Jessica Lind Peterson Q&A

April 11, 2022
Jessica Lind Peterson is an actress, vocalist and essayist.

“I love hyperbole. I have a random and silly sense of humor that I can’t seem to keep out of my essays. When I started grad school, I thought I would churn out straight up humorous essays, and so I was surprised when this collection, even though it has elements of humor for sure, turned out more dark and twisty than I was envisioning. I wish humor writing would be given the same pedestal as other genres have historically. If I ever land a tenured position, I’m going to spearhead the first MFA in humor writing.”

You’re an essayist and a playwright. Do you ever start with one and it turns into another?

Not overtly, but sometimes my work moves through stages throughout its life. For example, a college student recently turned my essay “This is Doris Ronn” into a one-person play. I had not  thought it was a play, but when I saw it up on its feet I was like, yes, this is totally a play. My essays tend to be very cinematic and have a lot of movement, as do my plays. I’m not sure why that is, maybe because I started my career mainly as an actor and theatre producer. But usually when I write a play, it’s because I have a commission and a deadline so I don’t allow myself to veer off course.

I enjoyed the role animals played in your book, particularly your essay where you confide your thoughts to a grizzly bear. How does the natural world impact your writing?

Actually, I wrote this whole collection while I was living in the Twin Cities. I only recently moved back home to Duluth after the pandemic hit. But I have always been obsessed with animals and obsessed with the woods. I grew up outdoors, my family had a cabin on a lake and a hunting shack in northern Minnesota, so we just sort of ran wild. I always had pets, I used to bring home turtles and baby birds I would find. When I was little, I thought I might be a veterinarian, but I supposed everyone thinks that at some point. When the pandemic hit, we left the Twin Cities and moved into a tiny cabin in Canyon, MN for 18 months. It was a strange and wonderful pause. My husband and I take our two boys out west every summer on a big, glorious camping adventure. Grizzly bears are always on my mind when we go, and I realized that I have a good-sized fear of them. I find myself writing about very very large animals, and very very small animals. I am obsessed with their extreme-ness I suppose, their mystery. One of my first plays was a one-act called “What I Learned From Grizzly Bears” about a wildlife biologist. Clearly, I am still obsessed.

Do you edit your essays by how they sound out loud? Does your stage training help you?

I am a singer and have always had a musical ear. I pick up accents easily, I learn songs easily. And when I was in grad school, my fellow students would comment on the musicality of my sentences, the syntax and phrasing. I have no doubt my theatre background informs my essay writing. I do say sentences out loud, especially when I’m stuck. I sometimes I have to fight to keep a certain word, even if an editor says it’s not grammatically correct. I fight to keep it because the rhythm sounds right, it fits into the sentence like a puzzle piece. I am so not about being “correct” when it comes to writing, and especially the lyric essay. There are certain words in certain essays in this collection I ended up changing sort of against my will, a pick-your-battle type situation, and I still can’t read those sentences because they rub me the wrong way.

Your writing is hilarious. Does that come naturally to you? Who do you read who uses humor skillfully?

Ahh, thank you. I am actually a comedic playwright. My plays are mostly very silly and over-the-top with big characters and sitcom-style dialogue. I have always been drawn to writers like David Sedaris and Anne Lamott and Norah Ephron. I love hyperbole. And I just have a random and silly sense of humor that I can’t seem to keep out of my essays. When I started grad school, I thought I would churn out straight up humorous essays, and so I was surprised when this collection, even though it has elements of humor for sure, turned out more dark and twisty than I was envisioning. In general, I wish humor writing would be given the same pedestal as other genres have historically. If I ever land a tenured position, I’m going to spearhead the first MFA in humor writing.

So many people remember all of your productions for Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo. Are you still active in theater?

Yellow Tree was my entire life for over a dozen years and to suddenly not have it feels like having had a limb removed. I miss it so very much. But as painful as it was to leave when we, my husband and I, did, it was the right thing for us and our family, we could just feel it in our bones. Living now in Duluth, it’s pretty much impossible to make a living doing theatre. When I was job hunting, I almost landed in a leadership role at the local theater here, but opted instead to work in development at a private foundation. I needed something new. I still get to be an advocate for the arts, but I’m wearing a completely different hat. Producing theatre for so many years was exhilarating but very exhausting. My boys are in middle and high school now and I am determined not to miss anything. Being in a play isn’t really conducive to being a basketball mom. I know I will go back to it at some point, but for now, I’m sticking to writing and singing at the odd funeral. I did get to fly to Houston this past December to see my new play that was having its world premiere at the A.D. Players George Theatre, which was fun.

It feels like with Claudia Rankine and Leslie Jamison and Ta-Nehisi Coates and George Saunders and others that the essay is enjoying a resurgence. Do you feel that way? Have you always been drawn to essays?

I was fortunate to have the amazing lyric essayist, Angela Pelster, as a teacher in grad school. She blew the roof off what I thought was possible in the essay. She gently pushed me as a writer and encouraged me as a human, it was truly one of those magical mentor situations. Her book Limber is like a bible for me. Please, please read it. It is a stunner.

I have always been drawn to writers who can’t quite figure things out, who are searching for things, and to essay literally means to search, to try, to attempt. It’s a shame that undergrad programs especially are so obsessed with the “analytical essay” — thesis, paragraph, paragraph, paragraph, conclusion — where you are writing to prove this thing. That is the opposite of what the word essay means, which to me, is a huge bummer. Students should be exposed to the many forms of the essay early on, essaying is so much more fun and explorative then we are taught. But yes, I do feel the essay is enjoying a moment right now. People are interested. Look at John D’Agata’s Lifespan of a Fact and all the hoop la-la around the idea of altering one or two small facts in service of the craft. I still can’t believe the whole thing manifested into a Broadway play. I love that the essay is able to rile people up like that. What controversy! I would say some essays in this collection are less nonfiction and more imaginative nonfiction. You can’t harness the imagination. You can’t definitively say what is in the mind of a woman with dementia. You can’t tell a little girl that her tree house with no walls and no roof is just a floor of dirt. You can’t tell me that a whale does not feel loneliness. As a writer, what excites me the most is possibility. I think writers are bending and twisting and evolving the genre in all the best ways right now.

What is next for you?

Wouldn’t I like to know?  I am really focused on my family right now. I am really focused on taking in this beautiful place where we have landed, enjoying the lake and the woods. I’m working full time at a foundation; I would love to teach at some point. I would love to open up a writing center in Duluth, like a little mini Loft. It sounds like I’ll be writing some more plays for a theater in Houston coming up, and, of course, I will most certainly keep essaying.