Since her debut story collection “Absent Without Leave,” came out in 1992, Jessica Treadway has wowed critics with resonant depictions of flawed, all-too-human characters. This month, she’ll release her latest novel, “Lacy Eye,” which concerns a family torn apart by an act of terrible violence. Treadway, a writing professor at Emerson College, lives and works in Lexington with her husband, the short-story writer Philip Holland.
LIFE IN THE WOODS: We live in the woods, so it’s very calming, quiet, and conducive to reflecting. Across the road is conservation land. The Burlington Landlocked Forest is the actual name. I look outside and see turkeys walking across my yard. We have a very routine life here. I play tennis first thing in the morning, which clears my mind and gives me energy for the day. When I come back I start working. In the afternoons, I read.
BITE-SIZE CHUNKS: My husband is also a writer, and we both work at home. He is big on the concept of chunking tasks. I tend to see things as one big project, like a novel, instead of a series of small sessions that will get me to that novel. He influenced me to break it down . . . I’ve found it really helpful to use the timer on my iPhone. I set the timer and sit down and work for 40-minute sessions. I don’t let myself do anything else. There’s something satisfying about keeping track of what I do with my days. It really works. I work this way every day [though] the number of 40-minute sessions varies from day-to-day. If I know there’s an end in sight — that I can just stop thinking — it makes it easier to push harder during that short amount of time. Then I get up and move around for 20 minutes and do it again. I have to clear the decks.
RECOGNIZING THE CHAIR: I have a reading chair [in my office] that’s the first piece of furniture I ever bought. It’s a recliner. When I moved to this house, I put it in a corner. I try to write stories out [in longhand] in the chair.
BATTLING THE CENSOR: I’ve come to peace with the fact that my vision and ambition are beyond what I’ll be able to achieve. I still struggle with doubt, though, so I keep all these things around my desk [printed with] sayings that help. There’s a phrase I came across in college: “Not without doubt, but in spite of doubt.” I look at that and think, “I don’t think I can pull this off, but I am now going to write anyway.’’ I accumulate pages with that dialectic going on in my head. A lot of writers struggle with an internal editor and an internal censor. The editor is OK, but the censor is not. I’m struggle with what someone else might think while I’m writing the story. It’s hard not to do.
A MATTER OF CHARACTER: I start with a character and build it from there. I don’t know what the book is ultimately going to be about; I find the plot along the way. Very often what I’m writing about comes from things in the news or stories I’ve heard in the real world: What would it be like to be that person? If I can’t answer that question, I don’t have a story. I tend to write about people exploring what they tell themselves vs. what their reality is, about people who are trying to figure things out. I think my writing has a lot to do with people’s consciences and how they act — people on psychological journeys, people who’d rather not look at things being forced to look at them.
DIGITAL DECEPTION: I find it helpful to write [drafts] in longhand. When I see my work on the computer screen, it looks like it’s already been published, so there’s a danger of thinking it’s better than it is.
Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached eugenia.williamson@ gmail.com.