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Jessica Brilliant Keener

by Susan Henderson on February 27, 2008

It’s hard to overestimate how much I like Jessica Keener. She’s a generous soul but no Pollyanna – she has grit, fire, and a Lauren Bacall voice to die for. Today she’s going to talk about her experience on both sides of the rejection slip – as a writer who submits her work and as an editor who reads your stories at Agni literary magazine. But it is the unexpected direction this interview took that shows what Jessica is made of, what gives her a depth and a wisdom I truly admire. So make yourself a cup of coffee and settle in. And be prepared to see the sexiest chemo shot ever. I’m just saying.

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My husband of 21 years, Barr takes all the emotional hits that spouses of writers often endure. He’s the king of faith keepers.

I want to talk to you about your work as an editor, but first, let’s hear your story about being on the other side. Go back to the beginning, when you first started submitting your work to literary magazines. How did you decide where and what to submit? Talk to me about anything that struck you then about the cost, the wait, the rules about simultaneous submissions, and of course, your experience with the editors who read your work.

The other side. Isn’t it funny how we think of it this way? I’ll get back to that. But first, the particulars:

I started submitting a long time ago in 1980. Back then, it was a criminal offense to simultaneously submit your work. Editors and magazines reinforced this policy in their submission statements. (Submit simultaneously and you will never write in this town again.) But I had a poet friend who knew better. He sent out simultaneous submissions. I remember thinking, “Gee, he’s taking a risk.” It sure accelerated his acceptance rate, though. And he wasn’t the only one. More writers started doing this. They were the smart subversives. Of course, today, simultaneous submissions are the norm. Thank goodness.

Meanwhile, I kept my turtle-with-a-broken-leg’s pace. I sent out one story at a time. I still have my original record-keeping book for tracking submissions. In 1986 it cost $1.63 per story submission. (90 cents for the outgoing package; 73 cents for the return envelope.)

Record keeping book with Scotch-taped binding.

I sent to commercial places such as The New Yorker, McCall’s, Redbook, The Atlantic. After making those rounds (and getting roundly rejected), I sent to bigger or better-known literary journals such as Agni, Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, Paris Review – rejected by all. That didn’t stop me from trying again and again (stubbornness? megalomania?) especially when editors from both commercial and lit mags scrawled notes such as: “Please try again.” “Close call.” “Difficult decision, made final round.” These encouraging phrases sent me cart wheeling with hope. Amazing how a few words from an editor altered the tenor of my day.

The good news: I started getting short listed and winning ribbons in story contests. The bad news: still no publication.

Six years later, The Chariton Review accepted my first story. What a glorious day! In retrospect, I should have expanded my list of prospects. I mean, I applaud myself (sort of) for going for top publications but it would have been smarter to target less exclusive magazines. I also could have done far better researching magazines to find the right fit for my stories. (It’s easy to do that these days. Go online and read what magazines are publishing.) Moreover, I wish I’d followed my poet friend’s example and submitted simultaneously. Why didn’t I? Fear and insecurity – my worst enemies.

During this time, commercial markets for short stories disappeared. The New Yorker used to publish two stories per issue. Ditto for The Atlantic. Literary magazines are where the action is and always was: new talent, innovative and essential work thrives there. So pick your favorite literary magazine and order a subscription. Do it today! It makes a terrific gift.

Now for the other aspect of submitting: the emotional drama. In the old days, I embraced rejections like dysfunctional lovers. I’d lose days of sanity over form rejection slips. Not anymore. Ninety percent of the time, I’m numb or indifferent to them. Is that good? I don’t know. I’m certainly not free of self-doubt – I’d feel weird without that emotional checkpoint, it’s my own form of government, my supreme court if you will – but years of rejection have toughened me. I just keep going.

How does your experience of being a submitter, or a rejectee, inform your experience as an editor?

Well, when I step into this “other side” of things, I try not to think of myself as being on any side. As a fiction editor at Agni, I approach each story as fair-mindedly as I can. I won’t succeed because I have tastes and opinions. So I try to recognize my subjectivity and accept it. From there, I hope that writers submitting will remember that if and when (and the when is a given) they get rejected they will ask these two questions: 1) was this story right for Agni? And 2) does this story need more work? I’ve turned away stories that I know someone will publish but it wasn’t what we’re looking for at Agni.

Meanwhile, when I’m on this “other side” rejecting stories, I always say a silent “sorry” to the writer and send out a quick prayer hoping they don’t take it harshly or personally. As a submitter, I know it sucks to get a story returned. At the same time, having been at this way too long both as a writer and fiction editor, I recognize that we each have our own rate of success and pathway to that success. If you want to accomplish something, you’ll keep at it.

