“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Conversation with Gabrielle
Johnny- Hi, Gabrielle, and thank you for talking to me about your book Jenny of Lebanon, a short but sweet read that drops the reader at ground zero of White Ash Lane. The narrative is so descriptive that it’s hard to imagine anything except the sight and sounds of the morning in all its glory, a house neglected, a wrecked truck and a cat being a cat. Where does an idea like this come from?
Gabrielle- That’s a good question and a somewhat difficult one for me to answer because I’m not sure why when I put pen to paper that chapter one became what it is – a dark, descriptive waltz into the broken and decaying lives of Billy and Jenny. Really, as I started, I was unaware of the gloomy path my characters were taking me on, but as I walked with Jenny into this house, I began to grasp the gravity of the relationship and all of its flaws. The house is a representation of all that, I guess. My idea was just to immerse the reader, bring them to ground zero, as you said, so they could understand more fully everything that comes next.
Johnny- It almost seems like this might have been a part of a bigger body of work at one time. Was it, and you liked this scenario so much that you made it a solo project?
Gabrielle- Yes, it is, actually! When I was in college, once upon a time, I took a creative writing course. In that class I wrote a short story entitled Jenny Kissed Me. It was inspired by a poem by the same name by James Leigh Hunt. You can find that poem in the front of my book. After I had finished and read it to the class, I couldn’t shake Jenny from my mind. I felt there was a lot more to her story. And thus, Jenny of Lebanon was born.
I decided to publish this one first, even though it’s technically out of order, because I felt it was strong enough to stand on its own. There are many details sprinkled throughout referencing moments that have occurred earlier, some vague, and others in your face. You don’t have to understand their full depth to enjoy what’s happening in the present, but I’ve basically planted seeds that will grow into larger plot points – in reverse chronological order – for readers stumbling upon the books as they are first published. I guess I watched too much Star Wars as a kid. 😊
As I release other Jenny stories (fingers crossed for the near future), it’s my hope they’ll strengthen Jenny of Lebanon and the series as a whole even more. Jenny is not done telling her story. There are reasons that help explain why she acts in the manner she does. She’s complicated.
Johnny– I’m going to do my best to attempt to talk about your book without any spoilers. Novellas can be tricky without giving away too much. Is it fair to say that Jenny of Lebanon was an exercise for you to create and develop your character writing skills?
Gabrielle- The short answer is yes, it did, but I think it’s important to explain what kind of genre my book falls into so I can better explain my answer. Jenny of Lebanon is literary fiction. What that means is that it’s a story being driven by its characters instead of traditionally being moved by the plot, as well as focusing on style and depth. It’s also a “slice of life”. The reader steps into the lives of Jenny and Billy, experiences an afternoon with them, and then they depart. Pieces of the past are touched upon during this small window and the future can be alluded to, but it’s this specific moment in time between these two people that is the focus of the story.
So, yes, it was certainly an exercise for me, and I like to think it helped hone my writing skills. There are only two speaking parts in the story, unless you want to count the cat, Marvin, and he does put his two cents in quite often. I had to constantly think about pacing, about what they were saying to each other, and how it was affecting them. Other writers do this as well, but my space and time was limited. I had to make every moment I had with them count. There’s a lot of banter between Billy and Jenny, but they obviously couldn’t argue the entire time. That would have been tiring and boring, so I had to try and distract them, give them a reprieve before bringing them and ultimately, the reader, to a climax.
If you’d been a fly on the wall when I was writing, you would’ve heard me talking out the dialogue, trying to figure out if it was authentic enough. Me not being a man, obviously, I had to ask my husband and other guy friends if Billy seemed real in the way he acted and talked to Jenny. I wanted both of them to be relatable to the readers. So that was another exercise for me. I hope I succeeded in that endeavor.
Johnny- Absolutely, I think you did a great job, both sexes are believable. You bring up “literary fiction”. Veering from the book for a second, do you think that is a risky genre for an independent writer to start at? Why do you think it’s so rare nowadays?
