We’re pleased to have novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Jennine Capó Crucet serving as the judge for our inaugural Georgia Review Prose Prize. Here, associate prose editor Maggie Su interviews Crucet about writing across genre, the contradictions of place, and advice for emerging writers. As a reminder, the deadline to submit to the prose prize is January 15 through Submittable or by regular mail postmarked by the due date. The best short story and essay will both be published in The Georgia Review. This year the overall winner, chosen between the two, will also receive $1,500 and an expenses-paid trip to read with Crucet. The runner-up will receive $600. Submissions include a one-year subscription to The Georgia Review. Current subscribers to The Georgia Review may enter the competition free of charge. All entries will be considered for publication. We invite writers from all backgrounds to submit.
Maggie Su (MS): You’ve published a short-story collection (How to Leave Hialeah), a novel (Make Your Home Among Strangers), and an essay collection (My Time Among the Whites). Can you discuss the process of writing across genre? What differences do you notice as you shift between modes?
Jennine Capó Crucet (JCC): There’s the obvious difference that with nonfiction I have to stick to a literal truth—to the verifiable facts of an event, for instance—and for me, that leads to the process of writing nonfiction feeling more intellectual, or maybe I mean serious? There’s less room to hide, I think. This is probably different for every writer though, and I think my feelings about it have a lot to do with the fact that I wrote two books of fiction before trying my hand at nonfiction—specifically, the personal essay form.
It’s been my experience that writing fiction feels a lot more fun for me, but again, that’s because it’s where I got my start: even as a little kid, the writing I did was fiction—mostly short stories and plays—and so the fiction mode feels inherently playful for me. But with nonfiction, I feel free to just say things, which is something I struggle with in my fiction. I think it goes back to the idea of hiding. I can’t hide in nonfiction, but there’s a power or a force that sometimes comes with that, and I sometimes find that sense harder to manifest in fiction. Again, this is just my experience of writing across genres, and I’m sure there are many, many writers who find the opposite to be true for them.
MS: Whether you’re writing about Miami or Nebraska, Cuba or Disneyland, place seems integral to your work. Beyond your skillful descriptions, these settings often lead to conflict as your characters wrestle with the effect place has on their racial and cultural identity. What interests you in the contradictions of place? How has place impacted you as a writer?
JCC: I once heard Natasha Trethewey say that geography is destiny. It was kind of a chilling thought for me, since I grew up in a city that’s likely going to be underwater in my lifetime, but it also made me think about what happens when you leave a place—or when think you’ve left a place behind. What happens when you find yourself thinking of some other place as home, and for good reasons? There’s a lot of tension built into that kind of movement and migration, and I think that’s why it keeps finding its way into my writing: because I keep moving, keep having to create and recreate a sense of home for myself. And like identity, place isn’t this static thing. There may be some essence or core to it that stays intact, but places—like people, hopefully—are always evolving.
As far as how place has impacted me as a writer, I don’t think I would’ve written my last book—the essay collection—had I never lived in Nebraska. And my fiction is always touching Miami in some way, even when I try to write away from it, because Miami’s landscape and culture were formative to my development as a writer. Being from there—from anywhere—impacts how I view the world, and what I observe is what makes it into my writing in one way or another. I mean, at the most basic level, it’s probably why I use so many em-dashes. My sentences are always trying to interrupt themselves.
MS: I’m curious to hear about what you’ve been reading recently. What writers have felt urgent to you? What writers have brought you comfort?
JCC: When you asked this question, the two books that leapt into my mind were The Trees by Percival Everett and The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan. Both novels feel extremely urgent and yet also timeless, and I couldn’t stop thinking about either for a long while after finishing them. I read somewhere recently that Chan’s novel began as a short story that she brought to a workshop led by Percival Everett. Maybe that fact is why my brain has linked these two books in my mind. I wouldn’t say either of them brought me comfort, though it is comforting to know that there are writers are out there using the full force of their imaginations to make difficult, brave, beautiful art.
MS: What advice do you have for emerging writers? What are some things you wish you would’ve known when you were starting out?
JCC: The things I wished I’d known are still the things I have to tell myself all the time: that writing is not the same as publishing; that art and commerce are separate things and perhaps even antithetical to one another; that trends are fleeting by definition. That how you earn a living is not always the same thing as your calling. That rest is necessary and worth pursuing for its own sake. That your ancestors will handle your vengeance. That it’s okay to take your time. That the pleasure is in the process.