Interview w/ Jeff Jackson, author
Interviewed by Molly Wilbanks, 2/6/2014
Jeff Jackson is the author of the newly published novel, Mira Corpora. I met with Jeff in a narrow, dim restaurant lit solely by the flicker of eight tiny tea light candles. To find the restaurant I had to follow a hand-written map that Jeff had crammed in a hole, in a stack of bricks, by the railroad crossing on 36th. He wanted to keep this place a secret. I spent the good part of an hour back-tracking through obscure side streets, some dead-ending, and some leading to abandoned warehouse sprawl. The map had been smudged. Somehow or other I found the place, my shoes covered in mud, and a fresh hole in my jeans. I didn’t care. I was excited to talk with Jeff and ask him some questions. (Not all of the above is entirely true).
You can ask questions too, as Jeff Jackson discusses his novel at Pura Vida Worldly Art, 3202A Davidson St., 2pm, Sunday, March 9th. Don’t miss it, and don’t get lost. Get your copy of the book at Pura Vida Worldly Art, or at Amazon.
Molly Wilbanks: When did you first begin to write?
Jeff Jackson: Probably in high school. For a long time, I was a big reader of comic books but not of literature. I didn’t really like writing that much, either. It wasn’t something that came naturally to me when I was younger. They had a great creative writing class in high school and I was surprised by how much I liked it and when I would write, how quickly the time would sort of vanish. I found I could disappear into it.
MW: You write for theater also. How is that different than writing a novel, for example?
JJ: It’s definitely different. It’s so collaborative. I’m writing text that’s meant to be performed. Something that seems like it’s going to be able to live on stage in a way that’s interesting for the audience and exciting for the performers. There are some things that are more literary that I’d love to do, but they just don’t work on the stage. Sometimes I create a play from start-to-finish that will be performed, but then I’m still revising it and taking it apart with the company. Most often, I’ll start with an idea with the director and the play will be written as it’s being rehearsed. It’s not usually a traditional playwriting process. With the novel or short stories, it’s about having an idea, and how it works on the page. I’m not thinking about performance or reading it out loud. And I’m not worried about how it works within the context of a group or if it’s meeting someone else’s needs. It’s fun to be able to bounce between the two modes.
MW: Is it easy to make a living as a writer?
JJ: It’s nearly impossible. And it’s gotten more difficult over the years. I still do some music reviewing and in the 1990s you could get paid good money for a single review. A friend of mine wrote a cover feature and got paid enough to buy a used car. That hardly exists anymore, even at major magazines, due to the free content on the internet. Digital culture is great in terms of democratizing the art process, but it’s also made it almost impossible for many musicians and writers to make a living. Fortunately the publishing industry is about five years behind the music industry and the bottom hasn’t totally fallen out yet. But the more publishers embrace digital culture, the more they’re also embracing pirating and the de-valuing of their products. I know people in their early 20s who are big readers and they never pay for books. They illegally download them. It’s becoming similar to how you can’t find hardly anyone under thirty who pays for music anymore.
MW: If you value writing, then buy some books!
JJ: Absolutely. One of the great things about Two Dollar Radio, who published Mira Corpora, is that their books are beautiful physical objects. They make something that can’t be so easily replaced by the digital realm. Mira Corpora has French flaps and beautiful deckled-edge paper. It offers a real tactile experience. There are always going to be people who just want to have content on their Kindle, and that’s fine, but publishers need to embrace making books that are exquisitely designed objects, that give you what only books can give you, and not just deliver glorified Word files.
MW: What inspires you to write?
JJ: Music is a big one for me. The feeling I get from certain songs or compositions definitely makes me want to write, to translate something of that experience into words. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a raw punk song or an abstract classical composition or a noisy free jazz piece.
MW: Regarding your novel Mira Corpora, I’m curious to know how the title came about, and what it means?
