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WF Author Interview - J.T. Chris (1 Viewer)


WF Veterans
Published short-story author, comedy web series producer, Super Mario impersonator and newest Mod-on-the-block 'J.T. Chris' joins us this month!


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luckyscars: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Your author bio on Denim Lit states you are an MFA student at Rutgers who also writes for a sketch comedy series. Whatever you want here 'in your own words'

J.T. Chris: Well, that bio certainly needs an update. I was an MFA student once—as well a theater student, a film student, and I think at one point I majored in Game Design briefly. As you can tell, my ambitions are eclectic. The crux of it is my anxieties have influenced a lot of important decision-making over the years. But I’m starting to get a handle on things now, I think. At 34, I guess it’s better late than never.

What did you study for the MFA? Are you still a student? If not, what are you currently up to for a 'day job'?

I studied creative writing with a primary focus on short fiction. I dropped out of the program 3 credits shy of graduating. Right now I work in insurance as a property damage appraiser and I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia with my wife Maria, and two cats Kylo and Finnley.

What are your major literary influences? What got you into writing?

I’ve got a film and theater background, so I started writing screenplays and one-acts in high school. I think I was heavily influenced by Quentin Tarantino, Anton Chekhov and Neil Simon back in those days. I’m curious if I’ve got some old scripts lying around because I’d be very interested to revisit them now that I think about it. I went to acting school in New York City, got depressed and read a lot of Franz Kafka. I eventually moved back home and took a creative writing class at the local college. There I was introduced to the likes of George Saunders, Allen Ginsberg, Flannery O’Connor, and Don DeLillo. I also found Charles Bukowski and Harlan Ellison around the same time, so being the young man that I was, they enthralled me. I ingested whatever fiction and poetry that I could and knew from that point forward I wanted to be a short story writer.

What attracts you to short fiction over, say, novels or scripts? Do you find the short form has any particular advantages over other forms?

I relish the challenge of short fiction. The brevity of the form is something to admire – you’ve got to utilize all the staples of storytelling and still write a beginning, a middle and an end, only with a word restriction. You’ve also got to figure out how the heck you’re going to develop a character arc over a page or two. And that word restriction has been getting a lot shorter, I noticed. Since I’ve been out of it, I remember 3,000 words was kind of the norm. Now I’m seeing that more and more publications are only accepting 2,000 words maximum, with flash fiction being the preferred format.The advantage of writing in the short form I think is that you’re getting a lot of practice writing a complete story arc. If you write a short story a month that’s 12 stories you’ve written with a conflict and a resolution, as opposed to maybe one or two that year. That’s not to say that novel writing doesn’t present its own unique challenges. I’m a man who knows his limits and don’t think I’ve got a novel in me, but who knows?

Do you recommend newer writers start with short stories even if their ultimate goal is to write longer pieces?

I think a writer can benefit a lot more from submitting a complete story for critique as opposed to a chapter or two of a novel. You’re getting feedback on your entire arc and you learn quickly what a short story needs to be successful. The short form forces the writer to focus on the prime essentials of storytelling because they simply don’t have the room for anything else. A short story may not be as heavily plotted as a novel, but you’re picking up valuable experience experimenting with language, setting, mood, characterization and leaving something emotionally resonant on the page nonetheless. It’s also a great way to learn the writing process and get into the habit of writing, polishing and submitting regularly.Short fiction is a great way for the new writer to learn the publication process. You're exposed to submission guidelines, professional etiquette, reader expectations, and turn-around. Probably the most important thing you learn is how to deal with rejection. If you’re submitting a lot of short fiction, you’re getting a lot of rejection letters, and some of them even come with valuable feedback. It’s a way to develop a thicker skin before prime time, so to speak.

Your short story 'The Degenerate' seems heavily influenced by the city of Camden, NJ. I've been there, it's a tough place. Are you from there? If not, what impact has that change of scenery had on your work - if any? How important is setting to your work in general?

The MFA program I attended was by the Camden Waterfront. I found the disparity between the touristy Waterfront and the rest of the city was dishonest. Setting is as important to me as a strong protagonist; it’s a character with a voice of its own, a story it wants to tell. I thought at the time that Camden—the real Camden—wanted to be heard, too.

You mention Camden as being "a character with a voice of its own, a story it wants to tell." A lot of writers have historically personified places, especially cities, to some extent going back to Charles Dickens and before. As specifically as possible, can you explain how you bring out the character and voice of a geographical location? What kind of things would you try to focus on in writing to make a city feel 'alive'?

I believe characters are intrinsic to their settings. I like to start with a focus on the people who live in the community, imagine how their environment shapes their lives. I think if I’d set “The Degenerate” in the Upper West Side for instance, it would have been a very different story. Its also important for me to know what mood it’s in. Is it a vibrant, bustling concourse with polished windows, or a decrepit, precarious desert with broken glass and snaking vines? Is there a collection of split-levels on cul-de-sacs with emerald-rows of grass? Crooked Ranchers buried in thick, brown scrub? Each of those places has their own story to tell, their own specific characters caring for, or neglecting them.

