Jess Row // The Cagibi Express Interview

Photo by John Midgley

Jess Row is the author of Your Face in Mine: A Novel, and two collections of short stories: The Train to Lo Wu, and Nobody Ever Gets Lost. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Tin House, Conjunctions, Ploughshares, Granta, n+1, and elsewhere, have been anthologized three times in The Best American Short Stories, and have won two Pushcart Prizes and a PEN/O. Henry Award. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, an NEA fellowship in fiction, and a Whiting Writers Award. In 2007, he was named a “Best Young American Novelist” by Granta. His nonfiction and criticism appear often in The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Threepenny Review, and Boston Review, among other venues. He teaches full time at The College of New Jersey. He lives in New York City.


Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

Jess Row: I don’t agree. I think wandering is a crucial part of the creative process (and so is distraction, but the two aren’t necessarily connected). Thinking about the word “travel”: Belloc was a bourgeois writer in an age of entitled leisure (for his social strata), and so of course he would think of “travel” as a voluntary and lengthy act of self-improvement and fulfillment, but that’s not the way I experience travel at all. When I travel (and I travel a lot) it’s almost always for work, or with my kids, and so my own “fulfillment” isn’t really the central issue.

Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.

Row: As a novelist I’m always interested in what makes up the feeling of a place—air, light, sensations, images, anything that separates me from what I’m familiar with. I always start at that level of observation. I don’t really think of those as “distractions.” My everyday life at home is full of distractions, of course.

Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe.

Row: A small and somewhat organized space—that’s what I’ve always needed for writing. Ideally with a big desk. You could call it a cubbyhole, though it would need to have a big window, as I try to always work facing a window.

Cagibi: Please explain your choice in previous question—we are dying to understand your creative process.

Row: It’s just what’s naturally evolved over the many years I’ve been writing seriously. I don’t think of it as particularly interesting or distinctive. All I need is a desk, a chair, my computer, a fan, and oolong tea (hot in the winter, iced in the summer). And a way to prop up my feet. I find it very hard to write with my feet on the floor.

Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?

Row: I always get something out of traveling, even if it’s not for research (and lately I’ve been traveling for research a lot). The heightened experience through the senses, and through meeting new people, always creates stories in my mind.

Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel?

Row: Of course.

Cagibi: Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?

Row: Definitely not.

Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?

Row: I always try to work in a room with a door, and if I can’t have that, I wear headphones. So in that sense I’m always, always hiding when I work. And I vastly prefer working at home to working anywhere outside the home. I always prefer to take off my shoes, and I have to put my feet up on something, which makes working in coffee shops awkward. So in that sense, I’m absolutely a writer who hides, and I have to deal with the psychological consequences of that, as many writers do. Winnicott famously wrote that “It is a joy to hide, but an absolute disaster not to be found.” The solitude that comes with writing takes a huge toll on those of us who do it day in and day out.

About Jess Row’s Your Face in Mine: A Novel

Jess Row’s latest book is Your Face in Mine: A Novel, published in 2015 by Riverhead Books. From the publisher:

Jess Row Your Face In Mine book cover 300w.jpgOne afternoon, not long after Kelly Thorndike has moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, an African American man he doesn’t recognize calls out to him. To Kelly’s shock, the man identifies himself as Martin, who was one of Kelly’s closest friends in high school—and, before his disappearance nearly twenty years before, white and Jewish. Martin then tells an astonishing story: after years of immersing himself in black culture, he’s had a plastic surgeon perform “racial reassignment surgery”: altering his hair, skin, and physiognomy to allow him to pass as African American. Unknown to his family or childhood friends, Martin has been living a new life ever since.

Now, however, Martin feels he can no longer keep his identity a secret; he wants Kelly to help him ignite a controversy that will help sell racial reassignment surgery to the world. Inventive and thought-provoking, Your Face in Mine is a brilliant novel about cultural and racial alienation and the nature of belonging in a world where identity can be a stigma or a lucrative brand.

Appears In

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