1:1 - Erin Justice

Posted on: July 31, 2014

interviewed by Dot Dannenberg
Over the next few weeks, 1:1000 will take you behind the scenes with our core writing and editorial team. We'll show you more about what makes these writers tick (or maybe twitch).

First up is Erin Justice (just Justice, please), a twenty-something who loves words and books and has a weakness for chips and salsa. But around here, she's better known as the writer behind Pennybacker, Hail Caesar..., Hoodoo, Sanctuary, and this week's Famine.

1:1000: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?

ERIN JUSTICE: My parents were great bedtime readers and storytellers, and growing up in the South I was exposed to an amazing folklore tradition. I grew up with stories all around me, and I could usually be found with a book in hand. In high school, I started writing more than reading. When I was fifteen, I decided I would be a novelist. When I was eighteen, I decided I abhorred Northwestern's English department. I stopped writing for years, because in college you're supposed to "find yourself." It took me years to realize that I pretty much had that figured out in high school, and I'm still trying to reconcile the self-made me with, well, me. And for better or worse, I'm a big ole word nerd who wants to write.

1:1000: What writing projects are you working on now?

EJ: I've written one full manuscript - I started it in high school, so it's kind of a hot mess. It helped me figure out my bad writing habits, and my strengths and weaknesses. I'm working on another manuscript right now - a good one, I hope - that's set in the same world, a couple of generations after the first one. I don't want to give too many details, but I'm describing it as a post-apocalyptic/fantasy mash-up. I've also been working on a couple of short stories - one for fun, one for submission. Most of the day-to-day stuff happens over at my blog, and I have some pretty fun projects planned for the rest of the year. I was working on a novella, but it got too cumbersome and felt forced, so I've tabled it.

1:1000: Where do you do most of your writing, and do you have a writing routine?

EJ: I do most of my writing at home, though I have been known to bang out a few hundred words at the Starbucks near work. My fiance and I are lucky to have more house than we need (right now), so I claimed the smallest room as a home office. I try to keep to a routine, but it shifts with every major change in my life. The biggest one of late has been a (much needed) recommitment to my health, and trying to figure out how a workout fits into my day - and where that leaves writing. My goal is to have my home office and routine squared away by the end of August.

1:1000: This may be a challenge for as much as you read, but what's the last thing you read that blew your mind?

EJ: Ha. Probably Monica Byrne's The Girl in the Road. It's my favorite book so far this year. I finished it a few weeks ago and have been telling everyone to check it out. It's so immersive and so deep - as soon as I finished it, I wanted to reread it from the beginning, just to try and unpack more of it. It explore themes of identity, gender, sexuality, perception, and religion. And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head! It's very Margaret Atwood (can that be a thing now?).

1:1000: For 1:1000, you've written about everything from lesbians on spring break to a plague that wipes out humanity to Hurricane Katrina. What are some of the sources of your inspiration?

EJ: I had a wonderful childhood. I think I need to say that right off the bat, because there's a dark streak (or you know, a total blackout) in a lot of what I write. I get inspired by music - I love listening to musical scores, and I'll often intentionally select soundtracks that channel the tone I want to capture. Other times I get lost in music, and I end up dreaming up characters. I also just write what I want to write. That sounds very dumb and basic, but it really can be a useful starting point. If I can identify a theme or mood, the characters usually take over. And sometimes the end result is better than what I planned! "Tequila Sunrise" started as a love story, but originally between Cheyenne and - gasp - Adrian. Obviously, that didn't work. The writing told me that, and so did Cheyenne, in her own fictional character way.

1:1000: What's your approach to engaging with a photo and sticking within the limits of the 1,000-word form?

EJ: I treat my story as a snapshot of a character's life. I'm trying to capture a piece of someone (or a shared relationship), and I only have a 1,000 words to make it meaningful. You can reduce someone in a 1,000 words - or you can give them a significant, resonating story...I think I'm more successful with some pieces than with others.

