January 2013

Sarah J. Bridgins


An Interview with Jeanne Thornton

Jeanne Thornton is the kind of artistic superwoman who not only writes a critically praised novel, she also does all of the book's illustrations. A former editor at Seven Stories Press, Jeanne currently lives in Austin where she is the co-publisher of the comics journal Rocksalt. She is also co-founder of Fiction Circus, a literary journal and performance group based out of New York City and Austin, Texas.

Jeanne's debut novel The Dream of Doctor Bantam was released by O/R Books in September. It's a love story that's remarkably free of the flowery adornments typically attached to teenage romance. After her sister Tabitha's death, 17-year-old Julie Thatch finds herself drawn to the intense and obsessive Patrice Marechal. Patrice is a devoted member of the Institute of Temporal Illusions, a Scientology-like cult that Julie's sister had shown interest in before she died. The more Julie falls for Patrice, the more convinced she becomes of her duty to save Patrice from the Institute's brainwashing powers, while at the same time struggling to overcome the seemingly impossible challenge of loving someone whose most cherished beliefs are completely at odds with her own. I was thrilled to discuss the novel's treatment of sexual discovery, the state of indie publishing, and the wisdom to be gained from cooking mishaps with the multi-talented Jeanne Thornton.

You started submitting your manuscript when you were still an editor at Seven Stories. Did you find having inside knowledge of the publishing process helpful? Were there ever times when, as an author, you wished you actually knew less about how the book sausage gets made?

It was totally helpful. I was an acquiring fiction editor, and once you've been in that position and had to turn down books that you know are not bad books -- some that are even very, very good books -- because you know that you just won't be able to do anything with them in practice, it's very hard to get upset at rejection notices. You lose this sense of publishing as a magic process, like some kind of god of literary quality descending and picking your manuscript out of a crowd, saying, YES, YOU ARE THE BEST SENTENCES. COME WITH ME AND RECEIVE YOUR REWARD. You see how publishing is the act of making some private dream available to the public, finding ways to intrigue people enough about some stuff you made up that they want to seek it out -- because the book market is such that they're just not going to be able to find it entirely on their own, even if they're seeking. Barnes and Noble keeps new books on the shelf for what, five weeks, unless the publisher pays some obscene co-op fee? The Dream of Doctor Bantam isn't even available at Barnes and Noble because they don't want to work with the eminently sensible O/R business model. If anyone's going to connect with the book, it's going to be through the very, very small number of bookstores who did take copies, or it's going to be people who've read articles like this one.

I never want to purposely lack knowledge about any subject. There are ways in which Big Four (Big Six) publishing is broken, and there are ways in which independent publishing is insufficiently powerful to fill the vast gaps of territory not covered anymore by those Big Four. Knowing that these are the odds your dreams are facing in the wild gives you the power to try to beat those odds. A system can only be messed up for so long before technology gives people the power to beat it.

Look what happened to webcomics. When I first got into reading them in, like, 1996, the newspaper comics world looked similar to the Big Four fiction publishing world of today. There were essentially no risks being taken: new voices were being selected based on their similarity to established older voices, and unless you were a certain kind of mostly homogeneous middleclass newspaper subscriber in your forties, you didn't see that much work that was About You. Contrast with webcomics, which were about people in their teens or twenties and written by people in their teens or twenties, and which dealt with popular culture, alternative politics, and alternative sexuality in ways that no newspaper editor would have touched. Today newspaper comics are essentially dead, as are newspapers, and the comics form is better for it.

The situation with big publishing isn't quite as bad as the situation with newspaper comics publishing was, and I think formally it's a lot easier to hide the crazy sex and inhuman desire within a dense prose narrative that "nobody reads," so there's less of an immediate gap between people's experiences and what work book producers are offering those people to read. But there are similarities, and big mergers among big publishers are not a step in the right direction. Fortunately there are publishers like O/R that are designed from the ground up to be able to take advantage of new voices and of more diverse voices, and there are starting to be real communities around self-published writing (as well as better models for distributing such self-published writing. I'm not talking about CreateSpace here, which seems awful). Once the next generation of kids gets past Harry Potter and realizes that there's good, crazy work online that's by people like them and that speaks to them and their concerns, you're going to stop hearing that nobody reads anymore, because they will be reading. They will have things they want to read.

At what stage of the novel writing process do you feel comfortable letting others read your work?

The initial stage. Most of this book was read aloud to comrades from the Fiction Circus -- Miracle Jones, Kevin Carter, Bill Cheng, Anton Solomonik -- while I was in the process of writing it. One of my favorite paragraphs in the book, when Julie talks about wildflowers, was written really fast at a café around the corner when I was late to one of our biweekly "writing meetings," just so I'd have an end to the chapter to read at the meeting like fifteen minutes later. It's one of the paragraphs that survived pretty much unchanged from the first draft.