Your short story 'The Sommelier' obviously has wine as an influence and I was interested how this seemed to serve as a kind of metaphor for how the character perceives the world and his relationships. Can you elaborate on where that story came from and why you were attracted to the idea of wine as a literary device?

I wrote that story after a difficult break-up, when I was looking for something to occupy myself, and I discovered wine tasting. I also realized it was a subject that I knew nothing about, so I wanted to challenge myself by writing a story from the point of view of a wine snob. I took what I knew really well—pain and loss—and researched the rest, which gave me an excuse to drink wine every weekend.

'Living In 8 Bits' looks like an interesting project! Is it still ongoing? What was/is your role and what gave you the idea for a sketch comedy revolving around video games?

I blame my goatee.

Living in 8 Bits is a project of Mixed Nuts Productions, started by my friend Mike Licisyn. And about the goatee: I had one during my Junior year of high school. Mike was really into Kevin Smith at the time and thought I looked a lot like Brian O’Halloran (Dante from Clerks) so asked me to be part of this short film he was working on called Bench Warmer. I was writing screenplays at the time and he had a camera, so it was the perfect match. We’ve been working together ever since.In regards to Living in 8 Bits, we all shared a mutual passion for Nintendo growing up. The retro gaming scene on the internet was getting pretty big at the time and we wanted to contribute. We were also watching a lot of The Office, so thought it would be interesting to make a mockumentary-style series about the absurd universes in the games we grew up playing. I wrote the Double Dragon episode with my friend Jeff Orens, who plays the Greg Belmont character. I also acted in several episodes, but mostly I parodied Mario.We ended at Season 5, then did a spin-off project with Mario and Luigi trying to survive in the workforce. I helped to write and produce that one with Mixed Nuts Productions and Cinevore Studios.

I’m not sure what’s in store for the future, because I know Mike has been doing very well in the festival circuit with a new film of his called Still. But I can confirm there was a recent discussion about me donning the overalls once again.

Writing comedy can be quite difficult for a lot of us. When writing comedy, especially in a visual form, how do you come up with the material? Do you improvise it 'live' and then write it down prior to turning the cameras on, or does it start in your head the way ordinary writing does? Can you offer any general tips on those of us who write prose but are a little leery about branching into a visual, comedic format?

See, the problem is that my friends and I might think we’ve written some kind of Allen opus when there are plenty of viewers on the internet not shy about telling us otherwise. But we just go into every shoot because we’re a bunch of guys and girls who like to goof-around and ham it up on camera. My favorite thing about writing sketch comedy is in how collaborative it is. We’ll start with a basic outline and then improvise most of the material that makes it into the final cut, so we are constantly bouncing material off of one another. Since comedy is so dependent on delivery and timing a good actor has a huge influence over what may have been funny in our heads vs. what actually is funny on film, so we tend to do the process backwards. I think Super Plumber Brothers was the first time we wrote every episode up-front before filming and I learned a lot about how difficult comedy writing truly was. My advice for anyone looking to make the transition from prose to visual media is to go for it. Read up on the structure of a screenplay because format is important. (I recommend Save the Cat). You want to keep the writing quick, tight, and to the point --lose the stage directions, because the director is going to block the scene how he wants to anyway. It also helps to read your dialogue aloud so you know how it's going to sound when an actor gets to it. It's also helpful to bounce jokes off of someone else to ensure they are going to land.

Your posts on WF have indicated you stopped writing for some time and have recently returned. What caused you to stop writing and what is drawing you back into it now?

I became quite insecure during my MFA stint and found myself in an existential crisis as to whether or not I had any business writing at all. I was surrounded by a lot of talented writers with rich voices and that familiar self-doubt got the better of me, so I wound up taking a break before my thesis was due and that was five-years ago. By that point, in my mind I had failed everything I’d been working toward, so even attempting to write another word again manifested a great deal of anxiety. I convinced myself that I didn't have it in me anymore.Recently I was diagnosed with PTSD and I’ve been working on having more compassion for myself. I realized sometime within the last five months that the only thing I’ve ever been truly passionate about is writing. I’m letting the self-doubt wallow on the back-burner right now while I try to find my voice again. I suppose what ultimately brought me back was that I can’t imagine the rest of my life not writing. It took the absence of it in my life to realize how integral it was to my identity.

What are your future ambitions for your work? Do you have anything in the pipeline?

My ultimate ambition is to find a home in an anthology, but I've got a lot of work to do internally before I'm ready for that point.
In the meantime, I'm shopping around a short story about time displacement and am also working on another piece of short fiction a bit longer.The two most-recent stories I’ve written have been for the forum challenges. I can say that finding this community again has reinvigorated the bug.

What sort of anthology would you see your work as fitting into most comfortably? As somebody who publishes in anthologies, I struggle sometimes with work that isn't 'genre fiction' and your work seems quite eclectic. What advantages do you consider anthologies having over, say, creating your own collection or going with the magazines/webzines?

