Writers are drawn to their craft for a variety of reasons — some have a story that must be told, others do it for a buck. For Petaluma’s Noria Jablonski, it was a nagging feeling.
“I had been teaching high school English in San Francisco for three years and I realized that I was a hypocrite. I was helping these students find their voices and tell their stories, but I had never done that for myself,” reflects Jablonski, whose first collection of short stories, “Human Oddities,” ($15) was released in October by Shoemaker & Hoard Publishers, an imprint of Avalon Publishing Group in Emeryville.
“I really hadn’t had a chance to live my own life yet,” says Jablonski, 35. “I had no ambitions to be a writer. I just wanted to teach. I knew that when I was 15 years old. … And I did, I’m very goal-oriented.”
When her goal became to be a writer, a determined Jablonski set her sights on graduate programs in writing. In her estimation, however, there was one stumbling block.
“I sucked. I just wasn’t any good. At that point, I was just really concerned with telling my own stories,” says Jablonski, her eyes rolling behind her cat-eye glasses. “My writing didn’t have this urgency to it yet because I hadn’t really figured out what my ‘crisis’ was. It was after three years of being rejected by M.F.A. programs that I finally figured out what I had to write about. That was the body and bodies in crisis, in transit and in doubt.”
Jablonski’s own experience with corporeal distress, hers and others, gradually brought her to that revelation: As a young girl, she was plagued by recurring ear infections that led to repeated surgeries and the loss of half her hearing by the age of 3. The specter of her father’s terminal illness also informed her observations of the body afflicted.
“That had been my primal experience,” Jablonski says. “There’s also this legacy of body shame and fat-phobia that I feel the women had passed along in my family. All of these things sort of came together and I decided this is what I needed to write about.”
The result, “Human Oddities” is a melange of nine short stories that trod such twilight territory as tummy tucks gone awry, conjoined twins down on their luck, and a monkey eviscerated on a beach. Jablonski tells these tales with a voice that is laconic and witty, soothing the reader into accepting the stories as completely normal.
Elizabeth McCracken, author of “The Giant’s House,” writes on the jacket of the book: “These are beautifully written stories by an author who understands that the odd is no more unlikely or unlovable than the normal, and that those among us who are statistically improbable deserve light, language and a certain loving ruthlessness.”
In many ways, “Human Oddities” is like a novel shattered into nine jagged pieces. Themes and motifs recur throughout an ever-changing narrative that yearns to knit like a broken bone. Characters reprise their roles, repeated notions take on mantra-like significance.
The book has been something of a Rorschach test for readers, each coming away with a different take on the often-provocative material.
“It’s been really interesting to me seeing what people bring to the book and how much, on some level, these reviews that I’m reading reflect the lives of the reviewer — because it’s as if people are reading different stories altogether,” says the author. She adds with a smile, “That’s been, in some ways, disturbing to me.”
Jablonski’s life as a writer arguably started in 1999 when she was accepted into the creative writing M.F.A. program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
“You have to learn how to write, and I think you have to do a great deal of study. I learned through mimicry,” she says. “What makes great writing is just a collection of stylistic tics.
“I thought, ‘I could do it, too.’ Part of being great was being imitable in some way. It was really through studying other writers, closely, on a sentence level, that I found my own style.”
Now that Jablonski has found her style (not to mention a publisher), she is also finding her work on bookstore shelves — a phenomenon that tries her modesty.
“It makes me feel shy, a little sheepish in a way. I was in a bookshop a couple weeks ago and they had a nice stack of (my books) sitting on the display table.
“I was with a friend and she said, ‘You should sign them.’ So I went to the information desk and asked, ‘Do you like it when authors sign their books?’ I couldn’t bring myself to say that I was the author. … My friend had to speak for me.
“They were really sweet about it and gave me a fancy pen and took me to a little private room where I could sign the books,” she says with a laugh.
Indeed, acclimating to being a published author has been an interesting process for Jablonski.
“It still doesn’t quite feel real yet and I don’t know that it ever will. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I keep waiting for this feeling that I’ve made it, that I’m somehow legitimate as a writer,” says Jablonski, who is in the midst of several other writing projects, including a novel. “I haven’t had that moment. I haven’t been able to bask in it yet. I think that’s actually a good place to be. On one hand, I want to be able to sit back and relax and go ‘shwoo, I did it.’ But on the other hand, I think it’s important to never feel I’ve arrived because it keeps me going forward. I don’t want to get too comfortable.”
Noria Jablonski reads from “Human Oddities” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Copperfield’s Books, 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma; (707) 762-0563; and at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 at Black Oak Books, 1491 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley; (510) 486-0698.