How did “Jetsam” come to be?
The first part of the story came to me in early 1999, when I was working at Tor, in the Flatiron Building. From the window of my little work area, I could look across the street and see this massive apartment building, all the windows and lights flicking on and off all day as people went about their lives. There was one window with curtains that moved back and forth behind the glass, which always struck me as odd, since the rest of the windows had flat shades and blinds that never moved. One rainy morning I wrote down a very brief description of that window and those curtains, and then I put it away and forgot about it. Six years later, after 9/11 and when I had started writing fiction in earnest, I found that description of the curtain at the windows in a stack of papers, and it all came together—the building, the city after 9/11 and how very divided it seemed, how isolated lower Manhattan was from the rest of the city, those strange creeping movements at the window. All of those separate ideas and incidents, plus a healthy dose of a rediscovered love for Lovecraft’s mythos, turned into “Jetsam.”
In a recent interview for the Weird Fiction Review, you mention admiring Laird Barron’s work, saying, “he has the maddening habit of writing around the edges of cosmic horror, leaving out just enough of the story that it makes me want to tear apart the pages thread by thread, hoping I’ll eventually find out what that black void or terrible event was.” If I may say so, you do that very successfully in this story! What interests you in this approach?
That approach to fiction interests me because it’s the exact opposite of who I am and what I want to interact with anything artistic in general. Whether it’s fiction or movies or plays or dance, I’ve always wanted to know more—I want the backstory, all of it, all of the sordid and exciting and boring details of the characters, the world building, the mythology. I want the preface, the maps, the illustrations, the appendices, the books explaining the books. It’s just part of my psyche, from when I was little. I call it Tolkienism, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who’s familiar with Tolkien’s meticulous and prodigious obsession with his own creation. And that kind of research was always beneficial to me as an actor, because I always had a director to help me pare away the excess and help me be a part of the performance, rather than above it or outside of it. Not putting everything out there allows the audience to fill in the gaps, it gives them permission to weep when you’re wounded, to feel triumph when you’ve conquered, to be a part of the performance in the spaces you’ve left for them to occupy and contribute to. But as a writer, you work alone, and there’s no one to tell you to get out of the way of your awesome, fancy ideas, and you forget that art is a conversation, not a command. So, you have to learn how to vet your output, how to edit the work before you send it off to an editor. You have to learn to be generous to the people who have yet to read your words, to embrace and trust restraint. It’s something I struggle with all the time, every single second that I write. So, not telling the whole story is something I admire in writers like Laird, and something I struggle and strive for every minute that I write.
“Jetsam” seems to be a post-apocalyptic tale told from the point of view of a transformed, marked, or somehow damaged woman rather than from the perspective of an unaffected or healthy survivor. Given her deficiencies of memory and understanding, was this a challenge? This also reverses the usual balance of sympathies, in that we as readers root for her rather than the exterminators (if that’s what they are). Was this intentional?
It was intentional, because “Jetsam” is to an extent very much my story of what happened to me after 9/11. What I discovered in the years immediately after the attack was that people who didn’t live in the NYC area had a completely different emotional and ideological view of what happened, and in their minds, their vision of the events trumped mine, even though I saw every single second of the towers falling, I felt the ashes of buildings and the dead smeared against my skin, I breathed them into my lungs. That afternoon of the eleventh, after the subways opened back up, I stood on an underground platform with a thousand ash-covered people, and no one spoke a single fucking word. A thousand people, and there were no words. We were all affected, we were all damaged. But there were times, during extremely heated conversations with West Coast friends and relatives, that I thought maybe I’d dreamed everything I’d seen and smelled and felt, because they had at some point decided that their 3000-mile-removed version of what happened was the real version, the “American” version, and that I was delusional and a psychopath and traitor and needed to shut up and go away. “Jetsam” is most definitely a response to how I saw people responding to and shaping and silencing my “version” of what happened, of how nothing in history is uncontested and that even at the genesis of events there are always conflicting accounts of what actually occurred—but understand that even “Jetsam” is itself an extremely sanitized and flawed story, a victim of the emotional terraforming that happens within us during truly horrifying, traumatizing times in life. I think there is a much uglier, more emotionally violent and starker version of it somewhere inside me. I just haven’t found the means for digging it out of me yet.
Do you plan on writing any novels in future, or does the shorter form hold the most appeal for you?
Certain lengths don’t have any particular pull over me than others—somewhere in the start of every project, I realize that the idea or plot I’m working with might lend itself better to a story than a novella, or vice-versa. Every year or so I come up with an idea for a novel, but I haven’t had much success in writing one that’s—to be blisteringly honest—any good. And I’ve come to a point in my life where I view writing and selling a novel as some kind of horrific task that I have to slog through in order to get to some imaginary “higher level” of, I don’t know, artistic and financial success, fame, respect—a level that of course isn’t guaranteed no matter what I write. And when something you love turns into a form of self-punishment, then it’s time to stop. So the answer is, I currently have no plans to write a novel. Maybe someday I’ll find myself attempting one again, but they’ll never officially be on my writing to-do list. I really just want to get on with my life, and if it’s novel-less, that’s fine with me.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a few short stories for various markets—after that, I’ll start working on the first of five novellas that should all be finished by the end of this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to sell them to a publisher as my next collection. If not, then, um, I’m going to have five horror novellas for sale in 2014, if anyone’s interested . . .
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