Gabe Durham: We’ve spoken before about the mystery of all that gets written in the overwhelmed rhythm of a full schedule, and I don’t think that “If you want something done, ask a busy person” entirely explains it. What is it about teaching that seems to wind you up to produce?
Jack Christian: I am quite busy. Between teaching and paper-grading and various side-projects and visits to the gym so as to avoid new experiences in obesity, I often find myself in the situation of needing and wanting to catch my breath.
To focus on the positive: Within this situation I frequently encounter and re-encounter the joy in writing, in squirreling away a minute or an hour, of spending a Saturday completely ensconced and obsessed. For a long time now, I’ve never sat down to write when I didn’t want to write. So, writing occupies this cherished space, and is positioned often as a break.
What I’m writing now is more humorous, more out-in-the-world, more overtly aware of the need to be entertaining. I have a different set of inputs from when I was in school, so there is this great compelling impetus to try to figure out how to adjust my writing to that. I guess I’ve been increasingly attracted to the idea of the attempt to tackle the most mundane, most subtle little aspects of life — to take the boring, wrestle-around with its boring-ness, and write something exciting and vibrant. For instance, what is there interesting to say about my daily drive to work? Or, what’s the zen of paper-grading?
Here’s a quick example from Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches that I read just last night: In a small climax halfway through the fourth or fifth chapter, the character scrounges in the dark for his glasses on his nightstand. He finds them, picks them up, careful not to smudge the lenses. After he gets them arranged on his face, he has this great line about his glasses adjusting everything he can’t see in the dark. Then, he just sits on his bed a moment, still in the dark, during which time he says to himself: “oh yeah, baby.”
Gabe Durham: Yeah, Scrounging in the Dark would be the more descriptive name for that book. I sometimes fantasize about having a career like Baker’s, where readers come to expect not a singular authorial voice but a multitude of modes: the book-length literary obsession essay, the erotic playground book, the novel-in-observations. Like: If you nail it in varied enough ways, you get this wonderfully elastic reader who will just follow you anywhere. Does that interest you too? How animated are you by the allowances and constraints of a particular writing project?
Jack Christian: That interests me hugely. I feel myself in the middle of a pivot toward what you describe in terms of being animated by the constraints of a particular project. I see some danger in becoming too wrapped up in projects, of the attempt to be too chameleon, but I don’t think this applies to Baker. He works in all these modes while also always defining his particular aesthetic.
The poems of Family System were written under the idea of no constraint, at least in their first drafts. The constraint was simply the mandate to try to write a good poem. Making it a book required more constraints to come into play (such as cutting the more whimsical, more talky stuff), especially in terms of the attempt to have the poems arranged in some sort of bouquet.
Now I find myself wanting to move into some different territory of voice and perspective. As I do, I bump against the possibility of a project becoming somehow soulless, or too conceptual, too much of a thought-challenge, but I find this is in tension with the need to make a good, book-size container.
So, while I’d like to know more at the level of concept, the way Baker seems to, if I knew too much I wouldn’t be able to write it. What I was aiming to say though, is, as much as I’m loving Nicholson Baker right now, I’d still always add a good dose of Moby Dick. This is attributable to my taste in music, to the low-fi and Grunge acts that got me through high school and college. Musicians like Daniel Johnston, Dinosaur Jr., Guided by Voices, Pavement, Modest Mouse, Nirvana, the Pixies, and Pearl Jam. These were primary influences in aesthetic messiness, which is a thing I don’t think I can shake. I’m starting to see a joy in having things very controlled and organized, but I’ll always have a first joy in letting things be messy.