A Chat with Jahla Seppanen

Jahla Seppanen was born and raised off the grid in Madrid, New Mexico. She received her B.A. in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Last year she completed her first novel. Jahla enjoys Puerto Rican rum and listening to the Ramones.  Her stories have been published in Fourteen Hills, The Bookends Review, Used Gravitrons, and Turk’s Head Review.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about how and when and why you decided to pursue writing?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: It was in my senior year of college that I first understood writers are people, and I could do it too. Not that I am living off my fiction writing, but it became clear that it can and is done. This came from a professor of mine, Junior Burke, whom I still hold as the greatest mentor I have ever had. He showed me that it’s simple. Every day you have to sit yourself down and write. If you do, you’re a writer and you want it. If you don’t, then well, you don’t want it enough. He also taught me that good writers will never be great, and great writers will never be extraordinary. He made me trust in the simplicity of my words.

NICHE: What were some of the challenges you faced, if any, when composing your short story, Alien Girls?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Sorting memories. And doing so with the restraint of deciding what to tell. In the end, it was everything. I have always been bad at keeping secrets.

NICHE: Technically speaking, your story is a difficult one, in that, you employ first-person present tense, but the narrator is re-calling past events. Those who know a little bit about writing technique know that first person, present tense is difficult to maintain and keep coherent throughout. You do it very well. Can you speak to your choices? Why first person and why present tense?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I believe in writing what is consistent with how I envision the story and characters. Sometimes truth does not conform to rules. It rarely does. But you have to know the rules to break them. Most writers go directly for unconventional or “edgy” writing, but that is all crap. The rules are important.

NICHE: In Alien Girls, the narrator is almost a secondary character. That is, the focus of the story is entirety on Sonia. However, the narrator is important. Readers know her very well by the end merely because we get to experience how she describes her sister, and how she describes her sister tells us a lot about her. Without her acting as a filter, readers wouldn’t understand Sonia at all.  Was this a conscious decision on your part or did this develop organically as you drafted?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Yes, the narrator is nothing but a ghost limb of Sonia. I cannot speak to whether readers will understand or know Sonia, because I know her and the narrator does, and there is an intimacy there. This intimacy is love and fear and cannot be backed away from. It is my hope that readers feel close to that. Maybe to the point of feeling uncomfortable, because that is what exists between the lost and the living. We all have sadnesses in our lives. And if you don’t, you will.

NICHE: The other wonderful aspect of your story is that the language is what I would describe as “lush.” I’m defining lush as sentences that hold a level of interest or evidence of “having been there”—which does not mean the story is creative nonfiction. It merely means that you’ve used images effectively. What I like, however, is that your images are not overwrought or overly lyrical. They are very much tied to the real. I believe it is because you’ve used images in this way that your story manages to not veer into the overly sentimental, which is difficult to accomplish with a story that deals with a death. I know it is very difficult but can you describe to our readers how you go about choosing the details or images you use in a story? Do you have to struggle to find them, or do they come to you naturally as the story develops?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I write from how I see little scenes in my head. Like the narrator, I always dream at night. Bright, vivid, sharp dreams. There is no way to share these images by using flowery language. Flowery language does nothing but wilt. Words should be simple. Adjectives should be burned. Sentiment is adjective. And it’s funny because death is the most simple thing in the world.

I have always hated writing that is overly lyrical. I believe it is self indulgent, if I’m putting it nicely.

I choose my writing based off details that have the exact right word to describe them. Of course it is a struggle, or more of a hunt, but when the right word comes I can feel it all down my body. Even before the story goes on the page it has a breed. Sometimes it can be as simple as the sound of a word that makes it a terrible fit. But you can’t include it.

NICHE: What advice would you give aspiring writers about the revising and editing process?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Read your work out loud, because flow is everything. And kill your darlings. It is an emptying feeling when I revise and realize the story is terrible. But you have to know that you can either work through the sludge for hours on end, or trust that the story does not need to be told.

NICHE: What can you tell us about the novel you completed? What are you working on now?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I completed a novel, The Sage and Sound, about two lovers on a nocturnal road trip from Texas to New Mexico. It centers around the dependencies of being in love, and how we are influenced for better and worse. I had a couple agents look at the manuscript but nothing stuck. The first half is very good, but the second needs work. I hope it can be published one day, but I am not ready to return to that world yet. It is entrapping, like the landscape of the desert and the feeling of being completely in love.  For now my heart can only handle short prose. But it needs writing. Oh it needs it.

This interview was originally appeared on Niche’s website on July 2, 2015.

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