an interview with Jacob Wren

online-exclusive content

We’re incredibly excited to have three of Jacob Wren’s stories in this, our two-year anniversary issue of (parenthetical)! He is the first writer we’ve ever solicited as part of a new format we’re trying out, part of which is having an online-exclusive interview with a “featured” writer from the issue. We want to use these interviews to talk about process, editing, inspiration, and excitement, and Jacob gave us better answers than we could possibly have imagined. So good, in fact, that this interview has only been edited for typos–so it’s long. But we promise it’s worth reading. We talk about titles, art, politics, process, and ignoring advice. But he has a solid bit of advice that we definitely think you shouldn’t ignore: “The only thing that works is persistence.”

Jacob’s most recent book is Rich and Poor, published this spring by BookThug. Rich and Poor is a novel of a man who washes dishes for a living and decides to kill a billionaire as a political act. It is literature as political theory and theory as pure literary pleasurea spiralling, fast-paced parable of joyous, overly self-aware, mischievous class warfare. Find out more or purchase the novel on the BookThug website!

(parenthetical): Most of your work has irregularly long titles or, in the case of Polyamorous Love Song, doesn’t have an immediate connection to the content of the book. (In fact, I saw you recently tweeted “I like there to be a certain misunderstanding between the title and the book, a certain tension or contradiction.”) Obviously, this is not the case with your newest novel, Rich and Poor. Was there a particular thought process behind the simplicity of the title, or did it just stick from the start?

 Jacob Wren: Perhaps, gradually over the past five or six years, I was starting to feel some kind of title-related pressure to top myself, to come up with more a spectacular title each and every time. Often when I feel public pressure to do something I react by doing the exact opposite. So instead of another flashy, attention-seeking title, I wondered what it might be like for me to turn the other way.

I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it like this at the time, but it all might have something to do with the fact that in the past I had almost no readership, so perhaps back then I felt my books required an attention-catching title to pull in at least one or two readers. Or, to put it another way, maybe the only thing anyone would ever see of my books was the title, so I better make it good. Now that things have possibly improved, at the very least in my Facebook feed, I was curious what it might be like to embrace my love of artistic simplicity.

It’s true that I do like my titles to be a little bit misleading. It seems I like the fact that they tell you something about the book, yet don’t exactly tell you what it is. As a title Rich and Poor is noticeably more straightforward, yet at the same time I’m not sure it gives you that much more precise information about the book than any of my previous titles. It’s true Rich and Poor has two characters: one who started poor and ended up rich, and one who almost, but not quite, took the opposite route. So, yes, the title does suggest this dynamic. But at the same time I feel, rightly or wrongly, that this dynamic actually gives only the slightest hint of what the book actually is. Maybe what I’m saying here is actually banal, since no title can really encapsulate an entire book. With me it always comes down to different kind of paradoxes, in this case: a title that is both accurate and misleading at the exact same time.

 

(p): How long were you working on Rich and Poor before it became a real book in the world this spring? Do you find most of your projects follow the same trajectory and come together at a similar pace, or can the process vary wildly from project to project?

JW: Each of my books seems to take me about four years to write. With Rich and Poor I noticed a pattern that, I think, has applied to a greater or lesser extent with all of my books. I write the first half, then get completely stuck. While I’m completely stuck I spend all of my time trying to figure out what could happen in the second half and why. My mind spins around this question in an increasingly obsessive rut. In a way I’m still working on the book, but only in my head. I think with Rich and Poor I was stuck for almost a year and a half. But I felt strangely calm about the block. It seems I might be getting used to something, a certain pattern, that I had barely even noticed before. When it finally got going again I believe I wrote the second half in less than a year. In the future I’m wondering if it would be possible for me to take much longer writing each book. If I worked on a book for twice as long, how might it change the way I write it?

 

(p): Your narrative voice always feels very authentic and spontaneous, an ultra-convincing first-person voice that I could be easily convinced is you, Jacob Wren. How much of your own life and personality is actually present in the characters you write? 

