We Drove to Albany to Talk to Novelist Shane Jones About Writing

Jacob Kaplan

In Shane Jones’s 2009 novel Light Boxes, a nameless town suffers through a seemingly endless February. People despair in the face of it; some freeze to death. “I can’t remember it being colder than it is now,” say Jones’s character, Thaddeus. “The ground is frozen and black, the town windows webbed in snow and ice.”

I was thinking a lot about Jones’s February, which manifests as an actual character in the book, by turns sadistic and guilt-ridden, as I drove north to Albany on I-87 through the tail-end of a storm. It was winter, almost February in fact, and if you live in the Northeast you know the season well, how it dies a sulky, graceless death over many months. The highway was a stretch of whitish gray, as was the sky, and the world felt hemmed in. Slush lined the divider. Every so often a sheet of powder washed over the car, like spray on a boat, and the wheel kicked, and I thought about turning around. I could have asked all the same questions over email. But I liked the idea of doing something unnecessary and dangerous for the sake of writing, mine or someone else’s. Plus, I wanted to see where Shane Jones came from. Towns figure prominently in his work and so it felt important to see the actual town where he was born, and where he lives still and writes.

Like Light Boxes, Shane Jones’s newest novel, Crystal Eaters (Two Dollar Radio, June 2014), features a victimized town, but this time the forces of evil are heat and urban sprawl. And, as in Light Boxes, the problem boils down to mortality, and how we rail against a totally inevitable demise, our varied coping strategies, the forms our denial takes. It’s a woozy, near-psychedelic story with many moving parts, but it centers on Remy, who is trying to save her dying mother by increasing her crystal count. Jones’s writing is simultaneously lyrical and blunt; whimsy is tempered with bleakness and violence. Crystal Eaters is easily his most ambitious work to date. I admire the book, but didn’t get a chance to tell Shane that when I spoke with him in Albany, because I hadn’t read it yet.

Shane and I ate sandwiches at a coffee shop, and when we finished he was gracious enough to invite me to his house, where I met his wife Melanie and their one-year-old son. Toward the end of the interview Melanie gave me an honest-to-god crystal. It’s a craggy purplish chunk called fluorite, and I keep it on my desk.

*****

There’s a passage in Light Boxes where you describe the character February as a failing writer: “When February would spend hours writing a story he wouldn’t discuss because it had gotten away from him months before…” Does writing get away from you? How do you get it back?

Yeah, especially in a longer piece, like a novel. It has to be something I’m thinking about every day. There can’t be, and there just won’t be [a break]. Crystal Eaters I thought about every day for three years. But there were days I wasn’t working on it. And that’s scary. And there was also a moment when the first draft was done, and I remember looking at the first draft, and being like, “Oh my god, it’s such a mess. What am I doing with my life?” The idea of this thing taking me over. In Mao II [by Don DeLillo], the character is a writer, and the book that’s being worked on is this deformed infant, crawling around the room. It’s bleeding and drooling and it’s crawling around the room, but you have to love it and nurture it and let it grow into something kind of human.

What is Crystal Eaters about?

I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a family drama, in one sense. And it’s also a fable, and there’s a sci-fi aspect. At its roots it’s about people and things trying to make connections, when everything is really alone. It’s a really lonely, sad book. There are three different settings, and dozens and dozens of characters, and it’s all fragmented, it jumps from scene to scene, and everything kind of converges at the end. The way I looked at it, there are all these storylines that are streams, and the streams go into a river, and everything kind of blows up. The protagonist is Remy, a young girl who lives in a village that believes in “crystal count,” which is an inner number… everything in the village has different crystal counts. The opposite is the city, which is encroaching day to day with its modernity. Remy’s mother gets sick, and the family has to figure out what to do.

crystaleaters

Is there anything specific about towns or villages, specifically this timeless, almost antiquated notion of “village”? I’m thinking about the town in Light Boxes, it feels like a community in this very primal way. Is there a similarly primal community in Crystal Eaters?

There definitely is, absolutely.

Where does that come from? Is it something you grew up with?

