The Rumpus Interview with Jodi Angel

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I first heard of Jodi Angel from Recommended Reading. Her story, “A Good Deuce,” engulfed all the “bleak yet vibrant land” in flames. I mean, she had me at “my lips were scorched emergency orange”—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Her words had me on fucking fire.

Then, whenever I mentioned I had this assignment to anyone, people kept on saying, “Oh yes, you’d be perfect to interview her.” Perfect. Perfect. So I was curious why, and now I know. I mean aside from all the obvious stuff—read: tattooed dykes—I like stories how I like my music: I like raunchy, whiskey-drenched, roughneck voices.

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Rumpus: Your stories have a really masculine aesthetic. I think that has less to do with the male narrator than it does with setting: that all of your stories seem to share the facet of setting as a character, and they take place in these towns that are on the outskirts—on the edge. I find that in my own work I cannot stop exploring forbidden places. Would you say you are compelled in these same ways?

Jodi Angel: I am absolutely compelled to explore the hidden places and the secret backdoor worlds that you have to be invited to. I grew up in a small Northern California town, and even though I moved away when I was a teenager, it left an indelible mark on my imagination—I can still smell the star thistle under a clip from a Rainbird sprinkler. I can still see the red clay dirt that formed the ground we used to tear through. There is something distinct about small towns—there is something sort of dark about everyone knowing your business, and there’s a certain kind of power in growing up as an insider to a sense of place.

So because where I grew up is such an inescapable influence on me, I make setting a very fundamental part of my work—it is a character all its own, and I think that in making setting a very relevant character, it helps ground the reader in that same kind of smothering summer small town air that I filled my lungs with year after year.

Rumpus: I read somewhere that you wrote one of your stories in an hour. And that when it fell into the hands of editor Rob Spillman, it was practically camera-ready. Does that mean you craft most of your stories in your head before you put them down on paper?

you only get letters from jailAngel: I really like this new urban legend that I wrote a story in an hour, and while I wish I could really own that one as truth, it’s absolutely not real. I write quickly, yes, that’s for sure, but an hour? That’s a kind of magic that I don’t possess yet.

I usually write a story in a matter of hours—like a day—and I can crank one out in six to eight hours if I am writing balls-out and on fire. That’s my usual process. Write ‘em fast and hard—get in and get out. Done. So yeah, in order to do that, I have to write a lot in my head, and I do it compulsively—I feel like I’m always working some kind of plot line over in my head, grinding away at it mentally so that when I come to the page, I am ready to write. The “revision” has already been a process I have done in my mind, so it’s just a matter of putting the story down in all the components I have carefully thought out.

This is a really advantageous way to write because it enables me to do a lot of crap that isn’t writing—like watching a lot of shows on Bravo or playing Xbox 360, or just blatantly not paying attention to anything at all—and I can just say, “Hey, I’m writing,” and maybe I am. And maybe I’m not.

Rumpus: Do you find that you have an end in mind and you are writing towards a specific ending?

Angel: I try not to have a specific end in mind, though I pretty much “know” where the story is headed as I’m writing it out. I don’t really want to know too much, because I think that it gets very easy to see the perfect ending coming and then race toward it because you’re so excited to pull all the threads through to this fantastic ending that nails the dismount, and the worst thing I can do to a story is to race to the finish line. I like to slow way down toward the ending, stretch out those final moments like taffy, so that the reader has no choice but to feel squirmy discomfort, and then there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in swinging the hammer at the end as hard as I possibly can.

Rumpus: Rob Spillman said you read in a monotone voice as if to say, “Why’d you drag me away from the biker bar for this?” If you could be anywhere, where would you be?

Angel: I really want to learn how to read like Benjamin Percy, but I’m not sure how that would go down. I think that Rob Spillman’s assertion that I was dragged out of a biker bar to read that story was pretty accurate, and I wouldn’t mind hanging out in a biker bar, and I may have been in a few in the past, but I can’t give too many details because those sorts of things are pretty much “blood in, blood out,” and I’m sure you understand that kind of situation.

If I could be anywhere, I would be by water—maybe a secluded cabin in the woods by a lake, where there was an old dock to fish from and I could drive my primer-ed car to the closest town, a few miles away, where in fact there was a biker bar of sorts, a place that serves PBR on tap.

