The Big Idea: Jacqueline Vogtman
Some things are worth the wait, as Jacqueline Vogtman found out in Girl Country, her short story collection. Time and circumstance changed it from what it once was to something new, with a particular theme running through the whole thing.
My book, Girl Country, is a collection of short stories, and while the stories span many different settings and time periods (near-future New Jersey and Ohio, medieval Europe, and WWI-era Scotland, among others), one thing they have in common is they focus on the lives of women and girls.
I first began writing a very different version of this collection nearly 15 years ago. I was in graduate school in Ohio, unmarried, childless, a recovering poet who wanted to write magical realism. I was inspired by my fellow workshop-mates and professors, and I wrote a collection of short stories that I was happy with at the time but ultimately never published.
Fast forward to a marriage, a full-time teaching job, and a child: my writing had stalled because of the busyness of being a working mother, but the ideas hadn’t. Finally, I got to a place (read: kindergarten for the kid, tenure for me) where I found a little more time to write, and the first story I wrote was a magical, speculative, dystopian, near-future story that features breastmilk (you’ll just have to read it). In slow measure, and then more quickly, new stories came, and while I did not set out to do this, I noticed a pattern: they all focused, in some way or another, on the lives of women.
Some of the stories focused on childbirth and motherhood, others on the loss of children, yet others on women who are confined or oppressed by their society. When I made the realization that all these stories had this one characteristic in common, that’s when I realized I had a new collection of short stories. This one felt more publishable than my graduate manuscript (although three stories from that collection did make their way into this new one), and ultimately, I was elated when Dzanc Books awarded Girl Country their Short Story Collection Prize.
While it is important for me to show both the outer and inner lives of women, I wouldn’t say this book is exclusively “about” women—the wonder of literature, and the short story collection in particular, is that there can be such a variety of interrelated themes. As so many of the stories focus on women in the past, present, and future, time itself also becomes a theme of the book.
Class, too, figures heavily in my stories, as it was important to me for my characters to be working-class women, reflecting my own background and so many of the people I knew growing up, who aren’t featured enough in literature. Finally, in many stories, nature and the environment (a tree, the ocean, Midwestern farmlands, storms) are also featured prominently, and often the environment struggles against similar threats that the women in my stories do.
Ultimately, while my book focuses on women, I hope all readers, regardless of gender, can see themselves in these stories. Most of all, I hope that the wonder and magic my characters encounter in spite of their various struggles provides a porthole through which readers can see their own light.