Gabrielle- I think the literary fiction genre is frowned upon by some. For example, if you aren’t famous or dead or both, you can’t fall into that category rightfully, at least that’s the general feeling I get from scrolling through Twitter. I’ve read many threads where people talk about what they feel should be classified as literary fiction, and that’s hardly ever included a debut novel by an indie author. From what I’ve read, they thought it should be a term reserved for writers who’ve earned it from their peers, like there’s some contest I have to win first before I can claim it as my own genre. There also appears to be an air of pretension associated with it as well. This obviously isn’t true for everyone, but it’s still frustrating.
I’m not entirely sure why people think this way, but part of me believes it’s because they don’t truly understand what literary fiction is. It’s not that popular of a category, and there aren’t that many publications accepting submissions for it, compared to that of science fiction, fantasy or romance – so it’s really hard to get on people’s radars. Anytime someone asks what genre my book is or what it’s about, I mostly get deer in headlights looks, and then I have to do a whole bunch of explaining. Sometimes I purposefully don’t tell people the genre because I fear they won’t read it out of bias or confusion. I personally think it’s rarer to find books written in this genre because so many readers want immediate gratification and a fast-moving story filled with as much action as it can hold – so that’s what writers are providing them. You write what sells, right? It’s not wrong or bad, it’s just a different style. I’ve read on multiple occasions where people have said if something doesn’t happen in the first page and a half, they’re done. Some people like Michael Bay movies. Me, not so much. Ha. I personally enjoy getting to know the ins and outs of characters, learning what propels them in life, and discovering the details that create who they are. To me, even though I write fiction, I want my stories to be as real as I can make them. Life has all of those intricacies balled up into it, and that’s what makes it special.
Johnny- Surveying the living room, the documented clutter and random chaos of the coffee table is so descriptive, is this based off something you’ve witnessed at someone’s house? (Meant as a fun question, no judgement. lol)
Gabrielle- Whatever gave you that impression? Ha ha. Yes, without naming anyone, there was an apartment I used to frequent that certainly helped shape the chaos we witness in Billy’s house. I only used some of what I experienced, like the fan with its missing blade covered in dust. Maybe some of the dishes or takeout items, too, but believe me, my friend’s place was Heaven compared to Billy’s. To fill in the details of the house, I tried to imagine how depression would look if it all got unpacked and strewn about. Let’s just be glad we never had to walk into Billy’s bathroom. Not even I wanted to go there.
Johnny- Lol, fair enough. Does this person(s) know they inspired you so much that you included them in this book?
Gabrielle- Oh, he’s aware. 😊In fact, when he read one of the first drafts, I think he knew immediately where I had drawn my inspirations. He wasn’t offended or anything, thankfully. I’m always warning friends that some part of their personalities or life may end up in my books, so they better be careful. 😉
Johnny- Jenny, is unfazed by the condition of the living room; in fact, she stops at one point and checks her appearance in the mirror. What was your inspiration in creating this character? I love this little attention to detail btw.
Gabrielle- Ah, Jenny. She’s an interesting one. Like most of the characters I’ve created over the years, it’s hard for me pinpoint exactly what creative puddle of ooze she crawled out of and why. She was birthed slowly through the words as I wrote them. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it’s the truth. There are some parts of Jenny that I myself do not completely understand yet because she hasn’t told me, but I believe she will tell me all eventually.
So really, she’s less of an inspiration and more of a person existing in my mind, telling me her story as I write it. When I get into her head space, I see her as this strong, sensual, but damaged woman who knows she’s beautiful and makes zero effort to hide it. She takes every opportunity to flaunt what she has, placing herself in the center of every situation. She craves that attention. But like I said, she’s damaged, and if she’s not careful, she’ll find herself vulnerable and no longer in control. That’s what really makes her uncomfortable. Underneath her tough exterior, as hard as it is to believe, Jenny does have a heart. And although she is a very honest person, she is human, and she lies.
