Turning Political Divisions Into Surreal Fiction: An Interview With J.S. Breukelaar

Collision, the new collection of stories by J.S. Breukelaar, finds an unsettling balance between high-concept plotlines and intensely visceral encounters with the uncanny. While Breukelaar is adept at creating lived-in settings and lives for her characters, she’s also more than willing to dynamite expectations at a moment’s notice, sending her stories down through impossible memories, fragmented timelines, and bizarre afterlives. I talked with her about the collection’s genesis, how real-world events influenced some of the more fantastical stories within, and the role of music in her work. 

Collision includes the better part of a decade’s worth of short fiction. How did you go about putting the book together, and deciding what to include and not to include?

You’re right. The first story was published in 2011, and the most recent, in 2018. The stories are loosely grouped around the theme of collisions, or reckonings—a “when it changed” whether in terms of time, worlds, genres, identity, politics. I wrote a bunch of stories in the wake of the 2016 election which was clearly some kind of recalibration. And as I began to collect stories, and finish others, I saw how the issue of colliding worlds is even more complicated than I thought it was. As far as what not to include, I had some not-quite-finished work that didn’t seem to fit for one reason or another—so that’ll go in the next collection. Plus I always intended for this to be a slimmish volume punctuated by the novella, “Like Ripples on a Blank Shore,” which takes its title from the Radiohead song, “Reckoner.”

At what point did Angela Slatter enter the picture as far as doing the introduction to this book?

Angela read my second novel, Aletheia, because I asked her to consider blurbing it. She got behind that book in a big way, which, coming from an author like her, was a game-changer for me. She had also edited or read some of the stories that I was considering for the collection, so when it came time to pull it together—last year—we found ourselves doing some late-night whisky drinking at Continuum convention in Melbourne, and she mumbled something about agreeing to write the intro. Luckily for me, she didn’t change her mind when she sobered up.

After looking at the finished collection, did you become aware of themes or motifs in your fiction that you hadn’t been aware of beforehand?

A few, and others occur to me all the time. I’d love to hear about any you found! Because you know, I still haven’t looked at the finished collection with any kind of distance—it’s all so fresh and raw in my mind still, a jumble of set-ups and characters who seem only loosely separated by disparate story titles. So, Scott Nicolay pointed out the themes of water—rain and seepage and leakage in my work—mainly because there is that dark goo in Aletheia, and there is seepage in the novella in the collection, “Like Ripples on a Blank Shore.” And the main character in “Ava Rune” has her own leakage problems! My story about grief is called “Raining Street,” which was not deliberate, hand to God. And so on—blood, tears, rain—seem to be a theme for sure.

And animals. My stories are usually peopled by 4-legged creatures as well as 2—“Union Falls” has raccoons and a bar dog. “Raining Street” has a Donald-Thing. “Lion Man” has a talking dog, kind of. “Fixed” has Gloria. “War Wounds” has a minotaur. “Glow” has phosphorescent marsupials from another world. And so on. I don’t know why. Just seems natural to me to include in my work the whole gamut of what it means to be a human animal, and non-human too.

“Like Ripples on a Blank Shore” takes its title from a Radiohead lyric. Have there been any other instances where a piece of music or a lyric has inspired some part of your fiction?

So many. I can’t even say. My first unpublished novel is music themed and was fueled by Patti Smith, the Clash, Radiohead, Antony and the Johnsons, A Tribe Called Quest, The Beastie Boys, Chemical Brothers and more. The second, American Monster, has Gloria (who reappears in the story “Fixed”) which is inspired by the Patti Smith song. Freddie Mercury’s song, “Save Me,” is my forever chorus, no less than Prince’s song, “Gett Off”—I think I have Gene in American Monster butcher the line, “Tonight you’re a star, and I’m the big dipper.” Icelandic and Scandinavian music like Fever Ray and Bjork is an important backdrop for a lot of my work. Thettie in Aletheia is obsessed with Beyoncé. And Ame, the armless keyboardist in “Union Falls,” plays Meatloaf’s “Bat Out of Hell” because I had to think of a mind-blowing piano riff difficult to pound out with two hands let alone your feet. There is a line in that song about how at the moment of reckoning, the last thing you see is your still-beating heart flying away, free at last. So in a situation like that, I will choose a song for my character as I inhabit the story, and I won’t realise how many levels it works on until after the fact. Because I think the inspiration is at a deep, subconscious level—at least for me less inspiration than oxygen. I compiled a sample playlist of some of the songs that I listened to, or my characters listen to, in Collision over at Largehearted Boy.

In your notes on the stories at the end of the book, you mention that the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election influenced several of these stories. Do you still find that political divisions and perceptions are making their way into your fiction?

I want to say now more than ever, but that’s not true, because conflict and polarization are and always will be the truth that makes its way into our stories. It’s just that the 2016 election and aftermath brought the reality down on our heads like an anvil, and we’re all under it—from all sides—crushed, broken, and trying to respond because it’s impossible to crawl out. Because it’s a fucking anvil. Same as it ever was. A reckoning that goes on and on in the stories we so desperately throw into the ring—a ring under the heavy metal weight of how the west was won, and for and from whom.

And having said that, I think that as an expat I have the vantage point of an unplaced person. Born, raised and with family in the US, I suffer at a level that hurts my heart and breaks my soul to a degree that a non-native might not feel, although I don’t even know if that’s true. At a staff meeting in Sydney a couple years ago, a colleague apologized to a Jewish instructor for some anti-Semitic remarks a student had made on a paper, and his comeback was that the remarks hurt all of humanity not just him. And he’s right. But the fact that I live in Australia allows me to put the US situation in a painful perspective nuanced by how other countries approach similar problems. It does my head in.

Some of the imagery in these stories, particular the title story, is visceral and unsettling. Is there one thing in particular that you’ve written that’s left you unsettled after you put it to paper?

Thank you. The title story as you say deals with a collision of desires in an exploding multiverse, and I needed that to be felt at a gut rather than just a theoretical/quantum level. Hence all the wormy anti-matter! “Rogues Bay 3013” unsettled me because it looks back at the darker aspect of the patriarchal gaze, nailed so chillingly in Keith Rosson’s illustration. And after I wrote “The Box,” I could feel blood dripping on my face for a while.

What’s next for you?

I’m revising a shortish novel called The Bridge set in the world of Rogues Bay. And then I have some stories to finish.

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