Thank you for joining us, Jon M. Please tell us about yourself.
32 years old, generally disagreeable, morally gray, politically apathetic, falls somewhere in the Cluster A of personality disorders with a dash of antisocial behavior and a sprinkle of narcissism. All of that to say I am very, very, very opinionated, frequently aloof, sometimes an asshole, and likely to revisit this interview sometime in the future when I’ve become a rockstar author.
When and why did you begin writing?
Eight or nine years ago I was searching for another creative outlet, and so I began to write. Before that I was a visual artist and occasionally a guitarist. Actually for most of my life the visual arts were what I identified with—it was how I thought of myself. I believed I’d make my living that way eventually, working up to gallery showings and maybe even solo exhibits. But getting to that point required actually finishing things, and I was never quite able to do that. Working with graphite, my medium of choice, can be an excruciatingly slow process. And so, as I began to feel the pressure and the ridiculousness of being an artist with no portfolio, I started to look for other, more immediate, ways to be creative.
I wrote a lot of poetry when I first started out, I don’t know why—maybe the immediacy is what interested me, or maybe I just had a natural inclination toward rhythm and enjoyed the sound of words. So long ago now that I forget exactly. But I do remember (and most days I wish I didn’t) how awful my first poems were. I was a depressed kid at the time, so naturally the work of confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath appealed to me. But my poems were never even remotely as good as theirs. My poems were ambiguous, lacking detail, maybe even a little pretentious. They suffered from the same disease most early poems do—excess poetitude. Because now you’re writing a poem, you know, and suddenly everything you say has to be grand, lofty, poetic, and that was all bad news for me. I’ve kept mostly everything from that period (and since), but I hardly ever read through them, and if I do it’s just as a curiosity, to see where I’ve been, how far I’ve come. And that’s really the only use they have for me anymore.
But what I really wanted to write was prose. From the beginning I envied writers who could produce a couple thousand words of material every week. It seemed like the easiest thing for some of them, and it certainly wasn’t for me. I really struggled with it. I can remember several evenings where I’d felt so inspired to write a little prose story, like a vignette, that I spent hours not just working on it, but crafting it—perfecting every word and rhythm, trying to make the prose sing the way my poetry did, and driving myself insane in the process. The sad thing is, after all that work, I’d typically only manage about two or three hundred words. Never more than five hundred. And that’s because I didn’t know how to write. I didn’t know how to create a flawed first draft and be okay with the imperfections. I didn’t figure that out until the beginning of 2011, and now a thousand words seems like a drop in the bucket.
How many hats do you have in your home?
Not very many, I’m afraid. Maybe just two hats in my home. The first one, the one I wear secretly and most often, is a technological wonder. I created it myself out of some old closet junk, a coat hanger, spare TV parts—an antenna—and a few other odds and ends. It’s my favorite hat. On clear nights, when the moon is a giant pearl, it brings me the universe, and faraway people tell me their stories.
The other hat is a little, inoffensive thing—vanilla, like the color of walls before they’re covered with all the beautiful pictures of family and friends. I have to wash this hat every day, to keep it clean. The rules say it must always be clean. This is the hat I wear when others expect things of me.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I think I began to feel like a writer, like I could make stuff up and write about it and actually be successful, last fall when I finished my first novella, called Rememory. The first draft was about 27,000 words. At the time that was a very big deal for me because it was the largest story I’d ever written. Before that I’d only ever written stories that were a couple thousand words long.
I think it’s an okay story, even now, after the honeymoon has ended. It certainly has potential. But more importantly it taught me what it meant to keep to a schedule, to write every day, inspired or not.
Do you have a specific writing style?
Ah, style. Yes, there is probably evidence of this mysterious beast in my writing. I tend to prefer long and labored sentences, with an obscene abuse of the parenthetical comma and the word ‘and’. I’m trying to tone it down, though.
In terms of subject matter, I often write about illness and drugs. These are some of the biggest issues in my life. I’ve always been interested in the ability of drugs to alter a person’s chemical world, to cause addiction and the behaviors that arise from that addiction.
Is there a genre or type of writing that you would feel intimidated to write?
