Chance Operations, Literary Specificity and La Monte Young: A Conversation with Jeff Jackson

Author photo

The first time I met Jeff Jackson, I wasn’t sure what to expect. His debut novel Mira Corpora, a surreal and occasionally horrific coming-of-age story, had left me reeling as I read it; as it circled its narrator’s  experiences with violence, and those experiences’ effect on him, I found myself haunted. In person, Jackson is an incredibly friendly guy–affable, well-versed at discussing everything from jazz to literature in translation, and erudite about his own working process.

Earlier this month, I met up with him in Times Square. Jackson was in New York along with Dream of the Red Chamber, a play for a sleeping audience that he co-wrote with the play’s director, Jim Findlay. (I wrote a quick piece on the experience here.) After taking in the performance space, we headed to a coffee shop where we sat and discussed everything from plays for sleeping audiences to Jackson’s prose to the films of Shane Carruth.

How did the play come about?

I’ve been working with the director for at least fifteen years, on and off. And we were finishing up the last project, Botanica, and he was telling me that he had been at a play, and it was really boring, and he really hated it. He said, “I was so tired from working that I found myself falling asleep during the play, and waking up. It was much more pleasurable when I couldn’t really understand it. And when I paid full attention, it was so stupid and so insipid, that I wish I could have catnapped through the entire thing. The fragmented version that my brain had concocted was so much better than what had been written.” He was joking, and he said, “All I want to do is make a play for a sleeping audience.” And I said, “We should do that next, and we should do Dream of the Red Chamber.” Which is a book we’ve both loved for many years, but we’ve never known how to crack it. It was just a joke at the time, and we both laughed. And then, five minutes later, we were like, “Huh–actually, that’s a really good idea.”

Dream of the Red Chamber, the novel, is 2400 pages. But dreams and sleep are really important in the book, because whenever people fall asleep in the book, that’s when they’re able to access different realms of reality. That’s when they’re able to remember past lives; that’s when gods and goddesses come down and talk to the mortals. There are messages in dreams about what you should do in your life, or how you shouldn’t repeat past mistakes. There’s a whole metaphysical level to the book that’s really important, that happens in dreams. It seemed like a natural way to do it.

Also, the book is so sprawling. There are TV miniseries in China, but they’re eighty one-hour episodes. Miniseries. There’s no way to do the book, so we thought, “We’ll do it as a literal dream play, and we’ll do it for a sleeping audience. We’ll have beds, and people are going to lie down…” The other big influence for the piece was this sound installation by La Monte Young called Dream House. It’s in New York, off Canal Street; it’s one of the best places in New York.

I have, shamefully, never been.

I lived in New York for thirteen years, and I never went when I lived here. It was only four years ago, when I was back on a trip, that I finally went to Dream House. Everyone should go. It’s definitely the best sound installation that I’ve ever seen. It’s also one of the most impactful pieces of art I’ve ever experienced. It’s impactful with minimal means. There are just four speakers, one in each corner of the room; each speaker has eight channels. Each point in space is a different sound. It’s really loud; it’s almost like being at a Sonic Youth concert. But you can talk without having to raise your voice, and it doesn’t blow out your ears, because of something about the frequencies. It’s also very meditative; it’s super-loud, but it’s also very massaging and meditative. The longer you’re in that space, the more your body becomes attuned to it, like a tuning fork. With a little move of your head, the whole space changes around you. So what we wanted to create was a sort of environment for the dream play that had this kind of ecstatic trance state that would really make people want to zone out.

How much did the location play into that? Was it designed for this particular space, or…

We’ve been doing it for two years, and we’ve taken it to three different spaces so far. This is the finished version of it; we did work-in-progress shows, what we called “open studios.” We were really lucky to get this space. We knew we wanted to do it off-site. There was a relationship with Times Square. This didn’t fall into place until three weeks ago. We had this opportunity to do it in the basement of the Brill Building; we had seen the space about four months ago, and drew up a schematic for it. But it took them a long time to approve it; they finally did, and we felt like, even though it was last-minute, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do it here. It’s such an amazing space.

Each time, it’s kind of a site-specific work. Each time we do it, it has to be spatially redesigned. Musically, there’s a general flow of the piece, the way it’s constructed. The text sections and movement sections are all the same, but how they play out in the space is different every time. Before, we’ve really only done it for fifteen beds. This time, it’s forty beds, plus twelve seats. It’s a whole different scale. We had to restage a lot of things for the space.

As a writer, how do you write something for an audience where not everyone will be conscious?

