Jeff Jackson is the author of Mira Corpora (2013 Two Dollar Radio) and the forth-coming novel Destroy All Monsters (2018 FSG Originals) which is being released this October. Don DeLillo writes of the novel, “It’s fine work, with a kind of scattered narrative set within a tight frame. Fast-moving throughout – fragile characters who suggest a bleak inner world made in their own collective image,” and Dennis Cooper has called it, “a novel that impresses on many levels, with its beautifully hypnagogic, catastrophic story and writing that is a wonder to behold.”
Full disclosure: I met Jeff in 2012. We both live in Charlotte, and regularly meet up to have drinks and discuss our writing at a local bar. Through the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Jeff’s process in developing the story and structure of this book as well as the story of the book’s journey to publication. I was eager to sit down with him after reading the book for an interview. In our talk, we discussed the theme of gun violence in the book, the book’s unique structure (A Side and a B side), the role of music in his writing, and the challenges writers with less conventional novels may face in finding a publisher for their work.
Coleen Muir: In one sentence, how would you describe this book?
Jeff Jackson: It’s a love letter placed on the grave of rock ‘n roll, testifying to the difficulty of making art in a culture that can’t distinguish the signal from the noise.
Can you talk a little about the epidemic of gun violence in the book. How did this idea germinate, and should we read this as a larger commentary on the epidemic of gun violence in America?
My notes for Destroy All Monsters go back almost 12 years. When I initially drafted the scenes of the epidemic and showed them to friends, they thought it was completely unrealistic that so many mass killings could happen without public outcry and government intervention. This was pre-Sandy Hook. That’s how much has changed since then.
When I started working on the book, the idea of killings happening in music clubs seemed fantastical. Shortly after I finished the manuscript, there was the shooting at the Bataclan music club in Paris. It was chilling and sickening.
I didn’t set out to write a realist novel. And I’m not attempting a sociological depiction of gun violence—that’s why some of the killers use knives and bombs and a few killers are women. The epidemic in the novel is meant to seem heightened and slightly surreal–though recent history has drastically rewritten the context around the book in the most nightmarish ways. What’s an author to do in that situation?
Of course, there’s always been a lot of violence in this country. What’s new is the government responding to this crisis by enacting laws that make mass killings even more likely. It’s a terrifying cycle we’re trapped in.
Destroy All Monsters does seem particularly attuned to the fatalism of our current moment. In Side B, scenes from the epidemic are dramatized, but the actual violence moves further and further off the page until finally there’s no hint of a threat. If there’s any commentary, it might be found in that transition, how all these killings can come to seem routine until they take up less space in our consciousness, until we become accustomed to living with constant danger.
This book’s structure is unique – an A side and a B side – with each side presenting an alternative perspective juxtaposed over the same storyline. Is there a specific way this book should be read?
The book is designed so it can be read in any order. Both sides are meant to work as standalone narratives, though together they add up to the complete experience of the novel. That said, most readers will probably want to start with Side A.
Like a vinyl single, Side A is the “hit,” it has a more immediate narrative hook, a propulsive plot, and plenty of character development. In the time-honored spirit of B Sides, the flip side of DAM is stranger and story comes at you from unusual and unexpected angles. It offers an alternate history, where the characters enact surprising new roles.
What role does music play in your writing and in your life?
I’ve always been obsessed with music and sought out exciting sounds in rock, jazz, hip hop, classical, and so-called world music. Growing up, I was lucky to have access to legendary freeform radio station WFMU and that opened my ears to everything from Indian ragas to No Wave noise. When I lived in New York City, I was constantly going to concerts. For many years, I even worked as a freelance critic to support my music habit. With my pal Jeff Golick, I founded the first jazz MP3 blog Destination: Out which showcased adventurous jazz. I’m proud that we turned a lot of people on to this great and often misunderstood music, and got written up by The New York Times, Wired, Playboy, and BBC News along the way.
Despite my love of music, I never learned an instrument or performed in a band. A couple of years ago, after I’d finished Destroy All Monsters, a friend asked me to contribute lyrics to his music project. We ended up writing a raft songs together and I became the lead singer. Our band is called Julian Calendar and we’ve recorded one album in various far-flung styles and are working on another. It’s been strange to make the transition from fan to musician after so many years—it’s something I never expected.
In terms of my fiction, I always think about the rhythm and flow of my sentences in terms of music, whether the passages are lyrical or staccato and abrasive. Music is also a source of subject matter–mysterious cassette tapes and a reclusive underground rock star play a key part in my first novel Mira Corpora. In some ways, DAM was my attempt to deal with music head-on and get it out of my system so I could move on to other things.
Can you talk more about your experience publishing the book? It’s experimental in a variety of ways – structure, p.o.v., and even the color of some pages. The book itself – aside from the narrative – takes risks. What was the process like in finding a book like this a home with a larger publisher, and what advice do you have for other writers who are writing more experimentally?
Selling this book took a long time. The first step was finding the right agent to represent it, a process that lasted many months. Then it was submitted to numerous publishers before Jeremy M. Davies at Farrar, Straus & Giroux bought it. He used to work at Dalkey Archive, so he’s familiar with books that make unusual narratives moves.
FSG bought the book purely on the basis of Side A. While I was shopping the manuscript, I was haunted by the idea of “B Side” narrative that would complement the main text. So I started writing it and finished a final draft shortly before FSG made their offer. I was thrilled when they agreed to publish both sides together in a “dos-a-dos” format, so each side has its own cover and you flip the book to begin the next side. They’ve embraced all the design challenges the book presented. It’s hard to imagine Destroy All Monsters any place better than FSG Originals, which is publishing some of the most edgy and exciting books right now.
For fellow writers doing adventurous work, my general advice would be to focus on the long game. Make sure your work is airtight before you show it to any agents or publishers. Be persistent and steel yourself for a lot of rejection. Expect things will take a long time. You’ll come up against gatekeepers who will assure you that publishers won’t take risks, but there are still editors looking for unusual material. And despite the so-called conventional wisdom, there’s absolutely an audience for this sort of work.
Jeff Jackson‘s first novel Mira Corpora was a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and featured on numerous “Best of 2013” lists, including Slate, Salon, and Flavorwire. His novella Novi Sad was published as a limited edition art book and selected for “Best of 2016” lists in Vice, Lit Reactor, and Entropy. As a playwright, six of his plays have been produced by the Obie Award-winning Collapsable Giraffe company in New York City. The New York Times selected his play Botanica as “one of the most galvanizing theater experiences of the year.”
Coleen Muir’s writing has appeared in publications such as Fourth Genre, Chattahoochee Review, Cream City Review, The Los Angeles Review, Silk Road Review, among others. She earned her MFA from the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She lives in Charlotte, NC. with her partner and their dog and two cats. She is currently working on a collection of stories.