Just last Friday I posted my review of Jack Messenger’s short story collection Four American Tales. This week I’d like to present to you my interview with the author! It was a pleasure to have been able to ask Messenger questions after reading his works which I thoroughly enjoyed and am excited for his upcoming novel Farewell Olympus! ***Andrea’s review of this novel will be posted 06/22/18
Of your Four American Tales which piece held the most sentimental value to you?
That is an extremely difficult question to answer. I am very fond of Sweet Pea and Wichega as a whole, because the story virtually wrote itself. It was an experiment to begin with, but it quickly became a passion. On the other hand, A Hundred Ways to Live is a story I like to read again every so often, as I understand its origins (see below) and I enjoy its atmosphere. Ballbusters on Parade was something of a revelation in style for me, as it was the first time I had written in a contemporary first-person voice. I immediately felt at home in the first person, and my new novel, Farewell Olympus, is also written in the first person, albeit with the entirely different (young and British) voice of someone very far indeed from the protagonist in Ballbusters. I don’t think I have answered this question at all well!
What would you like readers to take away from your collection?
I put the stories together in the hope that readers would like them, of course, and think that I am a good, interesting writer they would like to read again. That means that they have been entertained, challenged, amused, surprised etc. I also hope they find each of the stories satisfying and that they feel fufilled as a result. I’d like to think they ponder the stories after they have finished reading.
What inspired you to write each of the four pieces?
Specifically, I wanted to sidle up to genre – especially the crime genre – and take it where it leads, but always from a marginal position. For instance, A Hundred Ways is about the independents of the criminal world, who live on the outside of the human community but who are always looking inside and who actually feel they belong there. It’s just that they have this naïve belief that stolen money will enable them to enter into human flourishing. Earle and Nadine share a great deal together, but their ambitions for the good life are a little twisted by the means they choose to obtain it. I find that fascinating.
One thing I can say is that my love of film has introduced me to characters and ways of speaking I would otherwise not have known. Plus, it’s a challenge for me to write from an entirely different perspective to my own and also a great pleasure. A Hundred Ways to Live is inspired by and reflects upon some great crime films of the early 1970s. I’ve taken what might be a typical situation from those films and given it a little twist, to a woman’s perspective. Similar things are true of the other stories as well.
Were there connections in theme that you intended to convey to the reader?
In a sense, that’s not for me to say, as themes emerge without the writer explicitly intending them – at least, that is my experience – so perspicacious readers are as able – or more able – than the writer to discern what’s going on. For me, these stories are about recuperating lost voices, about the mistakes and compromises we make in order to live and find happiness. I think also they are in dialogue with other forms of fiction. One author–reviewer who was very taken with the collection, especially Wichega, compared the stories to those of some extremely illustrious writers. I am flattered by that comparision, but I can’t aspire to be as good as the authors he mentioned. Rather, I can only hope to connect with their work somehow.
What is the premise of your upcoming novel?
Farewell Olympus is about an ambitious young man living in Paris who has his life turned upside down when his half-brother arrives unexpectedly. The resulting turmoil involves farce, love, and mystery, but the book is mostly concerned with relationships and how they change or endure. The novel is terribly difficult to categorize; readers seem to regard it primarily as a mystery, yet they and others tell me it is exceptionally funny, so I don’t know where that leaves it.
You chose female leads sans that of Ballbusters. Why did you make this decision?
I enjoy the company of women and I like to give expression to their experience as much as I can in my work. There are plenty of wonderful writers who are women and who can write things I can’t write, but I always make a point when I can of bringing to the fore how female characters experience a life that is largely determined by their men – their partners or what have you. We are all tremendously familiar with how men are depicted in fiction, so I find it naturally more interesting to accompany women and see what it is they do. I don’t want to be a male writer who just writes about male characters and has a few stereotyped female characters around for the sake of it.
What was the easiest and hardest aspect of the writing and publishing aspect for you?
The easiest aspects were the characters and their voices, plus certain situations. I can honestly say that I didn’t decide these things at all. It’s the narrators themselves who decided. I don’t want to sound mystical or precious here, but I do find – not always, but often – that a voice will make itself known to me inside my head, and then it’s up to me to release it, so to speak, from my mind and onto the page. Wichega was like that: the voice of Sweet Pea was whispering in my ear for many weeks before I started writing. When I did start, the voices of other characters emerged strongly as well. I’ve always remembered this experience because it was so very pronounced. To a certain extent, what happened with Wichega usually happens with my other writing, although not as powerfully as that.
The hardest thing for me is plot. It always is. I get characters and situations and dialogue quite easily, but plot is hell. It’s hell because it’s hard work and also because, frankly, I am not interested in it. It’s rather like loving somebody, but then being forced to take a course in biology to understand all about their supporting structure of bones and muscles and what have you. That structure is absolutely necessary of course, but knowing it in microscopic detail is not usually essential to one’s love. I think of myself as writing literary fiction, which is more interested in the why of people and not the what of plot. That’s the big difference – when there is one – between genre fiction and literary fiction. Great writers of literary or genre fiction blur the boundaries between the two, which is always interesting.
What advice would you provide up and coming authors?
Be yourself. Learn from everyone but don’t be dictated to. There are plenty of ‘experts’ who will tell you to do this or that, that it’s essential you write their way, that you must focus on x, y or z. Pay no attention. Be true to your vision. Follow where it leads. Only then will you come up with something worthwhile. More practically, get your book copyedited and proofread. Get a professional cover. Help other writers. Write reviews. Be polite and always be good.
Will any of the four tales be expanded upon into a full-length novel?
I have never thought about that, but now you mention it perhaps I should think about it.
Of the characters that you introduced in this collection whom was the most near and dear to your heart?
In terms of his effect on my writing, my moral stance in my writing, and the kinds of characters I like to write about, Mikey from Ballbusters is probably the nearest and dearest. He taught me so much. I like the way he knows a lot but doesn’t know anything. Now I think about it, that is what connects him to Howard in Farewell Olympus.
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