Jennifer C. Weil says it might seem a cliché, but she sees the ordinary in the extraordinary and the extraordinary in the ordinary. “It’s an implicit relationship. It might even be necessary for happiness,” said Weil, who recently published Coral Tree: A Costa Rican Canon, a set of short stories inspired by time she and her husband have spent in Costa Rica over the past twenty years.
Weil makes good on her word. An homage to the country’s rich diversity, Coral Tree features a collection of short stories interspersed with poetry, set in the surrounding streets, beaches, and daily experiences of Costa Rica’s permanent residents. But Weil’s work is anything but “ordinary.” Coral Tree presents a dreamy, far-off land with just a sprinkle of mystery, and enough magic still left in it to make us want to pack our bags and go.
Weil, busy with a theatre performance in southern Michigan, took time out to answer a few questions about her work and future plans.
Costa Rica has obviously had a significant impact on you, both as a writer and a person. What was it about the country that inspired you to write on it?
We loved the untouched beauty of Costa Rica. It possesses a rich culture. The people are warm and loving and welcoming. The beauty of the country is in its variety – that you can easily reach a beach, a volcano, a rainforest. Though small, the country offers much to explore. There are whole different cultures on different sides of the country. Costa Rica is a multifarious country with a lot of color in every sense of the word: where remnants of the past mix with the modern.
What do you hope your readers might take away from Coral Tree?
I hope that it evokes curiosity, I hope that intrigues readers about the country, because it’s a place worth visiting. I want people to be curious about this country, and I want people, when they finish a story, to have an emotional response to it. I don’t care what it is; just that there is a response. Some [of the short] stories [within Coral Tree] produce feelings or emotions that are easier to have – not all of them do. It would be presumptuous of me to say, “This is how somebody should be feeling” from what I’ve written. It fascinates me how people react to things. It fascinates me when I put down a book, and I think, “I don’t know that I would read this again, but I’ll never forget that I loved it.” It’s fascinating to me how mysterious what each of us chooses to do is, whether it’s read a book, or take a class, or go to a place we’ve never been before. Curiosity compels one in a way that is undeniable – it’s relentless. To do, to be, to feel something different from what we are doing or feeling at a particular time – it nags at you like the proverbial bur under a saddle. What is it that sends us in a different direction? That fascinates me. I would like to connect through my readers. Even though we might never be friends face-to-face, I would like my readers to feel like we are akin, in a way. Related. Because I think we all are. There is an ineffable human connection.
How did you become a writer?
When I was six or seven, I wrote a poem that was read for a May Day celebration to the whole school over the loudspeaker, and I think that engendered in me [delete the comma] something that lay dormant for a while, which surfaced strongly in 5th grade. I started writing short stories, and then in junior high, a short book with a friend. By the time I was in high school, I was hungry for good criticism. I had one really tough teacher, and she made me work. She was quiet, and gentle, and dignified, but I knew to get an A on anything in her class, I was going to have to be the best that I could be. And when I finally did, she drew a flower around the A [I received]. In college, the same thing happened with an acting teacher and a director, and she said, “You should write.” She fueled the writer in me that needed to be paid attention to, that I couldn’t ignore. I’m not happy when I’m not writing; in the void, the thing that fills my heart and my soul best is writing. There’s a wise part of me that says don’t ignore a soul-driven passion because it’s to one’s peril to do that, and it’s true.
Tell us about your typical writing day.
I don’t have a typical writing day. But, when I sit down to write, the world goes away. Sometimes, my husband has to remind me that I haven’t eaten, or that I haven’t left my computer. Also, I wrestle with ADD, so I sometimes need to be working on multiple things at a time to keep from being bored with myself, or so that I don’t get so close to something that I lose sight of what I’m doing. I need to break long cycles of focusing on just one thing to feed the unconscious part that keeps tugging at my skirt, saying, “pay attention to me!” I will never, ever write down all the things that I want to write down, and sometimes I need to stop and do something else in order to do it.
From which authors and books have you drawn most inspiration?
To name just a few, and in no particular order: Johnny Gruelle, creator of Raggedy Ann and Andy, and author of a child’s fairytale collection entitled “Friendly Fairies”; Andrew Lang, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm of “Grimm’s Fairytales,” Louisa May Alcott, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck, the Bronte Sisters, particularly Charlotte, Jane Austen, and Albert Camus, specifically, “The Plague.”
What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
Young writers should have a solid grounding in grammar and an understanding of how to construct a short piece from an outline – I think that’s missing a lot in today’s education. If writing is a serious pursuit, just write. Write, write, write — with a solid foundation in grammar, so that you can construct a sentence; so that you know what is right about it and what isn’t, which lets you depart from the rules when it makes sense, stylistically. I’d go to work for a newspaper. Become a copy editor; get a job in a publishing house – it’s a really good way learn something while still working on your own writing. The simplest thing is to just keep writing. I have multiple manuscripts that may never see the light of a publisher, but I will never stop writing. For the lack of a publisher, I wouldn’t give up writing.
About the Author: Jennifer C. Weil is a writer, poet, and actress with roots in Sonoma County, California, though she has since migrated to the Midwest, accompanied by her husband and their dog. Coral Tree: A Costa Rican Canon is inspired by the area in Costa Rica where Weil and her husband owned property and frequented for more than twenty years. Other publications by Jennifer Weil include a novella, aptly titled Eavesdropping: A Little Novel, as well as several children’s books: Marvin’s Lump, And Peter Said Goodbye, and William’s Gift. In addition to her writing career, Weil is also an accomplished actress. She has produced, directed, and performed in dozens of plays, including numerous worship dramas through Act of God, a worship performance group of which Weil is the founding director. When she is not writing, Jennifer can be found taking walks – “very fast!”–watching movies, teaching, dabbling in art, and making new friends. “I am,” she says, “an unapologetic dilettante. Life isn’t long enough to know everything. It’s a joy to learn something about a lot of things.”
Anna Faller is a freelance writer and a former student of the Front Street Writers, a magnet high school program designed for students who are passionate about writing. It is run in partnership in partnership with the National Writers Series and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District at the Career Tech Center.