Fables of the Reconstruction: An Interview with Shane Jones
By Susan Tomaselli.
In a unnamed town, possibly in upstate New York, it has been winter for more than 300 hundred days. All things possessing the ability to fly have been destroyed and no one living in the town must speak of flight ever again. Shane Jones‘ Light Boxes was originally published as a “chapnovel” by Publishing Genius in an edition of 500 copies. Last time I checked, it was reselling for 250 bucks. But that’s besides the point: Light Boxes, the story, is a gem and a serious contender, thanks to Penguin’s reissue, for best novel of 2010.
3:AM: Firstly, how would you prefer Light Boxes described – as an adult fairy tale or as a contemporary fable? And could you summarise your book in one sentence?
Shane Jones: My first reaction was “adult fairy tale” but then I thought “contemporary fable” sounds better. That’s all male ego though, so I have to stick with “adult fairy tale.” One sentence? A town of balloonists fight a war against the month of February.
3:AM: The story of the war against February is told from alternating points of view – Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has been mentioned in more than one review. How was it written? In one sequential draft?
SJ: I absolutely love As I Lay Dying. I need to read it again. That was one of the first books I read in college and felt “I want to write something with this amount of power.” Light Boxes was written in small sections, lists, one sentence chapters, all of it out of order. Anytime I got bored, I would just go to a different scene, character, or image, just sticking with the war theme to keep things together. When I was done, or felt like I had maybe a novel, I had about 130 of these sections. I then moved them around until I had a somewhat linear narrative and then did some filling in holes and editing. It was very collage like, very fun to write.
3:AM: How did you choose your characters’ names? Thaddeus Lowe was a real person, wasn’t he?
SJ: Yeah, Thaddeus Lowe was a real person. His story, his time spent in the Balloon Corps, is a big part of how the book came to be. As far as the other names, I tried to pick names that were fitting with the tone and feel of the story – Selah and Bianca – are very old world and charming, I think. For a character like Caldor Clemens, I needed something different. I remember when I was a kid there was this great chain of stores called Caldor, and that name always stuck with me. It’s odd. It’s very unusual. Caldor stores were like K-Mart but dirtier. So I took that name and called my character Caldor.
3:AM: Yes, there is a distinct “old world” feel to Light Boxes: balloons, the characters’ names, the mint remedies against February, the way The Solution dress (in overcoats, top hats and bird masks), the owls, the writings on parchment, even some of the words you use (“lead” for pencil, for instance). And it is very charming, less in a M. Night Shyamalan Village sense of “old world”, more so a Brautiganian (particularly The Abortion or In Watermelon Sugar) lyrical world view, or an Italo Calvino or Garcia Marquez take on another era. In fact, there’s a “List of Artists Who Created Fantasy Worlds to Try and Cure Bouts of Sadness” snuggled up inside Light Boxes, on page 98 and those three authors are on it. Can they be read as influences on your story?
SJ: Those three are absolutely big influences on my story. I love those guys. That list, on page 98, probably gets brought up just as much, or more than, anything else in the book. Some people hate that list and feel it ruins part of the story. I don’t know, I was going for something there, and maybe it doesn’t work. I wanted to kind of pop the imagination bubble in the story and show these artists who, I believe, deal with depression and sadness. Many on the list ended up committing suicide and I wanted to connect sadness to artists and creators.
3:AM: The typography is replicated from the Publishing Genius edition. Is presentation and form important to you as a writer? An integral part of your story-telling style?
SJ: It is, yeah, because I don’t want my books to feel like a book. I know that’s probably an annoying and kind of pretentious thing to say, but the books I love don’t really feel like books, they feel like an art piece. And I’m not just thinking of typography, but style and form. You mentioned As I Lay Dying before, that’s such an odd “book” that plays with all these narrators and different styles, some chapters only have one sentence, etc. It doesn’t really feel like a book with traditional paragraph stacking. I also like to play around and have fun while I’m writing, and some of that comes out in changing fonts around, adding lists, all that stuff. Hopefully, that kind of stuff adds to the story and doesn’t come off as a trick, which is a fear of mine.
