When I first confronted Jai Clare, it was via her profile photograph on a writer's site. I'll never forget the intense gaze in her eyes, which was all at once familiar and distant, easy and challenging, evocative and mysterious. I knew I had to read her stories. And I did.
The first story I read was "Bone on Bone," a love story where the narrator falls for a jazz pianist and his "dexterous fingers across the keyboard." That story was named one of the Top Ten Online Stories of 2004 by storySouth. Then it was "The Lightest Blue," an evocative story where Greece is as much a protagonist as the unhappy narrator. Next, it was "With Phantoms Still," a haunting tale of dark desire and a Greek olive grove and "Balloons," a delicate story about love and loss. And then it was the exotic and erotic "More Moments of Sheer Joy," and the lyrical and evocative, "Islands of the Blessed." And then, all of them, one by one as they appeared in online and print journals.
I got to read all of Jai Clare's stories again recently, when her collection called The Cusp of Something bound them all together on paper. And it was like reading something very familiar. I had never forgotten her stories, and, more than that, I realised that I was still "at the threshold, feeling on the cusp of something." As I prepared some questions for this interview, I kept hearing Jai's words over and over in my head: "There's something here, there's something [I] need to know, to see. [I] step forward," and thus I begin this interview with Jai Clare...
KK Jai, the cover of your short story collection is absolutely mesmerising! Even if I didn't know you, I would absolutely pick up the book in a book store solely on the basis of that cover! The semi-naked female figure holding a skull in her hands and the mask on the wall beside her—tells of sensuality and the erotic, of myth and history and the past and of things hidden and things revealed. What story does the cover tell for you and how is it related to what is inside the book?
JC Well the cover to me by the fact she is dressed the way she is looking at a skull, seems to be on the cusp of choosing between life (sex) or death—or for me death symbolized by stagnation in life. Acceptance of death in life. So to me many of the characters in the book are searching for something more or struggling against their life as is.
KK Why are they searching and struggling?
JC Well, it's the classic plot line in essence—they want something but life gets in the way. Like we are given brains and desires but are thwarted by luck or circumstance or whatever. Most of my characters seem to want more than they have and what they want is denied them. In "Balloons," she wants love and travels the world for it but something—an event- takes the emotion out of her lover and she is denied what she wants.
In "Bone on Bone," she wants the pianist for his talent but being with him she destroys his talent and thus her interest in him. So many times we are caught, trapped even, by our desires and then our desires become our prison.
KK You've named your collection The Cusp of Something. So evocative a title! How do your stories relate to the title? What is that something you are writing about, and do your stories get past the cusp of that something? If so, where?
JC It's not a totally themed collection—just a prevalent theme that seems to fit under that title. As to that something I am writing about—often I don't know. It just appears. Dissatisfaction is the essence surely for change and progress? I think some of the characters do get past the cusp of something but many of them never get what they want but many do move on but that is the end of the story—the achievement is the moving out of the frame. I'm not interested in resolved happy endings which may be satisfying for many readers. They don't actually feel right to me and smack of artifice. Artifice is always there, because the moment you begin writing you begin to craft and invent, but if you do it sincerely, if you believe in the art then you can avoid the obviously contrived.
KK OK, so what about fiction in general? When stories get to the cusp of something, where exactly do they get to? The cusp of something is the edge of things, the something is often unknown, unfathomable and maybe unreachable.
JC Well, as for fiction in general—couldn't you say that fiction is about progress and the act of change? Which is why I don't enjoy the contrived. I read a story in another Elastic Press's collection recently and while it was nicely done the action and resolution was all a bit pat. Life ain't like that! People have said there isn't enough action in my work—but there is—just not obvious. There is always change.
KK OK. So, this collection of your stories, how would you describe it in one word?
JC Err, err, thinking.
JC I can't! Can you?
KK Why can't you? How many words do you need?
JC Three. Enigmatic. Erotic. Mysticism.
KK I love that! OK, so how would you describe yourself in three words, then?
JC You mean as a person or as a writer?
KK I don't know! Would you describe the person differently to the writer?
JC I knew you'd ask that! Yes, I would describe them differently, because for me, the writer is exploring the hidden inner self. What people see is very different to what they read on paper and many people are surprised.
KK Give me the writer then.
JC Ugh! OK, I'd say I have a fascination with what's hidden. I explore this through use of lyrical rhythms. I am curious and investigative. I don't think people see that if they meet me, but they do if they read my stories. How's that?
KK Brilliant! But, tell me more about this use of lyrical rhythms. How do you do it? And why?
JC Many people say to me you should write as you speak, but if I did that it would be very boring prose. Somehow I write—now this is going to sound very pretentious—with the inner rhythm. I don't make it up. The prose has to have this quality that comes from somewhere and I don't force it. If people could read the fiction more than once, which is a hard thing to do in this day and age, but if they could they would find the rhythms of the prose settling into their heads and meaning would like osmosis come through. I know people who have done this have told me so.
KK What is your favourite story in the book?
JC I have many but the voice I am most proud of is "Mad Angels."
JC The feel of the voice—no narrator—and the poeticism, while also capturing a character. I mean there's no external voice, it's all from the character.
KK How did you come to write it?
