Jeff Jackson and Josh Yates are truly unique voices in each of their respective mediums. Jeff’s prose is truly singular, gritty and otherworldly; both firmly of this world – occupying the woods behind your house, the Chinese place you used to frequent after a show with your scene buddies – and then taking you deep into another, where abandoned theme parks are haunted by gibbons and there are maps to secret places where you can bring the dead back to life. Josh’s film and video work also blurs similar lines; his work feeling both terrifyingly real and also dreamlike – at one moment you’re frantically following someone through backyards and familiar alleyways with the unmistakable grain of VHS and the next you’re seemingly flying at high speeds down a country road in high definition.
In addition to his work as a playwright, Jeff’s latest short story, The Dying of the Deads was recently published at The Common literary magazine- http://www.thecommononline.org/dying-deads-story-three-parts and his debut novel, Mira Corpora, which came out last year, was published by Two Dollar Radio and got praised by heavy hitters Don DeLillo and Dennis Cooper. Yates is currently finishing up an adaptation of Jackson’s The Dying of the Deads as his thesis film at University of Iowa where he is receiving his MFA in Film and Video Production. His and Jeff’s first collaboration was for a book trailer for Mira Corpora got featured over at VICE. You can get freaked out by watching it here – https://vimeo.com/73478632. His work has been programmed at the Indie Grits film festival, Atlanta Film Festival and the Montreal Underground Film Festival, as well as many others. I spoke with both Jeff and Josh about their work, practice, what they’re up to now and The Dying of the Deads.
Jeff Jackson Interview
(due to conflicting schedules, Jeff and I corresponded via email)
You seem comfortable with your work being interpreted by others; with Yates’ film adaptation of your story “The Dying of the Deads” and having other people direct the plays you write. What, if any, is your involvement in those pieces after the writing is finished?
With the plays, I’m completely involved throughout the process. It’s very collaborative and I love that about it. I’ve been working with director Jim Findlay for almost 20 years. We often come up with the conceptual framework for the show together before I start writing. The shows are somewhere between traditional plays, performance art, and installation art. Our last piece was a 12-hour adaptation of the epic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber, performed in a basement in Times Square for a sleeping audience, complete with beds. I often write the text in stages and keep adjusting it based on what’s happening in rehearsals. In fact, it’s not uncommon for me to rewrite and tweak even after the show has opened.
It’s been totally different with film adaptation for “The Dying of the Deads.” I’m there to help whenever the filmmaker needs it. And otherwise I keep a respectful distance and let Yates do his thing. It’s his film and his vision, though I appreciate how he’s asked for my comments on the treatment and other aspects. He’s clearly trying to ensure his film inhabits the world I created as fully as possible. I spent a couple of afternoons helping him interview the actress who plays the role of Sara. We asked her questions in character, touching on things that aren’t explicit in the short story to flesh out her personality. It was more than a little surreal to talk to a manifestation of a character I had invented so many years ago.
Don DeLillo says, “Let’s not forget that writing is convenient. It requires the simplest tools. A young writer sees that with words and sentences on a piece of paper that costs less than a penny he can place himself more clearly in the world.” – do you buy this? Do you find that you were drawn to writing because it didn’t require much, whereas if you are going to make narrative films, even short films you need money, a crew, etcetera? Even a painter needs a canvas, paints, cleaning supplies, all of which are far more expensive than a pencil and paper. Was the economics of writing ever something that drew you to it?
Not consciously. But it’s a serious bonus that I appreciate more and more as I get older. The bigger appeal of writing fiction for me is that I didn’t have to answer to anybody. I love collaboration, but I’ve also got a strong need to be solitary and make something that’s solely mine. I can let the perfectionist control freak inside me run amok.
I’ve read so many heartbreaking stories about genius filmmakers like Michael Powell, Orson Welles, and Julie Dash who couldn’t get funding to make movies. They were kept from practicing their art because of money. Fortunately, a writer doesn’t have that problem – or that excuse. Even if your work only gets published on your blog, you can still create it to the grandest degree possible on the page. The only limit is the confines of your imagination.
There seems to be a fascination or preoccupation or emphasis with the body in your fiction. I’m digging here maybe but it’s in the title of your novel, so I can’t be digging that much. Anyway, it’s something I’ve also found in the work of Dennis Cooper and William Burroughs, and certainly plenty of others for that matter, and I’m fascinated by this idea that in a medium that is completely cerebral and totally exists in the head of the creator and then the head of its readers, there are folks who almost try to force the reader out of this head space and make the reader address his or her own body, or at least be made aware of it because the body plays such a key role in the work itself. Anyway, do you think about any of that? Does the body or does “the physical” influence or affect your work?
