Local authors discuss life on and off the page

THE POWER OF THREE: From left, Asheville-based authors Heather Newton, Tessa Fontaine and Jessica Jacobs have further established themselves as educators and editors. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

In Asheville’s gig economy, even some of its most successful writers wear multiple hats.

Along with publishing celebrated works, Tessa FontaineJessica Jacobs and Heather Newton have established themselves as freelance editors and instructors. But while the extra jobs may seem as if they could inhibit these creative women from crafting new works at a steady pace, the multiple roles have proved nicely complementary — albeit with plentiful planning and self-care along the way.

Forward progress

All three women have wanted to write professionally since they were young, but their journeys toward achieving that goal have taken distinct paths.

In her junior and senior years of high school, Newton placed in the Raleigh Fine Arts Society short story contest, judged by regional writers Doris Betts and Guy Owen. Encouraging words from both writers led Newton to imagine herself one day joining the pair in their professional ranks. Upon entering college, she planned to become a writer but took what she calls “a long detour for law school and a legal career.”

After several years of practicing law in Boston, Newton moved to Asheville in 1992. Like many aspiring writers, she experienced numerous rejections from agents and publishers while still maintaining her law practice.

But in 2009, things began to change. She landed an agent for her manuscript Under the Mercy Trees, which Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publisher, subsequently published. That same year, Newton also signed up for a Great Smokies Writing Program workshop led by local author Tommy Hays.

During the workshop, she met and befriended fellow classmate Maggie Marshall. The pair established a writing group “and a few years later, Maggie and I hatched the Flatiron Writers Room, a project I would never have undertaken without her,” Newton says.

Among the numerous writers who’ve led classes at FWR is Fontaine. The Bay Area native studied theater and global studies as an undergraduate, thinking she’d be either an actor or work for the United Nations. The interests led her to purchase a one-way ticket to New York City to pursue both careers. Neither panned out, but she’d long loved writing and knew that it would be part of whatever she did.

“I never dreamed that I would be able to do it for a living because it’s so hard to make that work,” she says. “But I also didn’t really know all of the ways in which you can be creative in to support yourself as a writer.”

Getting there, however, took years. But with her 2018 book, The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, Fontaine experienced greater opportunities for teaching creative writing, and in 2019, she was offered a faculty position at Warren Wilson College as its nonfiction professor.

“Suddenly, lots of people were interested in having me teach workshops or be a guest writer at a university,” she says. “And I love doing it, but it’s a really bizarre moment because for me as a writer, nothing was different the day before my book came out as opposed to the day after. But it really becomes this kind of turning point after which people are like, ‘OK, you’re legit. We accept you. Come do this thing.’”

The new classroom

Fontaine left Warren Wilson in 2021 and now works with writers from a range of ages via freelance editing, accountability workshops and coaching.

Jacobs has had a comparably enriching experience since departing from the traditional classroom setting as well. The author of multiple volumes of poetry, including Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, the poet’s major turning point came in 2010, when she met her now wife, fellow local poet Nickole Brown.

At the time, Jacobs was living in Manhattan and working for a large textbook publisher as an acquisitions editor. But she decided the corporate life wasn’t for her and quit what she describes as “probably the highest-paid job I’ll ever have” to get her Master of Fine Arts degree and become a writer and a teacher.

“Deciding that I wanted to do something with my life that felt deeply meaningful as opposed to something that sounded good, paid me a lot and left me feeling very empty — that was a huge thing,” Jacobs says.

Upon earning her degree from Purdue University, she moved to Arkansas. There, she taught at Hendrix College, while Brown held a tenure-track position at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Three years into her position and with tenure in sight, Jacobs nevertheless found herself at another professional crossroads. 

“[Tenure is] kind of the brass ring that we’re all told we want as writers, and instead I said, ‘OK, but is there a better way to live?’” she says. In response, she and Brown moved to Asheville and began traveling the country, giving readings and teaching workshops together. “It’s definitely a lot more hustle, doing more of a freelance thing, but it’s much more rewarding.”

On Sept. 1, Jacobs launched the nonprofit Yetzirah, the first literary organization in the U.S. for Jewish poets. And she and Brown also run SunJune Literary Collaborative, which offers workshops and free online generative writing sessions. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, these programs were held in person, but in recent times they’ve shifted their offerings to virtual settings.

Through Zoom, over 100 people from around the world regularly participate in the monthly generative sessions, creating a sense of community that Jacobs thinks wouldn’t have arisen otherwise.

But as COVID-19 cases continue to drop, SunJune — which officially formed during the pandemic — will host its first in-person weekend retreat, Nov. 4-6 at the N.C. Arboretum. And while its co-founders plan to continue offering hybrid workshops, Jacobs feels the online platforms have room to grow.

“The one thing that Zoom has not been able to replicate is how to sit down and talk to people one-on-one within a large group of people,” she says. “And just to have moments with people after a reading. You can’t really do that yet.”

Creative sustainability

Despite their many years in the industry, new and recurring challenges inevitably arise. Newton’s weeks consist of balancing legal work with writing fiction and co-managing the Flatiron Writers Room. Because the FWR just launched its fall season, she’s also kept busy emailing instructors and students, paying faculty, scheduling marketing campaigns for upcoming classes and administering evening workshops.

“The main challenge of trying to practice law and write is that the two things take the same type of mental energy, and often by the time I’ve spent hours doing legal work, I’m too burned out to write fiction,” Newton says. “I cope with that by setting aside days where I do nothing but write.”

She adds that self-care has never been her strong suit but says thanks to “a terrific family, supportive friends, a view of our beautiful mountains from [my] deck, a large jug of lavender bubble bath” and being able to travel again now that pandemic-induced restrictions have lifted, she maintains a fairly rosy outlook on life.

“I love the storytelling aspect of both my legal work and my writing work,” Newton continues. “When I advocate for my clients, I’m telling their stories. When I write or help other writers, it brings new stories into the world that, I hope, can make people think as well as entertain.”

Come 2023, Fontaine will join Newton as a published novelist. Along with being in the final editing stages of the book, she teaches The Art of Death for on-demand course company Atlas Obscura, which explores death from a philosophical, social, and cultural point of view. Fontaine also does regular freelance editing and runs the “Here to Save You” podcast with Massachusetts-based writer Annie Hartnett and Santa Barbara, Calif.-based author Ellen O’Connell Whittet, which looks at writing, parenting and creative accountability.

“I also have a baby, which complicates things,” Fontaine says. “So, there’s lots of shepherding her back and forth to day care and doing baby stuff.”

Though Fontaine makes time to take her child and dog for daily walks, she notes that setting limits to what she says “yes” to as a freelancer plays a major factor in the sustainability of her work. When things get tough, leaning into the relationships that she’s built and formed over time — including with Newton and Marshall at the FWR — has likewise proven beneficial.

“I think that’s been part of it, too — allowing people that I care about and trust and respect and like — letting those relationships form something bigger that can be part of my life in a really positive way, both in terms of how I like to spend my time, but also in terms of how I try to make money or run business day to day,” she says.

Tapping into that community is similarly essential for Jacobs, who also releases tension by running and kayaking. When she feels like she’s reached a wall in her work, she calls a fellow writer and has been amazed by how generous people have been with their time. In turn, she’s been trying to surround herself with what she calls “very wise counsel” and has been happy with the results.

“I think that sometimes, when I feel most stuck, it’s because I feel like I have to do it by myself,” she says. “I’m just trying to remind myself that there are all these amazing people out there and they’re invested in what we’re going to then do together. And it’s just me taking the step to be vulnerable and to call them.”


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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