13 Questions with Travis Jeppesen

by HST UK on December 15, 2011

A little December treat to warm the cockles as winter bites. Writer, thinker and all round good egg Travis Jeppesen kindly answered our 13 Q’s…

HST: Let’s talk a little about ‘Victims’, published in 2003 by Akashic Books, the book was edited by Dennis Cooper. In the context of cults, and the power of personality, why are humans so susceptible to the lure of charisma?

On its own, I don’t think charisma is a bad thing. Let’s face it: people who lack charisma are generally rather unpleasant to be around. It is when charisma is employed towards sinister ends that it becomes problematic. That being said, I don’t think Victims is about the “lure of charisma” or the psychological concerns of why someone joins a cult. I think it’s more concerned with exploring the idea of transcendence from several different angles.

HST: You’ve admitted to struggling to put words down after ‘Victims’, how did you get out of the rut? What was the first thing you dabbled on after the drought?

I’ve actually never had a dry spell with writing. I’ve always written, though there have been times when I’ve struggled to make something work as a book, and failed, and other times when I’ve had to abandon a project out of frustration only to return to it several years later and make it work. I did go through a very dark period around the time Victims came out and for about a year after, which is maybe what you’re referring to. But that had to do with things that were going on in my personal life and had nothing to do with writing. I’ve always written, and because I’m usually not just working on one thing at a time – the projects intersect – it’s impossible for me to tell you what I was working on after Victims. Probably a little bit of the TV poems, but also Wolf at the Door, also The Suiciders, a novel I was writing over a ten year period and which will finally be published in 2013. And of course, all the art criticism and journalism work I was doing during this period.

HST: In recent years the publishing industry has acquired a taste for Scandinavian writers, specifically those who write crime fiction. Can we expect to see a clutch of writers emerge from Eastern Europe, capturing the public’s imagination, having their novels adapted into movies by David Fincher?

I don’t think so. The experience of the former Soviet satellite states is so specific that it tends to come across as quite alien to Western audiences; you know, it really is “the Other Europe,” whereas there are a lot more cultural similarities between the Scandinavian countries and North America or the UK. I don’t see Hollywood calling anytime soon, with the exception of David Lynch, whose sensibility is well suited to the region, and which is why, I suppose, he decided to film much of Inland Empire in Poland. I don’t think Lynch has ever done any book adaptations, however. I’m sure he could make a great film out of just about anything published by Twisted Spoon.

HST: I read an old interview you did, where you stated – “…the art market has become so overinflated and powerful that most people working in the arts sector are more interested in capital than they are in ideas or individual works. There is very little interest in formal matters, there is very little criticism that anyone pays much heed to. This has had a detrimental effect on young artists, as well as the art that is produced under these conditions.” How do you view art schools in general, where it might be said that the young students (or their parents) invest capital in an education which perverts their natural creative instincts?

I think it’s dangerous to conflate art education with the art market. I think the former generally tries to keep a distance from the latter, recognizing its corrupting influence. I’m not that critical of art schools, and I don’t agree that they pervert one’s natural creative instincts, as you put it. I mean, if it does, then it obviously isn’t a very good art school. I think visual art is different from writing in that there are things that can actually be taught. This is where you see real differences between the two crafts.

HST: Has art in the last decade drifted away from gut instinct and impulse, instead falling into a cardboard cycle of recycled mimicry?

Not at all. I think visual art (and in this, I include film) offers much more fertile soil than the literary plateau. But this is me generalizing. There is also plenty of bad art and a little bit of good writing also going on.

HST: Covering your collection ‘Poems I Wrote While Watching TV’, would you consider yourself a reluctant poet? Is poetry a redundant art form?

No, not at all. I would say that poetry is at the core of my practice as a writer – I’m talking here about the impulse of poetry. The poetry books are the rawest distillation of what you also find in the novels or the art writing. It’s the place where I get to use language as a pure plastic element, to make sculptures out of. No, poetry isn’t redundant. Maybe that’s what the world thinks today. Well, fuck the world.

HST: How did reading Kathy Acker’s work mark a “huge transitional point” in your writing?

When I was younger, I was very involved in theater. So when I first started writing seriously, it was as a playwright. The first thing I read of Acker’s was a play, The Birth of the Poet, in an anthology. It completely broke with the rigid conventions of the standard play script in that it was fundamentally unstageable; I think one of the “stage directions” involves the theater blowing up and the audience dying in the explosion. Acker effectively inspired me to open the proscenium to the impossible in my own plays, to the extent that eventually, I realized I was no longer writing plays – my texts had become these indeterminate things, part prose, part poetry, part drama, part song lyrics – just everything happening at once. You could say that she opened me up so much that I ultimately had to work towards “re-disciplining” myself as a writer in certain ways, though I would also say that the most important lesson Acker taught me was that the site of writing was the only place where you could have total freedom, and that’s something I had been looking for in the real world but had never been able to find.

HST: You’ve travelled extensively throughout Europe, what was the most frightening place that you’ve visited, the most hostile, the place you felt most uncomfortable?

