Ask the Author: Jennifer Fawcett

A graduate of the University of Iowa’s MFA Playwrights Workshop and 10-year co-artistic director of the Iowa’s Working Group Theatre, Jennifer Fawcett has released her debut novel, ‘Beneath the Stairs.’



Ariana Lessard, Arts Reporter

Jennifer Fawcett graduated from the University of Iowa’s MFA Playwrights Workshop and served as co-artistic director of Iowa’s Working Group Theatre for 10 years. Her debut novel, Beneath the Stairs, is about two girls facing the consequences of what they see in a house in the woods at age 14.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the full interview at

Daily Iowan: What was the inspiration for your book?

Fawcett: So a friend challenged me to do NaNoWriMo when I was in Iowa City. It was a number of years ago and I had no idea what I was going to write about, and this idea — this image — sort of came to me of for young women, like young teens, standing with their bikes beside them on a summer day looking at this abandoned, maybe haunted house and trying to decide if they were going to go in or not. So that was like this picture came to my mind. And I think the reason why — I don’t know why I was thinking about it — but I think the reason why I did is that when I was 13, on a summer day, on a bike ride, I did the same thing. I did that. I was one of those girls and I went into this house that I had read recently discovered was near us in the country and was supposed to be haunted, and so it was in the shape of an octagon. So that’s why the house in the book is an octagon, because the real house that I went into was. That’s like, a weird detail I never thought of. I had no idea. It was like some kind of an architectural trend or something — I don’t know. Like, there are octagonal houses, so it’s just not very many of them. I was trying to figure out if it was like a significance of the number eight or something. I’ve been told the idea is that the Devil can’t get you in the corner. Except that then somebody said, ‘Oh, no, that’s more for roundhouses.’ But I mean, it would work for an octagonal house too because it’s not it’s true, you know? It’s not a 90-degree angle.

DI: What does what is your artistic process look like?

Fawcett: I do a lot of writing. I didn’t outline this book, which is probably one reason why it took me so long to write. I did what they call “pantsing” which is really just sort of, you go in and you just sort of write your way forward and figure out what the story is. So because I was initially creating this in NaNoWriMo — and again, I didn’t really know if I was going to be able to create a book.The goal of NaNoWriMo is just about a word count. It’s just about hitting a daily word count, so that at the end of the month, you have written 50,000 words, which is actually not really a novel, it’s that will be a short novel, actually. But you’re certainly well on your way to it. So it was really just moving forward. Just keep going, keep going, keep going, and telling myself to get the story on the page. And then after that, once I had an understanding of what the story was, then I go back and I look at what’s there and I see I try and see sort of what’s the structure that’s organically been created in a story and then how can I, you know, make that structure stronger, essentially. because I think when you write the first draft, your mind drops all sorts of great clues and you know, unfinished threads and all that sort of thing. And so part of the job of revision is going back and seeing what all of those are and snipping some of them off and then carrying other ones through to, like, continue my metaphor.


DI: Considering your background as the co-artistic director of the group theater, how do you think that has impacted your novel and your writing style?

Fawcett: I would find myself writing a lot of dialogue. I am very comfortable writing dialogue. Some writers are not comfortable writing dialogue. I would write a whole scenes and then realize, ‘Oh, oops. It’s all dialogue.’ Because then it’s just how I’m used to telling stories. So you use different tools for every different way that you write, you’re still telling a story, but your tools are slightly different. So what was fun about moving from theater to fiction, from play to a book was I had to put some put down some tools that I’m used to using, right? I’m used to actors, for example. I had to put that down, but then I got to pick up ones that I don’t normally get to use that you don’t use in a play like the point of view and interiority. The timeline is gonna work a little bit differently. You can, in a book, you can kind of go wherever, right? Like you could set a scene. You could set a scene in the middle of a war, you could set a scene on Mars, right? It’s fine because it all lives in the reader’s imagination in a theater. You can also set a scene in the middle of a war and you can set a scene on Mars, but you do also work are thinking about how is this going to be realized in space and time? On stage, doesn’t have to have like a literal set, but it’s still gonna have to be realized somehow, through bodies and light and sound and all of that sort of things.

DI: What is what is your best writing tip?

Fawcett: I don’t know that I can say in any kind of a pithy way, but I think it’s the tip that I have to give myself over and over and over again, which is allowing yourself to write badly. Allow yourself to write badly, which is not original and saying that, but it’s essential to get to the good stuff, you actually go through the bad stuff. If you wait for inspiration, you could be waiting a really long time. Look, I think — not that the inspiration won’t come — but I think you have to kind of allow it to be disjointed and stupid and cliche and whatever. Because if you stay with it, and go through that, you’re going to get to something really good, but you have to go through the bad stuff first, and that’s really uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for professional writers, it’s uncomfortable for my students — no one likes knowing that what they’re doing sucks. Also that you know that what you’re doing is like, ‘Man, I am going to have to work so hard to make this good,’ so you have like, hours and hours, or in my case, years and years of work ahead of you. But it’s the only way like sometimes what falls out of your brain is brilliant, but I think that’s rare. So yeah, allowing yourself to write badly. And I think what’s tied into that, is also this idea of giving yourself permission. That was a lesson that I learned the first play that I wrote, I was giving myself permission. I had a story to tell and people would listen to it. If I wanted to tell it and it’s something that I try and say to other people who want to write as well is that they have to give themselves permission to sit down and do it because it’s a really it takes a long time to do.

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