Sunday, February 1, 2009

Interview with Shane Jones re his debut novel "Light Boxes"

To follow is an e-mail interview I’ve just finished up with Shane Jones re his novel “Light Boxes”

Here's the Bio Shane's provided:

Shane Jones lives in Albany New York. LIGHT BOXES is his first book. He's also the author of I WILL UNFOLD YOU WITH MY HAIRY HANDS (Greying Ghost 2008) and two forthcoming books, THE NIGHTMARE FILLED YOU WITH SCARY (Cannibal Books) and THE FAILURE SIX (Fugue State, Jan 2010). Shane blogs at

"Light Boxes" is available at Publishing Genius

RK: Reading "Light Boxes", especially at first, made me think of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village," and, often, I felt as though I was watching a movie kind of like "The Village." Because of the lush and beautiful yet sparsely rendered visual imagery. And also because of the mood and feel that your style and voice generates and embodies. A sense of foreboding, too, in the beginning, and then again every time things take a turn for the good. Paintings too, specific and imagined, came to my mind repeatedly. Paintings made primarily of large swathes of undiluted primary colors. Or sometimes mainly whites. In a recent interview on this blog Johannes Goransson said that Aase Berg is influenced by B-Movies (addressing her lover as "leatherface" from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Certainly you've been influenced by other writers (more to follow on this later) but can you talk about how the visual arts have influenced your work, specifically "Light Boxes?" And if you don't think you've consciously tried to draw from these other arts can you please, anyways, talk about some of the movies, paintings, etc, that you are drawn to?

SJ: Paintings play a major part in my writing. Sometimes I think paintings have influenced me more than some writers have. I make a strong point in looking at every issue of New American Paintings and going to and seeing what is new there. Painters just blow me away with what they can do. I think it's important for me to look at art in order to write. The images that paintings can produce are so visceral and strange that my mind just begins exploding with ideas. Not all the time, but when a really interesting piece of art hits, I immediately think "wow, that's incredible" and I want to write something new. I wonder if this answers matters at all. My girlfriend just asked what I'm doing and I told her and she asked "why are you so selfish." Now she's talking to the cat and saying "Yes, he really is a selfish man." So yeah, paintings are really important to my writing that maybe a few dozen people will read this year.

RK: Structure. Milan Kundera, in one of his essay books on writing (The Art of the Novel ?) tells about the hundreds and hundreds of pages of preparatory and side notes Dostoyevsky would generate for his novels (unless he was trying to make a quick deadline for some quick cash). Notes sketching out plot and character. Pages and pages each for different "matches" or "foils" for an existing character. Some used, many discarded. Kundera said that anyone who couldn't understand this had no concept of what goes into the making of a novel. "Light Boxes" is meticulously structured, all the way from the care in the selection of words and making of phrases to the overall architecture of the book in which the point of view is constantly changing from one character to another (but by no means haphazardly or sloppily.) Also, near the end of Light Boxes you give us a description of the writer's workplace containing "the stacks of papers, the fragments, the half sentences and abandoned dialog" which suggests in its organization and disorganization most crucially a striving towards organization. Can you talk about the making of this book? (a bit more of a glimpse of how, specific to you and this book, the artist brings a kind of order out of chaos.) And, if you want, can you tell us what in yr striving was most difficult?

SJ: I wrote the first part of the book in April of 2007. Pretty much just the first page. But with that first page the whole book kind of unfolded in front of me and I knew exactly what it would be, from who February was, to the structure of the short chapters, to the feel of the imagery. I just hit it. I probably could have written the book in a few weeks but I was working a lot of hours at a book store. So each morning I'd get up and write two sections. And then maybe another section on my lunch break, then another at night. I wrote about 120 of these little sections, some out of order. What was interesting is that I knew what the book was going to be like, but I didn't really write it in order. I changed speakers, action, all that. Then I kind of cut and pasted it together. It was a very collage like experiment and I think that comes through in the book -- it's a tight structure but it also feel organic and kind of loose. I love that. Almost all of the book was written that summer with some changes in that fall. As far as what was most difficult, probably finding a publisher. I have to go get cat food now. I told my girlfriend "i'll stop being selfish now." She said "okay."