Agni – and it’s head honcho, Sven – are some of the most respected icons in the world of short literary fiction. Why don’t you give us a sneak peek behind the scenes? You know, what does Sven eat for lunch? Does he chew on his pencils? That kind of thing… and also the more important things.

Sven. Think: tall guy who wears oversized, comfy sweaters. Offer him a cookie and a drink (with alcohol) and he’ll probably like you. I can see him raising an eyebrow as I write this. He also likes 1960s words. “This story has a good vibe,” he’ll say. Or he’ll pronounce the word “busy” like a melodic tune, sustaining the zee sound (bizz-zee) as a way of alluding to his day’s complex chores. Sven is dreamy and obtuse. He’s a wanderer with a purpose, not sure how he got here but glad he did. “I’m dividing my day into these moments,” he’ll say. He often, without meaning to, makes me laugh.

Bill Pierce, Agni’s Senior Editor, is an ideal complement to Sven. Bill is practical, super smart, passionate about Agni writers and the reason why our subscriptions numbers are up.

Here’s what I do with my Agni submissions. Every three weeks or so I go the Agni office at Boston University, about two miles from my house, and meet with Sven in the morning to discuss my pile of stories. When we’re done, he gives me a new pile.

How does Sven handpick my piles?

1) Sven may know the writer.

2) The writer may be someone he’s encouraged or asked to see more work.

3) The query letter might have notable credits.

4) He’s read the first two paragraphs of the story and it looks interesting.

5) Another writer or editor has recommended the writer to Sven.

6) I may know the writer.

7) He randomly picked it because we need to get the growing piles read.

I write a few lines about each story and give the report to Sven when we meet. For a sample of my write-ups, take a look here.

My home. Lit-up window on the top floor is my office.

In my experience as a lit mag editor, you receive many “very good” stories, but the ones that are excellent and original and take your breath away are pretty rare. What kind of story gets extra-noticed at Agni, and what process does that story go through before its author hears the final yay or nay?

If I love a story and want to publish it, I’ll tell Sven. He’ll read it and, if he agrees, he’ll run it by Bill. If Bill approves, the story’s in! I’ve chosen unpublished as well as prize winning writers.

My mission as a fiction editor at Agni is to find brilliance, a distinctive voice, a story that takes me into its world and changes mine at the same time. It’s intelligent but not preachy, has humor or may be quirky, and is many-layered. Striking language is a must. It may be about worldly concerns or highly domestic concerns. I personally don’t like stories that feel as if they have an agenda. Read Agni. Check out Agni online. You’ll get a feel for what we like.

Me without hair – post bone marrow transplant.

Okay, enough about Agni. Tell me your story. What are 5 things I’d never believe about you? Or, if you’d rather answer this: What are 5 things that most explain why you are the person you are?

1) When I was about four years old, I tore out the pages from my Beatrix Potter book, reshuffled them into a neat pile, and pretended that I was the author.

2) I was the captain of my cheerleading squad in 9th grade.

3) In my early twenties, I had a bone marrow transplant and spent two and a half months in a hospital isolation room. I was bald for about six months.

4) I love Hollywood gossip websites.

5) I’m a seeker in search of a home.

How did you know you were sick? I’d like to hear the whole story of you getting the news that you had cancer through the transplant, to now? I’d love to hear the difference between your (emotional) experience at the time to the meaning you give that experience today.

I didn’t know I was sick. It was a slow, insidious process that spanned several years beginning, perhaps, in high school. Results from a yearly physical revealed that I was anemic. This was not that unusual for young menstruating women. My doctor prescribed iron pills. Being a teenager, I didn’t take them regularly and I didn’t follow up to see if they helped. Over the next few years I noticed fatigue, some weakness and dizziness and bruising on my legs, all of which I ignored. I did go to another physician once for chest pains and not feeling right. He examined me, found nothing and said, “You’re pretty and smart. Enjoy your life,” or something like that. He tried to help me put on my coat but I didn’t like his patronizing manner. It angered me. I took my coat and walked out.

A few years later, in college, I got sick with a cold that I couldn’t shake. I finally went to the college clinic and discovered, again, that I was anemic—notably so. The doctor put me on iron pills. This time, I followed up. The pills didn’t help. That was a disturbing sign. The physician sent me back to my family physician. More blood tests followed. More weird looking data showed up. By now I was a junior in college.

Next, my physician sent me to a hematologist, someone who specializes in blood disorders. After another month of more blood tests (and a few nasty, painful bone marrow aspirations where the doctor stuck a needle in my hip bone and pulled out bone marrow), they found the answer. I had Aplastic Anemia, a rare and potentially fatal bone marrow disorder. I had a moderately severe case of it.

