Interview with Jessa Marie Mendez: Rough Magick Editor

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When editing the stories for Rough Magick, what did you look for?

The most important thing to me was the potential of a story. If it had a strong hook, even if that hook was buried or needed some more finessing to make the story really come alive, the author had me. I wanted stories that felt alive and brought the reader into the story’s universe. It was especially important that each story could not only stand on its own but connect, in some way, to the other stories in the anthology. My goal was to keep the reader invested in these stories individually but also in the anthology as a whole, and I think that we really accomplished that.

What tips do you have for writers about how to create a powerful short story?

When I write a story, it’s usually because I have something on my mind that won’t go away. A feeling, or a particular image, a snippet of a dream. I’m a worrier, a ruminator, and I will replay that little bit of information in my head over and over again. Writing gives me the space to explore these feelings and ideas. I’d tell writers to begin there, with that passion. The power of that feeling will carry throughout your story, even if it’s not immediately clear in the first draft. Also, with short stories, there is a particular urgency that needs to be addressed. You have very little time to grab the reader and get them acclimated to the world you are creating, so it’s important to do that right away.

Tell me how you first became interested in writing? What does writing mean to you?

I honestly don’t remember any particular moment when I thought to myself, “Yes! I’m going to be a writer!” Writing has just always been there for me. I was painfully shy as a kid, and it was hard for me to speak. Even making simple requests terrified me. Writing helped me to get out a lot of what was in my head, and it allowed me to create new worlds and make sense of the world around me. Writing is life.

What are some of the publications you’ve written for? What do you specialize in?

I currently write for HellaWella, an online health and wellness site. I love writing about fitness, fashion and beauty. I’ve been obsessed with fashion for as long as I can remember, so merging my love of it with fitness is awesome. I really believe that what you wear can change your entire focus and mood.

I know you are a music fan. What are you listening to now? 

Oh God, a little bit of everything! My favorite band of all time is Nine Inch Nails, so whatever mood I’m in, a NIN album is usually in the mix. Right now, it’s The Fragile. My playlists lately are a weird mash-up of artists like Slipknot, James Blake, Deftones, Marc Anthony, Ivy Queen, Flyleaf, Ibeyi, FKA Twigs, Galantis, Grimes and a bunch of random dance music. I’m kind of all over the place.

Who are your favorite visual artists? Fashion designers? Writers? Are there any craft books you recommend?  

I love Frida Kahlo for her expression of pain and exploration of the self. I’ve always loved Salvador Dali, and as I get older, I become more and more interested in Picasso’s work. The way he expresses pain is so visceral. Jackson Pollock’s artwork feels like it moves and breathes. Steven Meisel’s fashion photography is legendary. He just knows how to compose a shot. Annie Leibovitz’s work is very dreamlike. Her “Alice in Wonderland” shoot for Vogue is my favorite editorial spread of all time.

In terms of fashion, Alexander McQueen was an incredible innovator and artist. He showed me that fashion is more than just clothing. Fashion can be sculptural. You can play with the proportions of the body and create something entirely new.

And I LOVE Isaac Mizrahi. I met him when I was in high school, and I just about died when he signed my copy of his documentary, Unzipped. I get such a kick out of watching Isaac Mizrahi Live! on QVC every week. (Yes, EVERY week.) One of my comfort items when I’m having a crappy day is the pink Isaac Mizrahi Live! scarf a friend of mine gave me.

As for writers, you are my favorite! But, I do have some other authors whose work I adore. Junot Díaz is magnificent. Every word he writes is like a punch to the gut. The way he weaves language is masterful. I remember reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and just thinking, finally! It was so meaningful for me to see Latinos so vividly and realistically displayed on the page. Cheryl Strayed is a hero of mine. Sylvia Plath, always. I also love Mary Oliver and Pablo Neruda’s poetry. I studied with Meg Wolitzer, and she is a dream. Her writing is beautiful and clear and funny and full of life; I love her YA novel Belzhar, which circles right back around to Sylvia Plath. I am in constant awe of the way Mark Z. Danielewski plays with words; not just language, but the actual words and type. He is brilliant. House of Leaves is life-changing. Neil Gaiman is a genius.

            The craft book that has helped me most is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. She speaks the truth. I read that book when I was going through a rough time, and she encouraged me to just get words out. There are other books that aren’t necessarily craft-related but have helped me in my writing and in my life: Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed gave me the phrase “Write like a motherfucker”, which has carried me through even the darkest periods of writer’s block. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp is a must. Entertaining and practical. The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer was revelatory for me to read. I’m sometimes still afraid to ask for anything or accept help from anyone, but I’m learning.