I actually don’t think I could write a children’s or young adult story right now. It’s not where I am at the moment. I wouldn’t know how to do it properly. But it’s something I want to do, write a children’s story. When I drive down my street I pass this park, and it’s not a very big park at all—about the size of a plot of land for any of the small houses on my street—with only a modest jungle gym and a neon orange and blue slide. But interesting to me, when I first noticed it last winter, was the line of skeletal trees in the background, and how, off to one side, a space between two of the trees resembled a doorway. Now there’s nothing but a ditch back there in real life, muddy and dotted with stones, but of course in my mind I imagined that doorway emerging only on one special night, and a neverending stair that spiraled down through an impossible darkness to some other, fantastic, world. And I’d love to write that story sometime, and will eventually, but like I said I don’t think I could do the idea justice at the moment.
Is there a message in your work/s that you want readers to grasp?
I don’t want or expect anything from the reader. I do this for myself, choose the subjects and the themes that matter to me, and I try to present all of that as clearly and convincingly and as real as possible. I know I write about sad and sometimes horrible things that people might not ever want to read, and I am okay with that.
But generally I am very interested in what it means to have an identity, and to experience a breakdown or a disintegration or loss of that identity. About seven years ago my life changed when I had two surgeries within a couple months of each other. Somewhere in that period of time I developed a persistent pain in the jaw, similar to the symptoms of TMD, that has continued for me every day since. This has changed everything for me, touched all areas of my life. And the feeling I have about the whole experience is close to what I imagine amnesia must be like. I know something has happened, I live with the effects every day, but aside from that window of time when the surgeries took place, that is all I know. Every other detail seems unreal, hidden, like signs along the side of the road that rise up out of a dense fog only to disappear again a few seconds later. I know the hospital, I see it on my drives into the city, but it seems as if the doctors and the actual physical location of the clinic no longer exist. And this kind of uncertainty, this fog of understanding, is chiefly what influences my stories, from the themes all the way down to the manner in which they are told.
I don’t believe in absolutes like right or wrong, and I don’t think happiness ever lasts long, or at all. There are just moments of ecstasy, and everything in between.
Do you plan before writing or figure things out as you go along?
I usually do a little planning before I write, but often it is just a general picture that I have to work with at the beginning. Maybe I know the end of the story, maybe not. For larger works, I do always try to figure out where I am going ahead of time because I know from past experience how easy it is for a story to fall apart in the middle. The middle always feels like a jungle to me. So easy to lose your way, for north to become east or west or even south. And so it helps to have a clear direction forward.
Mostly, though, I prefer to discover the story as I go along. There’s a quote floating out there somewhere that goes like this, “I write to know what I am thinking”, and that is so much my process, and me. Somehow, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve lost the ability to daydream about my stories, to figure them out while driving, or when I was just entering the work force, while doing manual labor. I used to work at a shampoo factory. They made other products there, I’m sure—conditioner, lotions, hand soaps—by my job was to feed a line with empty, labelless shampoo bottles, and watch them go down through the silkscreen and get inked. And for 7.5 hours a day that is what I did, and I lived in my head 99% of the time. I don’t think I could do that now. My thoughts feel sped up, on permanent fast-forward, and it is sometimes hard to slip into that fictional dream and live with my characters.
Describe where you are and what’s around you right now.
Well, I am in my spare bedroom-turned-writer’s-studio sending telepathic notes to you and everyone else reading this interview while a track from Yanqui U.X.O. blares from the stereo at my right. This particular computer is the one I use daily to write my stories and it has one very wonderful, and necessary, quality: no internet. It has to be this way, otherwise I wouldn’t be as productive.
The wooden desk is a hand-me-down from my mother. Most of my possessions are hand-me-downs from members of my family. I appreciate their generosity, but at the same time I’ve got a house filled with mismatched furniture. It’s cool, though. I live alone, and the cat is in dreamland 90% of the time.
To my left are bookcases filled with books, lots and lots and lots of books. Some of them I’ve actually read cover to cover. About ten years ago, when I could legally abuse my liver, I discovered the joy of being a smartypants and I acquired a lot of books in a small amount of time. I remember thinking at the time that it may have been possible to absorb the knowledge from those pages by close proximity, through osmosis. I’m not so sure it worked. If anything, I’m stupider now.
Now describe your ideal writing atmosphere.
I really don’t have one. I have low expectations and am generally easy to please. I suppose if I could have one thing it would be a better view. Maybe a window that holds a piece of the ocean and brings its sound to me every day.
