“We need a fantasy in order to live in reality.”

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A Conversation with Shane Jones

I first came to Shane Jones’s work after having seen some of his writing online. For someone so interested in the lifestyles of other writers—someone who, as I discovered, discovered that Zadie Smith eats a prawn cocktail wrap for lunch—I was especially surprised to find how lucid and otherworldly his fiction can be. His novels, all of which are playful, enchant and disarm and make room for something very strange to happen under the surface. His latest book, Crystal Eaters, a meditation on death, and the illness and loss of parents, among other things, gave me the impression—as its page numbers counted down instead of up—that the book itself didn’t want to die.

I was going to speak with Shane Jones when he came to New York City to read from Crystal Eaters, but because we scheduled to meet at 8:30 in the morning, we didn’t meet, because it was 8:30 in the morning. We spoke over Gchat, and what follows is an unedited transcript.

—Hayden Bennett

I. RILKE AND DEATH VS. DOGS AND HEAVEN

THE BELIEVER: So let’s start with Rilke and death. Crystal Eaters made me think of this part of his novel: 

When I think back to my home, when there is no one left now, it always seems to me that things must have been different back then. Then, you know (or perhaps you sensed it) that you had your death inside you as a fruit has its core. The children had a small one in them and the grownups a large one. The women had it in their womb and the men in their chest. You had it, and that gave you a strange dignity and quiet pride.

SHANE JONES: Whoa, I’ve never read that before but it’s great and really hits a lot of points in Crystal Eaters. Could definitely use that as an opening to the book. I think we’re all carrying death inside us, it’s coming, it’s always looming. I’ve never been death obsessed before, but now that I’m older (34) and a father, I can’t quite shake the feeling. I both want to die and don’t want to die. Death is terrifying and beautiful, a final thing we can all do together.

BLVR: Well it’s interesting that the kid in the book was death-obsessed, not the parents. Or at least the dad, who won’t acknowledge it.

Rilke talks about dogs, too, and how they’re excited by the smell of death. And in Crystal Eaters Hundred (the dog) is a constant reminder of the system. I’ve always thought dogs—or pets—are kind of the first sense you get of death, and then your parents.

SJ: I always had pets growing up and we always had a family dog. Which also meant, being the oldest in the family, is that I saw every family dog die. One of the hardest was when I was 13 or 14 and after a long series of health failings our dog, Cocco, died and my mom, in a total emotional mess, asked me to carrying the dead dog to her bedroom. She didn’t want the Cocco lying there dead next to the vacuum cleaner, the vacuum cleaner acting as a kind of pillow. I remember that was the first time I really felt a dead body, and how odd and stiff and cold it was. I remember carrying Cocco’s dead body up the stairs. Also, being the oldest in my family, I was up first to get ready for school and found many dead cats who passed in the night. This is some bleak shit. I can still feel the weight from Cocco’s body in my arms.

BLVR: My dogs just disappeared. Someone always took them to get put to sleep without my knowing. I mean, I knew they were gone, but seeing the corpse is a completely different thing. I had the advantage of thinking they might show up again at some point. Which is kind of how you usually tell a kid about the death of a pet: “Henry went to Cambodia,” or something.

SJ: Adults trying to protect children from reality, right? And adults always trying to fill children with fantasy – the tooth fairy, Santa, make-believe games, etc. But kids are really smart, I think they know from an early age about death, this void and hole they are immediately traveling toward. Remy, in Crystal Eaters, tries to reverse death, which seems like a very noble, but childlike thing to do. Do you think there’s a dog heaven? All our dogs are waiting for us up there.

BLVR: Kids totally do know about death, but in this weird, abstracted way. I taught third graders creative writing and every story had someone killing someone, or at least fighting. And it was usually always playful, in a way that didn’t seem malicious at all. Isn’t All Dogs Go To Heaven a movie? I probably agree with whatever it has to say. It’s good to be optimistic about something.

SJ: I was at a kids party a few weeks ago (I have a son, I wasn’t there just alone hanging out or anything) and one of the kids said to me “My real daddy lives in Hollywood, he’s not dead yet.” It blew me away. I’ve never seen All Dogs Go To Heaven. I think we need a fantasy in order to live in reality. Thinking there’s a heaven, or a god, or that we will be remembered after we die (a big theme in Crystal Eaters) is all a fantasy, a strange goal where really, there’s probably just black.

II. FANTASY REALMS

BLVR: Is reading that kind of fantasy for you?

SJ: Reading in general?

BLVR: Yeah, the books that you like most. I’m thinking of that reading chart you did—one that has a book for every year—which is interesting because of how personal it makes reading seem. Both personal and sort of systematized and organized, which is something you do in a lot of your writing—systematize the inscrutable.

Or at the very least provide an illusion of a system.

SJ: Hm, I’m not sure. I think literature is somehow both a fantasy and a reality we should all get back to. Like, a book is basically just symbols arranged to form this story, this world. But on the other hand, books, novels, literature in general, is what shows us at our most human. Terrance McKenna talks about how we need to work out of a central point of literature to understand ourselves, and I like that a lot. The more we get away from believing and studying literature, the worst we become, the more we lose our soul. I’m starting to rant here and I’m not sure I answered your question.

