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Strange Harvest from the Garden State

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Debbie Jones

Debbie Jones
(Photo Credit: Cathryn Lynne)

There is no irony in the title Tales of Wonder From the Garden State, (Dora Mae Productions, 2011), the award-winning volume of short stories published last year by TC alumna Debbie Jones.

Jones, a retired middle school teacher, author, and playwright finds magic in the small-town world of her youth, whether in the memories evoked by a simpler time or in a nether universe that is all the eerier for existing just below the surface of a sunny, pastoral setting.

“Debbie has the ability to create these worlds that you can move into,” says Ruth Vinz, Morse Professor of English Education, who taught Jones at TC.  “You understand them, you feel them, but there’s no sense of preciousness.  She doesn’t overuse craft and language. “

Writer and director Austin Pendleton wrote in an introduction to Tales of Wonder, “I think she could convince me that Singapore is her place if she wrote about it,”

In “Blackie,” the opening story in Tales of Wonder, a girl’s adventure with a wild neighborhood dog ends with a ghostly encounter on a deserted hillside

In others, an old man meets the baseball heroes of his youth; a fortune teller confronts a creepy motorcycle gang; and a small town faces a strange disaster.  The writing feels of a piece with the fantastical elements in Washington Irving’s stories and has elements of the small-town tales of Flannery O’Connor, but there are also moments reminiscent of Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchcock and “The X-Files.”

The tales are drawn from Jones’ own hometown, Pompton Plains, which she compares to “Brigadoon,” the famous musical in which a town appears only for a single day every hundred years.  When Jones went back to visit not long ago, she found the street with her old house, not far from the hill where there is still a hazy view of the New York City skyline, some 50 miles distant.  She also found a thriving suburb with a commercial shopping center.

“The town that I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore,” Jones says.

As a young girl growing up in the 1950s, Jones staged her first plays in a neighbors’ garage, charging five cents for admission. She spent her summer days hiking and swimming, for the most part parent-free.  It was during that period, she recalls, that she first felt a connection with some force outside herself.  “I think that my journeys and my adventures have led me into places where you cross a line and lose an awareness of self,” Jones says.  “When I was a kid, that happened through nature. As an adult, it happens more during that three-hour absence when I’m writing. I don’t know what to call that except supernatural.”

Jones recalls her father taking her to the Wanaque Reservoir, where there had been UFO sightings. (One such incident became the basis for a scene in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”) She also vividly recalls the so-called “Jackson Whites,” clannish families who now call themselves the “Ramapo Mountain Indians.”

Jones drew on some of this material in her two-act play, “Jeremy Rudge,” in which one of the characters comes from the “Smoke” mountain tribe.  The supernatural also plays a role in Jones’ play, “The Breezeway,” in which a character named Adele Flynn Mazzio has “second sight.”

Yet in all of her work, Jones’ characters are unmistakably of this world, with lives that are very much rooted in the everyday. “I write about working class people – New Jersey people,” says Jones, who has short gray hair and a matter-of-fact manner. “They’re the people who work their hearts out in this country.”

Jones herself majored in English at Immaculata College in Pennsylvania and took theater courses at Catholic University in Washington. She later toured for a year with the National Players, appearing as Clytemnestra in the Greek tragedy trilogy “The Oresteia,” and Titania in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” 

She moved to New York City in 1969 and has remained involved in theater and entertainment ever since – sometimes as an actor (she played a city editor in the PBS series, “Behind the Lines”) and sometimes as a director or playwright.  She landed a few plum jobs including writing for two children’s cartoons, “Sky Dancer,” and “Happy Ness,” in the 1980s.  But she also babysat and worked as a coat checker at a disco to support her three children after she and her husband split up.

And then there is her teaching. From the late ‘80s until just two years ago, Jones taught writing, Latin and math at The Center School, an alternative middle school on Manhattan’s upper West Side. Along the way, she earned a master’s degree  in the English Education program at TC, where she says the classes she took helped crystallize her thinking about both teaching and writing. “I was fascinated by every minute of it, and I certainly don’t remember the Teachers’ College way of educating children being a part of my school experience when I was a student,” she says. “Teacher’s College opened my eyes to the possibilities. It’s just plain first rate.”   

