Q&A with author Jessica Chiarella


Alumni Jessica Chiarella talks with Mr.Curry’s third period class.

The Scratching Post recently sat down with alumni Jessica Chiarella (‘05) to discuss her recently published book And Again. The storyline revolves around four terminally ill patients who were given a second chance with genetically perfect bodies, and sheds light on what new problems arise with these perfections.

The Scratching Post: Did you always love writing?

Jessica Chiarella: “Yes, absolutely. Writing has always been a lot of fun for me, and it was always something I did in my free time simply because I enjoyed it.”

TSP: What inspired you to become a writer?

Chiarella: “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with my life, which included studying photography and getting a BA in political science. But when I graduated, I realized that the only work I was truly passionate about was the writing I did for fun. So I decided to take it seriously, go back to school, and treat writing like a job.”

TSP: What tips/advice do you have for young writers?

Chiarella: “It sounds corny, but writing should be fun. And if you want to write professionally, it needs to be fun, or else there’s no way you’ll want to devote enough time to your writing to get better at it. There are a lot of nights where I have to stay in and work instead of going out with my friends, and the only way to consistently make that choice is if I’m enjoying what I’m working on.”

TSP: When and how did you get the idea for your book?

Chiarella: “I got the idea for the book about a year before I started writing it. I spent a lot of time wondering about the way we think of miracle cures in our society, the idea that if we can just find the right chemical compound we can put it in a pill and cure cancer. And that idea felt very unrealistic to me, because so many serious diseases are caused by a combination of factors. I started thinking that a “miracle cure” would have to turn back the clock on all of the physical damage we accrue throughout our lives. Which is what brought me to the idea of cloning as a way of curing terminal diseases.”

TSP: Roughly how long did it take you to write the book?

Chiarella: “I started the book in January 2013 and it was published in January 2016, but I think I had to turn in the final edits in March of 2015. So it was a little over two years of active writing and editing.”

TSP: What was the book writing process like?

Chiarella: “I wrote the first draft of the book in a graduate class at DePaul, where we had to write 60,000 words during the 10-week quarter. That was roughly 1,000 words a day, six days a week, for ten weeks. Needless to say, what I wrote in that class was a very, very rough first draft, but it gave me plenty of material to work with in revising and rewriting the book, which I continued doing over the next two years.”

TSP: Are you writing a follow-up book? If so, would it be a sequel or another book entirely?

Chiarella: “I am writing another book, but it’s not connected to And Again in any way. It’s another book set in Chicago, about two generations of women in the same family who have the ability to see imminent death by touching people.”

TSP: I heard you got your MA in Writing and Publishing from DePaul, and an MFA in Creative Writing from University of California – Riverside. Why did you attend two different universities?  

Chiarella: “I’d done my undergraduate degree at DePaul, so when I decided that I wanted to try writing as a career, their Writing and Publishing program seemed like the perfect next step. I really can’t say enough about how that program took me from being a hobbyist and turned me into a serious writer. I left there with my book, and with great mentors who have continued to help me to this day. After my time at DePaul, I decided to pursue an MFA because it’s the terminal degree in Creative Writing, meaning it allows you to teach in 4-year colleges and universities (sort of like a PhD). It was also an opportunity for me to take two years and focus completely on writing, instead of working during the day and taking classes at night. It was my first experience teaching as well, which turned out to be a very rewarding experience. So, while I never set out to have two graduate degrees, I benefited from both programs in such important ways that I’m very grateful for both experiences.”

TSP: What were those programs like?

Chiarella: “DePaul is very much a program for working writers. It’s set up so you can take classes after work, and it has a very large and very diverse student body. UCR was much smaller (I was one of eleven fiction students there), and it’s like having a full-time job as a writer. You take classes during the day, you teach for the university as a TA, and most of your friends are writers in the program. So it really becomes your whole life for two years. Both had phenomenal professors and a lot of talent, so I enjoyed both programs immensely.”

TSP: What did you learn from each program?

Chiarella: “DePaul really teaches you how to be a professional writer. The focus is on helping you take your writing and get it out there (be it by publishing or by using your degree to get a job in a writing or publishing-related field). I learned how to write a novel at DePaul, how to have the discipline to get the words down on paper without being too sentimental or precious about them. UCR was very craft-focused in a lot of ways. It’s is about taking your writing and making it the best that it can be. I really learned how to look at every sentence with a critical eye and be brutal about what I keep and what I cut from a piece.”

TSP: What program was the most beneficial and you would recommend to young writers?

Chiarella: “If I’m being honest, both were incredibly beneficial to me, for different reasons. I very much enjoyed the intensity of UCR’s program, the seriousness with which it treats its students’ writing, and the time it affords writers to work solely on becoming better at their craft. But at the same time, I guarantee I would not be published today without the help I received at DePaul. I met professors there who opened doors for me in huge ways and who forced me to put my work out into the world without worrying about whether or not it was absolutely perfect. I think DePaul’s program is a great opportunity for young writers from the Chicago area, but really, I think the best thing for young writers is experience. Take different classes in different fields. Get out into the world and work for a while. Travel and meet different kinds of people. If you spend every day wanting to write, thinking about writing, and writing for fun, then start thinking about grad school.”

TSP: What are your daily writing habits: what is your day-to-day writing schedule like?

Chiarella: “I try to write 1,000 words a day, if I can. There are a lot of days when that isn’t possible, but that is always the goal. I tend to write at home, generally at my desk, somewhere between 10pm and 2am. I wish I could be a first-thing-in-the-morning writer, because then all of my work wouldn’t be hanging over my head all day, but the procrastinator in me is strong, and Netflix is always calling.”