Some years ago, after finishing my MFA, I dedicated a special shelf on a bookcase to a particularly important collection of books: those authored by writer-friends. The collection has grown rapidly (to the point I’ll soon need to clear another shelf) and I was beyond excited to add Jen Companik’s debut story collection, Check Engine and Other Stories, to this hallowed spot.
I got to know Jen through the common love of our literary lives—TriQuarterly, where I used to serve as Managing Editor and Jen still works as a fiction editor. As an editor, she has a keen eye for plausibility, a love of complicated characters set in trying predicaments, and a bar set a mile high for the quality of the prose. No surprise, then that the stories in her collection boast these same qualities. The characters in Check Engine come up against some downright horrifying emotional and physical situations and, true to Jen’s talent for narrative tension, they face them at times when they’re least prepared to take them on. A miscarriage in a pet store. A haunting in the early days of motherhood. An unexpected visitor at a drive-in on the day of a mother’s funeral. It all makes for an uncomfortable but captivating read.
Carrie Muehle: This is your first short story collection. How long did it take to compile it and did you always envision these stories coming together like this?
Jennifer Companik: This collection was twelve years in the making. I wrote “The Evil Vortex of Doom” the last year of my MA, in John Keene’s workshop in 2008. I did not originally conceive of these stories as a collection. I was deep in the trenches of motherhood when I wrote them, so I wrote in fits and starts. It wasn’t until 2020 after I sent John Keene a link to “Don’t Write About Me” (originally published in Defunkt Magazine) that he, in his casually brilliant way, gave me the nudge I needed to think of my stories as a body of work by responding to my message with: “Don’t you have enough for a collection now?” So I began submitting all my previously published short stories as a collection and soon thereafter, Thirty West accepted it!
CM: Those deep trenches of motherhood come up a lot in these stories. Your characters love their children but they aren’t “natural” mothers and they certainly aren’t perfect ones. Characters like Lexie and Gwen struggle profoundly with the role. Can you comment on the importance of depicting imperfect mothers to today’s readers?
JC: You just got me to thinking about my mom. She was one of those “natural” mothers. She gave birth without drugs, she nursed my brother and me, she fed us raw broccoli instead of cookies and we liked it. (No, seriously, we did.) My mom was amazing. She seemed to genuinely enjoy our company, even when we were acting like a swarm of mosquitoes. She treated us with—I’ll use a term I learned in teachers ed for how we were supposed to treat our students—unconditional positive regard. She disciplined us lovingly. My friends envied me for having such a kind-hearted mom. She didn’t reserve her love just for us, either. My mom would mother any child in her orbit that needed it. My brother and I had friends who half-lived at our house. We had cousins who came and actually lived with us when their parents had reached their wits’ end—and those cousins all remember that time in their lives with great fondness.
So, when I became a mother, and found caring for an infant lonely and somewhat revolting, I remember feeling inadequate, cheated. Like the good mom gene had skipped my generation or something. I never gave up, mind you, but I had to grow into the role. I suspect that’s how it is, to one degree or another, for most mothers.
I don’t think my mom sold me a bill of goods when it came to motherhood. She just had a really different experience than I did. I’m happy for mamas who fill the role gracefully from the start. My stories probably horrify them. I’m okay with that. I think it’s a good thing for literature to depict a diversity of experiences. I have had readers tell me, always with discretion in their voices, that they or their wives went through something similar to what Lexie and Gwen go through.
It helps, you know, to feel like you’re not alone. Like you’re not some terrible person because it’s harder for you than it is for your neighbor. All the best books I’ve read have either shown me a world I would not otherwise have known, or taught me how better to survive my own. Maybe my book does that for someone. I hope it does.
CM: A fair amount of trauma befalls your female characters. They experience miscarriages, verbal abuse, sexual assault… One woman even witnesses an attack on her child through a baby monitor. How do you steel yourself to write those scenes?
JC: Let me start by explaining that my imagination is a maelstrom of stabbings, stalkings, sexual assaults, and gory accidents. I cringe inwardly when someone says: “It can’t get any worse!” because by the time they finish that sentence, I’ve already conjured ten ways it could be worse. When I was a kid my mom joked that I’d make an excellent criminal because I was so creative in my descriptions of what horrors would befall someone who didn’t lock her door. Another implication is that I die so often in my dreams, sometimes I’m afraid to sleep.
In answer to your question I’d say, I don’t steel myself to write those scenes. I write those scenes to give the rapist-and-pedophile-ridden bloodbath of my imagination an artistic frame. Like, hey, maybe my brain is scary, but it’s good for something other than pandemoniac nightmares.
CM: “Don’t Write About Me” is one of the more difficult stories to read in the collection but it handles so well the questions of why women stay in toxic situations, and of why we don’t always tell on our attackers. Was this a goal you’d had for this story from the very beginning?
