Stories in My Own Way: A Conversation with Jackson Bliss

Among the much-deserved, sky-high praise for Jackson Bliss’s brand-new short fiction collection, Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments (Noemi Press, October 2021), the writer Aimee Bender calls Bliss “a human kaleidoscope” who “creates characters and situations that absolutely ring with aliveness.” That very aliveness has made me a longtime fan of his work (Juked published his Pushcart-nominated story “The Geography of Desire” in issue #17) and this collection is indeed kaleidoscopic: wild and vivid at one turn, astute and contemplative the next, these are stories you tumble inside, bright portals to compelling people and places and circumstances that, like love itself, feel both universal and wholly unique. I was excited to speak with Jackson Bliss and learn more about his writing process, interdisciplinary inspiration, and the challenges of working across different forms (stay tuned for both a novel and memoir coming your way soon!). —Ashley Farmer

Ashley Farmer: Could you talk a bit about the conception of this book: where did this project begin? When did you know you were writing a collection of stories?

Jackson Bliss: You know, it’s interesting because the oldest stories in this collection are like, nineteen years old! And the youngest ones are less than a year. So, when I started writing the first stories in this collection, I definitely didn’t know I was writing a collection. I’m not even sure if I knew I was writing a story since my generic instincts have always been so conceptual. I made the rookie mistake of just writing whatever felt good to me back in 2002 and figured at the time—correctly, I’d like to point out—that the collection would become clearer to me with time. In retrospect, I wish someone had told me about the importance, the clarity, and the utility of clustering stories together by voice, theme, style, POV, setting, etc., because that would have really anchored the other stories I wrote afterwards, but I did value the creative freedom to just create first and understand later. For writers like me, that method usually works well.

I also could have used more direction the first ten years of my writing career, you know. That said, I started understanding this collection as a collective and intersecting work once I began submitting it to book contests and sending it out to editors who’d shown interest in my writing. That was when I was forced to understand what this book was. A couple years later, I stumbled upon Wayne State University Press’s Made in Michigan series, which I absolutely love, by the way, and that was the last push I needed to reconsider this collection as not just about mixed-race identity, but also the negotiation of that identity in Michigan and the American Midwest. That geographical and cultural focus really helped me glue everything together I think.

AF: Like other readers, I’m certain, I was totally mesmerized by this collection’s innovative form: there was joy and surprise in simply turning the page. The full title is Counterfactual Love Stories and & Other Experiments: could you speak to experimentation and the role it plays in your work?

JB: Oh, thank you so much for saying that! That really means a great deal to me. My love and my comfort with narrative experimentation comes, I think, first from my deep and unmitigated love for art in general. I was an aspiring concert pianist in high school, I write electronic downtempo music now (google “Mizu Space Age” if you’re feeling masochistic), I love taking photography (even if my talent is questionable), I’m pretty taken by the visual syntax of fashion and design, and I find movies, music videos, graphic novels, and video games incredibly inspiring. Sometimes, even more inspiring than books, which I know is anathema to say out loud. And while I absolutely love modernist literature, surrealism, and literature in translation, most of the time I feel like I’m wearing someone else’s clothes. I look at myself in the mirror and I’m just like, “Yo, that is not you, bro.” So, I think a lot of my experimentation comes from my multimodal background, my creative mind, and my disobedience to rules and genre conventions. I’ve always been fascinated by the different ways we can tell stories but also equally invested in literary fiction, which is more of a contradiction than you think.

Also, I find that literary, generic, and stylistic experimentation can be an exhilarating form of play and I believe in the importance of play. Maybe, I’m just too artistically childish to grow up. I’ve been told a least a half a dozen times that you shouldn’t mess with genre and form until you’ve mastered that genre and form first, but the older I got, the more I realized that argument is total bullshit. Some people like me can’t write a story like Yiyun Li to save our fucking lives, even though we love her work. But when I write conceptually, as I like to call it, basing the structure of a story on some specific idea or concept, I feel like I get to warp the rules of storytelling. It’s emancipating on one level but also transgressive and exciting on the other. Some writers disagree with me and that’s cool, but I did what I did and I do what I do.

AF: So, how about the “love” part of the title? While these narratives are about so many things, love in its various iterations/possibilities is a current that pulses throughout. Are there any distinct challenges in writing love stories (which, again, are also more than love stories)?

JB: You’re absolutely right, love is the current here. And I think you hinted at precisely the unique challenge of telling a love story originally, which is hard AF to do, let’s be honest. I think the basis of most of my writing is in fact, love: love for people, for cultures and communities, for the human experience, for social justice, vulnerability, and idealism, for language and ideas, for romantic love, but also the unwritten kind of love that doesn’t get talked about, the broken kind, the unfulfilled kind, the kind of love that fails really hard, the kind that only makes sense looking back. Then, there’s speculative love, the love that only exists in our heads, the love that falls apart on the page, the love of this sacred and fleeting experience as humans we’re not allowed to carry with us to the other side. Love is such just a multifaceted thing that gives so much life to this world and we don’t even thank it for what it does. Some writers write their best shit when they channel their rage or their fury or indignation or their pain, all of which I respect and understand. But for me, I tend to write my best work when I write from a place of love for my characters and the various worlds they live in (or create).

