Lesley Jenike talks museums, musicality, and marionettes with associate editor Julia Marquez-Uppman.

Lesley Jenike’s work has appeared in the Colorado Review, the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, Image, West Branch, the Rumpus, and many other journals. An essay of hers first published in the Bennington Review was listed as “Notable” in 2023’s Best American Essays anthology. Her first collection of essays City of Toys was the runner-up for the Ohio State University’s Press’ Gournay Prize and will be published next year as part of their 21st Century Essays series. She teaches creative writing and literature at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio where she lives with her husband and two children.

Julia Marquez-Uppman: I jumped at the chance to interview you because I was the one to find “Wunderkammer,” which was published in our Summer 2023 issue, in the [Submittable] queue, and I was so blown away by it. I’m interested in how this essay brings together these very disparate concepts—museums, the climate crisis, parenthood—in a way that, to me as a reader, it felt like I was in a museum, like I was walking through a museum. And so the first question I wanted to ask you, which is also because I personally am just obsessed with form, is how form is working for you in this piece. How did you approach it? How does it contribute to the meaning of the essay?

Lesley Jenike: I’m obsessed with form too. I find that as an essayist, form is the hardest thing to get right. Sometimes it takes a really long time to find the right structure or framing device for a piece. I worked on “Wunderkammer” forever. It went through lots of different iterations, but I think when I allowed my voice in the essay to become some other aspect of my personality–not the everyday, walking-around version of myself but the weird, kind of angry, kind of sarcastic version of myself–I suppose the piece found its shape. And I’m not even sure if it’s the right shape, but it ended up being the published shape. The piece was also really influenced by Mary Ruefle’s essay “My Private Property,” which is one of my favorite essays and also about museums and cultural appropriation and love and belonging. And Ruefle obviously has a very dry voice. I thought to myself, Well, why can’t I let that aspect of myself out a little bit more? And this seemed like a good opportunity to do it.

JMU: Was there something you felt like you weren’t “allowed”—or, what was it that was keeping you from doing that from the get-go?

LJ: I think for years and years I had to be Miss Nice Lesley. And that probably happened as a result of years and years of schooling—going to graduate school, trying to please my professors and advisors, trying not to step on toes. And then at some point—I think when I had kids—I was just like, “Screw it.” I don’t have to please anybody anymore except myself. I have a side to me that is—angry is not the right word–but I have a very cynical side, I think, and I wanted to explore it a little bit more, even if it makes me uncomfortable or it makes other people uncomfortable.

JMU: You mentioned something that intrigued me—not being sure if “Wunderkammer” is actually in the right form. Could you talk about that a little bit more?

LJ: I like to publish things because then I can say it’s done, you know what I mean? But is it really? These are obsessions that I will continue to have, probably for the rest of my life, and I’ll be writing around these subjects again and again and again. And maybe someday I’ll write an essay that accomplishes what I set out to accomplish with “Wunderkammer.” I have a weird relationship to the stuff I’ve made. I don’t really like to read my essays again. For me, it’s all about the process. And once I can let it go, I really let it go. To say definitively, oh yes, I’ve said all I needed to say on a subject and have found the ultimate form for it just seems like courting disaster.

JMU: So it’s less about the final product than it is about the writing itself?

LJ: Yeah, for sure.

JMU: You also mentioned that when you had kids, you were able to just be like “Screw it.” So I think that’s a nice segue into my next question, which is about the place of parenthood in this essay “Wunderkammer” but also, more generally, how or if you feel that parenthood has changed your writing itself. Part of what I was so dazzled by in “Wunderkammer” is how nuanced the questions about parenthood are, and how beautifully it brings together these emotions from so many different parts of the spectrum, from postpartum depression to this sense of incredible hope. So I was curious if you noticed that in your own writing, like “I’m writing differently,” or “I’m writing about different things now that I am a parent.”

LJ: I really do think my interest in writing essays started pretty soon after having my daughter. And I’ve been trying to think about why that happened. I don’t know if I became suddenly more verbose, or maybe I just couldn’t be hemmed in by lines anymore. I don’t really know, but for whatever reason, I really do think that there is a connection between having had my first kid and then suddenly deciding that I wanted to spend most of my time writing nonfiction. I think a lot of it has to do with what I was saying earlier about not feeling beholden to anybody’s expectations of me anymore. I produced a life. I gave birth. Screw it! Screw whatever you think I should be doing in terms of, like, formal poetry. I don’t care. Break down the genre barriers! I also realized that I most enjoy reading historical nonfiction, essays, memoir, and cultural criticism, so why not write what I enjoy reading?

JMU: I have two similar questions about the relationship between your writing and other forms of art—both visual art and music find their way into your writing in a lot of different ways. So I was curious about how that sort of intertextuality works for you. Is it something you just notice coming up organically as you write, or is it more like, I think this would be really useful, so I’m going to deliberately start from this piece of art?

LJ: These are things I’m very interested in, so yeah, I might say, I’m going to write an essay about Joni Mitchell and I want to write about this album (The Hissing of Summer Lawns) in particular. But the joy of discovery happens when those songs bring up new connections and associations as I’m thinking about them. Lots of things may come up that I hadn’t anticipated, whether it’s personal experiences, film, other songs, or other musicians. Same thing goes for visual art. I might say, I really like this painting–Joan Mitchell’s The Goodbye Door, for example–and I’d like to write about it, but then in the process of writing about it, maybe other voices and stories and associations will come up that I hadn’t anticipated. I mean, I had no idea that when I started writing about that Mitchell painting, I’d end up also writing about Napoleon Bonaparte, but that’s the sort of magic that happens in an essay. It’s exhilarating. I went to a creative and performing arts high school, and I was involved in theater. I was a singer, and I did make art when I was younger too. I even started my college career in a musical theater program. So music is hugely important to me and it’s almost hard for me to think about writing in non-musical terms. So much of it is about creating rhythm, thinking about each sentence and how those sentences form a paragraph, then thinking of the paragraph (poetically-speaking) as a stanza, also as a musical movement. It should operate on its own. It should maintain its individual integrity while contributing to the whole. Finding the right rhythm for the beginning of an essay is really important to me and I’ll agonize over it because the musicality of the voice is vital. It’s my key to finding the essay’s form. I really regret quitting my piano lessons when I was a kid—I could’ve written songs, but that ship sailed.

