I met Jeanne Thornton a long time ago in the world of zines and she’s long been one of my faves, so I was excited to learn that she has a Real Live Book to share with the world. Jeanne is a Beach Boys enthusiast, a transperson, and one of the founders of The Fiction Circus, a website and print zine that showcases fiction and comics. This is her first novel.
I am a slow reader with a cold, stony heart, but I finished The Dream of Doctor Bantam in three days, and when it was over, I cried, hugged my dog, and went for a power-walk to process all of my new feelings. It was like going to a Gordon Ramsay steakhouse when you are used to the Wendy’s dollar menu. This is not just a book; this is some serious literature. The plot takes place in Austin, Texas and revolves around chainsmoking, Scientology, and the gut-kicked feeling of falling in love with someone who is nuts. Read on!
Jeanne Thornton: Really weird. For one, it’s because I really like this book, but I finished it a few years ago except for a few pretty big edits in the past year, as it was getting ready for Actual Book Status. So there’s this feeling of like, “But wait! I see all these problems and I can write a better one, I swear!” This feeling competes with the feeling of, “What if this is the only book worthy of publication that I will ever write? What if I’m now a total has-been?” In short, it’s a lot like, um, being a writer without an Actual Book, but there’s this concrete thing that you have and that doesn’t seem to shift with your feelings.
Rumpus: How does this compare to the Writer With An Actual Book fantasy most of us grew up with, where the man with the ponytail says, “Kid, you got what it takes!” and the next day a dumptruck of cash and babes gets unloaded onto your driveway?
Thornton: I STILL BELIEVE IN THIS FANTASY. I AM STILL WAITING FOR THIS. I WILL NEVER STOP BELIEVING.
Rumpus: Until this point, what had you considered your greatest achievement?
Thornton: Objectively, probably this weird little video game called “Immortal Defense” that I wrote the story for in 2007. It took not very much time to write, but people seemed to get really into the plot. That’s in terms of people responding to it. In terms of what I’m proudest of, probably writing some good book reviews for Fiction Circus or working really hard to get better at drawing comics between 2002 and 2012.
Rumpus: What has been your history with comics and zines?
Thornton: The first creative project I remember doing was a novelization of “Zelda II: The Adventure of Link” when I was seven. Half the page was prose describing tedious early NES mechanics, and half was adorable pictures of Link on his adventure—my favorite of these was one where he’s got these big saucer eyes as one of those ladies in the red dresses is flinging herself across his body to shove him into a door, so she can heal his life to full. I feel that I haven’t fundamentally advanced beyond this: it feels like telling stories with comics runs in parallel with telling stories with prose, and it makes some kind of intuitive sense to me whether a story idea should be for one or the other. I have no justification for why this is a good idea—it just really makes sense to me that some stories make more sense as comics and some stories make more sense as prose.
There was a period of time where I didn’t really write prose beyond a few odd stories, just comics (and video game scripts). I was only really interested in doing very novelistic comics—this was around the time I was becoming aware of stuff like Ghost World and this certain mean-spirited novelistic sensibility in the comics world. I really switched to writing prose initially because I thought (and friends told me) that my drawing sucked, and I figured this was the only way I could get people interested in my stories. So there’s a way in which prose writing feels very much like a second language, even though I think I’m a lot better at it technically than I am at drawing—which I think I don’t have a ton of native talent at, but which I hack away at obsessively until it kinda works.
Zines are the best thing, also! As soon as I realized that you could make little books using a photocopier and stapler, that was it. I used to go with my dad to his office on weekends and we would use up reams of his office photocopier paper, photocopying collections of my elementary school comic, “Dog Days,” that I’d assembled with scissors and glue. (I remember I made him write the introduction for one of these books as well, so that it would be more “legitimate.”) It only occurred to me a few years ago that this was not something my dad was supposed to be doing with valuable office supplies. But this is almost basically what it means to me to publish something—once you have something that’s complete, you design it and print it yourself for three cents a page. In a lot of ways it feels really weird and abstract that O/R Books agreed to publish this [book], that there’s someone other than me or my immediate circle of friends who’s interested in printing and distributing my work. It’s not a bad feeling at all—it’s something that I think I needed, also, because of this magic spiritual cachet of “publishing something”—but it’s definitely strange not to have had to think about what kind of paper was being used or how to bind the thing.
