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Lies My Mother Never Told Me: Interview with Kaylie Jones

03/10/2011 02:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"I tell my students to write about a subject that fascinates them." - Kaylie Jones

It is an enormous pleasure to share interviews with authors who have played an inspirational part in my own writing. A distinguished teacher and writer of poetry, novels and screenplays, author Kaylie Jones was born in France and returned with her family to the U.S. in 1974. She received an MFA in Writing from Columbia University and pursued Russian Studies in Moscow. Her father was the novelist James Jones (From Here to Eternity).

Kaylie's most recent novel, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, is a memoir that candidly and gracefully discusses her story to find her own voice. When I reached out to Kaylie, she graciously agreed to discuss her life as a writer, her family and offer words of inspiration to writers.

Laura Cococcia: You grew up in a family of writers. Did you always want to be a writer?

Kaylie Jones: As a child and young adult I wanted to be an actress. I avoided reading novels for as long as I could. As a kid I only read Tintin and Asterix comics, yet I was surrounded by books on all sides. When my dad ran out of space for his books in the living room, he lined my bedroom with bookshelves and stored his extra books there. My brother and I used the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves above my bed as a scaffold to jump off of when we played pirates, landing with yells on the bed below.

About six months before he died, my father started giving me novels to read - the novels he'd loved as a young man: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner. I think he realized he was running out of time and wanted to get me started on reading for the future. After he died, in May 1977, I finally began to pursue reading novels with a vengeance.

When I finally started, I couldn't stop. In novels, I found a second family, a place where I inherently belonged. I found a moral code I could follow in the great books of my favorite writers. I devoured them and I've never stopped reading since. The desire to write came to me toward the end of my freshman year, when I realized I didn't have the thick skin I needed to pursue an acting career. I knew if I took that path, I'd end up dead, or worse. My personality wasn't cut out for that kind of life - whether I'd succeed, or not. I quit acting because I was terrified; I no longer had my father to protect me.

Writing did not come easily to me, as it does to some writers. I struggled with vocabulary - finding the exact right word - and with descriptive passages. My first written language was French. I had a piano teacher in France as a kid who always said, "Practice the hard parts, even though you don't want to." I applied that philosophy to my writing. It helped a lot. French invaded my English, especially when I was writing creatively. I finally overcame that, and now I can barely formulate a cohesive written thought in French.

LC: Your new book, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, was released in August 2009. Can you share more about the background of the novel and the process of writing it?

KJ: Lies My Mother Never Told Me is in part about my growing up in Paris, surrounded by literary luminaries, when being a literary figure still meant something in our western culture, but it is also about the legacy of being the daughter of James Jones, and the importance that has played in my own life as a teacher of writing and literature, and as a writer myself. His death was a catastrophe in my family.

My father grew up totally enthralled by the Hemingway romance of the writer's life abroad - and he pursued it with a vengeance. That was the environment in which I grew up, surrounded by literary giants with legendary partying habits.

I tried to approach writing this memoir the way one of my writer heroes, Anton Chekhov recommends in his six principles that make for a good story: "1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. totally objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion."

A tall order for sure. But I gave this list a good deal of thought. In the first person, it's very hard not to be judgmental or opinionated, or not to project onto the narrative what you want the reader to feel. In this memoir, I knew I had to show not only my mother's weaknesses but her great strengths - her sense of humor, her intelligence, her fierce loyalty to her friends, and her storytelling, which was quirky and hilarious - so I devised a way to slip one of her own personal favorite anecdotes in between each chapter. This has added a great deal of levity to a tale that ends pretty badly.

The story has its glamorous moments, and its hilarious moments, as well as a much darker side that no one in my family wanted to talk about. The good news is my husband, daughter, and brother were one-hundred-percent behind me. This kept me motivated and focused.

LC: You've taught writing for many years. What advice do you consistently give your writing students?

KJ: Many people write well; very few are capable of constructing a good book. Great writers study writing and literature for years, just as students study medicine or law, or architecture. Except with writing, there is no exam at the end that tells you you're ready to receive your degree.

The first thing I tell my students is to write about a subject that fascinates them. If they're enthralled by the subject, they will probably be able to enthrall their readers. And, especially for longer projects, it's crucial for the narrative to have momentum and drive. That can't happen if the writer grows bored or runs out of gas halfway through.

I think it's virtually impossible to become a good writer if you don't read books. It's important to read across genres, too. The only way to really study technique is to see how others handled similar situations. If a scene in a book makes you cry, go back and study it carefully to try to figure out how the writer accomplished this. It's never the obvious thing: emotion and opinions can't be shoved down the reader's throat. It is always in the carefully rendered details that the true emotion shines through.

To read more about Kaylie, you can visit her site here.

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