That’s been the fun challenge for the piece. I’ve mainly been trying to find…how to write text that’s very simple. How to write text that can be looped, so that, via repetition, people might get it, or not get it. How to create situations that mirror each other enough, so that even if you’re only in there for an hour, an hour and a half, you might see two situations that are mirrored later on; you’re getting shards of the story. There are sections where the characters will come out and sit at the dream machine and say a few lines of text that are free-floating fragments that connect little bits of story.

The challenge has really been…not about how to get people to pay attention, but how to create text in a way so it can exist in the room and activate connections for people. So it activates connections between what you see in the video and what you see performers doing; what you’re hearing and what the set is. Enough shards of narrative to get people to start to form a story in their head. How to tease out something that’s not quite a story, but almost a story, so that you want to complete it. And I’ve tried to have different text sections doing different things. Some of them are on video, and really present in the room. Some of them are actual scenes that are dramatized between the characters, that are  more straight-up theatrical. Some of them are twelve-page scenes that are boiled down to a series of haikus or something. Some of it are scenes that characters are narrating about each other’s experiences. I tried to do some different approaches, but it’s been a lot of trial and error, too.

You’d said earlier that there’s also an element of chance to how it’s ordered.

Part of it is, we found that when we tried to map things out too carefully, the dreamlike quality of the show would evaporate. We’ve used chance operations to take some of that out of our hands. We know that certain things happen at certain hours; we have certain kinds of activities and major events that have to happen. That might be one of five things, and once that’s happened for the night, that card is taken out of the deck. That won’t happen again; then, for the next major event, we’ve got four things to choose from. Now, we’re trying to find a balance between the amount of wordless ambiance that’s happening and the amount of text that’s happening, and what kind of text. Making sure there’s a good ebb and flow of that. It’s really about activating connections more than it’s about telling a story. If you were here for all thirteen hours of the overnight, you would get the story. But it’s going to be all jumbled, like a dream.

One thing we also found with the performers is: they have certain tasks and certain scenes that they’re out there to do, that have been staged. But when they knew how long they were going to be out there to do those, it became more like theater: they created this arc. We found that audiences became very anxious, because they felt like they were missing something. In order to create the suspended state, we don’t tell them how long they’re going to be out there for any one scene. So for any one scene, they might be out there doing the scene once, or it might loop two or three times. They might be out there doing this dance, or a choreographed video piece for five minutes, or they might be out there for fifteen minutes. They have to get up there and get interested in it and give themselves over to it. We’ve found that when they did that, audiences were willing to be interested, but not so interested that they got anxious, and they could give over to taking a little nap–they could nap for a little bit, but they could wake up and catch up, and that’s okay.

Refining the state of mind has almost been more important that the individual words of the text. The conceptual framework has been more important than the individual narrative strands.

Is this similar to the other work you and the director have done, or has that been more narrative-based?

The last play we did, Botanica, was a lot more narrative-based. We really felt like this time, we wanted to jump off a cliff and do something different, and do something that would really challenge our process. Part of it was: we always felt this burden to make sure that the audience was entertained.  Even when we said, “We don’t really care what people think,” we did. And I think we tended to overwork things; we tended to be more maximalist when we didn’t need to. We were really enslaved to the audience relationship. We wanted to see what happens when we’re not asking people to pay attention; what happens when the contract is broken. We’re still giving the audience something, but we’re not asking for their attention. We were interested in seeing what would happen with that, and also force us to rethink our process, to get a healthier working process. One of our mantras was, “How little can we do?” And thinking back to Dream House, what’s the biggest effect we can have with the smallest gesture?

How did you first encounter the novel that this is all adapted from?

There are so many different versions of this book. Penguin put out this miniature–it was eighty pages long, the first five chapters of the book. I picked up that and read it and was fascinated. And then I picked up this adaptation of it that was put out in the 50s, that was three hundred pages, and read that. And when we decided to work on the show, we both read the full 2400-page version. There are two different translations of that: there’s the Penguin translation, which takes a lot of liberties, and then there’s a version that the Chinese government put out that’s very plain, but it includes everything in it. We were bouncing between those; we were bouncing between this condensation and adaptation; there’s also another translation that we were looking at. It’s a book that I’ve always liked, and Jim Findlay and I talked about it and never knew how to crack until this idea of the sleeping audience came up. It’s always been one of those “maybe someday we’ll get to it.”

Are there other projects that you two are working on at the moment?