BLVR: No, you did, because 1) it was a confusing question and 2) I think rants are really one of the only ways of responding to what’s inscrutable or unknowable. Like Bernhard or something.

Does McKenna mean that we’re the set central point, like our tastes?

SJ: Tao Lin got me interested in McKenna and I haven’t watched/read too much, but I think one point he makes is how we are basically being crushed by corporations, ads, cities, technology, religion, etc (another theme in Crystal Eaters) and how we just need to get back to making things. All humans are really good at just checking things out. We’re built to just walk around, look at the sky, eat off trees, sleep in the dirt, etc. And we’re also really good at making shit, at least when we’re kids. I wonder if there’s any connection between kids thinking about death and creativity. I forgot where I read it, but someone said how all kids are creative until they get into school and some teacher says “no, that’s a C-” on a painting they made. That’s dangerous and troubling to me. We should probably just be making things, writing books, wandering around, licking each other’s bodies and waiting for death.

BLVR: I got a lot of bad grades in art stuff—and in essay writing. It made me hate the idea of doing anything creative until I just did it for myself. I think I just heard Stephen Malkmus talk about how in playing music (or something creative) you have to unlock whatever makes you want to fuck around. Like with the guitar, you can learn chords, and how to play songs, but if you don’t have that impulse to explore, creative work just won’t open itself up to you. I mean you need structure, but school can crush that impulse once everything’s put on a short-term reward system.

SJ: I was always a horrible student. Even in college, when I went off to Buffalo to study with Robert Creeley and Susan Howe and Charles Bernstein, I spent nearly all my time skipping class and reading in the library. I would actually leave my dorm, pretend to walk to class, then go to the top floor of this massive library and lock myself in a “study closet” with a stack of books that weren’t assigned, just things I wanted to read. I regret doing that, in a way, but it was probably necessary and beneficial. I read so much. I failed classes. I wrote a little.  

There’s a video with the director Paul Thomas Anderson where he talks about dropping out of NYU. For an assignment he turned in a scene written by David Mamet and got a B-. He dropped out the next day. No one really has any idea what they are doing in art so you might as well do it on your own and make it fun.

This is the video. He actually got a C+ on the Mamet assignment.

BLVR: I’ve been reading Lawrence Weschler’s book of conversations with Robert Irwin (which I really suggest), and Irwin said about teaching: “The most critical part is for [the students] to begin developing the ability to assign their own tasks and make their own criticism in direct relation to their own needs and not in light of some abstract criteria. Because once you learn how to make your own assignments instead of relying on someone else, then you have learned the only thing you really need to get out of school, that is, you’ve learned how to learn. You’ve become your own teacher. After that you can stay on—for the facilities, the context, the dialogue, the colleagueship, the structure, and so forth—but you’ll already be on your own.” Though this doesn’t really apply to 2nd graders, I guess.

Oh shit, I just remembered that Hitchcock’s granddaughter came in and talked to one of my classes during undergrad. She said how when she took a class at Loyola on Hitchcock, she went home one day and had Hitchcock himself write the paper. She got a C- on it and when she brought it back home to Hitchcock he said something like, “it was the best I could do.”

SJ: Oh, wow, is that wonderful. Just beautiful. I think it’s really hard to write something for assignment, for a class. For a lot of people it immediately puts a face on your shoulder. If Crystal Eaters was my thesis for an MFA or something it would have sucked. I have to really dig inside myself and develop a very narrow focus with everything else kind of blocked out.

BLVR: It can be really difficult, but I think, if you know that it’s there, that face on your shoulder is something you can fight. Or at least disregard.

Is the narrow focus the headspace you’re in when you sit down to write? Do you have to get rid of distractions, or is a baby usually crawling around at your feet?

SJ: Ugh, I’m a really detached person I think. It’s bad. I could sit in an empty room with nothing at all and entertain myself inside my head for hours. I can live and breathe inside my fantasy realms. When I was working on Crystal Eaters I was thinking about it constantly, obsessively. I can’t believe I’m still married.

BLVR: I think you’d be into this Robert Irwin book: there’s a lot about how he reduced his life to just that. Sitting in a room for days and days and days and moving a line on a canvas an eighth of an inch every so often. There was also a quote from Kierkegaard in there that said, “The more you limit yourself, the more fertile you become in invention. A prisoner in solitary confinement for life becomes very inventive, and a simple spider may furnish him with much entertainment.”

SJ: Who’s the author or artist who committed a crime and showed up to court smiling with a new haircut, all ready to go to prison? I don’t know where I read that, but some maniac did that. He was really excited to finally be alone in a room. I’ve never heard of Robert Irwin but I like him already.

BLVR: Whoa, I’ve never heard of that. You do have to be kind of insane. It’s fertile creatively, maybe, but it’s not pleasant.

SJ: You think I’m insane?