How does the creative process work for you—where do you get your ideas?
Generally I begin with a title. That’s all it takes. Some strange, evocative combination of words, and off I go.
For example, I was driving to school one morning, down this narrow two-lane that is one of the few roads in my area connecting one half of the city to the other. As I crossed the bridge I happened to glance at the river and the flood plain beyond like I do every time. But that day I must have been ready for it, my thoughts primed, my mind receptive, because I saw the sign saying, FLOOD CONTROL, and I knew I had a story. In seconds I was writing it in my head.
We have this lifetime of experience and all of these emotions and we carry them around everywhere, and I think it’s inevitable that regular events, people, even something as innocuous as a Flood Control sign, all get filtered and seen through the color of this experience.
And I think my story ideas are influenced by my preferences somewhat. I don’t plot stories so much anymore. Certainly not anything as in-depth as the three act structure. Last time I wrote a story with a strong plot and a twist I felt dirty, cheap, like I was pulling one over on the reader when I really shouldn’t have. I don’t want to feel that way. I just want to write about characters and their conflicts, and if there is a plot, like I’ve said a few times before, it’s only in the sense that life seems to have a plot in hindsight. You look back on what you’ve done and you think, of course it worked out that way. It all makes sense. But at the time life is hazy, directionless, and what happens is a result of who is involved.
What books or works have most influenced your life?
I’m an awful reader. Most of the novels I’ve started I eventually gave up on. Somehow they just lost my interest. But Kerouac’s On the Road had a huge influence on me. I enjoyed the poetic quality of his prose, the looseness and confidence it has. When I started writing (i.e., struggling) prose I borrowed a lot from his style. My stories were so derivative then, but it was exciting to write that way, and I think I learned a great deal about the music of language, the rhythms of sentences, and just in general how to have fun with words, to hear them.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
I would have to say John Gardner. That feels weird to say because I’ve not actually read any of his fiction—just his books on the craft of fiction. I think he was probably a brilliant teacher of creative writing. He taught Raymond Carver at one time (who is another favorite of mine), and even gave Carver the key to his office so Carver could have some time to write uninterrupted.
Gardner was such an opinionated person. Reading his books, I always got the impression that art was a matter of life and death for him. He approached it with that kind of seriousness, dedication, and respect. And On Becoming A Novelist is simply one of the best books on the craft I’ve ever read.
What book or works are you reading right now?
Glamorama, by Bret Easton Ellis, just to read something by him. My library didn’t have Less Than Zero, which is what I’d wanted to read. So far it’s pretty good—he certainly has a feel for dialogue—though I’m not sure I’ll finish it. Might have something to do with the small print, or the 500ish pages, the name-dropping, or just not being really into it like I hoped I would.
Also revisiting The Red Pony, by Steinbeck. Last time I only read the first part so I want to finish the rest.
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
So many authors are still new to me. Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck. I didn’t read much in my teens and twenties. So I am often looking back at what others have done. Much of the time it feels like unearthing fossils in the back yard. But that is how I am with everything: authors, bands, movies, TV shows. I’ll catch on to hot new things after a year or two when they’re not hot or new anymore.
An author not-so-new to others, but new to me, is Joyce Carol Oates. I just recently read a fantastic short story of hers called Christmas Night 1962, and I’ve also been chipping away at her memoir, A Widow’s Story. She’s just a terrific writer, and the amount of work she has produced is inspiring.
What are your current projects?
I collect titles, since that is what seems to inspire me, and every once in a while I’ll come up with a title that sounds really great for a short story collection. I’ve got about five of those right now, and I’m working on all of them pretty much simultaneously. With every short story I complete I put it into the “collection” which seems most appropriate, and then it’s on to the next short story. So, maybe in about ten years I’ll be ready to publish something of book length.
But right now right now I am working on a story called All We Ever Do Is Fall In Love. I started writing it mid-May and it was only ever supposed to be a piece of flash fiction, not much more than 1,500 words, but I crossed that line about two weeks and thirteen thousand words ago. It’s been such a fun story, though, so I figured I’d push it as far as I could.
Name someone or something that you feel has helped you outside of family members.
I struggle with this, because if you mean someone who has helped my writing, I’d have to say no one. I don’t have beta readers. Nobody does my editing for me. There isn’t anyone cheering me on, really, except for family that congratulates me on a finished story and then never reads it. But I’m not complaining about any of that; I know it’s all part of being a writer, and people mean well.
