Jan Becker is from a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania. She didn’t stay there very long. She grew up in a Marine Corps family, on military bases all over the United States, and wandered the US for many years before settling in South Florida. She is currently an MFA candidate at Florida International University, and has taught courses there in composition, technical writing, creative writing and poetry. Her work has appeared in Jai-Alai Magazine, Colorado Review, Emerge, Brevity Poetry Review, Sliver of Stone, and the Florida Book Review. She was the winner of the 2015 AWP Intro Journals Award in Nonfiction. Her first book, The Sunshine Chronicles was published by Jitney Books in 2016.
Jan was interviewed for Sliver of Stone Magazine.
You recently defended your Masters thesis in creative nonfiction at FIU. It took you eight years to get through the program, but you somehow managed to also publish The Sunshine Chronicles before you defended. How did that happen?
The finished thesis is a collection of essays about “immigrating” to the United States after an abusive childhood in the Marine Corps. It’s a tough program at FIU, and the topic is one of the hardest to write about artfully. After about six years, I switched my focus from a book-length memoir to essay. When I inventoried my drafted work, I found I had enough to defend, and about three other books, but there was one integral piece missing that I needed to pull the collection together. It was the hardest essay I’ve ever written, because it’s about the darkest period of my life, after my stepfather’s death, when I was diagnosed with PTSD and plagued by persistent flashbacks. While I was struggling with that essay, I was going through a rough time personally. Over the course of about a year and a half, my best friend Michael died. I lost my grandmother, and six other people. I went into a deep depression. I couldn’t even look at the thesis during that period, and was finally at the point where I had no choice but to finish or be kicked out of the MFA program, when I was approached about working on The Sunshine Chronicles by my editor at Jitney Books, J.J. Colagrande.
J.J. likes to get things done quickly, whereas I’m more methodical about my work. Some of the essays in my thesis are ones I started working on eighteen years ago. It was a Hail Mary kind of deal. He was looking for one final book to get in the Jitney catalog so he could launch the press. I’d been told I had a book of Facebook posts that were unusual and interesting enough to publish as a book. I sent him the file, without even looking at it, and it turned out to be 2,455 pages of material. He did the work cutting that down to about a 350-page manuscript, but it needed more work, and I was stuck on the thesis with a deadline. And poor, J.J., I don’t think he knew what he was getting into when he approached me. That last essay thesis required me to go back and re-visit a lot of memories I’d been putting off dealing with. I was back in full-blown flashback mode, doing the best I could to get through, and had to tell him, back off. I’m going through something you can’t understand. He respected that I needed space to figure it out, and said, “Yeah, do what you need to do, and the new book will get done when you’re finished.” I’ll always be thankful to J.J. for seeing something in my writing, and having faith enough to say, “you can do this,” because at the time, I was hopeless.
Having the extra pressure on me—coupled with someone believing in my work when I couldn’t—and he wasn’t the only person who believed in my work, he was just the most pushy and vocal–freed me up to finish working on the final essay. I pounded out 5,800 words in a matter of a few hours and sent the manuscript in to my thesis director—who for the first time in eight years didn’t require any revisions. That gave me room to finish trimming back The Sunshine Chronicles. It’s strange, looking back at my writing in that book, that even when I wasn’t working on my thesis, I was writing—and more surprisingly, even when everything seemed dark, I was living.
You’re surprisingly funny in The Sunshine Chronicles, even when you’re writing about serious issues. Can you talk a little about humor?
It has a lot to do with the zeitgeist on social media. When something goes bad in the world, you’re suddenly exposed to overwhelming strife, drama, and competing voices on the internet. Some days I open my Facebook page and read through my newsfeed and I want to jump out the window, because everything feels so bleak and depressing. I can always laugh at absurdity, and the world I live in is extremely absurd. It’s tragic too. I don’t laugh at tragedy, but I can laugh at the situation in my laundry room, or my grandmother’s antics, even when nothing else is funny. There’s also something about approaching a serious topic with humor that is disarming to people who don’t agree with your politics or personal beliefs.
In hindsight, some of the things I wrote about in The Sunshine Chronicles are quite chilling and serious. For example, in one post I wondered what woke the presidential candidates up at 3AM, because I thought it would give the best indication of who they were as people, behind all the slick PR posturing. Now we know. It’s that Neiman Marcus pulled the Ivanka Trump line. That’s heartbreaking to me, and somehow prescient.
The Sunshine Chronicles reminds me a lot of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which was the bestselling book during the American Revolution. Ben Franklin was funny. He looked at the world around him and laughed, despite the terrible oppression of colonial society. I feel we’re due in the United States for a revolution of thought, and there’s got to be some humor in it if it’s going to reach those who view things from an angle obscured by fear and hatred. People are more willing to switch their gaze to a different perspective if it’s entertaining.
Can you talk a little about truth? One of the unusual things about your book is how honest it is. Where do you draw the line on what you share and what you keep hidden?
I try to be careful not to be hurtful with what I write about on social media. It’s not a place to air my grievances. The Winemaker Chronicles, a series of posts about a visitor who consistently overstays his welcome, is an exception to that rule, and he never paid rent while he was here, and was a pain in the ass. The worst houseguest ever. So, with him, it was a way to work out some frustration. I was much kinder to him in the book than he deserved. He’s since sent a cease and desist letter. That just makes me laugh, because there’s no way to shut Jan Becker up once I get started. I’m happy to say he was so disturbed by what I wrote about him that he canceled his annual visit this year.
I’m not afraid to expose my own dirt. I don’t care if people know I see a shrink, because my shrink is a lot crazier than I am, and more people need to see shrinks without feeling it’s something shameful. After growing up in a family with dark secrets, I have no issue with exposing myself, because it frees me up to live my truth, and there’s something empowering about accepting yourself as you are. I have nothing to be ashamed about. I’m human. I think a lot about the motto: E Pluribus Unum. To me, that not only means the United States is one country made up of many pieces, it means that out of all these pieces, one must be an individual. It shouldn’t be so hard to be open, but it’s liberating. No one can define you if you take the time and effort to define yourself.
More importantly, the consequences of being untruthful and too frightened to be honest are too staggering. In an age where one can’t trust the media, being honest with oneself and with one’s vantage point on the world is the only way left for writers to create a truer reality for the future. Even if it’s on my Facebook page. There’s this belief with creative nonfiction, that it’s all really a lie, because as a writer you tell people what you want them to believe. I look at it a little differently. I tell people what I want to believe, and in that way, I come as close as I can to rendering truth.