Interview with Alumna and Author Jan English Leary

Eleanor Igwe ’17
Contributing Writer

Last month, I had the chance to talk to Smith alumna and author Jan English Leary ’72, who visited Broadside Books in Northampton to talk about her first novel, “Thicker Than Blood.”  Leary has been published in The Literary Review and Pleiades among others, and her collection of short stories, “Frequent Losers,” was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award in 2009.

Can you tell me a little about how you started writing?

I didn’t get started writing until late …. My interest in language and reading started at a very early age … but my interest in writing fiction started much later, later than it does for most writers. I started thinking about it and didn’t really start writing until after my children were born, and I was teaching French at the time and was busy with that. But, I was a little more interested in starting to tell stories, rather than just read about them.

My writing started with a course I took at Newberry Library in Chicago, and then I went on to study with another man whom I worked with for many years at a workshop of his, and then I got an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College.

How did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

I didn’t really have thoughts of being a writer before taking that class. It would kind of pop into my head when I was in my late twenties, early thirties, but I thought, “No, you can’t do that.”

I think sometimes you get more productive the more busy you are. In some ways, I was the most busy that I’d ever been in my life when I started writing. When I was younger and had more time, I didn’t do it. I think sometimes that’s the way things work. I do believe in second chapters in life. I think it’s good to make a change and to change careers or to change direction. I think that’s very energizing.

You mentioned that you had some hesitations when you started taking the class at the library.

I did. It was weird, because I thought I knew who I was, you know, intellectually. I was good at language. I loved language, and it didn’t even occur to me that I could write fiction, and then when I started thinking about it, I kept pushing it away. I thought “I can analyze things, I can read,” but I didn’t think I could come up with anything. I think I was coming at it so late, [that] I thought, “Who am I to do this? It seems presumptuous.” But that was letting the more self-doubting side of me take over, and there’s a lot less of that now fortunately.

Who and what would you say are influences on your writing style?

There are so many people whose writing I really love … I tend to gravitate toward short story writers. My biggest influence in Alice Munro … She’s the best person writing really deep and dense and incredibly involved short stories … Dan Beatty, Antonya Nelson, Deborah Eisenberg, Kate Walbert, Claire Messud, John Cheever, Charles Baxter. There are a number.

Which house did you live in while you were at Smith? How did your time at Smith influence your writing?

I lived in Park House. It was the years with the 12 College Exchange, so there were actually guys living in Park Annex.

I spent my junior year in Paris. That year in Paris deeply affected me. That was something that carried into my writing. Travel and different countries and settings definitely play a big part in my writing.

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