So what the f*#k is aplastic anemia? It’s when the bone marrow, which produces all your blood cells, begins to shut down. This accounted for 1) my very low red count, which made me tired 2) low white count, which put me in jeopardy of getting life-threatening infections and 3) low platelets, which stops bleeding and accounted for the excessive bruising on my legs.

My doctor put me on male hormones for several months. Apparently male hormones worked for a woman that was written up in the medical literature. This is why I have a husky voice today and the reason I can’t sing soprano, which I used to do pretty seriously. The hormones didn’t work. I got worse.

No other treatment existed then except for a risky, experimental bone marrow transplant. At the time, my doctor told me the procedure had a 40 percent success rate. If I chose to do nothing at all, I had a 15 percent chance of spontaneous remission and survival.

Meanwhile, all my siblings were tested to see if they matched my bone marrow. Siblings have a one in four chance of matching. I have two older sisters and a younger brother. My youngest brother matched! A miracle.

Jessica and Frank.

But I was terrified and didn’t want to leap into a procedure that could kill me. Yet I’d gotten sick to the point where I couldn’t walk upstairs anymore without getting severely winded. I was hospitalized once for an eye hemorrhage, which is dangerously close to my brain and could have caused a stroke. I needed to make a decision.

At the same time, I wanted to graduate college. I hired tutors to make up work I missed due to fatigue and the fact that I needed to stay away from crowds (to avoid catching viruses). I continued to worsen. I stopped going out. In September, one month before checking into the hospital for my transplant, I picked up my college diploma.

I cannot emphasize the level of terror I lived with for a year before the transplant. I often woke up gasping, afraid I would die when I went to sleep. I went to a hypnosis clinic to calm my fears. I went to a therapist to deal with my obsession with dying. Weeks before I went into the hospital, I visited a local faith healer after I saw him on late night TV. He gave me visualizing and white light exercises.

Then something inexplicable happened. About a week before I went into the hospital, I had a remarkable dream. I saw myself floating in the universe. A white star or something like that, told me I would be alright. When I awoke from that dream, I knew that I would get through. I knew it 100 percent. It’s one of those mystical experiences that sounds stupid and corny when you try to write about it but was tangible, emotionally potent, and utterly real to me – beyond verbal expression.

Here I am twenty-nine years later. My transplant could not have been more successful. My brother saved me. I am cured. An amazing side note to this is that my brother was not a planned pregnancy. In fact, I was supposed to get a dog. But my mother got pregnant and told me I would get a baby instead. Good deal, huh?

Obviously, this experience changed how I think of my life and how I approach it. I never lose sight of my mortality. I wish I could but I can’t. I know that we’re vulnerable and that life is a mystery far beyond our little time here on earth. It’s a spiritual thing that I carry with me at all times. Every second. In that way, the illness was a gift. Life is urgent. It’s not something to waste.

Footnote: I wrote about my illness in my first novel, which I called Body Chemistry (unpublished). “Recovery,” my first published story that I talked about earlier was the seed for this novel. It’s about a girl in a hospital room. “Recovery” also won Redbook’s second prize in fiction and was additionally nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Me and my mom when she came to visit us in Budapest.

Unpublished novels just kill me – all that work and then the decision to let it go…. Tell me about the one you’re shopping around right now.

It’s called: Love, Death & Hunger and I’m polishing it up as we speak. It’s about a thirty-something couple who move from Atlanta to Budapest in the mid-1990s, and whose lives collide with a WW2 American veteran searching for his daughter’s murderer. The story deals with the idea of home and identity, love and forgiveness and doing what you think is right. I lived in Budapest for a year so it’s been fun revisiting it in my mind. Budapest is rife with complex history. During WW2, an estimated 800,000 Jews were deported and gassed within a few months at the end of the war. As part of my research, I spoke to half a dozen Hungarian Jewish survivors from that time. It’s been a humbling experience.

Jessica Keener has an ear for the nuances of family life and manages, in this book, a small miracle –describing, convincingly, a family suffering the rigidity and opaqueness of a small-scale tyrant, yet honoring his authority and treating his painful struggles with kindness. Keener’s heroine, a 14-year old girl impatient to achieve womanliness, is a marvel of curiosity, impulsiveness, and generosity. What a lovely book! ~ C. Michael Curtis

My other novel that I finished last spring is called Others Less Fortunate and is about motherlessness. It’s about an upper middle class family of four children coping with the tragic loss of their mother, an emotionally remote, pill-popping suburban wife. The story takes place in Boston in the 1960s and is seen through the eyes of the oldest teenage daughter, Sarah, a gifted singer who sexualizes her grief. A narcissistic father compounds the difficulty of the loss. Yet the need for love and nurturance overrides and is a powerful force as the family seeks to fill this terrible void. You can read an excerpt here or here. The inspiration for this story originates with a tragedy that occurred when I was in 7th grade. My friend’s mother killed herself. Everyone at school knew about it but no one talked about it, including me. This novel was a way to explore the devastation and haunted feeling I experienced because of my friend.

