The Rumpus interview with Jeremy P. Bushnell

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Jeremy P. Bushnell’s debut novel, The Weirdness, explores what happens when the devil, over a cup of fair-trade coffee, offers an aspiring fiction writer the chance to become famous. His recently published second novel, The Insides, follows Ollie, who used to practice magic and now works as a butcher at a high-end meat restaurant in New York City, alongside a mysterious man with a magic knife. The book also follows Maja, a psychic who’s been hired by white supremacists to find this knife, since they want to use it to, well, mold the fabric of space-time and bring about a new world order—a premise that, after hearing way too many of Trump’s ideas, or lack thereof, feels more timely than bizarre. Wild plots aside, the book’s supernatural elements also serve to explore the personal histories of Ollie and Maja and their desire to fix the past.

We spoke to Bushnell about this fantastical adventure story, as well as his other projects, including a blog about film shoots with no people and a post-apocalyptic board game.

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The Rumpus: The Insides, like your first novel, has many odd or supernatural characters, events, and ideas. Your non-writing projects, which I’d like to talk about later, are also offbeat. Can you talk about this penchant for the strange?

Jeremy P. Bushnell: [Chuckles] Sure. It’s funny because I’m working on a new novel, and just today I was writing about one of the characters and her reflections on her own inner weirdness, as in, “I have to pretend to be normal, it’s challenging, and I just don’t do well among normal people.” And so I thought, “Oh god, this is my theme. People who are strange.”

You know, I hope this doesn’t come across as a contrivance, like a hat I put on to win friends and influence people. That my work is weird for the sake of being weird, or because I think weirdness is clever or cool. Since I was young, I had a way of viewing the world that was sort of at a forty-five degree angle to my peers and other people around me. And I guess I had to channel that into writing, where it was more enjoyable. Because if you’re that weird kid in the classroom where nobody likes you—and I definitely had my years along those lines—then channeling that creatively would make people think, “Oh, I get it, it’s a strange book, and that’s actually entertaining.” But it’s not like I wake up in the morning and say, “I’ll try to look at things skewed today.” It’s more of my natural mode, my idiom.

Rumpus: My interests have a similar bent, so I’m with you.

Bushnell: Oh good. That puts me at ease.

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Rumpus: [Chuckles] Speaking of strange, you’ve said that while researching The Insides, you read homesteading blogs and ended up in “weird survivalist pockets” of the Internet. Please take us through this digital journey.

Bushnell: The book deals a lot of with the preparation of meat, so I had to write about being on farms and how animals get slaughtered. As you know, there’s a character that’s a butcher at a high-end meat restaurant. She also spent time in rural parts of New York State, working more hands-on in places where meat comes from. I had limited experience with that stuff, so I went to the Internet, which is the repository of all answers to any question, and I Googled things like, “Can you slaughter a pig with a sledgehammer?” And slowly but surely, you start to drift into these doomsday-prepper corners of the Internet, which are full of, “Well, you better learn how to slaughter a pig with a sledgehammer because, when the New World Order comes, you’ll only have a sledgehammer, and you’ll be lucky if you have that.”

Once you drift into that world, you start getting into the world of crazy white supremacists and people like that. So, there are homesteaders, doomsday preppers, and anti-Semitic doomsday preppers. And before too long, you’re in the hate part of the Internet, which is also part of what my book deals with, that is, these white power, weird nativist goons. Reading all that was not terrible for the book, but it’s a little spooky. Once you’re out of those corners it makes you want to hose down your browser with fire.

Rumpus: Was there something in these forums that you wanted to use in the novel, but then thought your readers would consider it too implausible, or perhaps too wild?

Bushnell: I don’t think so. There wasn’t too much that I rejected. The content wasn’t surprising, though, which was the dispiriting thing about these forums. It’s sort of shocking and horrible to realize how much of this still exists as actual discourse in the world, and that, the deeper you dig, the more you think, “Yeah, I’ve heard people say that before.”

I hate to point at Trump and how his discourse also has a very thin veneer of respectability. In those forums, it’s easy to find people who say things like, “White civilization is the pinnacle of all human endeavor, and everything else is degenerate.” Similar things have been said at the Republican National Convention. That’s partly why I wanted people who held those beliefs to be prominent in the book as fearsome figures.

Rumpus: I’m sure much worse was said at the RNC. Did you intend to reference the intensification of this racist rhetoric, or did the writing happen before that?