JC: YES! Look, I stand with the #MeToo movement. I’m glad women are feeling more empowered to tell their stories, to accuse their abusers, to work to improve law-enforcement and our legal system’s responses to these crimes. That stuff needs to happen. But I wanted to write something to acknowledge both the courage it takes to speak out and the genuine obstacles to doing so. As in: Say something if you can, but you and I both know that you may be taking a (hopefully figurative) bullet for the cause, and please understand that I won’t judge you if you choose not to tell anyone.
That has been one of the hardest parts of my personal #MeToo moments: feeling judged for not calling the police, for not spitting in someone’s face, for not quitting that job. I don’t think most folks who say things like “You should’ve called the cops” intend the disrespect they’re showing the person who’s gone through such an ordeal. But I don’t think anyone has the right to second-guess that person’s decision not to tell. Crimes like sexual abuse and sexual harassment rob the victim of agency—over their bodies, their lives, and their careers. A person who’s come through that needs our affirmation and validation, not our judgment.
CM: There’s a quote on your website (jencompanik.com) that reads: “After devouring fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Eve trod barefoot and bug-bitten through Eden, wanting nothing so much as she wanted a pair of snakeskin boots. Thus was fashion born.” This quote encapsulates so well the women in your stories, who walk through all varieties of hellfire but somehow manage to find their way forward. They don’t necessarily triumph in your endings but we do get the sense that they’re better off than at story’s start. How do you find that perfect balance of hope and realism in your endings?
JC: If my endings approach anything like a perfect balance, I credit Eve.
I was raised Catholic. Attended eight years of Catholic school. I took it seriously, too. I was the kind of spiritually ambitious teenager who studied the bible and went to church every day because I was going to heaven. I believed.
At eighteen I left the Church and became a stripper to ransom my diploma from the good people at my Catholic high school because my gravely ill Dad and recently laid-off Mom hadn’t paid tuition in a year. That’s the short version of the story. But the experience gave me a whole new perspective on Eve and other “bad” women from the Bible. I learned the many ways the game was rigged against them—and me—and embraced my immodesty, my curiosity, my shameless sense of hustle. As in, when a snake tricks you, you go make yourself some snakeskin boots, a new career, use your powers of procreation to establish an entire species, and screw being ashamed of your inquisitive nature and your iniquitous beauty.
My female characters tend to find themselves in bad straits. Like Eve. They don’t always do the right thing—and they suffer consequences, but they don’t give up because giving up is not an option. I think that creates the hope you’re talking about.
CM: You mention beauty. One aspect that sets these works apart is their unapologetic recognition of the power of beauty. Characters like Gwen, Lexie, and Katie are very much aware of their beauty. They own it and wield it and dread its inevitable loss. We don’t see much of this in literary fiction. Why do you think that is?
JC: I think we don’t read much about the power of beauty in literary fiction because women are still scratching the surface when it comes to delving into themes that touch our lives. And the men don’t come off smelling too good in such stories. Like I said before, there’s often a price for calling men out…
Why we don’t read too many unapologetically beautiful women like the ones in my stories is that as girls we are taught to be ashamed of our bodies whether we’re comely or plain. In Catholic school, for example, I was taught that my body was something to hide, an occasion to sin. That I could corrupt the boys’ souls around me just by wearing short-shorts (in South Florida, where it was too hot to wear anything else 90% of the time). To that end, they uniformed us in the ugliest, most stifling of polyester blends—and banned us from wearing makeup or jewelry or even trendy socks (lest we become vain of our slouchy socks!). As seriously as I took my spiritual well-being and that of those around me, it seemed like a glaring contradiction to tell me I was made in the image and likeness of God and then turn around and tell me my image and likeness was, essentially, a sin. If it hadn’t been for my mother, I might not have questioned it. Not everyone had my mother to tell them their body wasn’t wicked. I was just lucky.
CM: Let’s talk about the men in these stories. Likable males exist in these pages (like the well-meaning Tom from “The Evil Vortex of Doom”) but not in plenty. We meet a father who sexually abused his daughter, a husband who calls his wife a whore, a law partner who forces himself on a secretary. How difficult is it to stare these men down on the page?
JC: It’s a hell of a lot easier staring them down on the page than it is to stare such men down in real life. I don’t claim to have experienced every atrocity suffered by my female characters at the hands of their male counterparts. These stories are fiction. But I’ve lived close enough to some of those experiences that I know what it’s like to scramble in my head for what to say or do in the face of someone who’s weaponized his male privilege against me. Unfortunately, most women do. I would much rather exercise authorial control over such characters than interact with them in real life, where the power balance is not in my favor.
CM: This collection puts your writerly range in vivid relief. You seem as at home inhabiting the voice of a stripper-turned-teacher-turned-woman “with marital problems and invisibility problems” as you do inhabiting the ghost of an abusive father, or the incorporeal body of Death himself. Have you always had this ability or has it developed over the years? Can you talk a bit about where your story ideas originate?