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Bio:

Jessica Keener is a fiction editor at Agni magazine and co-host of Backstory. Her work has been listed in the Pushcart Prize anthology under ‘100 outstanding writers,’ and published in literary journals as well as online sites including The Huffington Post, iVillage and DearReader.com. A recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist award, in 2001 she co-wrote Time to Make the Donuts with the founder of Dunkin’ Donuts. For her day job, she freelances for The Boston Globe and other national magazines including Oprah and New England Home. She is also a member of Backspace.

{ 79 comments… read them below or add one }

Suzanne February 27, 2008 at 7:02 am

Up early, drinking my coffee and looking for inspiration.–and here you are Jessica. Thank you. This is why I love spending time with you.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 8:09 am

Hey Suzanne, I’ve heard the nicest things about you for almost a year. Finally I get to say, hi!

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Lauren Baratz-Logsted February 27, 2008 at 8:15 am

Amazing interview. I am a huge Jessica Keener fan.

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Nathalie February 27, 2008 at 8:41 am

Very interesting insight. Thank you both for the interview.

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Myfanwy February 27, 2008 at 8:50 am

Great, insightful interview. The story of Jessica’s illness is gripping–I got goosebumps at the mystical dream when she knew she would survive. My mother spoke of a similar experience when she was diagnosed with cancer the first time–except in her dream, Bobby Vinton (does anyone remember him?!) visited her in the night and told her she would be okay and she was. ha!

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Oronte_Churm February 27, 2008 at 9:23 am

Hi, Jessica! So nice to read about your working and personal lives and how they intersect. Thank you for the favor last week–it meant so much! All the best.

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Laura_Benedict February 27, 2008 at 9:39 am

Beautiful writer, beautiful person. I loved reading your story, Jessica. xo

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aimeepalooza February 27, 2008 at 9:46 am

I loved this interview. And I too got goosebumps during the story of the dream. I actually read a study regarding this same thing in small children with life threatening illnesses. It was amazing how many of them knew if they were going to live or die.
I also really enjoyed hearing about being on both sides. Since I am a weekend hobby writer this information will help me both not take things too personally (as much as anyone can) and also keep track…I never thought to keep a record of what and where I’d submitted things.
Now if only I could grow brave enough to actually share my writing and allow it to be picked apart. Sigh.
So sending one to the Atlantic just to see what happens. I’m prepared for the worst. We can all laugh about it here!

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JimT February 27, 2008 at 10:01 am

A wonderful interview as always! Susan. And thank you, Jessica, for the openness of your answers. Brava x 2!

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jessicaK February 27, 2008 at 10:04 am

Susan: thanks so much for posting about me today. I’m getting a laugh out of the fact that my week is rejection week. The writer Ha Jin said something that I didn’t understand until a few years after I interviewed him (see my interview at Agni, click on interviews 2005). He said writers have to “embrace failure”. Embrace failure? Who wants to do that? Obviously, a lot of us—based on the number of comments responding to this week’s question about rejections. Embracing our failures takes the sting out of them. That’s my current theory anyway.

I have a file of rejection slips but I couldn’t find it yesterday. Maybe that’s a good sign.

Myfanwy—I’m glad you understand what I meant by my mystical experience. I’ve been trying for more than 20 years to describe it.

Aimeepalooza-I’ve also heard this about children. Barbara Sourkes wrote a gorgeous book called Armfuls of Time that focuses on children with life-threatening illnesses. As for sending to The Atlantic–go for it but expect a rejection. I interned there. The magazine got 250 submissions a week! Today I think they publish a dozen, maybe 20 stories a year, so the odds themselves are ridiculous.

Jessica Keener

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 27, 2008 at 10:07 am

Oh, Jessica. The photo of you without hair really touches me. I get chills to think that without that experimental treatment, you probably wouldn’t be here today. I wonder how many other aplastic anemia patients have been successfully treated through the years because you took the challenge. There should be a medical treatment hall of fame for people like you.

Thank you for the very specific examples of how Agni works. I hope you know I’ve been one of your biggest fans and will be raising pom-poms on your behalf when that novel’s sold.

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M.J. February 27, 2008 at 10:23 am

Jessica is one of my favorite people in the world and everything in this interview is why – she’s brave and brilliant and warm and a great writers and supportive and her very life is a miracle.

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billie February 27, 2008 at 10:51 am

Wow – stunning interview, photos, and the spiritual/mystical experience brought tears and the memory of one of my own that has the same feeling w/ trying to describe it in words. I wrote it down when it happened but when I read back, the words seem stilted. I remember the experience though, and it was potent and real. You’ve captured that, Jessica, in your description!

