“Once you start thinking about sales and readers you go a little batty. I don’t know, you create this object, and you want other people to love the object too. You want a passionate response—for people to love it and for people to hate it. But how much is enough? I think the Internet fucks you up. You just want more and more and there’s no end.”
Jobs that foster familial environments:
Driving a forklift at Lowes
I know Shane through email. He’s been generous in supporting my work, giving me advice, but mostly we’ve spent time discussing Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokić, and other happenings between the NBA teams we root for. It’s very easy to not talk about writing, and I think what Shane and I have in common (with a lot of writers) is that we’d prefer to talk basketball instead of talking writing. We relented here.
Vincent and Alice and Alice follows recently divorced Vincent as he works his desk job for “the State” and fixates on what led his now ex-wife, Alice, to leave him. Vincent is recommended for a new program at work that allows him to continue living his normal life and working his normal 9-5, weekends off, but also have his ideal life overlaid into that reality. But unlike past participants in the program, Vincent’s ideal life is not a larger house, new car, or any object, but instead, the return of Alice. The novel’s main project is to interrogate what it means for Vincent to be living with this not-Alice, while the memory of the real Alice, and her departure still loom large. Alice’s return, though not real, causes Vincent to investigate the minutiae of what he remembers of the real Alice’s behavior, his own behavior, and the slippage between various versions of both. And it’s funny.
Trying to think of who I would hand this book to, I would say, I would hand it to fans of Mary Robison. Any reader who understands why Robison’s ear and particular attention to our American descent matters and appreciates droll comedy, well, Shane Jones is another one for you. Robison comes up in our conversation, as does Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I thought of too while reading Vincent and Alice and Alice, but I did not bring up the latter thinking Shane might bristle at the comparison.
THE BELIEVER: Of your four novels, this one borrows most from your actual life. Was it hard to know where to draw the line? Did that line move?
SHANE JONES: I don’t really care about the line. I think everything, when writing a book, can be pulled in and used, if necessary. Someone once told me never to write something that could really hurt someone you love, and I did think about that a few times. Because the book is in the first person it’s easy to say Vincent is me, but he’s way more prickly and sentimental than I am. Someone recently asked me if Vincent and Alice and Alice is based off my marriage, and in a way it is, but not totally. I wanted to write a really modern and realistic story about America and work and love so I did find myself pulling from everything around me. It’s natural. Fuck the line. Elderly, for example, is based off a real person who lived in the neighborhood, in his car.
BLVR: There are lines in this book regarding work, Vincent’s work, “working 30 to live 20,” “sitting in a chair for 8 hours is barbaric,” that when coupled with the fact that Vincent does not take losing or leaving his job lightly give this book a real weight. Vincent is aware the job is killing him and contributed to the end of his marriage but he also won’t quit. He takes gaining retirement seriously. I think this is a unique combination of factors in modern fiction.
SJ: Well, he’s incapable of change really. He’s also unable to navigate the past, present, and future, in any meaningful way in order to figure out how to live. He’s kind of always walking through a room full of spider webs and spinning around with the webbing of his life all over his face, trying to find the door when there is no door. The routine is both the escape (through Dorian Blood) and the trap (the office life). The retirement is the one factor in his life that is both a fantasy and a reality, something safe that he can guide his life along by, hoping to get there, knowing it will be there, hopefully. I know a lot of people like this, counting the days until retirement.
BLVR: Absolutely. I guess I meant it’s hard for me to imagine this novel being written by someone who made a living in academia. This novel feels weighted and grounded by a type of work life that is familiar to millions of Americans but not necessarily one we see often in literary fiction. The office novels I can think of are not this brutal or direct in their depictions of the American 9-5.
SJ: Some of my first jobs before working in an office were: bookstore clerk, motel lifeguard, pool store manager, and driving a forklift at Lowes. I’ve seen how each place creates these weird pseudo-family environments. Vincent’s office is brutal only in a way to balance Dorian’s gate and some of the humor in the novel, and yeah, I wanted to attack what an office can be like then offer Vincent the escape. Have you experienced an office like Vincent’s? I feel like it’s everywhere in America. You might not be able to answer, if you don’t want to get fired. Or maybe you do want to answer because you want to get fired?
BLVR: I haven’t worked in an office like Vincent’s. But I also don’t work in academia. Vincent’s relationship to his job is striking because I feel like it’s more commonplace now to encounter characters who abandon jobs easily or interact with their jobs in a way without stakes. You mentioned humor in the book being a balance for Vincent’s work life; this is easily your funniest book. Did you have to modulate the humor from Elderly or any of Vincent’s coworkers? Or did you have the balance you mentioned there in early drafts?
