JS Breukelaar has a name that’s as awesome as her fiction. When it comes to writing weirdness in a way that it packs as much strangeness as intelligence, there are few authors who come close to what Breukelaar is capable of, and American Monster, which was released early in 2014 by Lazy Fascist Press, is testament to that. This talented author and educator has a busy 2015 ahead of her, including new books teaching a four-week course at LitReactor. With all that goodness coming, I thought it was a good time to ask her some weird questions.
GI: Let’s get some important stuff out the way: can you please tell people that American Monster is much more than a sci-fi story? Thanks.
JS: I don’t know that I can. Okay, so it’s a novel, first of all. So yes, there is a sci-fi premise, but in the end it’s a fictional narrative that takes place over time with characters and settings and so on, and that asks the usual questions about what it means to be human. It began with a dystopian premise, sure. Given geopolitical conditions, and my own obsession with noir, that in itself isn’t so far fetched. Those ‘mean streets’ are by definition dystopic, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for me to project my fears and disappointments in my birth state of California onto a fictional, near future narrative.
There is very little that occurs in Spill City that hasn’t already, if not in California than somewhere in the world. Oil spills, cartels, earthquakes, floods, condo wastelands, border kickers, Michael Jackson lookalikes, 80s TV soundtrack drag shows. I’m sure there’s a Karaoke Schnitzel House, somewhere—cults like my made-up New Westborians, and body-building gang bangers like Augustine and his buddies—seemed to emerge of their own accord from a setting like this. So with Spill City what I was going for was my own emotional response to coming back to America—both estranged and deeply nostalgic at the same time.
American Monster began with three basic premises. What if California, my birth state, totally destroyed itself, as it so seems so intent on doing, environmentally, politically, and culturally? Two: what if the hot alien chick of scifi, is not so hot, not so alien, and maybe, not even a chick? And three: what if the lone-wolf hero gets sick of being a prop for our most dearly held myths and decides to reenter the game on a whole new footing? I know that none of these premises are particularly novel. We’ve seen them in works by Le Guin, Dick, Atwood, and others, anyone interested in doing serious working in genre writing ends up confronting these questions, not sooner or later, but from the outset. Shelley pretty much covered all three of those bases with Frankenstein.
The novel sets out to sharpen our focus on humanity through alienated eyes. The scifi novel takes it one step further, stretching the metaphor of alienation to breaking point. I think it has to break to be a really effective piece of fiction. As an ex-pat as I am, or as someone swimming against the literary or cultural streams, as so many genre writers are, the sense of loss, or of, sadness at both not being where we belong, and never quite being able see the world through the eyes of another, is at the heart of fiction, and scifi, in the words of Bladerunner’s Ray Batty amplifies the continually thwarted human need to see and be seen through the eyes of another. Sci-fi is the literature of alienation, it is a distillation of everything the novel tried to do in speaking to the modern condition in ways epic poetry, romance literature or any other of the premodern forms, hadn’t because there wasn’t a need for it. Function gave rise to form. When Cervantes wrote Don Quijote, the first Western novel, he produced a work of fiction which was, if not scifi, deeply weird. And I definitely tried to do all that with American Monster.
But I guess what you’re getting are the other elements in the book. There’s horror—blood and drool and outer and inner demons. There’s the fraught Frankenstinian relationships between the monster and its maker—Norma and Mommy, Norma and Raye, author and character, humanity and the monster we’ve made of America, our world. And then there’s the weird stuff. Norma’s wing man is Bunny, a hetero drag queen who does a Wonder Whoa-man act at a dive on the border called World Wide Wang, and her alter ego is a skinny demon-cowboy called Guy Manly. So that. And there’s sex. I mean the basic premise of Norma’s dentata and her being a quote-unquote program to find the perfect male for the brain-fried Mommy, is the running gag behind the whole novel. But it’s also a love story. Not just between Norma and Gene, but Norma falls in love with love. She falls hard for the child Raye, and Raye falls back, of course. Love is the drug. The connections the monster makes are key to alienating her from the creator’s messed-up mission.
GI: Norma is a vehicle you use to say/critique a lot. Did that come about naturally or did you set out to create a multi-layered character that would allow you to juggle the story and all that commentary?
JS: Norma grew and changed and became herself over time, as characters do. Everything is filtered through her eyes, which are of course, also my eyes. But that vision is increasingly contaminated by her relationships, which aren’t always my relationships. And her relationships, the connections she makes change her. Give her an empathy the mission couldn’t prepare her for, sever the apron strings to Mommy. Install in her human fears and frailties that make her feel both less and more herself. She’s just a piece of organic software, initially, programmed to find a receptor so Mommy can track humanity to its source code. But as she fucks and fights her way down the severed west coast, she changes and delivers some of the sad and beautiful facts of human existence to us through strange eyes that I hope seem true.