Johnny- She’s beautiful and complicated for sure, not a cop out answer, btw. However, it’s amazing that you created her the way you did; do you think at times, that you are too close to her? (if that makes sense) Will her effect on you affect her journey down the road?
Gabrielle- I’m Jenny’s conduit to the world, so yeah, I’d say we’re close, maybe sometimes too close. When I delve too deep into her waters, it’s often a toxic trip and an emotionally draining one. On some levels I think we understand each other and can relate, but then she’ll say something or act in a way I never imagine I could, and I have to work extra hard to make sense of it. Her desires and motivations are often disconnected from my own life experiences. I’d be a dirty liar if I said our journeys weren’t connected. We may be two different people, living separate lives, but we are constantly learning from one another. I just can’t say for sure that we use that gained knowledge appropriately or at all.
Johnny- She’s walking down the hallway, she straightens a couple of pictures, then she stops and relives a moment in one picture hanging on the wall, but doesn’t straighten it. Tell me about this scene…
Gabrielle- I have to be careful what I say about this scene because it’s a big part of the conclusion of the book. This is another moment where you aren’t likely to believe my explanation, but I’m pretty sure when I first wrote this part, I didn’t know what she was looking at or why it was important. All I knew is that it would be. That’s how a lot of things I write work. I drop down the dots, but I don’t connect them until later. I’m thankful this method works for me or else all of my stories would be complete and utter nonsense. I’m sure if you took a peek into my brain when I was plotting out my stories, it probably would’ve looked like a detective’s board filled with a dozen different colored strings stretched from one side to the other.
What Jenny sees and how she reacts used to make me think Jenny was truly just a heartless person who didn’t care at all, but the longer I’ve had to spend with her, I think this scene is more a moment for her to pause and reflect, to think about the here and now, and where’s she come from since then. Not fixing it says a lot about Jenny, I think, more so than if she did correct it. What it says exactly will likely be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the reader. I’d love to watch a group discuss Jenny and Billy. That would be a lot of fun.
Johnny- Let’s talk about Billy for a moment. Why is this guy so likable? Where did he come from?
Gabrielle- I’m not so sure he is likable. Some may see him as the victim in all of this, but others may think he’s as much to blame as Jenny. The way he is perceived will depend upon each individual reader, and that’s completely okay with me. Everyone is going make their own judgment. That’s the beauty of books, really – people being able to see characters and their actions and deciding for themselves who the “bad guy” really is, if indeed there is one.
Johnny– Likable might be the wrong word, he just seems “laid back” I’m guessing that’s why he seems likable to me, a bit of a slob, but, likable. lol. Was he a creation also? Or was there a muse behind his conception?
Gabrielle- Billy was partly just a guy who showed up and took his place in the story, but he was also a character fleshed out by stealing tiny details from my now husband, Phil. We weren’t married when I first started writing Billy, in fact, we were barely dating. The first draft versus what finally made it out into the world changed drastically over the years as our relationship did. I want to make it absolutely clear, though, that Billy is not my husband, but some of his mannerisms and best qualities exist in him. My husband loathes my characters, but specifically Billy because he can see the few things I borrowed. Billy was a mold made special by a handful of human traits, some random, some inspired, but without them, I don’t think he’d be the same character.
Johnny- Billy’s has a thought as Jenny is replacing a lightbulb. (no spoilers) His thoughts go one way and then his actions another. Are you describing “true love”?
Gabrielle- This is an interesting but brief looksee into Billy’s mind and character. We get a glimpse of what’s beneath what he shows us and Jenny throughout the book. I don’t think it was “true love” I had intended to show per se, but I can see how one could perceive it that way, considering what happens. It’s not the only time Billy’s emotions get the best of him, but as much as he would maybe like to become this person he thinks about or attempts to act like, he can’t change who he is. Jenny knows this and makes sure to tell him.