Bushnell: These themes have only become more relevant while I was working on the book, and ushering its publication, around three years ago, they were already in the air. The history of these narratives is long. Spurious race science, for example, goes back about three hundred years in some cases. This stuff has been around and doesn’t seem to be dying out quickly enough. But I certainly didn’t think it was going to become center stage, something that we’re immersed in every day on the national news.

In the book, I talk briefly about Anders Breivik, who killed many people in Norway, including kids. That was the most high profile incident of this kind that occurred while I wrote the book, but I knew it was out there, and I guess I was interested in doing whatever I could to combat it.

Rumpus: As you know, many people were stunned when Trump won the election. Having written about white supremacists, researched racist Internet forums, and been immersed in the writing of The Insides, I’m wondering what was your reaction to his victory. Perhaps you were less surprised.

Bushnell: You know, I was surprised. Like everybody else, I was watching the poll numbers and the fluctuating probabilities and things of that nature, but mostly thinking that we were on the safe side. I never quite got so confident to publicly say, “We have this in the bag,” or anything like that. My tweets leading up to the election were mostly some version of, “Well, no matter what happens, there will still be x, y, z.” There’s always that needle of doubt within me, so I wasn’t totally blindsided [by the results], but of course, I was still quite surprised and very dispirited.

There was also this sort of perverse validation. You know, as I was writing this novel, I was keeping my eye on these people and thinking, “They’re a serious problem, and they could really do some damage if they got the opportunity.” So, seeing them surge into power and watching [Trump] stock his cabinet more and more with the, you know, brotherhood of evil, there’s a part of me that thinks, “Well, my book was a kind of an early-warning radar, so at least I had my eye on the right thing.” Beyond that, there’s very little satisfaction to take from it, I suppose.

Rumpus: Do you think literature should address social or political issues? And I’m not talking about literary activism, by the way.

Bushnell: I would probably stop short of saying my books are activist books. I read political writers and I don’t want to do them the injustice of claiming that my book is as political as theirs, because I don’t think that it is. I’m still concerned with telling a story and entertaining the reader. Ultimately, it’s not the goal of my book to have an argument or a thesis to change people’s minds. So, to a degree, I hesitate to say that my books are activist or political.

At the same time, I’m very conscious of being a straight white man, of having this privilege, and I want to be alert to using that power for good and not for evil. The Black Lives Matter movement and other types of activism have certainly drawn attention to the structures of white power that are alive and well in this country, though I’m not talking about white supremacists, per se. There’s the police and the state apparatus around them, for example, or even academia, where I make my home quite comfortably. There’s racism embedded in every institution. So my thought was, if you’re writing your whole life and never take a firm stance against power structures or institutions that support white supremacy, you’ve wasted your soapbox in some ways. I’m certainly glad to have had the opportunity to do that, even if I’m only doing it obliquely, or on the route to telling what’s ultimately a fun, page-turning adventure story.

Rumpus: There’s certainly a lot of adventure that results from the role that time, or rather space-time, plays in your novel. There’s time travel, the possibility of many pasts and futures, past trauma, and the effects of history. These devices serve to build the world of the novel, but most of them also help explore the loss and personal histories of Ollie and Maja.

Bushnell: I knew early on that there was going to be this magical object at the center of the book, this knife that could modify space and time in a way that’s cryptic at first and then gradually comes into focus as the book goes along. So, I wanted to play with that trope, which is a pretty familiar trope—a device that can modify time or history in some way—and how there would be various temptations if you had such a device. The temptation that I got immediately interested in was using the knife to fix past mistakes. To undo something that you’ve done wrong, which I think is a temptation we all feel.

I also thought the device was a fruitful source of human drama, whereas in many fantasy books, it’s kind of silly or zany. It’s fun fantasy stuff, but I’m also interested in real human issues and real human drama in the vein of classic literary work. I tried to look at every character through the lens of, “What would they want to fix?” For some of them it’s a personal mistake they made, for some of them it’s what another person did that they could’ve stopped, and for some of them the whole course of history has gone wrong and they want to turn the tide in a larger sense. It was an interesting question that informed a lot of the psychological engine of the book.

Rumpus: I’m glad you talked about fixing the past. The novel’s description of space-time as material that “you could carve… sculpt… make holes in” had gotten me thinking about how introspection and storytelling function as a form of time travel and self-editing, since Ollie and Maja are trying to rework their own narratives, at times by reshaping or deconstructing them.

Bushnell: Definitely. The title of the book and the central idea of the Inside refers, as you know, to a kind of magical space in the novel, but it’s also about the narratives we carry around, and if those narratives can be worked. All this stuff about Ollie carving up carcasses, well, it’s part of her job, but the same thing is happening at the psychological level. Many of us do the same thing. We take a bloody pile of memories and drag it around, and when looking inward, we try to cut it up or make it more palatable in some way. Turn it into something more appealing. Of course, it’s not always that easy.