SJ: I love Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods which was an influence because it’s so weird and imaginative with its satire but also hilarious. I kind of hate funny novels because they usually try too hard and that’s just the worst, but Lightning Rods escapes this so masterly. There are parts of VAAAA (Vincent and Alice and Alice) where I hope I didn’t push too hard. My fear is it comes off as a Dad telling jokes at the birthday party. But it’s also a tremendously sad book. Without the humor it would be pretty bleak. I love art that has that extreme balance—funny and sad. I love that emotional swing. Do you feel the same? I think you’re a Joy Williams fan and she’s really good at that sweet spot.
BLVR: I love Lightning Rods too. And yes, sad and funny is the ideal to me. The worst for me is too self-serious. I thought of Mary Robison too, reading VAAAA. Probably because so much of the humor is in the dialogue and in your observation of daily minutiae. Were there other books you were thinking of when writing VAAAA? Or other art in general?
SJ: Love Robison too but wasn’t thinking about her when writing VAAAA. I wanted this book to be as mainstream as possible so I looked at Fight Club a bunch. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind too. I remember watching the trailer and specific scenes from that movie while drafting VAAAA. Another work of art that is really sad, funny, and imaginative.
BLVR: Don’t think anyone who has read VAAAA would think that it was the result of you trying to write a mainstream book. Which is great! You’re you regardless. Eternal Sunshine makes sense; Fight Club too. It’s funny looking back at how popular both those were. What was the impetus to be more mainstream with VAAAA?
SJ: To be different from the last book which was slow and image-based and dense. I wanted it to be modern and entertaining and all in first person—things I’ve never done before. I wanted a distinct three acts. To me it felt weird to be trying to do normal things in a novel.
BLVR: As I was reading I kept thinking that this was your most “grounded” book. I’m not even exactly sure what I mean by that. More familiar settings compared to the past novels maybe?
SJ: The other novels had created environments. In VAAAA, PER Alice is the fantasy, but all the characters function in what is a pumped-up America and what feels like reality. It’s all a bit distorted and fractured but familiar. I keep looking at Robison books and will probably order one before this conversation is over. Which one should I get?
BLVR: Why Did I Ever, if you haven’t read it. I also really love One D.O.A., One on the Way.
You mentioned the other novels having “created environments.” Is that a mode of writing you feel like you are done with?
SJ: Probably. If I’m being honest I wonder how much is that I want to move into new territory or how much that I just don’t have that imagination in me anymore. I recently re-read a few pages from Light Boxes and it felt like a different person. I couldn’t read much of it. I don’t want to be older but I am. The person who wrote that first book was so idealistic and had this deeply poetic side. It’s depressing. I’m fighting against cynical Dad life. I hate it. And it’s all my fault. Or maybe this is just part of the trip? Before VAAAA I wrote a novel that is half-fantasy and half-memoir, a kind of experiment that seems to demonstrate where my head was at. I hope to find a publisher for that eventually. I guess the short answer is that I’m not sure, I’m searching, trying to figure it out. For a while I was thinking about writing a sequel to Light Boxes.
BLVR: Can you say more about the memoir? Are the stories you published over the past couple years ones you still hope to be published as a collection? Those stories seem of a piece with VAAAA to me.
SJ: I don’t see the stories ever being published as a collection. Just doesn’t seem possible because I don’t sell books and they aren’t very good stories. I think that style, trying to write that way, was a beginning, and the stories were a bridge to get to VAAAA. Do you ever feel that way? You have to write something in order to get to another island? Build the bridge. Maybe that’s what DeLillo calls it, why not, who is to say? The memoir, yikes. I’d rather not say.
BLVR: I think they definitely have a relation to VAAAA; I’m not sure I’d call them solely a bridge because I think many of them were great. But, sure, I feel like the idea of a bridge to another type of work makes sense to me. I’m resistant to think of any of my work in that way though because I’m weak. Do you think the people that will most connect with VAAAA are the readers of your past books, or a different set of readers?
SJ: I would think a different set of readers, but hard to tell. Also, I don’t have a set of readers from book to book, this isn’t Colson Whitehead doing a zombie novel. I don’t have to think about it because it’s not there. I’m just trying not to bankrupt Tyrant Books. I do see VAAAA as very different from the other books. I already mentioned the earlier differences, but one thing is that it’s fairly cinematic. I’ve had more movie producers react positively to the book than reviewers. It’s only been out officially a few weeks, but it’s been a weird reaction—very little and then LA movie types asking about it.