JC: I didn’t write a male protagonist until I was well into my thirties. Until then I’d stuck with protagonists who resembled me demographically. Female, Latina characters were my comfort zone. I had been a teacher, a stripper, and a sad suburban mom. It felt natural for me to work those kinds of voices into my stories.
I find it’s actually really hard to get far enough into a character’s head to make them a convincing protagonist. I didn’t have that kind of access to a lot of men. I had worked in female-dominated fields, and motherhood and my MA program surrounded me mostly with women.
This is going to sound strange, but I gained confidence in writing male characters (to the point of making them protagonists) after spending a lot of time on Twitter. On Twitter I could study the private daily musings of countless men from a safe, anonymous distance. And, unlike in the real world, I could block anyone who made me uncomfortable.
Where do I get story ideas? I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer to that. Some stories come to me whole, in a single moment and all I need to do is get them out of my body (and interrogate the nouns and verbs). Other times I find myself in an evocative place. That happened to me with “The Pet Store.” I was standing in a pet store with my (then preschool age) son, smelling that distinctive pet store smell and watching the dogs. It was dull until I starting making up dramas for the dogs and the people around me. Still other times something will happen to me—I think of them as “inspiring incidents:” a snippet of conversation, a colorful person, those moments when a writer says to herself “That’s a metaphor for something!”—and I write them down exactly as they occurred, to preserve the moment; only real life is full of bad lighting, tedious dialogue, unrealized fantasies, and unsatisfying endings, so I take the inspiring incident and ask myself: What should have happened? What could have happened? What do I wish had happened? And I go from there.
CM: I admire the concision of these stories. I don’t know how you manage to explore such big topics—sexual trauma, familial estrangement, emotional abuse—in such relatively lean spaces. Do you tend to cut a lot when in revision or does this kind of efficiency come naturally to you?
JC: Some authors write every possible word and cut, while others write the bare bones then flesh a story out in revision. I’m one of the latter. I’m about getting the ideas in place and then adding speaker tags and backstory later.
CM: You’ve been a fiction editor with TriQuarterly for several years now. How has that experience affected your own writing?
JC: TriQuarterly is one of the great loves of my life, not least of all because it has been so good for my writing (and my psyche). Here are some crucial things I learned working on TQ:
- Good, and sometimes great, writing gets rejected all the time.
- Rejection is not personal.
- A story can be declined for something as non-quality related as “We published something similar to this within the last year” or “This doesn’t fit with our aesthetic”.
- A story may win over half the editors’ table and get rejected because a tie-breaking vote goes the other way.
- Write the hell out of that first paragraph! Most editors are so busy, if the story doesn’t grip them in the first fifty words, they decline it.
- Using Submittable, the main writing marketplace website, taught me how stories are scored and how to make my manuscripts as editor-friendly as possible.
- Most importantly, though, being an editor for TQ has educated me about trends in literary fiction, and even which journals might be most (or least) interested in my work based on where our submitters have been published.
I always knew I needed to write compelling stories, but learning the business side of things has helped me get published more and made it easier for me to deal more constructively with rejection.
CM: You mentioned John Keene earlier. It’s been some time since you’ve studied with him, I know, but maybe you can comment on his influence on your work.
JC: I don’t have words for how much I owe John Keene for his feedback on my work, his continued mentorship, and his friendship—so understand that my answer will be inadequate no matter how much I gush about him. That won’t stop me from gushing, though.
I took one workshop, late in my MA program. It was a small class held in Wieboldt Hall downtown. I could see Lake Michigan from my desk. John walked in with these long, glorious dreadlocks and his enthusiastic smile and I’m thinking that the feeling it gave me may have been akin to how the Twelve Disciples felt when Jesus walked in to teach them. I was in the presence of someone great, someone whose sandals I was not worthy to kiss, and yet who put us all at ease, laughed with us, and gave helpful, respectful comments on our work in every class.
I was honored when he later agreed to be my thesis advisor. He taught me what lines to pluck and which to fill out in my stories. He busted me on my logical logjams. He understood when my characters lapsed into Spanish (because he’s fluent in several languages, of course) and helped me figure out when and how best to translate something. He also made me conscious of the cultural/political implications of the things I wrote and taught me how to read for insensitivity and my occasional young stupidities. He did all this and more without ever telling me I was stupid or making me feel ashamed for what I did not know.
I’m making him sound like a saint. I’m sure he has flaws. Or, at least, I allow it may be possible he has flaws. Only because saints are boring and John Keene is fascinating: well-traveled, cosmopolitan, and funny. John has always blessed my double entendres in a way I do not think a saint would.
More recently, John and I have met at AWP Conferences and caught up over lunch. He guides me toward this or that publication and encourages me to write my stories. The literary fiction writer’s life, as you know, offers a self-replenishing cornucopia of rejection. And then there’s John, who cheers me on. I have to keep writing and publishing, if for no other reason than to feel like I’m earning John Keene’s faith in me.