“Something About the Format Was Liberating”: An Interview With Janice Lee


Earlier this year, Janice Lee‘s latest book, The Sky Isn’t Blue, was published. It’s a collection of haunting vignettes about places, works of art, and culture. Lee is capable of writing fantastically and movingly about a host of subjects, and some of what struck me about this book was its breadth: in any given piece, readers might find invocations to the natural landscapes of California, nods to other works of densely theoretical literature, or televisions shows about people with superpowers. I asked her some questions about the process of putting this book together and what she has in store for the future.

Parts of The Sky Isn’t Blue initially appeared as a series of essays on Entropy. Did you have the book in mind from the outset, or did the idea of turning them into something larger happen later in the process?

I didn’t really have anything in mind at all. The series was mostly a way for me to combat my strange writer’s block (I was having a rough transitional period in my life) and for me to force myself to have some kind of regular writing practice because the writing, as difficult as it was, was a large contributor to keeping me sane. I was definitely inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space, so the essay series that started on Entropy, “The Poetics of Spaces,” was an homage to that kind of simultaneous phenomenological and emotional exploration of space. Different spaces and locations were really important to me at the time, and being present in those spaces allowed me to process some of what was happening emotionally. I tried to write an essay every couple of weeks, or at least every month, and when the series started to become more substantial, the idea of a book emerged. This is also one reason why many of the essays in the book still have a feeling of immediacy and urgency, they were often written in the space or transcribed into my phone while I was driving.

Some of the sections of The Sky Isn’t Blue are prefaced by images; others are not. What led to the decision to use or not use a photo for a particular piece?

The essays published online have lots more images, since it’s easier to have that license online. When I was traveling to these spaces and writing the essays, I was taking lots of photos (I remark on this activity of trying to document moments in images in the book too), and online I had the freedom to post these images more like a travelogue. I wanted to keep some of this visual relationship, but also realized the photos weren’t going to play the same role in a book, so I was selective in which images I thought were particularly important to exist alongside the essays.

One thing about the book that really impressed me was its handling of culture, which includes everything from heady theoretical talk to allusions to television shows like Nashville and Agents of SHIELD. Did you have a sense of what was and was not off-limits for the project?

Sort of? Really I didn’t feel like anything was off-limits. The essays initially allowed me to write immediately and honestly, which surprised me because prior to that I had always been a really private person and had never blogged before. But something about the format was liberating. I didn’t feel like I had the pressure of writing a essay that needed to make sense or lead to something larger. I was using the essay more in the sense of trying, attempting, exploring, making sense of the language I was encountering in those moments, which to me really is what the essay is about, and I think a lot of the essays and books that are coming out recently see the essay in this way too. So there are a lot of different allusions and references simply because those were the things I was reading or watching or listening to at the time. I bring up the songs that were playing in the car. I quote books I was reading or were on my desk.

Do you feel like the editorial work you’ve done with Entropy has had any influence on the way that you write?

It’s hard to say. I’m sure it has, but mostly the growth of Entropy has coincided with a strange period in my life when my relationship to language and writing has changed significantly, for a variety of reasons: life transitions, the death of my mom, growing older, etc. And so I think more than anything, the recent years have been a time for me to relearn and reengage with language in ways I hadn’t engaged previously.

There’s a reference in The Sky Isn’t Blue to the texts that you’re teaching. How does teaching a certain book affect the way you read it? Do you find that, after a while, you need to move on and teach a different book for a while?

Oh yes definitely. There are some texts I teach over and over again because for me they hold certain value beyond the words in the text itself. Some of these are texts that were also really essential or influential for me when I was a student. But I also do find that it’s sometimes more engaging in class if I’ve also just read a book and am excited by what I’ve found and can’t wait to discuss it with my students. So I try to maintain a balance of texts that are familiar to me, and unfamiliar, to keep a little bit of the element of surprise.

You recently published an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, Imagine A Death, at Enclave. How are things proceeding with that?

You know, it’s funny. Starting this new novel was a big deal for me because for me it marked the end of a really long (almost two year period) writer’s block. But my friends make fun of me because I’ve had two books come out and essays and such. The thing is, The Sky Isn’t Blue for me was a prompt to combat my inability to write and was therapeutic for me. Reconsolidation, I wrote five years ago and just happened to be released recently. And most of the essays I’ve published have dealt with these same issues of emotional struggle and the inability to access language the way I used to be able to. For example, after my mom died, I strangely lost the ability to draw artistically. I can draw you a cartoon bear, but I haven’t been able to paint or sketch in that other vein for quite awhile. So I’ve been thinking about this novel project during that entire time, but I wasn’t quite ready to enter into that space. I knew it was going to require me to delve into a space that I couldn’t straddle easily. When I worked on Damnation, for example, it changed the lens with which I was viewing the entire world for awhile. It’s all-consuming, working on a novel. It’s hard not to relate everything that’s happening to it. When I was visiting Brenda Iijima in New York, I met her cat Mr. Bungie who was the one who oddly really jumpstarted the novel. I drove out to Joshua Tree a couple of weeks later and churned out the first few chapters of the novel and have been working on it consistently. It feels good to be back in the groove of writing, to be able to be obsessed with something again, to have something to fixate my energy on, and also to be able to stop whining about not being able to write.

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