Welcome back to this three-part interview series on the creation of Psalms for the Wreckage, a trilogy of scripts in verse by poet and playwright Joshua Young. In this second interview, I sit down with J. A. Tyler—editor of Mud Luscious / Nephew—to chat cinematic writing, hybridity, and indie lit. Before its reprint in Psalms for the Wreckage, J. A. edited and published the first piece of Josh’s trilogy, To the Chapel of Light, under Mud Luscious’s Nephew imprint. As a fan of both J. A.’s writing and his editorial vision, I was thrilled to talk with him about the trilogy as well as his own work. Keep an eye out for the final interview later this month.
Tyler Crumrine: First, J.A., could you talk some about the Nephew imprint series? What inspired it, and what kind of work you were looking for?
J. A. Tyler: Though Mud Luscious Press was already focused on shorter, more aggressively linguistic books, when we were sifting manuscripts, I’d come across numerous shorter pieces, sized between short stories and novellas, and they were–like To the Chapel of Light–exactly the kind of works that drove us forward as a press. So while their size seemed restrictive at first, we decided to create an outlet for them: perfect-bound, pocket-sized slivers of wonder, as imaginative and innovative as anything else out there.
What can you remember about first reading To the Chapel of Light? And what made it a good fit as a Mud Luscious / Nephew title?
Billed as a “screenplay-in-verse”, I remember Young’s writing as so much more than that humble description let on; it was poetic, lyrical, strange, fantastic. The plot pushed forward swimmingly while the surrounding landscape, both in composition and subject, remained inventive and lively and bright, something like trying to hold to a bright, brilliant, elusive strike of lightning.
The “screenplay-in-verse” tagline was what first captivated me as a reader back in the day too. Before accepting the piece, though, did you worry whether a screenplay would fit well with a predominantly poetry & prose catalog and readership? Even as a press known for putting out hybrid-genre plays, I sometimes fear casual small press readers will be put off by theatre industry-specific language.
For me, the words “hybrid” and “indie” are synonymous with not only smart, savvy, well-written works, but with challenging, tough works that require a reader who loves language, who loves words, who is interested in seeing what else can be made from them. In this regard, I never worried much about anything beyond my gut-check level of heart-investment in any book we were publishing. I only worried about it afterward–and only medium-so anyway–when it came to marketing the book and making sure readers knew what they were getting themselves into.
That striving to discover “what else” can be done with words is a favorite hallmark of indie lit for me too, and one of Plays Inverse‘s goals is encouraging folks to think about what else can be done with scripts. Have you written, or considered writing, any plays or screenplays? I know you teach and direct theatre in schools, and I feel like some of the scenes in your book, Variations of a Brother War, have a cinematic, establishing-shot quality to them too.
Thanks for noticing the cinematic quality to some of those scenes; it is definitely an approach that appeals to me and that I pay attention to in crafting my work. As for plays and screenplays, funny enough, even though I teach both on a regular basis, I have not written any. In fact, it may be my closeness to so much daily dialogue that keeps the dialogue in my writing minimal, a kind of response to over-stimulus.
Speaking of your own work, what projects are you currently working on, writing or otherwise?
A few years back I finished a novel called Goners, which pulls old-school monsters, villains—mummies, ghosts, vampires, and pirates into the same place, into a magical realism world where they compose a new kind of family. More recently, I’ve been working to complete the first draft of a western that fragments the hero journey across a strained and volatile prairie.
Both of those projects sound really interesting. The American West is a prominent image in the Psalms trilogy too, with characters throughout heading westward in search new beginnings, some under better circumstances than others, and parts of each entry lean heavily into magical realism. What draws you to those genres in your own work, or to monstrous and Western imagery in particular?
Funny, for me I find that the western landscape, the unreal environs of the past or imagined apocalypses, more closely mirror my life, my relationships, and the world around me. Writing about monsters and violence and the fantastic better matches any realism I could write otherwise, is a better semblance of “real-life” than anything else.
As a theatre educator, are there any plays or resources you’d especially recommend to folks with an interest in dramatic literature, or that you frequently teach/recommend to your students?
The texts I use as classroom resources all the time are Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting, A Practical Handbook for the Actor, and David A. Ball’s Backwards and Forwards. And more recently, the one I’ve been crushing on is Richard Maxwell’s Theater for Beginners.
Josh always intended Chapel as the first part of a larger trilogy with When the Wolves Quit as the second part—but the trio of books-in-verse hadn’t been completed until now. Rereading To the Chapel of Light in the context of Psalms for the Wreckage, do the later parts of the trilogy change (or expand) your understanding of it at all?
One stellar element of Young’s work is that these pieces can be read both separately and in tandem, and either way will give the reader a livid, lasting, poetic experience. That being said, though, Psalms for the Wreckage does layer and complicate the trilogy as a whole in the best possible way: mostly, for me, in asking the reader to expand beyond a single piece and begin digesting how it all runs together and runs apart, how it is a set and a unit and a mash, all at once.
Lastly, I’d like to end on the same question I asked Oliver de La Paz: As a consumer of art as well as a creator, what works do you find exciting these days? And are there any recent authors, publishers, or trends you’re especially interested in following?
I’ve been stuck in the past for the last year or so, reading lots of Longfellow and thinking about how publishing looked in the mid to late 1800s, when consumerism was worlds apart from us now. I’m enthralled with the simplicity of their formats and designs, their focus on quality in production, and what role all of this played in the shape of our country.
J. A. TYLER‘s work has appeared in Diagram, Failbetter, Black Warrior Review, Fairy Tale Review, and New York Tyrant, among others. His novel The Zoo, A Going is available from Dzanc Books. He resides offline.
TYLER CRUMRINE is a Pittsburgh-based designer & dramaturg and the founding editor of Plays Inverse Press, a small press publisher of hybrid-genre theatre (www.playsinverse.com). Past design and dramaturgy credits include The New York Theatre Workshop, Signature Theatre Company, Bricolage Production Company, City Theatre Company, and others. More at https://www.crumrine.info