Years ago, a young woman sat in Room 115 of the John T. Richardson Library mesmerized by the words of the American writer Roxane Gay. She herself would write 60-page short stories for fun, but settled on a path towards an undergraduate degree in political science.
Today, the tables have turned. In addition to pursuing that degree, Jessica Chiarella also acquired a Masters in Writing and Publishing (MAWP) from DePaul University and with it the publication of her very first novel, “And Again.” A Vernon Hills native, Chiarella returned Tuesday to stand where Gay once stood and share with the DePaul community what they helped her create.
“All I was looking for was for a professor to say, ‘You have some talent,'” she said.
With little to no experience in comparison to her fellow graduate peers she didn’t think she had a place in the writing program. She found reassurance from professors like Rebecca Johns-Trissler.
“I first met Jessica when she was a student in my speculative fiction workshop,” Johns-Trissler said to the crowd that gathered to see Chiarella speak in the Richardson Library. “She wrote this wonderful story called the Slow Fall. It’s one of those stories you can’t help but remember. I was very pleased when she showed up in my novel writing workshop the next year.”
“It doesn’t shock me that she’s here at all,” Bridget Bell, a classmate of Chiarella, said.
“She gives really great ideas and is really methodical in the way she thinks about it and so I always cherish her feedback in the classroom and outside the classroom,” Bell said about their time in the novels workshop together. “She’s always given wonderful advice and also in reading her own work, you just didn’t want to put it down even in those early drafts.”
A two-course sequence, students wrote over 200 pages over the course of 10 weeks – 6,000 words per week – and the students would work on revisions in the second session. It was in that class that the first draft of “And Again” was created in 2013.
The novel follows four terminally ill patients as they re-enter their lives when given new, cloned bodies. Offered a second chance at life, they come to find that they have been restored but also unmade. It was sold to a publisher October of the following year — a quick trajectory.
“I moved back with my parents … I was commuting in. I was paying out of pocket. I did a lot of things that you’re really not supposed to do as a young person just because I was all in on the idea of being a writer and it was really tough.” Chiarella said.
It took her four years to get through the two year program, but said it was worth it in the end.
“She really credits this program for giving her a work ethic and a sense of rigor that has allowed her to write almost 2 works now,” Michele Morano, the director of the Masters in Writing and Publishing program said. Morano described the program as one centered on creative writing and some publishing skills but that fundamentally works to develop skills and work habits.
Chiarella confessed to moments of doubt. Shortly before her agent was scheduled to send out her manuscript to editors, she had a moment where she thought, “I’m going to write her and say not to send it out. I’m going to tell her I know how to write a novel now. I’ve done it once before I can do it better this time. I just don’t want her to send that one. It’s not ready. It’s not a good representation of my work.”
A fellow roommate and friend talked her out of it.
“It’s fantastic,” Morano said when asked what she thought of the book so far. “She’s really good at bringing characters to life and making them real, giving them complexity, they’re recognizable to us as real people even though their situations are unlike anything we’ve ever encountered.”
Chiarella is now working on her second novel that she hopes meets the standards created by “And Again” and is currently enrolled in the University of California, Riverside’s MFA in Creative Writing program.
“I like to imagine the world as it could be instead of as it is,” Chiarella said.