Julie C. Day was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut collection, Uncommon Miracles. To start things off, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Julie’s author bio…
Julie has published over thirty stories in magazines such as Interzone, Black Static, Podcastle, and Split Lip Magazine. Her first collection, Uncommon Miracles, is forthcoming from PS Publishing in October as both a limited edition hardcover and ebook. It’s now available for pre-order. Julie lives in a small town in New England with her family and a menagerie of variously sized animals. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and a M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Some of Julie’s favorite things include nighttime glasses of ginger libation, rewatching all except the last season of Trueblood, and baths, oh-so-many baths.
Welcome, and congratulations on the publication of Uncommon Miracles! Care to give readers a hint of the sorts of stories they’ll find in its pages?
Thanks, Ali! I’m incredibly chuffed to see these stories wandering the world together for the first time. It’s turning out to be an incredibly different experience from their publication in magazines. It’s interesting to see how well they fit together. There’s a certain “Julie-ness” to each of them.
In general, I’m drawn to the uncomfortable corners of the psyche, to people’s unarticulated emotional reality and the difficult choices they have to make as a result. My stories are often quite surreal and dark and if I’ve done it right, they also creep along an emotional knife edge. But really I hate describing my work! All I can think about are the exceptions. My publisher put out a lovely description which I’m going to go ahead steal!
“Melding aspects of Southern Gothic and fabulism, and utilizing the author’s own scientific background, Day’s carefully rendered settings are both delightful and unexpected. Whether set in a uniquely altered version of Florida’s Space Coast or a haunted island off the coast of Maine, each story in this collection carries its own brand of meticulous and captivating weirdness.”
It sounds wonderful! What was your process like for putting the collection together? Were you going for a certain theme or tone with the stories you selected, or any overarching thesis?
I actually focused more on how I perceived the quality of the work, rather than on maintaining a certain theme. For me at least, the thematic concerns tend to take care of themselves. I find myself returning to certain themes without any conscious intent. My writing includes the scientific, the magical, and the religious, often in combination. At some level I never lost that childlike sense that our world, our scientifically-defined universe, is infused with magic. Whether it’s the ability of entangled photons to instantaneously interact at great distances or the concept of infinite universes proposed by the many-worlds interpretation, reality is strange and wondrous and not prescribed by our everyday human experiences.
The title Uncommon Miracles actually speaks to a thread that runs through much of my work. My characters are all damaged, trapped in situations, whether personal or apocalyptic, that cause them pain. The choices available to them are never ideal. Success in these stories, the miracle, is a moment of peace in an often ugly universe. Whether it’s children, widowers, or best friends, I‘m drawn to stories of the unseen and unheard person found at an individual’s core. Articulating the internal lives of these characters often involves creating worlds that incorporate some sort of dream logic.
A lot of short story writers get subjected to some version of the sentiment “that’s nice, but when are you going to write something real like a novel?”. Have you ever experienced that? What appeals to you about short fiction as a form?
Ha! These people have clearly never experienced how much effort and time it takes me to get one of my stories even close to what I feel works. My writing is character and emotion based. I tend to spend an inordinate amount of time building worlds that support these characters. Almost without exception, I discover the plot of a story last. I also can’t stand too much predictability in my process or in the final work. This way of working fits most naturally with the short form. That said, there was a point in my life when I had never written a short story and a point in my life when I had never written a paragraph. Stretching outside of your comfort zone is one of the requirements if you’re work is going to remain fresh. I recently finished a rather long novella, 125 pages, that is currently out on submission. “The Rampant” is dark and weird and intense. I’m very proud of it. I have another long project on the back burner, but…a standard three-act-structure novel is never going to be a natural fit for me—or so says the 2018 me.
Shifting things slightly, I wanted to ask about your background. You have degrees in both Creative Writing and Microbiology, and by day you’re an IT Business Analyst. Those all seem like pretty disparate things. What path did you take from one field to another, and how do your various areas of expertise play together and inform each other (assuming they do)?
You’ll find a lot of scientific facts folded into my surreal landscapes. The rabbits in “Everyone Gets a Happy Ending” are informed by the hours I spent researching rabbit breeds, rabbit development, and the behavior and life experiences of rabbits in the wild.
Really, my favorite part of any job is the explosive gathering and assimilation of new information, that moment when nothing makes sense and you haven’t yet figured out what. It. All. Means. It’s what I loved about science, it’s what I love about my job as a business analyst, and it’s one of my favorite aspects of writing—the research that leads to unexpected connections within my own brain.