I don’t know specifically where it comes from, other than my attraction to this idea of a blank slate, the idea of creating something new out of nothing. I have no interest in writing about Brooklyn, the modern, real world. I think it’s boring. It’s garbage to me. And I wouldn’t be able to do it very well. The first draft of Crystal Eaters had an entire storyline that was all told from the city’s perspective. That’s close to 50,000 words that I cut, and one reason why it took me so long to write the book, because it wasn’t working, and I knew it was boring. Every time the book jumped to those city sections, it was like, [sighs]. It just wasn’t interesting. There was a certain satire to this office setting, a woman named Megan, her working in a cubicle… to jump from that to a crystal mine where Remy is mourning the death of her dog by running like a dog, barking into tunnels… it just didn’t make sense. It was better for me to completely erase the city, or have it peaking in every once in a while, little scenes where you would kind of see the city coming in.

The city still exists as a character in the book?

Yeah, it’s always lurking. But the book already makes so many jumps, that to make more…. I don’t want to piss off readers. And this is the first time, also, that I’ve really consciously thought about what a reader is going to think. I’ve cut things that I thought were too slow. In the past, especially with Daniel Fights A Hurricane, where it felt like I was trying to show off, it just went way too far, and I think it was boring people. There are very few writers who can show off for pages.

What do you mean by “show off”?

Write pretty prose. I think Gravity’s Rainbow is a book that can talk shit for hundreds of pages, and not even really move the narrative along, but [Pynchon]’s so on, he’s at a completely new level of writing, it feels… I could just keep reading it. It doesn’t matter what he’s talking about. He’s so on in that book. I’m gonna really rambling here. I watch the Knicks a lot. Do you watch basketball?

No, not really.

Well, last night Carmelo Anthony scored 62 points and set a record for the Knicks, and, watching the game, you can see him enter this zone where he just… he can’t miss. These are the top players in the world, it’s only a couple hundred people. To have one guy elevate over all of that… You could feel the other players on the court, especially the opposing team, disappear. It feels like they’re disappearing. This one person takes the game over.

Do you ever feel that “on” when you’re writing?

No. Every once in a while, yeah. I think everybody does, or wants that feeling. It feels superhuman. But to have a writer do that throughout a book is a whole other… But you can also feel really on, and then go back and read it, and feel like, “Oh god, what did I do?”

Where do you find, in your life, the truest sense of community?

That’s a good question. Melanie should be here for that. Because I’m always in my head. Is your question about physically where do I find it? In reality?

Not necessarily, no.

I don’t even really care where I live. I’m in my head so much. It doesn’t matter. I could probably live… the suburbs might be tough for me, but I could live in the city or in the country. It doesn’t really matter. But I’m also a pretty isolated person that doesn’t reach out to a lot of people, and doesn’t have such a sense of community, which is probably why I’m writing about it so much. It’s probably a desire to have that stuff.

Do you feel part of a community of writers online?

Absolutely. I mean, sometimes all the online stuff can feel kind of awful or slimy, but I always go back to it, and I always love it. I love a lot of the people I follow or talk to. I love their writing. It feels like a place to go where everybody kind of like gets along in a weird way.

Have you ever read Milan Kundera?

I read Life Is Elsewhere.

He has this quote about writing, that I feel like applies to social media especially: “One morning, and it will be soon, when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.” What do you think he’s talking about?

Well, a couple things. I went to a thing where Garrison Keillor was talking, and he mentioned the same thing, about how in the future, everybody will be a writer, with published books. And everybody will have one reader. Writers won’t have a base of readers… He was being funny, but also I think he was trying to make a point. I also thought of Terence McKenna. I know Tao Lin’s really into his stuff. [Terence McKenna] mentioned about how in the future, everybody—their writing, their thoughts—everything will be on computers, everything will be connected, so basically we’ll build up a history, where everything will be all-encompassing and connected, through computers, which is kind of amazing and scary at the same time. What was your question again?

Well, I read this Kundera quote about writing… he said, when everyone can do it, voices matter less.

But everybody can do it. And they’ve always been able to do it. I guess do it well, or however you define that… There’s shitty writing, right? Not everybody can produce stuff that… but that’s a really tough question, because then you get into questions of what’s good and what’s bad, and what one person might hate, one person might love. But I think really good writing, when it becomes art, which I think only so many people can do, is the most powerful, beautiful, magical art form that we have. You’re making worlds and provoking emotions and doing things with language with symbols, right? The alphabet. It’s unreal. There’s something about writing that makes the connection one-on-one between people that, for me at least, does something that other art forms can’t do. They can’t reach that depth. I don’t know what your favorite book is, or the books that you love, but they do something to you that nothing else can do. And those writers are at a level that not everybody can get to.

