Wordsworth, Chemotherapy, and Becoming a Goddess: A Conversation with Jennifer Schomburg Kanke

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, author of A Pleasant Loitering Journey, speaks about her writing process and inspirations for her novel in a conversation with Shenandoah intern Sam Masser. Read Chapter 14 of A Pleasant Loitering Journey, featured in Volume 72.1 of Shenandoah here.


Sam: Thanks for talking with me today, and congratulations on making it into the issue! To get started, tell us readers a little bit about your novel, A Pleasant Loitering Journey. How did you write it? What’s the blurb? Feel free to take this in any direction you choose.


Jennifer: When I think about what a blurb would be for it, I like to say that it’s like William Wordsworth wrote Fried Green Tomatoes after reading Gravity’s Rainbow. So the way I actually wrote it was by there’s a process called entraining that’s sometimes used in poetry, where you listen to or you read something in meter and then you go and try to write something right after. And it’s like your brain catches on to the meter and then just spills it out. William Wordsworth has a long poem called The Prelude. Not really one of his most famous—like it’s not taught a lot in schools—but I think it’s one of his coolest works. It’s very confessional, talks about all of his childhood indiscretions and then skipping off of school to go do stuff in college and stuff like that, and then his later anxieties in life. So, what I would do is I’d read at least 100 lines of The Prelude, and then I would just sit and write and see what came out for the novel. I had no characters originally, no plot, nothing. Just what ideas were in my head, what sounds, and so on. I think there are moments in the novel where you can sort of feel  Wordsworth’s voice, but the topics are much more Fried Green Tomatoes and the sort of aesthetics feel very Gravity’s Rainbow. Yes, there is slightly less excrement and urine in my novel, but it has some similarities. It was incredibly fun to write and just play around and see what kind of narrative was in my head about this and what would come forward. Just to clarify, I did revise and revise and revise and revise. After I did the entraining process with Wordsworth, I didn’t just say “okay, well, this is done.” Then there was a lot of revision to see how this can be an actual novel, as opposed to just what came out instantly.


The plot is not linear; it’s all over the place in the novel. And so I feel like “Wordsworth writing Fried Green Tomatoes. after reading Gravity’s Rainbow” encompasses it from a plot perspective. It’s the story of a woman who becomes a literal goddess after she goes through chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. And she goes on a little bit of a revenge spree. With her newfound goddess powers she takes some people down.


S: But when you read just one chapter of a nonlinear novel, there’s always the question of what form of nonlinear I’m approaching here.


J: Yeah, it’s the kind of nonlinear that, it’s a fart in a skillet, really. I think that’s the technical term for it. The narrator has a lot of direct addresses to the reader, which is clear in the excerpt, but it’s not just in that. It’s so nonlinear that even like, there are moments in the first and third chapters, where it’s… a lot. At one point, she’ll say something, and it will be something that you haven’t really encountered. And she’ll say, “yeah, you don’t know what that is yet, but if you want to know, then skip to this chapter. But then you’ve got to come back here. Go ahead and skip forward if you need to, but then don’t forget to come back.” And she does that two or three times in the novel. It’s so nonlinear that if you want it to be linear, you can there’s sort of directions.


S: Do you anticipate readers following those directions?


J: I have no idea. But just in case they want it, if people had some concerns and felt some tensions, they could take care of those tensions by going forward and then coming back. Also, she’s often an unreliable narrator, except when she’s not. Sometimes she is, spot on in her opinions of things. She’s never intentionally unreliable. You can trust that she firmly believes what she’s saying. And sometimes you’re like, yeah, you’re right about that. I shouldn’t sit here and pick my day apart. Right? I shouldn’t take a knife to my days. You’re so right, narrator. And then other times, she says things in the novel that I hope that the readers go, you’d think that’s true? Is that how you think it works? She’s sometimes very reliable and sometimes, you should take her with a grain of salt and know that she’s just spinning.


I keep saying “the protagonist” or “the narrator.” Through the entire novel she is never named. At one point, she was, then I realized I only said it, like, twice. If you’re only going to say it twice, that’s not worth it. Take it out.