She particularly credits Ruth Vinz’ modeling of effective teaching strategies.  “Because of Ruth, I started to think of teaching as more of an exchange between myself and the middle-schoolers and that’s the key. The next year when I went back to the classroom, I was a better teacher.”

Jones began writing “Blackie” in one of Vinz’s writing workshops, where she also shared her own insights from working as a playwright and fiction writer.

“I learned as much or more from Debbie than I could ever teach her, and she also taught other students in the class,” Vinz says.

Jones says she subsequently focused on getting her own students to write stories from their own lives. Her best memories are of engaging some of her hardest-to-reach students in writing, and of one particular occasion when her entire class was so engaged in the writing that they were startled when she told them class was over.

“I love the openness of middle-schoolers,” she says. “It may be the best human age to teach.”  

Throughout her many jobs, her 13 months in graduate school, and her nearly two decades of teaching, Jones always kept writing. She was so busy that at one point, when her daughters were teenagers, she realized with horror that she hadn’t done any laundry in three months. Instead, the girls had been doing the laundry themselves. “They were champions,” she says.

Jones often stayed up late or woke up at 3:30 in the morning to write on her old Royal typewriter.  “I went to bed at night and I heard her typewriter clacking,” recalls her daughter, Rebecca Lally. “I don’t even know how she did it.”

Jones wrote seven plays, six of which were produced by off-Broadway theater companies. Her biggest success, “The Breezeway,” was first staged at the American Theatre for Actors in 1999. She helped fund the production with a $15,000 grant she won that year when she received the prestigious Berilla Kerr Award for her body of work in the theater. That same year she and her daughters formed Dora Mae Productions to put together the production on a shoestring, and all three of her daughters worked on stage or behind the scenes on the play.  

The guiding premise of Dora Mae (named for the family’s beloved fox terrier) has been to promote the work of all four creative family members, as well as that of other writers.  Samantha is an actress, writer and director, Rebecca is a film editor and film maker, an  Jeannine Jones (Rebecca’s twin) is a writer, director and designer who has done production work for “Saturday Night Live” and has written several plays herself. The family also collaborated on the 2008 independent movie, “The Last Christmas Party.”  

"We’re partners, we support each other’s work,” Debbie Jones says proudly. “We almost kill each other sometimes, but it’s always an artistic thing.”

When Jones hasn’t worked on plays, she has sometimes given in to the urge to write stories, many of which were autobiographical. For a long time, those pieces ended up in a drawer, but when Jones retired, Lally urged her to think about publishing them. They chose four that were linked to New Jersey. Lally collaborated with her on the black and white illustrations, Jeannine Jones did the layout and Samantha Jones played the role of publisher/producer, doing everything from contacting newspapers to proofreading. 

Though self-published, Tales of Wonder was a 2011 USA Book News Finalist and received several glowing reviews. “Jones is a terrific writer,” wrote James Broderick of BookPleasures.com, “and her playwright’s training shows in her ear for dialogue and her spare but lyrical descriptions.”

Lately Jones has been enjoying a new role: that of grandmother. Her daughter, Jeannine gave birth to a baby girl, Clara Jane, in July. 

“Living can be very harsh, but I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do,” Jones says. ”That goes for teaching and writing, and it goes for raising my kids.”  

She still writes late at night, even though there’s more time in her schedule.  “It’s still the best time for me in New York,” she says. “There’s a quietness for me, like after a snowfall. It’s a good time to be in your own head.” 

Jones continues to view life with a combination of hardheaded realism and wonder.  “I do think there’s other dimensions, other vibrations,” she says. “As humans, we rely so strongly on our senses, I think it limits us to a degree. If we would all just relax and open up, it might be surprising what we would discover."

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