Of all the things I’ve aspired to in terms of an audience’s reception to my own writing, I have always said that what’s most important is the respect and admiration of my literary peers. I hope that other writers feel about me the way I feel about John Dermot Woods. John’s a dedicated artist, of both a visual and literary nature. He’s a professor about whom, on Rate My Professor, his students say things like “he really cares for his students,” and “he talks to you like an equal and never looks down on you.” He’s a husband and a father. He’s good looking. I guess I can’t meet him there. But I aspire. I enjoy talking to John over email or a beer. And I ‘m always pleasantly surprised by what he’s done, what he’s doing. In the interview we talk about the featured pieces here on Atticus Review, and how these seemingly disparate piece make a novel, The Baltimore Atrocities. How the hell? He can do it. I’d like someday for other writers to say “How the hell? But he did it,” about me, too.
An Interview with John Dermot Woods
JI: The narrator of these little tales is interesting. We gather, as we read them, that he and his family live in Baltimore. Other than that, though, what we know about him comes from his relation of these strange tales. Some are about his distant cousins and their marital tragedies (if you want to call them that; maybe “mistakes” is a better word). Since we’re getting only a snippet of this project, can you tell us a bit more about this narrator without spoiling the overall project?
JDW: The narrator is a foreigner who is in (what I’m calling) Baltimore for a limited amount of time. He has moved there with a companion. Both of them lost people, family members, in Baltimore as children, and it seems that they are there to revisit this loss and perhaps recover something, although not without trepidation. They experience both the protection that being an alien grants you and the obvious discomfort it creates.
JI: Is the idea of “aliens” something that has always interested you? How do you feel about the political debate about illegal aliens (in particular, Hispanics) in the U.S.?
JDW: Like a lot of people, I take a certain solace in feeling out of place. That discomfort keeps me awake. While I often retreat to institutions (usually academic ones), and often find security within them, I always find myself identifying with the margins of the their cultures. That’s where my interest in aliens come from. Maybe.
I often discuss the roles of extra-national aliens in the U.S. with my students, some of whom are aliens themselves. What bothers me about our public discourse on the subject is how increasingly restricted the boundaries of our national sympathy have become. Not only is our understanding of humanitarianism limited to those with U.S. passports, but we’re told it’s irresponsible to care about non-Americans. It’s as if doing so will lead to a neglect of our own country. I’ve noticed a value that seems to be emphasized more and more across the American political/socio-economic spectrum which is: To be RESPONSIBLE you must be AFRAID. To protect YOURSELF and YOUR FAMILY, you must be properly afraid of your neighbor. I disagree. This fear erodes community. It’s killing us. We’re taught to put fear above faith. Faith is the ability to trust something or someone beyond yourself. It’s a social necessity. We have to stop telling people that they’re foolish or irresponsible for trusting other people.
JI: These tales take some interesting and strange forms. Some seem almost like AP newswires about the unfortunate fates of rather unimportant individuals, like the high school English teacher and his student who ends up in a coma. Others are tales related to the narrator, like the one about the narrator’s barber’s nephew. All of the tales are kind of ridiculously depressing—to the point of being a dark comedy. What would you say are the threads that hold these pieces together?
JDW: They’re all descriptions of atrocity (hence the name, The Baltimore Atrocities). Atrocities come in many forms, exist in the mundane as well as the extraordinary. By placing them beside each other, on the same level, I think these chapters will make the ubiquity (and relative nature) of atrocity apparent.
JI: Since most of the stories we’re publishing for Atticus Review concern other characters (i.e., not the narrator and his companion) I presume some of the atrocities will directly involve these characters? Or will there be other narrative braided into these atrocities that describe the main characters’ dilemmas?
JDW: There are a handful that directly suggest the narrator’s dilemma. But the character is mostly reflected in other people’s atrocities, in how they are witnessed and recorded.
JI: You’ve always incorporated your artwork with your writing. What usually comes first, a picture or a story?
JDW: It’s depends on the project. In something like The Complete Collection, I used my drawings as a starting point for my stories. In my comics, they develop together. But The Baltimore Atrocities is a more orchestrated story. The chapters are telling a larger narrative,and the drawings are clearly in service to the words they are paired with. These images are the closest work to traditional illustration that I’ve drawn, although I think illustration is often redundant, and I see these as more complementary-almost an extra paragraph added to each story.
JI: These pieces feel distinctly different from your novel The Complete Collection of People, Places, and Things, the main difference being the single setting and town characters and political intrigue of TCCPPT. Also, in 2012 you released a co-written novel, with J.A. Tyler, No One Told Me I Was Going to Disappear.What feels consistent over the course of your books are the short, prose poem-like chapters that are to greater and lesser degrees dependent on each other for telling the overall tale. The pieces featured here in Atticus Review feel like a novel about this narrator, and perhaps his morbid attraction to the stories he’s telling, but they also feel less prose-poemy, and much less interrelated. How would you describe how your writing changed over the years?
JDW: Like a lot of creators, I make myself reinvent the wheel for each project. It’s partially an attempt to overcome my tics and ingrained narrative habits. Of course, it doesn’t really work. But, if I didn’t try to change my approach completely each time, then I think my work would be exceptionally repetitive. I like control, structure, and dioramas–worlds I can control. This can lead to an over-emphasis on constraint and smallness. I’m not naturally inclined to improvise and let things fly. I have to give myself little challenges to open up my work. (Working with J.A. on No One Told Me was great in this way. He encouraged me to just push forward. I didn’t even pencil out those drawings before I committed ink and paint to paper.)
I like contained pieces that snap together into one big story. That satisfies my compulsions. Making books to me is like building a house out of Lego; I like the flexibility of component parts, but ultimately I need clear structure to be satisfied by the whole.
JI: My favorite of these stories is “A New Friend in Atlantic City,” because it is, essentially, a ghost story. Are there other stories in the project that stick out like this?
JDW: Definitely. It was important to me to have a metaphysical dimension to this story. What is so awe-inspiring about our experience of atrocity is that it reminds us of what’s beyond the empirical. Suggestions of this super-rational world appear periodically throughout the book. Even the central crisis, the lost family members from long ago, is presented as a ghost story.
JI: You’re a family man, and a college professor. How do you juggle it all?
JDW: I surround myself with lists. Lists I can depend on.