3:AM: Bianca, Thaddeus’ kidnapped daughter sees the elusive February. She says that “sometimes he just sits at his desk staring at blank sheets of paper in front of him. But eventually he’ll move and write something down and get up and walk around again.” Then, later on, the Girl Who Smells of Smoke and Honey says that “February would spend hours writing a story he wouldn’t discuss because it had gotten away from him months before.” Is that an accurate portrait of how you write? Do you get lost in your writing? Do you get writer’s block?
SJ: Not really. I think there’s a struggle with writing, but I don’t get writer’s block. Writer’s block is a black myth. You can always put words down. But when I was writing Light Boxes, I did struggle at some points, because I wanted so bad to write a big novel and it was coming out in all these fragments and I couldn’t really write more than a page without skipping to something else. I had to come to terms with that.
3:AM: Before Light Boxes, you published Maybe Tomorrow, a chapbook of poetry, then I Will Unfold You with My Hairy Hands, a short story collection. Was it a difficult leap from poetry to fiction?
SJ: A little, because it’s a bigger leap. I felt like I had to try and stretch the energy of the story, and that was completely new for me. At the same time, I used a similar mind-set to write Light Boxes as I did poetry. With poems, I write them in pairs – 2, 4, or 6 a day. I eventually did the same thing with the short sections of Light Boxes. And the writing of Light Boxes was very poetic. God, I sound like an asshole. I’m re-reading this and cringing in a way, but I’m being honest. It was difficult and easy at the same time to go from poetry to fiction.
3:AM: You told Michael Kimball that the ideal place to read Light Boxes was in a “cottage at the edge of town, where the forest begins. It will be very cold outside but you’ll have a fire going and a kettle of hot tea on the stove.” Though the re-release may be a little “unseasonal”, I think Light Boxes would be an ideal replacement to Dickens’ Christmas Carol. There’s certainly more compassion in Light Boxes. How would you feel if future generations retold the story of February and Thaddeus Lowe and Bianca (and of Caldor Clemens, who is a wonderful character) instead of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and Scrooge?
SJ: I would be completely shocked if that happened. I’m not even sure how to answer that question. If Light Boxes is being read even five years from now I would be amazed and flattered. And I’m glad you touched on the compassion of the book, because that’s important to me. You know what – I’ve never read Dickens. Now this interview has a big confession. I’ve never read one word of Dickens!
3:AM: You refer to other months in Light Boxes – “hold hands with May,” “water pouring over August rocks,” “people laugh with July” – why do you have it in for February? Or does February have it in for you?
SJ: February has it in for me.
3:AM: Stealing a question from Proust: what is your most treasured possession? And I would add, Caldor Clemens collects sap, do you collect anything?
SJ: I collected when I was a kid – baseball, basketball, football cards were big. I collected rocks too. I remember I had this huge rock and I kept it in my underwear drawer. It always made me feel good when I saw it before school. Now, I don’t collect anything. This feels like a trick question – my most treasured possession. Anything materialistic is replaceable. But, and I feel lame for saying this, I’d say my laptop because I need it to write.
3:AM: You’ve written a second novel, The Failure Six. Can we look forward to a third?
SJ: I’m currently working on another novel. I’m not sure when I’ll finish it exactly, but I’m working on it.
3:AM: How often, if at all, do you break your 10 rules for writers?
SJ: Well, right now I’m wearing dirty pants, but a clean t-shirt. I also haven’t been eating nearly enough vegetables or writing poetry at all. Yesterday I did a few push-ups. I’m still really weak. The problem is that I have a big stomach for a skinny guy and it weighs me down during the push-up. So on a good day I can do about 12. Those rules are very important. Tattoo that list down your back if you’re going to be a serious writer. I’m going to go buy As I Lay Dying now. What a great title.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Susan Tomaselli is a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine and lives in Dublin.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 15th, 2010.