Who Has the Most to Lose?: A Conversation with Julian K. Jarboe


When I finished Julian K. Jarboe’s debut short story collection Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel, I was struck by how well they captured a world that was ours, but not quite ours. All the fears, anxieties, and terrors were painfully real, but transposed onto a universe that was both familiar and not. Immersed in Jarboe’s stories, I had that sense of being in a dream––one where you know you’re in your childhood home but it doesn’t look like the house you grew up in. I both recognized and didn’t recognize the places in Jarboe’s stories: a gentrified neighborhood now under water thanks to climate change felt a lot like Boston’s Seaport district, a version of the early 2000s where kids can time-travel back to try to rescue parents from the Twin Towers on 9/11, an America where the job market has become so dire that people are emigrating to the moon to find work, a rural home surrounded by fairies who steal human babies and replace them with changelings while parents wonder if maybe not vaccinating their babies would stop the fairies.

By the time Jarboe and I spoke on the phone a couple weeks after I’d finished reading, though, I was having trouble recognizing the world I lived in. Handshakes, hugs, and kisses were things of the past; people were bumping elbows instead, then keeping six feet apart, then avoiding each other all together. I was communicating with friends who lived down the street through Google Hangouts. I couldn’t see my parents and grandparents even though they only live a couple towns over. Doorknobs, light switches, phones, keys, elevator buttons, credit cards, and mail had become dangerous. Everyone was wearing gloves and masks. Stores were depleted of the most basic goods. Many of us were now working from home, exclusively communicating through screens; the most vulnerable and poor still had no choice but to continue going to work. It was a place I at once recognized but also didn’t; I felt as if I had been transported directly into one of Jarboe’s stories.

It seems appropriate that Jarboe’s publication date for Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel was March 5, in the middle of this pandemic. This collection of stories is more than a clever take on the world we live in, reimagining our everyday problems with fairies and monsters, science fiction and myth. We spoke recently about how the places where we grow up influences our work, how to make sense of the world we live in now, and how to imagine a new and better kind of universe.


The Rumpus: How are you? Weird?

Julian K. Jarboe: This is a weird time for everyone, I think.

Rumpus: Yeah.

Jarboe: Kind of a weird time to have a book coming out.

Rumpus: A little bit!

Jarboe: I was telling someone earlier today that I was excited about a March release, because, when my publisher suggested 2020, at first I was like, if it’s the fall then it’s queer fiction coming out at the time of the election, so I requested March instead, and I was like, look at me thinking things through!

Rumpus: Yup. Well, if it makes you feel better, your book feels strangely timely? It’s our world, but not quite our world. Things feel fractured, and everyone is just trying to do their best. So, how did this collection come about? Did you know this pandemic was going to happen?

Jarboe: I originally had a smaller collection that I was already submitting to different places as a fiction chapbook, and I got on a few short lists and stuff like that, but it never quite made its way out into the world. But then, I was approached about the opportunity of doing a full-length collection through Lethe Press, and I thought, I wonder if I could expand the thing that I have. I had  pieces that were in progress and pieces that in my head I thought were different, but when I put them all together and started revising, and when I started finishing the title story, which is the novella in the middle, it was way more coherent than I thought it would be. I made a spreadsheet with all of my pieces––

Rumpus: I love spreadsheets!

Jarboe: I’m a spreadsheet guy. I have one that has all of my stories in it, and I filled out word clouds with metadata for the motifs and mood for each story. I started keeping track of all the recurring imagery and ideas that were coming up to the top: eating things that you’re not supposed to eat, mommy issues, a monster or non-human point of view. From that list of two or three dozen things, reviewing all the recurring themes, I chose sixteen that are in the collection.

Rumpus: That’s really cool. I had a professor in grad school who said that every single thing a writer writes, regardless of whether it’s a poem or fiction or nonfiction, usually has same few themes that the writer just can’t let go of.

Jarboe: Yeah, for sure.

Rumpus: How do you approach tackling a story in the first place? If you’re a more analytical person, do you start with an outline? Or is it like a character comes to you, and you follow them? Or, do you start with a certain topic or theme?

Jarboe: Outlining is part of my revision; it comes near the end of the process.

I start with something that feels like a big open question in my mind. I’m usually pursuing a feeling or an image that I have, and, from that, I try to draft it a zillion different ways. I write multiple versions of the same thing, and then I take all that and look at it and ask, what am I circling here? I start to combine the drafts together, and rewrite until the story feels like it was formed that way in the first place, until it feels like it’s never ever existed in any other form.

Rumpus: What about setting? I loved all the places in your stories––being immersed in them and exploring them. What is your creation process for crafting setting?

Jarboe: Setting has become more important than it used to be for me. Even in stories that are not traditionally description-heavy in the location––some of the first-person stories, especially a few of the shorter ones––you don’t necessarily literally know where they’re happening. But even then, there is a body or some kind of physical presence that exists somewhere. The story isn’t just floating around. Sometimes the setting is inside––like in the opening story, somebody physically pulls a city out of their own body––and in some of the more spiritual stories, the setting weaves back and forth between the very literal and the very internal.

Either way, I want these things to feel like you could touch them. In the title story, which follows a brother and sister in close third-person, I wanted to make sure the setting reflected the characters. A common craft piece of advice is to give the description according to how the character would describe it. Don’t just describe everything in the setting––describe what’s important to the character. Like for Sebastian [the brother in “Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel”], what would he notice? What would he care about? He has an obsessive drive to memorize all the objects and language around him, so the description when we’re with him is very maximalist.

