An Amazingly Adult and Fantastically Giant Interview with A D Jameson, Part I

I don’t want there to be too much ado to this introduction. A D Jameson has had quite a year so far, publishing a collection of short stories, Amazing Adult Fantasy; a novel, Giant Slugs; and continuing to write prolifically and thoughtfully for the group literary blog Big Other. His short story “5000 Units of Product” was also our May 1st Featured Fiction at Untoward. In the midst of all that he was able to answer a few of our questions regarding all these things and more. What follows is Part I of a two part interview. Enjoy!

MATT ROWAN: There seems a certain cohesion to several story collections I’ve recently read, often tied together with a thematic title, which goes beyond just coolness and the salable qualities of its being catchy (e.g. Lindsay Hunter’s Daddy’s has much to do with daddy-child relationships, in their many and sometimes creepy forms). What was the impetus and/or guiding philosophy for Amazing Adult Fantasy?

A D JAMESON: I prefer writing longer pieces to shorter ones, and I think in terms of books. So whenever I write a short story, I think about how it might fit into a larger project.

In 2005/6, when I sat down to assemble my first prose collection, I gathered every short story I’d written and that I still liked. It turned out I had enough for two books. About twenty or so shared a pop culture interest, so I threw them together, and that became the seed of Amazing Adult Fantasy. (The other stories went in my second collection, “Distress,” which is still unpublished, although many of those pieces have appeared in various places.)

Such as “5000 Units of Product” , which appeared at Untoward! (I cannot stress that enough, people.)

(I appreciate it!) For about a week, I allowed myself to pretend that I was finished. Then I came to my senses and realized that my plan wouldn’t work; I had the beginnings of two collections, but nothing more. I set “Distress” aside (I later finished it in 2009), and went to work on AAF, since it interested me more at that time. Over the next few months, I cut out maybe half of the stories, and started writing new pieces to replace them. The value there was that I was able to write in a similar vein to the original pieces I was keeping.

I also took the opportunity to bend or stretch the stories toward one another, mainly by repeating certain images and phrases. And so the whole collection grew rather recombinant. For instance, the shaggy creatures in the story “Shaggy Creatures” are echoed in other stories’ characters: in Oscar the Grouch, in Snuffy and the Brother Bear brothers, in Buzz Aldwin’s fur coat, in the band “Shaggy Creatures” (which is also a Shaggs reference, natch), and in the dog/elephant hybrid in the title story—and no doubt elsewhere. And of course they’re all deformed versions of Chewbacca, who puts in an appearance in the Star Wars story.

Considering the various ways AAF is tied together, then, how does its demarcation of two parts—the untitled first half and the second, “The Solar Stories”—fit in? Why split the book at all?

That first batch of stories consisted largely of pieces I wrote between 1998–2005. They’re mainly pop culture fantasies—riffs on Indiana Jones, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc. And I liked them, but I didn’t see how I could keep writing them—they felt too juvenile to me by then—and I didn’t see how they could form a collection on their own.

In what way?

Well, for one thing, geek culture was transforming around me. Many things that had until then been mostly underground phenomena, like X-Men comics, were becoming mainstream, culturally acceptable properties. It may be hard for us to recall now, but in the early and even mid-1990s, Star Wars wasn’t a daily topic of conversation: few people thought much about the original films. That all changed between 1998 and 2003, during which time we got the first two Star Wars prequels, the first two X-Men films, The Matrix, Spider-Man, and the three Lord of the Rings adaptations. After which point, everyone was a geek.

So those stories, rather than being satires, or critical, were now not really all that different from what I was seeing increasingly all around me. This trend has only continued; visit any geek site (e.g., Topless Robot) and you’ll see, every day, some new Star Wars or Muppets parody that someone has posted somewhere.

But I still liked the stories, albeit guiltily, and more than that I liked this conflict they presented. The challenge was that they needed something more, something that would criticize them—and criticize me, and my desire for wanting to write them. I needed something that would highlight that they were guilty pleasures, amazing childish fantasies.

So I wrote the second half, “The Solar Stories,” as a kind of “dark mirror” of the first. In that part of the collection, the pop culture references disappear, replaced by a more insular, private mythology. (I think of the first half as childhood, and the second half as adolescence.) But that brooding teenage mythology is still based in the childhood loves; the Solar Stories are in a sense rewritings—perhaps even parodies—of the stories in the first half. For example, in the Solar Stories, characters like Rock Albany and the Duke replace Indian Jones; stones and child sidekicks serve as connections (although Rock and the Duke behave much more malevolently toward children than Indian Jones does).

