Wednesday, September 24, 2014


We could have talked all day.
I met  Kelly Ann Jacobson last week when we both gave a reading at One More Page bookstore in Arlington, VA. I was intrigued by the selection Kelly read:  a love scene between two women set in Cairo, Egypt.  So I invited her round for coffee, and we sat outside talking about her work.

Kelly is incredibly prolific. "That’s all I do," she said, "editing, writing. Writing is my whole life, and I don’t mind it. When I was a kid I read five books a day. I’m fine living in my imagination. That’s my entertainment. I don’t have that many hobbies. I just write and think about things.

"This past summer I quit my job and I was writing full time. I prefer to write in the mornings. So as soon as I wake up, I write. I write an hour a day.  I kind of do a little bit at a time.  But I do it every day.  Now it’s harder because I’m going to be teaching at two different places and I have an internship at a press.

"I have a lot of energy and I think it just pours into these books. And I think alternating between Literary Fiction and Young Adult really helps.  Not that I do it intentionally -  but I think I just get overwhelmed by Literary Fiction sometimes,  struggling to make every sentence work – and then I can go and do the YA and it's fun and there are dragons and witches.  Afterwards, I can go back to the more serious stuff because I get my little break.

"I write poetry, I write lyrics. That helps. I have like six books that I’m looking for homes for!"

How does she DO it, I asked.

Kelly laughed. "I hate revising. So I think I have sold first drafts of books. They revise them but not extensively for the most part.   Once I’ve written them, I forget about them.   I produce them and move on to the next."

I was astonished. I always struggle with that editor who sits on my shoulder telling me that nothing I've written is any good. Kelly doesn't have that demon editor on her shoulder.  "It's good and bad.  It’s hard to sell a book.  The process is long. It takes time to promote your book and find a publisher and  six months before they get back to you – so there’s a back log and it's harder, I think,  to focus on the one."

The novel she read from at One More Page last week, Cairo in White, is a work of literary fiction.  It was her first book, and it’s the book closest to her heart.   “I love all my books but I think I learned how to write writing Cairo in White.  It was initially in first person; it was initially in present tense.
The first drafts were so bad. I have them on my computer somewhere.  I had this great professor at GW and we were work-shopping the story and he said, 'You know, Kelly – I love how both of your characters sound, but they both sound like Kelly Jacobson!' And that was the moment where I was like – why am I writing this in first person? It’s a lot harder to write first person, I think, especially with a split narrative, where they start sounding like the same person.

"It was hard. But I took breaks and wrote other things."

Kelly gets asked a lot whether or not she's been to Egypt, and how much she actually knows about Egypt.  Many people want to read it for that, instead of for the story. 

"When I first got to George Washington University,” she said, “I came from Pennsylvania to DC and I met this guy who was a cook at the place where I was a waitress and he was Egyptian. So we started  dating and we dated for four years and we were engaged for one of those years – but it ended up not working out. But because of him, I learned Arabic, to speak to his family.

"For a year I took Arabic four times a week, an hour and a half a day, and in my spare time, I was studying vocab and learning how to do the writing.  It was difficult but I loved his family and I went to Cairo and that’s how this whole thing came about.

"People are interested because of the setting more than the story. Which is surprising to me.  And some people like the book despite the LGBT aspect rather than because of it.

“I was a Women's  Studies  major at GW," she continued, "so I was asking my boyfriend one day 'what's it like to be gay in Egypt,' and he said, 'oh, we have no gay people in Egypt.'  That was when I was like oh, this is a story! Genuinely, everyone is closeted so no one even thinks they exist.

"I write a lot of LGBT stories. For my YA books, I went to this non profit called the Rainbow Room in Pennsylvania. The kids go once a month and touch base and talk about what they’re going through.  I went and talked to them about Cairo in White and it's lit fiction – it's not YA, and they were telling me they have nothing to read that’s about them.

"People tend to put LGBT in erotic writing or they don’t publish it at all.  Coming out stories are great too, but there have been so many of them.

"LGBT kids know what it’s like to be LGBT kids. They know what their struggles are. People need to read that who aren’t LGBT – and open their minds to it. And it's tough.  Apparently there are no YA  LGBT books for them. I wanted to write something for them that was well written.

"I’m also especially interested in the Middle East and Muslim culture because of the strong anti gay reaction – and that happens in my new YA novel  too.  I  happen to know a lot of people who are Middle Eastern or Muslim so I know those stories better.  I’m not super politically active. But I use my writing to tell stories and get those things out there."

"What you are doing," I told Kelly, "is mainstreaming the marginalized."

"That’s exactly it!" she said, laughing. "Listening to those kids more than anything is what did it for me.  When these kids don’t feel like there’s stuff to read – not connecting to anything -  that’s insane.
It’s hard as a writer because people who believed in LGBT writing started these presses for LGBT writing which is so great but then it doesn’t attract anyone except people specifically looking for LGBT books.    No one’s just going to go to the press and look at the LGBT press.

"When you try to get it traditionally published it is so hard. The promotion side is very difficult.  These specialized presses help and hurt at the same time. They are in their own segment and not in the mainstream writing.

 "I don’t think we are beyond the need for groups yet.  We still do need groups in order to make changes – but I do think eventually once those changes have been made, we people will all just be people.  I don’t know how it will all play out but maybe it's just time."

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