That’s a good question, because I don’t expect to ever end up in The Best American Short Stories, but I do want to share a space with other voices on a common theme. I find that a short story writer should take whatever avenue they can, whether it’s submitting to a magazine, webzine, anthology or short fiction contest. Anthologies sometimes are very niche, so if you’ve ever wanted to write a Lovecraftian yarn in the voice of Dashiell Hammett, there may be an anthology out there for you.

If you could sit down with three authors for a beer (or coffee, or juice) who would they be and why?

Flannery O’Conner. I would say she is one of my most important influences and I would love to pick her brain about character and setting over a drink or two.Kurt Vonnegut. I’m curious what this man drank, because I want some of it.

Sylvia Plath. I've always romanticized her life and I think we would have gotten along in a sordid way.

What's one piece of advice you would offer a writer who has yet to publish anything?

Read voraciously, write without consequence.

"Read voraciously, write without consequence." I agree with this. Good reading is something I think a lot of new writers overlook, especially that it's not just about how much reading you do but how diverse the material you choose to read is: I think re-reading the same book(s) or the same author(s) constantly is kind of like consuming the same food everyday - it is definitely better than eating nothing, but not nearly as good as a varied diet. What are you reading right now? Also, now that you are writing again, do you find your reading habits change at all? Do you find you focus on different aspects, perhaps looking for techniques? Or do you just read for the pure joy of it?

Exactly. Not only that, but I think it’s important to read a diverse range of voices, because I believe that everyone has something unique to say, can offer a new way of looking at the world.Right now I’m reading a short story collection by Philip K. Dick. I like him because he knew how to fit a well-structured plot into a short story, which is something I struggle with in my own writing. Reading is integral to my writing process. I can’t get into the rhythm of language without at least reading beforehand, otherwise I find that my writing lacks energy. This means I’ve definitely been reading a lot more than I have been over the past few years. I feel like that I have a lot of catching up to do, too, so any recommendations you have for me are welcome. It’s also fair to say that I use reading as a learning tool because often what I churn out is influenced by what I’m reading beforehand.

What has been your hardest lesson in writing? What do you feel you have improved on most over the years and what are you still working on getting better at?

My struggle has been with my own self-doubts; whether or not I truly have anything to say. I’ve been my own worst critic over the years and I’m slowly starting to give myself a break here and there. I am learning to have more confidence in my voice and in turn am embracing my vulnerability on the page. I want to remain true to the story I'm telling and the language I'm borrowing to tell it. Really what I need to focus on right now is getting back into a steady routine of writing and submitting frequently. Routine is something I can certainly get better at.

Thanks J.T!
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Darren White

co-owner and admin
Staff member
Luckyscars, thank you for this interview. It's great to read about the creative process other authors go through.

JT, wonderful to 'see' the man behind the orange letters.
It can be surprising that, when we allow ourselves time and friendliness, creative gates open.


Staff member
Some thought provoking questions, LS :)

What has been your hardest lesson in writing? What do you feel you have improved on most over the years and what are you still working on getting better at?

My struggle has been with my own self-doubts; whether or not I truly have anything to say. I’ve been my own worst critic over the years and I’m slowly starting to give myself a break here and there.

J.T.,I wonder how many other writers on WF suffer with self-doubt. I know I do, and at times it leaves me paralysed until my writing buddy gives me a rollicking.

Really what I need to focus on right now is getting back into a steady routine of writing and submitting frequently. Routine is something I can certainly get better at.

When I took part in the NaPoWriMo challenge (writing 30 poems in 30 days) and the NaNoWriMo challenge the discipline of writing to a deadline actually helped. Do you work to goals with set objectives or is a 'steady routine' more flexible?

J.T. Chris

WF Veterans
These were very thought-provoking questions and got my literary cogs turning again. Thanks again for the opportunity lucky.

Some thought provoking questions, LS :)

J.T.,I wonder how many other writers on WF suffer with self-doubt. I know I do, and at times it leaves me paralysed until my writing buddy gives me a rollicking.

When I took part in the NaPoWriMo challenge (writing 30 poems in 30 days) and the NaNoWriMo challenge the discipline of writing to a deadline actually helped. Do you work to goals with set objectives or is a 'steady routine' more flexible?

Hi PiP,

Yeah, the self-doubt thing can really hinder the writing progress. I try to stick to a routine of writing and submitting a story a month. My schedule is kind of sporadic so I have to steal time to write when I can. I thought about making a strict writing schedule, but sometimes the words don't come to me and I can't force them out.


WF Veterans
I think you've pinched my cat, J.T. The one looking at the camera looks just like our Poppy!

Good getting to know you. :)

Would you consider going back into studying?

And great interview, Lucky.

J.T. Chris

WF Veterans
Yeah, that's Kylo. He is not too fond of being photographed.

I thought about going back to finish. It's one of my regrets especially since I was so close. Once I get emotionally ready I think I will.


WF Veterans
Kylo? Star Wars Fan, at all? :) And our poppy is the same when it comes to photos!


As for studying, you should! It sounds like you were so close.