Jill Summers writes stories that are meant to be heard. Her authorial voice is that of a true storyteller, spinning lovely, touching, whimsical tales that carry the reader away. She has performed many audio versions of her work, and it’s clear that her remarkable writing talent is particularly well suited to this format; but even when read on the page, her stories convey the sense of being listened to, rather than read—they are charming, musical, and completely engaging. I often have a sense of nostalgia when reading Summers’s work, as though I’m sitting up close to an old Philco radio, captivated by the stories and voices of her characters.
“Cohabitation,” a story published in Ninth Letter’s Fall/Winter 2007-8 issue, is a series of five vignettes, inspired by radio plays, about the tenants in a Chicago graystone apartment building who touch each others lives only tangentially, but whose lives are connected by interwoven themes of loneliness and longing. The first piece tells of the brief passionate lives of Roberto and Rosa, two ants (yes, ants) whose love blooms and dies in a split second. The ants are part of a colony infesting the apartment of Apricot Wensleydale, a vivacious widow disgruntled by the grandmotherly life she’s been relegated to. As Apricot plans her escape, in the apartment overhead a young couple struggles with the pressures of sharing physical and emotional space; meanwhile, the owner of the building, a coarse and careless man, unwittingly shares his life with a thoughtful entity who yearns to reach a higher state of being. And in the final, most beautiful and poignant section, the building’s caretaker falls in love with the sad gentle ghost who lives there, and selflessly helps her find a way to move on. In each of these stories, the characters live and breathe, flush with life and vivid in the reader’s mind—we can see and hear them so distinctly it’s as good, or better, than watching them on stage or screen.
In “Diagnosis of Sadness,” available as a downloadable mini-book from Featherproof Books, Summers turns her talents to a more concentrated consideration of sadness—or Sadness, as it is referred to in “medical” terms. Excerpts from a health pamphlet discussing the diagnosis and treatment of Sadness as a medical condition are interwoven with the curious tale of a tragic freak accident witnessed by passengers on an El train—one passenger, Agnes, observing the death happening below her while contemplating the Sadness pamphlet and the diagnosis of her doctors. Deftly combining pathos and humor, Summers illustrates how the condition of sadness is universal, while at the same time being heartbreakingly particular to each person’s experience.
Jill Summers is a wonderful writer, but beyond that she is an extraordinary artist—her narratives refuse to be confined to text and paper. You will find renditions of her works in image, sound, and text, and in many instances multiple iterations of a single work are available, giving her audience the opportunity for a uniquely layered experience. Summers’s work represents the best of what Ninth Letter strives for—to explore the many ways we experience narrative art while maintaining a heartfelt emotional core.