1:1000: You've described your writing as having "a touch of whimsy and darkness, skating on the edge between magic and madness: fanciful and yet feral." I've heard this sort of writing described as "genre bending"--what appeals to you about writing between these lines?

EJ: Ha! Well, the "fanciful and yet feral" line is something I got from Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child. I read that book on a ski trip and decided it was the perfect way to describe the dark, fantastical tone and concepts in most of my writing. I know this is kind of a cop-out to this answer, but what appeals to me is that this is voice I've found. It took me years to find it (and accept it), but I guess genre bending is who I am as a writer. And I think we're seeing more and more of that, on a larger scale - books that are YA, but also dystopian and sci-fi and in turn, horror. Fantasy that blends into biography or epic poetry. When my parents grew up, "creative non-fiction" wasn't a thing, but now you have to have something lyrical and captivating if you want to be successful (and heard). I guess we're all just trying to be our own storytellers.

1:1000: You, maybe more than anyone else I know, live an entirely immersive literary life. You write stories for 1:1000 and your own blog, Manuscripts & Marginalia. You seem to be constantly reading and reviewing books. And you even have time to write about makeup and clothing box subscriptions hauls each month. On top of this, you have your lengthier writing projects, and you still have time to keep your facebook wall flowing with links to the best craft articles on the web. TEACH US YOUR BLACK MAGIC. How can we lowly mortals be as prolific and engaged as you are?

EJ: Well, part of it just that I have this weird space in my life right now. I'm in between education programs right now (I want to get my MFA, because of course I do). I don't have kids (I've noticed this is when many parents go "ohhhhh!"). As far as tangible takeaways - I listen to audiobooks as I'm driving (my daily commute is ninety minutes total) or doing chores. I have an Audible account and I increased the Narration speed. That's been a big factor in how many books I finish during the year. I also started using Klout, which gives me an option to schedule Facebook/Twitter posts. I tend to check RSS feeds early in the morning, at lunch, and in the evening, so it helps me avoid a social media blitzkrieg. I also tend to approach anything as an exercise in voice. The downside is that I think I've started to lose some of my own touch. If you read my blog, you'd get the impression that I'm a fashionista who can hold her own at Sephora. The reality is I live in comfortable shirts and jeans, and my makeup routine usually consists of me poking myself in the eye with something black and smudgy. I don't want to 180-degree overhaul my blog, but I will be making some very deliberate content/tone changes soon so RealMe can talk over #Me.

1:1000: How do you manage to balance your day job with the work you really want to be doing?

EJ: Sometimes well and sometimes poorly. At times it isn't so much a balance as it is a teeter-totter. I do set boundaries. If I have an idea at work, I jot it down. I force myself to take my break to capture words that won't leave me alone. I also leave the building if I want to write during the day. Staying in the office is begging to be interrupted or just plain blocked. Self-motivation and pep talks work, too. There are days when I have to remind myself that I'm blessed to have a stable job, benefits, and a (fairly) regular 40-hour/week schedule. My day job is a safety net, which can be a good and bad thing. I try to focus on the good as much as I can. One thing I didn't think of until now - I work with curriculum at a university. I don't see students every single day, but I have to understand students' learning styles and motivations. I think about students a lot in my job, and all the opportunities they have is another source of motivation for me. I'm also inspired by the number of graduate students who choose to dedicate time and energy into a deliberate choice and effort to change their lives. I don't want to be my own biggest limitation or missed opportunity.

1:1000: What sayings or mantras are you living by lately?

EJ: Lately? That's a good caveat. I could go with "be a fountain, not a drain," because I want to inspire others. Or I could say "collect moments not things" because I'm trying to focus on the now rather than the objective materialistic representation of the now. I could go with "We have always fought," which is the title of Kameron Hurley's Hugo-nominated blog post about women being people with agency. Or I could say <insert hip phrase from pop culture reference> because <hip things the youth say on the interwebz>. But really, after browsing my Pinterest inspiration board for too long, I'm just gonna have to go with the last sentence from the final Calvin & Hobbes strip: "It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy...let's go exploring!" The world is a limitless, wonderful place, and I don't want to forget that.

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