Behind the Words: Jon Spayde

Posted by on Mar 28, 2019 in ABC's of Writing (for Beginners) | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Jon Spayde

Jon Spayde, author, smiling at camera, wearing glasses and a floral shirt.Jon Spayde‘s work appeared in the fourth issue of Spry Literary Journal. He is a writer, poet, editor, and solo performer who lives with his wife, Laurie Phillips, and cats Kerfuffle, Yuki, and Kiku in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He studied classical Japanese literature at Harvard University and creative writing at the University of Minnesota. His poetry, translations from Japanese, and fiction have appeared in the Harvard Review, Spindrift, Third Rail, and elsewhere. His autobiographical solo show, Writing the Breakdown Book, premiered onstage in Minneapolis in May and is featured in the Minnesota Fringe Festival.

Spayde’s short story, Jazzmen, is a look into the power of music. Spayde uses poetic prose, sharp imagery, and he builds a strong relationship between the men and their instruments. In an interview with Spayde, we dive into his creative process, his inspiration for the story, and some advice for emerging writers.

Jessie Reyna: You capture the jazzmen so beautifully and you even give music character by writing, “The notes wait, breathless, inside the instruments of the jazzmen.” What inspired you to write this short story?

Thank you! It’s been a while since I wrote the piece, so I can’t remember precisely what got it going, but I’m sure that in general it began with me just playing with words.I probably got a sentence that intrigued me and I added some sentences to it. Then as it developed, it started to more or less tell me what it needed, and I tried and tried to fulfill those requests.

When do you feel a short story is finished?

Boy, that’s a good question. Someone once said that a work of art is never finished, just abandoned. This piece, and many of the things I write, occupy a spot somewhere between a short story and a longish prose poem, so the task of the piece is often more to capture a feeling and develop it than tell a story as such. In a more traditional short story, one might be looking to reveal something about a character or a relationship between characters, and the story is done when that is achieved in a humanly convincing way, along with a sense of weight and significance. In Jazzmen, there is a plot–the Jazzmen are forced to play music for some Owners, who have power over them, but the elation the players feel in their music, and the beauty of the music itself, leads to a sense of triumph over the Owners; then the fact that the Jazzmen record their music gives their triumph an aspect of eternity. But these themes are more important than the individuality of the characters–in fact, the characters have no individuality at all, only a collective existence–and I guess I felt the piece was done when it gave a strong enough message of the Jazzmen’s triumph. I suppose a piece is done when the “purpose” or “point” of it is achieved, whatever that may be–and, of course, the purpose/point will likely change in the writing process. My Jazzmen piece started as a very static portrait of these imagined musicians, but as I went along, it got more “storytelling” elements– a card game, an impromptu concert, a recording session–and the point of it all turned out to be to give these musician/artists a big artistic and spiritual triumph. I often find, as I did with this piece, that if I take a good deal of care in the writing, then the actual ending–the last few paragraphs or words–comes of itself. We’ve all had those moments, haven’t we? when the words just show up as they should. Rare experience but great

This piece is a poetic observation in which the characters don’t have individual names but are grouped together as one. Did you intend for this to be a much longer piece? If not, what were your thoughts behind the mysterious characters?

I did give some thought to writing more pieces about the jazzmen, maybe a collection of prose pieces about them, but as the piece itself evolved, I felt like it had enough weight to stand alone. As for the “collective” nature of the characters–I really like to write outside of the rules of “psychological-realistic” fiction, and one of those rules is, of course, that you concentrate on one character at a time. I find myself very often starting with a “we” or a “they” instead of, you know, “Kathy woke up that morning with absolutely no memory of what happened after the tequila sours.” I have another story that tells the tale of the breakdown of some machines in a village–it’s nonspecific about place or time, but was inspired by my reading about early industrial processes in Japan–silk-spinning mills in the 1870s–and similar mills in the Balkans. The industrial processes are brand-new, but the villagers still live in a pre-industrial world and mind-set. In that story, too, I stayed away from individuals and spoke only of “the women,” “the old men,” the owners,” etc. The collective sense probably makes the story feel more archaic or archetypal–and that can be a pitfall too, of course–I have to watch out for pseudo-profundity, the voice of God! 