RK: Kundera, again in one of his essay-books, says the great and true novelist, in order to be a novelist, goes through an anti-lyric conversion (Lyricist meaning, I think, "I-centered." Lyricists being poets.) after which, Kundera argues, he/she is able to describe things as they are. Joyce hit on this also, famously, when he describes the writer as being off to the side paring his fingernails. But Joyce also, I think, suggested his wife take on a lover so that he could feel extreme jealousy and be able then, presumably, to write about it. In the middle of Light Boxes you've made a strange and wonderful little section where you list great artists who've channeled sadness into great works of art (fantasy worlds). In yr novel you manage, I think, to maintain a distance from your subject(s) but I get the feeling that, here at least, you're a lyric-novelist, not a novelist the way Kundera describes him/her. Am I right or wrong or both? Or kind of? Any thoughts, response, to the above, general or specific, would be appreciated.

SJ: I'm twenty eight years old and I started writing when I was 18. For the first few years all I wrote was poetry. Really really bad poetry. I was into Bukowski and Hemingway (I went through a period where I read all of his books) and I had this really lame macho thing going. All the writers I looked up to were these "manly" drunks writing about women and drinking and how shitty life was. Now, that's okay, there is a lot of that kind of writing that is good or interesting or fun, but the thing is, I'm a skinny white kid from a middle/upper class family who was just going off to a private liberal arts college. It was bullshit what I was writing. I'm probably not answering you question but it's okay. I knew I wanted to write something more and then did bad short stories like Raymond Carver knock-offs. I went through this whole period of copying the "realists." I don't know why. Eventually, and this is just in the last two years or so, I started really exploring my imagination. I have a good imagination and I wasn't really using it. Things just started to come together for me in terms of my writing and feeling comfortable with myself. I let poetry back in that I was pushing out before (an example being Anne Sexton). Does this even come close to answering your question? I think what I wanted to say was that LIGHT BOXES contains a lot of poetry. It's poetic in a sense.

RK: One of the things that I really like about Light Boxes is that you're not afraid to risk being sentimental. "Precious" even. And in fact there are many moments and gestures in Light Boxes that are just flat sentimental. But you counterbalance these sweet, delicate moments (often very beautiful too, I must add) that on their own, strung together, could create a gooey effect, with brutal and cold hardnesses. Roughnesses. And by this I mean things like the wonderful and, to me, absolutely essential character of Caldor Clemens. Or the brutal and messy way February is finally disposed of-- completely unlike the stylized, almost sweet, way in which this is envisioned. And all in all, this makes for a great mix. The writing culture (or gestapo-- workshops, etc) has lots of rules. Like you shouldn't mix metaphors. Like you shouldn't use the same word in close proximity to itself. (I'm not, of course, talking about prepositions, articles, etc, here). Use synonyms instead, it says. This, of course, is bullshit. Lots of terrible writing comes from breaking (or being ignorant of) these types of "rules" but they can be broken (and often are) to great effect. How, though, would you respond to critics who might feel that some of Light Boxes is too "precious" or "cutesy?" And yr thoughts, please, on what I've noted above: re rules, etc.

SJ: This is a really good question. I think the sentimental feel and being precious is really important to the story and all of my writing. I think this comes from liking children's stories and fairy tales. If critics feel that some of my book is too "precious" or "cutesy" that's fine with me. I actually like that. I think those things need to be in more books. I also think LIGHT BOXES has some really strange and dark scenes, so yeah, when you balance it with the more sentimental lines, it kind of works. You kind of get this breather. One thing I always see in "experimental" books is all these wonderful lines and bizarre images and it's really great, but it just keeps going. There are books that are just flat like this. I don't want to name any books specifically, but sometimes I wonder where the heart is. One writer that really balances the precious with the imaginative and strange is Jesse Ball. I've learned a lot from his two books on that front. As far as your mention of the "writing culture" and workshops I don't really care that much about that. I've done workshops before, one with Lydia Davis, and I didn't really learn anything from it. It pretty much just depressed me. A workshop would probably destroy my book. It would leave with little broken legs and a bloody nose. Poor little Light Boxes. See, I'm being cutesy there.