BLVR: Not really. I do the same thing. It’s good to be in touch with something insane, anyway.

So to go back to people who rant: Gordon Lish said one of the reasons Don DeLillo doesn’t publish under Donald DeLillo is because Donald DeLillo has thirteen letters, which makes me feel pretty fucked because my name has thirteen letters, but is the number ten something you think about?

SJ: Don DeLillo sounds more serious than Donald DeLillo, which sounds cartoonish or something (I imagine a duck with a penis for a beak or something). Hayden Bennett has a nice ring to it. It feels very literary to me. I stopped doing google searches for my name because it’s all “Shane Jones charged with cat sex in dumpster” and things like that. A comedian once said the name Shane reminded her of poor people living in a cabin, dozens of dirty kids all named Shane with missing teeth wandering around shirtless, drinking from mason jars. But Shane Jones does have ten letters, that’s true. Book designers dream.

BLVR: There’s a habit of thinking in sets of ten in Crystal Eaters, too. Patting yourself ten times as a compulsive sort of thing. And ten adds up evenly into 100, so it almost feels like that comfort of controlling what’s inscrutable about life again.

SJ: Nice connection. I can see why they gave you this job.I like that a lot. There’s comfort in all systems and numbers too are a system.

BLVR It also got me listening to this Cure album again, which has some pretty death-and-also-hundred-obsessed lyrics. I actually can’t help but find that song funny for how death-obsessed it—and everything Goth—is.

SJ: I’m going to turn off Danny Brown and listen to this now.

III. INFLUENCES AND HORSES

SJ: Did Crystal Eaters remind you of any books?

BLVR: Jesse Ball’s work, who I like a lot. There was something in the form. Like how instead of coherent page numbers he’ll put random numbers, and how in Crystal Eaters it counts down, which felt like the book was trying to avoid its own end somehow. Also Pynchon in certain ways: the dedication to being playful. Oh also weirdly I wrote down David Shrigley on page 127.

SJ: Who is David Shrigley?

BLVR: I think where you wrote “The praying room is labeled the Praying Room,” reminded me of an anecdote he said about going to stay at a house in the south of France where the woman had labeled every single thing imaginable. Like the light switches had an arrow to them that said light switch and the doors had a label that said door.

He draws, really simple-looking smart stuff that’s usually pretty hilarious.

SJ: I’m a white guy listening to the Cure and thinking about Pynchon influences now.

BLVR: For some reason I think about Robert Smith a lot. Not in any sort of coherent way, but the way musicians portray their image is interesting to think about vs. how writers do it. Someone like Jesse Ball is great at it.

SJ: Jesse Ball is wonderful. Give him all the award money rich people.

BLVR: You’re interested in the lifestyle of writers—what people eat, what they listen to when they workout—but the writing can be so fabulist. Have you ever thought about how the two come together?

And this actually fits with Jesse Ball in a way: what you get on the page is how he acts in interviews and essays and so forth. A lifestyle that seems to come from the book.

SJ: I just view the non-fiction stuff as a total opposite of my fiction writing. I admire writers who can do both, who have that kind of range, who work hard at both and create fantasy worlds and then report on “real” stuff. It feels big and whole to me. I don’t know, I want to feel like I’m expanding. I’d like to do more journalistic and non-fiction stuff but no one ever asks and I have to hustle.

BLVR: I guess I was thinking if writing is lifestyle, what you eat and what you listen to when you work out, all of that goes into your consciousness somehow, and you can choose to put Prêt a Manger in your writing or not. But maybe fiction’s from a weirder part of the brain where you can’t exactly choose. Or at least make any kind of coherent link.

To start getting pieces of non-fiction seems a lot like the school stuff: you have to learn how to make your own assignments. It’s an especially tough thing to figure out when there’s no pay.

And—at least for me—to figure out if the time’s actually worth it. Fiction just seems more satisfying and like I’m ok being locked in a cell and watching a spider. Non-fiction stuff is just a different side of the brain, I think.

SJ: David Foster Wallace talked a lot about his approach to non-fiction (where he views himself as this fool thrown into a weird situation like a cruise or state fair) and then fiction (which he takes seriously and loves and finds magic in). I think I love fiction and like non-fiction (which I’m really not very good at) but the two also cleanse each other. It gives you breaks.

BLVR: The last thing I have written down on my question sheet is “horses?” but you don’t have to answer that.

SJ: Wait, you just have “horses?” written down and nothing else?

BLVR: I had a few other questions and things like “faces?” written down,but the last question I wrote down was “Horses?” I think because there are horses in Daniel Fights a Hurricane and there’s a weird thing with horses going on in Crystal Eaters. Horses seem like demons to me sometimes.

SJ: I think those two questions are the best compliments I could ever receive. I like horses.  My grandfather had a horse named Whiskey and I got to ride it all the time. They are terrifying and beautiful. If there’s a beast taking you to heaven or hell it probably looks something like a horse.

Hayden Bennett is the editor of the Believer Logger.

Illustration by Ken Garduno.