Interview with Jessica Baker
Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: In “The Ants Come Marching In,” the conflict between Katie and the narrator unfolds in a way that we find infinitely relatable and accessible. Can you discuss how you developed this aspect of the narrative?
Jessica Baker: In developing the narrative, I chose to weave the past around the present to show where I had been compared to where I was now. Cleaning my room of everything we shared that was left behind, as well as all the dirt and grime, was my way of telling both myself as well as the other dorm residents that I was moving on. Much of the story just happens to be told chronologically, and the narrative unfolded that way. Katie and I were friends in the beginning— it was important to me to show that, to emphasize how abruptly our relationship seemed to change, when upon reflection, there had been cracks all along. I also wanted it told from my perspective. I lost a lot of friends in the conflict, and it felt like no one from our dorm ever listened to my side. It ended up being a very isolating experience. Writing this piece in the honest way I did was my form of telling everyone what my truth in the situation was.
RR: The final line in this piece is incredibly haunting: “Katie left me to the ants.” The use of an ant infestation as a metaphor for growing toxicity in social situations is unique and compelling. Can you discuss how this connection first came to you and how you incorporated it into the narrative?
JB: I knew I wanted to write a piece about Katie moving out the moment it happened. A lot of the early drafts were mainly just in my head, and they served as a way to cope with my emotions. I had a lot of unresolved anger toward Katie, and due to her unwillingness to ever have a conversation with me about why she moved out, that anger remained, and I had no way to release it. When I did start finally writing the piece, it was done in a diary-style narrative. There were a lot of holes in it, it wasn’t working that well, and I put the idea away for a while, knowing I would return later to the story of Katie moving out. I still needed to process. The piece finally started to work when I first noticed the ants. Before the ants came, once Katie moved out, I was alone. It’s almost like the ants replaced Katie as my roommate, not that they were much better. The day I started cleaning, described in the opening section, I specifically remember wadding up a Polaroid of the two of us in the same hand that held an ant trap full of dead ants. That juxtaposition sparked the connection between Katie moving out and the ant metaphor—both were leaving me with a lot of unresolved anger, but while I couldn’t do anything about Katie, I could take care of the ants. This connection ended up spiraling into the overall metaphor of the piece.
RR: This piece balances a complex metaphor with a tension-fraught relationship. When dealing with these aspects, how did you draw the line between creative liberty and reality?
JB: With my nonfiction writing, I like to stick as close to reality as possible. All of the vignettes involving other people were very similar to what happened, which was made easier by the relatively short time between when the events occurred and when I wrote about them. While I changed certain details, including names, to maintain privacy, I stayed true to what actually occurred and my feelings about those involved. Most of my creative liberty came with the ant sections. All of the ant encounters happened, but not necessarily in the same order as the piece, with the exception of the cleaning. I took a lot of creative liberty with the idea of me screaming. I did not actually ever scream in my dorm room other than when the ants were literally on me. Rather, me writing this piece was my metaphorical “screaming.” As often happens with nonfiction, some creative liberties were taken with dialogue, with one significant exception: the moment when Katie moved out. I wrote about that event, including the dialogue, right after it occurred, and it’s accurately reflected in the piece.
RR: You mentioned that you have worked in many facets of the literary world, as a writer, editor, and student. How has your craft changed as you moved through these phases in your career?
JB: It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year of high school that I started writing nonfiction. I had taken a summer creative writing program at Emerson College and wrote a nonfiction piece. Our prompt had been “what’s happened recently that you feel like sharing?” and my instructor’s feedback was: Your nonfiction is fuller than your fiction. At the end of the program, we were given a list of magazines that accepted work from high school students. I quickly sent out many pieces and just as quickly received roughly 17 rejections in 7 months—many of which told me that my writing lacked a “why.” In April 2020, during my senior year, I got extremely sick with COVID-19, which nearly killed me. After that experience, a lot of what held me back before, such as fears of not being “good enough” or “ready” for the literary world, were now insubstantial. I actively sought growth opportunities that would allow me to improve my writing skills. Thus, I applied for Cripple Media and went on to become a regular writer, and I also began freelancing my editing and nonfiction skills. In August, I started my first year of college at Elon University and began working for our on-campus newspaper that November. All of my writing growth was centered around creating accurate, factual, grammatically correct journalism. You had to have a why with journalism and the news; otherwise, it was just a statement of facts. That specific change in the mindset from high school fiction writer to college journalism student was what allowed me to adapt and write compelling nonfiction stories that are more than just moments of my life. Over the summer of 2021, I traveled to Bath, England, to participate in the Advanced Studies in England program, where I studied nonfiction under Professor Cassie Kircher, of Elon University. Her guidance and support, as well as very blunt critiques, have been instrumental in my continued writing progress.
RR: What’s the best way to get rid of ants?
JB: Find their source and cut it off. It ended up being that hole in the wall that I literally had to tape over, but if their source is food, sugar, sweet smelly plants, etc., remove their source and their draw into the room. As it turns out, my dorm room had a better climate than the pesticide people created outside, so that’s how I got a lot of ants. If that doesn’t work, my mom likes to suggest killing one and then leaving the body as a warning, mafia style.
Jessica Baker’s work appears in Issue 9.2 here.