What do you find so wrong with geek culture—comics and Star Wars and the like—being mainstream?

Because they’re stupid!

No, obviously that isn’t it at all. I was an English major; I can successfully argue how and why a Wolverine comic is in fact a rather complicated cultural artifact, a social text. I can deconstruct it and formally analyze it and tell you which writers and artists are more interesting than others. (Larry Hama, who wrote Wolverine for many years, is in fact an amazingly talented writer.)

The main problem is the one that the social theorist Theodor Adorno described. Adorno (whom Curtis White got me reading) was a major influence on the collection. To put it rather succinctly, Adorno decried how monolithic the culture, thanks to mass media, was becoming—how everything was increasingly always the same, homogeneous. Have you tired of Spider-Man movies yet? If so, that’s too bad, because Hollywood isn’t finished making them. (They will never be finished.)

The other problem is that a lot of geek culture is eternally juvenile. Isn’t it troublesome that I can spend my adult days fantasizing about the same pop culture franchises that I wasted my childhood years fantasizing about? I don’t want Tron or the Transformers sold back to me, thank you very much. Well, many folks have written about the infantalization of US culture. What’s particularly sad is that this is precisely the wrong time for the US to become obsessed with superheroes, vampires, zombies. Our economy has been gutted, our environment has been trashed, our infrastructure is crumbling all around us—we are, put frankly, in the twilight days of our empire. I wonder what’s playing at the cineplex?

So is there a solution here? Or is it just as some have predicted, another arm of our slow entropic fate?

Entropy is constant. And the culture is probably no stupider now than ever before—it’s just stupid in a way unique to now.

My main concern is that the present moment, which I’d argue is a time of great crisis, is not necessarily the best time to be more concerned with who’s playing who in the new Spider-Man adaptation. And yet, from many of the websites I see out there, that seems to be a chief preoccupation for many.

As for how to solve that—? Make people aware of the problems that exist, I guess? And the ways in which art can be relevant to one’s life, and productive, and not only entertainment. Criticism and creative thought will always be useful.

In other words, art should be provocative.

Yes. I am a disciple of Viktor Shklovsky, who wrote that the purpose of art is “to make the stone feel stony”—to wake us up from daily life, the routines of which dull our senses. And art should also be Utopian, actively creating the world we want to live in. (That’s Curt again.)

That makes a nice segue to your piece “Ota Benga Episode Guide: Season Three.” I really loved that one.

Don’t feel like you need to hold back! But that does seem one of the more favorite stories, so far. Although a few people have told me they consider it somewhat amoral. (I somewhat agree.)

While reading it I thought, “This is so horrible that it must be true.” And that—unfortunately—is the case. There was a real-life Ota Benga who was kept in captivity with animals at the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s. Does stuff like this just make you want to give up on the whole creative endeavor of telling stories, since how can you compete with humanity’s sordid past (and ongoing behavior)? And secondly, what about the story of Ota Benga attracted you, apart from the man’s ludicrously cruel circumstances (especially with respect to the ways in which you wrote it—as a guide to the episodes of some imaginary TV show, complete with many of the tropes of a supernatural / cop drama)?

I first learned about Ota Benga in 2002, I think. I was so fascinated by his life that I planned to write a whole book about him. The question was, how to do that? Because of course I was just some middle class white kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania who grew up in the 80s and 90s; what did I know about his life? I began thinking about how my culture would have presented him to me, and hit upon the idea that it would have tried to recuperate him as a Saturday morning cartoon show. The perversity of the idea appealed to me, and I started writing a novel about that show. But I couldn’t make it work—I wouldn’t finish my first novel until early 2009—and so I reduced it to writing an episode guide to that show. Which I wrote in 2003, I think, then heavily revised in 2006.

(Incidentally, “Ota Benga as superhero” isn’t too far off from what happened in Tarsem’s film The Fall (2006), where a much much more muscular Ota Benga adventures alongside the Black Bandit, the central protagonist. I didn’t see that film until last Christmas, though.)

Also incidentally, the plots of those Ota Benga episodes should prove familiar to anyone who grew up, like I did, watching G.I. Joe—and which I was enamored with. I adored the comics, too, which were written by the wonderful Larry Hama, a brilliant writer of pulp. I have scans of all of them on my computer—both the original series and G.I. Joe: Special Missions—and I still read them from time to time. As well as dream of my ideal G.I. Joe movie.