Thank you both for a wonderful read on this windy Wednesday!

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Aurelio February 27, 2008 at 10:54 am

Jessica, I admire your persistence in writing and surviving cancer; both take years to accomplish, and each can easily drive one to give up anywhere along the way. Thanks for being a life-sized example to us all.

I’m going to have to reread this interview before I sub my new novel.

Thanks, Susan!

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A.S. King February 27, 2008 at 10:57 am

I LOVE Jessica Keener – the woman, the writing, the EVERYTHING.
She has been an inspiration to me on my own writing road – and a great friend.
This interview is wonderful!
I cannot WAIT to read Love, Death & Hunger.

Thanks for sharing her here, Susan! (And thanks for sharing yourself, Jessica.)

Amy (who really has to get around to uploading a photo soon, because little-miss- question-mark-face is not a fair representation at all.)

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Greg February 27, 2008 at 11:40 am

Great interview, Susan.

And thanks for being so candid, Jessica.

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robinslick February 27, 2008 at 11:42 am

Oh, I am so thrilled by this interview and even more thrilled at all the comments by both Lit Park regulars and newbies and the day is still young! When I met Jess last May, it was an instant “click” thing and I don’t feel that way about many people. I think her work is brilliant and I hope everyone has a chance to read the excerpt from her latest novel – Susan did post the link and if you’re like me, you’re going to want to read the entire manuscript immediately (hint hint)

On a personal note, she has been talking me down from the ledge all week and someday I hope to repay her in a big way.

I also did not know about the whole illness aspect and I have to tell you, my husband was in pretty bad shape twenty years ago and it was touch and go with him and damn it if he didn’t have the same exact dream while in intensive care…he said it wasn’t white light per se…oy, and for a while he was so freaked out he interpreted it as a religious thing which is a whole ‘nother story (hence the “oy”) but in any event, when he woke up he knew he was going to pull through and do everything possible to keep it that way…and he has.

Myf, I remember Bobby Vinton. Oh how I wish I didn’t but I do. I had an older first cousin who made me listen to all the Bobbies when my family visited – Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Darrin (the only one I kind of liked) when all I wanted to do was hear the Beatles. Eww, he even made me listen to Paul Peterson and Ricky Nelson, too, right around when I was discovering Hendrix.

And now I have totally gone off topic but that’s what music does to me.

Jess, brilliant interview…thank you so much, Sue!

(And how gorgeous is Jessica’s house?)

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Kimberly February 27, 2008 at 12:06 pm

I know that we’re vulnerable and that life is a mystery far beyond our little time here on earth. It’s a spiritual thing that I carry with me at all times. Every second. In that way, the illness was a gift. Life is urgent. It’s not something to waste.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck how that socks me in the sternum. Thank you Jessica, for that timely gift. I’ll be adding a subscription shortly…

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jessicaK February 27, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Carolyn –I do feel part of an obscure (very obscure) Aplastic anemia club, as it’s such a rare illness—and not a cancer by the way. At the time of my transplant only a few transplant centers existed. One in Boston. One in Seattle. A few others. But now, as you know, bone marrow transplantation is used for many illnesses. And now we have bone marrow registries. In fact, while researching my newest novel, one of the people I talked to told me she’d been matched (via a bone marrow registry) to donate her marrow to an 11-year-old girl she’s never met. That gave me chills. Bone Marrow registries didn’t exist when I had my transplant.

Robin, Billie – this white light stuff is out there, man. It’s real. I’m not crazy (and neither is your husband, Robin).

Aurelio –thanks—you won’t be disappointed with your subscription. Let me know what you think.

Greg—truth is: my husband taught me not to give up.

Jim T- thanks for your comment.

Jessica

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jessicaK February 27, 2008 at 12:37 pm

Ooops, Kimberly–sorry! I switched your name with Aurelio–thanks for ordering a subscription!

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Sbain February 27, 2008 at 12:45 pm

How lovely. Thank you Jessica. Your words speak to my core. Having had a baby die, I now have this wonderful son, Sawer, about to turn two who wouldn’t be here if Grace was. Yet there is a depth and complexity in wanting both of them at once. This whole thing about living and dying is so complex, and here all of us are in this moment never knowing how long our moment will last.

I love that you got a brother instead of a dog! And so here we are, collecting rejection letters, celebrating large and small acceptances, and just being in the moment! Blessings.

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Jon Clinch February 27, 2008 at 1:33 pm

What a great interview! What a great human being!

That Jessica Keener. There’s even more good stuff to her than I’d thought.