GI: Who/what is the biggest monster America is facing right now?
JS: Wow. That’s a question.
The American monster is everything we know it to be—poverty and racism and a culture of violence and waste and complacency, if not a lunatic self-supremacy. But I think what I’m able to see more and more from an ex-pat’s point of view, similar, I guess to Norma’s, is that America’s monster is in the end, no different than that of the rest of humanity’s and the sooner we get down with that the better. Charlize Theron’s image may be on bus stops from Glasgow to Gundagai, but most of the world from West Baltimore to Wollongong couldn’t give a flying fuck.
Americans are in a unique position in that we participate in the world second largest democracy, and our own giganticism—along with the particularities of history—gives the human suffering that I mentioned above a unique inflection. All that’s true. Racism is a problem in Australia too, both historically in terms of the indigenous population, and the fall-out of modern wars. But Australia has never been as divided as the US is over race, certainly not to the point of civil war. So there’s a strong anti-Asian sentiment here morphing from virulent anti-Asian racism to the current equating of Muslims with being terrorists. I teach at a university with a large Middle Eastern contingent, and during a class on Nineteen Eighty-Four, I asked my students to describe their particular definition of a dystopia, and a young woman said, being a Muslim woman in (conservative Prime Minister)Tony Abbott’s Team Australia program. For this student, the threat of racial profiling was already so real, the daily experience of having judgement already made against her, of being always already guilty, has created a kind of psychic, if not an actual ghetto here for people of Middle Eastern appearance. But even without historical influences, in a country with a population of 23 million, these problems are not going to be as explosive, as complex as they are in a country with a population of 300 million.
There’s a line in The Wire that speaks to everything I wanted to say in American Monster. It’s season 5 and Denis Cutty tells Dukie Weens that the world is bigger than the street and Dukie says, ‘How do I get from here to the rest of the world?’ Just asking the question, voicing his desire to be free, and knowing that there is a world out there in which that could be possible, sets Dukie apart, and amplifies his tragedy. There are characters like that in American Monster. Some get out, some don’t. And many of us know what that’s like.
Denial is a huge monster in the American closet. The tragedy is not just wanting to and not getting out, but in not wanting to. As Michael Kazepis says, ‘For fucks sake, we’re not alone in the universe!’ How many Americans wish they were, or have, on an individual level lost faith that they aren’t? This is the American monster, not just kids lost in the ghetto, not just complacent NPRers and indie darlings and California girls and professors and ‘American Snipers’ and clerks in Macy’s, but a loss of faith in possibility, in not knowing. How do you get from a distorted sense that American is all there is, to the reality that it’s not?
I know from profound personal defeat, so I can’t answer that any better than Cutty can, but I also know that it’s easy in a huge, unendingly complicated society to see it as the whole world or to not see it at all. Like Spill City. A fallen world-unto-itself. The LA sprawl, the NY trenches, San Diego Condoland—everyone has an exit strategy but no one ever leaves. But that whole other world— a world of unease and suffering and complexity and possibility— is out there and connections to it can help to address the suffering and inequities in America, or anywhere, on a more compassionate, more effective footing at the policy level. But that’s the challenge. The world is bigger than America and the Americans I know who are down with that are doing the best work, digging their way out and making art on a freer footing. I mean it’s more than travel, it’s a consciousness raising and a spreading the word. Studying Korean or New Zealand cinema, taking up writers’ residencies overseas, hitting the road in Amsterdam or Scotland or wherever, as more and more people are doing. This might not help the Dukie Weens of the world or the NPR ostriches, but it might. I’m talking about a cultural shift here, a change of emphasis from the bottom up. An acceptance that America is not the whole monster, and protest is one thing, but knocking down the walls is another.
For a brief moment, under the liberal administration prior to Australia’s conservative government, the marginalised and forgotten indigenous population here knew what it felt like to be the cool kids. The outside world became more aware of Australian indigenous culture and through government grants and the media, Indigenous cultural practice—dance, hip-hop, visual arts—got the nod from outside the country, which shamed white Australia into beginning to address its terrible record on Indigenous living conditions, infant mortality and black deaths in prison.
A poet friend of mine, Celina Ozymandias, came ‘home’ from Scotland to El Paso, only to discover that she no longer knew which was home. Things that she found hard to deal with at the beginning in Glasgow now seemed to her to have a merit, to be freeing. Another friend, D. Foy, is working on a new book set entirely in Europe, quite a departure from his previous work, which is about the closest thing to the great American novel I’ve read in a long time. I asked him if it freed him, not having to set his fictions in the USA, and he said he’s finding it totally liberating.