JC I'd been reading a bit of fiction by Rusty Barnes and one story of his employs this totally engulfing female voice—colloquial yet beautiful and full of life and originality and one day I heard this voice in my head and a way into this idea I'd had. I love reading writers who have the audacity to go with what they believe and push their writing boundaries. Jayne Ann Philips is like that and Jeanette Winterson. Reading such writers gives you the confidence to push yourself, instead of remaining in the humdrum and done-before. People seem often to extol me to write more commercially which I understand to mean more conventionally, formulaically. Fine, you can have your taste but why make everyone write the same way? Vive la difference, I always say. We are all very different and our writing should reflect these quirks and foibles instead of trying to replicate what has gone before just because it makes for an easy read. Can't do it.
KK You're stories are set in various locations, some quite exotic. How do you choose the geographical regions used in your stories?
JC I find traveling inspires me. I love landscape and placing people in somewhere different that is somehow challenging.
KK Do you start with the setting or the characters or the story?
JC I start with an emotion or a puzzle and expand it. The puzzle comes from the landscape like in "The Hand of Fatima." I had to write about the desert and the incident in terms of being led by a stranger into the heart of Sousse's medina actually happened but of course I changed the reality, made it worse, more personal to the character, made it a symbol rather than just an incident or a mere event.
KK How do the different locations work for you as a writer?
JC The different landscapes give me fuel so to speak. They are an inspiration—to capture something different from the every day and make it mean something other than just a background.
KK How do you choose the mythological references? And how does myth inform your stories?
JC Love of myths have been with me since I was a child. I love their transformative power, the way they communicate so many different levels of meaning, and how choosing one word associated with a myth (a name for instance) adds depth and says so much more than reams of other words. I don't pick anything! If something seems relevant in the writing then I use it. I never plan anything really—just go where the words naturally take me.
KK OK, love and sex, now. These are major themes in your writing. What does love and sex tell you about the human condition?
JC Without them life wouldn't ultimately mean anything. Take away the chance to love, the lover in your life and what do all the achievements, striving amount to? Hollow in my opinion. To discard love is to accept stagnation and second best. It makes all the striving bad luck struggles and achievements worthwhile.
KK Which story is your favourite story about love and which is your favourite sex story in the collection?
JC Sex—"With Phantoms Still."
KK Oh, yeah, I remember that one so well! What was the real life story behind "Phantoms"?
JC Well, when I was on Kefalonia island in Greece there was a olive grove burnt down on Zante which we could see in the distance.
JC Just stayed in my mind. The other bits are fiction. aside from the idea of being haunted by a past lover and wanting to get away from everything and be wild somehow.
KK And love?
JC Love—that's harder! Love isn't very happy in the collection, is it? Probably, "Balloons."
KK Speaking of love and sex, I've been thinking about peoples' secrets. Do you think writers have secrets? Are short stories the way those secrets are expressed? So if we read them correctly do we get to see the secrets?
JC Hasn't everyone secrets? Writers are the ones who like to explore them but yes it's a good way of looking at it, stories as an exploration of a secret. Certainly it's my inner self that influences the stories, not my exterior self at all, not the person people meet, but the writer exploring the person's secrets. Of course, you find your own secrets in your interpretation of the story even if you don't read "correctly."
KK So the relationship between writer and reader then is where both parties share their secrets?
JC Yes, in a sense but no one reader reads a story the same way especially if your fiction is on the 'obscure' side like mine! So good fiction is open to interpretation. In essence a good story has many secrets.
KK Exactly! Speaking of secrets and obscurity...
KK Why do you say your fiction is obscure? What are the characteristics of obscure fiction?
JC Meaning is there but not overt. Readers have to work at it to find out what is happening. Most people want their fiction way easier, which is fine, but I do what I do.
KK OK—so does that mean that you write for yourself or for you audience?
JC I have to be happy with what I do and then at least I have pleased one person! But I write always with a sympathetic audience in mind believing there are others like me! Niche, but discerning... Haha. If I wrote to merely please others I'd not know if I were being authentic or even getting there cos I wouldn't be able to judge it on my standards. Does that make sense?
KK Yes, it makes sense, but it's like a trap. Writing and publishing is both a private and a public activity, so I don't know where the line is between writing for ourselves, and writing for an audience.
JC Yes, but you just hope to find a like-minded audience.
KK You mentioned being haunted by something in the past. Does a writer need to be haunted by something to write?
JC To write anything with any originality and any serious depth I think so, yes, otherwise you're just play acting you may dress it up as fiction but it's real somewhere without that emotional kernel of truth—haunting whatever it's just like putting on a mask and being an actor. Mind you lots of people make fabulous careers that way!
KK But that sort of career does not interest you.
JC Money does interest me but my life is short—I want to find out what I can do that's vaguely original. As to haunting—Graham Greene rewrote the same novel over and over again with minor differences. He was haunted.
KK So as a writer you are haunted and then you write, then once you are done, are you still haunted or has some catharsis happened? I mean haunted because of the story but also, as in Greene, because of how the story must and should be written?
JC I think every story written is a minor petite mort! But never gets rid of the demons. There's always more and more to replace them.
KK What's so important about being original?
JC Ego and pride and to be in some way unique, to make a difference, even if in some minor way.
KK And how does The Cusp of Somethingmake a difference?
JC You ask toughies!
KK You write toughies!
JC I can only hope. I like challenges. Stagnation is death.
JC I keep coming back to that I guess.
KK Well, I am one reader that is glad when you do! And thanks for taking time to chat with me.
JC Thank you.
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