Andrew Byrds: It’s been five years from the publication of Crystal Eaters to the publication of Vincent and Alice and Alice, which as far as I’m aware is the largest gap you’ve had between novels. How has the last five years affected your approach to writing, and do you feel your prose becoming more meditative with the longer periods of working?
Shane Jones: I find my approach to writing becoming calmer, yet somehow more intense. Writing is what I love and I want to get better at it. Before it was rushed and erratic, this kind of youthful frenzy. Now the focus seems to be narrowing, and I find myself thinking deeply about things in the past I didn’t care much about, plot for example. And you’re right, the past five years is the largest gap between books. It wasn’t by design. I had other projects that just didn’t go anywhere.
AB: VAAAA is arguably the most grounded book you’ve written, in that it overtly deals less with magic realism and absurdism in favor of concrete real-heavy-shit issues one deals with as they become older. It’s established early in the novel that Vincent struggles approaching reality, and is one of the reasons Alice leaves him. It’s an extremely personal book, like your others, but without a thick veil over anything. A few years ago you published an excerpt from a worked titled THE NO MEMORY, that you ultimately scrapped. So my question is, did you find VAAAA to be one of your more personal works?
SJ: It’s modern for sure and the movement of the book is traditional or follows more straightforward storytelling. Melding fantasy with reality has always been an interest of mine, but now reality feels like such a fantasy I wonder if reality in fiction is where the truth is. It’s a personal book, but I’m not sure it’s any more personal than the others. It’s my only book completely written in the first person so that gives an illusion to being personal, I think.
AB: I remember reading an interview somewhere saying Light Boxes was written in vignettes on postcards and notepads whenever you could find time to write at your office job, but since then your books have not only physically become longer, but thematically more sprawling as well. Routine being one of the cornerstones of your book, do you follow any sort of routine when it comes to writing? Or do you change it up depending on what you’re working on?
SJ: I guess the routine has changed somewhat over the years but it’s always full immersion. With VAAAA, once I got going, I didn’t really do anything besides work and think about the book. Very few social interactions, no traveling, lots of sleeping, and just totally focused on the book. I risked getting fired from my day job, arguments with my family, the few friendships I have totally just gone, things like that. The routine seems to be either doing nothing at all or complete obsession. The difference now (I’m 39) is a more settled focus, less ego, wanting the book to carry the reader and not have the language physically overwhelm the reader. I want to disappear as the writer.
AB: what made you want to work on something about the office life? Was there any considerations you thought about to ensure the mundane aspect of office life wouldn’t make VAAAA be boring to readers?
SJ: I always wanted to write an office novel setting because it’s such a consuming world, becoming a kind of protective family but also a trap in that most of us are acting in these environments. It’s hard to see where the job title ends and the person begins. I wanted to explore that and I think at the ending where Vincent is walking into his co-workers cubicles he finally feels their humanity, especially when it comes to two of them. There’s also a lot of humor in this kind of setting which helps balance out the love story, which is pretty dreary.
AB: So has writing always been about this “obsession” you mention, or was there a time when you finally decided to dedicate yourself this immensely to writing? Especially in the modern age where writing, for most, can’t necessarily be just a hobby anymore, but a means of dissecting, making sense of the world, but still needing to financially make things possible.
SJ: Maybe obsession is the wrong word? I don’t know. I love writing. I think the novel is the most important technology, object, art form, that we have. I remember being in my early twenties and the only place to hang out was Borders Books and I’d go there and want to be on the shelves in the lit section. It felt like everything would be okay if I could be on the shelves there, be part of some big conversation. Or like Jean Rhys said, I forget the exact quote, just be one of the little streams feeding into the ocean. It didn’t matter if what I wrote was a tiny stream, it was still going into that ocean.
AB: While working on VAAAA, did you hone your own perspectives of office life more? As in, you spend a few years working on a fiction and creating these characters, kinda living with these characters awhile, seeing their own world, did it make your own reality more humane and somewhat beautiful? You mentioned before how you see the fantasy in reality more clear now.
