May 2009

Laura van den Berg


An Interview with Shane Jones

Shane Jones is the author of the novel Light Boxes, published in February 2009 by Publishing Genius Press, and the short story collection, I Will Unfold You With My Hairy Hands. He was born in Albany in 1980 and educated at Buffalo University, where he studied with Robert Creeley, Charles Bernstein, and Susan Howe. Light Boxes has garnered praise from authors like Jesse Ball and Deb Olin Unferth, who said “Shane Jones’s startlingly imaginative voice is like some winged thing -- brave, victorious, and solitary.” Earlier this year, while attending the annual AWP conference in Chicago, I happened to pick up a copy of Light Boxes and was knocked by the novel’s dark beauty and vibrant imagination, and I was eager to learn more about how Jones had created such a stunningly unique world. This interview was conducted over e-mail during the month of March.

Can you talk a little about the origins of Light Boxes? Where did the idea for the novel come from?

I worked at a bookstore for years and one day found a biography about Thaddeus Lowe on the shelf. Thaddeus Lowe is possibly one of the most interesting people I’ve ever read about. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but Lowe used the hot air balloon during the Civil War for surveillance purposes. He was soon known as “the most shot at man during the war.” The image of this man in a balloon, Civil War era, being shot at, really stuck in my head. Also, at the time I was coming out of a period where I was writing really boring stories and just decided to write a few pages of something completely image based. I’m not sure what that means. I know I wanted to write something that kind of overloads the reader with images and those first few pages that I wrote became the beginning of the book and after that the world opened up.

What about the process of writing Light Boxes? More specifically, did it take you a while to find the structure? Were there any aspects of the novel that were particularly difficult to get right?

The first draft took about four months to write. I usually wrote two sections a day, usually out of order, and then after it was “finished,” I kind of moved the sections around. It has a bit of a collage feel to it, which is how it felt to put together. Of course, there was editing, but mostly it was just one massive swoop through the first draft, then just small stuff after that.

The structure just felt natural to the telling of the story. I have a bunch of different speakers in this kind of community/campfire storytelling thing going on, so to have really short sections that alternate from one narrator to the next, just made sense. It also made it easy on me. I don’t think I could have written something with stacked paragraphs for dozens and dozens of pages. I would like to write something like that but I’m not sure I’m capable of it.

As far as difficulty, maybe the ending, which changed a few times. I had fun writing the book so I wouldn’t say any of it was difficult to write. Sometimes I hear about writers working on a page for two or three weeks, or a short story for six months, or their novel for five years. But they make it sound like such drudgery. That I don’t get. You’d think they were working in a coal mine. I feel like I’m on a jungle gym.

The alternating chapters does seem like a very natural way for the novel to be organized, since it allows for that kind of communal telling. The community seems like a really important aspect of the novel. In a lot of works, the community is present, but remains in the backdrop; the importance, rather, is placed on an individual character. In Light Boxes, individual characters are of course important, but in the end, the community almost seems more important than the individual. Does that reading ring true for you?

One reading is that yes, it's a book about community. A lot of books are like this. I'm thinking of Brautigan's wonderful In Watermelon Sugar, which is a strange little book with a lot going on, but is ultimately about community. Same with One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’m not sure if the community aspect of Light Boxes is more important than the individual, but you raise a really interesting question pertaining to the book and our society. What am I trying to say? I wonder if people have made it this far in the interview. If you have made it this far in the interview, e-mail me with the word GRAPES. Maybe I can send you something or say something nice to you. Back to the community theme, yes, it’s very important to the book, but the individual aspect is important as well. Thaddeus Lowe and Caldor Clemens are two characters in particular that kind of break out of the community and do their own thing and that’s very important.

One of the things I adored most about Light Boxes was the tone, the blend of whimsy and darkness. In a Time Out Chicago review, the reviewer said, “violence slashes through characters but vines and flowers emerge in blood’s stead,” which seemed like an apt description to me. Were you conscious of trying to achieve a particular kind of tone with the novel?

That’s a good question. I think what was important, and what I was conscious of, is having my personality in the story. Also, to surprise myself. I didn’t think at any one point “man, this next page is going to be so magical realism,” or “look how surreal I am with this.” Achieving a certain tone, being any one thing or label, was never my goal. I wanted to tell a fun story that came from my imagination and just take it organically a page at a time. The balance between being whimsical or precious and some of the darker images and violence, just worked out. I tried not to overthink the book.

I also loved the images of the balloons in the opening; it's so striking and seems like the perfect entryway into the world of the novel, especially since there’s a fascination with flight and the loss of flight throughout. Can you talk a bit more about that element?

No, I refuse to talk about that! Just kidding. Can you imagine if someone said that in an interview? Absolutely not! Sorry. I think I would answer anything. As far as the element of flight and it being taken away, I’m not sure where that came from. I guess somewhere in my head was the idea of people having birds as pets? I’m not sure. I like the image of birds and bringing in the idea of February and all the evil he possesses, it just seemed somewhat natural for him to take flight away. I mean, it’s an interesting and somewhat dark element. Having the landscape of flight and balloons and all things in the sky allowed me to stretch images and scenes and really use my imagination. I’m not sure I answered the question. I may be fucking this interview up.