But I think if anything has helped me it is simply art. Being creative. Doesn’t matter what the medium is—it could be anything: painting, performance, music, writing. The wonderful thing about art is that it takes over your life after a while, it becomes the way you live life, influences what you think and how you perceive, and when that happens suddenly everything is charged with a kind of creative potential. Anything can be used as a jumping off point for a song, or a poem, or a story; art just requires you be present in the moment.
Do you see writing as a career?
No, I don’t. Now I love writing, I think of it as a part-time job and I’m very disciplined about writing a certain number of hours each day, but I think it would be a pretty awful way to earn a living. To be successful, at least in the beginning, I think you really have to get involved in a lot of different projects. Scripts, games, technical / business writing, columns, anything and everything, and I just don’t have that kind of energy. I’d burn out so fast.
Maybe ten years ago I would have said yes, and maybe then I would have had the guts to chase after the dream, but there is no come-down quite like having to deal with real world bills: unexpected illness, or chronic pain, or some condition that potentially touches the rest of your life. Healthcare, prescription drugs—it’s all terribly expensive. And if you’re one of the unlucky ones without a job or health insurance you’re in for a hard road. And like I said, I’m too tired for any of that now. I just want a career that is secure and steady and allows me to continue this hobby of mine.
If you had to do it all over again with regard to writing, is there anything you would change?
I wish I had educated myself sooner. Learned what to expect of my first drafts. Been easier on myself. Starting out, I tried to tell a story and tell it in the most perfect, artistic way possible, and that is very much like trying to drive a car with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake.
I don’t think I was much different from any other beginning writer. Telling stories seemed like it would be easy. All I needed was some way to catch the words. But I was a perfectionist, and I struggled for a long time because of that. It’s interesting (and kind of amusing) to me now, because in the last five years it seems like my entire aesthetic has turned upside down. I don’t think perfection is worth trying for. It is an illusion, and it’s not even interesting.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
All I have ever wanted to do is tell stories. Through the years, all that has changed is the medium. Before 2011, when I made a dedicated effort to writing, I was a photography student. I had just finished a semester cruising through the history of photography and was about to start working with large format cameras. But it was getting very difficult to justify the cost, being semi-unemployed at the time. I was also becoming more and more frustrated with the type of work I was producing, because it seemed to be drifting farther from what I wanted. I wanted to be in New York City with a Leica around my neck, shooting photos like some of my favorite photographers—Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Eugene Richards, etc. etc. I may as well have wanted a million bucks.
So my interest in writing stemmed from this desire to create a story. And it’s obviously free, or close enough, so I thought I’d give it another try. It’s been a good ride so far, and I don’t think I’ll be stopping anytime soon.
Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Most of what I have are first drafts, but okay. This is from a short story I wrote back in November. Actually it’s the first story I wrote after being sick and bedridden for nearly a month. It’s called Give Thanks.
He turned to shut the door and heard mom’s voice then, telling him to keep it open. On such a beautiful day? Oh yes, keep it open dear. She’d come from inside the kitchen and stood in the entrance wiping her hands with a frayed lime green dish towel. Her face was done up special, hair softly curled and redder than he remembered. As if reading his mind, she smiled and touched the edges with her hand, bunching up the curls. What do you think? Your Aunt Laura did it for me two days ago, and for free. Can you believe that? The expression on her face smoothed out and turned serious then, and she tilted her head up to the side like the Hollywood movie stars and models often did, trying for the subtle angle that would slim her face inside the watching, imaginary lights. She really is something special. I love her to pieces, I do. You know she asks about you. She misses you. You should visit more often. Why don’t you visit her anymore? He looked down at the store-bought pie in his hands. Even the lightest movement of his fingers made the shell container crinkle. Oh no matter, she said. Come here and give me a hug. Mom crossed the room and wrapped her arms around him and kissed the side of his face. He bristled at the sudden closeness. He mentioned the pie, said it was pumpkin. The last one, he said. They were so busy at the store, it was crazy. But hey I managed to get the very last one, he said. Mom didn’t seem to be listening anymore. He felt the tips of her fingers, like a rogue summer breeze, clearing away strands of hair from his eyes. Look at you, she said. Hair all out of sorts. When are you going to cut it? You looked so good when it was short and parted on the side. Like that Prince William. I bet Aunt Laura would cut it for free. You should let her cut it for free.
