20 Questions with... Janet Dale
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Janet Dale is a writer, reader, and teacher, whose essays, stories, and poetry have been published in the Atticus Review, The Boiler, Pine Hills Review, Zone 3, and others. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and for inclusion in Best of the Net. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Georgia College & State University and earned her BA from the University of Memphis where she focused on creative and news-editorial writing.
She has assisted on various journals both academic and creative, volunteered with VIDA (Women in the Literary Arts), and blogged about sports for a newspaper. Although she considers Memphis home, currently she lives in Georgia, where she teaches in the English Department at Georgia Southern University.
Follow Janet @THEsisterjanet on Twitter and Instagram
Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?
Hi, I’m Janet and growing up my life was—nomadic. My family moved every few years because my father was in the U.S. Army. Not only were we always moving, but people were moving around us as well. It’s always difficult to answer the “where are you from” question for that reason.
The state I was born in is not the state I started school in. The city I started high school in is not the city I graduated high school from. And between starting my primary education and finishing my secondary education, I lived in Germany for nearly a decade. It’s complicated, but I’m glad for it.
Just now as an adult, I’ve lived at the same address for almost a decade, and that’s the longest consecutive stretch I can claim.
Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?
As a child, I remember wanting to be an archaeologist and then a detective—by high school, I wanted to be a journalist. Are you seeing a theme? Anne Sexton wrote: “A writer is essentially a spy. / Dear love, I am that girl.” Here we are.
I have a couple degrees in English/Writing and so I do teach writing at a university full-time in addition to my own writing that I do.
Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.
“The velocity of your ghost / is unable to be determined.” (from the first poem in ghosts passing through via Alien Buddha Press)
What are you working on right now?
Officially I’m working on my essay for Marchfadness which is an annual tournament-style essay series featuring 64 writers writing about 64 songs. For 2023 writers are tackling ‘one-hit wonders’ from the 1980s. More specifically, the only song by an artist to hit the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1980 and 1989.
I’m writing about “99 Luftballons” by the German pop star Nena.
Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?
I am a slow writer. My current writing routine involves a lot of thinking and researching (or prewriting—as I tell my students) until the words finally demand to be written. Finding time to write while teaching is difficult, so I must really plan to do it.
Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?
I can write in different spaces, and always try to have a pen in hand and paper available to jot down thoughts. Since I love to do research, I do like having access to books or being connected to the internet (which is also a vice) and on a laptop.
What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?
Read. This is my advice, but it’s also the best advice I’ve been given or have heard from too many writers to name. Read inside the genre you want to write; read outside of the genre you want to write. Read everything.
Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?
The only in-person reading I’ve given happened in grad school, otherwise it’s all been virtual for me. I’m in my 10th year of full-time teaching, which means I’m in front of a classroom full of college students twelve to fifteen times a week—but when it comes to reading my own material in front of people, I get very nervous. I’d rather be heard than seen.
Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?
Of course. I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said something to the effect of all writers are just retelling the same one or two stories, but in different ways.
Having moved so many times during my formative years, I’ve come across a myriad people who have impacted or influenced me or my life in different ways. For example, it was common to have a close friend for a year and then their parent would be redeployed, and they’d just be gone. There were no free phone calls, texting, or internet—maybe you’d write letters for a while, but then someone would move again.
I’m still trying to unravel all of that—the ephemerality of it all, and as I do, I notice patterns and try to make sense of them.
Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?
Well, that’s a deep question, isn’t it? ‘Moral purpose’ indicates values and the belief that something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and that binary can be dangerous.
I believe the purpose of a writer is the same regardless of when they are writing—partially it’s to reflect what is happening daily/culturally so the collective WE always has a record, but it’s also to explore the depth of human experience.
Do you write between genres or not?
I do. In school I studied poetry, fiction, CNF, and journalism. I’ve published work in several forms, with fiction being the one I write or focus in the least.
Which living writers do you most admire?
There are many writers who blow me away with the way they can dissect a moment with words and really cut at the truth. I admire and am inspired by so many; it would be impossible to begin listing names without leaving someone out. I’m not even going to try.
Which dead writers do you most admire?
This may be easier. From where I am sitting, I can see a shelf with my copies of books by Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Toni Morrison, Beverly Cleary, and Maggie Estep.
What’s the book you wish you’d written?
The first book that comes to mind is Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill which I literally read in one sitting. It’s listed as a novel, so it’s fiction, but fiction can tell the truth. It features so many ruminations on figures such as Keats, Kafka, Rilke, Dickinson to ways of being such as Buddhism and Stoicism.
I have a digital copy with more than 40 highlighted sections as well as a signed physical copy because I needed both, clearly.
What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?
Place is a big external influence. I’m still trying to process my childhood since by the time I was 16 I had lived in about 12 different homes spread out in different towns, states, or countries.
I’m doing research on a couple years spent living in the American Sector of West Berlin during the Cold War-era 1980s (before the Wall fell). I was physically close to so many historical events, but I was too young to understand that at the time.
Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?
Yes, even though some say it doesn’t exist. There are stretches where I’m not writing but instead I’m researching or revising or reading or listening. I think these activities are all connected and since it’s part of the process, eventually I’m able to overcome it.
What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?
Most recently, a writer I admire (Emma Bolden) lauded the sestina “Casting Spells” in ghosts passing through. She posted screenshots from the book and people I don’t already know liked it and commented. Wow!
How do your family and friends feel about your writing?
My writer friends are very supportive, for example I have a friend I met more than a decade ago in an undergraduate fiction class and we have mini writing workshops. They understand THE STRUGGLE.
Family and other friends are also supportive, but in different ways. They often tell me they are “proud” of me or for me and that means a lot.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I have purchased the most books from Second Editions Book Shop in Memphis, TN. It’s located inside the main branch of the Memphis public library system and consists of nothing but “gently used” and donated books. Is there anything better than that?
How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?
I think some people forget Amazon began exclusively as a bookseller—and I checked recently to verify that my first order (in 2003) was three books by Maggie Estep. Of course, everything has changed and there are benefits such as access for those who wouldn’t be able to get things otherwise BUT…then there are the horrific parts as well.
In a perfect world, there would be local shops for everything, and everyone would have access to what they need.
The future of writing is strong, regardless of its distribution.
Orange Cat showed up outside where I live during the first weeks of the COVID pandemic (March 2020). I’m allergic to cats but after being visited almost daily for over a year, I was ‘less allergic’ enough to let him inside permanently. He’s persistent as well as a good book model.