An Interview with Anna Vangala Jones

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The first Anna Vangala Jones story I read, “Look Where We’re Going,” published in X-R-A-Y in 2019, struck me as relatable yet surprising. Since then, I've read Jones's work in Jellyfish Review and HAD. Her work is nostalgic, lonesome, and imaginative, and I was thrilled to read that Turmeric & Sugar, Jones’s debut story collection, would be published in 2021 by Thirty West. It lives up to the high standards set by her freestanding stories. The characters are familiar, even those that are non-human and otherworldly, and the theme of isolation that connects the stories in Turmeric & Sugar has been rendered all the more powerful in the wake of the global pandemic.

I spoke to Anna Vangala Jones about her influences, history as a writer, the role of music in writing, and how she uses stolen time in strange places to write. 

TQ: One thing I’m always curious about with writers is when and how their writerly tendencies first emerged. Were there any habits of yours as a child that might have foreshadowed your becoming a writer?

AVJ: I wrote my first story, “My Grandma and Me,” during recess in elementary school. I started staying inside to write sometimes after that. My teacher would “publish” those stories—staple them and put them on the bookshelf—for my classmates to read. Luckily I don’t remember any negative reviews I may have received at the time.

TQ: You were a teacher, can you tell me about how your teaching influenced your writing, if at all?

AVJ: I taught middle and high school English and Creative Writing for nearly ten years so it absolutely has influenced me as a writer. I love writing about teenage protagonists and though I wound up not including some of my longer stories about teachers in this collection, I do think writing them was part of the journey that led to the kind of writing I’m doing now. Teaching has helped me to take young people and their concerns seriously. Sometimes adults writing about children or young adults make it way too obvious that they do not actually remember what it felt like to be that age or at least how to make their problems and emotions come alive on the page with the respect they deserve, rather than treating them as silly or petty or inconsequential. There is a longing to be understood by this age group coupled with the struggle to understand others that follows us into adulthood and it’s something I try to explore in my fiction with humor and compassion for my characters.

TQ: I completely agree with you about teenage characters. I hope to read those (unincluded) stories one day. On a similar note, does parenthood shape your stories?

AVJ: I don’t write too much that is explicitly about parenting though several of my stories do include parents and children. But I will say that one of the stories is about a young newly married nanny working for an older couple and I wrote the first draft of it before I was a parent myself. I went back and very heavily revised it many years later once I was a mother of two children and I do think it improved my writing of the employer character, Sona, though of course I don’t think it’s necessary to be a parent to write about parents. It did give me maybe a bit more insight into her character than I was able to access before that. It’s also a function of my writing growing and evolving with me, though, since I first wrote that story for an intro to fiction workshop.

TQ: It’s so interesting to hear about the recursive process it takes to write some stories, like “In Twenty Years.” Another thing I’m always curious about when it comes to writers’ processes is whether music plays a role. Do you listen to music as you write? Do you have any associations between certain albums or songs and any of your stories in this collection?

AVJ: I do listen to music when I write. Always. I only discovered recently from Twitter that many people find that strange, especially songs with lyrics and not just instrumental ones. I have so many writing playlists that I keep on repeat. I tend to be sort of obsessive though—when I fall for a song, I fall for it so completely that I’ll play it on a loop over and over while I write. My writing sessions usually happen in that same sort of fashion—like an obsession takes hold with this burst of intense focus. Many of the stories in the collection, if not all, were written in one sitting each. I then take anywhere from weeks to years to revise a single piece. But mostly the first draft needs to just pour out of me all at once, so there are definitely certain songs that my family probably can’t stand to listen to ever again because I played them nonstop while I wrote. What I’m writing won’t usually have anything to do with the song at all, but I prefer it in the background to silence. In general, music is as meaningful to me as reading and writing—listening to it and singing and having played an instrument—so I have very specific and powerful sense memories associated with certain songs. I love their ability to evoke the feeling of where my life was at the time and the stories they helped me to create and tell. And like most people, I have music linked in my mind and heart to particular relationships and friendships, and sometimes to the end of them. Since I write so frequently about those nostalgic topics, music plays a significant role there.

