Crystal Eaters, Shane Jones’s beautiful new novel, marks his return to the indie presses, this time with the excellent Ohio-based Two Dollar Radio. It’s his strongest work to date, an impressive evolution of the fabulist style readers first connected with in his acclaimed debut novel, Light Boxes.
In the world of Crystal Eaters, it is believed each person is born with 100 crystals inside of them. That crystal count gets depleted through illness and injury, until it reaches zero, which is death. The novel follows the story of a young girl named Remy, her emotionally remote father, her dying mother, and her incarcerated brother. Their village, which holds firm to its beliefs about crystals, is under threat from a steadily encroaching city, which considers their beliefs to be no more than quaint superstition. As the city grows ever closer to the village, threatening to swallow it whole, the earth grows hotter with each passing day, and Remy’s mother declines rapidly, her crystal count falling dangerously low. At the heart of this fable is a heartbreaking exploration of a family struggling through loss while trying to make sense of a rapidly changing world, trying to find each other and hold tight through it.
Jones and I recently spoke about Crystal Eaters, publishing, and the freedom that can come from rejection.
The Rumpus: One of the things I appreciate most about your work is how completely sui generis it is. Your books are faithful only to their own logic. You’re fearless with that in your writing, but it never feels reckless. The logic is there—you establish it as you build the particular world of each book, and you adhere to it rigorously—but it bears little resemblance to the logic of our everyday world. It feels too reductive to call it fable or parable. So, what are you after? Is there an overarching vision or worldview that shapes your work? Or is this just the way the stories come out of you most naturally?
Shane Jones: I’m not sure what I’m after besides writing the best book I think I can write and having a feeling inside me that I’m taking a risk or trying new things from book to book. Style equals personality and you have to strip away the bulk of your influences to dig out the you and place it on the page. And that includes your flaws too. I think I’ve made so many mistakes in my books, but that makes me proud. It feels real and human. The style and logic and images don’t have to always be clean and flawless because clean and flawless can also put you to bed. A lot of the old books I love—and even old music—are full of imperfections or a certain kind of raw quality, and that’s what makes it.
Rumpus: Crystal Eaters is your richest, most complex work to date. You weave multiple points of view and storylines together in an incredibly compact space. What was your experience of writing this one, and how did it differ from your earlier books?
Jones: I spent more time on this book than all the other books I’ve written combined. So in a time and editing sense it was much harder and mentally exhausting. I wanted the paragraphs to feel deep and full and that meant spending a lot of time on each one, kind of becoming obsessed inside those blocks of prose. The previous books were lighter and faster. There’s a certain inner quality to this book where voices and images kind of ghost in and out and dig wormholes to past memories and feelings, and then it moves on again, and writing this way was more demanding. During the editing process, I decided not to eat any meat and went on a strict diet of “clean” foods and started exercising to try and be as aware and locked-in as possible to the story. I lost a lot of weight. With my previous books I didn’t care as much, I don’t think. I moved on quicker.
Rumpus: How did this book change as you worked on it? Did you get where you expected to go?
Jones: I made a mistake early on where I included an entire storyline taking place inside the city. It ran about 50,000 words, and I ended up deleting all of it because it was distracting and wasn’t as strong as the rest. And I just didn’t like it because stylistically it was so different than the rest. It was like trying to jam an entirely different book into this one. So basically I was working on two books for three years and cut one of them. That was the biggest change structurally. I really struggled with the opening of the book—the first few chapters—and rewrote them somewhere between 150 and 200 times. The more I think about it, the more I think I forced this book and readers will probably pick up on that, and that’s never a good thing. But I’m happy with the final result, I think I got where I wanted to go—which was to write a book that I’m proud of—and deeply feel like this is different than most books being published. It feels like a positive step forward, or reaching toward a new level, compared with my previous writing. I tried to be as ambitious and risky as possible.
Rumpus: There is a preoccupation in this new book with family, what it is to be a father and a husband, what it is to be a mother and a wife. What it is to be a child, losing a parent. How much of that comes from you having become a father?
Jones: Human connection or how we connect mentally and physically under the constant poking of an eventual death and how we won’t be remembered in X years is a big theme in the book. Women play a big role. All the central action spins off a dying mother and most of the narrative push forward comes from a young girl, Remy. As far as my own personal experiences as a father, it influenced me, but I never thought about it too much while writing the book. I know I changed when my son was born and that had to change the book.
Rumpus: I remember when Light Boxes came out in 2009 and was beginning to draw some real attention, you bristled at the term “experimental fiction.” Where do you stand in regard to it now?