BLVR: Could easily see it as a movie. Who would you want to play Elderly and who would you want to play Dorian Blood? Dead or alive and non-actors also up for these roles.
SJ: I have a tough time envisioning anyone because I rarely watch TV. I’m that person. Andre3000 as Elderly? Do you picture anyone? Don’t say John Cena. Books to film is a tough scene and the main appeal of it is tell friends and family so they think you’re really doing something with your life.
BLVR: I was thinking Scatman Crothers, Nick Van Exel, or Delroy Lindo for Elderly. For Blood I was thinking William Fichtner or Matewan-era Chris Cooper. But John Cena, sure. I would support that casting for your sake. Wish I could watch a documentary about friends and family of whoever-the-writer is reacting to finding out there is going to be a movie of their book. Short doc: “Thank god we don’t have to read it!”
Are there any books or movies where the artist is drawing heavily from their own life that particularly resonate with you? So Long, See You Tomorrow and Sherman’s March immediately come to my mind.
SJ: Yeah, most of those names I don’t even know. I’d be curious to see the transition to film but I don’t want any part of it. The last producer I spoke with wanted me really involved and I was just like, “No, I don’t care, it would be your thing.” And I mean that, I don’t think the novelist should be involved, it should just be handed over and become the next creator’s thing. Oh, as far as the friends and family thing, I’m talking about ego, I think. Telling anyone outside a circle of like a few hundred literary people (mostly online) that you’re published by Tyrant Books is embarrassing. I miss that part, hitting people with Penguin and feeling that surge. I know it’s petty and dumb but I can’t help it. As much as I love indie presses and believe in them 100% (Soft Skull, Two Dollar Radio, Tyrant) it’s hard not to feel, at times, like you just had your book printed at Kinkos.
I can’t think of any. It’s 5am and I couldn’t sleep last night and I’m hitting the coffee pretty hard now. I like those sections in Carpenter’s Gothic where McCandles is a stand-in for Gaddis himself and another character keeps telling him his “fiction is rotten” and he should quit writing. That stuff feels really funny and raw and true and you can feel, off the page, how Gaddis really doubted himself. It’s masked in a way (mostly through third-person and imaginary fiction) that it’s not annoying.
BLVR: I’ve had good experiences with presses much smaller than you mentioned, but, I understand what you’re saying. (And I know you had a great initial experience with Publishing Genius.) Combined, my first two books have sold less than 1000 copies. Somewhere in the 600-700 range. But these presses are one or two people doing everything. Like so many small presses.
I don’t think it’s petty or dumb to feel that, but I do think some people will read it that way. To me, it’s like, so few people read literary fiction published anywhere, it makes sense to want to have a better shot at getting the book into people’s hands. I feel that way too. I want my next book to be more widely read, more widely available. I think that’s normal. And you’ve already had that experience.
I noticed Adam Robinson did the book design. Can you talk about continuing to work with him?
SJ: Once you start thinking about sales and readers you go a little batty. I don’t know, you create this object, and you want other people to love the object too. You want a passionate response—for people to love it and for people to hate it. But how much is enough? I think the Internet fucks you up. You just want more and more and there’s no end.
I love Adam Robinson. Light Boxes never would have been published if it wasn’t for him. I owe everything to him. When I saw he was doing the layout for VAAAA I got so excited. It felt like ten years ago, making changes and tuning everything up, trading dozens of emails in a day. That’s one really cool thing about indie presses, the back-and-forth intimate feel. Both Gian and Adam were amazing with that. They are incredible human beings.
BLVR: You told me that the experience landing on the right cover was a long back and forth too, right? Nicole Caputo has done some great ones recently. Did you have a particular idea in mind for the cover? How did you guys arrive where you did?
SJ: It was really long. We had someone before Nicole do six designs and none of them worked. And then Nicole did five or so and I thought one was right, but Gian wasn’t too big on it. It just kept going and going. I even did a design at one point. We reached a point where we were planning on a kill fee to Nicole and then doing something completely else. This was months and months. Eventually Nicole stayed up super late one night and sent over what we liked, approved it, and then sent it out the same day. Do you like it?
BLVR: I do! I want to ask the terrible question: What are you working on next?
SJ: I have a bunch of thoughts but haven’t done any writing in a long time. VAAAA has taken up years of my life. It’s over, and I can slowly feel that voice ebbing away, which is nice, and sad. I’m excited for whatever comes next.