Rumpus: The book also describes the Inside as a backstage. The idea of life-as-performance appears with Victor, who tasted fame and wants to return to the culinary spotlight, with Maja, who sells her employers on the stereotypical image of a psychic, and with Ollie, who’s biracial and “learned the ability to switch from one [racial] identity to the other when circumstances necessitated.”

Bushnell: I think almost everyone does this at some level. Like I was saying earlier, I grew up as a kind of weird kid, with the feeling of being a perennial outsider. Adhering to social conventions was, to some degree, a performance that I was made more cognizant of by my difficulty in doing it. It didn’t come naturally to me, so it took effort to figure out social codes and how I could follow them. And once you undergo that process, you’re always aware of it as a process. It’s hard for it to feel totally natural, to not to see it as a performance.

At the same time, I was a male white kid with a fixed gender, and I had all the privileges that other people don’t necessarily have. So, given that one of the hardest things for me was being a weirdo, if you will, I was still way ahead of others in terms of their day-to-day difficulties.

As I read more female writers and more writers of color, I started to realize, “They know what this process is like. They know it way more intimately than I do.” I didn’t have to look too far to see people talking about things like double consciousness, for example. They’re always concerned about how you’re doing as a person, but also how you’re doing as a person of color. They’re very alert to these matters, so it seemed to me like a theme that was, if not universal in some way, then at least of interest to a wide variety of people. And it ended up being very central to the book.

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Rumpus: Since your book centers on Ollie and Maja, I’m curious to know how you handled writing from the perspective of two female characters, one of them who’s half black, the other Norwegian.

Bushnell: That took some work. Certain things are universal, right? Like we talked about earlier, I wanted my book to deal with loss and regret and the wish to undo the past. I don’t feel that’s really contingent on your race or your gender. I think everyone feels regret at some point, for example, so it was easy to take my own understanding of that concept and project it into my characters. At the same time, I don’t want to go too far with that and think, “Everyone in the whole world is basically a white male wearing a different hat.”

Part of what I did was read carefully, part of it was learning how others see the world, and part of it was working closely with my writer’s group. About half of my group is women and there’s one person of color—which is not great—so I had access to these perspectives. It was a semi-formalized environment of people who were reading my book kindly but critically. And there were definitely moments when they said, “This is not how women would experience that,” and I made corrections to get it right.

Rumpus: In the novel, Ollie has trouble getting close to people. She uses magic to get the family she wants or thinks she wants, but when she leaves them, she avoids using magic to mend things. In the end, however, it’s magic that gives her greater certainty about the future or possible futures with those closest to her. There’s an interesting dynamic between her ambivalence towards magic and how it gives her the emotional security she wants.

Bushnell: One of the themes that I’m interested in is consent. It popped up in my first book in a minor way and it’s present in this one, too. Part of what concerns her is, “If you use magic to repair your relationships with other people, how much does that take away their autonomy as human beings? How much does that take away their ability to consent?” It’s exploring the serious facet of a frivolous thing, which is something I like to do.

Even when she has the central magical object of the book, which changes hands a couple of times, she’s resistant to using it to fix her problems because she thinks that’s probably exploitative. Now, you’re right that before the book is out, she does use it to get a sense that maybe she can fix things on her own. She gets that confirmed magically, though that’s sort of all she ends up taking from it.

Rumpus: I also wanted to talk about Maja and her powers. She can learn the history of everyone and everything, but she can also sense the future or likely futures. Were you concerned that this would reduce tension in the book, or perhaps lower the stakes of her actions?

Bushnell: She has these abilities but, to a degree, they take effort for her to use them. There’s an early chapter that explores how feeling these histories and futures, these paths through the world, aren’t driving her crazy, and that’s because, in order for these things to reveal themselves, they have to wait until she asks. That gave me some narrative control over how much information was floating around.

The thing about Maja is that she doesn’t really know the future. She sort of detests the idea of the future because to her, it’s part of the unknown. She knows the history of things, but because the future is uncertain, almost revolting to her, she spends a lot of energy trying to gain control of the narrative of the future. She’s a very precise person, likes things very orderly, and doesn’t like a lot of chaos. All these things allow her to make the narrative of the future turn out a certain way. She’s also interested in making a lot of money, not because she has extravagant tastes but because she thinks, “Money is the way for you make the future happen.”

