- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
Jen Conley is one of the hardest working writers in crime fiction. An editor on the famed (or is that infamous) webzine Shotgun Honey, she had been knocking out some of the best short work out there, and has the admiration of both readers and her peers alike. Her work follows working class folks on both (and in-between both) sides of the law, examining morality when lives veer far from plans. This is encapsulated in her widowed patrol officer Andrea Vogel, who she has used in several stories. Last year a collection of her work, Cannibals, was released by Down & Out Books. We caught up with Jen to discuss the art of the short story, character, and her stomping ground.
MysteryPeople Scott: While you have many great twists in your work and the internal logic of your stories is perfect, character is the over riding element that drives them. Do you think the people you write about share something in common?
Jen Conley: Probably survival. All my characters are strapped by finances, whether I point that out or not, and getting through life is difficult for them. The lack of money straps people of choices and when you throw a crime in there, a moment where something might get screwed up, there’s a chance there’s no coming back from that.
MPS: Is there a story in the collection that is particularly close to your heart?
JC: I would say “Debbie the Hero.”
When I first started writing short stories, I was drawn towards male characters. But as I kept writing, I moved closer to female characters and female topics. I wouldn’t say Debbie is a tough character but she’s a woman caught in the changes of society. She came of age in the 1970s, when women were fighting for equality and the right to choose, but at the same time, there was that old school view that women were supposed to yield to their men. After all, when they were first married, Debbie’s husband bought their house without consulting her. This, to me, is completely foreign for my generation but I think it wasn’t foreign at all for many women of the baby boomer generation, even the younger baby boomers, which is what Debbie is. And now she is faced with a choice of whether to help her granddaughter, an eighth grader, get an abortion or not. Debbie’s daughter, Lauren, is suddenly against abortion and this not only surprises Debbie, but confuses her. It’s as if Debbie is confused that her own daughter has sort of acquiesced to the new boyfriend, someone who has probably bought into this new right wing view of a woman’s place in the world. I think Debbie is a woman caught in the confusion of women’s roles and she has to decide to whether she’s in her right to overstep Lauren to save her granddaughter or to let Lauren, whom she thinks isn’t a good mother, make the decision. The other underlining thread is that Debbie realizes her own daughter is actually a terrible parent and I think that in itself is a heartbreaking realization. So it’s not really a crime story in the traditional sense but more a crime story in the ethical and moral sense. And because as a writer I’m completely driven by the question, “What is the moral answer?” I think this story sums up how I feel about not only my characters but my own life, and that makes it close to my heart.
MPS: Officer Andrea Vogel is the lead is several of these stories. What makes her a character worth coming back to?
JC: I actually just roughly outlined a novel about her. It took me a long time to come up with an arc but finally I figured it out and I think I never gave up because I like her so much. I think I keep going back to her because she is stoic and tough, someone who has a lot of compassion but also extremely lidded with her emotions. I’ve always been fascinated with stoic people, people who don’t reveal too much of themselves and I guess I find her almost mysterious.
MPS: As well as a writer you edit for the online crime zine Shotgun Honey. How do both of those sides influence you?
JC: I think reading other people’s stories is always a great way to improve on your writing. Good writing rises to the top and I think because I read so many stories, I’ve come to understand the difference between a great story, a good story, an adequate story, and a bad story. The other thing is that when I see a story with real potential, I can usually figure out quickly what can be done to tweak it to make it better. It’s almost like I’m training myself for what works and what doesn’t.
MPS: You work is often set in your home state of New Jersey. What do you want your readers to know about it?
JC: It’s difficult to write about New Jersey because you are fighting some pretty old stereotypes about the state. We’re rude, we’re loud, we all have mob connections, we all live near a toxic waste dump…Actually, that last part isn’t far off. I write about where I grew up and still live, Ocean County. It’s pretty blue collar and middle class, but also almost rural and backwoods. It’s such an odd mix of second and third generation of former New Yorkers and people from North Jersey but also old timers, Pineys as they are known. New Jersey has become so expensive to live in that Ocean County feels like the last of the blue collar worlds that used to surround Manhattan. I don’t agree at all with the popular right wing political views of this area—I get very frustrated and I’ve gotten into my share of arguments with former classmates online—but I do feel there is a grittiness and authenticity that is fading away in many parts of the state as it gets more and more gentrified.
However, in my opinion, I think “Jersey Shore” definitely hit the nail on the head. Seaside has always been like that in some form or another.
MPS: What do you think the key to a good short crime story is?
JC: Character. As a reader, I can’t go forward with a story if I don’t have a connection to the main character. I’m not one who likes too many twists and turns in a story. I like things to stay in reality. I think a good crime story bases itself in the lack of choices the main character is presented with. Where they have to make—and here I return to my go-to—the moral decision. I like to sink into someone’s world, into their mind, and then I like to see their views tested. I like character flaws but I don’t always like the usual. I like when a character is almost broken and when they are either trying to solve a crime or they are committing one, I want to see their soul. I guess even in a crime story I want to be moved somehow. I want to care.
You can find copies of Jen Conley’s Cannibals on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.