Feature Interview with J.J. Roth

November 24, 2016


“I don't scare easily. Supernatural horror, monsters, and slashers don't usually frighten me. Psychological horror scares me, particularly where an "ordinary" facade covers something deeply troubling that I can realistically imagine happening in the world,” said J.J. Roth.


Dark fiction writer J.J. Roth is one of the hundreds that submitted a story for inclusion in Unnerving Magazine Issue #1, she also happens to be one of the nine that received acceptance letters (a few more met happy trails with spots in Issue #2). Her story Rumpelstiltskins is a quiet, psychological piece of flash that clung to my mind beyond the hold of most other submissions I’d received.

J.J. Roth mentioned upon acceptance that a work by Shirley Jackson played a role in how Rumpelstiltskins came together. Being a fan of Jackson’s work (though a novice of her catalogue) I asked for elaboration.


"The Lottery terrifies me. I first read it in high school, and it stuck with my more vividly than anything else I read during those years precisely because everything seemed so ordinary on the surface. That's the sort of atmosphere I was trying to create in Rumplestiltskins,” said J.J. Roth.


Reading being an integral point of writing, it’s always fair game to ask an author about her favorite reads and those early strikes where fictions roots  down and infects the core.


“I have many, many favorites, and know as soon as I answer this question I'll think of thirty more that I didn't mention. But here are some (in no particular order): Franz Kafka, Flannery O'Connor, Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, John Fowles, Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Michael Chabon, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aldous Huxley, Jose Saramago, Salman Rushdie, Philip K. Dick, Toni Morrison, Brian Evenson, Nalo Hopkinson, Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Amy Tan, Lavie Tidhar, Ted Chiang, Jhumpa Lahiri, Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, Leslie What, Z. Z. Packer, Jeff VanderMeer, Catherynne M.Valente, Theodora Goss, and Ken Liu.

“J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and Suzanne Collins were my favorites to reread right before the release of blockbuster films, and George R. R. Martin was my favorite to reread before a new HBO season (until last year).

“And I greatly admire my fiction writing teachers: Ryan Harty, Julie Orringer, Malinda McCollum, Lysley Tenorio, Cat Rambo, Alyx Dellamonica, and the various instructors I've been privileged to study with at Philip Schultz's The Writers Studio.

“My very first favorite, which remains one of my all-time favorites, is The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. I have a distinct memory of my mother reading this book to me when I was about four, and also I remember being excited later when I became proficient enough to reread it by myself.

“The first novel I discovered without any parental involvement and that meant a lot to me was , by Judy Blume. It was the first book I'd encountered that spoke honestly and openly to my experience of being a pre-teen girl in middle class America,” said J.J. Roth.


A loves of stories brings out an opportunity gone unnoticed. Like most writers, J.J. Roth started writing young and eventually came to embrace the skill.


“I dabbled throughout my life. As a kid, I wrote silly kid stories. Later, I journaled like a fiend, filling pages with adolescent angst. I wrote gonzo features for my high school newspaper and bad poetry in college. During law school, I audited a playwriting class to stay sane. Through it all, I tried writing serious fiction. But I was afraid of plot, and I had a lot of false starts.

“At some point, I realized I'd been thinking about plot as preceding character, which wasn't at all helpful. Once I started thinking about plot instead as something that evolves out of character, I became less afraid and decided to give fiction writing another try. Soon after, I felt ready to get feedback on my writing. In the early 2000s, I became a fixture at fiction workshops offered through Stanford Continuing Studies. That's when I became serious. I published a few realistic literary stories under a different name.

“Then I had two kids twenty-one months apart. Between being a new parent and my day job, I was in survival mode and didn't write a word of fiction for almost eight years. I started writing again in late 2012, this time focusing on speculative fiction,” said J.J. Roth.


J.J. Roth makes use of “highly fictionalized versions” of her children, her parents, her significant other and her friends to tell stories. This makes up only a piece of the focussed framework she uses.


“On a more fundamental level, The Writers Studio method has inspired almost all of my recent stories. The method is meant to help writers create emotionally affecting work, something I find key to good fiction but not at all easy to do. It's a complex method comprised of a number of components, one of which involves analyzing the narrator in a well-regarded story, poem, or novel and attempting to write an exercise that captures the essence of that narrator and applies it to the student's own raw material. Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, Nathan Englander, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Tony Hoagland are just a few examples of writers whose work has helped me to craft narrators to tell the stories I wanted to tell,” said J.J. Roth.


Set frame and character models aside, J.J. Roth most often samples “various aspects of parent/child relationships” from real life for her work.


“It's not a conscious decision on my part, but as I think about it, most of my point of view characters are mothers or fathers. Or expectant mothers. Or women who want to be mothers, but motherhood isn't in the cards for them. Or single parents. Or parents who have lost children or for whatever reason can't be available to their kids physically or emotionally. Sometimes it's the opposite, and a point of view character is the child, adult or otherwise, in a difficult relationship with a parent,” said J.J. Roth.


Typically writing first thing in the morning so that “the house is still quiet, I'm rested, and the day hasn't yet cluttered” her mind, J.J. Roth has spun enough quality yarns to see her work published more than a dozen times. Keeping to mostly short stories, though having written a novella, writes when she can.

“As long as I'm not too sleepy and have half an hour on the front end to get into the right mindset, I can make do with any time of day or night.”

“I'd like to see my writing go to darker and stranger places. And to truthful and hopeful ones. I'd like to stop getting in my own way, to be braver in digging into the vulnerabilities and contradictions in my characters,” said J.J. Roth.

J.J. Roth was contacted via email and I thank her for her time.


J. J. Roth lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she writes science fiction and fantasy stories when not schlepping her two young sons and working at large technology company. Her stories have appeared in magazines such as Urban Fantasy Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, The Colored Lens, Mad Scientist's Journal, and Every Day Fiction.        WEBSITE   TWITTER 


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