Contributor Spotlight:
Interview with J. B. Polk

Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: In “Forgetting,” we were drawn in by Lauren and her struggle with the onset of Alzheimer’s. What drew you to this topic, and how did you approach portraying such a complex subject with authenticity?

J. B. Polk: We fear losing what we treasure the most. In the case of writers, we cherish language and love to play with words. Losing words, the ability to express our thoughts, seems like the most terrible disaster to someone who has worked with words all her life. Although there is no history of Alzheimer’s in my family, the fear is always present in my mind. What if? What if, tomorrow, I open a book, or sit at my computer and discover I can’t remember words? That the inkblots in the newspaper are meaningless? I imagined myself in Lauren’s position, and it filled me with dread. I was Lauren when I wrote the story. We are both mature, but not old women who still have so much to give and to enjoy. And the onset of the illness just wiped everything out—leaving a mind as blank and empty as the one we are given the day we are born.

RR: What led you to the decision to use Lauren’s limited perspective rather than an outsider? Were there any challenges to writing from this point of view?

JBP: As I mentioned above, I was Lauren while I wrote the story. Some of the experiences are also mine. I used to be a “cheapist” until I converted and became a “minimalist.” The scene where Lauren is opening a drawer is still vivid in my mind. I see myself looking at a number of useless objects that I bought because I thought I couldn’t live without them. Until I discovered that I could!

And then there was the scene with Lauren’s mother. Although my mother did not suffer from Alzheimer’s, just like Lauren, I had to leave her to the care of others. It absolutely destroyed me because I was powerless and had no other choice—we lived in different countries, and I could only visit once a year. Giving up on my mother’s care was probably one of the most difficult things I had to do in my life. And that is why I decided to write in the first person.

RR: The narrative of this piece experiments with fragmented structure, which seems to play into the narrator’s mental state. How did you navigate crafting a disjointed timeline?

JBP: I did some research into Alzheimer’s and one thing that caught my attention was that the illness creeps in slowly, gradually, like lichen taking over a stone. The first stage is nearly imperceptible and can be mistaken for things that normally happen to our memories as we grow older. Left the keys in a jacket pocket? Must remember next time… That face! I know her, but I can’t remember her name… It usually takes more than two years for full-blown Alzheimer’s to be diagnosed. And when it finally is, it is no longer mild forgetting, but an extremely fast slide down to total oblivion. That is why it was necessary to show the progression. In small steps. Little by little, misplacing things, forgetting places, names, and faces. Until we forget and misplace ourselves completely.

RR: We understand that you spent time writing nonfiction in Latin America—how did your break from fiction impact your writing more broadly?

JBP: When I left Ireland in 1999, I was a mother of two, about to get a divorce. Which meant that my priority was to earn a decent living that would permit the three of us to live in relative comfort. For a while, I went back to teaching, but I didn’t earn enough. When I was offered a job as a newspaper editor (mining and business), I decided it was something I could do pretty well and, at the same time, look after my children. Then a publisher contacted me about writing English textbooks for secondary schools. In total, I wrote and published ten textbooks in Chile and Mexico—which took care of the bills. But for a strange reason, seeing those books in print never gave me the same thrill that I get when I see a short story published in a magazine or an anthology. So, when my kids finally flew away from the nest (my daughter literally, as she is a pilot), I saw the pandemic as a blessing because I could go back to writing fiction again. In the last two years, I have written fifty stories and flash fiction pieces, of which forty-six have been published. I am not planning to stop and I’m just finishing a novel about illegal adoptions in Chile.

RR: You write in your bio that you consider yourself a “citizen of the world by choice.” Can you tell us a little bit about what this identity means to you and how it has affected your writing?

JBP: I have always been a voracious reader. I remember the librarian telling my mother that she didn’t believe that I read the five books I took out every week. But I actually read them all. One of those books was Cesare Pavese’s The Laboratory of Loneliness. It is the story of Clelia, a seamstress who leaves her native Turin to move to the “big shiny city of Rome” to seek fame and fortune. But she finds no glamor and no happiness. She must then return to Turin to the life she managed to escape as a young woman.

When I read the book, I told myself that the big shiny world that was somewhere out there, far from my small town, would be mine one day. That I would not become Clelia, and that I would do everything possible to hang on to my dreams of becoming a “citizen of the world.” And I did become one. I lived in Poland, the UK, Ireland, and Chile and traveled to dozens of countries around the world. And one day I might choose a place where I want to settle for good and which will be the resting place for my bones.

Another thing is that English is not my native language. When I wrote my first short story in English in 1996—“Goodbye to the Angel,” shortlisted for the Hennessy/Irish Times Award—I was told that no one would take me seriously with a Polish name. And I’ve been J.B. Polk ever since!

J. B. Polk’s work appears in Issue 9.2 here.