Which is?

Gay fashion parade! Because, seriously, the cartoon was obviously all about the colorful costumes; the weapons were just fashion accessories. Cobra Commander is the ultimate diva! (And check out how Destro and the Baroness dressed! No wonder they’ve become cosplay staples.) The comics were more techno-fetishistic, and interested in the military, but the whole thing was still wondrously campy. Indeed, I ultimately trace my love of camp back to G.I. Joe.

To return to Ota Benga: I know more—far more—about G.I. Joe than I do about that man, or even US history. Which is a problem, don’t you think? It’s curious what the culture selects as its priorities. When I was a kid, barely old enough to think, the culture found it extremely important to indoctrinate me in the ways of all things Joe. It still wants me to spend all my time thinking about those made-up loons (as well as Transformers, and Tron, and Star Wars, and Star Trek, ad nauseam).

Did G.I. Joe also inspire the characters in the story “More About Ninjas”?

Probably. There’s no getting away from those fellows. Or from ninjas.

That piece does quite a lot in very few lines, and actually, it does quite a lot in one paragraph in particular, over and over again:

“The littlest ninja married her former sensei. Here the story traditionally switches to the first person. The night before our wedding, Melissa died of cancer. The next day, ninja doctors found a cure. I became a sensei. My fiancée, Melissa, killed herself because she didn’t want to die a lingering death from cancer. I became a sensei. The next night, ninja doctors discovered a cure. Melissa became sick and asked me to marry her before she died of cancer. She died on our wedding night. I became a sensei. The next day, ninja doctors discovered a cure. I was dying from cancer and was waiting for ninja doctors to find a cure before proposing to Melissa. The next day, Melissa killed herself. I became a sensei.”

What is the origin of this piece? And what, specifically, inspired your repetitive streak here and the ninja subculture you invented?

That story is also an artifact from a failed novel, my first draft of my first novel, GiantSlugs (which was just published by Lawrence and Gibson). (Note that there’s a slug in the final paragraph.) I wrote that draft in the late 1990s, while I was working as a technical writer. It was meant to be a found diary of a man who’s living in a city that’s been invaded by giant slugs. The slugs build their own environment inside the city—clear plastic tubes and chambers that cut right through other structures (Gordon Matta-Clark was obviously on my mind). The narrator spends a year or so documenting the slugs’ behavior. He also reports on the ninjas, a minority group living in the city (indeed, he lives in the ninja quarter).

Since I didn’t know at that time how to write a novel, I structured the book by means of some arcane system of repetition and variation. (I was listening to a lot of Philip Glass and other Minimalist composers at the time, as well as watching every single one of Peter Greenaway’s films.)

Needless to say, my plan didn’t work out all that well. I enrolled in a grad writing program so I could learn how to write, and ended up scrapping the whole project; I kept only that tiny sliver. A few years later, after I’d learned something about narrative, I wrote a completely different draft of Giant Slugs, keeping only the title (and the presence of ninja characters). (I modeled it on the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of my favorite stories.)

You’ve done that in other places, too, I think—modeled your fiction on another work.

The aforementioned Curtis White, with whom I studied closely while at ISU, encouraged his students to do this. He argued that using a familiar story as a base left more room for innovation, since the reader would already know the basic narrative—very similar to how jazz musicians improvise with familiar tunes. And I enjoy narrative a lot, and enjoy monkeying with it, so I see the sense in Curt’s advice. Just like Matta-Clark drilling holes through buildings, I want the reader to see the cuts I’m making in the story.

You’ve told me that “Rock Albany!” is based on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (in particular the opening scene in which Howard Roark is standing naked, cliffside, much the same as Rock is depicted).

Yes, that was a deliberate parody. There’s also some riffing off Orson Scott Card in there, too, but I forget which Ender novel I took as a model. (I’ve read The Fountainhead, but I’ve only ever skimmed Mr. Card.)

Satire and parody seem great avenues for political dissent in literature, but do you think they strike at the heart of issues to the extent that they can effect change / inspire people?

I think that sometimes it does, and most of the time it doesn’t. Literature is as capable of changing the world as anything else.

Is that a goal of fiction? Should it be? (Should fiction ever have goals, either consciously or unconsciously attributed by the author?)