AF: Another aspect of craft that I admire is what you do on the sentence level: distinct voices, lines that buzz and spin. Are you consciously thinking about language as you write?

JB: Yeah, I definitely am. I try to take risks with my language in the earliest drafts and then be harsher and harsher with my revisions as they add up until I have something that feels really bright as poetic energy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to make every sentence buzz in the reader’s head, because that would be exhausting, but I feel like there are places on the page where the cadence or the spatialization tells me I need a beautiful line or a moment of stylization at a certain place, so then I just write and rewrite that sentence sometimes a hundred times until it kinda haunts me. I do think of myself as a conceptual formalist and an urban realist, which I know makes no sense! And as a formalist, I know I care as much about how I write as what I write (or what I write about). Like most poets I know, my language is part of my identity. I want readers to stop every so often or enter into a new emotional place, which an original metaphor or the energy in a good riff can do, for example. But like most fiction writers I know, my storytelling is incredibly important. The only difference is, I just wanna tell stories in my own way, which is the best and the worst part of my writing for sure.

AF: There are characters in this collection that will stay with me, like Sola and Yumi, among others. Is there a character or narrative you feel closest to in this collection?

JB: That makes me so happy! Sola definitely sticks with me too. That story, “Sola’s Asterisk” about the eight destinies in Chicago, is the oldest short story in this book. I wrote it back in 2002 for my first fiction workshop and I remember the class just looked at me like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Granted, the original version was like forty-six pages, which is borderline abusive for workshop, I admit, but also, many of the writers in that class looked at me like I was insane for thinking that was a story. But I knew back then that Sola was for real. Even if the story itself was a commitment and needed like, a hundred revisions before it was finally ready, the one thing that never failed me in that story was Sola. She is larger than life to me. She’s complicated, vulnerable, a little cynical, but very smart, damaged (like all of us), kind, imaginative, flawed, and her mind is really interesting to me. Sometimes, I wanted to be like her in my late 20s. Sometimes, I wanted to meet her IRL in my 30s. And I definitely crushed on her in my mind, which I know sounds weird, but again, it’s the way my love is connected to my creativity I suppose. Ultimately, Sola helped me understand myself both as a writer and a human being and I’m grateful to her for that.

Another character that fascinates me is Kothar. “Kothar Shinka” is probably the most magical realist story in this collection, a genre I don’t write very much, but I was always fascinated by his half-divinity and his gift for essentially recreating the entire world in glass, maybe because I wanted to do the same thing in this book (but also because he predicts many of the other stories in Counterfactual Love Stories in his list, which makes him a bit of a badass). I’m also kinda struck by how he never hates the narrator for trying to sabotage his artistry. Like, I’d be fucking furious if someone threw a brick at my glass studio, but he’s just wired differently than we are and the only way I can understand him is that it must be the divine part of him that forgives (her) so easily. I mean, if you’re like an apotheosis, you’re kinda the shit of the cosmos. Most of the time, what I love most about the characters I’ve created is how deeply human they are (i.e., the antithesis of Kothar) which is where I think love fits best because gods don’t love, they can only judge. But maybe, that’s why I find him interesting because he’s unlike my typical weakness.

AF: What literary or non-literary sources inspired you as you wrote this book? I’m thinking of the way other art—songs, records, museums, Chagall—show up in these pages.

JB: I don’t wanna repeat too much, but yes, absolutely! I find inspiration in a lot of media, only some of which are books. For example, no one knows this (or they didn’t until this interview), but the biggest inspirations for “Sola’s Asterisk” were the movies Run Lola Run, Amélie, Thirty Short Films on Glenn Gould, and City of God. As I was writing that story, I was listening to the counterpoint of the Amélie soundtrack on my stereo, the sound of my radiator clicking to life, and the whisper of mist on the windows of my empty Portland studio apartment. And Chagall’s American Windows was one of my favorite things at the Art Institute of Chicago. I loved it so much, I wondered if I could fall in love with it. Years later in a second collection I’m sending to presses now, I wrote a story about an art student who falls in love with a painting.

I’ve also found a lot of inspiration from language-driven writers like Lydia Davis, W.G. Sebald, Gertrude Stein, and Proust, stylized, vocalized writers like Zadie Smith, Rick Moody, and Junot Diaz, structurally and conceptually adventurous writers like Karen Tai Yamashita, Shelley Jackson, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Carole Maso, old school experimentalists like Michael Martone, Robert Coover, Steven Milhauser, Cali magical realists like Aimee Bender, and also the punk-rock ethos of Murakami who just does whatever the hell he wants whenever he wants to, which is so inspiring! There are video games like Life is Strange, Detroit: Become Human, The Outerworlds, the Fallout, Deux Ex, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, and Borderlands series, all of which have had such a profound impact on my ideas of characterization, world building, irony, absurdity, dialogue, backstory, and pathos. And then there are hip-hop, dream pop, classical music, acoustic, rock, and electronic albums, just as there are musical videos, that have changed my life and fundamentally changed the way I listen to language and think about storytelling. I’ll spare your readers the details before this paragraph gets out of control.

