The Rumpus Interview with Jesse Michaels

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I’ve dug Jesse Michaels’s art ever since the late ’80s, listening to Operation Ivy while grooming my teenage angst. So when I heard that he was publishing his first novel, Whispering Bodies: A Roy Belkin Disaster, I was super excited.

The book came out with the famed Soft Skull Press, who did my last novel. And since Jesse and I share an editor, this felt like the perfect time to track him down and see what he’s all about. There’s a lot of wisdom in Jesse’s answers, and any aspiring artist, regardless of medium, should take the lessons he’s learned over the years to heart. If the best way to learn is to do, then Jesse is in an inimitable position to talk shop over crossing genres and following his heart’s whims.

Whispering Bodies perfectly tangles comedy and pathos. I’ve talked to a few heads who have compared it to A Confederacy of Dunces, and that makes sense. But we can trace it back a bit further, too: I’d call Jesse’s book a direct descendant of Cervantes.

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The Rumpus: With all your years of musical experience—playing with Op Ivy, Big Rig, Common Rider, etc.—you are in a unique position to talk about the similarities and differences between writing a novel and writing a record. How did your musical background help you? What were the new challenges you’d never faced in the studio, that reared their ugly faces while tussling with the blank page?

Jesse Michaels: Ha! “Tussling!” Well said. Writing a novel is most like writing lyrics, as far as music goes. When I write lyrics, I sit down and start throwing out abstract ideas. Then they slowly form into something coherent after lots of things have been discarded. Writing a book is like that. A series of failures molded into a narrative made out of the dross that floats on top of all the crap. Salinger said something (vaguely) like, “You have to be really tortured to write a book, because it is so hard.” Meaning, you have to have something driving you. Its a long, problem-laden marathon, where a set of lyrics is more of a run around Lake Merritt. However, the actual tussling is more or less the same.

I don’t know if my musical background helped me. I have always made some kind of art and in a way it always seems like the same thing. You just make it because you’re an alien and that’s what you are good at. I am wired for this activity. I say that without any pretensions of being “special” or anything. More like being sort of fucked, as far as the world’s priorities are concerned.

Rumpus: I like what you’re saying about writing lyrics, starting with abstractions—a lot of them as you’re finding your way—and then whittling it down to something you can then build around. In a novel, the biggest symbiosis exists between plot and character. In a song, it would be the lyrics and the melody. Is there a parallel to be drawn here? Did you think in terms of “melody” when you were getting to know your novel’s main character, Roy Belkin? How does he sound?

Michaels: The parallels between lyrics : melody and character : plot definitely exist. In both cases, the two aspects give each other meaning. In both cases, the energy can be more intense in one of the elements than the other. For example, a Bob Dylan song might not need a great melody and a Beatles song might be good even though the lyrics are so-so. In a story, you can have a character driving the plot (Notes from the Underground) or a plot driving what amounts to a prototype (Star Wars), and both can be fantastic. So there are similarities.

WhisperingBodies.coverOn the other hand, I never think about music when I am writing. I don’t think about music much at all these days, but if I did, I wouldn’t think about it while writing. You might as well pick up a guitar if that is going on. I never think in terms of getting to know the character because the character appears fully formed almost from the second the writing starts. They are just there (I am not saying they are always great or well-drawn).

The most important thing is that the plot, character, or overall mood works—an opaque word that people use in the movie business. One western works and another one doesn’t. Why? They have the same elements—protagonist and antagonist traveling through opposition until there’s a confrontation. They both have great actors. They may even be written and directed by the same people. But one is a classic and the other is in the Netflix slag-heap. Does it work? That’s the only music that matters.

Rumpus: I’m stealing the “Netflix slag-heap” line. That’s fantastic. And this is why I love talking shop with other artists: to hear specifics about their process, how it differs from mine. I was in awe when you said your characters appear fully formed because that is so not my world. I have a mountain of false starts, in the hopes of getting to know who my main character is. I bet people would like to hear a bit more about how this works for you. Let’s talk specifically about your protagonist, Roy Belkin. I’ve heard some Ignatius Reilly comparisons, and I see that. But how did he show himself to you initially, and how did he change during the revision process? Did he do anything along the way that surprised you, his creator?

Michaels: Well, the characters are there but I still have the same struggle getting good material—a lot of rewrites. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I loved books about beat-up, mostly middle-aged men reacting to the world around them. Fante, Russo, DeLillo, Bukowski, Celine. Pretty stereotypical reading fare for a young dude who maybe likes a drink now and then.  Bukowski’s character getting lost in the woods in Women is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, which, I’m not exactly proud of, because Bukowski is polarizing for good reason. Deveraux crawling through the ceiling in Russo’s Straight Man, Bandini arguing with Camilla in Ask the Dust, etc. I mean, this stuff just killed me for some reason. Just the sheer decrepitude.

So I wanted to do something like that. Belkin’s character traits, like his combination of peevishness and massive overreaction, came about because they highlighted the absurd nature of what happens around him. The other characters are not too deep. I mean, they are about as deep as characters in a Peter Sellers or Woody Allen movie, maybe. The big surprise was the emotional depths that emerged. I learned that Belkin has a deep ethical sense when he reflects on human civilization. He sees cities as being like cancerous lesions. Then, in chapter seventeen, he has a huge revelation about his father, which I may have written too subtly because I think some people missed it altogether. Anyway, he basically realizes that his father loved him even though his father was completely remote, and that’s the moment when Belkin’s real agony and longing come out. It is implied rather than stated directly, but it’s there on the last page of the chapter.