I think authors should have whatever goals they want to have. I’m not trying to be evasive, mind you; rather, I think literature’s capable of a lot. Because while we call “literature” one thing, but it is in fact a great many things: art, entertainment, essays, speeches, emails, graffiti, etc.

I ask because of the increasingly polarized political climate we’re in today, and the fact that literature and “literary” authors seem to be looked to less and less for any sort of political guidance. Writers with a transparent purpose, such as Ayn Rand or even George Orwell, seem much better remembered by mainstream culture.

I think that any serious person would do well to know something about Ayn Rand. She was a marvelous idiot, but she was also a powerful idiot, and her ideas have really taken root. We won’t be rid of them in our lifetimes. And so I don’t think that pretending Objectivism will go away is a proper answer.

As for George Orwell—I adore his work. Nineteen eighty-four is one of my absolute favorite novels of all time, ever. It’s so beautiful! And horrible. And yet I’ve noticed in the past ten years or so a distressing tendency for liberals to disown him, claiming that he wasn’t that great a writer; meanwhile, conservatives (such as Andrew Sullivan) have been very eager to adopt him as a patron saint of the right. Orwell’s own politics were of course complicated, and evolved throughout his lifetime, but I can’t see why any progressively-minded person would want to discard him. He is invaluable.

What is it about absolute statements of any kind (i.e. political, philosophical, emotional, etc.) in fiction that tend to repel authors?

Do they? I’m not sure that they do. I just finished reading Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons; I’d hardly call that a restrained piece of writing. (I rather enjoyed that novel, by the way—The Da Vinci Code, too.)

OK, well maybe not repel as much as tend to be avoided, at least when an author is asked to explain “The Meaning” of something he or she has written?

In my experiences, authors are the worst people to ask in regards to what their writing means. Writing isn’t reading, and it sure as anything isn’t criticism. Although writers probably do have opinions about what they wrote. It’s just that they often are thinking about what they intended to write, and not what they actually wrote, which they’ve often never read. (I still haven’t sat down with Amazing Adult Fantasy and read it cover to cover. No one should believe a single thing I say about it!)

Rather, I could tell you what I was trying to do with Amazing Adult Fantasy, but as to whether or not I did that—. (And I still haven’t wrapped my head around the fact that other people are now actually reading it.)

I tend to write a lot, and move on quickly. I finished AAF five years ago, and have written four more books since then (and am working on a few more at the moment). So it’s fun to go back and look at it now—and I’m thrilled that people are enjoying it!—but I also feel a considerable amount of distance from it. I know that at one time it was intensely personal to me, and I obsessed over it for hours and hours every day… I imagine it’s something like parenting. I changed its diapers for a long time, and now it’s headed off to college (or the military academy—it could use the discipline).

Speaking of discipline, what are the worst habits a writer can fall into?

Not writing. And not revising.

I can only speak for myself, of course, and the problems I had to overcome. (Well, I suppose I also see the problems my students are having.) Writing takes a lot of time, and it takes a while to appreciate that. It’s a massively time-intensive activity. And it’s a very different form of thinking than speaking, with a logic all its own. It takes a while to learn that, and not just write the way one speaks.

I don’t entirely know how I learned to be a writer. I know that I always wanted to be one; I started writing stories as soon as I could. I kept doing it all through grade school and high school, and when I got to college, I took creative writing courses. I learned that I was good at some things and miserable at others. I figured I was good enough, though, that in 1996, I’d decided that I would “be a writer.”

I wasn’t one, however. I didn’t write much; instead I spent my time thinking about the books I’d write—another bad habit. I certainly tried writing longer stories and novels, but after a few years I realized I didn’t know how to do it. So I studied a lot more, and practiced more, and maybe by 2005 or I started getting the hang of things.

So the biggest challenge I had to overcome was actually disciplining myself to be a writer: sitting down every single day for a couple hours a day, and writing. That took me about a year. Then I had to learn patience: that I had to revise my work a lot, and not expect to be finished with the first draft. Luckily, I’m a pretty obsessive, dedicated person, so I was able to teach myself these things—to train myself.

After that, everything got a lot easier. So, from 1996 to 2006; eleven years to be able to finally do it. (This is why I don’t expect my freshmen comp students to write better papers.)

[All right, so that's it! That's all for now, BUT check back with us for Part II of this interview, which will be posted next week! -- Matt]