There’s definitely an emphasis on the body in Mira Corpora. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure where it came from. Maybe it’s partly that the characters tend to be less verbal and relate to each other more physically. A lot of things get expressed by their bodies, truths they could never express any other way. I definitely want my writing to feel visceral, for the world on the page to seem as tactile and sensory as possible – even while it also feels a bit dreamlike. I like work that hits readers in the gut and creates an emotional reaction that isn’t easy to verbalize.
I watched an interview with Dennis Cooper where he says, “As soon as you say something it’s not accurate because language is incapable of capturing what you feel or think… I say something and I think it’s completely true, but I’m sure it isn’t.” I also read where you’ve stated, “I was aiming for an emotional honesty, but I wasn’t ever sweating the so-called facts.” If you don’t keep facts straight can you still tell the truth? Is truth even important?
“Truth” is one of those words that everyone seems to define differently. It’s a word I try to avoid because it tends to sow confusion. For me, when it comes to literature, the facts and the truth aren’t necessarily related. There’s the old saw that fiction is the lie that tells the truth. Werner Herzog talks how he sometimes changes facts in his documentaries because he wants to capture “the ecstatic truth” and not “the truth of accountants.”
Did all the events in Mira Corpora happen to me? The narrator addresses this in the section “I Continue”: Who cares, he says. The facts don’t matter. Whether I personally experienced every single thing in those pages or I invented every single thing, it wouldn’t add or subtract any legitimacy to the story. What matters is what’s on the page itself. What matters is the way the events are described and embodied and whether they did something for you. The right combination of words is its own truth. In literature, that’s the truth that is important.
Can you explain the significance or importance of magic/surreal/unnatural to you and your work? It plays a clear role in “The Dying of the Deads” and you mentioned to me in a recent play you were trying to contact the director’s dead mother with voodoo.
I’m drawn to heightened and stylized realities. I like setting stories in worlds that feel like ours, but with more possibilities. Surreal but plausible. Dreamy but tactile. Hopefully the occult and magic elements function as both a metaphor and a possibility. I’m also attracted to older rites and rituals and what place they might have in our modern world. Can they function and be harnessed even if we don’t fully believe in them? I guess the larger project is to widen the perception of the world around its possibilities and us. There’s so much mystery out there and I want to lean into that.
There’s a great bit from filmmaker Stan Brakhage where he introduces himself this way: “I am learning how to cast spells. My profession is transforming.” It’s an interesting way to think about your art and what you’re trying to achieve. The world doesn’t need another well-crafted book, but maybe it could use a fresh incantation.
You’ve mentioned that you went through quite a number of revisions for Mira Corpora and cut a lot of pages, did The Dying of the Deads come from any of these cuts?
Yes, “The Dying of the Deads” was part of the original version of Mira Corpora. It lived in various places in that manuscript and at one point it was the ending of the book. I hated to cut it because I felt it was one of the best things I’d written to date, but the more fantastical happenings and sprawling story didn’t fit the tone of the novel. It had to go. I’m glad it’s been published on its own in The Common literary magazine and hopefully the short film will bring it more readers, too.
What is next? Can you tell us about what you’re working on? Is there a new novel, short story or play in the works?
I’m working on a new novel that’s tentatively titled Destroy All Monsters. It’s my attempt to write the last rock and roll novel. It’s more plot-driven than Mira Corpora and features a female lead character. I hope it’s close to being done, but I’ve thought that before.
I’m still working on the theater piece Vine of the Dead, that touches on voodoo and the occult uses of early technology like radio waves. We’re trying to create a ritual to contact the dead. I’m hoping it will be presented this fall in New York City.
I’m also co-writing an eco-horror screenplay loosely based on my play Botanica. To get Hollywood for a sec, it’s a combination of David Cronenberg’s The Fly and Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing.
How excited are you to see Yates’ adaptation? How’d you two hook up? His trailer for Mira Corpora is pretty great.
I’ve no doubt the final film is going to be fantastic. I met Joshua Yates when he took an American Independent Film class I occasionally teach at UNC Charlotte. He really connected with the material and we struck up a friendship afterwards. We share a bond over outsider filmmakers like Harmony Korine, Maya Deren, Philippe Garrel, Shuji Terayama. Even though I’m a bit older, I feel like we view and appreciate art in similar ways. In my extremely biased view, I think his book trailer for Mira Corpora is one of the best of its kind. Yates has great things ahead of him.