Rumpus: I’m not sure if my Fante phase has ever ended. I love that guy.

I’m interested in this chapter seventeen revelation you mentioned (I just re-read it). There’s a line that stuck out to me. Someone saying to Belkin, “This is the exact intersection of protocol and tragedy,” talking about whether or not Roy can see his dad’s dead body. But maybe that line is also about authors at the intersection of protocol (constructing a story) and tragedy (our own family of origin shit). We both have dead fathers, and I wrote about mine in Damascus and I definitely felt some sort of cathartic release. I’m not saying this is about your dad, but I am wondering if writing such a tender, healing moment like the reveal at the end of chapter seventeen for Belkin had any emotional affect on you, or your personal story.

Michaels: This is really a great question—I mean, not just for me, but in principle, for writers in general. I think that when people are writing they create a sort of second self to tell a story. Even the act of narration itself is theatrical. One puts on a voice, though it may be very close to spontaneity. For example, Fante becomes Bandini and so on. In the scene you mentioned and in other scenes, I have had really deep emotional experiences, but they are a bit more like the feelings one might have while doing method-acting, or something, than “real life.” Of course the line gets blurry. Another Janus set-up like character : plot might be writer : narrator.  The scene you mentioned definitely had personal extensions, and the effect it had on my personal story was to remind me that what I think is my story, who I think I am and who I think my parents are or were, is subject to complete revision without prior notice. Sometimes the slate of the past can get wiped very quickly.

Rumpus: That’s a great line, Jesse: “the act of narration itself is theatrical.” As is what you’re talking about with humans needing to constantly revise their personal narratives. I invited the poet Bucky Sinister to talk to my undergrads last semester and he riffed on how as our memories fade, we plug in details to fill the frame, trying to build that memory back to completion, even though we’ve “inadvertently” stocked it with supplies that weren’t there in its original iteration. Maybe we do this completely by accident, but I know personally that I’ve rigged some memories so they are easier to look back on. Loaded the deck in such a way that I can access the past in ways that don’t hurt my feelings anymore. So if you blurred the lines between your own story with Belkin’s, did you learn anything new about Jesse Michaels while writing the book?

Michaels: The main thing I learned about myself writing the book is that I’m nuts. One minute I think I’m a great writer, the next, I’m shit. I’ve learned to distrust presenting emotions because most of mine are negative. I learned that I am somewhat like the protagonist of that book in a much milder form, and writing about those kind of ultra-negative neuroses gave me perspective on my own madness, so that I take it less seriously and am less convinced by it. I also learned that in some ways, I am actually quite optimistic—I believe in the possibility of redemption and forgiveness, like in the scene you asked about and also in Belkin’s final affection for the ridiculous pervert character, Lecroix, who initially drives him crazy.

Rumpus: Well, I’m sure every artist reading this, regardless of their particular medium, can relate to the “I’m nuts!” and “I’m shit!” paradigms of the creative process. Self-doubt is a huge component of having the bravery to put your artwork out there in the world. I wonder, from all your years being a musician and all the time it took to write this book, do you have any advice to how to deal with it? For me, I use the “I’m nuts!” and “I’m shit!” voices in my head as gasoline. They are what compel me to write one more draft. They force me to read the whole book out loud one more time, even when it’s the last thing on earth I want to do. I do my best to harness their powers for good instead of the usual toxicities. Any advice for other artists on ways to turn those voices down in their heads?

Michaels: I am happy to share what I do, for what it’s worth. The first thing is that I don’t isolate too much or make the project my god. This helps a lot with negative ideation. The second thing is, I always quit while I am still inspired, while I could still write more. Never let the thread run all the way out. Something about quitting while you are still strong causes the spring to refill overnight, as Hemingway put it.

It helps to permanently quit writing every night (so to speak), wipe the slate of ideas and start over the next day, within the parameters of consistent, moderate practice. If I do this, then the negative voices have no power because they don’t have a “self” to stick to. Rather than “I am this” or “I am that,” I just get to work and quit thinking. The work itself stops the neurotic worry. Whether or not it is good is none of my business. Easier said than done, of course, but that is the ideal. I learned this because I noticed that sometimes I would write while inspired and sometimes I would write through sheer force of will, and in revision the writing that I thought was “dead” very frequently turned out to be better because it was more free of ego. I had an English teacher who said that you have to kind of be a drill sergeant and just make yourself do the work, and I think she is right, within reason. She was talking about academic writing but it applies elsewhere.

Rumpus: I love it, Jesse: “quit thinking.” If we can turn off our inner critic and just liberate our imaginations, that’s usually when the good stuff happens. And that’s a nice note to shut this thing down on, with one last little question: there’s a subtitle on your novel—“A Roy Belkin Disaster.” Does that mean your audience should expect future Belkin disasters?

Michaels: It basically depends on how much people like it. If it does well and people are interested, yes. I am already working on another novel, but it is not Belkin-related. However, I could easily revisit Belkin if it seems to be the right thing to do.

Thanks for a great exchange, and thanks to The Rumpus for being a great venue for literature and ideas.

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Featured image of Jesse Michaels © by Jesse Michaels.


Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, most recently “All This Life.” More from this author →