The Writer Interview: Jaime Joyce

Jaime Joyce talks with editor Alicia Anstead about craft and her short story "Picnic in the Yard."
By Alicia Anstead, editor-in-chief; photo by Xan Padron | Published: October 27, 2015


jaime joyce photo by xan padronLast fall, in my magazine writing class, I asked students to find a published nonfiction story they had come across in their daily reading. The plan was to examine the craft behind each story, to identify how each author accomplished effectiveness. The story I contributed was “Picnic in the Yard,” which I had seen in the annual food issue of The New Yorker magazine. The byline – Jaime Joyce – was new to me, but the story, a mere 800 words – what the New Yorker calls a “sidebar” – was so engaging that the minute I finished reading it, I read it again. Then I read it again to dissect the parts. When I took it to class, we spent an unprecedented 90 minutes talking about the story. How did she accomplish so much in such a small space? How did she make such simple sentences, words and constructions so complex? How did she make such an unusual personal story universal? I knew I would contact Joyce – whose very name points to a writerly destiny – to talk about her process. She’s an editor at Time, Inc. and the author of Moonshine: A Cultural History of America’s Infamous Liquor. The following is an edited version of the conversation we had about “Picnic in the Yard,” which you can also read here.

ALICIA ANSTEAD
Tell me a little bit about how you developed “Picnic in the Yard.”

JAIME JOYCE
I had done a draft of it very early on years ago. I had written it as a class assignment when I was at Columbia at the journalism school, and I never did anything with it. When I looked back on it again recently, I thought my initial draft wasn’t that good, to be honest with you. Years had gone by, and I knew I wanted to write about this, and I knew that it was a story that resonated for me; my brother going to prison was a big part of my life. But I didn’t know what the natural outlet of the story would be. Where would it go? Who would publish this? I felt like The New Yorker food issue might be a place that would do something like this.

ANSTEAD
That’s wild that you kind of knew this was where the story was going to go.

JOYCE
I was thinking Who would publish this? Where would this go? Where would it make sense? Where would I have the best shot? Going for The New Yorker – that sounds crazy, but I knew they had the food issue, and I felt like there was a possibility there. John Bennet, the New Yorker editor, had been one of my professors at the journalism school. So I sent him a note over the summer and said, “Hey, I have this idea for a story that I think might work for the food issue. What do you think? Is there room for an unknown person or do Jhumpa Lahiri and Calvin Trillin have a lock down on those kinds of pieces in The New Yorker?” And he said, “Absolutely, you can write it to us. Write it for yourself and send it to us first.” That was his advice.

ANSTEAD
What great advice.

JOYCE
Not to write it with the idea of where it might be published but write it so that I felt truth to the story: that it felt good to me. John said, “These are not the kind of pieces that we generally commission from – I think the word was ‘outsiders’ – so in some ways, yes, certain writers do have the lock down on these kinds of pieces.” I said, “OK. I’ll write it for myself. Sounds good. What kind of deadline, do you think? When should I plan to get this to you?” And he said September 1st. I thought: “I can do that.” So months went by and by the first of August, I thought: “Oh boy. I have a deadline. I put myself out there; I better do something about it.” And like I said, I had early drafts that I had been kicking around for years, and it certainly was in my head for a long time. I spent August writing it, doing multiple drafts. What I ultimately sent to John was long, about 1,500 words. He wrote back the day after and said, “I liked it. I sent it to the editors.” That’s all I got. John is the master of the one-line response. He’s very busy so I understand that. When I hadn’t heard anything for a couple of weeks, I sent a note back to him and asked if I should follow up with a particular editor. He said he knew they liked it but if I hadn’t heard anything, they probably went with another idea.

ANSTEAD
How did you resolve it?

JOYCE
I wrote to the editor of the food issue and I said, “Hey, John Bennet passed this along. Wonder if you might be able to use it.” I didn’t hear from her for a week, and I thought it wasn’t going to happen. But in the back of my mind I thought: “Well, I feel good about this piece, so we’ll see what happens.” And then a week after that I got a response saying, “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. I hope to get back to you soon.” That was it. It was sort of a mysterious email. And I thought, “Well, I guess this means it’s still in play.” And then a week after that I got a message saying that they loved it and wanted to use it and I was completely over the moon.

ANSTEAD
How did you get it down from 1,500 words to just under 800?

JOYCE
I thought I would be doing the editing of it, and I was prepared to do that. John Bennet took a stab at it and he knocked it down to 800 words, and I felt like it was the truest story. When you take a piece from 1,500 to 800 words, I thought it would strip my piece and make it a different story. It didn’t. I felt like he just boiled it down to its essence. And it still felt like me. He is a master editor. I’m so grateful to have my work in his hands.

ANSTEAD
That’s such an interesting process because I suspect I would feel territorial about my words. As an editor, I really love the way that you’re talking about it because what you’re saying is he preserved your voice.