My new book is called Aletheia which means truth in Greek, but in the ‘true’ inflection of the word in that disclosure is partial and multiple and multiplicity will set you free. The parts are bigger than the whole. There are many paths from here to the rest of the big world—a world of gun control and universal health care, for starters—and that American monster is hopefully the one in the making. I hang with another American writer in Sydney, Sarah Klenbort, and she said she was so happy, in moving to Australia, to get away from having to use, and throw away, so many napkins! But there are times that we both feel terribly lonely and homesick and isolated here, not knowing where we belong, and I hope that not-knowing empowers my work.
GI: I have a Cool Last Name People Get Wrong All The Time club with a few friends (Michael Kazepis, Benoit Lelievre, Michael J. Seidlinger, etc.). Would you like to join us? What’s the weirdest spelling of Breukelaar you can remember?
JS: Brewerkaar. Broccolini, Breukglaar, Thanks to my kids for the last two.
GI: It looks like 2015 will be a big year for you. Can you tell us a bit about the projects coming our way?
JS: A novel with the agent now, a new collection under way called 20-20. Some interesting collaborations including with artists.
GI: What’s your favorite donut?
JS: The powdered sugar ones. They make your lips taste sweet all day.
GI: You write weird stories really well. Why did you decided to write superb strange fiction instead of making a bundle self publishing dinosaur porn?
JS: Thank you!
Strange fiction chose me. I grew up in the wilds of New York State when parental supervision amounted to a jug of Kool Aid in the fridge and someone’s big brother somewhere. Maybe. The real and imaginary worlds conspired against us in equal measure, and there was no one to explain it. I gorged on lake and fields and sky, stumbled over strange kindnesses and cruelties, ran away, came back. I devoured Poe, Bronte, Tolkien, Alcott, and Capote, and the Playboys and Hustlers someone kept in a tree hollow, the big brother, probably. My family hit bad times just as I was beginning to make sense of the beauty and strangeness of it all. When that happens, when one kind of insanity gives way to another and another, I think you just kind of give up ever trying to make sense of anything again. The random is the norm and you just grow gills to breath it in. With my fiction, it was never going to be any other way.
But Tyrannosaurus Sex. Definitely worth a shot.
GI: You’re teaching a four-week course on weird fiction for LitReactor. Does online teaching come as natural to you as face-to-face teaching? What can folks expect from a month under your guidance? How excited are you to be sharing your knowledge with aspiring authors?
JS: Coming through these myself, I always found that online models like LitReactor are a truly effective alternative to the standard, face to face MFA model. But teaching is something I had to come to over time, and my own writing instructors taught me as much about that as writing itself. One was Russell Rowland, who mentored me through online classes, and the other was Wells Tower, who made a huge impression at the Tin House Summer workshop, which I think is one of the more experimental, inclusive workshop experiences offered out there. I learnt as much about teaching as writing from them.
I still get incredibly nervous before the first class, whether it’s face to face or online. When I was a graduate student, about to teach my first class as an adjunct, my husband called to wish me luck but ended up trying to talk me out from under a desk. Fortunately he succeeded. And fortunately both the instructors I mentioned instilled in me a belief in fiction itself as bigger than me, than any of us. So all I need is a perfect story by Kelly Link or Stephen Graham Jones, and if I can say, do what they do, my people, it seems to work. Under my guidance, I hope that folks learn that trust. That writing is thinking. That knowing is death. And that reading is the heart of our practice.
GI: Do you have a bizarre public transportation story you can share with us?
JS: I was with my daughter on the Surf Liner from LA to San Diego, a trip I’ve made more times than I can count. I fell asleep and I woke up to soft voices and a big man holding court with a bunch of marines about his wolf. ‘Little bitty inside voices,’ he said gently with a smile I’ll always remember. ‘So we wouldn’t wake you.’ And that conversation became the moment I woke up to the story that would become America Monster, and to the character that would become Gene.
Another time my husband and I were on the train heading downtown on a date night and a homeless woman in her forties staggered into the compartment and asked if every body was happy. Is everybody happy? she kept saying. You and you and you, fixing each person with the penetrating stare of the addict, pointing to us in turn with one hand, and swigging on something with the other. Then she flashed her tits and did the splits—she seriously yanked up her maxi dress and dropped into a perfect splits on the floor of the train—and then she sat down and told me I was beautiful. The whole thing was kind of hot, actually. Like if Cinderella’s fairy godmother had traffic school and couldn’t make it, so she sent her own screw-up step-sister to do the job. It was a good date night.
So you got a twofer there.
GI: What’s your definition of creepy?
JS: What the Coen Brothers did to No Country for Old Men.
GI: Is it hard to keep up with social media in the US when you’re living in Sidney/the future?
JS: Unfortunately no. I can always be the first one to wish someone Happy Birthday on Facebook. Which is kind of creepy, right?