jane_ciabattari_knoxJane Ciabattari is the author of the critically acclaimed short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Her short stories have been published in KBG Bar Lit, LOST magazine, Chautauqua magazine, Literary Mama, VerbSap, Ms. Magazine (nominated for O.Henry and Pushcart awards), The North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Hampton Shorts (which honored her with an Editors’ Choice STUBBY Award), The East Hampton Star, Blueline, Caprice and Redbook, which nominated her for a National Magazine Award. Her story “Payback Time” was a Pushcart Prize “special mention.” Her story “How I Left Onandaga County,” appears in the anthology The Best Underground Fiction (November 2006, Stolen Time Press) and also was a Pushcart Prize special mention, as was her story “MamaGodot,” which appeared online in Verbsap and in the summer issue of Chautauqua magazine. She has been awarded grants for fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among others. She has taught at Knox College, Columbia, New York University, and in summer writing workshops at Taos, Squaw Valley, Chautauqua, among others. She serves as president of the National Book Critics Circle and is a regular reviewer for, The Daily Beast and dozens of other publications.

You can read her story “Wintering at Montauk” on Fictionaut.

How have you used your background as a journalist in writing fiction?

As a journalist, I’ve interviewed a hundreds of people, including Sherman Alexie, Isabel Allende, Halle Berry, Jimmy Carter, John Cusack, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Sly Stallone, Archibishop Desmond Tutu, Renee Zellweger… Just being around so many public people has broadened my sense of the mannerisms and behaviors I could give my characters in fiction. I also traveled widely as a journalist, and have used Shanghai, Mexico, El Salvador, Montreal, and other places as settings for fiction. I hope to pull together a story set in Havana. And the skills you develop–researching, digging into material, asking questions–are as useful in fiction as in journalism.

Sometimes I’ve developed stories based on experiences I’ve had as a journalist.

I was in Los Angeles to cover the Golden Globes awards when the Northridge Earthquake hit around 4 am. It was a 6.7 quake with the greatest ground acceleration of any quake in North America and lots of aftershocks. LA went black. Freeways and buildings and bridges collapsed. Fire broke out. Thousands were injured. The hotel evacuated us into the parking lot of the Viper Room next door. Later I wrote a short story about a boy, a girl, and a dog who meet during an earthquake in LA. It’s called “Aftershocks.” It’s one of the stories in my second collection-in-progress (published at KGB Bar Lit.)  Another story in the collection I’m working on draws upon research I did on meth addiction. “Arabella Leaves” was published in Ms. and nominated for O. Henry and “best of” anthologies.

Which came first, journalism or fiction?

Fiction. I was a creative writing major at Stanford, but I assumed I could never make a living writing fiction. I worked as a Sunday magazine magazine editor in San Francisco and at night I went to graduate school in creative writing at San Francisco State. After my husband and son and I moved to New York I worked first as an editor and then as a weekly columnist, covering international affairs, Washington politics and the movies.

Have you learned anything as a book critic that has helped in writing fiction?

More than I can say. I once heard Colm Tóibín say that “writers are part magpie, part vulture.” That’s it. As writers we gather what we need while we work from what is around us. That means all the books I’ve read to review have had the potential to teach me.

  • Some of the lessons I’ve learned reviewing books:
  • Great writers can write bad books.
  • First-time authors can fail in a variety of ways, and succeed in as many ways.
  • Rare indeed are the writers who bring something fresh to literature.

And I have learned specific craft lessons–about point of view, about structure– through analyzing the work of our best writers. I tell my students with craft questions to look at their favorite authors for examples of how to do it right.

Do you shift back and forth, or focus on one thing at a time?

I’m a creature of deadlines. I’m usually working on a batch of things at once. Right now I’m revising a novel, finishing a second collection of short stories, meeting deadlines for, The Daily Beast, Oprah, the Los Angeles Times, the list goes on and on. I like what I do and I work six days a week at least and mostly find it great fun.

What are your favorite websites?

I love Electric Literature, their cool videos, the range of work they publish. Fictionaut is a gem. I read Stephen Elliott of The Daily Rumpus daily. The Collagist is doing interesting things. Granta of course. Guernica. PEN. Narrative Magazine. Larry Dark’s blog connected with the Story Prize. The Nervous Breakdown. I miss Maud (her blog has been quiet of late.) I think NPR and The Daily Beast are doing good book coverage online, and not just because I write for them. The Guardian, my hometown paper the NY Times, the Los Angeles Times (Carolyn Kellogg is particularly sharp), The Millions, The Quarterly Conversation, Open Letters, the list goes on and on. I bookmark things like the live web cam at Maverick’s to remind me there is an ocean out there, and mountains, and a natural world….

What inspires you as a fiction writer when you are feeling less than creative?

Music. Usually music I connect with a character I’m writing about. Or fragrance. Seriously. Lemon grass. Coppertone. Roasting chicken. Espresso. Anything with a strong fragrance can get me into a place I’m writing about. Or travel. I get a lot of story ideas on the road. I started “How I Left Onandaga County,” my short story about a lap dancer turned facialist, while driving through Onandaga County on the way back from teaching at Chautauqua. (This story is on Fictionaut, FYI) It’s a monologue really…Ms. published it, and it was reprinted in an anthology called The Best Underground Fiction and was a Pushcart special mention.

Do you have any unblocking tricks?

Find an object–a key, a pair of scissors, a sprig of basil, a purple and green dragon, a log of goat cheese, a cellphone, a rubber band–and write several paragraphs about it. This is an exercise I use when I teach. I do the exercise along with the class, and slide the passage right into the work I’m doing myself.

What is your favorite thing about social media (FB, Twitter, etc.)

It’s fast. With Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, I can get the word out and keep up with hundreds of writers, publications, organizations. I can read stories and novel excerpts online everyday. My social media focus is on reading, literature, writing, and the work of the organizations I’m involved with, like the National Book Critics Circle and the Overseas Press Club. The consolidation makes it possible to make a few keystrokes count. Viral, as they say.

What worries you about it?

It’s a rabbit hole. Down you go, and it can be hours before you come out. I interviewed Yiyun Li about her new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl for The Daily Beast. She mentioned that she had gone on an Internet cutback over the past year, trying to spend less than an hour a day online, which gave her more time to read, to write, to think, reflect…

I think Yi has a good idea. I’m trying to be judicious about my time online. It’s not easy. My cable modem was fried a few weeks back, and I didn’t get it fixed for several days. I went to internet cafes for an hour or so each day to check email, and spent the rest of the time walking in the sun, and sitting in rooftop cafes taking notes on the novel I’m finishing and reading galleys for books I was reviewing. It felt great. Lesson?

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. She blogs at

Leave a Comment