Jo Varnish

Jo Varnish, originally from England,  lives outside New York City. Her short stories and creative nonfiction have recently appeared, or are forthcoming, in PANK, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, JMWW Journal, Barren Magazine, and others. Jo is a 2021 Pushcart Prize nominee, has been a writer in residence at L’Atelier Writers for two years, and is studying for her MFA. She can be found on twitter @jovarnish1.


James McAdamss Ambushing the Void is released this month by Frayed Edge Press. I caught up with him for a chat about his book, his writing process, and his inspirations.

JV: Ambushing the Void is a collection of stories drawn together by themes such as relationships, loss, and nostalgia, and told through truly memorable characters. Professor Pankova and Teo are two of many that will stay with me. Did you draw from real life counterparts for these and other characters?

JM: Its pretty easy for me to look at a person, or read/hear about a person on a podcast or Tweet, and then imagine them into some weird scenario combined with my experience of the world. I guess thats true for all writers. Teo, however, I have no idea where he came from. I think I had the idea to write about this immigrant character from the 1980s, but I do think some of his determining characteristics (being a young baseball player) was probably taken from a documentary of Yankees players from the Hispanic world, maybe? Professor Pankova is modeled after a Russian literature professor from the Czech Republic I had at the University of Pittsburgh. I was fascinated by how enthusiastic she was to share her heritage with the students (cooking for us, showing us pictures of her hometown, dressing in weird post-Soviet almost-gypsy garb) combined with the utter indifference of most of the class, who were busy sleeping or texting or laughing behind her back. It was sad I guess, everythings sad, but it seemed like something more. I think adding to her character a sense or recognition that her students didnt care makes the character work. I hope this is the case. Other characters: Joe the Plumber (My Friend Joe) is based on the Joe the Plumbercharacter from some of the idiotic Sarah Palin rallies in 2008 and beyond. The most literal kidnapping of a public person for my purposes comes in Somewhere in FL, an Angel Appeared,which Ill get to.

JV: The use of technology is a recurring theme in these stories. How do you feel about modern relationships’ reliance on technology, and is there a wistfulness for a time when social media and the Internet weren’t integral to our lives?

JM: Im 40, I think around the same age as you. I feel like I straddle the world of my students, who are like, Why wouldnt our entire lives be mediated?, and the world of, say, my older siblings in their later 40s/50s, who really dont care about this. So Im in between and have both thoughts in my head all the time: I hate this but Im on it 3 hrs a day. Ultimately, Ill just be old and say 1) there are dopamine functions that the software and hardware and application developers are manipulating and exploiting and there will probably a class-action lawsuit in a decade or so, just like what happened to Pharma and Big Banking;  2) the old Pascal quote, viz. something like the most important skill for a human being is to be alone in a room: I cant do this anymore. Can you? I need to be Mr. Promotion Machine on social media for the next few months but Im pretty sure Ill be off everything by the end of 2020. I would like to go off the grid and hike to Alaska or something but I have literally zero abilities to take care of myself without things like microwaves and YouTube recipes and WikiHow instructions off-the-grid for me unfortunately.

JV: Drug use and addiction are peppered throughout the collection; what inspires you to explore them through your writing?

JM: Quick answer, which is true: Im writing a novel set in a rehab so a lot of the later stories in here (Delray,” “Red Tide,” “Somewhere in FL…”) are from that. Longer answer, which Im not sure is true: I think drug addiction is another side of love. So I think you can have love (for a person, or a higher ideal maybe) or love for a drug, or even a phone or app (as I said above), or whatever pings your dopamine. And as youve noticed theres like zero romantic love in this collection, because love is boring to write about IMO, so to fill that vacuum I went with drug addiction, which is just another, less culturally-sanctioned, form of love. Im not sure this is true as a sociological insight. Do you buy any of it?

