In October’s fiction web exclusive, “Choose Your Own ,” author Jeanne Jones explores a familiarly adult dilemma in a familiar childhood format. She takes you (well, you take yourself) on a labyrinthine journey that’s designed to reflect just how existential this whole finding-love thing can be. We talked with Jeanne about interaction; what Julie Otsuka, George Saunders, and Kanye West have in common; and how liquid intake is a sign you’re doing a-okay.
EM: First of all, I love the interactive format of “Choose Your Own.” What led you to choose this form to tell this story?
JJ: I had been wanting to write a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story for some time because I love the thought of being able to go back in fiction and change your decisions, something I wish we could do in life. My original idea was to write about a death caused by an error committed by the protagonist (which would be “you” in this kind of story). It seemed like an interesting structure for a story about deep regret, but it just wouldn’t work. I think it was too serious a subject to handle like that. I scrapped that horrible story and started writing based on a dream that I had (of that house on the highway) and it just took off from there.
EM: In terms of form in fiction, what have been some of your favorite examples, of all time or recently?
JJ: I love stories with unusual structure, like the journal set-up of George Saunders’s “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” where the narrator is commenting in that shorthand way of self-talk on whether his life is acceptable. I remember the first time I read it. It was a revelation to me that you can write something that strange and have it be so effective in terms of narrative. I also love the structure of Julie Otsuka’s “Diem Perdidi” where we get this list of things the mother remembers and doesn’t remember, and we are lulled into the hypnotic reciting before we realize we are dealing with some heavy issues. And I will always love Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings,” the great metafiction about life choices vs. story endings.
EM: Although some might claim this paints a very bleak picture of dating and romance, I feel that it’s actually a very romantic story. It’s the process of coming to know yourself and care for yourself, which is, they say “the greatest love of all.” Do you consider this story romantic?
JJ: I don’t, actually, at all. I thought it was more about how in life we are all out here on our own, stranded, trying desperately to make these connections with people and basically failing. The best relationship you can have in the story is the unintentional one with the Uber driver, and that’s mostly because she’s willing to talk about poetry.
EM: For what it’s worth, I think your ending may project more hope in that area than you know. Drinking water is one of the most basic things we can do that says we haven’t given up on ourselves. That and eating soup. Maybe in my “Choose Your Own Adventure” story, each section would end with: Stop making choices and eat some soup. Now, start over.
JJ: Soup! That is a great idea because that would give me an excuse to stick “Detail of the Hayfield” in there, which is a great Richard Silken poem that would work so well for this story. That would be fun to keep changing this, adding more poems and things to the sections based on suggestions from different “you’s” that read it, sort of the way Kanye West keeps changing his The Life of Pablo Album album. Sigh. Just another reason to wish I were more like Kanye, I guess.
EM: Am I right in reading a little bit of piano-positive passive-aggression in the prompts to take a class? Did you take piano?
JJ: I always wanted to play an instrument but never did, so I signed my daughter up for it as soon as she was old enough. Unfortunately she hated it and never returned, so it’s like an unrequited love for me. But I really wanted to get the reader into that piano basement to meet Skyler. I think he’s the greatest disaster of the story, mostly because he seems irresistible.
EM: The way that section goes, compressing a very complex relationship and chapter of a life into a breezy synopsis, was completely in step with the tone of classic “Choose Your Own Adventure” books (one of the most poignant sentences in the story is “Do you stay in your marriage? Go to Section J.” — which is the section you just read). How was it putting a character through the wringer when they’re the 2nd person “you,” and therefore someone who half really exists and half is your imagination?
JJ: I mostly considered the “you” to be a reflexive you, so I wrote it with the thought that I was putting “myself” through the wringer, who is someone who pretty much completely exists, and I didn’t feel bad about doing it to at all. I know there are parts of the story where the narrator is a little mean, but I just felt like I was writing a letter to myself — the part of me who insists on making bad choices.
EM: It seems pretty daunting to jump around in time like this, considering that, say, Section A will have to be relevant as both a starting point and as a possible next scene after the much-later Section K. Which, when I read it, was also kind of the punchline to a joke (Well great, we’re back to square one). How did you keep it all straight, and did you have to go back and tinker a lot with other sections as the story progressed?
JJ: I started the story with Section A and wrote straight through as best I could. I wrote most of the alternating sections one right after the other. The only one I had to go back and insert after the rest of the story was over was Section B. I was lucky to have a writing group that I work with who read it over and pointed out any inconsistencies I didn’t catch because I was too familiar with the sections.
EM: What are you working on right now?
JJ: The other day I was trying to register some online thing, and the list of security questions they gave me to answer was so weird. It wasn’t the standard “What’s your mom’s maiden name,” it was more like, “Yeah, remember back to the first real vacation you took with your family — the one where your dad got drunk and embarrassed the family — what beach was that?” All of the questions were like that: Take a look at your entire life and choose one episode that defines it. These questions threw me into an existential crisis. So I took a screenshot of them and started a story. I hope it works.
Jeanne Jones is a graduate of the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. A writing teacher in the Washington metropolitan area, her work has appeared in the EEEL, Barrelhouse Online, and Abundant Grace: Fiction by D.C. Area Women, among other publications. She was a finalist in NPR’s three-minute fiction contest judged by Ann Patchett. She lives in Hyattsville, Maryland with her husband and two children.