You tweeted, “50 percent of wanting to write a novel is ‘please love me’ and the other 50 percent is ‘suck my dick’.” Can you talk about that?

I don’t know if I really feel that way. I think it sounds good.

It works as a Tweet.

There’s something about it that feels real to me, saying that. I think the “suck my dick” line is about ego. It’s supposed to be funny and I do kind of believe it, in a way.

Does writing a novel feel similarly indulgent?

It’s definitely indulgent. I mean, I think it begs the question, “Why write a novel?” Which I don’t even have an answer for. I like to do it, I like to put words on a screen and keep building things up. It’s something I’ll probably always do.

Your writing, both your short stuff and your novels, tends to be fragmentary. Does that happen naturally?

Yeah, definitely. I think it’s just… not that it’s easier, it’s just it makes it more entertaining, in a way. Even something like Crystal Eaters, on a day-to-day [basis], I can change things up. If I want to write this scene in the village, I can. There’s also a prison that’s located in the city—I can jump to that. Or I can jump between characters. And I’ve tried to write longer sustained narrations, but it just doesn’t work for me. I get bored easily. With Crystal Eaters, early on, I wanted to do the “big book,” like the idea that this is going to be a four or five hundred page [novel]. I wanted to be ambitious. I still think it’s really ambitious; it tries to go big, in ways. But it just didn’t work. The city pieces I was writing were still fragmented, but not as much. It just got boring. I don’t want to bore people.

Who else writes good fragmentary fiction?

I feel like Invisible Cities, by Calvino is a big influence. Brautigan. I took a lot from Brautigan. And even writers that do write big novels, like even Infinite Jest and Pale King by [David Foster] Wallace, those jump around a lot. Those three writers right there are big influences. And a lot of online writing, because we were talking about that, feels fragmented to me, or short.

I have no interest in writing about Brooklyn, the modern, real world. I think it’s boring. It’s garbage to me.

A lot of online writing is fragmented, yeah. I was reading the short stuff you wrote for Dazed Digital this year, about Vincent Peppers.

Yeah, that’s all cut from the city storyline [in Crystal Eaters]. Vincent Peppers was the business dude in the city, who is this kind of lovable loser.

I really like that stuff. It’s a great voice.

What do you like about it? I can never figure out how to tell a whole story with him.

I’m thinking of this one story, “Bag of Holes.” I really like the first line of that story—“The reason I let Robin sleep with another man was because I wanted her to be happy.” It’s this shockingly sad premise, this guy whose wife needs to sleep with other guys in order to feel fulfilled. That grabbed me, and I really wanted to know about it. Also that voice feels markedly different than other voices you’ve used. Is that your first time writing in that voice?

Yeah. The last three years I’ve been really interested in doing a first-person narrative, which I think is really difficult.

You tend toward third person?

Yeah. I think so much of my writing is image-based. Making things pretty is easier in the third person.

You do really close third-person stuff, which is similar to first.

Yeah, but when you go to first person, you’re still… it locks you into that voice, and it locks you into that head. Which for me is really hard. It goes back to what we were saying about fragments and feeling bored. When you’re in that person’s head, how do you keep that going for a really long time, a novel-length? The cut pieces [the Vincent Peppers stories] work on their own, but to sustain it… I think I might have written something about who does a good first-person narrative. Nicholson Baker does, that’s a really unique voice. But that’s Nicholson Baker… it’s basically him, I feel like. And then something like Lolita, which is probably the most famous first-person narrative. But it’s not really a first-person narrative, because it’s so high-drama, and it’s so over-the-top… he’s using a voice where the character can go into these long descriptions, and all these flourishes, which reminds me more of third-person. I’d like to write a whole book on [Vincent Peppers], but I don’t know how to do it. At what point does the energy of that voice drop off? Which for me it did. It’s all right to read it online for a couple thousand words at the very most, but to bring it to a novel length… I’m just not wired for it, I don’t think. I want to be. I think you want to be what you’re not, in writing. You write toward your strengths, and you always write around your weaknesses. But I like the idea of knowing my weakness, and still trying to do it, because why not?