The next project is in process; we just got a grant for it. It’s called Vine of the Dead. We’re going to be working on it in November. That involves trying to contact the dead, and trying to find a way to tap into a ritual and create something that’s still a performance for an audience, but that’s different every time. There isn’t quite a script; it’s more of a transcript of a ritual that’s happening, and depending on how the ritual goes that night depends on what is being transmitted to the audience. We’ve got a lot to work out on it.

In the interview you did with Electric Literature a few months ago, you said that the work that you do for theater and the work that you do in prose are relatively unconnected. But I’m curious, because I feel like some of what you’ve said about creating connections between fragments could also apply to your novel.

I think you’re right. I think that some of those connections are easier seen by people other than me, outside of it. Because theater is so collaborative, it feels so different to me than the fiction writing. In terms of the interest in dream states, with Mira Corpora, I was definitely interested in trying to evoke a hypnogogic state, like right before you wake up. And certainly Dream of the Red Chamber is interested in some of those same states. Some of the interest in fragments, for sure. With the new piece, it carries over; certainly, the interest in ritual, very much so. There’s a lot of ritual throughout Mira Corpora. It’s something I’m very interested in.

The more I write and the more I work on the theater with Jim, the more intensive that becomes. Those things will start to overlap more and inform them, at least in more ways that I’m aware of.

Have you been working on new fiction since Mira Corpora was finished?

Yes. I’m basically done with the next book. It took a long time to find an agent for Mira Corpora; a very long time. And then it took a very long time to sell the book. There was a long stretch of time when I was convinced it would never come out in the world. Even before I started looking for agents, when I was still getting some feedback from people, doing the final polishing on the book, I started the next book. During the process of many, many rejections, it was something I clung to, because it was something I could control. I had no control over what was happening with Mira Corpora, but at least I could work on the new thing.

It’s been two and a half years that I’ve been working on it. Mira Corpora took five years. After Mira Corpora, I had notes for two new projects. One of them, I could tell, was going to be a quagmire that was going to take me a long time to finish, and the other was a simpler, slightly more straightforward story that I felt like I had a better handle on. I thought, maybe the smart thing to do after having immersed myself in a quagmire that had many cul-de-sacs and a huge learning curve–maybe I should do this slightly simpler story. It’s been a real pleasure to work on that. Two and a half years isn’t fast by Michael Seidlinger standards, but it feels good. I finished a third draft of the whole thing. Each of the five sections were drafted ten or fifteen times before I put them all together. Now I’m starting to send it out to some friends and am getting some feedback and doing a final polish on it. I’m hoping that, in a few months, it’ll be done. Let me knock on however much wood is here…

In Mira Corpora, there are certain things that you’re very specific about, but other things are much more ambiguous: the fact that the cities go unnamed, the way that geography behaves. Is that something that comes out organically as you write, or is it something that you work towards?

That was the idea from the get-go. There were times where I had to be conscious to strip back certain descriptions that I didn’t want to tilt it towards a place where people would say, “Oh, I know exactly where that is.” That was conscious, but it was also the idea of trying to create a slightly heightened reality. I didn’t want to set it in a specific time period; I didn’t want to set it in a specific city or a specific area of the woods or whatever. But I did want to offset that by being as specific as possible about the environments themselves.

It’s interesting, because some people are convinced that they know exactly where it’s set. One person said to me, “I read that you grew up in central New Jersey, and that explained everything about the book to me!”  And I wondered, “Well, what central New Jersey did you grow up in?”

I grew up in central New Jersey, and I didn’t get that impression at all.

Yeah. So–people have different takeaways from all of this. Which is great!

Last year, I saw the film Upstream Color, and I spent a lot of it trying to figure out where it was supposed to be set. “I think they’re in Seattle…” It took me a while, watching it, to realize that the filmmakers were being really coy about where it was happening.

It’s funny–I had the exact same reaction. “Is this Dallas? Is this Portland?” I thought it was a really smart move for that movie. I think there are certain books where specificity of space and time are really important, and to cheat on that is really cheap. But for me, for Mira Corpora, it was really important to bleach some of that out and compensate by being specific in other areas, like you said.

Are you using the same approach for the book you’re working on now?

The reality is a little less heightened. It’s a little less dreamlike. But it’s still heightened somewhat, and it’s still bleached out a little bit, but not quite as much.

Do you do any shorter-form prose work?

I have a lot of short stories that I wrote that I sent out for a little while. It felt like a waste of time and energy to keep worrying about that, and I decided that I wanted to work on something longer. I started out writing short stories; with Mira Corpora, the very early impulses of it were a series of short connected stories. I realized early on that I was fooling myself as a way of learning how to write a novel. I still think about things in sections. That’s important to me. I think about it holistically, but the sections are important to me as a way to have a little more control over the material, to not let it sprawl in a way that feels like I can’t shape it. I think of them in story units, still. That, maybe, goes back to the short stories that I started out writing.

