J. A. Bernstein’s forthcoming novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues 2019), won the AWP Award Series, Hackney, and Knut House Prizes, and his forthcoming story collection, Stick-Light (Eyewear 2019), was a finalist for the Robert C. Jones and Beverly Prizes. His work has appeared in Shenandoah, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, Tampa Review, Tin House (web), Chicago Quarterly Review, and other journals, and won Crab Orchard Review’s John Gunyon Prize in Nonfiction. A Chicago-native, he is the fiction editor of Tikkun and, starting this August, an assistant professor in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Q: You told me that, “like a lot of writers,” you’d prefer not to discuss your own writing. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
My sense is that a piece of creative writing should be able to stand on its own. That doesn’t mean context or intention are unimportant, or that criticism shouldn’t exist (well, it depends on who’s writing it). I’m also not averse to discussing craft. But my instinct is that if an author needs to start explaining her work, or clarifying it for readers, then the work itself probably needs revisiting.
Q: What happens when somebody “doesn’t get” something you’ve written?
In an ideal world, I’d have them shipped to Siberia.
Q: What do you see as the relationship between literature and advocacy?
This is a great question—and please excuse my pert response to the last one. This is also a question that I’m sure I, and virtually any writer who’s alive today, ponder continually. Let me simply say this: when I was in graduate school, I remember a literature professor I admired, Terrence Whalen, telling a group of students that Melville’s politics were inscrutable. “Let that be a lesson to all you creative writers,” he joked. And I think there was truth in that. The best works of art, regardless of their commitment, seem to evade scrutiny or any quick encapsulation.
Q: What are the most important contributions that publications like Little Patuxent Review and Tikkun can make to the world right now?
I think LPR and Tikkun are both committed to finding the best work that they can. That’s no easy task, especially for journals on a budget.
Q: What writers or pieces of writing are you reading at the moment?
I just finished Mark Irwin’s poetry collection, American Urn, and J. Robert Lennon’s story collection, See You in Paradise. Both were mind-blowingly good. Next on my list is Amina Gautier’s most recent collection, The Loss of All Lost Things, and maybe one of the Thomas Hardy novels I haven’t read, which is most of them.
Q: How does Arabic and Israeli literature inform your writing?
Of the writers I’ve read across the years, none have haunted me quite like Agnon and Kanafani. I can’t explain why, and they’re certainly quite different in their approaches and themes. But perhaps both of them, like many Middle Easter writers (if Agnon, a Polish Jew, can be classified as such), wrestle with war and despondence and do so with almost mystical, shattering imagery.
Q: What advice do you have to writers who are starting out?
I’m wary of anyone offering advice of any kind, especially on writing. That said, having a sizeable trust fund, loads of caffeine, and access to really famous people cannot hurt. In all seriousness, I have no idea what to say except work hard and read.
Q: I’m headed to Minnesota this summer for vacation. Any advice? I’ve already been told to bring bug spray.
Duluth Grill for dining, Castle Danger for beer, and Tettegouche State Park for hiking, though probably not in that order. Unfortunately, I’ll miss you, since I’m moving to Mississippi this summer, where, I’m told, the insects have fangs.