Thanks for this one.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 1:36 pm

Hey, all,

My amazing O.Henry Award-winning webmaster knows the site has been crashing. All will be well soon. Reading all these lovely comments and will comment back tonight after I’ve met my writing goal for the day.

Hope this is okay with Jess to share here, but she told me she bought herself daffodils today to celebrate her interview here. I thought that was the best idea, and then I went out and did the same thing. How long has it been since you’ve bought yourself flowers?

Oh, cool. Looks like the site is back up. Just for future reference, the comments don’t run off the same server, so if the site is down, you can still get here (long as you bookmark it or subscribe to the feed).

Okay, I’ll check back in tonight. In the meantime, I’m passing this along from my pal, John Warner over at McSweeney’s:

Fellow warriors:

The campaign to unseat Glenn Beck from his number 1 political humor perch
has officially begun and it’s progressing well. With a current Amazon
ranking of 286,496, I think we definitely have the element of surprise.

If you’re so inclined, today, please do pre-order my new book: SO YOU WANT
TO BE PRESIDENT? at Amazon.

http://www.amazon.com/So-You-Want-Be-President/dp/1582975191/ref=sr_1_11/102
-9867796-5607338?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1192197855&sr=1-11

I’ll be tracking the march of the rankings ladder at http://www.towbooks.com.

If anyone has the ability or inclination to pass on the word, I’d be more
than grateful.

Best,

John

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jenny gardiner February 27, 2008 at 3:09 pm

great interview, Susan, and Jessica, I had no idea you’d been through so much–and came out of it so much better. What an amazing story and aren’t we all lucky you made it through such trauma!

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Karen Dionne February 27, 2008 at 3:49 pm

Aha! NOW I understand why Jessica’s so giving – besides being such a fabulous writer! What a terrific interview, Jessica. REALLY powerful. Thanks so much for sharing.

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Tish Cohen February 27, 2008 at 4:05 pm

Jessica – I had no idea. That photo of you is just gorgeous. Artistic and poignant, layered with strength, determination and the absolute knowledge that you would be okay. I also love that, in it, you’re surrounded by your white light. You know that’s still inside you, don’t you? You need to pull that out and wrap yourself in it on tough days.

You’re an incredible woman and I feel lucky to call you my friend.

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Tamar Bihari February 27, 2008 at 4:32 pm

What a warm, fascinating interview! Jessica, I knew you’d had aplastic anemia, but not the whole story. And all I have to say is… wow. I got chills reading about the months before you had the treatment. To come face to face with mortality in such a tangible way at that point in your life, it must have had a profound impact. And I can see that it has. You have a kind of openness and a centered approach to life I greatly admire.

The Budapest book sounds powerful. And I already know Others Less Fortunate is lovely. I look forward to seeing your name on the binding of a hardcover (or trade paperback) adorning my bookcase in the near future.

(And I loved your description of the working relationship of the editors at Agni. I always wondered what went on at lit mags. Seems like such a labor of love, in the best sense.)

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 4:34 pm

I agree about all this praise for Jessica. She is awesome. I’ll respond to everyone tonight.

Just wanted to come here and share some fun information about this year’s gala run by Nile Rodgers’ We Are Family Foundation. This year will honor Patti LaBelle, Deepak Chopra, and Henry Juszkiewicz (Chairman & CEO of Gibson Guitars). Don’t have a list of all the concert performers yet, but Patti LaBelle and Slash will be performing with CHIC. How fun is that?

Okay, I’ll see you tonight.

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BrianBrock February 27, 2008 at 5:16 pm

Jessica is an amazingly talented and selfless writer. I met her when Susan did the interview on Pierre Berg. Jessica wanted to do whatever she could to help Pierre and I get his memoir published. Her notes and suggestions on the manuscript were invaluable and her words of encouragement and support still give me strength. Once Pierre’s memoir found a home, Jessica made the time to answer all my naive questions on book contracts and publishing. I’m very fortunate that Jessica popped into my world (thank you, Susan) and that I can say she is a friend. Rock on with your bad self!

P.S. I’m going to be jockeying hard to be one of the first in line to get a signed copy of her novel

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Jordan Rosenfeld February 27, 2008 at 5:55 pm

A magnificent interview. Jessica I love the beauty of how your brother was born “accidentally” and wound up being the savior of your health. I am always in awe of anyone who undergoes tremendous pain/illness and handles it with such grace.

We’re lucky to have such a talent.

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jessicaK February 27, 2008 at 6:04 pm

So much positivity here. We owe it all to Susan. Thank you all for your kind comments: Lauren Logsted Baratz, Amy King, Tamar, Tish, Karen D, Jenny, Jon.

Sbain—thank you for sharing your story about your child. That’s not something you recover from ever, is it?

