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Language is a Whore: An Interview With Travis Jeppesen

Andrew Gallix interviews Travis Jeppesen, author of Wolf at the Door.

3:AM: If Wolf at the Door were to be made into a film, it would have to be in black and white. There is a bleak, absurdist/Expressionist feel to your novel (with the golem-like deaf-dumb gravedigger figure, for instance) which strikes me as very central/eastern European. I believe you wrote the book in Slovakia and Slovenia: did the locale influence the content a lot? Having moved to Europe in 2001, do you feel part of a tradition (and new wave) of American expatriate writers?

TJ: One of the reasons why I left Prague is because I was unable to write there for the last few years. There were too many other things in the atmosphere competing for my attention, I suppose. The fact that the vast majority of Wolf was written when I was travelling — namely on trips to Slovakia and Slovenia — was in many ways coincidental: at that point in my life I could get more concentrated work done when I was travelling.

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About the locales — sure, they’re there. Especially in the sculptor story. There is also a lot of Prague in the book, mostly in the city section — but then the city, the way it’s described, also resembles a lot of other Central European cities, as well as Amsterdam and perhaps even some industrial American cities. So I don’t know how much influence these places have had. Perhaps it has more to do with the overall sensibility or humor of the book. I wouldn’t say that the book is set in any of these places; if I felt this was so, then I would have named them as such in the text. What gets a name and what doesn’: that’s something that is very important in this book.

Writing in English as a resident of countries where English is not the dominant language, you ostensibly absent yourself from a larger dialogue taking place — which can be both good and bad. For me, it has been mostly good because I do not think I would have ever developed into anything much of a writer had I remained in the United States. This whole experience of the last six years has given me a chance to effectively “be alone” with my language, which probably conditions how my writing comes out. In the same way that Gertrude Stein probably wouldn’t have become the writer she became had she remained in America her entire life, you could probably say the same for me.

I’m not sure that this matters as much as people think it does, though. I definitely don’t want to be viewed as a model of anything. I don’t think there are very many interesting American writers living in Europe right now. If there are, then they keep a very low profile. (Stephen Rodefer in Paris is a prime example of a great American poet working in near total isolation.) The reason why I think this is so is because there are simply very few American writers living here now. I mean, the whole thing that happened in Paris in the early and mid-20th century, where you had Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Stein all in the same room at once, nothing like that will ever happen again — especially not in Paris. No one from abroad can afford to move there these days unless they have a trust fund or a corporate job. I mean, come on. American writers don’t move overseas now; they go to MFA programs or start blogs or, I don’t know what they do, but they’re not here, and the ones who are aren’t very interesting. I’m not being mean. The fact is, writing is incredibly difficult. Most people aren’t any good at it — that includes a lot of the ones who get published, even the bigger names. Especially some of the bigger names. The vast majority of American expat writers you encounter in Europe are producing either confessional, therapeutic stuff or work that is flagrantly derivative of other writers, most of whom have been dead for forty years or longer. I don’t think this is a recent phenomenon. I’m sure that at the height of the expat literary salons in Paris, besides all the celebrities, there must have been five hundred other American writers living in Paris who never got published, who remain unknown to this day.

3:AM: In the interview you gave us back in 2004 you said: “If you don’t believe in something, then it’s impossible to get out of bed. It doesn’t matter if that something is religion, art, love, or even something more trivial. That’s a beautiful thing. If you don’t have it, then there’s a hole that you eventually fall into.” This is exactly what seems to have happened to the protagonist of Wolf at the Door. If Victims was a book about belief, this one seems to be about the absence of belief systems…

TJ: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I think in Victims, I was talking about belief from a purely intellectual standpoint, but the way I put it in that interview, I made it sound like I was taking a moralistic stance. That has never been my intention.

3:AM: There’s a quote from Democritus on the dust jacket which reads: “…in reality there are only atoms and the void”. Is this something you believe and perhaps even find comfort in? Are you aware that atomism has been enjoying a literary revival of late (Houellebecq, of course, but, more recently, Steven Hall‘s The Raw Shark Texts or Heidi James‘s forthcoming Carbon)? Any idea why this should be?

That quote was initially integrated into the manuscript. The way I had the book configured was that the quote would form the final page of the text, so that Democritus had the last word. Howard Sidenberg of Twisted Spoon suggested we put the quote on the back of the book instead, effectively integrating it into the design. I liked the idea, so I told him to go for it.

I don’t know why atomism is enjoying a literary revival. Perhaps during periods of great uncertainty, which induces a sort of mass neurosis, people are able to take comfort in science because it presents a model of the world that is apparently certain, unwavering in its verifiability. I wish I could buy into it 100% — as much as I love the idea, I’m also skeptical to a degree. A part of me wants to find science on the same platform as religion — just another theory. This is one of the ideas you find in Victims.