JOYCE
He completely did. My first response to him was: “That sounds like me, like what I wrote. How did you do that? How did you boil down what I wrote? You made it instantly better. You basically cut this in half, but I don’t feel like you changed my voice at all.” He’s been doing this for a long time, so I felt incredibly lucky to have him as editor on this piece. We needed to make a couple of changes and that culminated in going into the New Yorker office. It was me, John, the copy editor Mary Norris, the fact checker and another editor. We all sat down at a table and went through word by word, basically, sentence by sentence, and just fine-tuning the language and making sure every word was correct: Do we want to change that word? Do we want this sentence to land on that word? Can we cut these two words? There’s one line at the end of a scene where my mother, and my sister, my brother and I are all sitting outside and my mother says, “I’m so happy to have my three children together.” Right after, I had written: “It was classic Mom.” Now it says “Classic Mom.” It was as simple as stripping out the words “It was” and just writing “Classic Mom.” It’s a simple example, but it was that kind of really stripping it down to the essentials that was instructive – and sitting with a group of people who care about language that much. Just thrilling.

ANSTEAD
I know exactly what you’re talking about. That little transition that you talked about from “It was classic Mom” to just “Classic Mom” – what is the essence of that? What is the craft? How can we understand why “Classic Mom” is better than “It was classic Mom”?

JOYCE
When I’m writing and when I’m doing drafts, I’m always reading aloud. I read it aloud when I’m done or I’m muttering it half the time or playing it over. I walk down the street and when I’m in the middle of a project, I’ll be reciting lines and playing with different ways to write them, and it’ll look a little nutty, but it’s just what I have to do to hear it. And when we sat down, I heard it. If we can make it simple and clear – it’s so much more striking than “It was classic Mom.” It’s just “Classic Mom” – something you would say to
somebody. I remember looking at my sister in the moment that actually happened and probably the feeling was: “Oh my God. Classic Mom.”

ANSTEAD
Exactly. And at that point, particularly, in your story because it is so short, if you don’t have your reader on board with your voice, you’re on a sinking ship. But at that point in your story, you really have the reader so you can cut out everything that isn’t the horse, right?

JOYCE
Yes. If it doesn’t need to be there, then lose it. I don’t like to use unnecessary language. If I can use a simpler word, I prefer to use a simpler word. I find it sort of irritating when I’m reading something and somebody’s throwing in words that most readers will have to go to a dictionary to look up. I don’t find that useful.

ANSTEAD
That was one of the things my class commented on, that the simplicity of the language seemed to add a profundity to it. There’s another part I want to ask you about. I notice this a lot in other writers whom I actually quite respect, for instance, Stephen King, who’s a beautiful craftsman. He always uses brand names. It’s kind of a thing in his writing. And it’s really interesting what you do because you come in and out of that. Could you talk a little bit about your decisions about when to use a brand name?

JOYCE
Absolutely. And that’s a good question because that was something in the discussion when John was editing the piece. He said to me, “Usually we strip out brand names. Usually our style is not to use them, but we wanted to retain them in this piece because they were important.” I felt like they were important in this piece because it was the Betty Crocker brand, it wasn’t Duncan Hines, it wasn’t Ghirardelli. It was a very specific kind of brownie mix. And when you’re in prison and you have an opportunity to have foods come in, you’re very specific about what you want. And so that was a choice. It wasn’t just any ranch dressing. It was the ranch dressing from the Hidden Valley mix – that specific. You have a longing for things when they’re taken away, and you’re very specific about what you want. If you’re outside of New York, you want a New York bagel. I mean, that’s not a brand name but you know what I mean. You’re very specific in your cravings, and I felt that was very important for this piece, that it was very specific what my brother wanted. The ice from Sonic Drive-In – it couldn’t be ice from some other place. It was Sonic Drive-In specifically. That’s what he wanted. Also, coming from a journalistic background, I felt like that attention to detail was important to me. I spent a lot of time talking to my mother and sister saying, “OK. Let’s go back. What was it specifically that he wanted?” – getting those details. So I was really pleased those were retained in the final piece.

ANSTEAD
You said earlier that you started writing about this previously. How did you know this was a story? How did you know the elements were in place?

JOYCE
I knew it was a profound experience. It was one moment. I knew when I took one of these food visits, I had to write about this someday. I could write a larger piece about my brother being in prison but that just sounds so amorphous. This is a very specific experience and very profound. It’s a family – my family – coming together in prison. We used to say, “My God, this really sucks.” But it is kind of wonderful that that opportunity exists for people to have their families come in and spend time together around a meal. It was a really humanizing experience in a place that can be very dehumanizing. I felt that even though it was an experience that a lot of people wouldn’t have had, they could relate to my experience. I’ve had the experience of talking about my brother in prison, and some people are very uncomfortable with that. They say: “Oh, what did he do? He must be a horrible person.” Well, no. So many families have this experience, and I wanted to make that relatable and normal.

