Originally published in Connotations Press
Jill Moyer Sunday teaches writing at Waynesburg University, in addition to directing the Writing Center. Her apprenticeship to creative nonfiction began at the age of 11 when she discovered her father’s copy of Capote’s In Cold Blood on a pile of true crime magazines. Beginning her career as a magazine journalist in the ‘70s, she was schooled in the New Journalism, which naturally led her to creative nonfiction. Currently, when she’s not writing or teaching, you’ll find JMS in her office talking writing or at home with her family, who more often than not end up reading about themselves in her writing.
Jill Moyer Sunday interview, with Jordan Merenick
So tell a little bit about yourself professor. Did you always want to be an author?
When I look back, I realize that I must have always wanted to be a writer, but the moment I became aware of it was in a freshman English class. My professor pulled me aside and asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you can write?” Her statement changed my life. At that point, I was a nursing major. Now, when I ask talented young writers the same question, I’m honoring Sister Terry Coyne. I would have made a terrible nurse.
What was the first story you wrote?
My first story was actually a novella, I believe—although my memory might be adding pages to the actual script. I wrote it when I was very young about my cat, Patches, who loved to eat spaghetti. I wanted to send it to a publisher, and my mother humored me, but my dad asked, “Who would publish a story about a spaghetti-eating cat?”
How did you start writing nonfiction?
After finishing graduate school, I fell into a position at Pittsburgher Magazine. A friend who worked there called me about a paid internship, and I applied. The next day one of the staff writers quit. The editor, a burly, old-school news type of guy, called me into his office. “You can write, can’t you?” he barked at me. That day I became a staff writer. This was at the end of the ‘70s, and I was taking on a genre greatly influenced by the New Journalism. It was a magical time to enter the field, and I began to write creative nonfiction. Soon it was my genre.
Do you remember your first nonfiction piece?
I do. I wrote an article about the forgotten veterans of the Vietnam War, titled “Whatever Happened to G.I. Joe.” I interviewed so many veterans who had been rejected by American society, and, more importantly perhaps, by the American government. At that time, the government was denying the harmful effects of Agent Orange, refusing to pay healthcare charges related to illnesses caused by exposure to this defoliant. I was young, and the veterans’ stories were complicated and tragic. That project helped to form my style, my awareness, and my life-long interest in the underdog. This first piece won a Golden Quill.
Who influenced you in the nonfiction genre?
Truman Capote. Of course, there are so many others, and as I continue to read creative nonfiction, I am still influenced. Creative nonfiction is such an explosive genre in that there is much to learn. But Truman Capote set the bar high for me. I first found In Cold Blood on a stack of true crime magazines my father kept in the bathroom. I was about 11, and I read it without understanding so much. The power of his work held me, though, and over the years I’ve reread, studied, researched, and taught this piece. For all who choose to write creative nonfiction, it is the touchstone of the genre.
Who do you compare your writing style to it?
Oh dear. I dare not compare my work to those I admire. I do read Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, and Joan Didion for inspiration. Scott Russell Sanders, and Bernard Cooper, too. David Sedaris, Dave Eggers, Mary Clearman Blew. The list is long. I want to capture the extraordinary that lives daily in the ordinary. I hope to stick my finger in the reader’s sore spot, causing her to say, “Why, yes. That’s exactly what x, y, or z feels like.”
How do you normally compose your works? Is it spur of the moment? Or do you sit down and plan out what you are going to say in an outline format?
My writing isn’t spur of the moment. I do a lot of prewriting while I’m driving, in the shower, cooking dinner. Sometimes a line or an image snags in my brain, and I start there. I don’t really make an outline or draw bubbles of ideas the way composition handbooks instruct us to. I guess I just think, and the ideas grow. Once I sit down to write, I have to write, to get the ideas out, so I can think again, breathe again, live my non-writerly life for a while. Some of my children write, but the majority of my family doesn’t understand the invisible cloak I pull over my head when I write, so I write while the television plays in the background, and I’ve gotten really good at answering questions through my filter. When I think of myself writing, though, I see myself at a rough-hewn table in a storm-battered, cedar-shingled cottage by the sea, and I am alone.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I was really struggling with another piece I thought I would write for Connotation Press, and I was talking it through with another writer, a former student of mine, Sarah Hulyk (whose work appears in this issue), and in the middle of our conversation, I started talking about my youngest daughter’s worry about a prediction of an earthquake in San Francisco, where she lives. Sarah said, “Well, why don’t you write about that.” And so I did.