Writing is generally a private act, but writing fiction for me is a public one, an effort to take something hard to describe and to structure that thing as a lie that gives people pleasure. The story doesn't feel totally real until someone's heard it, and as a bonus I get some sense of what makes sense in the story and what doesn't. This whole reveal it as soon as you've done it practice comes out of doing webcomics, also: having people read along with the story while it's in the process of being composed just seems normal to me. It's nice when people are in some ways as invested in the world you're creating as you are.

It's rare that authors get to illustrate their own novels. Did you have to talk your publisher into letting you do this, or were they open to it?

I had to talk them into it a very, very little bit. I think I sent my editor a drawing of a coffee cup I had made on a napkin in order to give them some sense of what I was going to do (i.e., not try to illustrate any actual characters or scenes from the book), and then given cautious approval to at least try something based on that, I did the rest of the illustrations. I would've been fine if O/R said no, but I'm really happy the drawings are in there -- they increase what one reviewer called the zine-like quality of the book, which is important to me.

There aren't a lot of novels set in Austin. What are some qualities about the city you really wanted to capture?

Its fundamental idleness! The character Ira is kind of my "genus loci" of Austin: he has a series of nebulous artistic plans, publishes a zine to no kind of acclaim, haunts coffee houses. He generally has this feeling of being in between in life. There are a lot of people I've known like this in Austin, and the whole idea of this twentysomething hipster world intersecting with Julie's world -- which is a younger, high school kind of world, even if she doesn't spend a ton of time in high school in the book and eventually leaves it -- is something that's very Austin. At different coffee shops you can see the next generation of high schoolers sometimes show up, nervously order coffee and hang with the bigger kids, waiting to get anointed (through relationships or board games, usually) and drawn into this larger world. It is kind of a magical "court system."

This is the thing I missed most when I lived in New York and was writing this book, honestly: this sense that the borders between different social worlds are utterly porous, and that there's no vertical hierarchy to society whatsoever: only a horizontal one. Who you hang out with doesn't depend on how much you make, where you were last published, or what borough you live in: it depends solely on what coffee shop you hang out at. This is a completely value-neutral decision and it determines everything about you.

I hope I got this quality right in the book, but it's that same horizontal organization to Austin that makes it hard to write a "book about Austin," which in some ways was the goal here. There are as many Austins as there are coffee shops. This is meant both as praise and damnation.

It's important to note that this is also a picture of Austin from, like, 2001 to 2007, whenever the book is actually set (I don't remember if it's spelled out ever in the book.) Since moving back, they lifted the zoning restrictions, and now the West Campus neighborhood where the bulk of the book is set is full of gigantic power dorms, and a lot of the old buildings are getting torn down and replaced by empty highrise condos for young wealthy Texas businessmen and women who want to live in a cool, "weird" city and enjoy its fancy music and food scenes. The entire look of the neighborhood is changing into something much more alienating and awful and revolting.

Other things I wanted to get right: the way the trees and the telephone poles are always tangled together. The way every random house or apartment building is choked with yard art. The way it's hard to bike here. I loved this city very much at one point in time and hope that comes through.

There are sections of the novel that are written as excerpts from Dr. Bantam's book, The Dream and Reality of Time Travel. I haven't read any Scientology literature, but these sections really felt like they were taken from a cultlike organization's recruitment tract. How did you manage to nail this specific kind of language and writing style?

Didactic cult jargon is my natural writing style. All the pretty stuff is the frosting to get you to bite into that bitterest of cakes.

But basically the cult stuff is a lot of logical fallacies strung together with a histrionic tone. It's a lot of appeals to crazy all-or-nothing thinking -- "Do you believe that you have always been an eternal child of the octopus mother? Or do you believe that your life is essentially meaningless toil in the pay of different corporations until you die? Take your choice; there is no other" -- combined with a lot of sloppy imagery and mystifying jargon. This is the basic recipe for cults: write something superficially confusing yet essentially basic and manipulative. Every reader of this interview is now totally equipped to start her own malevolent cult. The Dr. Bantam material is basically just that logical structure plus sub-Nietzschean rhetoric about lightning and masks.

I also love bad writing a lot. I like Martin Amis's work a lot, despite what seems like his pretty odious nature personally, because he shares my love for really grotesque writing. His book The Information is brilliant in part because it's utterly about bad writing, and all of his criticism picks up whenever he notices a typo one of his subjects has made. It's totally simplistic to think that a certain kind of bad writing actually reveals like, an evil soul caught in a black tower of sentiment and choking self-love, but it is a fun notion to entertain.