I learn quickly and I’m excited by ideas that are new and novel, plus I have a strong drive to problem solve, it’s that mindset that has led me to a number of my professional hats. In terms of fiction, over the years I’ve found my approach utilizes some of the skills involved in writing business documents and diagramming processes. It’s not so much that I’m transferring job skills to my creative endeavors. Rather I think that in some way I lean on the same strengths, and honestly, have the same weaknesses. Despite the analytical and organized nature of my work documents, my desk and my brain are spinning with fragments, scrawled notes, post-its, squiggly thought diagrams, and a gut sense of what strands of inquiry I need to follow. My work process is seemingly chaotic—until it’s not and I’ve identified both the what and the why. I find writing fiction works much the same. Linear is not my natural approach to anything!
Building off the non-writing related areas of expertise question, one of my favorite things to ask authors is about strange jobs they’ve had. What’s the most unusual job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?
Well…I worked at a wax paper factory for part of a summer. I also worked at the Hood Milk factory and I made over-sized paper flowers next to my Ye Olde sales cart as an employee of Six Flags Amusement Park. I also worked as a caseworker for low-income seniors. But I have to say my job as a companion to a ninety-something-year-old man was the oddest. I was tasked with taking him out to stores and restaurants and making him feel part of the world. The money was helpful to me, as I’d left my job in hopes of “focusing on writing,” but we had very little in common and choosing our activities was, for me, deeply uncomfortable. And yes it taught me a very important lesson! I was a dumb dumb. Leaving your day job is luxury, especially early in a writing career. Of course, I had to figure that out the hard way, by trying it. These days I’m lucky enough to be able to work part-time in a professional job. If I were to jump completely, this time I’d have a much better plan!
Those all sound like fascinating life experiences, though! Switching gears again…New England in general strikes me as having a strong sense of place. The image it conjures in my mind is small towns, old families, the sea, and an area ripe for hauntings. As a resident of New England, do you find any of that to be true? What are the local-to-you places you go for inspiration, or that you like to recommend folks visiting the area?
To an extent. For me that version of New England is found on the islands off of the Maine Coast. Vinalhaven, the settling for my story “Signal and Stone,” feels very much that way, and actually that story does include a few ghosts. But I also know I look at Vinalhaven with an outsider’s eyes. While researching the story I learned something of the economic and community tensions that exist. I guess if you look closely enough, no place is any one thing.
My own experience of New England is a bit different. I live in Western Massachusetts in a college town located along the Connecticut River. The brick buildings of Smith College are quintessential New England. We have running clubs and bicycling clubs and micro-brew bicycle tours. Bike paths and woodland trails crisscross the entire region. There are movies in the summer on the lawn of the old library and a multitude of music venues. This summer the Arts Council hosted two Salsa nights in Pulaski Park. Each was a packed with small children, families, and couples who had clearly taken Salsa classes, all enjoying the music and the night—together. At the same time class—and the way that it intersects with race, ethnicity, sexual and gender identity—is at play here as much as anywhere else. We are a myriad, like any place, and we’re definitely not immune to the personal and cultural problems you find elsewhere.
That said, I love my home. Mass MOCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams feeds me in a way few museums can. It’s housed in a converted factory space with large installations and a relatively low number of visitors. There was an exhibit entitled Invisible Cities about six years ago inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel of the same name. It included a city that was presented as a soundscape with no visual representation. I stood in the empty space, enthralled, until my family dragged me away. Closer to home one of my personal favorites is the R. Michelson Gallery, which is housed in a converted nineteenth century bank. They have an incredible collection of picture book art, including Dr. Seuss, and a permanent Leonard Nimoy photography installation in what used to be the old bank vault. There is the Smith College Botanical Gardens, which are housed in a towering Victorian greenhouse. There is the Parlor Room which is small music venue by the record label Signature Sounds. It features Indie, Americana, Folk and Roots music. Fort Hill Brewery and Abandoned Building Brewery are both in nearby Easthampton and are both on the bike path. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art is across the river in Amherst along with Emily Dickinson’s house and the Amherst College Museum of Natural History. And then there are all the hikes and the views of the Valley you find once you go up into the hills… I really could go on and on. I probably already have!
You did a good job – now I want to come visit! To wrap things up, now that Uncommon Miracles is out in the world, what’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works you want folks to know about?
As well as my novella “The Rampant” currently out on submission, I’ve been contracted to write a tabletop RPG game for Evil Hat’s Fate World series. I’ve also been able to focus on new short stories. I have many partials, always, but I finally finished two new stories in the last couple of weeks. It was lovely. I also have significant pieces of a mosaic novel called Ash that I want to move forward. Writing the novella has given me some confidence and—fingers crossed—some new skills around the longer form, or my version of it anyway!
Thanks so much for stopping by!
Thank you for inviting me! I’ve really enjoyed it.