Rumpus: I know, right? If I could have Ben Percy’s voice and Luis Urrea’s animo, I think I could make a whole career on readings alone. They’d prop me up on a soapbox somewhere along the L.A. River and charge for tickets to come listen, like The Man with the Enormous Wings.

I’m going to have some trouble on how to frame this next question. It will be long and may be confusing… I noticed one theme that existed in your stories was the absence of parents. Either through death or just taking off and not coming back. And I also noticed that all of your stories are told from the POV of an adolescent boy, however your bio makes it clear that you grew up in an all-women household. I grew up without a father, and I remember when I had a photography class for a brief time in high school, I was obsessed with the father-daughter relationship. I approached all my friends with fathers anthropologically. I took lots of pictures with men and their daughters. Mostly of them carrying them on their shoulders. That, to me, seemed the extreme expression of fatherhood. A missed sensation, as I noticed it by the time I was just too old to reenact.

So, in a way, you have been able to write “the other,” and in another way you created a world that is really familiar to you. Is this a love letter to other young Jodi Angel’s, other single-parent family children?

Angel: Sometimes I am asked the question of whether or not I had a “rough” childhood based on the way I write my teenage narrators who grow up without parental figures or get left behind, disappointed, lost in the shuffle, and abandoned. My mom was a single mother and was left to raise three girls on her own. She was a fun, loving, and very present parent, and she very much filled the gap that was left in the absence of not having a father present, too. Not only that, but I am a mom, too, and I was a single parent until my daughter was eight years old. So what I really think my fiction taps into is the fact that I am not always convinced that I was an effective mom, and maybe that’s my sort of nightmare—that I would ever be the kind of mother that I put into my fiction—and maybe I am writing a sort of love letter to kids who grow up in single-parent families, because I have been on both sides of the fence and I know how it feels.

Rumpus: You have a line in one of your stories: “What she knew about cars I could fit into the corner of my eye…” What you know about cars is mind-blowing. How old were you when you got your first car?

Angel: I was sixteen years old, though I think I started wanting my own car when I was about ten. Waiting is a bitch.

Rumpus: What was it?

Angel: My mom had this olive green 1974 Ford Courier truck that she got from a guy at work, and it had a Philco AM radio with a rotting dashboard and rusted wheels, and at some point in its life, somebody had spilled some grass seed on the passenger side and over the course of rain leaks and some good growing seasons, it actually had grass coming up through the floorboards. Try driving that truck to high school. You don’t get a lot of dates, but you can make some really fucked-up jokes about mowing your lawn in the front of your truck.

Rumpus: I grew up in foster care and therefore didn’t have access to cars or driving. I had so many leaving fantasies. I wanted so badly to tell everyone to fuck off and get in a car and go somewhere. Can you tell the story of the first time you ever drove?

Nova and AngelAngel: Well, the first time that I ever drove, I was eight years old and in the third grade. My stepfather, who eventually died in a car accident when I was nine, ironically enough, was a hard-drinking and unpredictable man who scared me most of the time. And he worked the day shift at the lumber mill in town, and one afternoon when school got out, he came walking down the hallway toward my classroom and I was immediately on high alert. I rode the bus home. I didn’t get picked up. And I especially didn’t get picked up by him.

At the time, we lived way out on Red Bank Road, out past the city limits, and we started toward home, driving that road, and he pulled over and told me to drive. He had a can of Old Milwaukee in his hand and I slid over behind the wheel and he settled into the passenger seat, and it was springtime and the windows were down, and he told me to drive, so I did. And he told me to drive faster because there was nothing I should be afraid of, and he told me to go fifty-five, and here we were, on this narrow two-lane blacktop lined with fences on both sides, and open fields, and cows grazing, and the road had hard sudden turns and the occasional oncoming car, and I was doing fifty-five and scared as hell and probably crying a little bit. And then his hat blew out the open window and he jerked his head around and told me to stop the truck, and I did, and had me pull to the side where the was no gravel shoulder, and I did, and he got out and walked back to get his hat out of the road. And afterward he let me go slower, but by then I was probably pissed off and scared and refused to give in. I had my own leaving fantasies, too.

Rumpus: I went out for a drink with a fellow writer the other night and she talked about baseball in this way. Her world was split into two halves: before and after the Steve Bartman incident. Do you see your world through a lens earmarked by cars.?

