Acting on the Page
3:AM: Seems like you had some crazy experiences in your youth. Then again, who hasn’t? What were some of the more pivotal moments that shaped you as a writer today?
SGJ: Oh, man. I’m still being shaped, I’m pretty sure. But my youth has to be over at some point, right? Maybe when I finally hit forty? I don’t know. Maybe not. Anyway, pivotal – I know. I got my tongue cut off, had to have it sewn back on. Just ridiculous stuff involving a steel bat and bad ideas. I was in third grade, remember so clearly lying on that bed in the doctor’s office, how one of the nurses turned a pillow upside down, shook it so the pillow fell out, the case remained, and then they cut a hole in that pillowcase, laid that hole down over my bloody mouth, got out the hook and thread, did layer after layer to make my tongue stay back on. After that, man, there were months of no talking. I don’t remember them so well, I don’t guess, not as well as the bat, as the doctor’s office, but I do remember watching a lot. Which, I’d always been that kind of kid, to just watch – I remember my mom telling me stories my dad used to tell her, about when he was a kid out in a town that doesn’t exist anymore, and something about him standing alongside the refrigerator for hours at a time, spying on his family, pretty sure they were aliens. I didn’t grow up with my dad so much, but still, a lot gets passed in the blood, I think. This one tarpaper kind of house we lived in for a couple years, maybe more, I remember when we first got there, and there weren’t walls, so much, that I found, under the stairs, this faded magazine with some guy on it, and he had these glowing green alien eyes. I didn’t pick that magazine up, was terrified of it, wouldn’t even touch it, he was watching me always, and then we threw up some sheetrock, walled that guy in, and, man, the whole time living in that house, I always knew he was there, that same look on his face. Back then I used to always sleep under this deer head, too, one that my mom’s dad, who I’d never met, had shot. That deer head was my shield against the alien guy under the stairs. Except the nail that deer hung on, it was always slipping out, so I was always waking with this deer head down on me. So, yeah, I spent a lot of nights just counting the minutes until dawn, all my books and knives laid out around me, to protect me. Man, shaking, writing this, remembering this. And then – that house kind of sucked, I guess – I remember waking one morning to a wasp biting my neck, and to other wasps being on my face. But wasps were always. Guess I also lost some snakes in that house, too, but so it goes. But formative, formative. Man. It was probably just moving to all these different houses all the time, all over Texas. Living wherever, however. Sometimes great, sometimes not. I remember this one little camper sized double-wide – it was as wide as it was long – we had for a few months in a pecan orchard. It was probably my favorite, especially because it snowed that year, and the grown-ups let me play Risk with them for once. And then, down in Austin, we had a place with goats on it, and I was always out running with them, then petting them after the dogs pulled them down, waiting for them to finally die, always insisting I could save this one. Too, down there in Austin, my stepdad at the time, he hung roof tile a lot, and I’d help him after school, so, one night, way after dark, I got to hang tile in the theatre Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was debuting in. I think it was 2. Anyway, we got to walk around on stilts in that place, then, when we got tired of working, got to step over the velvet ropes, sit in that bone furniture, drink some cokes before weaving home in our carbon-monoxide Suburban (back window was gone, so you were always half-passing out in that truck). And also this little green and white house we lived in for a while, by one of my cousins, and how we’d ride three-wheelers twenty-five hours a day, always coming back bleeding and starving, pushing the three-wheelers if we’d been close enough when they ran out of gas, carrying the spark plugs if we hadn’t been close enough. And, formative, formative: in fourth grade I read Where the Red Fern Grows, and it took me four check-out cycles, and at the end of that, there’s that axe head buried in that tree, that rusted lantern hanging from that, and I said to myself I could do that. It was when I knew I could write. But there were so many close calls and jail cells and wrecks and girlfriends and dogs to get