Jones: I don’t mind it as much now because I’ll take whatever I can get at this point. Five years ago I was just coming out and getting some readers and didn’t want to be labeled so quickly, but now I’m not sure it matters. I understand the books are weird. I’ll never have a big audience. I think Light Boxes sold like 5,000 copies, and Daniel Fights a Hurricane, maybe 500. The other two, maybe 200 or 300 each. It’s just going down, the readership getting smaller, so it’s okay if it’s “experimental” because it’s a little pocket and will always be that way. It does feel a little bleak though.
Rumpus: The luxury of a writer’s first book is that it’s written without an audience. No one is waiting for it; no one has any expectations for it, good or bad. There’s a freedom in that you can’t get back after you’ve put a book out into the world. Did that initial surge of attention for Light Boxes impact the writing of what came after? Daniel Fights a Hurricane, I presume, as Failure Six, was most likely written before Light Boxes came out, yes? And did the lower sales for Daniel Fights a Hurricane impact the writing of Crystal Eaters, or your feelings about writing in general?
Jones: This is a really good question. The Failure Six was written, um, I actually don’t remember. I think I wrote it shortly after Light Boxes. I wrote it in a week and just sent it out with no editing. I like doing little projects like that, raw b-sides for people to find. I think now, looking back, that I rushed Daniel Fights a Hurricane because I was coming off the high and attention that I got from Light Boxes. I don’t necessarily regret publishing it, but I probably should have spent longer on it than ten months and then giving up on it during the editing process with Penguin. They would say something like, “We need more reality scenes, from Karen’s point of view,” and I’d write the scene that day and send it back immediately. Or when the idea to title all the little sections came up, I made every title in two hours or so and just sent it back right away. That was dumb. I was too arrogant, and for no good reason. So yeah, it did impact the writing of it. Crystal Eaters I already had drafted before Daniel was even published. I thought they might take it, but I got an email from my agent saying that unless sales picked up on Light Boxes and Daniel they wouldn’t be publishing anything else from me. In a weird sense I think this rejection allowed me to just say fuck it and be more free with the book.
Rumpus: You went from publishing Light Boxes with Publishing Genius and The Failure Six with Fugue State Press to publishing two novels [a reprint of Light Boxes, and Daniel Fights a Hurricane] with Penguin. Now you’ve returned to your indie press roots to release Crystal Eaters with Two Dollar Radio, which is a small independent press but with more distribution power than Publishing Genius or Fugue State. Can you talk a bit about your publishing experiences across this range?
Jones: I returned to a small independent press because Penguin rejected Crystal Eaters because of extremely low sales. My agent at the time held on to the manuscript for over a year and wouldn’t give me an answer on what he wanted to do it with it. I think he knew it wouldn’t sell. Two Dollar Radio is my favorite indie publisher, so I just emailed it to them and they accepted it a few days later. I’m happy to be there.
Rumpus: Okay, so, Crystal Eaters finds the huge, appreciative audience it deserves, and Penguin comes knocking again. No, fuck Penguin. They blew it, right? Harper Perennial comes knocking, as they sometimes do, in their wisdom. Are the indie presses the fallback position, the safety school of publishing? Do you go back to the big houses? Or do the indies offer something different? You’ve been on both sides of the fence now. I’m curious about your perspective.
Jones: I don’t think so. My sales record, the types of books I write, and my willingness to publish [with] obscure presses mean I probably won’t be published by a major house again. I think maybe Harper Perennial is a long shot who, yeah, take chances every once in a while. Crystal Eaters has been out a week, and I think fifty copies have sold, and no major reviews have come in or are scheduled, so I’m not sure it’s slated to get a big audience, but it could pick up later this summer. I believe in the book and think it’s my strongest work yet. I don’t believe that indie presses are a fallback position or a safety school. Somewhere I heard someone say that indie presses are the minor leagues, a farm system to get to the larger houses, and I think that’s just garbage. I hate that mindset because so many indie books are my favorite books. They feel more dangerous and not stuffed with money. Of course, being at a larger house gives you just that—money and resources. All of the editors I’ve worked with at indie houses are bartenders or janitors and have kids or a drug problem.
Rumpus: Is there a question at the heart of Crystal Eaters? Was there something in particular you set out to explore?
Jones: Not really.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Rumpus: In a real-life conversation, if I asked what you were working on, and you said nothing, I wouldn’t press the issue. However, in an interview situation. . . . Are you simply taking time off between projects, or is there more to it than that? And how does it feel to be working on nothing?
Jones: I’m just not writing anything. Typically I go through the I’m-not-writing-another-book phase, and it passes in a few weeks or a month, but I’ve thought I’m done for the last year, and it hasn’t changed. Like, there’s just nothing left inside me right now. I wrote Crystal Eaters as a final novel. I don’t have the desire right now. I’m empty.
Photographs by Erin Pihlaja.