In your novel love is shown to be a powerful force, but it doesn't seem to make either Partrice or Julie particularly happy. It's almost like their relationship becomes its own little cult where the impulse to either save or be saved by someone overrides everything else. Do you see this as a product of youth or do you think a lot of relationships develop this way?

I see it as more a product of immaturity than of youth. There's a fundamental arrogance to Julie and Patrice believing they have the capacity to save one another that I think is hard to come by after you get to a certain age. As you get older, you start to realize that what actually holds relationships together is just liking the other person in the relationship, wanting them to be around, feeling like they increase the value of your time and that you, despite your evil cursed nature, can do the same for them. Feeling that this other person's ideas somehow doom them usually means that on some level you don't like them; it necessarily means you want them to change.

I love that you include so many descriptions of cooking and eating. I feel like characters' relationship with food says so much about their personalities and even their social classes, yet so many writers leave out these details. Do you like to cook? What do you think Julie and Patrice's eating habits say about them?

I do like to cook! I learned to cook by making every one of the completely disgusting meals Julie makes in the course of the book. I guess thus Julie's horrible eating habits mostly say about her the same things they say about me. I cooked this gross stuff because I felt like it was better to know how to cook whatever you had on hand rather than deciding on a recipe you wanted to cook and then going out to buy the ingredients to make that recipe, which may or may not turn out well. It is a kind of autistic insistence on being able to understand everything about what you're doing, rather than trusting anyone ever. It is an awful quality and I try to make food from recipes now more as a kind of exercise in feeling human connection, though for a party later this week I'm going to go out and make a lasagna using some kind of homemade beet pasta, basically just to be disgusting. As to why Patrice eats this food, I think it's low self-esteem.

This is actually the most mortifying question you could have asked me.

While Patrice has some anxiety about being in her first relationship with a woman, initially resisting calling Julie her girlfriend, Julie doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about or trying to define her sexuality. Was it important to you not to focus on this or was it just the way Julie's character developed?

It was really important to me not to focus on this. At the time when I started writing this, most of the stories I had been exposed to about queer women were about either one, the kind of Road-to-Damascus moment of realizing one's own queerness or, two, the brutal ways in which heteronormative society oppresses queerness. These are both legit stories that need telling (and I included Patrice's doubts and the scene with the jerk on the bus just so that element number two wouldn't be totally and ridiculously absent from this story), but I felt like it would be too easy to have the story lapse into either of these shapes, and that the story I wanted to tell had a lot more to do with this specific dynamic of love -- this desire to save the other person -- than it did with the experience of coming out or with the experience of oppression. (At the time I was writing this, I was also not out as a queer person with that many people, so I also felt like it'd be kind of impertinent to write a coming out narrative.)

In some ways I wanted this book to be what Eileen Myles called it in her blurb: a fantasy novel, a world in which being queer is not a particularly big deal. I think that that world is very close to being a reality; I hope so, and I hope having written about it helps in some way to achieve that.

You also run a comics journal in Austin called Rocksalt. What inspired you to start it, and who are some of the artists you work with?

I kind of left New York feeling like I was in a state of disgrace: I couldn't afford to both keep my job in independent publishing and my apartment, Dr. Bantam hadn't sold and at that time looked like it would never sell, and basically if I wanted to keep writing and drawing rather than go to work for a credit card company or something I had to move back to Austin. To stave off feeling that sense of disgrace, I wanted to do something that had at least something to do with the publishing skills I'd acquired while at Seven Stories, and when my copublisher Geoff Sebesta mentioned that he'd had a plan to start a small comics newspaper in Austin a year or two back, it seemed like it fit the bill. Publishing an all-comics newspaper makes sense to me for the same reasons I alluded to above when talking about webcomics: the form itself is great, the content is often underdeveloped.

I can't mention some of the artists without mentioning a lot of the artists. Sam Hurt and Mack White are these legendary Austin cartoonists who I'm honored to publish. A lot of the artists -- Zach Taylor, my copublisher Geoff Sebesta, Carey Atchinson, Austin Bedell -- come from the venerable Austin Sketch Group, a loose collection of underground and web cartoonists that I'm proud to be a member of. Ghastly Gil Smith, an online pal, draws a messed up EC comics tribute strip called Spooky that is consistently upsetting. Anton Solomonik does Animal City, which is essentially a contemporary comics version of Notes from Underground, but with furries. Dylan Edwards, who does Politically Inqueerect, just came out with a book called Transposes, a collection of nonfiction narratives about transmen that everyone must seek out and read. Kathleen Jacques does Band Vs. Band, which is not only a brilliant elaboration of everyone's fantasy of being in a band but also super-sophisticated graphically and incredibly queer to boot. John David Brown, who does a comic called Stillbourne as well as a bunch of marginalia art, is a creepy secret genius.

I love them all, as well as everyone I didn't mention specifically.