Functional Cities, Body Modification, and Crime Aesthetics: An Interview With J. David Osborne

It’s been a busy time for writer, publisher, and podcaster J. David Osborne. In the last year or so, he relocated to El Paso from Portland, Oregon; he oversaw new editions of two of his novels, By the Time We Leave Here, We’ll Be Friends and Blood and Water; he collaborated with Cody Goodfellow on the taut crime novel The Snake Handler; and he released the long-in-the-works followup to his book Black GumA Minor Storm. Like the best of his work, A Minor Storm blends a resonant sense of the familiar with a powerful dose of the surreal and dangerous. We talked about his new book, podcasting, and his experiences with Patreon via email over the course of a few days.

You’ve been talking about a followup to Black Gum for a while. How did you arrive on this as the work that would follow it? 

It was hard to figure out how to do a sequel to Black Gum. There’s some cool shit that happens in part 1, and it is kind of open-ended, but where do you go when it’s a novella about a “lost young man”? At first I thought maybe I’d try to show the narrator attempting to restart his relationship with his wife, but I was over that whole thing. My personal life has moved on from that, and to be totally honest when The Sarah Book came out I thought “Scott pretty much put this genre to bed.” I wanted to keep it going though, just because I liked the characters so much, and I found a new in. I read Barry Gifford’s Sailor and Lula series and realized that I could do whatever I wanted. Those are the best books, the kinds that show you there are no real rules to this thing. So I settled on trying to make the series as funny as possible. The reflective stuff still pokes its head up every once in a while, but I re-conceived of the series as an open-ended sequence of adventures these characters could go on. I have no idea where it’s going. I’m going to approach each book fresh. Maybe in book four everyone chills out and I’ll be done. Maybe not! When I shifted it from being a clear arc to an open-ended creative space, I started to crank this shit out. It’s been fun.

I’ve seen you refer to Atlanta as having a structural influence on your writing. Was there a particular moment while watching said show that that clicked for you? And how do you blend that structural approach with your own aesthetic?

I read somewhere that Atlanta is basically a sitcom, and that had never clicked for me until I read it. But it is! And I didn’t know that I was looking for crime genre aesthetics placed on a sitcom format until that show came along.

It seems to me that crime aesthetics tend to demand a certain kind of genre storytelling. You have all the trappings and beautiful visuals, dialogue, and character work of a Breaking Bad, for example, that’s locked into that “good man goes down a dark path and gets rewarded…at a price!” type thing. I want to be introduced to that world that I vibe with aesthetically…but I didn’t want to see the characters get stuck in that rut provided by a plot. In Atlanta, we get to see these characters we like go on adventures almost completely separate from an over-arcing plotline. It’s refreshing. Because, you know, I want to see the dumb bullshit of their daily lives. I want to see Darius visit a spooky mansion. I want to see what happens when Kat Williams has a pet alligator in his bathroom. I don’t care about them making THE BIG CHOICES.

The entire delineation between “genre” and “literary” might be the fact that one has a sort of rigid structural approach, while the other is allowed to be a bunch of short stories linked together. I love the trappings and tropes of crime fiction, but none of the rigidity of plot. So I wanted to take the things that I liked and let them play in an open-ended universe unconcerned with conclusion. It might end, but it probably won’t. Not satisfactorily, anyway. Unless I get a really good idea one day.

In the last year and change, you’ve released a collaborative novel and worked on reissues of your first two books. Have either of those had any influence on where your own solo prose work has headed?

The collaborative novel didn’t affect my solo stuff very much. I wrote my parts and Cody wrote his, then we both went in and fucked with each other’s stuff, which ended up making a pretty seamless book. Going back to my old stuff really helped, though. There were times where I was reading and I thought “hey, you’re not as bad as you thought you were!” Then there were other times where I was reading and I thought “you are way worse than you thought you were.” I didn’t change a whole lot, but I did notice a few things, namely that I used to be too impressed with myself as a writer. I was less interested in telling a good story than telling a “well-written” story. Which, again, is not to say I don’t like those old books. But I could have been more clear, which is what I went for in A Minor Storm. There’s this story I think about a lot, where Georges Simenon, who was a French pulp writer who cranked out novels like nobody’s business, got notes back from the woman who’d become his agent throughout his entire career. She said, and I’m paraphrasing, “this is good, but it seems too much like writing. Go back and cut everything that is beautiful, and you have a book.” I took that to heart.

Several of your books feature body modification or otherwise altered forms: Shane in A Minor Storm comes to mind, but so does the strangely-jawed killer in God$ Fare No Better. What attracts you to different alterations of the human body?

You know what’s weird? I’ve never really thought about that. You’re right, though. There’s lots of body modification going on. Danny Ames in Blood and Water, his teeth fall out throughout the novel. Clyde in The Snake Handler is degenerating from a snakebite. In those books, the modification acts as a ticking time bomb, and symbolizes the spiritual degeneration of the character. Shane and The Serpent in God$ are different, though. I guess in Shane’s case, I wanted people to initially think of this guy as kind of a weirdo, which isn’t really fair to body mod people, but I wanted them to get the impression over the course of Black Gum and A Minor Storm that Shane is the only character in that series that actually has control over his own life. So, his control over his physical appearance symbolizes that. God$ is conceptualized as an epic where all of these crime fiction archetypes, old gods, are being killed off. It seemed right to have them consumed, so I invented this X-Files type of villain that swallows them whole.