3:AM: If there are indeed “only atoms and the void”, then Art and literature are pretty worthless, right? This seems to be your narrator’s point of view. He describes “any form of literary endeavor” as “worthless” (and writers as “Compulsive masturbators and friendless warriors, the lot of them”!). He is the kind of artist who feels that his works are always imperfect reflections of an unattainable ideal. Echoing Beckett, he claims that “Every single work of art is a recording of another instance of failure. Failure underlined three times”. The true artist is a failed alter deus (“…every piece you will make, it’s like killing yourself over and over again”) and the rage at his impotence (“I just wanted triangles to come out of walls like blades, stab the spectator through the third eye when he least expected”) leads to self-destruction: he blows up his sculptures and house and regrets not having topped himself when he “had the chance”. All this begs the question: and what if the only true form of human creation were destruction?… Would you agree with this presentation, and to what extent do you agree with these aesthetic views?

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TJ: I look at a lot of art because I need to understand the impulse behind it. What you find increasingly nowadays is that there isn’t any. There’s a general lack of self-criticality in a lot of work, and the more polished it is, the more this lack tends to shine through. When you don’t have that to go on, that means you have nothing to build upon. And yet so many insist on continuing onwards, struggling with this lack, unable to locate the source of its sourcelessness.

I would argue that, despite the liberal propaganda that spouts otherwise, criticism is an inherently negative force — yet one that is also necessary. But it must first be directed inwards before you can start using it as a tool on external phenomena. I have a theory that the best critics of art and literature all realize this early on — that criticism begins and ends with the self, ultimately. You are defined by your limitations, and those who never learn to accept this live in a constant state of naiveté, which does not provide much impetus for growth.

This is just a fancy way of saying that, yes, failure is a constant, and whenever I put a book out, I mostly just see the flaws. The ideas that the sculptor expresses in the book, these are all things that I wrestle with, sure. I don’t think it’s so unique, I think a lot of people wrestle with these issues. You can’t take it as a definitive statement, though. You’ve got to remember that this book is largely about sickness — he’s writing out of his sickness, his dis-ease, he contradicts himself almost every other sentence. Was the fact that I wrote all this out a “destructive” act? I don’t know. There are probably far worse things I could’ve done!

3:AM: Then there’s the whole scatological dimension — the parallel between art and shit (“I pulled apart sunflowers, made an army of wolves out of my own shit”) and the dying sculptor’s impossibility to defecate which seems to be another sign of artistic impotence. Could you talk about this a little?

TJ: Again, sickness. In sickness, we all become equal to our fluids. (Again — no value judgments here. I’m just making a scientific observation.)

3:AM: The protagonist in Wolf at the Door describes language as a “whore” because it “poisons the purity of thought”“Thought’s communion with intention”. The keyword “communion” seems to indicate a longing to go back beyond postlapsarian language to a kind of pristine Adamic language…

TJ: I think Joyce or perhaps some of the Language Poets did a much better job of that than I could ever hope to do. (As a matter of fact, I feel crippled by my language a lot of the time.)

3:AM: “No one knows how to read past the instantaneous expression of lack.” Discuss.

TJ: There isn’t a conceptual framework here. I’m not that interested in the constructedness of a thing. It emerges from somewhere, almost like a dream, and I just go with it to the logical extreme without daring to question what the intention behind it might be. Because I believe the thing is the intention, vice versa. In an ideal world, everything would be read in the exact same vein as it is composed. Every writer/artist’s wish. Of course that can never be. There is no universal consciousness, nothing that governs human perception.

3:AM: Your first novel, Victims, inaugurated Dennis Cooper‘s Little House on the Bowery series (Akashic Books) — a series which also includes Richard Hell‘s Godlike which itself bears a resemblance to Wolf at the Door. Do you agree?

TJ: No.

3:AM: Do you feel an affinity with other writers, maybe around BLATT magazine?

TJ: Well, this issue of BLATT is definitely the purest reflection of my stake in the thing, since this is the first issue that was edited solely by me. Which is not to infer that ALL of my favorite writers are included in the issue. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere when you’re an old-fashioned print magazine with an old-fashioned budget.

3:AM: Was the title inspired by the Radiohead song?

TJ: Shortly after the book came out, the French writer and artist Christophe Chemin asked me the same question. I’ve heard Radiohead’s music before and enjoyed it, but I don’t own any of their albums and wasn’t aware of any of their song titles. So finding out that they had a song called “Wolf at the Door” was news to me. I guess I should try to listen to the song some day to see if there are any similarities. Who knows? Maybe I inspired Radiohead!

3:AM: So what’s next, Travis?

TJ: I wish I knew!

(Picture of Travis Jeppesen by Sue de Beer.)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 14th, 2007.