|Oct/Nov 2006 Book Reviews|
Longtime friends and sometimes collaborators, Jamie and I recently turned our discussion to his most recent novel, The Everlasting, released in August. It concerns itself with Lance Scott, 25 years old, and a lover of music, women, and his cat, Sadie. As Lance tries to navigate his way through love, three women come in and out of his life and his heart, and it's up to him to decide if he can commit to any one of them.
MS The Everlasting is the second book in your Romance Trilogy. While it stands on its own, it would be a disservice not to consider its place within that larger context. What's the concept behind the trilogy?
JSR Essentially, I had three ideas for books. It had started with Cut My Hair, but then I was thinking about what I was going to do next, and I started to ponder what would become The Everlasting and my next project, Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? They were conceived independently, but once they were in place, I stepped back and saw that they had an overall arc. They had protagonists that were slightly older each time, and they sort of traveled together as far as the line of how love and romance were dealt with in each one. As I started to map them out further, I saw where I could link up the stories via different characters, and it sort of took shape as this thematic trilogy.
MS The throughline of the trilogy is the Scott brothers, Tristan, Lance, and Percy; as at least one of them appears in each book. Which came first, the idea to do a trilogy, or the Scott family?
JSR It's hard to say. They probably both came at the same time. Lance actually existed first, and there was some connection between him and Tristan and Percival, but it all began to jell at once, really. I had seen them as a triumvirate for quite some time; I had this image of three boys with these names forever. It's almost Jungian in how it panned out, as I had the names before I really knew why, before I knew as much about the Arthurian legends as I would come to know over the course of writing the three books. They were all perfectly chosen, oddly enough. Lance in particular—hot-tempered and rash, and his love brings down kingdoms. Connecting them as brothers is really what became the final glue between the books and gave a shape to the overall design.
MS The Scott family has expanded past prose novels into short stories, serial installments online, a novella, a live journal, and the aforementioned comics. Can you talk a little bit about those projects and what inspired you to use those formats?
JSR I work very naturally; I let things happen without too much calculation. Usually, if I have an idea, the format comes with it. Like, the novella you refer to, I Was Someone Dead; that was always intended to be sort of mid-length, and structurally and thematically it fit the novella format more than any other prose style. When the spark happens, I can just tell where it will fit.
The comic, Love the Way You Love, was a rare case where I went in search of format. I really liked Tristan, but midway through The Everlasting, it became obvious he was doomed to be a supporting character in the prose. I had this idea that he had a longer story, and that he was sort of the success of the crew, that he had a long-term love with a woman named Isobel. I wanted to do something more with him, but I didn't know what.
There is a section in The Everlasting that is an e-mail Tristan writes to Lance about a relationship he had in high school with a girl named Maria, and when I wrote that, it was intended to just be a part of the novel. Once it was done, however, I realized that this was my gateway into Tristan's tale. I had also been wanting to do serialized comics, something like the shojo manga series I had been reading, and it was the final link in the chain. I could fulfill both ambitions at once.
The live journal stories were just experiments, really. I had been thinking it would be fun to monkey around with an online journal as fiction, and I also knew I wanted Lance Scott to be an ongoing character for me far beyond The Everlasting. So, again, it was having two elements, thinking about what could be done with either, and realizing I had chocolate and peanut butter. Put them together, and you have one delicious candy.
It seems to boil down to the fact that if I want to do something, I just do it. What's the point in not trying different formats?
MS You mention the e-mail that Tristan sends to Lance--the one that became the jumping off point for Love the Way You Love. Your books have quite a number of these moments, where an event that was described from one character's point of view in one book is described by another character in another. These remembrances almost always have differences, and the differences are illuminating, as they show us what each character focuses on in their memories. Did you plan those moments, or did they develop organically? How copious are the notes you have on the family, or are you able to keep it all straight in your head?
JSR It's mainly in my head. I have an old summary where I quickly typed out the basic histories of all three boys and also noted birthdates and things I'd have to keep straight, but otherwise, I work out of my own brainbox. I guess it works in some ways because my own memory is faulty and so I'm going to switch it up without realizing it, and that can create some happy accident-style results. It's funny, actually, because those original notes have Percy's wife being named Sadie. I don't know how she became Iris, but obviously I couldn't keep Sadie because that's Lance's cat (and a Suede reference, to boot). I don't recall if I had discovered the doubling up before or after I changed the name. Things like that I find interesting, how your mind rearranges for you. It's part of why I don't always look back at notes, even if I make them. Some scenes, some ideas, and even characters, I've chewed on for years. There's a scene in The Everlasting, where Mandy has just left Lance after some particularly distressing news, and he flips out and starts yelling and beating the door. I've had that scene since high school, since my first attempt at a novel, but I had packed that book in before I reached that particular moment in it. So, I filed the scene away and waited. 1989 to 2004.
