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Interview: Ben Brooks and Shane Jones

In Interviews on June 30, 2009 at 10:21 pm

This conversation took place online, at the end of June 2009, between the writers Shane Jones and Ben Brooks – both of whom have forthcoming books to be published by NYC indie publishing house, Fugue State Press.

Ben Brooks lives in the UK and maintains the blog An Ineffable Play for Voices. His first book, ‘Fences’, will be published by Fugue State Press in January 2010.

Shane Jones lives in New York and maintains the blog I Think You Are A Good Person. His first novel, ‘Light Boxes’, was published in February 2009 by Publishing Genius Press. His next book, ‘The Failure Six’, will be published by Fugue State Press in January 2010.

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Ben Brooks: What is the purpose of fiction and how does ‘The Failure Six’ achieve this purpose?

Shane Jones: Whoa, pretty intense first question. I was expecting “so, what are you doing right now?” or something like that. Umm, my first reaction was “I don’t know”, but then I thought about the question and can really only answer “what is the purpose of fiction?” by thinking about my own experiences with fiction. For me, fiction doesn’t really have a purpose, but does a variety of things that makes me feel excited and alive. Books I really love surprise me, move me, make me want to create, startle me with language, make me want to yell “yes!” It’s a very powerful feeling – when you’re reading fiction, or poetry, or any writing for that matter and it really moves you. It changes you. I think that old quote – was it Auden? – which said “art makes us more tender” is true. Not sure that answers the question. As far as does ‘The Failure Six’ achieve all of what I just said, I would say yes, it does.

So tell me a little about ‘Fences’. How do you feel about your first book being published?

Ben Brooks: Maybe that would have been a more appropriate first question.

I made a sort of pact with myself maybe a year or so ago to just keep writing and throwing things at publishers as much as I could. That way I could perhaps have a book of my own by the time I was 30 or something. When I hit upon writing ‘Fences’ I had no idea what it was. I let go of every sort of idea I had about what made good literature and I just tried to get down what I was thinking, feeling and seeing. I spent a week writing, sat alone in the middle of a flat I couldn’t afford with a man selling drugs next door, and wrote it without stopping thinking of it. I felt that was manageable for a week. Like if I had been doing a longer, structured piece of writing then I don’t feel I would have been able to hold on to what I was thinking long enough to put it down. I think I did though. It is essentially an extended metaphor for human emotion. A distant love marks the end of the world for a man who has little else. He drives to find the end of the world with a view to confronting the feeling that has taken over his life. He finds no comfort in God or company. I think it is perhaps something that most people have felt at one time in their lives; that’s been confirmed by the people who have read it so far I think. I am very excited that people are going to read ‘Fences’. I am excited that people will judge it.

If you could get ‘The Failure Six’ into the hands of any person alive, who would it be and why?

Shane Jones: That’s an interesting question. At first I started to think of famous people or writers that I would want to read my book. But most likely they wouldn’t care about my book, so I’d have to say whoever my biggest fan is. If I have one. Not sure I do. But I think with any new book I put out I would want to put it in the hands of someone who was really excited and looking forward to reading it. That just seems right. My biggest fan would really get something out of it, instead of Lindsay Lohan, Don DeLillo or Steve Erickson, all who would probably just ignore it.

Ben Brooks: If Lindsay Lohan read ‘The Failure Six’, what would she say?

Shane Jones: Lindsay Lohan would say, “Huh, pretty cool,” or something like that maybe?

You said something to your last answer that struck me. “I am excited that people will judge it.” What do you mean by this? Are you just excited to see what people will think? What’s your biggest fear having your first book come out soon?

Ben Brooks: I guess I am excited, at a very base level, that some people will know I exist who didn’t before. The people will make a judgment about the book, about me. I think it is exciting to have people say “your book sucks”, maybe even just as exciting as people saying “great book”. It’s someone recognizing you. I think everyone wants to be recognized, acknowledged. Like in ‘Ghost’ where Patrick Swayze can’t communicate with Demi Moore. My book is like Whoopi Goldberg, It’s a way for me to communicate with people who otherwise wouldn’t know I was there.

People communicate via writing in ‘The Failure Six’. It seems quite distant. It reminded me of the internet in a way. How does the form of communication used in the book relate to modern day relationships?

Shane Jones: I played around with the communication idea a little in a story called ‘Messengers’ that I wrote last year, but I wanted to do more with it. The idea is that almost everyone in the town is deaf and can only communicate by way of written message, or notes passed back and forth. When they lose their train of thought, or get excited, they try and speak and it just makes this noise like “Bhhmmmmmmmmm,” which forms a square wave of sound in whatever room they are in. I just thought it was an interesting idea, the power of words, and how the passing of notes is also reflected in the structure of the book – these short sections written very ‘note-like’. It also seemed like a new way to write dialog, and it was fun and exciting for me. I wasn’t trying to say anything about modern day relationships – although it does relate, in a way, to the internet (Twitter messages, emails, G-chats, etc) and how we communicate with written words. It’s all very old and very new, and I like that contrast in the book.

So why did you send your book to Fugue State out of so many presses? What has it been like working with James Chapman?

Ben Brooks: I sent Fugue State a different manuscript about a year ago, and while they rejected it James Chapman gave the most encouraging rejection letter possible. I found the press through Noah Cicero’s ‘The Human War’ and then went through each given extract in turn and found the sort of tangle of beauty and fragmentation fascinating. After ‘Fences’ just sort of came into being I figured it might suit the press, or James might see something in it maybe; i guess he did.