Rumpus: Which character in The Dream of Doctor Bantam do you identify with most closely?
Thornton: Tough one, and depends on the day. Julie is mostly things I think and would say if I wasn’t actually in a world with other people. Patrice is probably more what I’m actually like relative to that world. It’s an even mix on average.
Rumpus: You really nail what it’s like to be a weird teen girl. What were you like as a teenager?
Thornton: It was not a great time for a lot of reasons, notably the feeling that one’s been cheated by the circumstances of one’s birth out of having the “right adolescence”—probably everyone feels that way to some degree. I thought a lot about what it was like to be a weird teen girl and had weird teen girl friends, but was a weird teen girl to the extent that I was like, not anatomically an actual teen girl, which is about as weird as you can get. And one becomes weird and horrible as a result—or at least in retrospect that’s how I interpret it.
For a period of time I was really creepily influenced by Ayn Rand books, and felt like it was important to be very “honest” with people, which usually equated to me saying that the choices they were making in life were evil and “anti-life” or something. Kind of like my Man Who Hates Fun character, but not fun in any way (and, uh, a lot of the Patrice scenes in the book draw heavily on this stuff). There was another period of time where I compulsively wore a horrible green trenchcoat and plaid boxer shorts to school to symbolize some kind of casual ’90s kind of freedom, and one where I was trying to turn this Celtic medallion I bought from a kiosk at the mall into a “magic artifact” by wearing it every day. I drew a lot of little comics that rarely went anywhere, had a lot of complicated plans. I made video games with this incredibly archaic game-making program called ZZT, and different friends and I pretended we were running video game companies, and hired and fired one another. I spent a lot of time online on IRC, engaged in complicated social dramas with people I had never met in real life. I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons with friends, and once I could drive I spent a lot of time walking around different local creeks, or going to the library and looking things up.
It was a messed up time, Cassie! Mostly, I spent this time believing that I had been fated to be some kind of troubled Goth girl who wrote poetry that people indulged me in, this sort of markedly superficial but tumultuous and emotional person who people hated but still kind of thought fondly of, and I felt bitter and resentful about having been cheated of this social fate. I still kind of believe that I got cheated out of this status, but I am coping, and really it’s way better in important ways to have a completely weird and messed up “trans” background than to fit neatly into anything.
Rumpus: How did this story evolve as you were writing it?
Thornton: The “first draft” of this was a 24-hour comic about a “chrono-cult” I drew in like 2003 or 2004, featuring a cult member and this night DJ named TRISTESSA—the cult guy calls into TRISTESSA’s radio program and she gets involved in this weird relationship where she tries to help him, but the cult sucks him back in. That was the beginning of the idea. When I started actually writing the book in 2007, initially Julie was the one in the cult, which she joined to cope with Tabitha’s death. Patrice was this side character who was there to explain the cult to her, and most of the book took place in a wacky “cult house” in Austin, where people made big collective meals for one another and played guitar and stuff. I got 200 pages into this version before realizing that no way would Julie, as I was writing her, join this cult. So then the story became Julie and Patrice as the first half of the book, then Patrice meets a terrible fate, and Julie moves to New York and gets into a sleazy relationship with the actual Dr. Bantam, somehow working for him as a secretary as he does a lot of drugs and tries to finish his book. The Julie and Patrice story just kept getting larger as I was working on it, until it became obvious that that was the real heart of the book and that the rest of the stuff was pretty much vestigial.
Rumpus: Did you have any obstacles while writing the book?
Thornton: Writing a book about Austin while living in New York was kind of weird—everything had to be based in memory or really occasional map references. I think that makes the sense of Austin-ness about the book stronger for me. I handwrite everything in the first draft, so the book transformed a lot as I slowly, slowly typed everything up sometimes months or years after I had originally written it. At one point a series of computer crashes caused me to lose everything I’d typed on the novel—maybe just the first five or six chapters at that point—and I had to start from scratch, which was maybe inspiring, since I had to re-type it all and it had to be “better” this time than my memory of this lost draft.
Rumpus: What kind of research did you have to do into Scientology, if any?
