We first met at a writers conference while waiting to pitch our respective novels.
Apparently the first thing I said to him was, “Nice suit,” as I leaned back on the sofa that lined the floral wall papered wall that faced the ballroom in which agents held our futures in their hands. I wore my traditional skinny neon colored jeans, Chucks, and an oversize shirt. (Full disclosure I’ve only seen him in a suit that one time. I wouldn’t use the word ‘uptight’ to describe him-precise would be more accurate.)
“Thanks,” he nodded and smiled. His face softened and my conversation starter had worked, we began talking thus getting my mind off my pitch.
I’d practiced it enough, if I didn’t know it a few moments before I’d meet an agent then I figured I didn’t know it at all. Therefore befriending a fellow writer seemed like a good idea to calm my nerves. Jason and I have stayed friends, and in fact one might say that it flourished over time. Although we have different writing styles we both love music, art, and ideas of stories that we’re contemplating. We’ve critiqued each others work, and he’s edited my upcoming YA novel ‘Everything That Counts’ (he did a great job so any mistakes that might end up in print are my fault not his).
He’s not only an author, but a visual artist. You can see some of his work by clicking here and checking out his Instagram.
Basically he’s cool, intelligent, and totally cool with the copious amount of times I use the word ‘dude’. Now check out his answers to my 20 questions…
Twenty Questions with Jason Brandt Schaefer
- Every writer has that one book that made him or her want to be a writer, what’s yours? Oh, man. I can’t say that I DO actually have ONE book that made me want to be a writer, but there have been several along the way. First, some of my favorite memories of my childhood are listening to my mother read to me, and it wasn’t always children’s storybooks. She read Tom Sawyer to me one year, and I don’t think we got all the way through it, but there was one scene that cracked her up something fierce and it has always stayed with me. Tom was playing with his friends, and for some reason pulled down his pants, maybe to relieve himself (or maybe all the boys were naked already; I haven’t re-visited the book since), but “he lit upon a nettle,” then rose up howling in pain. My mom found this tremendously amusing. Because I found Mark Twain’s 19th-century narration difficult to follow, I had to ask her why she was laughing so hard she was crying. As she wiped her face, she explained we had bull nettles on our eight acres, and Mom totally identified with Tom’s anguish. She hadn’t sat on one (not to my knowledge, anyway), but everyone in my family had been stung somewhere on their bodies, including me. The laugh was a small thing, but it showed me how words have the power to invoke emotional responses, and our tie to Tom’s plight through our own experience, decades and decades into the future, blew my mind. This was a book written by a guy who was now dead, a famous dude we were studying in class, whose name I had read in history books and had heard everywhere, and he knew about bull nettles! So I saw that our lives were in that book, too. It was exciting. Mom read Jurassic Park to me, too, among many other Crichton novels, and seeing the movie version, the dinosaurs come to life, made the power of narrative all the more real to me. I was drawn to the cinematic style of Crichton’s other novels, and compared the movies to the books every chance I could get. Eaters of the Dead is, in my opinion, one of his greatest literary experiments since it draws from archetypes you find in Beowulf, and The Thirteenth Warrior was pretty transcendental. Finally, in high school, when I was reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, I realized literature is not only about writing to an audience; it’s about communicating with and responding to other literature. He drew inspiration from a Robert Browning poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” but if I remember correctly from King’s memoir, On Writing, he never intended it to be an adaptation of the poem, though it certainly is an interpretation of it. He had the lines, or the sentiment of the lines, rolling around in his head one day and set pen to paper, and realized LATER he was basing his book series on the poetic hero. That was FASCINATING to me. King also pulled lines out of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” So it’s been a long, low-burning affair with literature — novels, poems, and films — that has driven my study of writing and my writing career to date. I’ll add here that Emily St. John Mandel’s contemporary novel, Station Eleven, has finally given me a model for the KIND of novel I want to write, so if I had one book, I’d say that one has been the most influential, but then, I read it only last year.