The United States.

HST: In the past you appear to have attempted to sum up ‘boredom’, many current writers have tried the same, Lee Rourke immediately springs to mind, perhaps Tao Lin as well. Do writers tackle the subject of boredom out of fear of becoming stuck its meandering grey spell?

You can write within the state of boredom, but I’m not sure that you can write about boredom. If that makes sense…I don’t know why writers tackle boredom. I suppose it can be a provocative stance. But Lee Rourke is really good and writes for serious reasons, so I don’t think he was just trying to pull out boredom as an adolescent shock tactic in his book. I think he was probably drawn to boredom by the allure of pure and total subjectivity that the subject promises. Because boredom is a totally subjective thing. Personally, I can say that very few things bore me, especially as I advance in age. If your mind works a certain way, then it can be very difficult to get bored. It’s hard for me to know what boredom is, so I probably couldn’t ever write about it. Maybe some of my characters appear to be bored or are boring figures. But I don’t think that constitutes some definitive statement about boredom. Boredom is just something equal to all the other elements when and if it occurs in my books.

HST: Is mundanity the key essence of modern society, where despite the world economically falling apart around us, we’re still content to sit back in our slippers and watch light entertainment singing and dancing on our widescreen HD TV’s and consume an assortment of unnecessary overpriced gadgets. Would you concur that a mundane existence transcends reality, usurping what it is to be alive?

I don’t know if I understand the question correctly, but I’ll do my best to respond. How I have chosen to live my life is very different from other Western people of my age group and socioeconomic background. The type of reality you describe, while I know it exists and is a norm, is very foreign to the life I have led, and so I don’t pretend to understand it, which is why my writing has never tried to either endorse or criticize it. What you seem to be describing is the passivity of a consumption-based existence. I would say that is a very sad way of living in the world, but I would also say that there are extremely complex reasons why someone might be goaded into that type of passivity. People are average – and in many ways, I am completely below average. I don’t know that merely attacking this average way of life is the key to solving the world’s problems. But I also wouldn’t say that this type of existence offers a form of transcendence. If anything, what you’re describing seems more of a state of a immanence.

HST: Explain the differences you’ve encountered between writing a novel, and writing a play?

Well, with the exception of the plays I wrote as a teenager – probably all of which, it is safe to say, can be confined to the dustbin of juvenilia – I’ve only written one full-length play so far, Daddy. That was written fairly quickly – one or two months – and all I can say is that I was really lucky, because the whole process was so fast and smooth, the way all the ideas coalesced and the writing just shot right out. I remember it was finished in just two drafts. Whereas the novels, the way they evolve, are so highly layered that you can’t say how many “drafts” go into them, and it usually takes several years for me to finish a novel, it just goes through so many different phases. The published novel never resembles in the slightest what it started out as, whereas the play just sort of happened – really wrote itself. Don’t wanna get all mystical about it, but it was kind of like me channelling all these characters’ voices. Maybe it helps in that I knew who some of the actors were going to be, and knowing them personally, it was easy for me to put words in their mouths. That being said, while I have a couple more ideas for plays, I haven’t made a very serious attempt to write one since then. So maybe next time around it will be more difficult, who knows.

HST: What is your take on the OCCUPY movement?

I can only hope that it’s a beginning. But I think that no true revolution can occur without violence – especially not in a country like the United States, where violence is written into the fabric of everyday life – I mean, our entire history is riddled with it. It is not until the movement becomes a real threat to the status quo that any change will take place. Just wait until a cop kills one of the protesters. With all the disgusting behavior of the police we’ve seen so far, it’s bound to happen eventually, as these animals are unable to control themselves and very few, if any, have the intelligence required to exercise restraint when the emotions get worked up. What tends to happen in these situations (think of the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, the Earth Liberation Front) is that a split occurs in the movement, where one side becomes “radicalized,” reverting to acts of violence and/or vandalism, and the other keeps on using the same ineffective, dismal means of protest.

I don’t know. I guess what I’m saying is: Don’t just occupy Wall Street. Fucking set it ablaze.

HST: I like to poke most Americans with this stick, but I’m hoping your answer might be a little different to all the others – looking as an ex-Pat from Europe, I’m curious as to what the ‘American Dream’ means to you?

I guess it started out as a myth used to lure immigrants who could then be used in the legalized form of slavery known as capitalism. Now that we no longer want those immigrants coming to our shores, you don’t have to dig very deep to find that that “American Dream” was always just a myth, that there is no greater social mobility in the United States than there is in a Third World country or anywhere else, for that matter. Whoever is most greedy, unscrupulous, and sociopathic will always come out “the winner” in this system. You have to be a real dimwit to believe that pure “honesty and hard work” are gonna get you to the top of the food chain (or that the top of the food chain is even a desirable place to be.) At least the Occupy movements are a clear articulation that no one believes that bullshit anymore.


If you are interested in answering HST’s 13 Questions then email us: aprilmaymarch777@yahoo.co.uk

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