Q+A With Jennifer Popa

Jennifer Popa is a short story writer, essayist, and occasional poet. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate of English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University where she’s working on a collection of short stories and a novel. Her poem Poet Husbandry can be found in Sundog Lit, Issue 17. 

Tell us a little about your writing process (from the first word to the last edit).
I need a great deal of input before there can be any output. Usually, when I grumble to friends that I’m blocked and whine that “my writer is broken,” what it really means is that I can’t get started because the well is dry. But if I read, it rights itself—  especially when I go back to my favorite writers. As for process, I have various containers for inspiration—  documents on my computer, tangible notebooks, sticky notes, iPhone notes—  that are all for jotting down the things that interest me. It is often a bit of language or an uncanny image that lingers. If I love it, it probably came to me during some tedious human task like washing dishes or taking out the trash. In these pages, language accumulates. Sometimes there will be a resonance between an image or two, and I will relocate them to a new document and start puzzling over them. Before characters or scene or conflict, I usually am playing with language for a long while until I find a rhythm or texture I like. Though narrative and voice do eventually take shape while I’m tinkering. I read aloud repeatedly, and when it feels done, I put it away and return a few weeks later to see if that feeling holds.

What is something you’re fascinated with at the moment?
A few years ago, I got into houseplants. As they say— pets are the new children, and plants are the new pets. I’ve cut way back, but I was at fifty-six houseplants at one point. I love learning about them, their unique needs, and seeing them thrive. This morning I saw my Hoya obovata has a new baby leaf. The Ficus lyrata has two— twins!— he is now taller than I am by several feet. Yesterday, I bought a begonia that has these perfect silver polka dots that look like they are painted on the leaves. When the light catches, it’s this gorgeous color that reminds me of autumn trees. I love plant names: “mother of millions” and “string of pearls.” And I love the fellow plant people I’ve found whom I go to when troubleshooting mealy bugs or a succulent that is stretching itself toward the sun. I am fascinated by how much plants lift my mood, how the simple act of caring for something and learning its needs gives me a boost. Checking in with it, poking my fingers in the soil, evaluating its roots— these small gestures ground me during a pandemic when every day feels like Groundhog Day.

Describe the last thing you read in five words.
Oedipus reboot on a canal.

Is there a place that has inspired your writing? If so, where is it and what about it made for good material?
Physical work-space that inspires writing: local coffee shops and Panera (especially 7 am-10 am). In West Texas, the Panera (which I’ve lovingly retitled “Bagel Church”) is dead while all the locals attend church services on Sundays. A geography that continues to inspire my work: coastal landscapes. I was born on the Great Lakes, though I’ve not lived there in over two decades. Still, even when landlocked in Alaska or Texas, water returns again and again to my stories. In part, I feel drawn to this place that was once home. Also, I think coastal landscapes offer narrative opportunity in terms of what the water brings in and what it takes, but it has significant metaphorical currency as well.

Coffee, tea, or neither?
I’m devoted to coffee, but tea is a suitable understudy, especially when I’ve had too much coffee and want something hot but need to slow my roll with caffeine.

Physical books or e-books?
For pragmatic reasons, I prefer physical because I find it easier to access marginalia quickly, but I will grab an e-book if I’m on a deadline and have a quote I desperately need for something I’m writing.

What are you working on now?
I am wrapping up edits on a novella for my dissertation. It is an invented legend cross-pollinated with fable, myth, ghost stories, and pre-apocalyptic anxieties.

Any recommendations for readers, i.e. books, movies, television, art, anything under the sun?
I adore Dark on Netflix. It has everything: multi-generational trauma, horror, liminal spaces, questions of free will, teenage angst, a mystery that’s forever unspooling. I recently enjoyed the HBO docuseries Murder on Middle Beach and Netflix’s The Haunting of Bly Manor—I love a tender ghost story. In the age of cottagecore, I’m all about that manorcore. As for recent good reads, grab Daisy Johnson’s books and all the domestic fabulist women: Carmen Maria Machado, Amber Sparks, Aimee Bender, Karen Russell. As for broader more general recommendations—get a plant! Learn its name and find YouTubers who will tell you how to care for it. If it dies, don’t freak out and self-flagellate. Every plant you kill is a lesson in how to care for the next. You should probably go buy a “just because” sheet cake—in case you didn’t know, you can indeed buy happiness. If you are in a life space where you can care for a pet, I will always recommend one. My days are vastly improved by dogs. Final recommendation, read and also write outside your genre. Get out of your lane. I’ve made a home in the land of fiction, but my fiction is better because of the courses I’ve taken in screenwriting, nonfiction, and poetry. It was the poetry workshop that got me to the poem published here at Sundog Lit.