S: Thanks for that introduction. Your bio mentions that you have a zine out with Rinky Dink Press about your experiences in chemotherapy. To what extent is A Pleasant Loitering Journey an extension of themes in Fine, Considering? How do you fictionalize and write about subjects that are so close to your own life?


J: The poems for Rinky Dink Press were done while I was actually in the chemotherapy chairs, while I was getting infusions. And so they are very raw, of the moment, initial pressing concerns of what was going on. I had seen the call for micropoems and I needed something to entertain myself during the infusions. I wasn’t planning on writing poems about the infusions, they just ended up being about the process. So in that way they’re similar. But working with the fictional stuff, it lets you play the what if game a little bit more. What if something miraculous came out of chemo rather than just, “I’m still alive!” which is amazing and great and I’m very thankful for that, but what if it was something more? What if this terrible event had something good? Also, the cancer and chemotherapy are a part of the novel, but it’s also more about her whole life, whereas the poems that are in Fine, Considering are just about the chemotherapy process. So there are some parts of the novel that are autofiction. I always think it’s funny to see which parts people think are true and which parts people think are completely fabricated. And I don’t know if I’ll ever necessarily make a list or anything like that. The anxieties and the feelings that are in the excerpt are very true to life and are very much my own anxieties. That feeling of always feeling like it could come back. I did change oncologists right after I had gotten out of chemo, because my oncologist had started her own practice and it was not covered under my insurance, so I had to stay where my insurance would work. And then the very first thing—not “hi” or “this is my name” — my oncologist walks in and says, “how did you get cancer so young?” Is that really how we’re going to start this relationship? But unlike the narrator in the novel, I didn’t come back with any quippy things about ways I could have gotten it. I just stared at her and I was like, “I don’t know.” So it’s based on a real situation, but certainly not how the real situation played out at all.


S: Why did you choose this chapter to submit to Shenandoah? What makes it work as a standalone piece, and what are we missing by not reading the chapters around it?


J: I think one of the things that makes it work as a standalone, whereas other chapters in the novel absolutely wouldn’t have, is because it has less of the nonlinear aspects. It has a little bit. She tells a story about when she’s ten and she’s telling stories about the things that she worries about, but it isn’t to the extent of some of the other chapters. It was one that actually held together a little bit more as its own little entity without having to have too much background about her specifically. I also picked this specific chapter because it was a chapter that multiple critique partners had picked out and said, “I love this part. This is wonderful.” And so when I saw the call for novel excerpts, I thought “let’s see how folks respond to this part, since the early readers enjoyed it.”


This chapter could be misleading because it is the fourth tip. Her little tips for being a goddess happen near the end. She just sort of spins out into this full on self-help mode in the last quarter of the book. She’s a human resources director by profession, and so she kind of leans toward this, like, let me tell you how everything needs to be done. So she talks about her life, and then she kind of spins off into these tips. But even as she’s giving the tips, what she’s really doing is talking about all the times that kind of how she learned those tips the hard way. It’s just a list of her mistakes, and places where she’s messed up in her life.


S: It’s funny. When I read the piece, I thought the goddess concept was metaphorical.


J: It’s written as if the goddess aspect and the whole section with ghosts are literal in the plot. But you can also I think if people wanted to make a case for that they are not really happening, you probably could. So readers can kind of take it as they will.


S: I thought it was really interesting. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to interview you. Did that idea come from William Wordsworth or somewhere else?


J: I think the way that it sprang up was kind of twofold. When someone is going through chemotherapy—I’m sure it’s probably this way with many serious illnesses—there are so many memes and so many, like, rah-rah things that people do. “You’re such a fighter,” “you’re so strong,” or “the goddess inside of you has the strength.” So I think it kind of stems from that. What if that was sort of literal? But it’s also Wordsworth in the Prelude. Wordsworth can really get full of himself. He really thinks a lot of himself, sometimes. I am the greatest thing. I have so much imagination, I have so much energy. I am the life force of the world. It’s that kind of vibe. And as I was doing the process of reading lines and then writing, that started to work itself in. And I’m like, oh, wow. She’s really sounding like a goddess at this point. The concept of imagination is sacred to Wordsworth, but for the narrator, it’s very literally, she’s a goddess.


