Best Bones: An Interview with Jane-Rebecca Cannarella, author of Better Bones

by Lyndsay Hall

In my first memory of Jane-Rebecca, whom I know as Janie, she’s pocket-sized and about to read her writing before a group of our graduate school peers. She’s got guts, I think: I would never read my work to these people, what for? so they can ask the admissions board what I’m doing here? 

But Janie’s not like me, I can tell. It’s her first semester, and her size gives the impression she’s young, like young young—it’s an ongoing joke cataloged on her social media. In a recent photo, she wears a romper ruffled at its leg and sprinkled in dainty flowers. It’s “for adults,” she clarifies in a comment. Another photo, namely a selfie taken in the backseat of a car, is captioned with an anecdote: Her Uber driver asked how she was enjoying her college experience. Her dress has skulls on its top, full mesh for its skirt. I owned one like it once, when I was 20. 

Janie’s the kind of woman I admire, not for her youthfulness—I’m realizing now I don’t know her age and have no true guess—but for her at once gentle and unabashed presence. Confident in a way that is unapologetic and kind. Where I wear a black t-shirt and jeans and beeline to the back of any given room, Janie dresses however the fuck she feels like, stands before a room of strangers, and raises her pages to the podium. I don’t think this is how Janie would describe herself, yet it’s there unmistakably as she reads.

It’s in her work, too—guts. And grit. Not for its shock value or any jarring reveal of self (her collection, Better Bones, is fiction, after all), but for its many risks and payoffs, the way a sentence snakes to unanticipated places. Her imagery is a studied world, her metaphors are boundless. In Better Bones, there’s a sense that anything can happen. 

*

We talk in mid-summer over email. I’ve just read her collection of flash fiction, and in doing so, filled pages of a Google Doc with fangirl questions I need to rewrite and copied-and-pasted lines that linger like a papercut. (Um, hello!?: “My body, a friendless fuckless landmass, holds the history of looting pioneers.”) I want to know how she does it: how she draws the parallels she does, discovers imagery that surprises, then delights.

“I’m always interested in the idea of mapping things that feel disconnected and finding the thread that can unite them,” she says. “A lot of my pieces have been cobbled together from scraps of paper where I write down a kind of meditation or a feeling. Or from sticky notes on my computer where I have a running log of images that strike me, or a memory that feels like a dagger.”

Janie seems like someone who’s really good at in-class creative writing exercises: unbeholden to the judgment of others or even reality as we know it. I suppose, yes, these stories are rooted in yours and my world, but, but… within Better Bones, we inhabit a world poetic and charged. Our narrators are earnest or, as Janie describes them, “sloppy and despairing.” Their truths are cutting. And yet, within its fearlessness and undeniable loneliness, at the heart of the prose is play.

“A lot of writing is very much a source of play for me,” she agrees, and tells me her first master’s was in education. “I have always been moved by the unconscious natural creativity that children possess, and how they can transform the world around them into something totally different.”

After it’s over, shed. Shed your clothing—pull pieces of shirts and skirts and panties from your body like a snake escaping its skin. The debris from the fallout, raining acidy hurt from the heavens, coats your body: a nuclear exoskeleton; you are covered with the war.

from “After You Survive the FalloutShed” by Jane-Rebecca Cannarella

While she does write almost daily, Janie wouldn’t describe her habits as very structured. Maybe that’s obvious: she doesn’t exactly adhere to structure or rules in her writing, either. Many of the stories in Better Bones are snapshots without traditional arcs; some are less than half a page. There are a few reasons flash appeals to her: its sense of urgency, the ability to hyper-focus on a singular thing, and to no surprise, the practical elimination of writing rules. 

She gives me one nugget about her process, though: “For a piece to truly come together I often need to be bored. A lot of my shorts were written while I’ve been working on something else that feels repetitive or is a known function. Then the writing comes like a flood.”

There’s something about that—the waiting for a breakthrough—that tells me forgiveness and trust are also part of Janie’s process. And so, must be, thoughtfulness. Which I buy. Janie takes good care throughout Better Bones to deliver surprise in every line, renders language new again. It’s perhaps her capacity for surprise and awe that provides her the greatest well of inspiration.

“While a lot of my writing focuses on loneliness or despair, as a person I am overwhelmed with how amazing the world is and how there are so many things that have unexpected layers,” she says, noting, “my interests are wide-ranging, and I’m enthusiastic and slightly obsessive about a ton of stuff.” 

I have to know: What was she obsessed with while writing Better Bones? “Symbolism of flowers, lullabies, sailboats, rust and other chemical compounds, perennial trees, the Murder by Death album Red of Tooth and Claw, the Long Island Sound, and cartography.”

Better Bones is, undoubtedly, a meditation on loneliness. Even as two characters come together, it is only to reveal the ways in which we can feel alone in the company of another. The process of writing the collection, however, did not mirror this. “I certainly felt closer to people than I had in a really long time,” she says.

And more than that, she hopes (and I believe achieves that) the reader’s experience doesn’t mirror Better Bones’ underlying theme, either.

“An ideal scenario would be that someone reads this collection and recognizes that the pieces of us that are messy and fucked up also deserve to be honored. And maybe whoever is reading this can feel a kinship with the pieces, and maybe they feel less alone and lonely even if they are a lonely and alone person.”

She admits, she’s a lonely and alone person, too.

Jane-Rebecca Cannarella’s Better Bones is available from Thirty West Publishing House.

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