JJ: Well, your husband helped me with the title because he introduced me to the wonderful French experimental film “Mira Corpora” by Stéphane Marti. The book has different sections and when I tried something more literal, it seemed to indicate that one section of the book was more important than another. That was a real problem because people thought “So this section is the key to the book” and ignored everything else. The novel needed a title that emphasized the story as a whole and didn’t create any preconceptions about its contents. I wanted a title where you’d read the book, and the book would give the title its meaning. That’s why I went with the abstract and poetic “Mira Corpora.” It’s an idiomatic Latin expression that means “strange and unusual bodies.” I partially picked it just for the sound: “mira” is “to look at” in Spanish and sounds like “mirror.” And “corpora” is corporeal or “bodies.”
MW: The protagonist’s name is Jeff Jackson, so is your novel fiction or non-fiction?
JJ: It’s a novel, so it’s fiction. It was important that “A Novel” was written prominently on the cover of the book. Almost anything you write has autobiographical elements in it and I’m definitely exploring some of that tension by giving the narrator my name. It was important to me that the book felt emotionally true while not always being factual.
MW: I found it daring that you did that.
JJ: It came about late in the process. Originally the character had a totally other name and I created this biography that was fairly separate from me. As I was writing, this became too distant and clever. I had been writing the novel for so long that I really came to know the character. He earned the right to my name.
MW: Do you read reviews and critiques of your novel, and if so, what do you think of them?
JJ: I read most of them, though I try to skip the negative ones. I’ve been very fortunate that most of the reviews have been positive. It’s been interesting to read other perspectives. There’s a lot of ambiguity in the text, so there have been many different interpretations. I’ve been interested to see what lens critics choose to view the book through. I feel more shielded reading theater reviews because it’s a collaborative project. You feel like other people have your back if it’s a negative notice and it’s easier to laugh them off. Like with “Botanica,” the last play I did, The Huffington Post accused us of sexually objectifying plants. I’m not even sure how you do that. It is definitely more vulnerable reading something that’s just about me.
MW: There was a picture I saw on social media recently in which you’re cutting into your novel with scissors. Can you tell me what’s going on there?
JJ: I chopped the book apart. Ripped out pages and cut it up. I really like making collages, and I hadn’t made any for a while, so I thought it would be fun to make some collages using the book itself. This was right before the holidays and I had the idea that I could make individual collages that used parts of the book itself. If you bought the book as a gift for friends and family, then I’d send you one of these collages. They included a short story about a character who was in the book at one time but was cut from the final version. A sort of shadow presence. There’s something very physical about the act of writing in the novel. People are walking into the page, spitting on it, sticking their finger through it, erasing it. So I thought eviscerating a copy of the book itself was in that spirit. I sent out a number of collages, it helped sell some copies, and it was a fun way to express my gratitude to people. I’m not sure how my publisher felt about seeing the copy ripped apart. I have to say, their books are really well made. It took some serious X-Acto knife skills to take it apart.
MW: Are you working on anything new right now?
JJ: Yes, I’m almost done. It took a long time to find an agent for Mira Corpora and then to sell it, so I started something new as soon as I was done with that book. I’ve been working on this new novel for almost two-and-a-half years. It’s largely about music. My attempt to write the last rock-and-roll novel, to imagine an end point for that genre.
MW: By the way, I want to make a T-shirt on it that says “GERT-JAN”. I don’t know why. I just got inspired to do that, right now. That was my favorite part of the book, with Gert-Jan. It would be black, with white letters on it. You wouldn’t mind right?
JJ: No! It would be awesome.
MW: Now. Time for either/or questions. If you had to choose, for the rest of your life, either/or, what would you choose? Graph paper or a computer screen?
JJ: I hate to say it, but computer screen because that’s what I look at all the time. Wish I looked at graph paper more often.
MW: Ethnic food, or comfort food?
JJ: I’ll say comfort food because that would include a lot of ethnic food as well.
MW: Jazz music or foreign films?
JJ: Why don’t you just cut out my heart instead?
MW: I know you, so that’s a cheater question!
JJ: Molly, it’s seriously brutal.