Interview with Josh Yates
(Josh and I spoke at his apartment over a few Old Fashioneds, baked potato salad, and the best fried chicken I’ve ever consumed, all of which he prepared. In addition to being an experimental filmmaker, Josh is also, apparently, quite the Southern Gentleman. He tells me the secret to the fried chicken is to marinate in pickle juice. Think about that.)
So where are you at right now in your filming of The Dying of the Deads? How is that going?
Filming wise, we’re 75% done. It’s a 3 part film and just because of time and just trying to get it done on the timeline that I have, I shot part two here in Iowa because that section is sort of disconnected from the rest of story – it introduces new characters and spaces and at the end of that section it finds main characters from the first section. So, I shot the second part here in early December, but I’d say I committed to the story in late June or early July. I had another idea that was something of my own, but that had a lot to do with re-inserting myself into where I grew up, and just because of drama going on and feeling out of place – not that I wasn’t welcome, more like it wasn’t okay for to come in and feel like I’m exploiting something instead of just hanging out with my friends, and I had a problem with that just because. Because I’m not going to use the people I grew up with to make something and share it with a bunch of strangers. So then the thought was let’s go to a world that’s already made, already constructed. Then, pretty much just hit up Jeff. I think he sent me 4 short stories? Deads stood out because of its title and the overall structure.
How’d you hook up with Jeff – I know he taught a class you took in school and you shot that amazing trailer for his novel….
We stayed in touch after school on social media. We ate at The Diamond in Charlotte, North Carolina before I moved away and that’s where he told me about it (his novel) and then he sent me the copy he sent to potential publishers and stuff – actually I don’t think we were on social media then, just email, and me really appreciating him as a teacher. He always let me borrow really great stuff. The class was a survey in American independent cinema – Cornell, David Lynch, Maya Daren, Brackhage, Charles Burnett, it was a perfect balance of shit you need to know about, and stuff you already know about but need to learn.
You’ve mentioned to me having an interest in occupying some middle ground between the art world and mainstream…do you see The Dying of the Deads as occupying this middle ground?
Well, when I check in self-progress wise, I need to check in narrative wise.
What do you mean?
Well, I think narrative sucks, because it’s made to be about story and stories are tired and by that I mean like cinema – you look at the history of cinema and it was slowed down, or inhibited by the introduction of sound. All of a sudden you’d see actors reaching over each other to talk into a mic. Half the problem is we’re moving too fast. I wish everything would slow down.
So did sound destroy an element of –
I definitely can’t say that, but that idea…I’d say I think about it a lot.
Can you elaborate more on the appeal of The Dying of the Deads? You mention it as a sort of bridge between more experimental world and narrative world; was it’s unconventional narrative an appeal to you?
Well, I loved his novel – and I read it in three different states so whether or not I was consciously doing it, it was imprinting itself on me. It was something I was always coming back to. And then ultimately what happened with what was my initial idea of a thesis falling through and thinking you know, what can I do? Whose fiction am I fond of? Then the structure of the story, and also I just saw a lot in it that I could add visually.
This story’s about this girl, this girl has to be special, and so I thought of Kat. She’s a girl I know from Charlotte. She was the first person I thought of and she confirmed early on. The Kid was the second character I locked in. I knew I wanted to have voice over and give it to The Kid because he only said one or two lines in the short story and he felt pretty crucial but inactive for me visually- so I gave the voice over to him in the first act because the first act is very much about his and Isaac’s point of view – the second is more of an omniscient point of view, then in the third act it’s about Sara. So those were some of the bigger things that I changed.
If story is tired, what’s it about capturing for you?
It’s not that I have anything against story; story is just simpler to me; you can make a really grand 90-minute movie of a guy walking to his mailbox, you can do that.
When I go to a theatre it’s about giving myself over to someone else’s point of view. I think points of view should be complicated. I ask myself how much time do I feel comfortable taking up of someone else’s? I’m always for trimming my shit down because time is the ultimate thing. For me, I don’t really make stories as much as like…it’s hopefully going to be something you remember. In this film everyone has their own scenes or moments but I want the audience to be like, “Oh, that’s the movie that starts with that dude with the crazy hair who’s staring at his hand with a girl running in it while Pantera is playing!” That’s how you start a fucking movie. That or be whack and do what everyone else does.
Jeff Jackson – www.deathofliterature.com Josh Yates – www.thisisyates.com