RK: Calvino and Garcia Marquez are two of the authors you list as having channeled sadness into fantasy worlds. Those guys, and their like, seem, quite obviously, to have influenced you, and to a great extent. Calvino's story "The Distance of the Moon" is similar in many regards to "Light Boxes" and when the hot tea from Selah's dropped tea cup burns "a path through the snow from our front door and down into the town" and then, immediately after (though at the start of the next section/chapter) Bianca is found I thought of how the blood from a dead character in One Hundred Years of Solitude curls its way through the streets of Macondo, up stairs, into the Buendia house, etc. I know the influence is obvious, and acknowledged, but can you please humour me and talk about it a bit. And if you're in the mood (and the cat's not hungry and your girlfriend's not around, or sleeping perhaps, and you're feeling good and selfish) tell us about other authors, of this sort or different, that you've admired and learned from. And how also you've broken away from their example.

SJ: 100 Years of Solitude is one of my favorite books of all time. I think that book really changed me, and I think a lot of the tone of LIGHT BOXES comes from Marquez. I remember reading that book and just being blown away. It was like someone poured lava into my hands but I could hold the lava. After I read that book I wrote the beginning to LIGHT BOXES. So the influence was great. Something happened to my brain, connections were made. It's funny you mention the Calvino story because that was also a big influence. Sometimes I think he's arrogant, but his imagination is unmatched. From Calvino, I learned how brave his imagination was, and that it was okay to write a book like LIGHT BOXES. I mean, in "Distance of the Moon" he has characters in a row boat going out in the sea to where the moon is so close that they lift ladders to the moon and climb up and onto the moon. It's incredible. It's mind blowing. I wanted to write something like that. I wanted to install that sense of imagination and vertigo and surprise but make it my own and I think I've done that successfully. I think authors like Calvino and Marquez just allowed me to more imaginative, which is one of my strengths, that before reading them I wasn't using properly. As far as breaking away from their examples, I think that was just a matter of staying true to myself and my personality and what I was comfortable with. So in comes the playfulness, the short chapters, some of the lyricism, etc.

RK: We talked about how Light Boxes is both dark and sentimental. I'd like now to talk about "humor." There were some moments in the book that I thought were absolutely hilarious-- strange off-beat really-damned-funny sort of funny. One example's an early scene with the children and the owls: "Now if you don't sir we are much enjoying ourselves by playing with these owls." These morsels of humor, for me, are brilliant and I'd love to see more. Is this something you're just now getting into your writing? (it doesn't seem to fit in with the brief writing synopsis you gave above). And can we expect more of this in the future. Any general thoughts on humor,etc, also appreciated.

SJ: I never really thought about the humor aspect of the book. I think there are a few kind of funny moments, but I never laughed out loud while writing those scenes. I was probably just having fun. I think Caldor Clemens is a ridiculous and humorous character. Fugue State is putting out my next book and there are some funny moments in that, but nothing major. The moments are probably more dreamy and strange than humorous. I think there are many moments in LIGHT BOXES that are light and kind of playful so maybe that's where some of the humor comes from. Most of these moments would probably just provoke a small smile for the reader. A little sense of delight and wonder. Humor is probably one of the hardest things to write. To actually really be funny in a piece is very difficult. At least I think so.

RK: Where do the priests go? Going through the manuscript for the 2nd time I wrote several times in the margins of early pages of the book: so, where do the priests go? I might guess that the priests disappear because the book moves into greater imaginative territory of making, destroying, abducting, etc. And here perhaps priests are nothing. But talking like this makes me feel like I'm a teacher explaining things. I might also say the priests are a casualty, among others, of the organic (your word) form of the book. That is to say the book just sorts of grows into a place that does not include priests. Can you tell me more about these priests and where they've gone? Use this space, if you want (I'd really love you to), to play a little more Light Boxes make-believe and tell us where the priests are.

SJ: The priests are a complete creation by February and February controlled them. So once the demise of February comes to, the priests disappear. They perish with the old town and everything that February created. If I was to venture back into the old town with February and the priests, I'd envision the priests living in the woods in a kind of elaborate tree fort, playing games with birds and each night huddling around a fire and writing out a report of the days activities. They would experience great levels of happiness during the day when they walked from tree to tree and feel severe sadness at night when everything was quiet and cold.

And, Three for the Road:

RK: Tea or Coffee?

SJ: Coffee.

RK: Palm trees or Thorn Trees?

SJ: Thorn Trees.

RK: Cum, shit, spit or blood?

SJ: Cum.

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