AN INTERVIEW WITH TRAVIS JEPPESEN
"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. Or you go out actively looking for something to be a part of, something to believe in. Once you've found it, it may or may not leave you feeling disillusioned in the end."
By T. Cole Rachel
COPYRIGHT © 2004, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: What was the genesis of "victims"? how did this book come to be?
TJ: It started shortly after my return from Paris, where I'd spent six months doing drugs and writing. I was supposed to be studying there, but I'm not sure if I ever made it to class. I was staying with a friend in New York when I wrote this story to amuse myself, or so I thought, but I ended up puzzling myself instead. So this story became one of the middle chapters, and the rest of the thing sort of grew around it like a fungus.
At first I thought I was writing a book about boredom: what happens when nothing's happening. As it evolved, it became evident that there was more to it than that. Over the two years I worked on it, it went through so many different phases, each dramatically different from the last, to the extent that I still view the book, in its published form, with a certain amount of curiosity.
3AM: What inspired the book?
TJ: It's hard to say, because it's impossible to recall everything that was in my mind at the time I was composing it. I wanted to explore alienation, what it means to be isolated from the rest of the world. In order to do this, I had to figure out what ties an individual to the world, the microcosm to the macrocosm. The answer I stumbled upon: belief. Belief, as a phenomenological entity, takes precedence over everything else. The things we believe in, as irrefutable as they may seem, shade our perception of reality to the extent that on a certain fundamental level, human interaction seems futile or at least impossible, since perception is so highly individualized. This inability to reconcile objective reality, whatever that is, with one's perception of it becomes a trajectory into madness and despair for one of the novel's characters, Howard, who's a writer.
So I devised this Nowhere, then made it exist in the form of Monkhole, and stuck these three figures in it - Ruphis, Howard, and Herbert - and watched what happened as their meticulously self-constructed realities crashed into each other.
The cult element actually came into play much later in the formation of the novel. In a way, it was inevitable, because despite my initial craving to make the landscape as barren as possible, I knew I couldn't explore the theme of isolation without setting up some type of parallel with the group mentality. I've always been fascinated by groups because I've always been excluded from them, and nearly every attempt I've made to be a part of something has been disastrous. Also, I had to figure out where Herbert was coming from, why he sits in this field all day with cows. Obviously, the cult is an extreme extrapolation of belief. If you subscribe to this particular philosophy of perception (I'm not necessarily saying I do), then you must equate belief with truth. If someone believes that lighting themselves on fire will signal a flying saucer to come take them away, then it's true - for that person. The only times you ever see anything about cults in the mainstream media is after they've committed suicide or murder. The media and society immediately condemn and ridicule their acts without making any effort to understand them. I can't relate to that at all.
3AM: What kind of research did you do?
TJ: It's interesting because I did a ton of research, but it only appears in the book indirectly. I guess it was all distilled through my imagination. Most of my research centered around cults and new religious movements. But I never intended to write a "cult novel." I needed to wade past all the sensationalist garbage that the media focuses on in order to evaluate what these people are saying. So my primary research consisted of studying the writings of certain groups, some of which interested me more than others, in order to come up with the language and ideology of the Overcomers.
3AM: One thing I found really fascinating about the book is that it very interestingly illuminates both sides of a coin--it explores the aspects of "religion" that often drive people away, while at the same time explaining the very things that compel us to seek out spirituality and the comforts of an all-encompassing belief system. What are your thoughts on this? Was this your intention?
TJ: Sure. 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. Or you go out actively looking for something to be a part of, something to believe in. Once you've found it, it may or may not leave you feeling disillusioned in the end.
3AM: Also, someone recently commented to me that "culturally, religious fanaticism and "cults" are so very 'American' ." Would you agree or disagree?
TJ: Well, that's a tough one. I'd say a sense of alienation is very American. You see this everywhere; I mean, America is very isolationist as a culture, especially nowadays. But cults proliferate everywhere around the world. It's often difficult to differentiate between a cult and a "legitimate" new religious movement, which makes things difficult. It's also hard because they tend to stay outside of the public eye out of paranoid necessity, as the more visible ones are usually closely monitored by governmental agencies.
The sense of newness is very American. An entire society in pursuit of the new, a vague concept in itself. (Is this rooted in or caused by most Americans' disconnection from history and the rest of the world?) Ultimately, this is going to function on every strata of the social sphere, from the pursuit of new technologies to the quest for a new, "up-to-date" religion.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
T. Cole Rachel is a poet and freelance writer living in New York City. Soft Skull Press published his first collection of poems, Surviving the Moment of Impact, in 2002.