- How old where you when you started writing? I first began with a journal, I think. I was probably eight or nine. I remember sitting in the sun by the pool at our outdoor iron table, which my folks still have, writing down my thoughts and not knowing for what purpose. “Dear Journal, I’m not sure what to say here…” That sort of thing. The answer, I now know, was less about recording my experience (since I’d had precious few at the ripe old age of nine), but had everything to do with the PRACTICE of writing. Trying to figure out ways to plot my thoughts silently, using written words. I think I was inspired by Doug Funnie to begin a journal, though. You know, that old Nickelodeon cartoon? Someone told me Doug reminded them of me (not far from the mark; an awkward, private, unathletic dreamer of a child), and I thought, well, if I am to become the realization of Doug, I’ll have to begin a journal. The short stories came after, I’m sure, and the poetry came in college, after I made that Stephen King/Robert Browning connection senior year of high school and began reading all the poetry I could get my hands on. I was like, if King’s reading poetry, I should be reading poetry.
- Name four authors that you’d love to have lunch with. Stephen King, naturally, then Louise Erdrich, author of Love Medicine and The Round House, Amelia Grey, this contemporary writer who pens the nastiest, most beautiful short stories I’ve ever read (you can find them in Gutshot, her most recent collection), and James Hannaham, author of Delicious Foods. I’d love to eat with Crichton if he were still alive, and I already met Emily St. John Mandel, who declined to answer a few interview questions for an academic paper I was writing on her book. I understand she was busy, but I’m still a little sore about that, so I think our lunch date would be a little tense. I worry she wouldn’t have time to pass the salt. I like my salt. Damn, I can only name four here? Can I eat at like a twenty-foot dining table with every writer I admire? Can we do hors d’oeuvres and wine in an art gallery and mill about, trading ideas as we run into one another? I want to meet and eat with all the writers I admire, provided they have good table manners. (I think novelists probably do; it’s the poets I worry about, those whimsical manipulators of language. I’d be too afraid they’d bend a fork the way they bend a metaphor just to see if they could re-invent a way to eat their salad. And I abhor conversations with people who say things like, “Prose is ugly in its attempt to bring MEANING to something. Words don’t MEAN anything. Because language can’t really be UNDERSTOOD, per se…” This is not productive conversation, and it doesn’t encourage anyone. And I’ll admit I’ve said things like this myself. At dinner, even!)
- What would you eat? TACOS! I don’t care who you are; everyone enjoys tacos. We’d have to have pork, fish, beef, seafood, and vegan options, though. And corn and flour tortillas. And lots of napkins. It’ll be fun to see who picks what. I imagine King and Grey would eat with violence, given the content of their stories. Not sure about Erdrich or Hannaham. They strike me as wholesome, balanced people, so maybe they’ll indulge in fish or tofu and use lots of napkins.
- How do you plot out your work? I write LOTS of notes, then put them together. These notes can be lists of major events or beats within scenes, investigations into character that could become scenes in longer work or short stories in themselves or woven into the texture of a book through backstory. I’ve tried beginning a book and trying to let it flow, but my time as a journalist trained me to write from notes, so this doesn’t work very well for me. So I consider my notes to be a sort of interview with myself, with my characters, in which I ask them where they’ve been, what they’ve done, where they’re going, what they wore last Tuesday, what they carry in their purse, what vacation they plan to go on next October, what they think of this particular work of art. The more random the questions, the more refined the characters become, and the more refined the characters, the clearer the plot becomes, and the clearer the plot, the more easy it is for me to write it all down and find unity of theme and structure. I guess I’m holistic in that respect — you can never see a novel all at once, but I like to know where I’m headed and why before I set out on the journey. The real adventure is the journey, anyway, not the stops along the way, or even more depressing, the end.
- Do you write in the morning or evening? I seem to be the most productive in the early afternoon, but only if I’ve slept in until at least 11 a.m. I am aware this is ridiculous, and I’m always trying to find the real answer to this question, but for me there is no “best time” to write. The best time is when there’s no one around and no one expected to show up at the door, when it’s relatively quiet or there’s some gentle background noise to let me know people are still alive in the outside world while I’m in my head, when I’m fed and relaxed and comfortable and have had at least two cups of coffee. Sometimes I feel like I have to be bored to write, but I’m not sure that’s quite true, either, and yet not sure it’s completely false. Why did humans invent novels in the first place? The correct answer, of course, is to share their experience of the human condition, but let’s get real. There’s no better cure to sheer, absolute boredom than to imagine an entire world chock-full of excitement. Maybe that’s why I feel I have to be bored — it’s not the boredom, but the stability which grows from it, that I need. I have to be stable while I spin the world around in my mind, or else I’m going to get dizzy and fall down.