Those were aspects of her that were interesting, but didn’t necessarily reduce tension. If anything, she’s paired up with this character Pig, who’s a total agent of chaos. He freaks her out because she doesn’t know what he’s going to do. That not knowing is very difficult for her, which I thought would be a good way to generate tension.

Rumpus: You’ve said that you’re a little anxious about having written two books of genre fiction. Can you expand on that?

Bushnell: I’m not sure if this is still the case, but when I did my MFA, literary fiction was what you were trained to do. And that was basically it. I spent years trying to drum out of me my interest in genre trappings and things that I grew up with, like comic books, fantasy and sci-fi novels, and Dungeons and Dragons. I tried to strip that out of my writing and instead worked on serious literary fiction. I was struggling. I was writing stories that I didn’t enjoy writing and that weren’t very good, for that matter.

Then the genre stuff started to creep back into some of my very experimental writing, which had sci-fi elements. At some point I thought, “I’m just going to go whole hog and write a book that has everything that I think is fun to write about and see where that goes. So, if I want to put a wizard in, I’ll put a wizard in. If I want a werewolf, I’ll put a werewolf.”

My writing came to life when I was doing that. At the same time, I still want to deal with important issues that literary fiction deals with. I still want to write about humans and their psychology. When bad things happen to them, I want it to hurt. So I hoped that I could split the difference, and so far I think that I’ve been pretty successful at that. I will say that, it might not keep me up at night, but I am alert to some of the dangers of being pigeonholed too readily as a straight genre writer.

Rumpus: What do you consider restrictive about literary fiction?

Bushnell: I feel that straight realistic fiction, let’s say, defines itself by only including things that bear verisimilitude to the real world we inhabit, and there’s a lot that falls outside of that circle. Obviously there are many great writers in that territory, and I still read a ton of literary fiction, but I started to get interested in what’s outside of that.

As a person who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons and was always thrilled by learning about monsters, for instance, there’s something about that that still captivates my imagination, even though I’m now in my forties [chuckles]. I want to write a book that has a cool monster in it, some kind of faceless thing that has tentacles and weird reproductive behavior. It triggers my pleasure center in some way, and I hate the idea that if I’m going to write straight realistic fiction, I’m never going to be able to play with those sorts of images or weird beings.

Rumpus: So, how do you see The Insides, genre-wise?

Bushnell: I think genre-bender is the way to talk about it, though I can’t say it’s purely a genre-bender because there are definitely elements and tropes of fantasy. The book also plays with the tropes of horror, in the vein of Lovecraft, the master of supernatural cosmic horror.

I can’t pretend that those elements aren’t there. At the same time, it also has all this human drama and psychology, which I feel genre fiction doesn’t always do a great job of exploring. Obviously the best genre fiction, like William Gibson’s science fiction, has characters that are as memorable and as real as characters in any literary novel that I’ve read recently.

I do hope that my book is the kind of work that would appeal to fans of genre and literary fiction. So, I guess genre-bender is the short answer, the blurb on the cover.

It’s all things for all people. How about we go with that.

Rumpus: Let’s switch gears and talk about your non-writing projects, which include photography, music, computer games, and a board game “set in a slapstick dystopian future.” The latter looks like fun.

Bushnell: That game was something that I designed a long time ago, way back in high school and college, when I’d done a lot of nerd tabletop gaming, you know? I wanted to do this silly sci-fi game where a bunch of different factions are grappling for control of an ultra violent, dystopian world, but with a funny bent to it—as funny as something like that could be. I designed this game and played it throughout college with my group of friends, and they all pushed me to release it commercially. I hedged about doing it for many years, but with the advent of Kickstarter, I thought, “Now is probably the time to do this.”

Before I was working on The Weirdness, I was creatively stuck with my writing, and I had a semester where all my classes were cancelled. I didn’t have much to do, so I thought it was a good time to run a Kickstarter campaign, produce that game, and see if it became a runaway success. And it was not a runaway success, but the Kickstarter campaign worked, io9 released a promo about the game, we made enough money to get it produced, people were interested in it, and I didn’t have to go into debt to do it. I still have copies and occasionally, it sells.

That’s sort of my foray into sci-fi. I’d never written a novel that was properly science fiction, and I’m not sure I ever will, but if you want to know what would be my take on science fiction, that’s my big world building experiment. The world of that game.

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Rumpus: You also have a Tumblr called Cinema without People, which is curious and eerie. How did that come about?

Bushnell: I love movies and I took a bunch of film classes in college. I never really thought of myself as—you know what? Let’s leave it there. I don’t want to get too pretentious. Let’s say I watch a lot of movies. And I try to engage with them as an art form.