JV: It makes sense, having read your book! Talking of, tell us a little about the inspiration behind the story, "Somewhere in Florida, An Angel Appeared." It’s a beautiful piece, quietly moving, and one that leaves an impression, possibly asking more questions than it answers…

JM: Im happy to! The piece was initially dedicated to Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, but we removed it because I have a big heart and was dedicating every piece to thousands of people until it annoyed my poor editor, despite her patience...Anyway, Amanda has one of the more famous TED Talks called The Art of Asking,which she later expanded into a book. It pretty much explains the rationale for the move around 2005-2010 to artists just giving away their work for free online as a reaction to piracy. Anyway, she tells a story about touring with the Dresden Dolls in her 20s and crashing on fanscouches. In one story, she talks about her band (so we imagine a bunch of loud young brash punks) staying over at a small little hut in a Hispanic enclave in Florida. In the morning, she recounts being woken up by the Colombian grandmother and some other elders, who, while teaching her how to make authentic breakfast burritos (or whatever), thank her repeatedly for saving the life of their little girl who loves her music so much. Its around the 3/4th part of the video, I highly recommend it.

JV: What attracts you to the form of short and flash fiction?

JM: The earlier works in this collection average 4,000 words, the more recent fewer than 1,000, which is the consensus cap for flash fiction. While this wasnt a formal decision I made, it makes sense for a number of reasons, some practical, some neurotic: My attention span, because of THE OBVIOUS, doesnt work anymore. I base my TV shows on those I can watch with 33% of my brain, so I can read with 33% of my brain and listen to music with 33% of my brain. Online, I dont read anything longer than 2,000 words. I am not proud of this, but I cant be alone. Even most podcasts nowadays are moving towards 15-minutes

I think Rick Moody wrote this once, but the cool think about flash is that you can do any weird experiment and if it doesnt work, then who cares. For example, I just published a piece about a M2F Trans worker who creates fake profiles on online dating profiles in the form of a Reddit AMA. I wouldnt build a 300-page on this foundation, but for a 500-word micro its okay if it sucks. Small achievements, weekly. Its sort of a psychological trick, but Im writing a novel now cut into discrete, 500-1,000 word chapters. This way, at the end of each week, I have chapters done, chapters I can publish, that make it easier to concentrate on writing a novel for 3 years.

JV: Who influences your work as a writer?

JM: This will seem crazy after what I just wrote about flash, but I love the big old Russian-Soviet books: Gogol, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Dostoevsky, Bely, Nabokov, well as the poets like Akhmatova, Mayavosky, Tsvetaeva. James Agees Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been my muse for the past two years; His A Death in the Family is pretty good too. Also, Karl Ove Knausgårds My Struggle trilogy is an amazing experiment about opening your brain 100% to readers.

Its sort of like what Howard Stern does on the radio since 1980 in terms of pure confessional mindfulness that makes even the most banal quotidian events (10% of My Struggle is Karl feeding his little kids) seem numinous and holy. As for more contemporary authors, DFW (I realize I just lost 40% of sales because people will think Im a DFW-fanboyno footnotes in this collection, I promise), Lydia Millet, Colson Whitehead (he of the repeat Pulitzers), George Saunders, J.M. Coetzee, Denis Johnson, Samuel Delany, Kathy Acker, William Vollmann, now Im just looking at bookcasesand thinking, I need more non-white males,so lets stop here.

Except to say: Im lucky to be Flash Fiction editor at Barren Magazine, so I get to read real-time Indie authors like Marisa Crane, Chelsea Laine Wells, and Cathy Ulrich, who you probably know about it. Wish more people did!

JV: Cathy Ulrich is a hero of mine! Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you allocate time to your writing every day? How much of your writing time is rewriting and editing?

JM: Im horribly lazy and have no self-discipline about the writing grind. Most of this collection was written between 2-5 a.m. when I couldnt sleep and wasnt watching The Sopranos reruns for the 25th time. I tend to write super fast and dont revise all that well. I will say, 99% of my editing goes into dialogue. I slash and slash and slash at dialogue until I find something that sounds true but unique. I have a rule where if I can tell what the next line is (Hello, how are you, Sally?/“Im fine, Reginald, how about you?), then it gets deleted automatically. I stole a lot of dialogue techniques from William Gaddis and Don DeLillo. As an editor, if I dont buy the dialogue thats something I really have trouble getting over.

