Five Questions for...Jessica Keener
Written by
Five Questions
September 2012
Written by
Five Questions
September 2012

Jessica Keener is the co-author of Time to Make the Donuts, which she wrote with Dunkin' Donuts founder Bill Rosenberg, and a frequent contributor to The Boston Globe Magazine. Jessica's first novel, Night Swim, was released in January of this year--and She Writer Joyce Norman (author of eight books and a former journalist who teaches writing at Samford University) loved it so much that she offered to interview Jessica about it. Here, Jessica opens up about the difficulties of writing fiction, her inspiration for writing Night Swim, and the people who have influenced her writing career.

Joyce Norman: Do you consider your novel “dark?”

Jessica Keener: I suppose some people would describe it that way. Of course, the loss of a mother, the disturbances caused by dysfunctional parents, these tragic elements in Night Swim’s story are dark, but my feeling is: so many of us carry these dark moments, these hidden family secrets, and for many readers who have contacted me, the fact that I was willing to create characters dealing with this darkness was liberating to them--and brought them light. I suppose that’s the irony. As I see it, not talking about this stuff weighs us down, creates anxiety, tension and trouble. My hope was to create a story that allowed people to face hard stuff in a safe way--safe because it’s fiction. You can put a novel down, walk away and think about the dark stuff in your own safe time.

Joyce Norman: In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge in writing fiction?

Jessica Keener: Getting the words right. That sounds flippant, but I mean it sincerely. Getting the words to transport the complexity of emotions, the tone and voice of the characters, and doing it with precision--getting the words to line up so that they simultaneously disappear and don’t interfere with the story, while pulling you in to the story so you don’t want to leave. 

Joyce Norman: What helped you most in writing Night Swim?

Jessica Keener: Probably my need to write it. For years I was haunted by the questions: What happens when parents are unable to fully nurture their children? What happens when a mother is emotionally fractured? What leads to this dysfunction? These are questions I lived with growing up, and which I faced again when my close friend’s mother committed suicide when I was in junior high. It was a terrible event that no one talked about at the time. I needed to give voice to that silence.

Joyce Norman: Who or what has played a positive part in your writing career?

Jessica Keener: My father. Though he was a difficult man and, at times, caused a lot of distress in my life, one area where we truly connected was writing. As a young girl at summer camp, I have fond memories of writing longish letters to my dad (on crinkly, thin paper), and appreciating the long letters that he wrote back. It was the beginning of my understanding of how we both loved communicating with words. In high school, I shared my early poems with him, the ones I was beginning to labor over and, oddly, for a man known to be highly critical, he had a way of “critiquing” my tender, literary efforts with great care. These are some of my positive, early memories around writing.

Joyce Norman: What is your greatest satisfaction in being an author?

Jessica Keener: Connecting with readers. To my great surprise, I’ve had readers from all over the country write to me via Facebook or Twitter or email, and say:  “You could have been describing my family or my mother or my relationship with my father.” To learn that Night Swim moved a reader or helped dislodge secrets stuck inside him or her--that’s been a gift from the angels. 

Visit Jessica Keener's website at to learn more about her and her new novel, Night Swim. 

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  • Mel Robertson

    Great words and thoughts.  Thanks for sharing with us.  I'm looking forward to reading it!

  • Fajr Muhammad

    Great interview. Will have to check out Night Swim

  • Jessica Keener

    Nice, Brianna. Hope you like it, and thanks.

  • Brianna Soloski

    Turns out I had it on my Kindle from when it was a free download. :)

  • Brianna Soloski

    Thank you for sharing this with us. I'll definitely have to add Night Swim to my list.

  • Jessica Keener

    Lexa- Sorry about your best friend's mom. So true what you said about walking the tightrope. It is sort of a magic trick.  Julie -- I hear you. Joyce's question brought out this answer about my dad that surprised me.  Daphne- thank you for reading. 

  • Lexa Cain

    I enjoyed this interview so much. I'm a genre writer, but I like to explore dark things in character psychology -- real pain, tragedy, hard decisions, and essential growth of spirit. Oddly, my best friend's mom killed herself when we were in college. You're right -- no one ever talked about it. The thing I liked best in the interview was your take on the actual engineering of writing. It's so hard to walk the tightrope between "swoonworthy prose" (that agents seem to want) and not letting the writing get in the way of the story. That's like a magic trick that I try to succeed at every day and never know if I really am...

  • Julia Munroe Martin

    What a great interview. I loved Night Swim, and it is so interesting to read a little bit about your thoughts and motivation behind it, Jessica. I know what it's like to grow up with a highly critical, difficult parent, so I can really appreciate (and envy) the letter writing between the two of you. 

  • Daphne Q

    What an interesting interview... "get the words right"... "my need to write it"... all good advice.