Angel: My world is definitely shaped by the cars I have driven, and each one represents a very important and valuable time in my life. I find that I have grown up in cars, for better and for worse, and I learned some important lessons, though I don’t think I ever had a car that can be identified as a defining moment for me—they were all moments for me, but most of my memories can be traced to a very vivid image of whatever car or truck I owned being integral to the experiences.

Rumpus: In risking what this might reveal about me, I have to say that the following passage is the sexiest thing I’ve read all summer:

Nadine only had a couple changes of clothes and nothing much for summer, and she asked to borrow a pair of my boxers and one of my shirts, and the thought of her in a pair of my underwear was more than my mind could wrap around, so I started putting my dad’s albums in alphabetical order and tried not to imagine the places in my shorts that Nadine’s bare skin was touching.

The longing in that is so smoking hot.

I want to talk about sexuality and desire and how it presents itself in this collection. I think that sexuality is largely colored by the fact that the stories are told from an adolescent boy’s point of view. But still it’s alert and surprising, in that the automatic assumption is that a teenage boy would be a raging ball of sexual desire, but here it seems that a lot of the sexual tension is unrequited on the part of the girls.

Girls throw themselves at these boys and I suppose that is how the boy would imagine it. Also it’s true, I think, that something happens in these dusty towns, which is that the ratio between boys and girls is skewed and you get these super foxy girls with these mediocre guys.

the history of vegasAngel: I think that the easy way to approach sex with these characters would be to just let them bang it out and explode and move on to the next scene. But these are characters who exist in worlds that are built on restraint—emotional restraint—and there is far more sex in the longing than there would be in just getting off, and what these boy narrators have is a rich fantasy life with very little reality—they just aren’t quite getting any. My narrators are boys who aren’t the cool kids at school—these are the guys who exist on the fringe, who want girls they can’t have, who just sometimes aren’t smart enough to figure girls out. The girls in my stories tend to have far more power than the boys, but it’s sort of a dangerous and manipulative power, and nobody is very forthcoming with the truth. All the stories are built on lies—and the foxy girl with the mediocre guy dichotomy is the biggest lie of all. I mean, look at Nadine in “Cash or Trade.” In this story, she bares her heart for the narrator, Floyd, and gets him all kinds of spun out, and then ends up sleeping with Floyd’s dad and taking his car and his money. Nobody gets the girls in these stories—literally or figuratively.

Rumpus: Although there are some truly intimate and vulnerable moments: “But instead I kept that moment for myself and with nothing but a gap between us, and I watched her for as long as she let me, until I had memorialized her and there was nothing more to see.”

Angel: I think that is truly a vulnerable moment, as disturbing as it is, since it occurs between the narrator, who is fifteen, and his best friend’s mother, as she lets the narrator watch her put powder on her naked skin. And she knows he’s watching—doesn’t hide a thing from him, puts her whole self out there on display, naked and complete—and she’s sort of pleased that he is watching her. He knows, and she knows, that he will always have that memory—and he does.

Rumpus: What’d you pack to bring to Tin House?

Angel: I packed my girlfriend. I also brought my good pen and my leopard print pants.

Rumpus: Do you avoid checking a bag at all costs?

Angel: I like checking bags because I like the risk of losing luggage. Imagine getting to a destination and all of your shit is lost. It sounds like the best kind of adventure to me.

Rumpus: Okay, so you’re driving in a drag race against Leo, against the Scorpions, or just driving like hell to win the prize in the competition of the world. Your world. Whatever that prize is—Pulitzer, Nobel, maple bacon doughnuts, whatever—you get it at the end of this race. What car do you choose?

Angel: I drive the 1969 Chevy Nova that I drove to Tin House. It has a 383 stroker with 400 horsepower and 425 lb-ft of torque, and you have no choice but to drive it like you stole it, and I did that, all the way to Seattle and back.

Rumpus: And you get one tape cassette. What is it?

Angel: Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.

Rumpus: Is that stocking trick real?

Angel: Yes. And it works.

Rumpus: Also, can you use a piece of tin foil to substitute for a fuse?

Angel: No, but you can use tin foil for all kinds of drugs.

Rumpus: Coca-Cola?

Angel: Sometimes.

Rumpus: Also, burnt caramel smell—how bad is it?

Angel: Almost as bad as burnt hair. Or burnt cat hair—like the smell that comes off the tailpipe. Ask the boys in “Firm and Good.”


Melissa Chadburn is a fellow with The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, she has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Poets & Writers, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places. Her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her debut novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Spring of 2017 More from this author →