A Series About Local Authors
by Tyler Mendelsohn
While many of the characters in Jen Grow’s short story collection “My Life as a Mermaid” are searching for their voice, the author is a master at articulating this struggle. The characters are uniquely themselves, but they often get at something universal.
In the story “Small Deaths”, addressed to the narrator’s mother who has died, she hikes in the woods, recalling the last few months of taking care of her sick mother. She obsesses not only over her mother’s death, but also over the deaths of many small moments. Grow captures the narrator’s specific grief for her mother while also capturing the expansiveness of grief more broadly—how it can start with mourning a person and become about grieving the brevity of life.
After her mother dies, the narrator tries to prolong the moment by lying next to her on the bathroom floor. “I don’t know what made me lie down with you—perhaps one last chance to pay attention—but it was gone as soon as I dragged you from the bathroom, propped you in bed and picked up the phone,” she says. “That time on the bathroom floor was the time I hadn’t been able to explain when they asked me. I told them how we held hands and watched TV… but the rest was mine: the cold tile giving me chills, my backbone pressed against the floor. It was remarkable, the view from there, the underside of things. I knew I would never see from that place again.”
Grow grew up in Northern Baltimore County, on the Mason-Dixon line. She moved to Baltimore City in 1990 and stayed because she found so much to write about here. For example, the characters of two men who are homeless in her story “Joe Blow” are based off two men who used to live on her front steps. She found the title of her story “Lawrence Loves Somebody on Pratt Street” in local graffiti. And she often integrates bits of conversations she overhears.
“Once when I was driving with my windows opened and stopped at a red light, I overheard a guy on a stoop talking to other men. He said, ‘All I want is a million bucks and a pretty girl. There’s something else I want but I can’t remember what it is.’ That line struck me, and ended up in the story ‘Joe Blow.’” Grow’s observational quality is clear in the nuanced humanity of her characters. She seems to have lived their lives with them.
Grow also appreciates Baltimore’s strong writing community. “For a lot of years, I wrote in my own little cocoon and didn’t venture out much,” she says. “I thought it was more important for me to write than to be at literary events. But community is key… It is necessary to listen to other writers read their work, to be available to bounce around ideas, to offer each other editorial insights, and so on. If you want it, you have to give it. Whatever it is—an audience, support, a place in the literary community, people to buy your book—those are things you can’t do by yourself. Baltimore has a great spirit of cooperation.”
In that spirit of cooperation and collaboration, Grow is working on a new project: a personal essay paired with images commissioned by photographer Craig Lammes. The essay and accompanying photos will be exhibited at Stevenson University’s art gallery in February 2017. She’s also working on a novel, and several short stories.
All of this hard work has paid off for Grow: this year, she became the first writer to win the Mary Sawyers Baker award, and her work is currently being featured in the BMA Baker Awards exhibit. The Baker prize is meant to promote and lift up Baltimore artists—mirroring what Grow gives to (and gets from) Baltimore’s literary community.
Jen Grow and Joyce J. Scott after receiving their Baker Awards
Writers Among Us is a series that explores local authors’ work. You can find books by these writers—and a variety of books by many other local writers —at The Ivy Bookshop. Check out The Ivy’s event calendar for authors readings throughout the year.
Tyler Mendelsohn is a Baltimore writer and a member of The Ivy Bookshop’s team. Tyler has an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from The University of Baltimore. You can find more of Tyler’s work here.