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Jessica Anthony has worked as a maid, a secretary, a singing-telegram girl, and a clerk at a convenience store in Alaska, cutting meat and renting videos to fishermen who hadn’t seen a woman in a month. She’s taught English to Czech businessmen at a chateau in Northern Bohemia and been a secretary "many times. It is the most under-appreciated and difficult work there is," she says. "It’s really hard to be an administrative assistant." Recently, she worked at Casco Bay Books in Portland.
But mostly, Anthony has worked as a writer. She’s part way through the second draft of her novel, The Convalescent, the story of a Hungarian-American recluse living in broken-down bus in a Virginia field. Developers are trying to take his land from him, and in fighting the "invasion," our recluse is accidentally reintegrated into society. Anthony’s work-in-progress recently won the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a grant of $5000 given by McSweeney’s (www.mcsweeneys.net/davisaward.html) ¾ arguably the coolest literary journal/internet depot/cultural force on the contemporary American scene ¾ and the 826Valencia writers’ consortium (www.826valencia.org), in honor of Davis, a 32-year old writer who died in a plane crash en route to readings to promote her second book, and first novel, Wonder When You’ll Miss Me.
The grant, a no-strings-attached lump sum, was created by writers for writers, with an understanding of the life of odd jobs and nebulous prospects all young writers face. An addendum to the grant paperwork asked applicants to describe the "shitty jobs" they’ve had, and Anthony had a long list.
"It felt good," Anthony says. "When you’re looking for work, you craft your experiences to get [a particular] job. This was the first time I could honestly put down what I’ve done."
The Davis grant was designed specifically for female writers age 32 and under. "It’s not a blank grant," Anthony says. "It’s something crafted as a memorial to her, and obviously that’s a great honor."
Davis, thought by many to be one of the emerging stars of contemporary literature, was, Anthony feels, "a wonderful writer. She did something amazing with language. It’s like a combination of poetry and prose. It’s a weird thing to apply for something like this."
And though McSweeney’s is often associated with the more experimental and absurdist end of new writing, Anthony doesn’t consider herself an experimental writer. " I try to use poetic language," she says. "But I’d never choose language that sacrifices the story." Stylistically, though, her book is "not a traditional narrative," she says.
The Convalescent is Anthony’s fourth attempt at a novel, evidence of her persistence and determination. It is a "single character study," and it alternates between medieval Hungary and modern-day Virginia. "This is the biggest thing that’s happened to me," Anthony says. "I got a phone call from Vendela Vida [Girls on the Verge]!" Coming on top of a fiction-thesis fellowship from her MFA program at Virginia’s George Mason University, the McSweeney’s grant has given Anthony the luxury writers crave most, time. And McSweeney’s will be publishing one of her short stories in upcoming issue No. 14.
Anthony’s devotion to her writing, her humorous approach to the day jobs she’s had to do to get by, and her enthusiasm for contemporary literary culture in general are obvious. "I’m looking forward to the point when I can just chill out," she says, smiling. Stringing together odd jobs while attempting to keep a large-scale work alive has exhausted the resources of many an emerging writer, but Anthony has kept on plugging. To read an excerpt from The Convalescent, go to www.mcsweeneys.net/2004/2/4anthony.html
Tanya Whiton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: March 5 - 11, 2004
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