Rumpus: That makes so much sense. I actually wanted to ask more about Sebastian––I really love how you addressed a lot of problems that we have in our world, but in these different worlds and with a slight twist, like Sebastian is having trouble finding a job, so he heads to the moon to look for work. “I Am a Beautiful Bug!” is about a person who undergoes surgery to look like a bug, and people in the story cluelessly or cruelly talk about the main character in the same way people talk about someone who has had gender reassignment surgery. In “Estranged Children of Storybook Houses,” the youngest child is a literal changeling, but the parents treat her like some parents treat their kids with autism or Down syndrome.

What impact do you think it has to address real-world problems in these other worlds, as opposed to just, say, writing an essay about the issue?

Jarboe: I think one of the fun things about fiction is you get to bring influences to the table that might not rationally or logically fit into a bigger, nonfiction argument. If I am hovering around some piece of mythology, I can incorporate that. I try not to be one-dimensional. “Estranged Children of Storybook Houses” is not moral instruction to be nicer to disabled children, but it has a very strong moral feeling driving it. My understanding is that changeling mythology came about because of parents being afraid of and murdering their disabled children. I thought, you know what, I think I’ve had enough of stories about parents who are afraid of their weird kids. I wrote that story for people who were the weird kids and are now adults.

Rumpus: I love that. I had that sense reading your stories––that they were giving perspectives to people or creatures or monsters who often don’t get to speak for themselves.

Jarboe: I try to ask myself, if I’m struggling with a story, who here has the most to lose? For example, a story about a farm boy who finds out he’s the king––that’s an interesting story. But the person who has the most to lose is not the person who is going to get the entire kingdom. It’s the person who has to deal with the bodies on the battlefield or shovel the horse manure. I am way more interested in the people who have to clean up the mess.

Rumpus: You mentioned before that some of your stories draw from personal experiences and, in particular, I was wondering about how the place you are from influenced the settings of your stories. I know you’re from Massachusetts, as am I, and I feel like there were some Masshole Easter eggs throughout, which I loved.

Jarboe: Yes! Which ones did you spot?

Rumpus: You mention Somerville in “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Danced Once Around an Altar of Love,” and you reference Moody Street in “Everyone on the Moon Is Essential Personnel.” And the church in “Self Care” is called Our Lady of Good Voyage, which is both a shrine in Boston and a parish in Gloucester. Also, the way you rag on out-of-state developers and gentrification is very Massachusetts.

Jarboe: Yeah, growing up in Massachusetts definitely had a big influence on these stories. When we’re not in an urban setting, we are often by the sea or in the woods. Even in “We Did Not Know We Were Giants” which is this strange, kind of devotional, prehistoric setting with all these really severe mountains and trees, I was inspired by the northern Appalachians and the White Mountains. I grew up with breathtaking beauty. Some things stuck with me in ways that can’t really be put into specific words.

Rumpus: I feel that. Like how you understand beauty is different if you were raised by the New England coast than it might be if you were raised out west in the desert…

Jarboe: Also, here’s the thing about Massachusetts, and New England more generally: a lot of things have names that sound like a mediocre writer came up with them. I decided to have a lot of fun with that. There are some islands near where I live on the North Shore called the Misery Islands, and Dead Horse Beach is a real beach. Sometimes I hit a point where it felt more ridiculous to make something up, and I thought I’m just going to use the real name. Because it already sounds like another world.

Rumpus: Well, I think anyone would enjoy your book, but it is especially fun to read if you are from Massachusetts or New England.

What about other influences? Fairy tales, folklore, and Greek mythology come up a lot in the collection. What specifically did you draw from while writing?

Jarboe: Roughly speaking, I think there are three major origin points for my stories. The first is my own dream logic––like in “The Seed and the Stone.” I just made that up. It feels like a fairy tale, but I’m not retelling anything. The second would be explicit retellings or reimagining of stories––like in “As Tender Feet of Cretan Girls Danced Once Around an Altar of Love,” which is a retelling of Ariadne and the Minotaur, but I was also thinking about what would it be like if someone lived long enough to experience the archaeological dig of their own home. And the third would be a response, usually to something I read that really annoyed me. For example, I was so annoyed by Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that I wrote “The Nothing Spots Where Nobody Wants to Stay” out of spite for it. The way Safran Foer portrayed kids––I had a friend whose father died when we were in middle school, and it wasn’t twee or cute. Kids weren’t nice to each other, my friend wasn’t very nice, and I wasn’t very nice! I read that book and I just kept thinking, this is not how kids act.

Rumpus: Ha, that’s so true.

Jarboe: I wanted to write a story about a kid who lost a parent but is also just a regular shitty kid. I’m also really annoyed by the whole concept of 9/11 literature as a genre. But, yeah, in summary Jonathan Safran Foer is my nemesis, though he doesn’t know it.

Rumpus: Is there anything else you want people to know about your book?

Jarboe: I think that if you’re a person who is sort of uninterested in traditional, straightforward theological writing, but also a person who isn’t interested in hardline anti-religion critical writing, you might find something in this collection. One thing that I discovered when I was doing a lot of world-building is that regardless of what I’d like to think about myself, I can’t, like, extract being Catholic from my background. That part of my brain is always there, and if you’re like that, too, then I think there might be something in this book for you.

Rumpus: Probably unsurprisingly—because I was also raised in Massachusetts—I was also raised Catholic, so I feel like I picked up on a lot of these things, and I really appreciate how you approach these topics. I feel like there’s a big divide in America––either you’re religious and conservative or you’re liberal and an atheist, and I feel like there is so much more nuance than that in real life. You can be someone who has problems with the religious establishment, but who is also deeply spiritual. I really liked that a lot of your stories probed that gray area.

Jarboe: Thank you for understanding where I’m coming from.


Photograph of Julian K. Jarboe by Tony Tulathimutte.

E.B. Bartels is the author of Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in spring 2021. For more about E.B., visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @eb_bartels. More from this author →