What are our UW-English alumni up to? This one—Jon Etter, who graduated UW with an MA in English Literature—is writing and teaching.
We caught up with Jon for an interview last semester when he was visiting town to share his new book, A Dreadful Fairy Book.
Tell us about your experience in the UW-Madison English department and the Writers’ Institute.
The year I spent in Madison working on my M.A. was a time of wonderfully intense study. While I did get out and enjoy some of the social scene, it seems like most of my time was spent either at Helen C. White Hall, the library, the student union, or in the crumbling old Victorian house on Few Street that I shared with three roommates. That may sound a bit cloistered, but I really enjoyed that time of real devotion to reading, analysis, and discussion. And while I didn’t spend a lot of time on creative writing during that period, my literary studies definitely made me a better, more knowledgeable teacher (and helped me to start teaching college-level classes in just the second year of my teaching career) and shaped a lot of my sensibilities as a writer.
My involvement with the Writers’ Institute starting in 2014 has had a much more direct impact on my writing and getting published than my grad work. Ideas and techniques that came from some of the sessions I went to definitely informed a number of things in my first novel. In fact, the antagonist was born out of an exercise I picked up in a flash fiction presentation there. The year after that, when I had a full manuscript completed, I went to sessions on landing an agent and the querying process, signed up for a couple practice pitch sessions, and actually pitched my novel to several agents in attendance that year. While in the end nothing happened with that first novel, everything I learned that year played a role in my later success.
Tell us about A Dreadful Fairy Book. Where did the idea come from?
The book was born when my daughter went through a big fairy story stage a couple years back, and we were reading a lot of wonderful fairy literature, and then we hit some books that neither I nor my daughter enjoyed. Once it was clear she was done with them, I grabbed the books, headed to the door, and called out to my wife, “I’m going to take back those dreadful fairy books!” As I walked to the garage, I thought, “You know, I’d read a series called Those Dreadful Fairy Books. I bet my kids would too…” And I’m relieved to say, they have and are eager for the next two installments in the series.
What books have inspired you?
The first chapter book I read on my own was Otis Spofford by Beverly Cleary. My teacher started reading it to us in class, and I didn’t want to wait for more so I went to my small town library first chance I got, checked out the copy they had, and burned through it. After that, I went on to read every single Beverly Cleary book, which I think are still wonderful and have informed my writing for kids. Cleary really captured the joys and frustrations of child life, and even though I mostly write fantasy, I try to keep it grounded with those real world feelings of kids. I think it’s that emotionally true core at the heart of a good story that makes it resonate with readers and endure over time.
What do you find enjoyable about writing? And what do you find to be a challenge?
I think what I find most enjoyable about writing is the challenge. Getting an idea for a story or character or situation and then building on that until there’s a fully realized piece of writing—it can be immensely difficult (especially all the fiddly little bits in the middle of a story), but it’s wonderful when it all comes together and you have this story or poem ready to go out into the world.
What advice to you have for new or struggling writers?
I think the best advice I can give is try not let rejection stop you. Over a hundred agents passed on the first book I wrote, so I submitted Fairy to another hundred agents and piled up a bunch of rejections before I landed my agent who helped me land another 30 or so rejections and, in the end, three offers of publication. Now if we were to factor in my published short stories and poems, we’d have to add another 250 to 300 rejections to the scorecard. Yeah, those rejections can be hard on the spirit at times, but I’ve really come to believe that rejection is just a necessary part of the publishing process. But if you have a good piece of writing, I really think that with a little luck and a lot of hustle, odds are you’ll be able to find it a home.