Thornton: I mentioned that Ayn Rand stuff before: for a while, starting when I went to college in 2001, I was reading really obsessively about Scientology on Operation Clambake. Something about understanding Scientology got me to understand and deal with a lot of the stuff I went through with Ayn Rand, though that was way less bad than Scientology’s super craziness. At some point I kind of realized that I had read so much about Scientology and was boring friends so much by talking about it, that I could probably use it as the backdrop for a book of some kind—it felt like a way to get it out of my system, and it was, I guess. Basically it didn’t feel like research, though a couple of times I went back and looked at Clambake documents to get some details of things right, or to make sure that the cult in the book was, uh, legally distinct enough from Scientology for my comfort. There was this whole section that got cut from the book really late, in 2010 or 2011 or something, that was about Dr. Bantam in the ’60s and that was kind of like the plot of The Master, but I ended up cutting it because it didn’t fit with the rest of the book—that part required a lot more research than was good for it.
Rumpus: Would you consider getting an E-meter audit with me to see our potential as Scientologists?
Thornton: No way on the E-meter audit, nooooo. I went to the L. Ron Hubbard Life Museum once with a friend in LA. It was so messed up and terrifying: the museum gallery is in this fairly small room, but you keep going up and down different staircases to make the space seem larger. There are these creepy religious paintings of scenes from Scientology history: L. Ron Hubbard communing with Native American tribes in his youth; L. Ron Hubbard healing his body after terrible wounds in World War II with Navy doctors astounded at his revival; other stuff. This big wall full of fake awards and certificates. I got a close look at them, and they all said stuff like, “Awarded for your kind donation of $5 to the Scranton Parks Department in the name of L. RON HUBBARD”—just so they could have this huge wall full of plaques and certificates L. Ron Hubbard had supposedly won for his great humanitarian efforts. Totally creepy and crazy, and the nice-enough woman who was giving us a tour did an E-meter demonstration and started putting the hard sell on my friend to join. I’m so scared of Scientology. I guess I could be talked into it, but it would take a while, and I’d be shaking the whole time.
Rumpus: What are some conditions you need to write and draw? Do you have any special pens or superstitions, or do you just get right to it?
Thornton: I have so many pens and superstitions. Right now I use this one fountain pen exclusively, and I have to write in very specific composition books. They don’t really make the kind of comp books I like anymore, so I’m kind of flailing around right now —there are ones with all kinds of fancy covers and things, but the glue they used to bind them sucks, and they’re all semi-falling apart. But I must use them because I must write in a composition book or else everything will fall to pieces.
Rumpus: Did you have a Plan B if being a writer hadn’t worked out?
Thornton: Nope! I mean I guess it was “being a cartoonist,” which is equally not a good plan.
Rumpus: Who are some writers and cartoonists that have influenced you?
Thornton: Eileen Myles! Dodie Bellamy! Robert Crumb! Bill Watterson! Eddie Campbell! Al Capp! Junichiro Tanizaki! Crazy Yukio Mishima! J.D. Salinger! Martin Amis! Anais Nin! V. S. Naipaul! Jonathan Franzen! Jeff Smith! Ariel Schrag! There are like a gazillion of each, and I’m certainly forgetting some, but these are the ones that are easiest to come up with.
Rumpus: If you were in a bus accident with the Beach Boys and melted onto one member—into a mutant showcasing both of your positive and negative qualities—who would you choose and why?
Thornton: Probably Dennis Wilson! He would be fun because he’s so completely crazy and adventuresome, and I’m less adventuresome, so it’d be a good combination of strengths, whereas my sensible side would curb his horrible destructive tendencies. It would depend on who got to be the legs, maybe.
Rumpus: What can we expect from you in the future?
Thornton: I have a short story collection called The Black Emerald that’s making the rounds right now. It’s about a magic emerald that turns your ordinary drawings into mean-spirited underground comics while you sleep. I’m working on this big ol’ novel about a really libelously fictional Brian Wilson called Dumb Angels. I do a comic strip called “Bad Mother,” about a kind of breezy sculptress mom who’s raising her kid to be some kind of Napoleon figure, and another one called “Diary of A Ghost Girl,” about a girl who falls in love with her own writing. I guess all of these things are somehow collected on various websites of mine, or via Facebook? One of the messed up things about having an Actual Book is that the rest of your projects seem like scummy poor relations who aren’t pulling their weight, even if you actually spent more time on them in a lot of cases, but this is how it goes.
Original Rumpus artwork by Cassie J. Sneider.