What is the biggest thing you struggled with when writing Jazzmen?

Probably keeping the tone right—poetic and mysterious while still accessible. I wanted the piece to feel very American but to have a European sensibility too, so the pitfalls to avoid were on the one hand, sounding “folksy” or nationalistic or like a Ken Burns documentary, and on the other, sounding like a bad copycat version of the Euros I admire most–including Bruno Schulz and another great Polish author, Magdalena Tulli.  As you can imagine, I was also conscious that I was writing about black and mixed-race characters, and characters who represent jazz, one of the towering cultural achievements of black America. (In my book, the two American artists with the greatest impact on world culture were Walt Whitman and Louis Armstrong.) I’m white, and the pitfalls of white “curation” of black achievement are very real. I worried a little that the piece sounded like a white guy trying to write a work from the Harlem Renaissance! But I was really sincere in my feelings for these characters and what they represent, and I just hoped that if I placed them in a setting that was sufficiently poetic and spiritual, the cultural politics of black/white wouldn’t matter too much. That could be very naive!  

What is your writing process?

I write poems as well, and my process always starts with tactics I learned from poets—just playing around with language. Another writer I admire, who happens to be both American and European, is Julien Green (born Julian Green in Virginia, the author of something like 100 novels, most of them in French, and a member of the Académie Française). Somewhere Green recommends just writing anything to get going. “The bird settled on the fence.” Then you think about that and play with it. That’s what I do. I’m usually not even sure if a poem or a prose piece is going to result. As it goes, I reread it a lot, very meditatively, with the idea that it will somehow tell me what it wants the next sentences to be. I love and respect the advice of a writing guru from my city, Minneapolis/St. Paul, whose book has become a bit of a cliché, Brenda Ueland (If You Want to Write). She basically says to writers, slow down and “moon around.” That is, don’t push, don’t worry–be dreamy and meditative, gently try things out, don’t be too critical, just drift. It’s really how the creative process works. You can’t push the river. It’s great advice for me, because I can easily get into this horrible mindset where I want the thing to be great and I want it done soon! 

What are you working on now?

Three novels at the same time—I hope I will finish at least one of them! The process with them is different from my poetry/prose efforts. I really have to tell stories, and I have to do the heavy lifting in fiction that I resist–getting my characters in the door, up the stairs, into conversations, etc., in short, more “psychological realism” and standard narrative stuff. But in all three, the tone of voice is what interests me most: one novel has an omniscient narrator who is satirical but very compassionate–me trying to capture even a little of George Eliot’s exquisite tone; one is in the voice of a child who is almost weirdly mature in his understanding and judgment; and one is in the voice of an eccentric poet, the heir of a Midwestern railway fortune who lives alone in a decaying mansion modeled on the gigantic home of robber baron James J. Hill, which is located not too far from my house in Saint Paul. So while I have to do hard work along traditional narrative lines (ugh!) I get my fun from the tone, and the eccentricities of the characters.

What advice would you give to emerging writers?

Well, everybody has different needs, so I wouldn’t presume to be too general in my advice. But I know that every writer will face frustration and a lack of confidence at some point—or at many points. When the rejections come, and you feel like doing this work is pointless, it’s a very good idea to ask yourself why you write at all, and to consider this answer from Elizabeth Bishop, as summarized in an essay by Alan Shapiro called “Why Write?”: 

“We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration.

“It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making; your identity — the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests — has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness.”

I think that absorption is the real reason I write, and I’ll close with another quote I love, this one from feminist author Gloria Steinem: “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel that I should be doing something else.” 

About the interviewer: Jessie Reyna received her Bachelor’s in Art History from the University of New Hampshire and currently attends Fairfield University in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program studying nonfiction. She has worked as both Nonfiction Editor and Editor-In-Chief for Mason’s Road: A Literary Arts Journal. Her current hobbies include cooking, blogging, training for marathons, and traveling. She lives in Long Beach, California.