As far as I can tell, Jenny Boully is the first Chicagoan (or at least one of the first) to write a book about the craft of writing itself. How odd, then, that it happened by accident. Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life is a series of essays that span her career thus far as a poet, hybrid fiction writer, and professor, “ripe with romance and sensual pleasures, drawing connections between the digression, reflection, imagination, and experience that characterize falling in love as well as the art of arranging words on a page.”
How did you wind up in Chicago?
Ten years ago, I was working on my Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center and on a fellowship that was about to end. So, I decided to go on the academic job market. I got an offer from Columbia College Chicago to teach creative writing, so here I am.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a book with the most beautiful beginning that I should have read when I was fourteen, as the boy I was hopelessly crushing on was reading it. He loved it so much that he would steal all the copies in the libraries. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, is so entrancing—now I know why all the Plath fans crush so hard on her.
Of all the books you could have written, how and why did you settle on this one?
I have several books that I like to believe that I am writing presently and have attempted to write in the past and hope to write in the future, but it seems as if they aren’t quite getting written. This book, however, seems to have written itself. The essays in Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life materialized over the years quite without my having planned them as existing together in a book. They are the excesses, the refuse, the margins of my writing day to day, the anterior life of what I believed to have been my true writing—all along these essays were what I should have been focusing on. I just didn’t know it until I realized how many of them there were.
What is your all-time favorite book about (or set in) Chicago?
I adore The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. It has such a spectacular beginning: I am an American, Chicago born. Perhaps I’m partial, as I have a son named Augie who, coincidentally, was Chicago born. The book has a meandering trance-like narrative like Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers: it halts, bends over, and looks up every so often to zoom in on something utterly spectacular blooming in the forgotten background. It’s magical and mystical: I never cared what would happen or if there would be an adventure or not; it was the flourishes of the sentences that kept drawing me in.
What under-appreciated Chicago-based writer (past or present) do you wish everyone would read?
I wish that everyone could read Henry Darger. I believe more people might read his books if they were accessible and transcribed for the public; however, as it is, there is no transcription of his colossal In the Realms of the Unreal. When his writing is examined, in excerpts, critics often try to psychologize Darger; I would rather that we laude his literary genius, his experimental impulses, his postmodernist tendencies, his coiled up and tendriled sentences, the intense metafictive desires that would drive his plot, his ability to rift and weave through found literature, news stories, everyday happenings. I’m sure that if more readers were able to, they might read Darger, but I hope they would really read him and not merely engage with gawking.
Where do you usually write? Do you have any favorite public writing spaces in Chicago?
I’m not much of a public writer. I suppose I’m more like a den animal—I need the comfort of a carved out, quiet, semi-dark, closeted space. So, I spend time at my writing desk at home, or, if my husband needs to work at his writing desk (we share an office), I’ll work at our dining table, a huge wooden beauty that is always cluttered with the refuse of the mornings and my children’s things. When I was really straining, however, to push out this one particular rendition of Betwixt-and-Between, I found that I needed a focused, distraction-free environment, and that, for me, was a coffee and bagel joint. I was surprised by how much I accomplished in a public space. I don’t work there often, but when I do, I seem to have a great concentration and ability to get work done. The place is called Bagel Art, in Evanston. It’s not ever flooded with people, and there’s no cling-clack-clanking of the various espresso machines and overwhelming loud and vicious spoon banging and hollering that you get in most coffee places. It’s a place where I can actually think.
What forthcoming books from Chicago-based writers are you excited about?
Julia Fine had a fun and hauntingly delightful novel come out in May. I had the opportunity to hear her read an excerpt at an alum reading at Columbia College Chicago. I won’t ruin the surprise, but I will say that the novel has a spectacular premise that is beautifully executed. It’s quite magical.
NONFICTION – ESSAYS
Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life
By Jenny Boully
Coffee House Press
Published April 3, 2018
Jenny Boully is the author of The Body, The Book of Beginnings and Endings, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, and other books. Born in Thailand, she grew up in Texas and holds a PhD in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She teaches creative writing and literature at Columbia College Chicago.