 JW: When I’m writing the main thing I’m doing is trying to surprise myself. Of course, the things I’m surprising myself with also must somehow come from me, they just come out in a way that hopefully manages to surprise me in the moment, that put me off-balance or create more questions than they answer. So a great deal of my own life and personality are present, but I try to bring them into the writing in ways that aren’t always literal (though at times they can also be completely literal, since this is one of the many things I might find surprising.)

 

(p): Another interview suggested that Rich and Poor reads like an activist work, almost a manifesto–I think I disagree, to an extent, because although it’s highly political (and critical), I felt a lot of ambiguity in what the reader might be “supposed” to take away from the novel: “Think more,” “DO something,” “Be more aware,” “Discuss.” Did you intend for this novel to have a clear takeaway for readers? Do you worry it will be misinterpreted? (Do you think it can be misinterpreted?)

JW: To begin, I think it’s important to say that all art is political. And art that claims not to be political is often covertly fighting for the maintenance of the status quo and the individual artists relative privilege within it. In one sense, Rich and Poor is a story with a moral and the moral is: there are no individual solutions to collective problems. But I want political art that is also full of ambiguity, complexity, internal contradictions, vulnerability, being both sure and unsure at the same time, doubt, fragile overconfidence, etc. So yes, it’s an activist work. And, yes, at the exact same time it’s also a work of deep, conflicted ambiguity. This for me might almost be a definition of what I dream of for political art.

There is a Borges quote I have always loved: “A writer who wrote only the things he intended would be a very poor writer.” So, no, I don’t think it’s actually possible for a work of art to be misinterpreted. All honest interpretations are potentially intriguing and worth considering, or at least worth arguing with. Of course, there are some interpretations that I personally prefer over others. And there are definitely some interpretations that hew closer to my original intentions. I’ve always dreamt of an art that doesn’t manipulate the viewer or reader. I don’t think Rich and Poor is particularly my least manipulative book. It moves so quickly it’s bound to take at least a few readers along with it. But it is worth noting that openings–of interpretation, of reception, of execution–are deeply important to me, always something I’m searching for.

 

(p): As a multi-disciplinary artist, how much does your writing play into your other projects, and vice versa? Or do you like to keep them as separate as possible? 

JW: There are so many different ways of answering this question. For a long time I did try to keep my performance work and my writing at least partly separate. These days, I sometimes say: I have one foot in literature, one foot in performance, and one foot in visual art–like a tripod. All of these practices are so entangled, both connected and disconnected, folding together and coming apart. I do think that in all the work I’m trying to surprise myself, that all of the work is, in some sense, about art and politics, that all of the work features a certain dynamic and play between structure and spontaneity. Some of the performances involve writing but many do not. Most of my writing is written in such a way that it almost demands to be spoken aloud.

Perhaps the main thing is that I take in so many different art forms and kinds of art and must be learning at least something from all of it. It’s fascinating to see how artists in different mediums are working on similar questions–for example in conceptual writing and conceptual dance–and are almost completely unaware of each other. If I was only experiencing literature, for example, I think I would be incredibly depressed, I would feel trapped. But moving through different artistic communities I feel a certain misguided freedom that creates (at least the illusion of) possibilities. Possibilities that maybe there’s something out there that will catch me off guard, that will help me begin to think of art in some completely different way. Of course, as I get older this is starting to happen less and less.

 

(p): Where do you spend most of your time writing?

JW: I most often write in cafes.

 

(p): What is your editing process like? How much editing can you accomplish on your own? When does it become clear that you need another set of eyes (if ever)?

JW: I edit but I’m never exactly sure just how much. Perhaps some future literary theorist can go through all my various drafts and figure out just how much actually changed along the way. I know I don’t want to edit too much. I can’t stand writing that feels too polished or slick. So I definitely, if possible, want to leave the rough edges intact. Sometimes I show my work-in-progress to others and sometimes I don’t. Often I ignore their comments on the particular work-in-progress they just read, yet their comments might still have a strong influence on my future works. And, of course, in the months leading up to publication I work with an editor. But, for me at least, this process has been so different each and every time I’m not even sure where to begin. With Rich and Poor I felt we edited fairly little. I don’t think we made any major structural changes. And yet even with the relatively small changes we made along the way it seems to me that the book improved so much.

