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With Damn Love (Ig Publishing), author Jasmine Beach-Ferrara has crafted a collection of short stories that overlap, intertwine and inform one another. The connections draw a reader in easily, but don’t let go. Ms. Beach-Ferrara was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book, her writing process, and creating intimacy among characters separated by more than mere geography.
One of the things I particularly enjoyed about ‘Damn Love’ was the way characters appear in multiple stories, which lets us see them through the eyes of different narrators. How did you decide on that structure, and how did you keep track of everyone while writing?
The linked structure became another way to capture the relationships between characters and to depict the dominant themes in their lives from a few different angles. Some of the characters are connected by blood or lifelong friendships, but others have more fleeting connections – they go out on a single date, or glimpse each other in a hotel lobby, or share a friend in common. Ultimately all of these people are connected by a single shared experience – a large earthquake that mostly happens off the pages of the book. As the linked structure got clearer, I got really interested in how these entangled threads could, in their convergence, depict a larger story than any of the single stories might tell.
I read that this collection underwent a lot of changes over a lengthy span of time. What changed? And what did you keep?
That’s very true! I worked on these stories for about ten years partly because I’m a slow poke. I thought this manuscript was done back in 2006. The short version is that it was turned down by a number of publishers and just sitting on my desk as a stagnant project; the obvious thing was to move onto a new project, especially one that might be more commercially viable than a story collection. But I was struggling to find a way forward and I felt pretty lost in my writing. I was in a great writer’s group in Boston with friends who just kept nudging me on and ultimately it came down to realizing I had two choices: either write or don’t write.
I started having this unsettled feeling about the stories, that they weren’t done after all, that I should go back to them. But I kept trying to talk myself out if it. It was like getting to mile 24 of a marathon and saying, oh, I’m going back to mile 1 because my stride wasn’t quite right! But this nagging feeling persisted and I started having new ideas about the stories. So in 2008, I started the collection over from page one. I re-wrote stories, cut some, added one. It was sort of a hellish process to start, but once I was in it, I just kept my head down for about a year and then suddenly, it was a total blast, the sort of writing experience where you lose track of time and just follow the stories. That’s when so many of the connections between the characters and stories really came alive for me.
I’ve lived in California my whole life but remain afraid of earthquakes—a recent 4.3 temblor sent me to the Army-Navy for an emergency whistle and Clif bars. However, I loved the way quakes were used as a motif in ‘Damn Love,’ separating east and west coast attitudes, and further destabilizing some already shaky folks. Are you cool in that sort of crisis? How did you decide to use earthquakes as part of the linked structure here?
The first time I felt a room-shaking quake in San Francisco, I grabbed a few things and ran out of my apartment in a panic – a total novice move. Friends who are from California and had grown up with quakes were absolutely unfazed by that quake and just laughed when I told them what I’d done. I’ve lived in a lot of places since then and have been struck by how each region of our country is habituated to living with the risk of a particular kind of disaster – quakes on the West Coast, hurricanes in the South, tornadoes in the Midwest, blizzards in New England. It makes you think about how we become acclimated and manage risks of all varieties, which is one of the themes in these stories.
In writing these stories, the idea of living on a fault line became a way of looking at all kinds of human choices, especially in crisis, a time when character can be revealed in new ways. These stories are partly about looking at the kind of risks we assume because we live in a vulnerable place like San Francisco, versus the kind of individual behavioral or emotional risks that some people embrace and others run from.
The story “Love the Soldier” is like the whole book in miniature to me: it touches on love, loss, otherness, doubt, deception, and the unexpected ways our lives and stories intertwine with those of others. The character Keisha stands apart from the rest of the book in many ways, though. I’m thinking less of her race than that she’s a practical, pragmatic woman who seems to be surrounded by dreamers. Do you think that’s a common perception between black and white? Between the east and west coasts?
Keisha is a character who really knows herself and is pretty honest with herself about who she is, what she needs, and her motivations. She’s a retired pro athlete who’s very confident and also lives in worlds – sports, law enforcement, the military – where quick, clear decisions are required. She moves easily in that realm, but she’s also emotionally intuitive and attuned to the tensions in her own life.
I loved writing this story and it pushed me in some ways. I was certainly conscious of issues that can come up for a white writer depicting a black protagonist; at the same time, writing about other parts of Keisha’s life, like her faith, came partly out of personal experience. I was also interested in Keisha’s story in terms of queer narrative. There are long-established “escape and exile” narratives about queer life in the South, about how you have to escape from the South in order to live an open, free life; other characters in the book like Peter and Alex live this out. But that narrative misses a lot about the realities of queer life in the South and, in Keisha’s story, I wanted to look at that. She came home to North Carolina in the wake of her brother’s death to be with her parents and, in some ways, to live out her brother’s legacy by becoming a cop; she knew the pressure she’d face to not to be out. These were choices she made freely and knowingly and the story is about how she lives into these choices over time.
Another theme that frequently appears in the book is addiction, mostly to drugs or alcohol, but the title ‘Damn Love’ begs the question: Do you see love as yet another monkey on the backs of these characters?
Addiction is one of the places where love gets hardest, and sometimes close to impossible. There are characters in these stories who are broken by addiction and other characters who are trying to love them through this. A lot of broken heartedness results.
But I also hope the title can be read in all the different ways someone might say “damn love” – from exasperated to resolved to seductive. These are stories about characters who can’t help trying to love, even though there are risks. Sometimes it goes beautifully, sometimes they crash and burn, but in this they’re like most people I know, which is to say irresistibly drawn to love.
Which story did you write first? At what point did you see a linked collection coming together? Was that something that happened organically? Did any of the connections or characters surprise you from one story to the next?
The two oldest stories are “Monkey” and “Different Paths, Same Woods.” If you looked at early drafts of “Monkey” you’d see the story it became, but the same isn’t true of “Different Paths, Same Woods,” which went through more changes and drafts than any other story until I finally got to a place of understanding Ruth’s perspective enough to write into it adequately. In earlier forms, there were some connections between the stories, but it wasn’t until I started over from page one in 2008 that the connections really became clearer and more emotionally real. That part of the revision process was so fun – putting the stories into conversation with each other and, in a lot of ways, trying to get out of the way.
After reading this book I’m curious about what you’re currently working on!
My day job is being a minister doing LGBT organizing in the South with the Campaign for Southern Equality. I’m doing some non-fiction writing about that – the role the South will play in how we ultimately achieve equality, the experience of traveling around to small towns across the South to talk about LGBT rights. We’re about to spend a few weeks in Mississippi doing a public campaign around marriage equality, for example (here’s a short video about what we’re up to). You encounter a lot of powerful stories when you scratch the surface of things doing this work down here and I’m writing about that.