JMU: I have a pretty similar background. Music was a huge, huge thing for me when I was in high school—I played piano and cello—and at the time I wanted to be a concert musician. And I did also let go of that dream; I have a piano, but I don’t play it very often. But what you were saying about rhythm and musicality, that is so familiar to me. I think of writing in the same way. And I also wonder if that’s part of why I don’t feel like there’s been a loss of music in my life. The music is in the writing now.

LJ: Right, exactly. Maybe that’s why I don’t walk around feeling too terribly disappointed, because there is music and I’m orchestrating things, just in a different way.

JMU: I love the word “orchestrating” in the context of writing.

LJ: Oh, yeah. I feel like that’s a lot of what writing, especially essay writing, is—pulling in disparate connections and voices, finding the right structure for them, organizing them in a particular way, deciding what instrument gets its moment to shine and then the instruments you pull back on. Negotiating all of those moving parts. I think that if you are inclined toward associative thinking, essays are the place for you.

JMU: I’m curious about the role of research in your writing, because reading through your stuff, there are so many moments where I’m like, “What an amazing, completely esoteric fact or tidbit or anecdote.” Where do you get that kind of stuff? Is it something you go looking for, or do you just read really widely and those things come up and then you find ways to work them in?

LJ: I think it’s like a little bit of all of that. Say I want to write an essay about marionette dolls—and I have. I’m a very historical thinker and I’m very interested in the history of objects and places so I’m always inclined to start there. I might begin with a known quantity, like Collodi’s Pinocchio, then wind my way into texts about nineteenth century Italian doll-making, for example. I’ll try to find some historical documents alongside contemporary interpretations and just kind of read around. Ultimately, one piece might point me towards something else. A writer may mention another writer or another article, and so I’ll go and find that, and so on. But I had to realize that I can’t know everything about a subject. If I had to know everything about a subject, I’d never write anything. When I was in graduate school, I thought that if I wanted to write about Moby Dick, I had to read everything that’s ever been written about Moby Dick, which was an utterly stultifying feeling. But at some point in my writing life I realized that the sweet spot happens when I know when to research and when to stop and let the magic of discovery happen.

JMU: In the writing?

LJ: In the writing. Yeah. And inspiration for the writing can come from anywhere. I mentioned essays and articles, but it can come from podcasts, movies, anything. I keep my eyes and ears open all the time.

JMU: How do you know when to stop? Is it just sort of an instinct?

LJ: I think so. That’s an unhelpful answer, but yeah, I do think it’s sort of an instinct—the instinct that tells me, I have enough good material here and I want it to be a work of creative nonfiction and not a research paper, so I have to figure out what the line is between the two. And I also want it to be a single essay and not a dissertation, so I have to make choices and be smart about my time and effort. It’s a delicate balancing act.

JMU: That makes me curious what you see as the work of the reader and the work of the writer when you’re writing. Because I know there’s such a spectrum here—and I feel like I have moved along it—where I used to be like, I must explain absolutely everything so that the reader never has to do any work. And then there are other people who are like, “No. I’m just going to leave these things here and it’s the reader’s job to do the work of making the meaning.” I’m curious about your perspective on that.

LJ: I mean, that’s the major conundrum, right? I think more and more I find myself erring on the side of helping the reader along a little bit more. And it could just be that I feel nervous about throwing in a bunch of hanging quotes or images without context or transitions for the reader. But I also have to be really delicate about guiding them through the argument, or whatever it is, versus telling them how to feel about it. I want to create a voice that is compelling enough for you to want to follow me as I take you on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but I also don’t necessarily want to tell you how to sum the essay up neatly or what it should all mean.

JMU: OK, I have one last research-related question, which is: Have you ever had something super great and interesting that you found in the course of researching and really wanted to include, but ultimately decided that you couldn’t?

LJ: So I wrote an essay about Pinocchio, and this is getting back to the marionette thing. You know how Pinocchio goes to the City of Toys and he becomes a donkey? I didn’t realize that there was an actual amusement park in Italy called the City of Toys that had been abandoned. I think it was created in the sixties or seventies. The abandoned buildings are still there. And the guy who decided to create the amusement park was a really interesting person. I could’ve put in stuff about his biography that was fascinating, but it just didn’t quite make sense. The other problem is negotiating all my tangents. I have to ask myself, what’s a useful tangent and when do I go a bit too far? In this case, I felt it was a bridge too far. I don’t need to go into the backstory of this guy who made this amusement park. I can mention the amusement park, but I don’t have to talk about this guy and his bizarre business ventures. Of course it’s all totally fascinating, but I just couldn’t fit it in.

JMU: That’s a great example. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. What is the marionette essay?

LJ: OSU is putting out my first collection of essays next year. It’s the first essay in the book, and of course there’s a lot of Pinocchio in there, but the essay also mentions movies that use puppets as stand-ins for children which then leads me to talk about child actors and my own experiences as a child performer among other wildly-associative threads. Hopefully it works!

Julia Marquez-Uppman is a third-year MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Colorado State University and an associate editor at Colorado Review. She recently had an essay published at The Offing.