Good to see you Mom, he said. Hey, happy Thanksgiving. He offered her the store-bought pie, which she took in her hands. The shell container crinkled again, squeaked under the rub of her thumb. She smiled and her face brightened as if seeing what he’d brought for the first time, and then she raised it up and tilted it around, examining the spiral crust—already crumbled in places—and the pie’s smooth, rustic surface. Oh this’ll do just fine, she said. Your brother’s in the kitchen cutting the turkey. Come on. She turned and headed back to the kitchen, edging between the TV and the impromptu dining room they had set up earlier. She showed off the pie to dad and Betty, who were still quiet, still nearly elbow to elbow at the table. Look what John brought. Isn’t this fine? They nodded together, Betty saying it sure was. The respirator under the table clicked and gasped as if it had patiently waited for this moment to arrive, so that it could speak for dad and offer his agreement in this.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing?
I think I’m kind of screwed because the aspect of writing that has always bored or at least intimidated me has been research. For a while I couldn’t get excited about it. It was like getting pumped for calculus or something. But I know it’s necessary to ground the story in some way, so the world and the characters have histories.
At first I made myself do a little research for every story, and lately I’ve found that it can actually be fun to give characters a history. Took me a while to realize that facts don’t have to be boring or presented in a boring way. That’s the thing—showing is easy, you just dramatize everything. Drop your characters into a scene and write about what they do. The real challenge I think is telling backstory in an interesting, vivid way.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I’m a big fan of Denis Johnson’s work, especially Jesus’ Son and Angels, two of his earlier books. His prose style is often called hallucinatory, and I think that’s pretty accurate. The narrator in Angels always sounds like he is on drugs and quietly amused, about everything.
If I can, I’d like to quote one of my favorite passages in his book, Already Dead:
“Driving south back into Gualala’s town proper, Van Ness encountered a straight stretch on the coast route and pressed the accelerator pedal down all the way. And found himself, what with the fog and his headlights, driving into a wall of brilliance. He had no idea how far out in front of his windshield the pavement stretched before it hooked left or right and his own trajectory hung out over twenty-five fathoms of air. Within a quarter mile the machine was topping out at around 105, he believed, although the speedometer’s needle came unmoored and whipped back and forth deliriously between 120 and nothing, and the Volvo itself shivered rhythmically awhile, then shuddered so hard he had to clench his teeth, and soon it shook like a crow’s nest in a bad gale, threatening to break loose and fling itself to pieces in midair. Van eased his grip on the wheel until he was not quite touching it, warming his hands on the fires of out-of-control; then something in him—not his will—slapped his hands back onto the steering, and pointed him at a legal velocity down the middle of the fog.”
If I opened your refrigerator right now, what would I find?
Milk, eggs, Pedialyte, lunchmeat that should probably be tossed, a few bottles of Sam Adams, a side container filled with unused film—Ilford HP5, Kodak Ektar I think (can’t be bothered to go check), and a little plastic baggy with supplements that some guy handed to me once, a couple years ago. I was walking out of a Walgreens and he said he’d seen me a few times before in the gym, which is possible. Seemed sketchy at the time, though, so I never took them; they’re in the back of the fridge, out of sight, and I always forget to trash them.
What would your ideal career be, if you couldn’t be a writer?
I am a very visual person, so I think I’d really enjoy being a photographer for LIFE magazine, someone like W. Eugene Smith or Eugene Richards who could tell a story with photographs and tell it in an intensely beautiful, artistic way.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I don’t know. I’ve never published anything and never tried to until about a month ago. So get out your shock-proof shit detectors. One thing I’ve noticed about the most effective fiction, though, is how searing the details are and how confident the prose is. I write with the idea in mind that every poem and story should cut you—really lay you open and expose some hidden and terrible and beautiful part of yourself. For the writer and the reader.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to readers?
Chris Miller said something here recently about authors and readers. He said that (paraphrasing now) writing isn’t so much a gift that an author gives to his readers. The gift is the time and attention readers give to the author. And I agree with that.
So thank you, everyone who (still) reads.
The final comments are yours.
Thanks for letting me do this interview and talk about myself for far too long.