 

(p): Personally (as a writer) I think the idea of “inspiration” is kind of bullshit–but what “inspires” you to write? Do you wait for it, or write despite it?

JW: The word inspiration, like many overused words, I suppose has much unfortunate baggage attached to it. I don’t know… When I’m working on a book I think about the world, slowly develop themes and unanswerable questions in relation to it, and then, step by step, transform these questions into words on a page in front of me. So I want my writing to be about life, about things that happen outside of art and literature, and how thinking and feeling might help or hinder such struggles and living. Instead of “inspiration” I might simply say that, from time to time, I have thoughts, emotions and questions about the world. These dynamics might become artistic obsessions, somehow demanding to be pursued, inciting desires that can only be satisfied in the act of writing. I want to follow them through and find out where they lead, what unexpected corners they might paint me into, and whether or not I’ll once again be able to step through or around the wet paint back into the tumult of the work. I sit down to write hoping that something will happen. But before I sit down to write there are so many contrasting and conflicting things already in play. So perhaps I’ll finish with a much shorter answer: instead of inspiration I prefer the word desire. Instead of inspirations I have desires.

 

(p): What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received? When, and from whom?

JW: I’m a bit notorious for my inability to take (even good) advice. But in my twenties I had many failed attempts at trying to complete a novel. I could get it started, but I couldn’t seem to bring any of them towards anything resembling a satisfying conclusion. And around that time I read an interview by Milan Kundera, in which he said it was almost impossible to write a good novel in your twenties, that one doesn’t yet have the necessary breadth of experience. The way he put it somehow made sense to me at the time, so for many years I simply stopped attempting novels, but continued many other kinds of writing. In my mid-thirties, when I once again began attempting to write novels, I have to say that something had shifted, it seemed so much easier to keep it going, and that was the (second, more successful) beginning of my life as a novelist. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been writing novels for as long as I can remember. Then I have to remind myself that I’ve actually only been completing and publishing novels for about ten years.

 

(p): What is your best writing advice that you give out?

JW: The only thing that works is persistence.

 

(p): What are some things happening in Canadian literature right now that you’re really excited about? What is something you think is being woefully overlooked?

JW: A few Canadian books that everyone should read:

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip

Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Simpson

Thou by Aisha Sasha John

From the Archives of Vidéo Populaire by Anne Golden

Job Shadowing by Malcolm Sutton

 In general, my hopes and dreams for Canadian literature are the same as my hopes and dreams for literature everywhere: to take more risks, do less of what you already know and push further into the unexpected and counter-intuitive, to challenge oneself by challenging the world. There are so many books that don’t interest me but I don’t worry about them. I try to stay focused on works that taunt, confuse, and inspire. There is so much that tells us the way things are is the way they have to be. I’m much more interested in the statistically few who are hoping there might still be other ways, always hoping these few might catch some wind in their sails and momentarily, or even for a little bit longer, become some sort of inspiring and unexpected literary zeitgeist. It never hurts to dream.

JACOB WREN makes literature, performances and exhibitions. His books include:Unrehearsed Beauty, Families Are Formed Through Copulation, Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, and Polyamorous Love Song (a finalist for the 2013 Fence Modern Prize in Prose and one of the Globe and Mail’s 100 best books of 2014). As co-artistic director of Montréal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created the performances: En français comme en anglais, it’s easy to criticize, Individualism Was A Mistake, The DJ Who Gave Too Much Information, and Every Song I’ve Ever Written. He travels internationally with alarming frequency and frequently writes about contemporary art. Connect with him on his blog (www.radicalcut.blogspot.com) or on Twitter.