You said that in your interview with Michael Kimball for Elimae too, "I feel like I'm fucking up this interview." Do you have anxiety about fucking up interviews?

I do. Interviews are odd things and I wonder how I come off. I’m not sure it’s possible to fuck up an interview. I guess if I said something like “I like to rape kittens,” then that would cause a negative reaction and books wouldn’t be sold. The other side is I can be really smart and clever and charming and people want to buy the book. Really, I’m just trying to answer interview questions honestly and kind of quickly. I try not to over think the questions.

Hopefully it’s not too alarming to have old interviews quoted back to you, seeing as that’s the basis for my next question. In your Elimae interview, you also said, “I'd like to think I'm a compassionate person and in my characters I try not to do ‘bad’ things that I wouldn't normally do. That's to say, I don't want to make my characters worse people.” I was really interested in the idea of not wanting your characters to behave in ways that would be unthinkable for you, if I understood meant correctly.

I want my characters to feel like real people that would act compassionately like I would. What I know and how I would act is all I can go on really to connect characters to readers. I also don’t want to read about characters that are doing terrible things really. Making them do things outside of what I would do, just kind of loses it for me. I’m having trouble explaining it. I think in Light Boxes the characters are all compassionate people and as a reader I hope they feel compassionate towards them. I really like compassion I guess.

Not belabor this line of inquiry too much, but, arguably, doesn’t most (or at least a lot) literature involve characters doing terrible things? Or is your resistance not so much connected to characters doing terrible things, but when their acts are rendered without sufficient compassion?

Tough question! Sure, characters all throughout literature do terrible things. I guess you would have to define what a terrible thing is. All I’m saying is that in Light Boxes and my future books, the characters all have some kind of compassion meter. A certain sense of playfulness also plays a big part. Now I’m thinking of The Brothers Grim stories where really terrible things happen but the fantasy and playfulness kind of level out the darkness. I enjoy that. I realize I’m getting away from the question. I don’t like to read horror. I don’t like horror movies. I don’t like violence just to be violent. I believe all people have some level of compassion and I want to see that in my characters.

The thing is, when you’re writing a story or a novel and you have characters, you the writer has to be kind of compassionate to follow them. It doesn’t matter what they do. I just don’t have characters doing really horrible things. At least I don’t think. I mean, in Light Boxes, I’m talking about balloons and flying and children in tunnels, etc. It’s pretty light stuff. Yes, there is some violence and darkness.

But let’s say you have a character who is a killing machine. You, the writer, has to be compassionate to him to spend that much time with them. So does the reader. You have to guide the killing machine out of bed, through breakfast, his afternoon of slaughter, he eats, breathes, etc. He’s your imaginary child and you have compassion for him. And with the right reader, they have compassion for him. Maybe it’s not obvious, but it’s there. Compassion all around.

Light Boxes is prefaced by a quote from Twelve Seasons, which reads, “The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February.” What is it about February that makes it such an especially terrible month? Like, as opposed to January or March?

February is the month where people start thinking about Spring. They’ve endured November, December, and January, the holidays are well past, and now February -- which is just dark and cold. Personally, I’ve always been kind of depressed in the month of February. I used to joke around with friends in college that February was coming and it kind of took on a persona. This is when I was living in Buffalo. February is darkness and brutal cold and all gray and ice and dirty snow. It’s a disgusting month that must be stopped.

What can we, your everyday citizens, do to stop February?

Simply take an old pair of slacks or trousers and cut the fabric at the knees. This will create something known as shorts. Then, do the same with an old work shirt but cut at the elbows, creating a “short sleeved shirt.” You can wear this outfit throughout the year, preferably outside during the months just prior to February -- namely December and January. Smile a lot at the sky. Your defiance will surely make February take note. Good luck!

What has working with Publishing Genius been like?

Incredible. I consider Adam Robinson a great editor and an even better friend. He really helped with the book. It’s very flattering considering the endless hours he put into promotion and editing and shipping, not to mention his own finances. I love working with indie presses. I like the one on one attention. I like that at any time of the day I can shoot my publisher an e-mail and get a response within the hour, sometimes minutes.

What are some writers and/or books that you’re especially excited about?

Tough question. When I try to think of specific names and books my head kind of gets dizzy and I lock up. It’s happening right now. I’ve been reading The Castle by Kafka again, which is just so rich and strange and dreamy and I love it. I’m looking forward to the new Robert Lopez novel and Blake Butler’s Scortch Atlas and Brandon Scott Gorrell’s poetry book and a chapbook by Kathryn Regina. Peter Markus, Jesse Ball, Sam Pink, Matt Bell, Lily Hoang, the list is very long and I look forward to what these people write.

What are you working on now?

I have a novella called The Failure Six that will be published by Fugue State Press in January. Right now I’m making some small edits and need to send the final version to the press soon. It will be illustrated by Chris Pell and have a cover design by Zach Dodson. So, I’m working with them on coming up with something. I’m extremely excited about it. I think people who read it will be happy and surprised.