I’d be remiss if I also didn’t mention your Patreon and podcast work. Do you see this as part of a larger literary effort from you, or have certain things you’ve talked about there also ended up circling back around and affecting your writing? 

What I’m doing with the Patreon is kind of interesting. I’m developing new games for myself. For the next few months (or years), the game is “Dream Landscapes,” which means I’m going to take a dream that I had and use a location from that dream as a starting point, then I’m going to sit in a chair until I hit 3,000 words. The rules are: I have to hit 3,000 words, I can’t type nonsense, and I have to develop something resembling a plot. It has to at least have the shape of story by the time it’s done. I’m trying to see if I can develop a system in which I can have some creative freedom to play, which has at the end of it a clear story that people can enjoy or find interesting.

I’m going to be posting those story experiments to the Patreon, and maybe also some Patreon-only novellas. It would be rad if a bunch of people subscribed to it. I also do 4 extra podcasts a month, just through the Patreon.

The JDO Show podcast has really helped me work out what it means to be a writer. I know that people who listen to it seem to get a lot of stuff out of it, and that checks out with my own experience. I do the podcast now to keep learning.

Has relocating to El Paso from Oregon had any effect on what you’ve been writing? 

Man, you know what’s weird? I didn’t write shit while I was living in Oregon. I started four different books and felt pretty good about them, and then this crippling depression swooped in because I was paying $1500 a month to live in a closet ten miles outside Portland and I just couldn’t do anything. I bagged groceries at Safeway, which is not a hard job, but I wanted to kill myself the whole time. I have the utmost respect for people who write against all the odds. I don’t have that kind of mental fortitude. If I don’t have some kind of basic stability in my life, the writing dries up. Oregon is maybe the most beautiful state I’ve ever lived in, and I’m glad I went, but damn if the tech bros didn’t turn Portland into a tough place to live. And you know what? I’m a part of the problem. I’m one of the people who went “oh shit, a pretty place, I should BE here,” which fucks it up for people who’ve lived there their whole lives. I get heated thinking about that place. I will visit every chance I get, but I will never again live in a spot like that.

I moved to El Paso. I live about three miles from Mexico. It rules. There is an absolute staggering beauty to this place that I appreciate as an outsider. I’ve been trying to meet El Paso on respectful terms. I volunteer on a little farm here every weekend planting crops and marigolds. I work a little job teaching kids about farming. When I moved to Portland, it was as an artist, someone who was going to take from the land, the economy, the people and expect something back. I moved to El Paso as an alien. I’m here to do my shit, not fuck things up, and go home. I wake up and thank El Paso for allowing me to live there.

And the city has allowed me to work on myself in some really cool ways. I just kind of…started writing again. Art is what the spirits of place give back to you if you contribute something to them. The muses have lived here since before people. You’ve got to be humble, respectful, and hardworking.

As far as the kind of writing I’m doing, I think El Paso has helped with that, too. It’s a functional city, and by that I don’t mean it’s a well-oiled machine, but rather that the city itself seems to function at its own pace. You can’t fight it. You give yourself over to the city. It’s hot and unforgiving. The writing reflects that. El Paso doesn’t care. It’s just here.

The end of A Minor Storm teases a forthcoming book called Tomahawk. Anything you can tell us about that? 

Tomahawk is the follow-up, yeah. I’m in the early stages of it, but I’ve been writing faster, so hopefully that one is out soon. I want to put these things out frequently. It’s about the characters from the first two books going out for a day of disc golf with their new friend, who happens to be a black dude. There’s a group of neo-Nazi skinheads playing disc golf on the same course, and shit gets weird. I think in A Minor Storm and moreso in Tomahawk, I’m trying to write about race relations from an honest and dumb perspective. Seems to me like everyone became woke once Trump got elected, and we all forgot that we’re (and I’m talking white people, here) are absolute dumbasses when it comes to race. It’s wild. Feels like white people can’t not be white saviors. So I figured I’d just write about my own experiences with my black friends, and all the awkward shit that goes along with that.

Growing up in Oklahoma, I had a surprisingly diverse group of pals, and we would say the absolute worst, most offensive shit to each other, stuff that you’d think would make us enemies for life, but I’ve never felt a sense of love and closeness in a friend group like I did with those folks since then. It all changed once I went to college. Suddenly everything was very restricted by language and propriety. Something was lost. One thing I want to do in Tomahawk is capture those earlier, rawer conversations and interactions in an honest way. I also wanted to write about how what you say and what you do can often be in opposition to each other, and how it’s better to act than posture.

I’m also writing it almost as a play, it’s so damn dialogue-heavy. Hopefully it’s funny and people like it.

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