Shane Jones is a writer who has consistently surprised me since I started reading him about five years ago. I never really know where his stories are going after the point from which they start. He’s the kind of writer that a real reader–and I mean a real reader–loves. A real reader who started reading because the worlds authors created were so unlike our real, everyday world. Real readers who get bored when a story turns predictable or formulaic. Real readers who love it when they have no idea how a story gets from point A to point B, but when it does, it satisfies. That’s what I keep seeing from Shane Jones. He’s done this consistently since his chapbook from the Greying Ghost Press, I Will Unfold You with My Hairy Hands, then his novels Light Boxes, and Daniel Fights a Hurricane. Now Two Dollar Radio is publishing Jones’s third novel, Crystal Eaters, about a village family with an ailing mother and jailbound son, all trying to continue to survive with their village way of life (complete with the titular crystals that they believe keep them alive), all while an encroaching city seems to magically pop up around them, hemming them and their village world in, literally driving some of the characters underground.
JI: I’ve been a fan of your writing since around 2008, when I read your chapbook I Will Unfold You with My Hairy Hands. Since then, you’ve written three novels. How would you describe the arc of your writing career so far?
SJ: This question is paralyzing for me. I’d rather just always be moving forward, always looking toward the next thing. If I spend too much time analyzing my past books or my “arc” I get stuck in the gunk of bad reviews, low sales, dropped publishers, all of which is in the past. I do think my books—and I’m thinking of the most recent here, Crystal Eaters—is more ambitious and deeper than the past ones, which leaned on whimsy and a certain hip tone. Crystal Eaters takes a lot of risks and I’m not scared to make a lot of mistakes in it and have it pointed out by people.
JI: Despite the things you mention above about some of your earlier writing (which seem to have to do with publishers and the marketplace, and less to do with the books themselves), do you still “stand behind” those books? Are you proud of them?
SJ: Not really.
JI: Really? I think they were fantastic books. You were doing–are doing–some of the most interesting fiction writing in the US right now. I love telling students about your work, and they seem genuinely excited to have been introduced to it.
SJ: If I think hard about them, I can get back to the feeling I had when I wrote them and that makes me feel happy.
JI: What, in your opinion, are some risks you think Crystal Eaters takes that some people might point out?
SJ: Creating a fantasy world with its own logic but then adding a “real city” that hovers around the fantasy world (and eventually the two connecting) was a risk and something I don’t think has been done before. Jamming a big messy story with lots of characters into a tight 50,000 word book in a fractured structure that reads more like a poem than a novel was hard and I think does something other books haven’t done before. Bouncing around from themes and genres — coming of age story, family drama, science fiction, adventure story, dystopian novel, domestic realism, surrealism, dream logic, etc — was difficult. I think Crystal Eaters reads like no other book published before it.
JI: Your writing has grown and evolved in tremendous ways. Each of your books has bested the previous effort. In Crystal Eaters you have some of the most powerfully-rendered scenes between characters. For instance, at the end of Part One, after Dad has the car accident and walks home, the scene where he and Mom are talking about their imprisoned son and the ruins of their relationship–it’s heartbreakingly real for those characters, yet tinged with the surreality of these villagers’ perspectives on the crystals that they think keep them living. This is very well done. It feels different than some of your earlier writing, like the characters feel more lived in, or something. In an interview you gave with your publisher, you talked about how hard you worked on this novel. Were there moments, though, where the writing just flew along because you were so engaged by what you were creating? How was the physical act of writing Crystal Eaters different than writing your previous books?
SJ: In Crystal Eaters I was interested in density and “heavy paragraphs.” That is, just spending a ton of time inside each graph before moving on, instead of before where in my books I was going more for speed and lightness. I don’t know, it just felt like more of a challenge because my head isn’t geared this way. I kept telling myself over and over again “slow down” and “push.” I said those two things to myself for about two years, the first year being the drafting process, which, yeah, the writing went quickly. I drafted about 100,000 words and cut half. Crystal Eaters differs process-wise very differently because before I really prided myself on fast-drafts and time restricted editing. I spent more time working on Crystal Eaters than all the previous books combined. Just thinking about it makes me sick to my stomach and a certain “drained” feeling, which I think is good. I also can’t shake this book. I haven’t been able to move on from it, where with the other books I wrote back-to-back.
JI: I’m curious about the “‘heavy paragraphs’” you’re talking about here. Can you explain what you mean by that? I mean, beyond spending time there as a writer, before moving on to the next one. How do you hope a reader engages with these paragraphs?
SJ: The paragraphs contain the density, feeling, image, and emotion of a poem, I think. Some of the paragraphs I spent weeks on. The opening chapter I probably edited and re-wrote two hundred times and didn’t finish for about two years. I just tried to stay inside the paragraphs longer this time. Instead of running from paragraph to paragraph I would pick one and live in it.
JI: You’ve published poetry as well (A Cake Appeared). How different would you say was the process of thinking of each paragraph as a kind of prose poem in and of itself, while at the same time fitting into the larger narrative of a novel, as opposed to working on individual poems?
SJ: Writing the poems (I haven’t written a poem since that book) was probably harder because there had to be a beginning and end to each one. It was one world on the page. In the novel I had to reach to the next paragraph, which, in a way, was easier, I think. Feel like I have no idea what I’m talking about right now. I think if I had to write a poem right now it would be hard for me. In Crystal Eaters I just wanted to write good and full paragraphs and not let myself off the hook easily. I just wanted to work harder than I ever had before.