TQ: I find the relationship between writing and music so fascinating, especially for writers, like you, for whom music is such a necessary force. You mentioned you tend to draft entire pieces in one burst of writing. How do you make time for these intense periods of focus? 

AVJ: Yes, life has been pretty chaotic for all of us these past few years especially, so I write in these almost frenzied bursts where writing just kind of briefly takes over my mindset and life pretty much. Then I suffer through very long stretches where literally not one word gets out. I’m a parent of young kids. Most of the longer stories in the collection actually got written when my babies would be breastfeeding and fall asleep on me and I would write, somewhat uninterrupted, then. Now that they’re both in that phase of being old enough to be constantly active but young enough to still need a lot of supervision, I write flash fiction in weird places whenever the stars align of inspiration striking at the same moment that I can steal some minutes to myself. My husband is amazing and supportive of my writing, so it’s understood between us that if I get this wild look in my eye and say, “I have an idea and I need to write this right now,” he will try to keep the kids away from me. I’ve written stories in the car while he drives and the kids nap, in the pantry while they’re all eating, and one of the stories in the collection was typed into my notes app as I sat on the edge of the bathtub with my kids banging on the door and shouting that they wanted to show me something right that very second. Unsurprisingly, a lot of my writing and revising happens in the middle of the night when it’s quiet and I have insomnia anyway. In fairness to my kids, if you give me structured and disciplined time to write without distraction, I will probably spend it complaining about how hard writing is.

TQ: I think a lot of readers will probably relate to that experience. Thank goodness for supportive partners. And it seems like flash is particularly suited for those “frenzied bursts” of writing, which is why I love writing flash, too. There’s something extra exhilarating about sitting down and writing a piece from start to finish in one go. I didn’t learn about flash fiction until college, and I was so intrigued by this seemingly mysterious and lesser-known form of prose. How did you get into writing flash fiction?

AVJ: I don’t think I knew the name for it or that it’s what I was writing until I got on Twitter actually. But I would say that Donald Barthelme is probably the first author I associate with my love for reading and writing some really short stories.

TQ: This collection resonates with me because so much of it conveys feelings of longing and isolation, which especially rings true after such a long period of pandemic isolation. Were you working on any of these stories (or putting them together into a collection) during Covid? Or are the parallels just a coincidence? Obviously people can feel longing and isolation without a pandemic.

AVJ: Some of the stories go all the way back to when I was in grad school for education—so 2008? Before I met my husband. A few are from when we had just gotten married and moved across the country to California, before kids. The majority were written after our children were born but are from before the pandemic. The only one that I wrote during quarantine, meaning it didn’t exist in any form before it, was “Sara’s Someone” and one that I had previously written only a partial draft of a year earlier but then I finally completed the rest of it in quarantine was “Doors.” So the feelings of longing and isolation were perhaps intensified in those two stories due to when they were created or completed. But my being drawn to capturing those emotions in my fiction does predate the pandemic, it seems. I have chronic medical conditions that had me hospitalized several times in the span of only a few years, so there is a loneliness to that experience, even when your loved ones are visiting you or you’re surrounded by doctors and nurses and people drawing your blood throughout the day and night. But like many people, and most writers, that predisposition for being lonely, even when not alone, has been with me for as long as I can remember.

TQ: “Sara’s Someone” was, for me, one of the most memorable pieces in your collection. I loved the concept of an invisible friend realizing their invisibility and reckoning with their existence, and then their need to let go of their human. It’s such a clever play on the common rite of passage that is a human child letting go of their imaginary friend. You choose a really interesting array of characters through whom you tell such original stories: an invisible friend, a siren, an elephant reincarnated into a girl. What draws you towards unexpected narrators? And are there other writers who’ve inspired you to experiment with surrealism and unexpected characters?

