant Town” as the title story because like the first-person narrator in that story, all the characters in these stories are working to get to or away from some place so that they can feel settled, mostly within themselves. When I wrote the ending of “A Distant Town,” the moment when the blue-black haired narrator hits another car while in reverse, I hoped the reader would realize that the “different town” she had planned, that secret she keeps to herself that night at Applebee’s, has now become a distant one, because she’ll have to deal with the damage and the money she planned for the leaving will now go to repairs or insurance. Also in the way she’s going backwards, away from what she desires is something so many of these characters have in common—like Alice Sanders in “Rumor,” who can’t keep away from daring herself in that “side-of-the-highway dive,” or the man in “Railroad Blues” who carries the letter of the woman who left in his wallet. Then there are the characters who exist in a distant town, like the woman in the final story or how M writes a letter from “a restaurant along 380.”
As for me, I’ve always been drawn to distance, to the idea of elsewhere, and I don’t think I’ll every lose that. In my essays, I’ve written about how I carry distance inside me and how I chase the distance. Writing these stories, creating characters who struggle with addiction or missing or unrequited love allowed me to push those ideas into more dangerous or desperate or even dark places.
The box is a salient image throughout several stories. A box implies containment: a division between inside and out. As you show, a box can contain potent memories. It also seems that many of the characters find themselves in a box that they cannot escape. What was the process of character construction like?
What a great question! You’re excellent readers. The inspiration for the box is autobiographical. I once lived with a man who kept a taped Priority Mail box in his closet, and I never saw him open it, and I never asked about it (or don’t remember doing so). I used that man as a starting point in crafting Earl, the man who wrote the letters in the opening story, “Desert.” The letters haunt he woman who’s unwilling to let them go. Then there’s the mystery of the abusive boyfriend’s box in “A Distant Town” and the way the first-person narrator packs boxes before (trying to) leave town. I think of the boxes as metaphors for the weight or the secrets that the characters carry, and in that way, there are, as you point out, boxes that close characters in, or off, and the literal box of a prison cell or addiction or even the way missing someone can keep a character so within themselves they become a closed box to others. Before I had the Johnson line as an epigraph, I had one from Jackson Browne’s “Bright Baby Blues”:
“’Cause I’ve been up and down this highway
Far as my eyes can see
No matter how fast I run
I can never seem to get away from me
No matter where I am
I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away
From where I want to be”
Jake Wolff, the previous Editor in Chief of your wonderful journal, told me the lines needed to be cut or replaced due to potential copyright fees. But Browne’s lines are still behind the characters and their relationship to boxes—they’re all carrying something that’s heavy in them. By the way, I’m listening to Jackson Browne as I answer your questions.
“Railroad Blues” contrasts with the other stories in its three-part structure and its hypothetical refrain of “let’s say.” What drew you to employing these stylistic changes and placing the story where it is in the collection? Do you see it as a turning point in the work?
I’ve always been drawn to metawriting, so the “let’s say” refrain is intended to create the idea of a writer working through a story, imagining how it would go, where it would go, but in conversation, as if the reader is helping to write the story, too. Those moments when the writer/narrator identifies the words for things, like allow and surrender, it’s a call to the ways we, as writers, have to choose the words that will best convey our characters, how we work to get the right words to describe them physically, as well as their interiority.
I’m also drawn to the triptych form as a writer and reader—using the form allows me to set up three major movements, and in this story, the man’s walk to the “Railroad Blues,” the time spent in the bar, and his leaving the bar and walking home. Readers don’t know until the final section that the trip to the bar was more than the usual end of the day beer, it was to get that record from the jukebox.
If I structured the collection toward an arc of characters moving from stasis to moving on or breaking free, “Railroad Blues” would be positioned before the final story, “Purgatory,” but the worlds my characters inhabit—their lives rarely move in this trajectory—so I wanted the collection to reflect that.
There’s a strong musical undercurrent that weaves through the stories. How did songs contribute to your writing process? Did you find yourself trying to choose which song belonged in which moment or did the songs contribute to building the scenes?
It’s funny that I just told you I’m listening to Jackson Browne while writing these answers, because I think answering interview questions is writing, too, and I need to get in the mood of the stories, the collection. When I write essays, I usually listen to Phillip Glass, but if I need grit in my work, regardless of genre, I turn to Jackson Browne or Waylon Jennings or the classic country songs that appear in these stories. In writing these stories, I chose the songs to help build scenes, the sensory details of those songs for those familiar with them, and the lyrics as reflections of the character’s states of mind. That’s why I created the playlist for A Distant Town, as an accompaniment to the stories, including all the songs mentioned in the chapbook, but also bonus tracks for the songs I imagine these characters sing in the bar, in the post office, on the long drives.
What advice do you have for hopeful entrants to our 2022-2023 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award?
In my experience as the judge for this year’s contest, I was impressed by the submissions that had cohesion, either in their themes, locations, or characters, as well as submissions that reflected a writer’s care in selecting the best piece(s) for the submission. Like they really thought about it, you know? The work felt balanced in some way. In my experience as the writer of a winning chapbook, I can tell you that I looked back at my Submittable “Declined” section and discovered I submitted this collection to a different journal’s contest in 2020, and it was a finalist. (Why didn’t I resubmit to a different contest right away?) I also submitted an essay collection to this very contest that same year and was a semi-finalist. As writers, we’re often told to keep sending the work out, but we (meaning me) get distracted or forget or get down on ourselves and think, yeah, I should give up on this one. Don’t! Someone will read your work and realize it’s what they didn’t even know they’d been wanting to read.