- Is there music on? Sometimes I put music on, and sometimes I’m in a coffee shop with music on. I can’t listen to music when it’s repetetive or commands my attention. It brings me out of my daydream too much. If I’m going to work with music on, it’s going to be something that can make me dance without occupying my mind. I do much better with ambient noise — traffic, people talking, wind and rain, waves.
- What inspired your last story? I’ll tell you about two of my shorter pieces, “Lament for Reunions” and “Audrey Watched.” I wrote “Lament” in response to the death of my grandfather and the drunken night I had with my cousins where we all realized though we come from the same place (geographically as well as hereditarily), we might finally be too different now to get along. I kept wondering, “What do I do with that information?” And I wrote the piece, just listing the strange and scary observations I was making that made me feel like an alien in my own family, a list of things perhaps I was the only one observing, and I got a really moving, emotional lyric essay out of it. (Though I sometimes call it fiction because the images and the “plot,” if it does have a plot, are taken out of context and manipulated to a degree.) And in writing the essay, I realized this is how I mourn things in my life — I intellectualize and bargain, I put people and events in boxes and turn them around to see them from all sides, I stain microscope slides with little scenes from my own life and investigate why they happened that way, and what I could have done differently and what might have happened had I done that differently. “Audrey Watched” was similar, though it is more solidly a work a fiction. I’m a musician, sometimes, and I lost a friend a while back to depression, anxiety and substance abuse. He was a musician, too, and we’d played in a relatively successful group before things fell apart. Keeping the band together and everyone happy is the real business of music, not performing the songs. And a lot of times battling depression and confronting demons is a part of that. So I wrote this story of a Houston blues musician in a downward spiral. Because that’s such a common theme in today’s literature, I had to find a new way to write this old story, so I chose to tell it from the perspective of his guitar, named Audrey. She doesn’t have any emotions, and she never responds to the protagonist, of course, any more than a guitar would in real life. What she does do is provide a keyhole into the world of his suffering, which made for a terrifying, claustrophobic story. I’m working on a novel now, which I won’t get too far into, but it’s also based on personal experience — my parents’ shift from Lutheran Christianity to Wicca, a neo-pagan Earth religion. This happened when I was a teenager, and likely is the greatest reason I became a writer. To unpack complicated formative experiences like these.
- Name three books so good you wish you wrote them. At this point, I see any book on the shelf and wish I’d written it, only because I’m so hungry to get my work out there. I deeply admire Station Eleven, and I’ll add Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to that list, but I don’t wish I’d written them because they’re amazing works of literature. I’m glad they were written by others and that I can call them heroes for their achievements and that their work provides examples of what kinds of books I’d like to write in my own way. I’m not a jealous person, and I celebrate every writer who has their work out in the world. That said, I do wish I would have written the screenplay for this new movie, “Captain Fantastic” (2016), because I’d already developed a plot very similar to the ending of that movie, and I felt the way I’d written it was better and more fitting for my novel. It’s not like he stole the story from me or anything. I don’t know the guy, he just got to it first. The world is an echo chamber; similar inventions are inevitable because our needs are similar. Of course, seeing someone else doing first what I had already planned to do was pretty damned frustrating. Now I have to find a new way to end my novel, but I know the new way will be better than the original because fresh solutions always are. That’s heartening to me.