Your writing is so visual. Any tips for writers on this? I know you use Pinterest to great effect.  

I’ve been a magazine addict since I was a kid, so combining visual elements with print is embedded in my mind. When I write, I automatically think about that combination of print and imagery and try to bring that to life on the page. Pinterest is a godsend, especially for someone like me. I have so many boards, but that compartmentalization is necessary for me. Each board tells its own story. The images also work well as prompts. Stuck? Not sure what to write? Just scroll through Pinterest, choose an image and try describing it. Fill in the blanks. Imagine the person taking the picture. Imagine all the things that didn’t fit into the frame. If it’s in black-and-white, imagine what it would look like in color. Wake up your brain!

            I also studied cinema and filmmaking in college, and the lessons I learned from that have informed my writing in a big way. The framing, the impact of a single image done well. Plotting, layering sound and visual elements. I like bringing that cinematic element to my writing.

            I also make collages inspired by my characters. It’s an intuitive thing, but it eventually takes shape and gives me clues for where to go next and what tone I need to set.

What was the inspiration for your Rough Magick stories?

“(e)X” began as me just thinking about my time dating in my 20’s, all the strange sh*t I did, the very weird experiences I had, the headspace I was in at the time. I was also missing my hometown of Brooklyn and feeling grumpy about gentrification, which kind of comes through in the story.

            I started writing “Magpie” when I moved to a new apartment. I was alone for about a week before my then-fiancé (now husband) was able to join me, and I didn’t have any cable or internet set up yet, so it was just me and my big containers full of journals. I really do have journals spanning most of my life. Eventually, that story absorbed a couple of other short stories I had worked on but ultimately abandoned for one reason or another. It all worked out because those words found a home.

 I love your novel. Tell us about it and when will we be able to read it? 

            First of all, thank you. I’ve been working on this novel for what seems like a million years, but it’s evolved immensely from its starting point. Seriously, I would be mortified if anyone read the crap that was the initial iteration of this novel, but those characters have stuck with me and grown with me, and they are at the point where they pretty much tell me what to do! Cheryl Strayed talks about a second beating heart in her chest that was her novel before it was done. That is this book to me. I hesitate to say too much because I’m incredibly guarded about my writing, but it’s essentially about a girl who is sort of drifting through life, though things seem very…off. She doesn’t remember much of her past, but as she starts meeting new people, bits and pieces emerge. There are elements of fantasy and folklore involved. Also, I’m Puerto Rican and want to explore some of the things I experienced growing up Latina in Brooklyn. I don’t know when it’ll be available to read, I just know that I’m still working on it. The heart is pounding, and I’m writing to the rhythm. I think when this book is finally done, I’m just going to crawl into bed and cry for a week. (And if you read this interview carefully, there are some crumbs leading you to more elements! Obsessions being my guides, and all.)

What inspires you?

Running. I actually carry a little notebook with me when I run because something always presents itself as I pound the pavement. Every time, without fail, I have a lightbulb moment. Music inspires me. Fashion photography. Being near water. Little things will inspire me. A swipe of lipstick. The curve of a wine bottle. New York inspires me. Whenever I go back to visit, I feel a freedom and a spark that undeniably helps to unleash more ideas.

Do you collect anything? If so, what?

Books and magazines! I can’t stop. I have a stack to be read, but I will still buy more. (I’ve slowed down considerably lately, but every once in a while I treat myself. I love used bookstores and the dollar store, where I’ve found some wonderful books!) I am also a bit of a beauty product hoarder. I have a Birchbox subscription, and I keep all the little samples in a fancy box so when I need a pick-me-up I have an arsenal of luxurious things. Tea and candles are a must. I also love collecting colorful, fun socks. They make any outfit more fun and are so comforting. Lip gloss is my other weakness. My mother was always a fan of wearing lipstick before she left the house, and I’ve definitely carried on that tradition. Even if it’s clear lip balm, just that simple act makes me feel a little bit more “together” and not like a total slob. (S.W. Basics of Brooklyn’s lip balm is my current favorite for everyday use, and Farmacy Lip Bloom for fancier days and when I travel.) And, of course, I collect notebooks and pens. They’re all over my house, in my purses, pockets….

What are you working on now, besides completing your amazing novel?

I just relaunched my blog, Jessa Is Somewhat Damaged, choosing to focus on a project in lieu of giving up something for Lent. (I went to Catholic school for twelve years. Old habits die hard.) I’m also working on a new short story and checking out a couple of exciting new prospects. Just trying to keep the pen moving.