through. Oh, yeah, what could be more formative than this: when I was twelve, my real dad got me this dog, drove it a thousand miles down to me, and I loved that dog in the way only a twelve-year-old can, spent so many hours out in the fields with her, running, hiding, chasing rabbits, but then one Friday we were supposed to hit the lake, and my dog was nowhere. But I wouldn’t leave without her. So, when pressed, my stepdad at the time finally confessed: the guy parking his trailer a few lots behind us, he’d chased her down in his van, finally caught her. So him and that stepdad, they put her in a hefty bag, threw her in a hole, only, when she hit bottom – and I don’t know why he had to tell me this part – the bag shook, the dog woke up, was trying to get out. So they buried her, and that was that. That was kind of formative, I suppose. And far from the worst way one of my dogs had to die. But what was just as formative was the way my mom, each morning, would always ask me what I dreamed, and then listen like it mattered more than anything, which made me bring up detail after detail, just to keep her listening to me. The way one of my uncles would always sing with the music on the radio, but always use his own lyrics, never what was really there. The way I’d always have to tell the teachers and principals stories that, if I could just mean them the right way, would get me out of licks that day. The way my great-grandfather would take my hand in his, then reach over, grab onto the electric fence. The way the bath faucet at my grandmother’s house, if you sat in the water and touched that faucet, a current would run through you, make you shake and laugh. The way one of my friends, driving us back from a dance in Odessa – Asleep at the Wheel had been playing – he turned the headlights off at seventy, and we drove twenty miles through the fog like that, only correcting when the tires started to throw gravel up against the truck. The way, in Colorado, we used to jump the train home from school, hang onto the side and scream the whole way across the bridge, promise ourselves we were never going to do this again. The way sometimes, moving handline out in the fields before school – this was Texas again – I’d see cat tracks in the wet dirt, tracks as big as my hand, and I’d stand there balancing forty feet of galvanized pipe at my hips, the morning breaking all around me, and I’d know I wasn’t alone.
3:AM: Life before Nintendo was so adventurous. Now everyone – kids and adults – is glued to a computer or a cell phone. Okay, maybe not everyone, but what kind of effect do you think this has on society? This idea of always being connected?
SGJ: Yeah, it’s changing us, definitely, always being on-line, having that kind of access. Makes me think of that Outer Limits episode – this is the reboot of the series – where all the kids have those chips behind their ears, and the McMurphy character, he’s the kid who’s not connected, like he’s trespassing on his own mind. I guess M.T. Anderson‘s Feed‘s the even scarier version of all that. And then – seen that iLens promo? Amazing. I’ve always wanted near-eye, some sensors on my fingertips I could type with, or maybe a subvocalization recognition trick . . . I don’t know. But yeah, a century ago, we could all remember long poems, speeches, all that, and now we keep our to-do lists in our phones. Not saying it’s bad, that cassettes were better than MP3s, anything like that – I prefer to read on my Kindle, or my Kindle app – but it is different. Our brains are changing. And the novel’s changing with them, I think. You were talking videogames, which I know next to nothing about (except Galaga), but I keep reading how Grand Theft Auto and the other top-shelf games are becoming the new place for storytelling, the new novel. Could be. Or, I mean, it could be that our new e-books are going to ramp into videogames somehow, so the eventual result’s a lot more choose-your-own-adventure, like that interactive novel in The Diamond Age, or those Strange Days kind of ‘movies’ from Rant, where the writer’s more a director of an experience. Which, yeah, we are already, I suppose, but the stuff in Rant really makes it visible. Trick is, with that immersive kind of storytelling, that hypertext you don’t even realize is ‘hyper,’ I suspect it’s easy to lose track of where the line between worlds is. But hasn’t good storytelling always erased that line? I guess used to, though, you could close the book, eat dinner. I suspect that closing the book’s going to get harder and harder, though, until finally you just