- What television shows, movies, or albums do you believe are written well? If you haven’t seen “The Wire,” I strongly recommend it. And “Breaking Bad,” of course. I’m watching “Girls” right now and learning a lot from it. We’re kind of in a new golden age of television. Some call it the platinum age, and I’ll agree. With movies, “American Beauty” is such a strong film, it has remained at the top of my list for a long time. As has “Forrest Gump” and “Dances with Wolves,” though I’ve grown more critical of stories like that that feature a white person going into an unfamiliar world only to win the day. That doesn’t happen in real life. Historically, white people basically take what’s not theirs, ruin everything, build on the ruins and say, “Look at the great job we’ve done.” Not to get too political, but see what’s happening right now. This is why it’s so important for readers and writers and basically everyone who believes in a free, diverse world, to read literature and watch shows and movies by people who are different from you. I’m a white man, and for the past two years I’ve been reading and watching work by women, LGBTQ people, and black people pretty much exclusively. I feel it’s my responsibility to next read more from Jewish and Muslim writers. I’ve gotten off topic. I believe John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” is written well. Jazz is very narrative, but also poetic. It breathes and searches like an organism, an extremely human music, the music of risk-taking, failure, and improvisation, and it requires huge amounts of concentration, study and practice. Give “Moment’s Notice” a listen. What a gorgeous composition!
- Which actor would you cast in the protagonist role of your most recent piece? For my novel-in-progress, maybe Crispin Glover would fit the tall, thin, pale character of Jonah Holloway, though I’m not sure I’d call him the protagonist. On the first page, we learn he has been murdered. The book features a first-person narrator, Micah Holloway, who investigates the origins of her family’s decision to become Wiccan, and the consequences of that change. Much of the plot involves these stories, so it’s a large cast. Wait. It just occurred to me. Jennifer Lawrence would be perfect for Micah, and incidentally, Jonah is her father. Maybe Crispin’s too old for that. We haven’t seen him in a while.
- Which of your pieces was the hardest to write? This novel I’m trying to bang out is pretty damned difficult. Only because it’s the most complicated story I’ve ever worked on, and the plot is a beast. Emotionally speaking, “Lament for Reunions” got me pretty depressed, but then maybe I was depressed already and writing it helped guide me through it.
- Which was the easiest? That said about the emotional investment required for “Lament,” I wrote and drafted that piece to submission-ready in less than two months. I OBSESSED over it, maybe because it was more present in my head than anything. It was the perfect time to write that piece because it sort of grabbed me by the neck and didn’t let go. Or maybe I was the one who grabbed. Either way, we helped one another become better, stronger individuals because we depended on each other in our time of need, like a father and a daughter, maybe. That’s ridiculous. Stories aren’t daughters.
- Which of your pieces did readers ‘get’ when they told you their thoughts on it? The complete ones. The ones I knew were ready to put out into the world, no one ever has trouble understanding. It’s the works-in-progress, the early drafts that raise eyebrows and elicit questions. I will say when I read “Audrey Watched” to the public for the first time (holding a reading is a requirement of my MFA program), my sister-in-law leaned over to my brother and whispered, “Your brother’s a pretty fucked-up dude.” They told me this after the reading. So I guess she “got” it; she was deeply disturbed by it, which was the goal of the piece. When people say they “get” your work, they should not only understand everything that happened, but the reason it happened, and what it MEANS that it happened. And I don’t think that’s too much to trust an audience with; as writers, it’s our job to meet the audience halfway. Maybe not even halfway — maybe more like 45 percent of the way. Because when people are shoved off a cliff and asked to fly, sometimes they grow wings. Literarily speaking, of course.
- What are you working on now? Besides the novel, at the present moment, I’m trying to get four different short stories published and trying to build a body of visual art. Since January 2016, I’ve been researching and experimenting with ways to make stories into three-dimensional sculptures. I have a theory that objects can tell highly complex stories if they are intricate enough, and that patrons can “read” the story by spending time with the object. I have a few ideas but so far, I’ve been dabbling in concrete poetry. Less narrative, but still just as visual. I’m basically painting with words. It’s a fun exercise and it brings me closer to language, “feeling” my way through it and living with it for a while. We all do it as we draft, but likely not to such intensity. The concrete poets whose work I’ve studied are INSANE. And maybe I am a little, too.
