Writing to Become a Better Person — A Conversation with David Willey (J L Bogenschneider)
by Lois Payne
With additional reporting by Kat Yacovone and Annie Agathopoulou
Like many authors’, David Willey’s writing emerged from a casual hobby. However, it was when he switched from his full-time position to a part-time job at a charity that he found he had more free time to write prolifically. Despite the many perks of this new job, money, he admits, was not one of them. As a result, writing fiction was not just about submitting to magazines, but an inexpensive way for him to pass the time. ‘I started writing more frequently as a way to entertain myself on a budget,’ he explains. ’Once I started… I found myself unable to stop, nor did I want to.’
A private person, David uses pen names for reasons you might expect. Over our email correspondence he admits that ‘the pen name was a pre-emptive shield: in the event that I wasn’t any good, there’d be no reputational damage.’
It is the origins of these pen names, however, which have us particularly intrigued. David first discovered the name ‘Jenni Bogenschneider’ by chance, sewn into a work-shirt he found at a thrift-store. By adapting the name slightly so that the initials resembled those of his favourite writer, Jorge Luis Borges, he created his main pseudonym. ‘It’s entirely possible,’ he writes, ‘that Jenni Bogenschneider is an actual person who is not only missing their work uniform, but has had a number of short stories attributed to them without permission. In which case: sorry the real Jenni!’
His other pen name, C S Mierscheid, under which his faux-academic paper Fears for the Near Future is published, was crafted with more intention. In discussing its origin, David reveals a playfulness and a penchant for smoke and mirrors. ‘The name is derived from Jakob Maria Mierscheid: a fictional German politician created in 1979 by two members of the SDP to ‘replace’ their deceased colleague…The work of C.S. Mierscheid is my contribution to this hoax.’
Having found success in the publishing industry, with publications in journals such as Ambit, The Stinging Fly and Bandit Fiction, you may be wondering why David continues to publish under a false name. Well, unlike many who favour the perks that come along with taking credit for their personal accomplishments, David appreciates the benefits of using an alias, of remaining a mystery. ‘There’s me — David -’ he writes, ‘a regular person, who lives and works and breathes, like anyone else. And then there’s JL Bogenschneider, who does nothing but make things up for the hell of it.’
After publishing several pieces under the name Bogenschneider, David notes that using it became something comfortable, a default in his writing process ‘so familiar, it felt strange to consider not using it.’ This use of a pseudonym has served not only as a means of protecting his reputation but has also had a liberating effect on his writing process; by operating under a different persona, he has been able to ‘write more freely, more creatively’ than he would have otherwise.
As well as playing around with names, David also enjoys experimenting with form to ‘disrupt habitual ways of working.’ Discussing his recent publication with The Letters Page, he notes that the digressional nature of the form and its flexibility with topical tangents has allowed him to develop his story more effectively. ‘There’s an intimacy to reading a letter,’ he explains, in which the effect is ‘harder to achieve naturally, through traditional forms. It’s not as if it’s a cheat, but more a literary sleight that allows the reader to feel connected to the story.’
David’s letter ‘Return to Sea,’ details a dystopian narrative in which half of the world’s population, as the title suggests, returns to the sea, while the other half are left behind on land to cope. The result is an engaging, perceptive and, at times, very touching correspondence between land and sea dwellers, capturing, at once, feelings of grief, betrayal, and abandonment that seem so real.
David tends to avoid writing autobiographically. ‘Generally,’ he writes, ‘my own life isn’t interesting enough to share in that way!’ Even so, he believes that drawing upon personal experience and inserting it obliquely into fiction can been valuable. When we ask about loss as a prominent theme in ‘Return to the Sea’, he opens up. ‘About a year before I wrote ‘Return to the Sea,’ a close friend died,’ he confides. ‘Over the course of that year, I tried and failed to write about the loss in any meaningful way. But after a time, it became less difficult, more possible.’
The death of his friend resonated so strongly with David that his feelings surrounding the event have continued, sometimes unbidden, to permeate his fiction. In this way, we are reminded of the profound effect that personal trauma can have on art, making it all the more compelling. ‘I’ve found that I’ve written about the same loss many times,’ he writes, ‘both consciously and unconsciously. But there are other losses — platonic and romantic; experienced and anticipated — that have found their way into my fiction. Again, not explicitly or literally, but in strange and unexpected ways, so that no one but me even knows about it, if I’m aware of it at all.’
Despite his absorbing prose style, David is unsure of his authority when it comes to environmental writing. He is ‘reluctant to write about ‘big’ themes, like climate change,’ as he is unconvinced that he ‘can do them justice.’ He cites the likes of George Saunders and Ruby Cowling as his inspiration for an environmental themed story, and feels ‘Return to the Sea’ is ‘something of an outlier.’ To us, though, that ‘Return to the Sea’ is not rooted in scientific fact does nothing to diminish its emotional potency.
Happily, David’s initial fears of not being ‘any good’ have proved to be unfounded, and his short fiction has found notable success within the publishing world. Nevertheless, in delving into his beliefs and processes, it is clear that success is not what David values most about his writing. Instead, it is self-expression, self-development, and the search for clarity and meaning which he considers truly rewarding.
‘I write when I can, as often as I can,’ he tells us, ‘…to become a better writer, a better person, and to better understand — however incrementally, however inadequately — the world and everything in it.’
JL Bogenschneider’s piece, ‘‘Return to the Sea,’ appears in The Letters Page’s recent newsletter publication in three parts, Vol. 5 #12. Subscribe to the newsletter here.