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Jess Row

Alumnus, 1991

Jess Row attended the Workshop in playwriting and fiction in 1991.

Where are you living and what brought you there?

I live in New York City, on the campus of NYU in Greenwich Village (my wife teaches English at NYU). 

Where are you working and what do you enjoy about it?

I’m a professor of English and creative writing at the College of New Jersey, a public liberal arts college just outside Trenton. TCNJ is a wonderful school—a place where students really do come first. I also teach in two low-residency MFA programs, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and at the City University of Hong Kong. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to teach writing and literature—and I wouldn’t be the teacher I am without the experience of the Young Writers Workshop.

What do you find yourself most often reading/listening to lately and why?

Here are a few books I’ve been excited about lately (this is in spring of 2013): Joshua Cohen, Four New Messages; Trevor Paglen, Torture Taxi; Ali Smith, Artful; Revolution: A Reader (Paraguay Press); Kenneth Goldsmith, Seven American Deaths and Disasters; The Interventionists: A Guide To The Creative Disruption of Every Life (Mass MoCA).

What are you working on right now and what does it represent in the larger body of your artistic accomplishments?

I just finished a novel, Your Face in Mine, to be published by Riverhead in 2014. It’s about racial reassignment surgery—the possibility that, in the near future, we might be able to “choose” what race we want to be. Right now I’m working on a third collection of short stories, Storyknife, which is all about the ethical implications of storytelling—in a way that indicts me, as a writer, and you, as a reader.

What are your publications, performances, albums, and/or achievements that seem most important to you at this point in time?

I’ve published two collections of short stories, The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost, and my work has appeared in The Atlantic, Tin House, Granta, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/ O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize. I also write literary essays and book reviews for places like Bookforum, Boston Review, Threepenny Review, and The New York Times Book Review, and some of the pieces I’m proudest of fall into that category. (Most of my nonfiction can be found on my website). In 2007 I was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta.

How would you characterize the influence of your YWW experience in your life?

The YWW was a transformative experience for me: it opened my eyes to all kinds of imaginative and intellectual connections between literature, philosophy, spirituality, and politics. A lot of that I credit to Margo’s leadership—she had a kind of genius for opening up the life of the mind in a way that teenagers could connect with. The visiting poet in that session, Nick Bozanic, distributed a packet of reading materials—ranging from Novalis to Aristotle to paintings made by elephants—that I still keep in my files. I also formed very deep connections with the friends I made at YWW. This was more than twenty years ago, pre-Internet, and so I wasn’t able to keep up with them into adulthood, but I still think about them and miss them. 

What’s the best advice you can give a Young Writer (in general or in your specific genre)?

Don’t limit yourself to publishing in your high school literary magazine; don’t limit your circle of readers to your friends. There’s no reason why a sixteen or seventeen-year-old (apart from attending YWW) can’t take adult writing workshops—I did. Think of yourself as an apprentice and find established writers to be your mentors. Ask. Assert yourself. And above all else, read. Your primary task is to read and absorb everything you can find. Haunt the bookstores and libraries in your town. Read literary blogs and online publications like The Millions to find out what people are talking about. Don’t go to college to study creative writing: pick the best college you can get into (and afford) and major in an established field: literature, psychology, philosophy, economics. Then take workshops on the side. Use college as an opportunity to get the widest education you can. If you can, try to learn one ancient (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, classical Chinese, classical Arabic, Sanskrit) and one modern language fluently and try to start translating while you’re an undergraduate; take every opportunity you have to travel and work abroad. 

Where can we find you online?