MS You use a number of different writing styles and conventions in The Everlasting: third person, journal entries, play-like dialogue, e-mails. What led you to make that decision, and how did you decide which parts would be in what style?
JSR There is a flow to the book, and to each scene, and I tried to follow it, tried to listen to my instincts and know where it was taking me. I wish I could make grand claims to being a process guy and show you this great map I had, but there isn't one. When I began the book, I had specific ideas for each style. The third person was intended to be how Lance showed himself to the world, and then the first person journals were going to reveal that he wasn't this slick character at all, that he was full of doubts and anxieties. The journals would be how he sees himself. That didn't last, though. You can kind of see it in the first chapter, but then the styles blurred as he loses sight of himself and grows more confused. Occasionally, if a scene wasn't working, I could pull back and start again from the other entrance, go from third to first person and vice versa, and that would solve the problem.
The play elements I stole from F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. I was really inspired by that book when I first read it in my junior year of high school. It's a young man's novel, which makes sense because it's his first. As a piece of writing, it comes off as unrestrained. Fitzgerald was audacious, changing it up in different spots. Near the end, he has Amory Blaine give a long lecture about communism, which directly inspired Lenny's speech about punk rock in Cut My Hair. I wanted to be able to flaunt the rules the way Fitzgerald did, and I try to carry the spirit of This Side of Paradise in everything.
MS In addition to borrowing those elements from Fitzgerald, you have your characters directly reference him in The Everlasting, as well as Hemingway, A.A. Milne and a bunch of others. They use references to define themselves and others; Mandy calls Lance "Rabbit," Lance takes the moniker "Mary" in his e-mails. But they also recognize the references that you as an author have put in their world. For example, Lance comments on Ashley's name being a Hemingway reference. Did you purposefully create a hyper-literate world? (Or maybe it's more accurate to say it's hyper-referential, as Lance and Tristan often reference lyrics in their e-mails, as well.) Was the theme of using references to inform identity purposeful?
JSR It depends how you mean literate. If you're just talking about their knowledge of books, there was a certain contrivance there in deciding to name the girls Ashley and Quentin. Once I had done that, I definitely was conscious about wearing my influences on my sleeve. I think overall, though, that it's more of a pop culture literacy, and that wasn't contrived at all. It's really just a reflection of how I think, the food-processor nature of my brain, and so that's an element that comes out quite naturally. It's only as the writing wore on that it became an issue in the story itself, because it occurred to me that pop culture is a common bond most people of our generation and the ones coming up share, it is how a lot of us communicate with one another. It seemed fundamental to the problem of my main character, and I had to ask, "Are these things that bring us together really dividing lines? If I only talk to you about the DVDs I watched this week, is that allowing me to avoid talking about what's really going on inside of me?" Lance is having problems with getting stuff done, with action, and it could be because he spends too much time in his room thumbing through his record collection.
MS So what you're asking is, are the pop culture references a shorthand that we all understand, or a barrier that actually prevents understanding? Applying that to your writing--as a writer, how do you prevent your pop culture shorthand from becoming a cop-out?
JSR That's a tough question, and I'm not sure it's for me to judge. Some people have certainly complained about the references, they feel left out or think it's cheap. I can only speculate that if it works, it's because I try to make it intrinsic to my characters and I don't follow any formula. I don't have any rules like I must have a certain number of allusions to songs per page and mention a movie every ten pages or anything like that. If I ever stop and think, "What can I put here?" then it's a good signal that maybe I'm approaching the moment from the wrong direction.
MS There's a moment in the book where Lori tells Lance that it's like he's speaking a language of his own. Do you expect your readers to know your references, not only those that your characters make but the ones that have influenced your work? For example, Salinger's Glass family?
JSR I don't expect everyone to get it all. Particularly in the case of Lance, he can really layer it on thick, and keeping up with him can be quite a challenge. My hope was that I'd give you enough about his favorite records or the film he's watching that you would understand what it meant to the emotional thrust of the scene. If Lance is in love and he goes home and he puts a Suede song on, I've got to let the reader know why, so that they understand what he is feeling. My greatest hope is that maybe someone would read the book, notice a couple of things he or she hasn't heard of, and be intrigued enough to go and seek those things out. I know that's how I am. It might be a comic book mentality at work. When I was a kid, if you read a comic book and it was built off events from an older comic, the thing was to go and get that comic, to track down the back issues. I knew the first appearances of all my favorite characters; that Wolverine showed up in The Incredible Hulk originally. If I read an interview with a writer or musician whom I admired and they mentioned something that they liked, I'd want to know what that was. I would take it as a huge compliment if someone told me they bought a Style Council record because of The Everlasting.