James Chapman is the best editor you could hope for. He doesn’t impose anything, just suggests things and his suggestions tend to be good. He didn’t try to change my idea of the book at all. The book’s text is of various sizes and quite oddly formatted so I was worried he might say “we should make all the words the same size” or something, but after talking with him it turns out he’d never suggest anything like that. James just sort of frames the work, he doesn’t alter it. He’s also refreshingly intelligent and interesting. It’s a shame I live where I do, because it would be nice to meet him in person. I like the way he sort of distances himself from the internet writing scene, but is aware of what’s happening and steps in to say things when he feels it’s necessary.

‘The Failure Six’ is, as you said, written in a ‘note-like’ way. What was your sort of writing process for the book? How did it come about?

Shane Jones: I had kind of the same story with Fugue State – I had sent James a draft of ‘Light Boxes’ when I was first sending it around and he wrote back all this feedback about how much he liked the book, but ultimately it wasn’t right for the press. I remember how important it was to get a rejection like that, instead of just a one line “Thanks, but we’re going to pass on this” or even worse, no response at all.

I wrote ‘Failure’ last fall, in the middle to end of November. I remember really clearly sitting at my fiancée’s parents’ house, upstairs in her bedroom, and just trying to get the words out as fast as possible because I didn’t want to lose the story I had in my head. As for as how it came about – I’m not sure. I think the idea of having this group of messengers and how each chapter would be each one came about in my head and created the frame-tale structure, and then after that it was just a matter of writing each one.

Having a blog and publishing online, do you consider yourself an ‘internet writer’? Who are some of your favourite contemporary writers?

Ben Brooks: I wouldn’t say I was an ‘internet writer’. I don’t know many people who would. The internet is a medium that a lot of people can use to get themselves noticed for print; I don’t know that as many people are satisfied with forever being published on the internet. That’s not anything against internet writing – I just think a lot of people want to hold their novels or poetry collections and leave them places and lend them to friends, things like that; things you need paper for.

I stumbled over the whole scene maybe a year and a half ago when I picked up ‘The Human War’ in a second-hand bookshop. I hadn’t ever read anything like that and it sort of hit me. I think I googled Noah and his blog turned up, linked to people like Tao Lin who I can remember being recommended by friends. ‘The Human War’ is one of my favourite books, and Noah’s blog is one of the funniest and most bitter reads on the net. I think I have five copies of the book as well as a German copy. I like Tao Lin too, though it feels like lighter reading. I think for 80% of the internet writers around I have at some point or another stumbled over a bit of flash fiction or a poem that I have really enjoyed by them. Aside from the internet scene I am a big fan of Murakami. I also like Stephen Chbosky. It’s hard to draw up lists, there are so many, but with Chbosky I know that ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ was one of the first books that made me think “shit, this is what I want to do, I want to write about what people think of each other”.

You made a number of appearances in the recent Muumuu House book ‘The Brandon Book Crisis’, not all of which were positive portrayals. What do you think of the Tao Lin approach to promotion, and where do you think the line lies between the book as a valuable creative work and as a commercial product? Can a book be both?

Shane Jones: Yeah, I’m not even sure why I asked the question about ‘internet writer”. It’s an odd term that I don’t really understand.

As far as a book as a creative work and as a commercial product, that’s a difficult and loaded question that I’m not sure I can answer. I think some bigger presses view manuscripts as dollar signs as opposed to works of art. I think it’s the opposite in the indie press scene – we all know we’re not going to make money on this. And even if we do make some money, it’s not enough to live on or anything. You might be able to buy some extra food, or books, beer, etc, but you still need a decent day job (unless you want to live in a shithole apartment with five people, which is cool if you’re 22, but not when you get into your thirties and want to have an actual life).

Anytime $$$ and art mix, I get a strange feeling that just doesn’t feel right to me. But that’s probably my thing. I’m scared of getting to a point where I sit down to write and have dollar signs in my eyes. I don’t think this will happen, however.

Promotion (especially for someone like me, who doesn’t sell a lot of books) is just an odd thing, because few people really care about your book. You’re trying to reach a small group of people and get them interested and just to read your book. I think when all’s said and done though, it’s just a matter of having a really good book that you’re proud of. If you’re proud of your work, you’ll be somewhat happy, and if the book is really good, people will seek it out. It’s all you can hope for.

So what’s next for Ben Brooks? What are you going to do today?

Ben Brooks: I understand you asking; it’s a term that’s banded about a lot.

I’m writing a book called ‘The Kasahara School of Nihilism’ at the moment. I like it, it just needs a fair bit of editing. It’s about five people who try to escape loneliness with delusion.

It is around 6pm here. I figure I will go and have a coffee then write the night through as I don’t have to be up tomorrow. I just went to the chemist to pick stuff up and on the way back a man got out of his car and gave me a thumbs up.

What are you working on at the moment?

Shane Jones: I have a poetry book coming out in late spring 2010 called ‘A Cake Appeared’ that I need to edit. I plan to spend a good amount of time on that.

Ben Brooks: Thank you for speaking to me, Shane Jones.

Shane Jones: And thank you, Ben Brooks.

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  1. I’ve read Fences, twice, and it touched me. I could relate to it on a primal and logical level. Some bits in there just blew me away. Ben Brooks is a good man.

    I now want to get Shane’s book.

    Nice interview.

  2. good interview. two nice boys. such nice boys.

  3. I lived in Light Boxes and genuinely can’t wait for The Failure Six.

    Two Shane Jones things (my own perception) that I admire (I mean of course envy): delightful creativity and this ambition – I use this word cautiously as it’s a kind of measured ambition, like you can tell he always thinks about the cost of things. Not the kind of ‘take no prisoners’ ambition that seems to be revered in popular culture today (wow, did I just sound like 90-years-old?)

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