I have a lot of them in the drawer. They’re pretty different from Mira Corpora; at this point, I like them, but it feels weird trying to put them out into the world, because it’s a slightly different writer who wrote them. I also had this idea that every story had to have a completely different universe and style, and I needed to re-create myself from the ground up with every story. I’m not sure it really does the stories a service… I cut back on some impulses that probably should have carried through in all of them. It’s interesting: reading a lot of J.G. Ballard, and reading interviews with him, he talked about not worrying about his obsessions, and not worrying about the fact that he repeated, and that once he stopped worrying about that, that’s when the work got really good. And that they would disappear once they’d burned themselves out naturally. He didn’t need to stifle them himself. It was kind of a slap in the face for me, in the best way.

A couple of months ago, I interviewed Nicola Griffith, and she was saying that she felt like she had to create an entire world, whether she was writing a short story or a novel, and so she’d rather write a novel because of that process.

I can relate to that more and more. There’s also something really pleasurable about immersing myself in a world for long enough to get to know it. I’m a slow writer. It takes me a lot of drafts to figure out what’s happening, to understand the characters. A lot of things happen that surprise me; I’m constantly revising my ideas about what this even is. And that happens in short stories over twenty pages; it’s still this really long process. There’s something nice about learning and being able to build on that learning in a longer piece, and not having to exit the world of the piece just as I’m getting to know it.

Earlier, you’d said that you had lived in New York for a while, but had left. Do you find that that’s had any effect on your writing, either for the theater or your prose?

Definitely. I lived in New York for thirteen years. I love New York, and I love that the theater productions that I work on bring me back to New York a couple of times a year; it’s been really wonderful. Moving out of New York has also been great for me. I’m the sort of person who, if there are a bunch of really obscure, cool films playing, or a bunch of really great jazz concerts, or a bunch of wonderful museum exhibitions, I prioritize that over my own work. And I have this obsessive-compulsive desire to keep consuming art in a way that was really unhealthy for my own writing. I think, too, New York put a lot of static in my head. I get interested in other people’s obsessions and not my own. The sort of things that were in the air that I didn’t even realize I was picking up on.

Leaving New York was really healthy for me, to go to a place where there’s a little less culture, where I could sink in to what I was interested in, spend the time to find that, to not be tempted to always be going out to check out what everyone else was doing. I think some people in New York can do that and do their writing and it feeds their writing, and it’s great. But for me, it was drowning out my writing. A lot of people said, “Oh, you’re moving to North Carolina, you’re really going to lose your edge.” But really, my work has become much edgier since moving to North Carolina; the theater work and the fiction. They’ve gotten down to the bedrock of what I’m really interested in. It’s been really healthy.

That’s about all I’ve got. I’m curious, though–what was the last book you read that floored you in some way or another?

I’d never read Hunger, by Knut Hamsun.

I haven’t either. There’s a copy that’s been on my to-read shelf for a while.

It was on my to-read shelf for twelve years. I finally got around to it. The Robert Bly translation is the one to read; there’s another translation out, but it’s terrible. That was tremendous. So modern; so moment-to-moment surprising and visceral and physical. It’s interesting, because it was written, I think, in the 1880s. He takes chances and structures the narrative in a way that most novelists today don’t even do, and wouldn’t think to do. It feels fresh in that way.

The book I’m reading now that I’m about halfway through is The Skin, by Curzio Malaparte, which just got reissued by New York Review of Books Classics. It’s just a shocking book. Every two or three pages, I’m putting it down and going, “Oh my God.” It’s a really stunning… The prose is really good, but the scenes he’s describing and the way he twists conventional morality on its head, and conventional wisdom gets turned on its head… There’s one great scene where he talks about how shameful it is to win a war.

It’s set in Italy just as the Allies have landed. It’s clear that the Germans are going to lose, and the Italians are changing sides. He’s gone from fighting the Allies to wearing the uniforms of dead British soldiers and escorting the Allies around. And he talks about how the Italians in Naples who fought to the death against the Germans and would never debase themselves, as soon as the Allies came in, they prostitute themselves in the most unimaginable ways. There are a lot of things that seem relevant to the psychology of living in this sort of war-torn situation that we as Americans, fortunately, have never had to think about. It feels like having a bombshell dropped on my head every few pages.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Image: Michael Salerno

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