JI: Just last week when someone asked about what I thought of Crystal Eaters, what you say above is almost quoting what I said. The book moves more slowly, more introspectively, than your previous books. I’m also curious about the “‘hip’ tone” you mention above in your earlier books. Can you describe what you mean by that? If that was something that you thought was important for those books, can you explain why? And how would you say Crystal Eaters does not incorporate this tone?
SJ: I wrote a lot about foxes and octopus and birds falling from the sky, and these things kind of got labeled as “hipster” by some people. The tone of a lot of the writing also came across as detached and ironic. I think in Light Boxes the tone and even the images is important to the book because it all just kind of fits, it works. With Crystal Eaters I’m more concerned with doing something “heavy.” I want to be emotional without leaning on irony or detachment or like a “cool” demeanor. Of course, I have a bunch of weird shit going on in Crystal Eaters that contradicts this, like Remy’s dog talking in one scene. But it’s such a different book than the previous books. It has a very different feel.
JI: It does feel different than your earlier books, but you retain those weird details, like the City grows of its own accord, seemingly without any City-dwellers sanctioning or participating in the erecting of the encroaching buildings, and of course all the details surrounding the black crystals and their effects on Remy, Pants, and Mom. Do you think you’re inherently drawn to strange details like these? That you incorporate such elements into most of your fiction, does that come from your reading tastes?
SJ: I don’t want to label the style, the images, the details as “strange,” but as something pushing my imagination and what I can do on the page with words. A lot of the stuff I read is mad boring. I want to come from a tradition of older books like what Grove was doing back in the 60s or what McCarthy did in Suttree or any number of books (thinking Vintage Contemporaries in the mid-1980s) that kind of explode at the sentence and image level but also work on a plane of deep emotional value. I want to say something with this book. The other end of the spectrum working against the boring stuff published today, is just writers being batshit crazy without any grounding whatsoever. I don’t want to just do that because then I’m just messing around, which is kind of what I did in Daniel Fights A Hurricane. I want Crystal Eaters to not only be old fashioned in a story and emotional format, but really strive with words and images to reach some kind of next level feeling.
JI: Do you think some of the longer time you spent on this book, and perhaps why you “can’t shake” it has to do with the larger number of main characters in Crystal Eaters, and that you jump around from character to character, scene to scene, developing the plot so that it moves toward a more traditional climactic moment? Did working in such a way demand more from you intellectually?
SJ: I think something has shifted inside my head. Before I had this insane kind of energy and wrote one thing, waited maybe a day, a week, then jumped right into the next project. For example, Crystal Eaters was drafted before Daniel Fights A Hurricanewas published. But I can’t move on from Crystal Eaters, for some reason. It was just so exhausting. I’m not a cerebral thinker. I’m not an intelligent novelist. Since finishing the book (about six months ago) I’ve kept thinking, “I never want to write a book again,” and I thought it would stop, but it hasn’t.
JI: How do you think things are shaping up–across the board–for novel writers right now? If, as you mention above, many novelists are writing such boring things, why do you think that’s happening? Will Self recently published another one of those “The Novel Is Dead” articles on The Guardian a few days ago. Who are some of the writers who excite you right now?
SJ: The problem is probably not that boring books are being published but I’m becoming a boring person and reader. Will Self is decaying into old Will Self and he’s boring. There are tons of writers publishing things today that are interesting and doing big things. I don’t want to list people because then I’ll just exclude the same, or more writers, that deserve to be mentioned. I think Two Dollar Radio, a press I’m really excited to be a part of, is the most exciting publisher in America. Even if I don’t like some of their books, they are never boring.
JI: Has becoming a father influenced your writing, or the way you write?
JI: Haha. It has for me. Shit. I used to write so much more. I’ve had to become way more disciplined. Doesn’t always work out. I get into periods where it’s just too hard to write. I think I’m in a place similar to the one you’re in now, in that I’ve spent the last two or three years working really hard on a novel, and now that project’s feeling completed I feel drained and unable to jump into anything else. I‘d rather just hang out with my kid. Do you have ideas that come up, but feel trouble committing to them, or like they’re not good enough? Those are the kinds of feelings I’ve been having lately.
SJ: Before I didn’t. In my twenties (I’m 34 now) I just wrote and kept going. But this past year I’ve stopped every long project that I started. Sometimes this is just an idea, other times a few thousand words of notes, but I haven’t been able to push past an opening. Why is that? I don’t know. It could totally change next week and I’m rushing through a draft of a novel. But as of right now, I have such a “done” feeling.
JI: I loved sharing your “25 Pieces of Writing Advice to End all Writing Advice” thing on HTMLGiant with my students in class the day it was posted. Some of it is clearly kind of silly (“12. Don’t talk to anyone ever again”), but much of it is truly sound advice (or at least it seems that way). How much of an advice point like, for instance, #20, would you say is sincere? Or is all of it sincere, in a way, like, “don’t ever talk to anyone about writing ever again”? (Whoops, I guess too late for that for you and me.)
SJ: I think it’s all sincere. “Don’t talk to anyone ever again” may be dramatic and a bit silly, but there’s truth to it and it holds value. A lot of people didn’t like the list because it was so dark. I just put it together because Htmlgiant is paying me $25 a piece and I didn’t have anything else to do.
JI: So, with all this darkness, how do you find light? Or do you? Do you just indulge in and accept the darkness?
SJ: It’s all the same.
Photo By: chiaralily