March 21st, 2010

An Interview with A D Jameson

Mutable Author Tells All!

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(A D Jameson, author of Amazing Adult Fantasy, out this coming fall through Mutable, talks with us about his influences, his loves, his hates, and his secret horror. His most recent story, Korawik Wattanakul, can be found at Harp & Altar. A full list of his published stories can be found here, and to read his extended bio, please go here.)


What does it mean to be a writer? Who are writers? What do they do?


For me, writing’s a form of thinking. It allows me to express ideas that I couldn’t express otherwise, because my memory isn’t good enough. And because writing possesses a logic all its own. It’s a meditative activity and a form of discipline that allows me to clarify some thoughts, and muddle others.


There exist more writers than people suspect, including all those whom “real writers” usually won’t acknowledge. There’s a disturbing tendency among high lit folk to not take seriously other writing, even if they enjoy it: genre fiction, commercial television, comics, children’s books, writing by actual children, zines, journalism. Also excluded: slam poets, performance poets, conceptual artists, and many others. This is elitist, short-sighted and unfair, not to mention a huge mistake. The people who wrote G.I. Joe and Star Trek are very much so writers. They wrote all over me! They wrote me!


Your stories seem a response to the current state of fiction. How would you characterize that current state?

My central complaint against fiction today is how insincere (and therefore inconsequential) so much of it is: so ironic, so commercially-minded, so abstract. Most of it slides right past me, unmemorable, unaffecting. If writing is thinking, then a lot of the thinking being done by writers today is poor.

For example, I have little patience for what I call “ironic realism,” which some might call hipster writing (but which extends beyond that). Irony has been stripped of its powers, because we live in ironic times. Such fiction may be clever and amusing, even entertaining, but it’s superficial and deeply unsatisfying. All it can offer is entertainment, and reaffirmation of shared, conservative values. It criticizes and complains out of habit, and it has nothing else to offer. As the Where the Wild Things Are movie demonstrated, when the ironic realist is stripped of his irony, he has nothing left save platitudes like “group hug” and “all is love.”

I’m also troubled by how naïve and nostalgic so much of today’s writing is. US culture is disturbingly self-indulgent and infantile. So when I found myself wanting to write about pop culture icons, I initially recoiled. I didn’t want to write ironic G.I. Joe stories!

Who or what are your influences?

First I’ll give the proper writer answer: AAF was influenced by Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme, Guy Davenport, Steve Katz, Carole Maso, and Yuriy Tarnawsky. Katz exerted a particularly strong influence. Anyone who looks at his marvelous collections Creamy and Delicious, Stolen Stories, and Moving Parts will see how much I’ve pilfered.

But I was also influenced by popular culture of the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was a child and young adult. Like lots of geeky, friendless kids, I grew up reading G.I. Joe comics, X-Men, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I think the most conventionally “literary” thing I’d read by the time I was twelve was Lord of the Rings. And Michael Crichton.

Meanwhile, I watched Star Wars repeatedly, Star Trek, Indiana Jones — those were my religious texts. Between the ages of seven and fourteen, I wanted nothing more than to be a Jedi, or a ninja. As well as a mutant. I actually wondered what my mutant power would be, when I reached puberty. (Answer: the ability to suffer.)

So when I wrote, of course I imitated those things. I wrote a TMNT/X-Men crossover, and fantasy novels. I had a superhero comic series that I planned out in exhaustive detail. In junior high I drew a 350-page comic book adaptation of Mega Man II; I spent over five years working on it, using Bic pens and colored pencils and blue-lined Mead tablets. My love of awkward language comes as much from mistranslated Nintendo games as it does from Donald Barthelme’s “back-broke” sentences.

Is there something you are trying to work out in your stories?

All of my writing is rooted in some conflict, some tension that I don’t otherwise know how to resolve. The stories are a way of thinking things through.

I started some of the stories in the collection, the earliest drafts, in the late 1990s, right after I finished college — not too long, really, after I stopped wanting to be a ninja. By then I wanted to be a literary writer instead — a postmodernist, like Barthelme or Acker, my new influences. But all I really knew about was pop culture.

I was also reading a lot of fan-fiction then, so I decided to write “literary fan-fiction.” And my initial impulses were juvenile and ironic: to drag out the Star Trek characters and kick them around, to vandalize them. I can claim now that this was a Situationist impulse, or punk, but it was also hip and ironic. I ended up writing what were basically parodies: “Mario and Luigi’s Super Midlife Crises.” This kind of stuff is everywhere now, online. It’s cute, but it’s also easy and shallow.