AVJ: I’m so glad that story spoke to you. I was definitely a kid with imaginary friends so it was fun to try to take on the perspective of that forgotten attachment rather than the one doing the outgrowing and moving on—that is a story where I did cry writing it, ha, so it’s always lovely and appreciated when someone tells me it moved them, too. As for my other unexpected narrators, like the siren or the girl that was formerly an elephant, I don’t know that I select them with a great deal of forethought or intention. But reading the stories once they’re written, I do find it seems to be a way to maybe help me speak to or try to process the experience of moving through the world as a woman. The fear, pain, rage, joy, and beauty that it encompasses—for some reason my mind seems to prefer tackling that from a surreal or magical place where more is possible if not probable. Though some of my stories you reference were written before I read the following authors, I certainly consider their work an influence on my fiction that exists more in the realm of the strange or unexpected: Sabrina Orah Mark, Ben Loory, Leonora Carrington, Tara Campbell, and Cathy Ulrich to name only a few.

TQ: In addition to an array of narrators, your stories also use a mixture of first and third points of view. How do you decide which is the right POV for a story? Do you experiment with that or do you tend to know going into a story what the right perspective will be?

AVJ: I do not know for sure going in but I tend to begin writing it as the voice speaking in my head, the one that’s telling me the story, whether that’s a first-person narrator or an outside third person perspective or a limited one or directly addressing another unseen character, and I get a firmer sense of it as it’s unfolding on the page. I might play with it a bit in revision, but I will say it is extremely rare that I’d then end up changing the POV from where it began. I’m less likely to do that for a short story, but I do it a lot with my in-progress longer form work like novella or novel drafts that I’ve yet to complete. That’s where all my doubt and experimentation with storytelling perspective goes, more than in my published stories, I’d say.

TQ: That’s really interesting, since I feel like typically writers use more experimentation in short prose and less so in novels. Navigating the shifting dynamics of relationships seems to be an important theme of this collection. Do you feel like you write to figure out relationships? (Or, maybe a better question, do you believe in writing as discovery, processing, or catharsis? None of the above?)

AVJ: I don’t feel I write with the intention to figure out relationships or to achieve any kind of closure or specific catharsis necessarily. I do think that discovery and processing are maybe closer to being involved? When I write about relationships, it’s never about any certain person I’ve known or one single romantic connection or a particular friendship—it’s rather about evoking the various elements and life stages associated with all of the above and they get scattered among different stories and their characters. The ways our memory protects us to a degree from reliving the acute pain of the past by viewing it through a sort of nostalgia lens or filter, the euphoria or obsession of that initial period of getting to know someone and finding how deeply connected you can feel when moments ago you were strangers, the confusion and hurt when it ends—often not with a big dramatic cinematic scene but rather a quiet dissolving you didn’t even notice until it was too late. These things are so common and happen a million times in a life in a million different little ways that are ultimately huge in their scope of determining the person we become as individuals and who we will be, going forward, in our future relationships—with our ghosts forever lingering and coming with us. I write into that space of yearning and wondering, but I don’t know that my writing helps me find the way out or any definitive answers.

TQ: Something I always wonder after reading a particularly excellent story collection is how the author put it together. How did you decide which stories to include and how to order them? How long did that process take? And did you write some (or all) of these stories with this collection in mind? 

AVJ: This is a good question and I wish I had some insightful or helpful advice for writers putting together their own story collections. But I’m not sure that I do. I really didn’t want to feel restricted by genre or the notion that the stories needed to have a sameness to them, thematically or length wise or whatever category might define a cohesive collection. I love the freedom my publisher gave me to have stories under 500 words paired with stories that are 5000 words. I love that there are realist stories about immigrant families and relationship struggles alongside surrealist stories where the bedroom floor is a galaxy and the street outside an ocean or a girl can trade bodies with her sister. In one story, loss is viewed through a true to life lens when a couple faces pregnancy loss whereas in another, a woman is told by HR to stop grieving her friend by bringing her ghost to work with her every day. I’m so grateful Thirty West was open to this sort of diversity of storytelling in a single collection. I’m not sure I’ve answered your question but I do think there are elements shared across the spectrum of stories I’ve included, as different as they all are, particularly the connections you’ve observed.