AF: Following the release of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments, you also have a novel coming out, Amnesia of June Bugs (March 2022), as well as a memoir, Dream Pop Origami (July 2022). Congratulations! I’m wondering if you could share a bit about the process of working across various forms. Are there specific risks or rewards, depending on the type of project?

JB: Thank you so much! After coming close so many times with agents, small presses, book contests, and top-shelf literary journals, it’s honestly still shocking to have three books coming out in the span of nine months, especially after so many near misses and so many years of frustration. Personally, I didn’t encounter any major risks writing across genres for the simple reason that I always try to honor my inspirations and write whatever I feel like writing at that moment instead of shaming myself for not writing, which is probably why I don’t get writer’s block. There were times, for example, when I was so fucking tired of revising this collection that I would look to Dream Pop Origami, my experimental memoir, just to give me the space to create language and tell stories about a changing self without feeling locked into the other worlds I’d created in my fiction. And there were times when I just wasn’t feeling my nonfiction or it felt incredibly stale and tethered to me, so I’d look to Amnesia of June Bugs and find consolation there in the fictional characters I’d invented and needed in my life back then.

I don’t recommend working on four books at a time, which is essentially what I did, because it can get a little confusing at times and you can feel like you’re busting your ass off without anything to show for it. That’s a terrible feeling as an artist. And yet, I’m sure that if I’d had the classic Hollywood ending we all read about, namely publishing your first short story in a premiere literary journal, then getting an agent after they’d read that story, then putting your novel under submission, selling it for a fat advance in an auction, and then going on tour all expenses paid, I would have written just one book at a time. And maybe that would have freed up a lot of space in my life—emotionally, psychologically, creatively, even financially—to focus on one project at a time. But I didn’t have that option in part because literary agents are weary of conceptual writing until you’re literary fiction famous or a celebrity or a viral sensation (or Haruki Murakami), so I started writing other books when it felt like the publishing industry wasn’t going to publish the work I’d already created. I guess in that way, it is gratifying to see these three books coming out together since they all helped each other and even supported each other along the way. But I’d never choose this life for any artist, that’s the truth.

AF: What are you working on now?

JB: After pub day for Counterfactual Love Stories, I’ll be working on a literary fiction trilogy that centers on three seminal decisions that Addy, the mixed-race protagonist, makes after he graduates from college, one novel for each choice. The first book, We Ate Stars for Brunch explores what happens if he moves to Buenos Aires with his dysfunctional AAPI girlfriend and is written in an eco-stylization, for lack of a better word: the writing is kinda like Bolaño in South America, like Carver (ugh, I’m really gonna try it) in Chicago, and like whatever the California style is in LA. The second novel, Ninjas of My Greater Self, explores what happens if Addy breaks up with the same girlfriend and moves to Tokyo after graduation, written in a post-modern style (footnotes and all). And the third novel, which I haven’t really started and which doesn’t have a name yet, will explore what happens if Addy breaks up with his girlfriend and goes to grad school after graduation, written in epistolary form. My hope is that these three novels will overlap and diverge in many places, giving dedicated readers a deep and extremely nuanced character arc of the protagonist. At least, that’s the idea. Who knows how it’ll actually turn out since a lot of this is just lucid dreaming at this point.

You can see pretty clearly, though, how that future project intersects with Counterfactual Love Stories and the other two books coming out in 2022: there’s still an investment in counterfactual narratives. There’s still this joy in exploring the consequences of the choices we make, the many ways in which our framing of something affects the way understand it, the role that love, language, identity, music, and literature play in my writing and in the evolution of my characters, and also the many different ways we can tell a story. These novels are little less experimental and more stylized, more vocalized, and more character-based, but also every bit as transnational and language driven as the three books coming out between October of 2021 and July of 2022.

Last thing, and I apologize for how long this answer is, I’ve also been working on several screenplays about mixed-race/AAPI writers and experimental storytelling. If you think back to movies like Before Sunset, Memento, Amélie, Pulp Fiction, 2046, Lost in Translation, those movies are some of my biggest inspirations and I’d like to write screenplays that not only center complicated mixed-race/AAPI stories, but that also use creative and new ways to tell old stories about place, memory, identity, and yes, love! If LA has taught me anything, it’s that some people get to live off of their art, so why not me? It might take me a couple years to master that particular genre, but I feel like it’s a toolbox that can be learned. Hopefully the learning curve is faster for me since I’m an author.  

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