JV: Finally, what are you working on now? Has the lockdown has afforded you time to write much more than usual?

JM: I’m writing a novel-in-flash about The Florida Shuffle Rehab facilities have sprouted everywhere, many of them nefarious, profiting from insurance scams and general duplicity, referred to as “The Florida Shuffle.” "Delray” and “Red Tide” from the collection are in this.

"Ambushing the Void explores the margins of 21st century America, with characters confronting new worlds, new technologies, and new social structures while attempting to retain their identities & worldviews. These quirky, off-beat stories (with a tinge of the weird and disturbing) are thought-provoking takes on the post-modern search for meaning."

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RAW MEAT by Jo Varnish

She was eighty when being eighty meant being eighty. It meant grey hair and dark colored calf length skirts, tights and rounded toed court shoes. It meant a green felted coat and patent leather black purse shaped like the queens, with a shiny silver clasp that snapped shut. It meant that purse held, at a minimum: a checkbook, a hairbrush, rouge, a lipstick, tissues (a pack, unused, and at least one folded, used), a pair of spectacles and a variety of pens.  It meant she walked slowly, tutted at ill mannered children and grew African violets in mismatched pots along her living room window ledge. It meant furniture and decor as old as she was, and a dark, cold house with wallpaper and parquet wooden floors and no central heating.  

She looked after a little girl before school for extra money. She'd seen a note towards the end of the summer asking for help, written neatly on an index card and tacked up on a noticeboard in the post office. The little girl, six years old, would be dropped off by her mother (who then went to her job of all things, as if her job werent to look after the child!) and the old lady would watch her for half an hour and then walk her to the school, which was just a few minutes away, even at the old ladys slow pace.

Watching her for half an hour sounded easy enough.  But this was not a child who was content to sit and listen to the radio or read her book.  While she certainly always had at least one book in her school bag (they werent the classics they should have been, but what could one expect from these modern schools?), when the old lady would suggest she take one out and read during their time together, the little girl was direct in her response: I dont want to read, I want to talk to you.

The autumn sun faded to the gloom of winter, and still the little girl wanted to talk.  The old lady had exhausted her knowledge of cats and flowers and and castles and insects, and exhausted herself by having to endure the same conversations over and over (honestly, were all little children so tiresome?) and thus she was relieved when the little girl rolled up her sleeve and pointed to her wrist.  

“Look, Ive got a mole, like a big freckle.

The old lady knew what to do about that. She opened her fridge and took out a tray of sirloin steak, an indulgence despite its sale price.  It was for her supper of beef and vegetable stew, for this was when being eighty meant cooking a sensible meal every single evening, even if widowed, as she was.  She cut a chunk from the middle of the steak, avoiding the marbled fat as much as possible.

“Hold out your hand and Ill get rid of that nasty mole for you.

The little girl looked unsure.  She squeezed her eyes shut and offered her hand out towards the old lady, who turned it, exposing the offending mole. She gripped the chunk of bovine muscle and rubbed it over the mole, rubbed and rubbed and rubbed. The little girl said it felt sore and she squealed when the old lady didnt stop.  She rubbed it until the fibers of the steak were stretched and split by the dry friction, until the skin was red and blotched and coated in a fine film, dappled with tiny grains of raw meat.  

The little girl frowned and pushed her tongue in the side of her cheek, her eyes threatening tears.  The old lady pulled her across the kitchen and rinsed her wrist over the teacup and saucer in the sink, oily, beefy water swirling in the cup.  She patted the little girls wrist and hand dry with a stiff white tea towel, and they both peered at where the mole had been.  And where the mole still was, surrounded by dark pink mottled skin.

Its possible that being eighty meant shed mixed up her remedies, as the little girl began to sway and as she swayed, she started to fade until she had completely disappeared, mole and all.  

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