30 June, 2015
They went in a room with brown carpet that was so thin it was as hard as the concrete it covered. The walls were cinder blocks painted glossy grey like pigeons and all pocked up.
‘Ward,’ by Adam Jernigan, is a stark and exact short story about Curtis, a man in his early thirties who surrenders himself to the police, confessing to a double-murder that took place three years prior. Infused with moments of unexpected tenderness, ‘Ward’ is dark without being entirely bleak.
Adam Jernigan was born in Asheville, North Carolina and lives in Black Mountain. In January 2015 he graduated from The MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. ‘Ward’ is his first publication.
Where did the idea for ‘Ward’ stem from?
It started with the line “I’m the one killed them kids,” which just came into my mind and stayed there until I wrote the story that went with it. I’ve had other stories begin that way, but this one at least had plenty going on in that one line: the confession to a crime, and, for better or worse, dialect. I wrote the original draft in my first MFA semester. My supervisor, Michael Parker, had pointed out that most of my stories followed a very linear timeline. ‘Ward’ became an exercise in breaking that habit through significant flashbacks that were not introduced with a space break. I forced myself to play with the story’s time and its transitions. Also during that first semester, my mom asked me if I’d ever write a story with a happy ending. ‘Ward’ was my smart-ass answer. Though as I continued to work on the story, I came to feel that it does have a happy ending—at least as happy as I can manage.
I’m curious to learn more about Curtis, who is the real heart of this story. We talk about people becoming hardened to their experiences, but Curtis, while accustomed to the harshness of his life, reads as gentle. It’s as if he’s softened to his experiences. How did you come to Curtis?
I don’t think I know how I came to Curtis, but I can say why I stuck with him: because he scared me. Writing about him scared me. I’m an educated white guy who’s never gone to sleep hungry, and I was afraid of writing about a black man living in fear and poverty with a violent dad and no real chances. I’m a proponent of writing while afraid. My hope is that if I’m scared—if I’m inhabiting an uncomfortable place or testing a principle I hold dear or breaking some rule I thought inviolable—it means I’m doing something right. Specifically, the voice in my head saying I have no business writing Curtis’s story is why I continued writing it.
As Curtis’s story developed, I began to care more about him, which made me give him more space to live. He began to surprise me. After several drafts, I am no longer convinced he actually killed those kids. I like to think he went to the cops because he understood that he could not fully care for himself on his own, and that he understood that his very existence was criminalized. He recognized that receiving a sentence for life in prison was a rational way to deal with both of those issues. That surprised me, which pleases me to no end. I created Curtis and still managed to underestimate him. I don’t think of him as immune to the hardships of his life. I think he turned out to be more aware of and realistic about them than I ever was—and I wrote the thing.
Does your writing process involve heavy research, or do you find you write more on intuition and experience?
Bit of both, I’d say. The setting for ‘Ward,’ North Philadelphia, particularly Gerard Avenue, plays such a large role in the story, and though I’d spent plenty of time up there, it’d been years. Much of the “research” was done with Google Maps’ street-view feature, virtually walking around. I use that feature to get a feel for many of the places I write about. I like to see what the homes are like (houses or row homes or apartments or trailers), whether there are trees and grass or just concrete. Otherwise, I do research on an as-needed basis.
‘Ward’ is your first publication. Interviews are usually conducted with established, accomplished writers. Their insights are valuable, of course, but I’m interested in your perspective as a developing writer. How have you come to yourself as a writer? Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve no clue about that first question. Writing’s kind of awful—it’s impossibly slow and there’s no telling if something decent’ll come from all the effort, so I spend a lot of time wondering what the hell I’m doing and why. My response to the why question: because I have something to say. That is good enough for me most days.
In answer to your second question, I didn’t crack the spine of book until I was in my early twenties. Until then I had no interest in reading, to say nothing of writing or anything else really. When I finally did read some fiction, it was Herbert Selby Jr.’s novels, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Carson McCuller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, each one leaving me a little more devastated. I fell in love with books when I discovered they could break my heart over and over again. I guess it was the desire to return the favor that made me want to write.
What do you find challenging? How do you keep yourself motivated?
Patience is often the hardest thing to come by. Nothing about writing is quick: ideas are slow to develop, drafting is laborious, revising tedious, and then after a submission comes six months of waiting for a rejection.
It’s always stories themselves, mostly others’ but sometimes my own, that provide me with the most lasting motivation. Things like the desire to be published, to see my name in print, motivate me to an extent. But these things are more about myself than writing and creating. Frequent though fleeting bad moods smother that kind of motivation, so I mostly rely on other writers to move me.
Do you see your writing and your writing practice evolving?
Regarding the practice, since I graduated only a few months ago, I’m still trying to figure out when’s my most productive time for creating (first thing in morning), and revising (early afternoon), and submitting (who knows). As for the writing itself, I always feel too close to it to say with any confidence how it’s changing, if at all. It is much harder than it was three years ago when I knew even less than nothing about the craft.
Qu is a publication of the low-residency MFA program at Queens University. As a graduate of a low-residency program, how would you qualify your MFA experience?
I had no idea what to expect from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program, and I’m glad because I got to be amazed over and over again by the administration, the faculty, and the other students. My four supervisors (Michael Parker, Christopher Castellani, David Shields, and David Haynes) were each different in their methods and interests. Each provided me with what I didn’t know I needed. The administration picked my supervisors, using some hard-won intuition that’s so acute it’s kind of magical when you’re on the receiving end.
Any thoughts on your first publication?
I read it again once it was published, and, honestly, I wanted to pull it back for more revision. Proud as I am to have a story out in the world, there’s a sense of vulnerability that comes with being published. I don’t yet know what to do with that feeling. Nothing, probably, except to submit more.
Who do you read? In what ways does what you read affect what and how you write?
I’m rereading The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s vast and stark and so good.
What are you at work on? What’s next?
About a month ago I began writing something new that’s probably going to be long and involve many characters, places, and events. I went back to Vargas Llosa’s novel to see how he handles such breadth, which he does extremely well. That has motivated me to try my damnedest. It’ll be a long road, and I just started on it. I have no idea where it’s headed.
Thank you and congratulations, Adam!