ANSTEAD
One of the things we noted as a class reading it was yes, it’s a very specific experience with very specific brand names and location and all of that, and yet we felt it was a slice of family life and it actually wasn’t about prison. It was about family dynamics. You’re a craftsperson, too. It’s not just the muse entering your mind and this unfolding. Somewhere you’re moving from A to B and going back and forward and really practicing the discipline of the craft. Could you talk a little bit about your moving outside of the piece to analyze it as you’re writing it, because it’s so mathematical in the way that you’ve done it. And I mean that with admiration and respect. There’s a real process here.

JOYCE
I thought a lot about what was I trying to do with this piece. What was it about? What was the essence of this? Yes, it’s a story about going to visit my brother in prison, but really, it’s a story about family. And it’s about my family, but it’s a story that I think resonates for people. And so yes, there’s that very basic level: It’s a story about visiting my brother in prison, but it’s a story about family. It’s about what we do for each other as a family, about how we come together as a family. And while it may look different from your family or your friend’s family, there’s something at its core that families share. What is this about? And I also thought a lot about: Where does this story go? A lot of times when you’re writing, you think there has to be change, there has to be some transformation that occurs in a story, and for a moment I worried: Gosh, I don’t know if that really happens. Is there some sort of transformation? I didn’t really feel like there was. I felt like it was a place where, within the confines of a prison setting, nothing’s going to change; it’s pretty much like the same thing day after day, but within that can we have this family that has this moment together? I wanted it to just be about a moment but also to understand how we got to that moment. I think in the original draft there was more backstory about how we got to this moment. And I was a little worried at first when that was removed, when we had to take that out. But I think there’s enough of it that remains in the piece from the very basic thing about why my brother was in prison, why this happened, without getting into all this other stuff that led up to it. And I thought, “That works.”

ANSTEAD
There’s a lot that we know. We know that your mom worked in a laundromat. We don’t know anything about a dad. We know that your sister is a certain type. Your brother is a certain type. And that you live away from the family. So we actually get quite a bit of plot line here and, if anything, I felt like in this story the transformation comes in the reader when your mother says, “It’s so nice to have my three children together.” That’s the line that makes us think, “Oh, right! That’s what this is about.” For me, that was a moment where a turn did take place, but I think you led us there. So, the story does have that element of transformation in it.

JOYCE
It’s interesting that you say that because many people have remarked about that line, how they remembered that line and that stood out for them. As a writer, I don’t think I was so conscious of the power of that line. It’s so interesting to hear readers respond to a piece of writing. You’re working in solitary for the most part and then to have that input and response from readers is really eye-opening. I don’t think I consciously had this idea: “This is what I will do here.” It just was what it was. So interesting for me to hear how much people hung on to those words and how much that meant.

ANSTEAD
It’s also very Flannery. It’s a funny line, too.

JOYCE
It is funny.

ANSTEAD
I just mentioned Flannery O’Connor, but there’s another writer hovering around in your background: James Joyce. Tell me about your name and how that’s been an influence on you. That’s crazy.

JOYCE
People, of course, ask if we’re related. They realize very quickly there’s no way I would be related just generally in the timeline. I think it’s funny sometimes when people have their names lead them into certain professions but there’s no real connection at all. And my parents did not choose my name because of James Joyce; they just liked the sound of it. There was no intention to make me James Joyce. However, I will say that my mother’s maiden name is James, so it’s really lucky I didn’t become Jaime James Joyce. That would be really over the top.

Alicia Anstead is editor-in-chief of The Writer.

  • Bruno Vartuli

    I would like to talk about writing a book and then butchered by the editor. In my mind, I think writers should publish their work on its original idea. See, When we talk to each other, do we have an editor to control what we are saying? Why should we have an editor to control our work? My work is my work, once it is edited by an editor, it is no longer my work.

    • Falco Lombardi

      An editor works as an experienced second pair of eyes on a piece of writing. Unlike the author, they are emotionally removed from the work and see flaws that may not be obvious to the author. In this case, the editor was needed to cut the word count down without changing the tone. An inexperienced author may have fretted at the idea, and wouldn’t know how to proceed.

      When we talk to each other, we can often stutter or pause while we search for a word. This is why important functions have speechwriters. In those situations, its imperative to have your best foot forward to make the strongest impression possible.

      It’s also why I made sure to proofread this response before submitting: My fingers mean well, but work best with keen oversight. Some may not need it, but I rest better at night when I know my thoughts have been properly organized instead of haphazardly thrown into a text box. “But it’s who I am!” fails as an excuse. I want to look professional.

      • Bruno Vartuli

        Thank you, I agree on the editor work, but the writer originality no longer is his/her opera.