check into Tron, into some matrix, some Videodrome adventure that you tell yourself’s really The Last Starfighter, and you just stay. Which, yeah, not that that’s necessarily problematic – if it feels real, it’s real, right? Just get somebody to feed the cat for you – but it does kind of make me wonder why we need some ‘writer’ or ‘director’ or ‘dungeon master’ at all. I mean, lucid dreaming, how’s that so different from dropping into a pre-made, digital fantasy world? Nothing unhealthy about it, either. Seems, instead of spending all their change on tech, people could just learn how to dream, have a happy little solipsistic life. Or maybe we’re all doing that already, yeah. Anyway, talking games, I was talking to some group of people in some other state recently, and somehow got onto The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti, and how that dad in there, he was me, being completely stymied by people’s obsession with videogames, just not even a little bit understanding them. Beyond Galaga, I mean, which makes perfect sense to me, which is to say: nostalgia. I never blow more than a quarter on it. But, the games today, I’ve tried to sit down and play them with people, and after a few minutes I always think to myself, ‘Hey, you’re just sitting here pushing a button, aren’t you?’ Makes me feel like Desmond – or, no, I get all paranoid that Skynet’s already awake, and that it’s capturing the energy from each single button push, saving it all up in some big battery in the sky, to fry us all. So finally I gave up trying to understand losing yourself in a game – and, I mean, games, that’s where the best zombies are, right? The ones you can shoot, that can’t really bite your face off? Sounds great on the surface. Except somehow I fail to identify with the shooter on screen, am always trying to grok the programming, the code. And, with AD&D, I never had this problem. I’ve had to go to other rooms to cry when my character died, I mean. Same with fiction. I have no problem immersing myself in those stories at the drop of a hat, but for some reason – and I don’t want to knee-jerk ‘generational,’ especially because so many people my age are addicted to Wow, etc – I never can make that leap with videogames. Though I am making progress. Since moving to Colorado – and also since becoming thirty-eight, having all these blown Achilles and microfracture knees and herniated discs and torn shoulders and separated ribs and repeat concussions and crooked fingers – since getting this stupid ridiculous slanted driveway which I hate hate hate, I’ve had to give up basketball. Was a bad year or two, my hands always nervous, the rest of me twice as antsy, but then I picked up this slick cherrywood pool table, a nine footer with this endless expanse of camel covered felt, and I’m finally able to hear the crowds again, like I used to for years and years, playing basketball in my driveway in Texas: the whole arena counting down the seconds, waiting to see if I’m making this shot or not. Now that crowd’s watching me nod to the side pocket, tap a couple of lucky banks on the way, pretending I meant that. And, the other day, a two- or three-hour session at the pool table, to where I’m not even hearing the balls hit each other anymore, I finally realized it: I’m just pushing a button. Shaped like a stick, but still, it’s not really getting me anywhere, it’s having no real effect on the world. So, that videogame compulsion, that fascination, I guess I’ve got it, have always had it, but the fictional space I surround myself with to indulge that compulsion, in spite of how much I like gadgets and tech, it’s not digital. Rather, it’s always some narcissistic fantasy that I’m playing whoever’s Kobe in the pool world. Another dream I don’t want to wake up from. Which is exactly what I look for in novels and stories as well. And also the only way writing can ever work, for me: when it flips over to real, when I’ve checked into that world, forgotten my way out again, can only find the door if I sink this ball, drain that shot. Write this next sentence so, so perfect.
3:AM: You mentioned hand and wrist injuries. I know tendonitis in each wrist has really slowed me down the past several months, and it’s frustrating. But I get the impression that you wouldn’t let anything like that stop you, like you just type through the pain no matter what. I remember reading one interview you’d typed out – like this one – and you had a broken wrist at the time. As much as you write, is pain part of the equation? Is this normal for prolific writers?
