Jess Row is the author of the story collections The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost. Named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007, he has won two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O. Henry Prize and has appeared in The Best American Short Stories three times. He lives in New York and teaches at the College of New Jersey.
The Poetics Project: Describe your novel in ten words or less.
Jess Row: A novel about what happens when race becomes a choice.
TPP: Was there any difficulty writing about the topics that are central to your novel (race, identity, etc.)?
JR: Absolutely. It was a long process of self-discovery and reflection for me, and that process continues to unfold as I get to talk to readers about the book.
TPP: What do you want readers to take away from your novel?
JR: I hope that anyone who reads the novel can take a moment to meditate on the question: “Who would I choose to be?” It can be a funny, but also very revealing, experience. It certainly was for me. While I would not choose to have racial reassignment surgery myself, I’ve often wished I could “disappear” into another identity—and thinking about the possibility of a permanent, irreversible change made me see those desires in a new way.
TPP: What advice can you give aspiring authors? What advice do you wish you were given?
JR: I think the most important thing is not to limit yourself—let yourself imagine the book you would write if there were no limitations or critical strictures in the way. Think of yourself as an apprentice and find established writers to be your mentors. Ask. Assert yourself. And above all else, read. Your primary task is to read and absorb everything you can find. Haunt the bookstores and libraries in your town. Read literary blogs and online publications like The Millions to find out what people are talking about. Use college (or graduate school) as an opportunity to get the widest education you can. If you can, try to learn one ancient (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, classical Chinese, classical Arabic, Sanskrit) and one modern language fluently and try to start translating; take every opportunity you have to travel and work abroad.
The piece of advice I didn’t get early enough was that, no matter how good you are at writing short stories, you really must try to learn something about writing a novel. Even if you don’t ever finish or publish one. There’s too much emphasis in fiction workshops on the short story exclusively. I am a huge champion of the short story, but young writers need to study novels intensively from an early stage. I didn’t do that, and I wish I had.
TPP: Name two to three songs that would be on a soundtrack for Your Face in Mine.
JR: Bob Marley, “Exodus”; Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”; Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess (the entire album); and Fugazi, “Styrofoam.”
To learn more about Jess Row, visit his website!