S: How would you describe your writing process? In our correspondence you mentioned that you try to keep the weekends reserved for writing? What does a weekend of writing look like?


J: Part of me wants to spin the tale of the diligent writer and say “well, I get up at 08:00 a.m. And I sit down at my desk and I write for 8 hours.” I think there are writers who do that and that works well for them. As for me, I can write about an hour to two hours a day. I work a 40-hours-a-week job and in the evenings I try to write for an hour or two. And that’s always very much: muse, you better show up because this is the time that I have. Whereas on the weekends, by reserving them the best I can, it lets me just kind of roll with what I feel like doing. A weekend of writing can look like having some popcorn and watching two or three hours of Bunheads or Ducktails and then feeling like, OK, now I’m going to write.


Then I’m researching stuff sometimes. I’ve been working on this short story. This is sort of an aside, but it does talk about my process. I saw somebody had tweeted the other day about frustrations with older authors who keep writing college stories that are set in the 80’s or the 90s, and that it doesn’t take that much to research and to update them and modernize them. But you can’t just put your mind into a modern college student’s. It’s a little bit more complex than just researching what would they watch on television or what would they wear. But that said, with this story, I was like, well, let’s see. What would it be like to modernize this a little bit? And so last weekend, I was watching these YouTube videos of college age women who do tours of their residence hall rooms. Or there was one woman whose family were content creators, influencers, whatever you want to call them. Her mom is like following her around the first day as she’s trying to get her dorm room set up and stuff like that. And I’m just watching videos of all the interactions like, how can I work any of this into a story to actually put it in a meaningful way, beyond something like the color of her shirt. I don’t know if I was successful or not, but so sometimes the writing process is sitting there watching unboxing videos of setting up residence hall rooms.


When I was working on a bunch of poems, I spent a long time researching what swimsuits in the 1930s looked like, because it was a sonnet. For 14 lines, I spent hours trying to figure out, OK, exactly what kind of swimsuit is it and what does the swimsuit look like and how does it fit and what do I do with that information? So there’s a lot of research and then sometimes it’ll be a lot of writing. There’s also a lot of letting my brain decompress because there’s so much. My writing time during the week is so compressed, and then the weekends get to be a little bit more relaxed. I used to be an academia and was a visiting professor for a few years and was on the job market trying to get tenure track positions and stuff. And there’s that pressure of my stuff’s got to get published. It’s got to get published in the right places, and it’s got to get quantity and quality. It’s nice to not have that pressure. That’s one of the joys of the day job.


S: Do you have anything else you’d like to say about this piece?


J: I’ve been trying to find a good home for it. I queried an agent at a big agency, and they had an email filter on to block out the spam. My query didn’t even make it to the agent because the automatic system bounced it out as possible lewd spam. And my email was just a description and the first ten pages of the novel, but at that time, there was a lot of stuff about urine in the first ten pages. In context, it made sense because it’s about gas station bathrooms and stains, but there’s a lot of it. She ruminates on urine for like a page and a half, and there’s cuss words and things. And so I think the automatic system was just like, no, that is clearly not actually a novel. I hope once the novel eventually gets published, that then that’s going to be a really fun story to tell as opposed to now. Which I understand why the agents have the spam filters set up, totally necessary. But I got to figure out a way for my novel to get around them.


S: Is the novel complete?


J: Yes, I feel like it is complete. I have felt like it was complete before. For about the last year and a half, I’ve been like, it is totally done now. And then something will come up, like, no, this is what I’m going I’m going to completely change that. But I feel like it is complete now.


S: Thank you for participating today. I enjoyed getting to talk to you, and I hope Shenandoah’s readers will appreciate the insights and info you’ve shared.


J: Thank you so much. I’m so grateful to be here, that people can actually get to read part of it now. It’s really been a thrill.

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke lives in Florida where she edits confidential documents. Her work appears in New Ohio Review, the Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, and Salamander. Her zine about her experiences undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, Fine, Considering, is available from Rinky Dink Press. She serves as a reader for The Dodge.