MS Speaking of the Glass family, are you going to create your own Nine Stories with your online short stories?
JSR I'd like to eventually. I haven't sat down and done a word count, but I guess there are about five Lance Scott stories without a home in print. I have one Tristan story that I'll probably put in the back of some edition of Love the Way You Love, but Lance is the only one I write constantly. The plan would be to have it be another book about him, maybe a bridge until he gets another novel someday.
MS You said there was a contrivance in naming the girls Ashley and Quentin. But Mandy, the girl who really gets under Lance's skin, is one of the only characters with a non-reference name. Was that purposeful?
JSR Maybe a little. Mandy is the in-betweener. She splits the relationships—and maybe Lance himself—right down the middle. Ashley and Quentin represent the opposite sides, as how things work between them and Lance end up being very different. It's more fitting that they are linked and Mandy exists outside of it.
MS It could be argued that Lance's most successful relationship is with his cat, Sadie. Did you always intend for her to be a central character?
JSR Not really, it just kind of evolved. When it was pointed out to me—by you, I might add—that this was the case, that he communicated best with this feline, it just made so much sense. I had always joked that the inclusion of Sadie, who is my own cat, was a magic charm against writer's block. If I didn't know what to do next, look over my shoulder and see what the cat is doing. Little did I know she had bigger designs! Cats show up a lot in my writing. I Was Someone Dead only has a dog because Gus was a dog my father owned, and it was a small tribute to him. Cats are far more interesting creatures to me. My next door neighbor in my apartment building is an older man who has seen a lot in his time. He has a big white beard and he owns a motorcycle and smokes a pipe. When you peer through the door of his apartment, you see that there is stuff stacked everywhere, it's like a labyrinth of junk. He used to own a cat here he called Recon, because she would wander the perimeter of the building like a security guard. My ex-girlfriend used to sit outside and smoke with him, and he told her that the cat had calmed him down, that he learned more about life by watching her than he had in all of his years of being wild and tearing things up. I think there is real wisdom in that. I remember the time Sadie was sitting on me and I had the realization that even while she was communing with me, she was mentally drawing a map of how to get away. I thought, "That has to go in the book. Cats always have an escape plan." It's still one of my favorite moments.
MS The Everlasting is set in Portland in 1999 and that setting is borne out in both your evocative descriptions of the city, and the music and movies that you reference. How conscious are you of time and place in your writing? How important is it to your process that they be nailed down or specific?
JSR I learned on Cut My Hair that if I was going to be so music-oriented, I needed to set a time frame and keep it there. Because even as I was writing Cut My Hair in college, I was realizing that even if it were to come out in a year's time, the references would all be old hat by then. What if I write about a Jesus and Mary Chain concert and then they've broken up before the book is published? I'd spend all my time trying to stay current. It worked very well for me, because it gave me limits that I needed. Otherwise, I'd be all over the place. In both novels, I basically set them in places I lived, because then I would have the benefit of memory and experience. Both settings work for the characters. You can find a Mason in Los Angeles, you can find some semblance of Lance in Portland. Then again, I'm not sure that's not me kidding myself. People are kind of alike everywhere.
MS You've referred to Cut My Hair as having emotionally autobiographical elements. Does The Everlasting pull more specifically from your actual experiences?
JSR Yeah, but it becomes real dicey when you try to sort it out. Even when I point at a passage and say, ‘Yeah, that is based on something that happened,' I then instantly would have to say, ‘But it didn't happen like in the book, it was really like this.' It's fiction in the end, and more is made up than is based on reality. That's why I have called the books "emotional autobiographies" at times. I'm working on feelings I might have had and filtering them through these characters, borrowing the interior elements from my experience rather than the exterior. The only sad thing is I gave Lance all of my good pick-up lines for women, and now I have to invent a new game for myself.
