Fiction Collective Two had the pleasure of talking with one of our upcoming Fall authors! Find our conversation with JoAnna Novak about her book Meaningful Work below, and find out more about JoAnna here.

Fiction Collective Two: Hello, JoAnna! We’re so excited to talk with you about your book, Meaningful Work, which we look forward to publishing this September. Thank you for being here today.

JoAnna Novak: Thank you for having me! I’m happy for the chance to discuss Meaningful Work.

Several of these stories have been published independently or elsewhere. What is your goal in publishing these specific stories, together, now?

I have always been building a collection. I think a lot of short story writers are. (Publishing a collection) was not a timely, new decision for me, but the culmination of a working in short fiction that began almost twenty years ago.

What do you most want potential readers of Meaningful Work to know about the book?

I don’t think my readers need previews or even any background for these stories. Each piece in the collection should stand on its own.

You’ve also published two books of poetry. What was your path between poetry and prose, or have you always written both?

I have always written both. I did an MFA in fiction and then another MFA, in poetry, at UMass Amherst. I write and publish creative nonfiction as well. Working in multiple genres keeps me learning and challenged.

One theme in your stories here ties to food. Where did this theme come from?

The stories are largely about working bodies. Food is work, in many ways, and it also fuels our bodies. Food is a pleasure, and it also involves labor to prepare and to consume. I did not write the stories with a conscious focus on food, yet I see it often serving as a catalyst for their plots. And then there are so many food details: cheese in “The Wait”, Mountain Dew in “Meaningful Work”, and Necco wafers in “Lisa Is The Water.”

Food’s significance stood out to me in the book, but it’s fascinating that you did not aim for it to do such intentionally.

You can and you can’t choose what you write about. Even when you think you’re making a choice as a writer, your choice actually is beyond your control. I think this is why receptivity and submission are important ideals to me.

What, if any, themes or patterns did you intend to explore across these stories?

In putting these stories together, I thought a lot about jobs, particularly, the not-so-great jobs we sometimes have, jobs that are not careers or ‘meaningful work.’ Many of the stories in Meaningful Work deal with these kinds of jobs, and some, like working in a call-center or at a banquet hall, come from my own life. In these jobs, you spend hours doing repetitive tasks, so your mind can go into a state of suspension, wanting to do or be something or somewhere else. I find this state of mind an unusual breeding ground for obsessions and drama–maybe because your mind is trying to escape the cage of the job. In some cases, I wrote about dynamics similar to those of these jobs in other formats, like the structure of a marriage or a family.

Another theme I focused on involved the erotic: eroticizing what may seem mundane or even disturbing, de-eroticizing what one might expect to have erotic presentation.

Yes, the relationships between your characters also stands out, especially those involving romances and families. Can you say more about how your writing approaches these interpersonal relationships?

My stories deal with a spectrum of impaired, or at least complicated, relationships: familial, social, professional, sexual, romantic, etc. I am particularly interested in relationships that seem to be functioning, but, in reality, are not–or, at least, not the way they’re supposed to.