Did the Vincent Peppers stuff feel like a stretch for you?

Yeah. It felt refreshing, it felt good to do something like that, but also dangerous. There’s a certain amount of being conscious, or having to deal with reality with this character. Which I’m not great at.

What do you mean by “having to deal with reality”?

The day-to-day of his character, his relationship with his wife, how he moves around, how he talks about food consumption. It could be really funny and entertaining or it could be really boring and drab. How much do I want to think about stuff like… if I have to live that stuff, why do I want to write about it? I could write about, you know, a character eating a crystal and seeing horses appear and different worlds. That sounds more fun to me.

But then some writers are all about writing about what they do on a day-to-day basis. I’m thinking of Taipei, by Tao Lin. Did you read that?

Yeah, I loved it.

What did you love about it? That’s the opposite end of the spectrum. Tao Lin is writing about what he does—or what his character does—in a daily, pedestrian sense.

Yeah, but he does it so well that it transcends into something more than [just] reflective of that reality. Really good reality writing… can get at a higher level.

What’s the higher level?

It tends to do something more than what it first represents. In Taipei, he talks about every single detail… he’ll describe going out to eat in tiny, tiny detail. But the way he does it—and I think this is where the magic of it comes in—it feels more than what it is. If I tried to do that it would probably be really flat. It wouldn’t come off the page like he’s able to do it.

Can you talk about other moments in books that get at that higher level for you?

I’ll just say what pops into my head first… the sections in Infinite Jest with Don Gately, toward the end when he’s in the hospital, and is having flashbacks… those scenes do something to me. It’s not even a mental or spiritual reaction, but it’s almost physical. And I don’t think you’re supposed to be able to put it into words. The books I love the most do that. I’m reading Europe Central by [William T.] Vollman right now, which is ridiculous and absurd. He’s how he always is. But there are sections in that that are amazing, and that I can’t put into words.

You wrote a piece that was published in BOMB called “Shellhouse” that I really liked. There’s this one part where a guy is standing on a hill, pointing a kind of remote control at the sky, about to “change” it, which is something that can be done in the world of the story. That moment did it for me—I had a physical reaction to it. The story came into focus.

Thanks. It’s interesting that you said “came into focus,” because I also see it as the story slipping off the rails a little bit. It’s somehow off, it’s almost like a non-sequitur. I think I’m always trying to get to those sections, those surprises. Surprise is really, really big for me.

I talked to Arthur Bradford once, the author of the story collection Dogwalker, and he said something similar, that he’s always shooting for the best “what-the-fuck moments” in his stories. That moment in “Shellshag” felt like a really good, genuine “what-the-fuck” moment. It was a derailment, but it also felt important and inevitable.

That’s one thing I love about writing—the idea of surprising yourself. You have to get to those parts. How do you do that? “Moments” is a key word, because you can’t have constant what-the-fuck, because then the whole piece is just what-the-fuck. I feel like you have to have a story set up. Vonnegut talked about humor in his stories, and he talked about setting a mousetrap. So you’re constantly setting it up, and you’re getting the mouse to the trap. Brautigan is really good with that stuff, especially in In Watermelon Sugar. That world that he creates—it’s real, but it’s not. It’s still totally bizarre, but it feels real. But in that world he has those jumps and those surprises, which makes it even more weird, but still real.

A lot of your writing is about, at least on some level, death. Why is so much good fiction about death?

Because it’s what we all think about. It’s all lurking behind all of our thoughts constantly. Like it’s just always there, so I guess it makes sense that it’s always in fiction. It’s the ultimate anxiety. We’re all going to experience death. No one’s going to avoid it. So I guess it has to get into fiction. I guess consciously I never think, like, All right, I’m gonna put death in this book! But it gets in there.

Do you have any weather-related anxieties? Seasonal affective disorder?

Yeah, a little bit, especially this time of the year. I definitely get down. Something about this time of the year, and February and March specifically. I mean, you saw it today. It’s just brutal. I’m definitely better with it now. Since writing Light Boxes, and even since having Julian [Shane’s son], there’s this idea of, Don’t stop. You have to be productive. Just do stuff.

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