I started taking screenshots reflexively as I saw shots that were composed beautifully or that looked great. And once my computer was full of these, I wondered, “What do I do with this big pile of weird screenshots? Maybe this is what Tumblr is for.” [Chuckles]

I’m pretty active on Twitter, so I posted something like, “Is Tumblr the place to post all your Werner Herzog screenshots?” People said yes, so I started posting them. There’s this whole active world of film Tumblrs, by the way, which are basically screenshot blogs, so I was excited to find a community. Anyway, I started to notice how I was really drawn to these shots that didn’t have any actors in them. Shots of empty rooms, or an empty car. Shots that were aesthetically provocative. And I started to post more and more of them.

At some point, I decided to go deep on that niche and only post those kinds of images. Once I did that, the blog became wildly popular—it has about twenty thousand followers. It’s probably more successful than my books or anything else I do on social media. It was a lark, something I was doing just for fun, to satisfy my own aesthetic pleasures. And it’ll probably be the most popular project I’ll ever do.

Rumpus: Why were those shots without actors so compelling for you?

Bushnell: I think they’re beautiful and strange. They’re like weird story starters, where you get these great, enigmatic opening lines. Those shots feel like the same kind of thing, where spaces are charged with potential but you don’t quite know what that potential is. They’re very triggering to the imagination, I think.

Rumpus: All these projects must keep you busy. Where do you see writing within your creative interests?

Bushnell: I’d say writing was my first creative interest. Writing and comics. Some of my first ideas involved drawing my own comics. Those are the biggest through lines for me.

I also worked on music for a decade. I played around with experimental music, which was a lot of fun. And I see that as part of my interesting explorations, like the film screenshots. Right now I’m working on digital collages, which are also fun, but writing is what I’ve done since I was able to create stuff. Writing and writing comics, that is, though comics fell by the wayside once I realized I’d never draw as well as I wanted to. I just didn’t have the talent for it.

I think that if you’re interested in one aesthetic field, you owe it to yourself to try other ones. They inform and feed one another usefully. I probably would’ve never done as much revision of my own creative writing if I didn’t have experience play testing a game and seeing how useful that testing was. It motivated me to do more revision and to use beta readers, the same way you’d use beta testers for a game.

My interests inform one another fruitfully, but writing is my central aesthetic project. My truest love. But let’s put air quotes on that. Otherwise, my Generation X irony meter starts to kick in.

Rumpus: We’ve talked a lot about weirdness, writing, and white supremacy. In Trump’s America, how do you think the writing landscape will change, if at all, particularly for minority writers? I’m thinking less of artistic suppression and more of, for example, a greater commitment to literary diversity and a bigger interest in the absurd.

Bushnell: That’s a great question. It’s hard to do too much prediction, but one thing that’s been heartening about this whole thing is seeing people on the left push for more radical politics on a large scale, more so than what I’ve seen before. It feels like everyone suddenly stood up straight and said, “Oh my gosh, the marginalized populations really are as vulnerable or even more vulnerable than we thought.” Just this past week, it was heartening to see people who had maybe gotten a little complacent during the Obama years surge into action, or at least double down on actions they were already taking.

One of the optimistic things about the literary landscape is that, over the last ten or fifteen years, I think that we’ve seen more commitment to diverse voices, more commitment to inclusivity in publishing. Things like the VIDA Count are having an impact, for example. And I really think that such efforts will ideally continue, that a lot of people in the publishing industry are taking the opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to seek out voices from marginalized populations. To make sure they have a platform. This will likely be slow and incremental change, but I do think that the industry will continue to bend in that direction.

In terms of subject matter, it’s hard to say what to expect. My own third novel is well in the works at this point—it’s probably seventy-five percent completed—and it’s not an especially political book. In fact, I think it might take some time to see the real ramifications of this come out in published novels. I think that’ll be a slower process.

For the moment, though, I think it’s important for writers and readers to commit to a policy of resistance. Many people have been wondering, “What do we do now? Do we just give money? Do we read more books by marginalized populations? Do we change the stuff that we’re writing about?” I think it’s valuable to do all of the above. And though it’s worth thinking that the results of this [election] will be bad, I think it’s important for writers and readers to not lose hope, to look for actions both small and large that will slow down or counteract its effects.

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Author photograph © Joy E. Reed.


Ricardo Herrera Bandrich writes and takes pictures in Los Angeles, though he’s still getting used to the dry heat. His work has appeared in the LA Review of Books, and he’s about to receive his MFA from UC Riverside. He’s currently working on a novel. You can find him tweeting @ricardo_herrera. More from this author →