Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Jacob M. Hall’s nonfiction piece, We Knocked Hard
Sommer: I like how you structure this beautiful essay around cars, from the beginning when you are taken in a car to your cousin’s house, to the end when you are driving your mom and dying aunt to visit your cousin in jail. There is a sense that these are people who want to go somewhere, but who never will, and the cars act as a figurative and literal metaphor of this hard reality. Driving around, going nowhere (due to poverty, impoverished childhoods, violence). However, it occurs to me that your writing is taking you somewhere. Is this also how you view your writing, and are there any other writers in your family who inspired or modeled for you?
Jacob: It is how I view my writing, and I don’t think the destination the people in my stories want is always a physical one. I come from a family of people who have struggled to get by for a long time. I’ve been luckier than most because I’ve had the opportunity to move around, to try out different things, and to fail a lot. Not everyone in my family got that opportunity. Now that I’m moving around pursuing graduate degrees, I’m getting a sense of just how rare that is, not just for my family, but for any family struggling with poverty in the Midwest.
While nobody did any writing in my family, I did grow up watching my sister read. She got me hooked on Narnia at a young age, and my obsession with literature took off from there.
This essay seems to be about many things. It is about the love you have for your cousin, but it is also about growing up in poverty and without education. How does one stay out of trouble, and stay motivated, when growing up like that in America (or really anywhere)? And to what extent can one choose one’s future?
Well, I should preface this answer by saying I didn’t stay out of trouble. I was a terrible student in school, and I only went to college after I earned my GED. I spent a lot of time reading books and playing video games, particularly when I wasn’t supposed to be doing either. When I did manage to move on and start having some successes in life, it often was because of the people around me. I think that’s why you hear so much about how important family is, especially in poor communities. You really need a support network to have any chance of moving forward. If you’re lucky enough to have that, I think you will get some opportunities to choose where you try to go in life. You just may not always get there.
Motivation isn’t hard to find. Looking around at all the remnants of vacant houses that burned years ago was enough to make anyone want to escape my community. But I also think coming from that background shapes you in profound ways. Every time I return to Illinois, I’m excited to be back home. Part of that is nostalgia, and the comfort of familiar things. But I also think I’ve learned to look at those ruins with a new appreciation. You don’t get to choose where you live as a kid. There are no illegal children, despite what some argue today. Growing up where I did gives you a lot of perspective. We struggled with money, but we were never stuck in a vacant house. We may not have been able to get out of impoverished areas, but we always had a car with which to try. I would say “things could be worse,” but I always hated hearing that growing up.
To me, this essay is also a love song to the rural American Midwest (where I too grew up). In what ways do you think the Midwest has affected and shaped you as an artist?
Too many ways to count. The Midwest shapes all of my writing. I love using the imagery of my childhood, the smokestacks and grain bins, the dilapidated buildings and railroad crossings. And I know that my voice, my characters, my values are all driven by Midwestern culture, whatever that might be. My attempts to write outside of this region have been unsuccessful so far. Probably they always will be.
What are you working on these days, and what next can we read from you?
Right now I’m working on finishing my MA thesis. I find myself bouncing between fiction and essays a lot, and it’s fiction for me at the moment. My next piece coming out is a short story called “TAT-14.” It’ll be out in Columbia College Literary Review when they release their next issue.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
I’m really competitive, and one of the things that appealed to me right away when I started submitting was this idea of rejection competitions. The more rejections you can accumulate in a year, the better you’re doing. And that’s not just a fun way to look at rejections. It’s 100% true. To be successful, you have to put your work out there. I’m still new to writing, so I’m still learning these lessons. Sometimes you’re going to get form rejections, and it will never feel great. But I also know, from my time working with Passages North, that journals receive so many good submissions that rejections are almost never a reflection of the work’s quality. It’s an unhealthy combination of aesthetic, content, and timing that dictates whether or not you get published. Sometimes you’ll hit all the right marks, and it feels amazing. But if you’re not hearing “no,” it’s because you’re not trying hard enough.
Thank you for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!