It’s mostly impossible to vandalize pop culture, impossible to “take down” Indiana Jones, or TMNT, or Oscar the Grouch. Those things are much stronger than we are, much bigger. And the second you approach them ironically, thinking that gives you an edge, you’re really just capitulating to them. As a college professor of mine, Pat Trimble, wisely put it: whether you watch Friends or Simpsons or Star Trek or Twin Peaks, you’re still watching television; you’re still watching commercials. You’re still sitting on the couch, or behind your computer monitor, eating corn chips.

The moment I realized this (and it was a gradual realization), I realized that although I’d been through college, and had taken writing classes, and had supposedly outgrown those childish loves, I was still, in essence, hunched over my parents’ kitchen table, making a Mega Man II comic book. X-Men vs. Turtles.

The stories are initially very playful, but as the collection progresses that playfulness is increasingly overwhelmed by a larger eeriness. I became both confused and intrigued, facing a world that is neither real nor imaginary.

Well, what happened was that I put these kinds of stories aside for a while. I tried to focus on proper literary topics: adult relationships, the workplace, buying cars. Grandparents dying, pets dying, kids and spouses dying — the whole dead deal. But when I was honest with myself, I still wanted to write about my childhood. I didn’t know anything about adulthood. I knew only ALF!

And so I decided to acknowledge that desire, that the saddest thing I could think of was ALF dying. But at the same time I wanted to call myself to task, to admit how pathetic that was, how juvenile.

I returned to those pop culture stories, because I realized I needed to write them, to exorcise something. Amazing Adult Fantasy was my long dark night of the soul. Ingmar Bergman tormented himself over religion, and I, I agonized over — Kermit the Frog.

Your stories read like dreams, leading the reader into an alternate universe, but also back to the author as a mysterious and perhaps malignant force. What is the source of this?

If the stories are malignant, it’s because I tried to recognize how my desires are malignant. And how the pop culture forces are, before that, themselves malignant. Injurious and untrue.

The stories in the first half of the collection, in the “Fiction” section, are all fan-fiction. They’re about Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Oscar the Grouch… They’re about things I loved as a child, and still love, even if my love is conflicted and bittersweet. And they’re fantasy stories: fantastical, unrealistic.

Any fantasy, if it’s good, is also perverse. It asks you to believe in a world that isn’t true, an alternative to our real world. It’s escapist. This isn’t bad, per se — we need fantasies. We enjoy them. We use them for all sorts of useful things. But fantasy is particularly dominant right now in our culture — look at the movies out there, month after month. I can name every single one of the X-Men, summarize hundreds of issues of those comics. I’ve seen the Star Wars movies more times than tongue can tell. Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus are like real persons to me; they’re my childhood friends, as real as my downstairs neighbors (and not as loud). There’s something sad and terrible about this. And yet I can’t stop loving those things.

How does one get out of such a dilemma? Can one?

Another, more theoretical influence helped me come to some terms with this, to write through this problem: William H. Gass’s formalism, in particular his essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” and his 1970s debates with John Gardner. (So Gardner, too, was an influence.) Gass defined characters as linguistic constructs: proper nouns that other words “go to be about.” Gardner, meanwhile, took a more realist or illusionistic approach, arguing that characters are instead apparitions, dreams.

Their debates resonated very strongly with me. I agreed with Gass’s formalist approach, but I also felt great sympathy for Gardner’s view: the very problem I was having with these childhood pop icons was that they were apparitions. They were ghosts, haunting me. Or demons, in a very literal sense: divine beings that provide for us, and that determine our fates and fortunes. Attendant spirits.

After reading those debates and Gass’s essays, I found myself able to approach those dreamlike apparitions more abstractly, more as verbal constructs. Gass writes that the character is not real, but rather just a noun that other words modify. That insight helped me to see through some of the illusion.

So I tried sending other words to be about those characters, which in fact opened up a lot of room. These characters, these demons, are so well known, they’re so strong — that’s their appeal — that I found I had a lot of room to redefine them, and thereby deform them. So I could call Indiana Jones “Indian Jones,” and write that he now lives in Brooklyn, buying vanilla Cokes at the corner shop and squeezing the straws until they crinkle and tear. And at the start of that story he’s a young man, about to set out on his first adventure, about to become Indian(a) Jones. But he can also be an extremely old man, later on in the story, a man who “never found a single priceless artifact; instead he used his butterfly hands to become a sculptor.” Because Indian Jones, Indiana Jones, can be whatever I want him to be.

The first half of the collection is about redefining these characters, giving them new identities. This, too, is ultimately impossible, but I found it a better approach than mere ironic vandalism. The language could become something stranger and more troubling than guarded yet unabashed love letters.

The second half of the collection, “The Solar Stories,” is a rewrite of the first half — a dark mirror. The pop culture references disappear, replaced by a new, self-enclosed mythology. I think of the book as getting “older”: the first half is pre-pubescent, while the second half begins with puberty. The toys of childhood get cast aside, but not before they’ve been absorbed. And what replaces them is a much darker mythology, one more fiercely embraced. This dark reflection goes back to pollute the first half, I hope, and vice versa. The insular teenage fantasies are built on the naïve childhood loves, even if the teenage self won’t dare name them.