SGJ: I remember writing once after I’d done something especially stupid with all my fingertips, and – white keyboard back then – afterwards the keyboard was all smeared with blood. Should have taken a picture. And, that title story from Bleed Into Me, I had a pretty high fever that day, about eleven in the morning, 103 or so, and my first impulse was to lay down, watch some Magnum PI, but then I got to wondering what would happen if I took no Tylenol, made myself sit at the keyboard until I wrote a story? Took about three hours, but got that story down just as-is, kind of through a haze. And, used to, the way I’d always write would be to stay awake for coming on twenty-four hours, until I was kind of spacing out, at which point I’d drink the biggest glass of tea or vanilla coke I could, tear into a bowl of Sixlets, and make myself go for four or six hours, using the fatigue – you don’t stall or mess around when you’re tired and half-dreaming like that. You just write. I don’t do that so much anymore, though. Could be I might even finally grow up into one of those writers with a schedule, who wakes up, fills the morning with pages, then does all the living stuff with the afternoon. Except I hate writing in the morning, of course. I like to wake up and work out, to use myself up in some way. Best time for me’s way late at night. Or in all the stolen ten minutes throughout the day. But no, I wouldn’t say pain’s part of any of the equations. Wouldn’t even say there’s equations, as I don’t really know what those are. Or, I hope pain’s not gotten to be some vital component. Wouldn’t be healthy, would it? Which is to say it wouldn’t last long. None of this is to say I haven’t cut myself to stay awake to write more, of course, but I haven’t even done that for a while now. That guy in that ‘Fear of Jumping’ story of mine, though? Yeah, I know him. But, tendonitis in the wrists, that’s got to suck. I’ve broke my wrists plenty of times, can’t even pretend to type on a straight, unergo keyboard – there’s some definite wrist-shriek, then – but somehow I’ve avoided that tendonitis trick so far. Though, my right hand, I’ve broke the same bone in it three or four times, just trying to punch holes in the world, and it’s all crooked and stupid and oftendays more useless than not, so I have to strap this rollerblade glove on just supertight to keep the grindy parts in place, but still, I can usually get the clickety-clack going on the keyboard, funneling words onto the backside of the screen. You know, though, I guess when I’m really cooking on a novel, my left eye goes all throbby and dim, so I have to wear a patch over it. I got reading glasses three or so weeks ago, and they’re so great for books – letters can be big? and crisp? – but I sit far enough away from my screen that they don’t work for writing. Maybe I need different glasses, I don’t know. But, no, rather than resting my eye, I’d far rather just cover it. Bad thing is, yesterday writing some thing (not fiction), my right eye went all haywire, lit up some badnews cable between it and my ear, and I was thinking, while trying to stay upright in my chair, is this what an aneuryism feels like? Made me do that flashback thing, where I shuffle back through all the head trauma and other bad stuff. But it went away after a few minutes, so I guess all’s well. Got a head CT scan thing last month anyway, so I should be good to go. Is any of this what you were asking, though? An injury list? Or you talking the kind of pain like ‘I hate him for doing that,’ type type type. Because, yeah, I mean, what other way is there to write? So often I think I’m the cheapest loser of all, just because I’m always imagining nearly every teacher I had, all the ones who told me I was never going to amount to anything, to get my greasy head off their walls, to sit in the hall all semester because my boots smelled like the stalls I’d been in that morning, to please get out of their classroom and ruin my life somewhere else, on my own time, to stop smiling, there’s nothing to smile about – I’m always imagining them seeing my name on these books on the shelves. Except what sucks about that is I’ve had so many names that they wouldn’t recognize me, and my hair was always short back then – this was Texas – and who knows if they really read books anyway. But don’t get me wrong, I had at least two of those teachers who believed in me, too. No, three, but one of them wanted me to move in with her, so I’m not completely sure what she was thinking.
3:AM: Wanted you to move in with her? Sounds like a short story I just wrote. Except the moving-in involved a cage and shackles. But that would be a seriously strange predicament for a lot of male adolescents. How did all this unfold?
SGJ: Don’t much remember the lead-up to all that – was a crazy, crazy year, the MPs always hauling me in for this or that; so many days spent sitting up on top of the school, hiding; a deer leg way out in the middle of nowhere once, that I was sure aliens had left; my brother breaking my arm over and over one day; my old basketball coach calling ahead, getting me on this team that would go undefeated, win state after I’d been kicked out – but I do know that Garth Brooks’ ‘That Summer’ was still years away, so, really, I had no guidebook for dealing with this kind of stuff. I do think she was really trying to save me, though, that she saw that I didn’t have to be the way I was being. But her husband, I remember him too. Big scowly guy, never smiled, least not when I was in the room. I don’t think it would have gone well, me moving in. And, that year there was another teacher, a kind of willfully blind English teacher, who, no matter what state I was in, no matter if this was my first time in her class in weeks, would always call on me to read aloud. Beowulf, Gawain, whatever. And, not for her, but for the words, for the story, I could always get the inflections right, though it’d be my first time through the text. I’ve always been kind of lucky that way, I guess. For William Munny, it was killing people. For me, it’s reading them.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 7th, 2010.