SJ: That’s a really interesting question. I think, now being finished with the book, it made me more patient and have more empathy for people. It made me react less cynically and now I’m more understanding. Or at least I hope so. My wife always tells me, “Everyone you meet is a teacher” when I’m complaining about life, and I think that holds true for every book you write. I think Vincent near the end of the book has this moment, especially when he sees Sarah’s life open up outside who he knows as an office worker. Same with Francesca. The others not so much, but he does physically enter their cubicles and feels something. It’s easy to rolls your eyes at someone talking about the weather in really cliched language, but maybe it’s just their way to connect.
AB: Early in the book, one of the characters–Dorian Blood–asks Vincent if he is happy, and Vincent says something along the lines of “I don’t think being happy is part of the plan.” In the grand scheme of things, do you feel happiness is something people should strive for, something they should find or create? I want to tie this into this idea of routine that VAAAA explores and complement it with Camus’ idea that the moment someone breaks a routine/habit, that’s when depression/existential dread sets in.
SJ: I think searching for meaning is important, or finding what you think is meaningful, and that can lead to feelings of happiness, but searching exclusively for happiness seems dangerous to me. Happiness in a hot fudge sundae sounds okay to me though. That’s something I’ve been wanting now for weeks, a hot fudge sundae, something I’ve never ordered before, and I’m just not getting one. Not sure why. In the novel Vincent is constantly looking to other people (and either the past or the future) for happiness which leads to much of his torment. He never goes inside or can function in the present, whatever that truly means. The routine part of the novel is the illness and the cure. I’ve never read Camus.
AB: Can you tell me how VAAAA found its way to Tyrant Books? What draws you to Tyrant, and why do you feel its a good home for your book?
SJ: I just think what Gian is doing is really fresh and interesting and raw. It’s exciting. It’s the perfect place for the book. It means something. Like, what does it mean to be published by Knopf or Random House currently? Those types of places had a feel and vibe ten, fifteen years ago, and now they don’t. They are the great producers of product. Tyrant has a real feel and I’m grateful to be a part of it. As far as how it found its way to Tyrant, I just emailed Gian something like “I have a novel if you want to read it” and he said “sure” and then accepted in a few weeks later.
AB: Are you the kinda writer who charts their growth with each successive novel/book, or is each work a self-contained creative zone that still speaks for you as an artist? Some writers regret certain books, others consider their most recent their best. I’m curious how you approach this.
SJ: I’m aware of the previous books, and try not to repeat at all. This new novel is drastically different than the last one and I’m proud of that. I don’t regret any of the books I’ve published because they felt right at the time. Charting growth isn’t realistically for me because each book feels like a real grind, especially finding a publisher. Each book, approaching the end, I just keep asking myself “Is this it, you piece of shit, is this the best you can do?” and if I answer yes over the course of a year then I’m good. Then I do this thing where I open up the manuscript to a random page and read one paragraph. If that paragraph doesn’t drive me into a depression or make me want to hang myself then I know I’m on the right path. I do that move hundreds of times during the last stages of editing, over months, until I can open to a random paragraph, read it, and feel okay.
AB: Now that VAAAA is officially published, will you allow yourself to linger on it and see how it does, or do you try to move on to the next project as soon as possible? Is there ever a cooldown period between finishing your last book and working on the next?
SJ: Big cool down. Going to get super depressed. I need to get that voice out of my head and then maybe another project. I want the book to sell 50,000 copies and win all the awards.
AB: Finally, now that it’s all said and done and you had some time to chew on it awhile, after VAAAA do you find reality only getting stranger the more you come to understand it? And does that quell the voice in your head?
SJ: One thing I’ve noticed recently is my viewpoint on reality has changed in that I’m getting slightly older, with 40 right around the corner. So I’m kind of on this hump, and on either side of the hump is the “saying hello to the world” and on the other side is the “saying goodbye to the world.” That, for me, makes reality stranger. I’m trying to be calmer, think more in the moment, exercise for the first time in my life, anything to be here. I don’t have an answer but I want to keep searching for the answer knowing there isn’t one.