You also pick up from other people. There is a segment in 12 Reasons Why I Love Her [an upcoming graphic novel drawn by Joëlle Jones] where the male lead, Evan, jokes to the female lead, Gwen, that they should get married. I did that once, and the girl reacted in a similar way to Gwen. That book is one of the furthest removed from me as far as autobio, but yet sometimes I've witnessed or been a part of something that just fits what I later write. Everything else in that chapter, though, is completely made up, and Gwen is otherwise nothing like the girl I was with. Elsewhere in the graphic novel, we see Gwen as a little girl get a ticket for running a red light on her bike. That happened to me. I got that ticket when I was in elementary school. What Gwen does from there, totally different. Writing is just making a big stew, really. Some of it is meat, some of it is vegetables, and sometimes you spice it with memory.
MS The Everlasting is a reference to a song by Manic Street Preachers. What made you choose that song?
JSR It was a song I always liked because it has a real melancholy quality to it. It seems to represent two poles of a relationship. The singer is simultaneously lamenting a love that has lost its luster while being hopeful that it can be regained. The idea that there could be something everlasting becomes tragically ironic, because he knows it's not happening but doesn't want to let the dream die, either. It just seemed to fit. I think when the right title hits, you know. The novel had originally been called The Other Side of the Street, and then Cosmic Dancing, but neither was working. The Everlasting was the third. It was the charm.
MS Music is ever-present in Lance's life, both other people's and his own. What role does music play in your writing process?
JSR It's very important in that I don't like being in silence. I can't focus on detailed information, though, if I am writing. I can't listen to talk radio or books on tape or watch DVDs. I know people who can do this when they work, and I am very envious because I can't absorb that kind of data if I am on the computer. Music is much more complementary. I can hear it subconsciously without having to pick out the finer points. It almost enters my brain by osmosis.
Plus, I just love music. I am as obsessive as my characters. I have CDs in every corner of the house, I have a vinyl collection. I listen to music constantly. I love the immediacy of a song, how it manipulates emotions, and how just like I can have it playing while I work, I can also have it on in life and it becomes a part of that day's experience. People today use songs to mark passages, to symbolize important events. We remember what was on the radio when we first kissed someone, or when we got some bad news. It comforts us in a very quick way, or buoys our spirits. It never occurred to me that it wouldn't be the same for fictional people. I'd love to know what Nick, Jay, Daisy, and the rest were listening to in their cars driving back and forth from the lake to the city in The Great Gatsby. If I had written that book, I'd have told you.
MS The Everlasting has a flow that's almost that of a pop song. Lance's experiences with the three girls form three verses and a bridge (the bridge being the trip to Mexico); there are variations on a theme, and a recurring chorus of sorts...I don't know how to turn this into a question other than do you think that's totally crazy?
JSR I don't think it's totally crazy, though I had never thought of it! That's a really cool theory. It makes sense, because there is a lot of intentional repetition in the story. Lance has similar experiences with the three different girls he tries to date, and he compares and contrasts. The girls see the same things, or are asked the same questions, and how they answer influences how he perceives them. It's like the chorus keeps getting switched up.
MS You recently experimented with the intersection of music and the written word when you collaborated with Lara Michell on the single "Love the Way You Love" from your comic of the same name. What was that process like? How did it compare to other collaborations you've participated in--like comics?
JSR It was a real blast. I had a lot of fun. In the actual writing, it's probably different than comics in that we couldn't do our work individually from one another. We had to eventually sit in a room and share what we were thinking. I wrote some rough lyrics and sent them to Lara, and then I went over to her house and she played me some melodic ideas on the guitar. We then went back and forth, singing different parts, trying to find the right groove, and then once we did, editing the lyrics to fit the musical phrases she had come up with. From there, we were lucky to find an excellent producer in John Askew. He has a band called Tracker and he did the soundtrack to Blankets, the Craig Thompson graphic novel, so he understood where we were coming from. We went into the studio with him and a drummer, a guy named Michael Schorr, who used to be in Death Cab for Cutie, and I am still sort of amazed by how smooth it went. Lara and I would tell them what we wanted, and they'd be right there with their parts.
The concept was that Lara was covering the song that Like a Dog performs in the comic, the title song "Love the Way You Love." She sang and played guitar on our version. You actually read about Tristan writing it in the second issue of the comic, and then he performs it for Isobel. It ends up being the band's first big hit. So, we're going to put it online and let people download it so that when they read the book, they can hear what it's supposed to sound like. It should be on laramichell.com and her MySpace page, and hopefully some other places.
As much as I love music, doing this allowed me to live out a previously unrealized fantasy. I feel so lucky to have done it, and I hope people dig it.
MS Having previously been Editor-in-Chief at Oni Press, you recently made the jump to full-time writer. What were the steps that led to that, and to what do you attribute that success?