Brian-you and Pierre wrote a jarring, bracing, important book. I couldn’t help but love it. I appreciate your generous words about my work.

Jessica (Keener)

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Sbain February 27, 2008 at 6:06 pm

Um, that would be Sawyer! :)

And T is in Moscow (Idaho not Russia) so if things are slow or shutting down, he can’t get to it until night time here on the west coast!

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Adrienne Brodeur February 27, 2008 at 8:02 pm

I had the good fortune of spending a few hours walking along a sandy bay beach on Cape Cod with Jessica last summer, where we talked about our books, our children, our hopes for many things … but of course it takes Susan to dig up all the goods. What a smashing interview. Jessica, your grace and candor are inspiring. Susan, I can never get enough of you!

Best, Adrienne

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Adrienne Brodeur February 27, 2008 at 8:06 pm

Last summer, I had the good fortune of taking a long walk on a beautiful bay beach on Cape Cod with the fabulous Ms. Keener. And we spoke of our families, our children, our novels (written and unwritten) and our hopes for all things. But of course, leave it to Susan to really dig up the goods! What a fabulous interview. Jessica, your grace and candor are inspiring, as ever. And Susan, it is impossible to get enough of you.

Warmly, Adrienne

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Michael Palmer February 27, 2008 at 8:59 pm

What wonderful prose Jessica Keener gives us. Intense and important and at times quite clinical, yet as warm and encompassing as a childhood blanket. Ms. Keener has been to wall deepest feeling, and has used her words to make her way through. As a physician, I was totally moved by her medical insights. As a recovering alcoholic, I felt immersed in her empathy and self-knowledge. I, too remember the moment in my life when I suddenly realized that no matter how painful my situation felt at the moment, I was going to be okay. Thank you, Jessica Keener. I look forward to reading your novels.

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Jennifer Jefferson February 27, 2008 at 9:28 pm

Warmth and openness emanate from this interview. I love the photos–the record book and acceptance letter are priceless. And how ’bout the cute brother and husband? It was fascinating to read the Agni editorial process and just heart-breaking to read about the aplastic anemia crisis–what a terrifying experience for a young woman.

I can’t wait to read Love, Death & Hunger. Great title, fascinating subject. And Jessica, this is a beautiful phrase — “I am a seeker in search of a home.”

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Noria February 27, 2008 at 9:28 pm

I love how the light from the window in the post-transplant photo seems to be emanating from you. Brilliant.

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jessicaK February 27, 2008 at 9:37 pm

Noria, I never saw it that way before. Are you a photographer? My father took that picture. He’s quite visual in his thinking–a painter all his life.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 9:55 pm

I’m getting the idea she has a lot of fans. And here I thought I was introducing everyone to this hidden gem!

Nice to see you, Lauren!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 9:56 pm

Thank you, always, for being here, Nathalie.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 9:58 pm

Hi Myf!

I had a mystical moment once, too, but was laughing as I started to type the story because there was this kind of Crucible/me-too-ness to it. Beautiful stories, though.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:00 pm

Hi, you!

(The favor he’s referring to is I had to switch Jessica’s week in order to coordinate with McSweeney’s.)

Sweet of you to remember and to thank Jess for that!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:02 pm

Speaking of beautiful writer, beautiful person, I have what you sent me on my desk, and it makes me happy to go to work each day. xo

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:06 pm

The Atlantic is a lovely (if traditional) lit magazine, but look over here at how many there are:

http://www.newpages.com/

Find the ones you love to read, the ones that seem like they have a similar quality to your voice and style. That way, the day you’re feeling brave, you’ll already know where you want to send it.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:07 pm

It is always good to see you here, Jim. Hope you’re writing me a new book to read.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:08 pm

You are going to get a sale. Watch!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:10 pm

Isn’t it an amazing photograph? There’s more to it every time you look.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:12 pm

So glad to have you here, M.J.

And if you guy’s don’t already read M.J.’s blog, check it out here:

http://mjroseblog.typepad.com/buzz_balls_hype/

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:13 pm

It was paper recycling day today and the wind was carrying it everywhere!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:14 pm

It’s compassionate but no-nonsense advice, isn’t it?

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:15 pm

I vote for a photo in overalls!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:15 pm

Thanks for being here, Greg.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:19 pm

If you ever need a buddy to sit on the ledge with you…

xo

(Have you all seen Robin’s latest big news? http://inherownwrite.blogspot.com/2008/02/odds-and-sods-for-wednesday-february-27.html )

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:20 pm

Yeah, me, too.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:22 pm

I think he fixed it with telepathy!

Your new blog is beautiful, Sarah. I hope everyone’s checking it out.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:23 pm

Hey, Jon, great to see you here!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:24 pm

Welcome, Jenny!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:26 pm

My favorite part of the interview is the Beatrix Potter part! Because I already knew she was wise and compassionate and giving. I admire the spunk!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:28 pm

I love the show of white light, too!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:29 pm

Nice to have you here, Tamar!