Do you follow any particular formal methods when writing, or would you call yourself more intuitive?

It’s a mixture of form and intuition. It was important to me that the structure played a meaningful role in the collection, organizing and commenting on the stories. And different stories in the collection used different styles and writing methods.

But I never want to sacrifice writing to adhere to form. If something feels right, then I’ll go with it. I want there to be tension, and form permits digression.

To what extent is media a guiding force?

The stories are mine, but saying that just calls into question what “mine” means. I’m definitely ceding some control in my choice of subject. And even as I wrote away from my sources, deforming those pop icons, I consistently felt a lot of pressure to return to their original concepts.

The solution that worked best, I found, was to keep the characters protean. They’re endlessly mutating verbal constructs. So, for example, in “Oscar the Grouch” the title character is at first a radio broadcaster and successful poet, but a few paragraphs later he’s a neurotic young man, and very shy. And a little bit later he’s a lecherous, elderly Beat. But he’s also at the same time a disgusting, mangy creature who lives in a garbage can, like a bum.

Meanwhile, the narrator of that story, the “I” — that “I” is another character, too, another word that can be modified as well. And so the narrator, just like Oscar, also keeps changing: at first she’s a sickly little girl, then a student, then a groupie, then a teacher. She and Oscar continuously mutate around one another, defining and being defined by one another. And I hope that, when you’re reading that story, those transformations are pleasantly confusing, but also critical. Because who are you when you embrace Oscar the Grouch as your personal demon, as your totem animal? And how does that embrace deform you?

Claude Levi-Strauss said that we personify animals because, just like how some animals are “good to eat,” some are “good to think.” These stories look at those pop culture creations and ask how they are “good to think,” but also “bad to think.”

Are you opposed to pop culture?

No, certainly not. In some ways it’s too big to oppose. Can one ignore it? Condemn it? I don’t watch TV any more, and I read a much wider variety of literature than when I was a kid, and I have a lot of theory under my belt — but those pop stories, those characters, those franchises — they got their hooks into me before anything else. I was seduced at an early age: I can’t remember my life before Star Wars. The very first movie that I saw, when I was four years old, was The Muppet Movie. So I’ll no doubt always love Star Wars, and Kermit the Frog. And I’ve tried to be up front about that: “This before anything else.”

(A friend of mine was teasing me about these stories, arguing that I should just let my childhood go, like she did. She’s a sculptor who makes soft, animal-like fabric pieces. I asked her what kind of toys she’d played with as a child, and she said, “Oh, I had tons and tons of stuffed animals…”)

It’s important to resist one’s love for such things. We need them to some extent, but they were also the products of extremely pervasive capitalism — gimmicks for wresting cash from our parents’ fists (and then our own open hands).

The problem here becomes one of nostalgia, which is a kind of melancholy. Originally nostalgia was considered a disease: in the 1700s and 1800s, Swiss soldiers living abroad deserted in droves, because they couldn’t stand being so far away from the Alps. They were said to become particularly homesick when they heard the “Ranz des Vaches,” a farmer’s song. Their doctors and generals of course considered this a problem (they banned that song).

But today, nostalgia is a condition that we openly embrace. Our culture is very, very happy to sell our childhoods back to us. In my late teenage years, when I found myself at college, I struggled to cast aside the playthings of my youth. I stopped buying X-Men comic books, and action figures, and video games. I chose to stop going to see the new Batman movie, the new Star Trek. I wanted to have done with all of that, to move on. To no longer live like a child.

In some ways the culture helped: the more it insisted that I should care about the X-Men, the easier it made it for me to not care about the X-Men. George Lucas keeps tinkering with Star Wars, making it less and less like the Star Wars I remember — some people are upset because of that, but I’m actually somewhat grateful; I appreciate that alienation from Star Wars. The Batman that kids love today is not the Batman that Tim Burton gave me, the vision that he seduced me with…

…But this also makes nostalgia much more tempting. I actually bought some action figures one year ago: the NECO Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figures — because they’re based on the original comics version, you see, not the cartoon… And they just released a second series…

It’s difficult to get away from these things!

I took as my motto, “They will betray you.” They will never stay the same. They promise that they are divine, eternal, but they are the products of many different writers, of different places and times — which is part of their strength, but also part of their callousness, their injurious untruthfulness. They are greater than you; their masters are greater than you — and they do not know you, do not need you (just your paycheck).

This, then, is the tension that fueled the collection: my desire to write about these things, because I love them, and always will love them, but at the same time my very strong need to examine that love critically. And to hold myself accountable for feeling it.