IU English, creative writing professor: ‘My students inspire me on a daily basis’

I once heard author Anna Quindlen say that when she was a journalist, everyone assumed she made details up, but once she wrote a book, everyone assumed her characters were based on real people. I recall laughing at the time, thinking writers just can’t win.

Jacinda Townsend

Jacinda Townsend

But for IU Department of English assistant professor Jacinda Townsend, it was in fact a real-life story that informed her writing. Her new novel, “Saint Monkey,” published in February by Norton, was partly inspired by a true story from her western Kentucky hometown involving a familial murder that left behind small children to be raised by their grandmother.

“The novel is told in two different voices,” she said. “One of the young ladies is a very talented pianist and is discovered at a church in Kentucky. She is taken off to play with the Harlem jazz bands of the 1950s, so she has this very exciting life ahead of her. Meanwhile, her best friend is left behind to care for her younger sister and ailing grandmother because her father is in prison for killing her mother.”

Townsend said she only realized how intrigued she’d been by the true crime example once she’d arrived at the end of her own creative process.

“I wondered what it must feel like to be the oldest kid, and to remember life like it was before, and to be responsible for your family because your grandmother is too elderly to care for you,” Townsend said. “And in some ways, it wasn’t until I had children of my own that I was able to access what that must have felt like for the youngest daughter.”

Saint Monkey-1The book also focuses on the friendship of the two protagonists and whether it will survive their separation, as well as the cultural constraints and perceptions that abounded for women in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

While she wrote much of “Saint Monkey” before arriving at IU three years ago, Townsend praised the university’s continued encouragement for her writing, saying she just completed her second novel.

“The university is so supportive, and the department has given me the resources to really research this novel and the time to write it,” she said. “This one is partially set in Morocco, and I received funding to travel and do some research for it, which was the experience of a lifetime. I was able to make a side trip to Mauritania — one of my main characters is an escaped slave from there — and meet with anti-slavery activists there. And I had this incredible experience, where I was able to meet a family of escaped slaves, including holding this barely 4-month-old baby who was the only person in her family who had been born outside of slavery, and just barely so. It was so powerful, and meant so much to me to be able to participate in this research.”

It’s not just about her own work either, Townsend said. Her students encourage her as well.

“We have a really, really good creative writing program here, and my students inspire me on a daily basis,” she said. “Sometimes I read their work, and I get jealous that they’re discovering these great new things about themselves and getting better and better at it. I’m truly honored to be a guide for them.”

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