I understand from previous conversations with you that this piece went through several different versions?
Well, it wasn’t actually “The Earthquake Kit” that went through the versions; it was the piece I’ve been struggling with called “Finding Truman.” This is a piece about my discovery of my father’s copy of Capote’s nonfiction novel, but, as I tell my students, “the piece will show you what it wants to be about.” “Finding Truman” wants to be about my father and his alcoholism, but I’m not prepared to write it yet. In a piece I wrote about the writing of the piece (funny, huh?). I liken it to the black snake that often takes up residence in our garage, flipping away from me as I try to catch it.
After reading this work, an obvious love of family comes through. Do you always write about your family? And how do they feel about this? Are they like, “No mom not again”?
I do tend to write about my family, a lot, though not just about my children. When you write creative nonfiction, you tend to see symbols and stories in every fold of family life, and, as a mother, wife, and daughter, I use what I know and see. My children are very supportive, and I’ll often get a text or email telling me they love what I’ve written. I think it helps that in writing about my family, I’m really writing more about myself and hopefully uncovering some universal human truths, so that while I am writing about Matthew, Andrew, Laura, and Rachel, I’m really writing about something much more. I think the “no mom” sounds more in my head than theirs, and I choose my material carefully. There are some things I will not write about because I understand the hurt it could cause. It’s a balance, you know?
Now you’re also a professor of nonfiction here at the University. Do you find the same amount of joy teaching nonfiction as composing it?
Yes. I love what I do. When I am in the classroom, I feel like I’m a goldfish that’s been out of the bowl for a bit, and then I’m dropped back into my element, and I can breathe again. I was that girl who bought all of her school supplies before everyone else, and I still love the smell of paper. It’s just all about words, though. I love to write them. I love to read them. I love to bat them around with students.
How do you go about teaching nonfiction to creative writing students, and how does your experience as an author help with your teaching of this genre to your students?
I guess we go about it the same way writers have been going about it since the beginning. We read, a lot, and we write, a lot. In between, we talk about it all. The process is an immersion technique. We drop ourselves into a vat of creative nonfiction, and then we analyze how the great ones have done it, and we apprentice ourselves to them. You’d have to ask my students, how, if my being a writer, helps them to learn this genre, but I look at us as a group of writers sharing ideas, successes, failures. They like to hear my stories, I think.
Are your students open to the nonfiction genre?
Many students come to me as poets or fiction writers, totally committed to their chosen genre. After some time of total confusion, they do embrace the genre, especially, with its limitless boundaries, as Mary Clearman Blew tells us, “as fluid as water.”
What are some of the emerging trends that you see in nonfiction?
One of the most exciting aspects of the genre is its malleability and continuous growth. Right now we are examining food memoir, graphic essays, and lyric essays. Who knows what will come next? In a work-shopping session this week, one of my students advised the author “just take a risk.” Risk-taking, hanging from the cliff by a finger—that’s what drives the trends in the genre.
Lastly, do you have any more nonfiction projects in the works?
I do. I’ve written short pieces all of my life, but now I’m surprised to find myself with three longer projects in development. One is a memoir/literary nonfiction novel called An American Failure, the story of my (along with my husband) attempts to live the American Dream, a dream for which all of the acquisition rules changed somewhere along our journey. The second is called Three-Fifths of a Life and is a collection of segmented essays about the women in my life—my mother, my daughters, my sister, and, of course, me. The last, untitled as of yet, is a food memoir. I’m including family recipes, along with the stories of the people who cook/cooked them. Some are dark; some are funny. Of course, I’m always blogging, and readers can catch up with me here.