Published January 11, 2021

Jennifer Howard, is a former contributing editor and columnist for The Washington Post and a former senior reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Her freelance journalism, criticism, and fiction has appeared in national and international publications. She lives in Washington, D.C. Learn more at JenniferHoward.com.

Get to know Jennifer in this Q&A and then join us on Tuesday, January 12 at 12 PM EST to hear her discuss her work in SHELF LIFE: Clutter: An Untidy History with Jennifer Howard.

Festival: What motivated you to become a writer? 

Howard: Reading! Books have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was very young, my dad would read stories to me at bedtime. Once I learned how to read on my own, I just never stopped. Writing followed from that. It’s always been my way of engaging with and understanding the world.

Who or what are some of your creative influences?

There are so many! Lydia Davis, John le Carre, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Joan Aiken, James Baldwin, Anne Lamott, Helen Macdonald, and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name just a handful of the writers I admire and keep learning from.

What was your favorite part about writing your book?

Getting to talk to people who work on the front lines of clutter—personal organizers, mental health professionals, junk haulers, first responders—as well as scholars who study the history of stuff. I spent the day at a firehouse in Philadelphia and heard firsthand stories about what it’s like to have to fight a fire in a dangerously cluttered space while wearing 90 pounds of gear.

Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?

When I’m stuck, I like to get outside and take a walk or spend time in the garden. I probably solve more writing problems when I’m in motion than I do at my keyboard. I often listen to music when I write. What kind of music depends on whether I need to calm my brain down or rev it up. It could be anything from piano sonatas to Bill Evans to the Japanese House or The 1975 or Post Malone.

What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers? 

I hope this book will help people appreciate that the struggle with stuff is a collective problem as much as an individual one. It’s worth thinking about where our things come from—and where they will go when we’re done with them.

Describe how a book changed your life or perspective.

After I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I spent months wishing every book could be Cloud Atlas. I was astonished by how many narrative strands Mitchell managed to tie together—and the structure was a revelation. 

What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?

I read a lot of SFF growing up, and it’s a genre I’ve returned to lately as a reader in search of broader horizons and perspectives as well as escape. I just finished S.A. Chakraborty’s The Empire of Gold, the conclusion to her Daevabad trilogy, which is inspired by Islamic folklore and features impressive world-building. I plan to read more Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin this year. I just finished listening to the audiobook of Brideshead Revisited, narrated by Jeremy Irons, and was reminded what an incredible prose stylist Evelyn Waugh was. 

What are you working on next?

I’m on parallel tracks this year, researching a couple of nonfiction ideas while reacquainting myself with what it feels like to write fiction. There’s so much out there to explore.

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