- What story do you have to write before you die? I’ll settle for this first novel! From time to time, an idea will grab ahold of me and I’ll plot it a little, sometimes getting pages of plot notes out. I have plots like this for a six-book YA series about a boy who finds his way into the world of faeries and becomes their king (that suddenly sounds like one of those “great white hero” stories I was just talking about, so that’s a problem), and for a novel about a door-to-door tutor who gets involved with an extremely wealthy family with ties to a corrupt underworld. The only thing linking them together is the innocent, damaged child he’s tutoring to take the SAT. Before I die, I’d like to write all of these stories I’ve already imagined but haven’t had a chance to write yet.
- What’s your best fan story? To be honest, I’m not sure what you mean by this, so I’m going to have some fun with this. Sense 1: one of my fans approaches me —I’m an emerging writer, just now getting out into the world, so I haven’t really be approached by fans. I had a fellow student buy one of my concrete poems from my graduate show and ask me to sign it. That felt pretty amazing. And I made forty bucks. That same residency, I had another student who I can only assume was a fan of me, though likely not my work since there’s no way she could have read any of it, narrate my life in third-person as I was preparing my cup of coffee. She snuck up behind me and without introducing herself said, “He pours his milk and sugar into his coffee with patience and precision, each movement deliberate, as though he had performed this action a thousand times before.” You’ll notice I forget completely what I said back to her. That was pretty weird. Sense 2: I, as a fan, approach one of my favorite writers — I already mentioned Emily St. John Mandel, so I’ll give you the full story here. Mind you, I don’t blame her for this. It was just the slightest bit rude. Me: “I love your book! I’m writing a paper on it.” Emily: “That’s good to hear.” (Smiles, signs my book.) Me: “I love the way you handled objects and used them as a tool to link the past and the present.” Emily: “Well, it seemed like a good idea.” (Hands me back the book.) Me: “I’d love to email you some interview questions so I can get more into your style. It’s for my MFA.” Emily: “You know, I have a three-year-old; I barely have any time to write anything for myself.” Me: (laughing nervously) “Oh, of course, it was a shot in the dark, I know you’re a busy woman, I’d be busy, too, I don’t have kids, but I understand,” et cetera. You’ll notice I’m writing very long answers to these interview questions. That’s what it means to be a good literary citizen. But then, I’m in my quiet apartment, alone and childless. Sense 3: a story involving a fan, the device used to push air around a room — When I was about six or so, and Dad was still in the Air Force, his commanding officer came over with his baby daughter. This man is very tall, and the ceiling was very low. So when he lifted his daughter up above him, as fathers who love their daughters do, he poked her head right into spinning blades of the fan. If you’ve ever shoved your hand into a running fan to stop the blades for a second, you know what this sounds like, and how much it must have hurt his daughter. She immediately started screaming and screamed for hours. She’s fine now. Holds a Master’s degree from an international business school and she’s working in Germany. She speaks two languages. Maybe we should put all our babies’ heads into fans.
- What sentence have you written that you feel encapsulates your style? Let’s say this one, from “Audrey Watched.” This passage comes after the protagonist has sold Audrey to a pawn shop, and he returns many months later to see if it’s still there and if he can buy it back: “As he perused the guitars on the wall, his eyes carried the same determination as a wild animal searching for its old burrow, the place where its mother had raised her cubs. A glimmer of hope expecting to come up disappointed.”
- Have you ever based characters off of real people? All the time! I find, though, that basing a character on a real person is in some ways an analysis of that person’s psyche. As you become close to the character, you begin to understand more deeply the person the character is based on, for better or worse. That’s a tremendous responsibility, and sometimes it can ruin relationships. But this, too, is inevitable. If we’re not basing characters on others, we’re basing them on ourselves. And ourselves are built by our relationships with others. So to write a character, a true, strong, complicated, human character, ALWAYS comes from reality, ours or another’
- Who’s your favorite character? Right now, I’m identifying most with Micah Holloway, the narrator of my novel-in-progress. As she is searching through her family’s reasons for changing religions, I’m coming to terms with my own family. It’s an enlightening investigation for both of us.
You can find out more about the author on his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/thejasonbrandt/ , Jason Brandt Schaefer, and preview his visual art and photography on Instagram, @theJasonBrandt. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase or commission artwork, or for editing or proofreading inquiries.
All images are the property of Jason Brandt Schaefer