Johnny- I’m so happy that Jenny will return. There really seems to be more to her that I want to know about. It’s like she has so much more to tell. So, when you say “fingers crossed for the near future” are you talking 2020?
Gabrielle- Ultimately, yes, I hope that come spring, or shortly after, I’ll have another chapter of Jenny’s life out in the world. A large chunk of it is already written. I just need to flesh out scenes in-between scenes and grow upon what I have. Saying that makes me incredibly nervous because deadlines terrify me. I don’t know how I turned in all my papers in college and graduated on time. Historically, I’m the slowest writer on planet Earth, and I can make an excuse out of just about anything. I’m almost magical that way. 😊 I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from complete strangers, though, and I think that’s what really is going to motivate me to make it happen. Many have asked for more, and I want nothing more than to do that for them.
Johnny- There is so much more of your book that I want to talk to you about. I’m afraid that if I do, I’m going to spoil it for others,so I’m going to stop. Who is your favorite author?
Gabrielle- That’s an easy answer, though not a very unique one, I’m afraid. Stephen King has been my go-to writer since my 9th grade math class. Somehow, I came into possession of the paperback tome that is IT. I’d been traumatized by the TV miniseries as a kid, thanks to my brothers, and I guess I wanted to face my childhood fears head-on. Or it could’ve been I really didn’t like math and needed a long distraction. This was likely the catalyst that determined my lackluster math skills, and I forgive Stephen King wholeheartedly. 😊 Totally worth it, in my opinion. Once I was done with that massive book, and it took most of the year, I needed more. I fell in love with his style and his stories. I even started collecting his first editions. There are some I’ll never be able to afford, but I’ve found a lot of them in varying conditions. None of them are signed, but my husband managed to get a baseball with his John Hancock on it. That was the best birthday present ever! I’ll never know if it’s authentic or not, but I really don’t care. It’s real to me.
Johnny– What advise do you have for younger writers who are looking to get started?
Gabrielle- First and foremost, read. If you don’t have time to read, you probably don’t have time to write. It was probably Stephen King that said that or some other famous person, but it’s true. Your skill will obviously improve over time if all you ever do is write, but you’ll gain ground faster if you read the work of your favorite writers or peers. We learn so much from each other. Besides that, write what you know, write what you’d like to know, challenge yourself and step outside your comfort zone or genre. Write what sells or write for yourself. Whatever you do, just write. Even if you think it’s terrible, write it. It very well may be, but it will get better. That’s what second, third and fourth drafts are for. Writing is a process, and it takes time. When you’re finished, don’t keep it to yourself. Set it free.
Johnny* Great advice. Thank you for taking the time and talk with me. It has been a pure joy to share this time with you! Please keep doing what you do.
Jenny of Lebanon has been like a breath of fresh air. It’s simple, it’s beautiful, it quenched my thirst, and scratched the proverbial itch that was impossible to reach. It was a joyful surprise.
From the opening scene the reader is whisked away into a narrative that is a feast for the imagination.
Weighing in at 57 pages there is no wasted space found between these covers. What is found is a narrative that took me by the hand and led me step by step across the pages, description that left lasting images in my mind, characters so realistic I can picture them living up my block.
Jenny of Lebanon is literary fiction at its finest.
As Gabrielle had mentioned earlier, literary fiction is rarely used when discussing a debut novel but in this case, that is not true. Twitter did not discourage Gabrielle and she stuck to her guns because literary fiction is the glue that holds all other writing together. **“I just put the words down and hope for the best.” This is where dreams are born. Literary fiction is making a massive come back in this engrossing indie debut from who can be considered a rising star and a master of her craft.
On Goodreads and Amazon, I gave Jenny of Lebanon 5 stars, if possible, I’d given more. This book is definitely worth the read.
**Quoted from Gabrielle while sharing random thoughts.
Jenny of Lebanon by: Gabrielle Olexa