I loved her description of Sven – cracked me up. And I’m also looking forward to reading both of these books between proper hardcovers!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:33 pm

Glad you’re here, Brian!

Jessica is quick on her feet and rolls up her sleeves and makes good things happen. I can’t wait to see the good come right back to her.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:34 pm

Heya, Ms. Jordan! Isn’t that the loveliest thing about the accidental brother!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:35 pm

Adrienne, I’ve missed you!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:35 pm

Michael, what a lovely note. Every bit of it.

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:36 pm

All right! And I thought I was the only one noticing the cute men!

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SusanHenderson February 27, 2008 at 10:37 pm

I loved that photo when I first saw it, but now I love it even more.

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Patry francis February 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Wow. There’s so much here. First, I want you to know I was dutifully enclosing my SASE and a pumped up cover letter , then mailing my stories off to the same magazines you were in the eighties. Back then I could live for days without food and water on a single, hastily scrawled word from an editor. Even “thanks!” could do it. The process always seemed so mysterious; I love hearing what it’s like from the other side.

I also had no idea of what you’d been through in your twenties. The times you told me that you hoped I was floating in a river of white light now over my couch have a new meaning.You’ve been on that couch. You’ve seen that river yourself.

Like so many others, I’ve loved your writing from the first excerpt I read. It’s honest and natural, but the grace of the white river is there. How could I have missed that?

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 28, 2008 at 12:27 am

I registered with the bone marrow database many years ago on behalf of a friend, but years later was called up because my marrow was a first point match. Before asking me to come in for futher testing, they asked me if I was willing to give my marrow to a stranger. All I could think about was Rod Carew’s little girl who died from leukemia because a match couldn’t be found. I had a daughter the same age. “Of course,” I said to the question. It turned out that my marrow wasn’t close enough of a match for that stranger. I hope he/she made it. I am so glad you did.

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jessicaK February 28, 2008 at 6:28 am

Ah, Patry, you make me cry. Thanks for what you said. From my white river to yours. Keep on it.

Oronte–I couldn’t think what I’d done to deserve your thanks. Susan H. explained it. Now I get it. You’re welcome!

Jennifer–I admire your quiet fortitude. Thanks for your comment about my title–Love, Death & Hunger and all else. It’s true. Handsome men surround me, my 14-year-old included.

Michael–you’re a dreamboat. I just learned your new novel, The First Patient, is #10 on the NY Times list! Fabulous!!

Adrienne- you are grace and intelligence combined. Let’s walk the beach again next summer. It did my soul good.

Oh, and here’s some news about Agni. After 35 years we will be changing to electronic submissions. We haven’t started yet but it’s coming. I’m already having paper withdrawal symptoms.

Jessica (Keener)

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Katrina Denza February 28, 2008 at 8:41 am

What a fascinating interview and Jessica is an amazing, brave person. I’m looking forward to reading her novel.

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Cliff Garstang February 28, 2008 at 9:07 am

Great interview. Besides getting to know about Jessica, it was great to get the behind-the-scenes look at AGNI, one of the best magazines around. Thanks.

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jessicaK February 28, 2008 at 9:55 am

Katrina–Thank you! I’m looking forward to you reading it, too! I see that you’re the editor of Storyglossia Issue 27, so you know the “other side” as well, don’t you?

Cliff G–How wonderful that you love Agni. That’s great to hear. Congratulations to you for all your published work. And thanks for posting about Agni on your blog.

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Tasha Alexander February 28, 2008 at 12:20 pm

Jessica, what a great interview! Amazing, inspiring story (I love your Herald Square Record Book). I’m reminded every time I read a piece of yours what a wonderful writer you are. Can’t wait to read more…..

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SusanHenderson February 28, 2008 at 2:31 pm

Thought I could sneak in here real quick but I have to go meet the school bus. I’ll pop in tonight.

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Heather_Fowler February 28, 2008 at 10:26 pm

Again, another lovely interview with an inspiring guest. 😉 All best wishes, H

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djtuffpuppy February 29, 2008 at 1:14 am

That was interesting.

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A.S. King February 29, 2008 at 1:11 pm

I have one of those somewhere…

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Mary Akers March 4, 2008 at 9:36 pm

Wow, what an amazing interview!

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jessicaK March 5, 2008 at 10:14 am

Hi, Mary.
Thanks very much!
Your book (Radical Gratitude) sounds fascinating.

Tasha—appreciate your comments. Congrats on how well Queen Elizabeth did with an Oscar nomination.

Heather, Djpuppy—Thanks!

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