JSR Good choices. So much comes down to that. Picking the right venues for how I did my own stuff, and surrounding myself with good people. All of my artistic collaborators are scary talented, and Oni Press is such a great publisher, I can't imagine I'd have done so well anywhere else. I think there was also a level of patience that was important. I'm 34, and my first novel was published when I was 28. By some standards, that might be kind of late, but I edited for ten years and learned about certain aspects of the publishing world and I think it better prepared me to have realistic expectations and appreciate what I was getting a chance to do. I would not have had that strength had I been younger. I was willing to bide my time.
MS How many writing gigs do you have? Do you only take on jobs that you enjoy, that inspire you, or are there some you take just for the money? (You don't have to say which ones!)
JSR I think taking on only jobs I would enjoy would only be an issue if those jobs required a lot of trips back to my well of personal creativity. I've turned down some jobs that might have been good money because I knew that the work would take a lot out of me, energy that was better suited for the books I was writing under my own banner. If they had been assignments I had been dying to do, I'd have stuck with them, but they weren't, and so I decided my window of opportunity to do what I am doing was better served by sticking to my own stories.
My freelance assignments are mainly for publishers like TOKYOPOP and Ice Kunion, taking the translations of Japanese and Korean comics and cleaning up the text so that it flows for a Western audience. Not all the books I have done are ones I would read on my own, but I find those kinds of gigs are useful in that I can learn so much more from them. My first work for TOKYOPOP was on a book called Island, a Korean horror comic. I'm not a big horror guy, but by working on the script, I ended up tinkering with material that was new to me. It stretched my skills as a writer, and it probably helped when I did the zombie story with Guy Davis for The Dark Horse Book of the Dead.
I rewrite anywhere between two and four of those graphic novel volumes in a month, as well as movie reviews for DVDTalk.com and I just started doing articles for Viz's anthology of girls' manga, Shojo Beat. This all still leaves me with plenty of time to get my Oni work done.
MS What projects do you have on the horizon (pun completely intended) in comics and prose?
JSR This past July, I finished the first draft of the final Romance Trilogy novel, Have You Seen the Horizon Lately? I am hoping we'll see that next summer, depending on how it fits in Oni's schedule and if I decide it's any good or not. Though it's not as large a book as The Everlasting, I feel it was equal in ambition and shows a lot of growth. A writer learns so much with each book, and if those lessons don't inform the one that follows, I don't think that he or she is paying attention.
I've asked Joëlle Jones to do the cover, as she has become my primary comics collaborator and I feel her art is as important to what I am doing as previous artistic collaborators who have worked with me on my prose, like Chynna Clugston and Andi Watson. She's exceptionally talented, and I am so in love with her work. She makes what I see in my head come to life on paper, but better than I ever knew it could be. We have a graphic novel from Oni this October, the one I mentioned earlier. It's a relationship story called 12 Reasons Why I Love Her. This will be my first full-length, complete comic book work. We took a unique approach to the narrative. It's presented in twelve individual vignettes that are arranged in a sort of random order, but that when put together give you the overview of the ups and downs of one couple. You see the good and the bad, the happiness and the heartbreak, all the various elements of a romance that makes it a complete experience. Joëlle's only previous comic book work was a short story in the Dark Horse Sexy Chix anthology, and people are really going to be blown away by how awesome she is. We're already planning our next graphic novel, a hardboiled crime book called You Have Killed Me. Her presence has influenced me in ways I can't even begin to describe. I owe her a lot.
You know, I've always been lucky when it comes to working with new people in comics. Even as an editor, I published some of the earliest work by people like Chynna Clugston, Brian Hurtt, Jen Van Meter, Judd Winick, Christopher Mitten, Ian R. Shaugnessy, Christine Norrie—a rather long and illustrious list, really, and it keeps going. Not all of them had their very first time with me, but I edited them very close to the beginning. I think Joëlle Jones is going to join their ranks no problem. Same with Marc Ellerby. Marc is someone I have known as a fan for years now, and to see what he has done with Love the Way You Love, I just feel so lucky to be a part of his artistic development, that he would lend his talent to my stories. He and I are going to do at least six issues together, published quarterly. After that he is talking about doing his own book, Find the River, and I'm stoked to see what he comes up with.
MS And I'm stoked to see what you come up with next!
Oni Press 2006
Love The Way You Love
Oni Press 2006
I Was Someone Dead
Oni Press 2005
Cut My Hair
Oni Press 2000