Interview: Jason Marc Harris
Writer Jason Marc Harris answered questions from Psychopomp‘s own editorial intern, Xai Thao, about writing, teaching, and his story “The Handle,” A Psychopomp Magazine Short Fiction Award finalist in 2016. You can read his story in our Summer 2016 issue and his interview below.
Xai Thao: When you were writing “The Handle,” what influenced or inspired the creation process?
Jason Marc Harris: As silly as it may sound, the first step was Garamond font because I imagined its elegance could foster concentration and sharper sentences. Beyond that, looking back at previous files I see I wrote a few paragraphs—capturing the point-of-view with the collective “we” and the premise of the mysterious object. I know I came up with the story Fall 2014 during my first semester of teaching at A&M University and living here in Bryan, Texas. In some ways, writing the story explored certain assumptions I had about Texas—or what I thought were other people’s assumptions—and designing the “Alkali Hills” and the overall semi-rural area became a combination of purely made-up details and what I learned from travel to Big Bend, Marfa, Terlingua, Fredericksburg; Alkali Hills does not explicitly exist, though it’s near actual landmarks and integrates aspects of Texas culture. Aside from Texas culture, it’s also an “alien contact” story, extrapolating somewhat from tendencies of current biotechnology, miniaturization, and theories of extraterrestrial interactions in terms of what may survive interstellar travel and cosmic disasters.
While writing this story, I wanted to offer a first-person plural POV that had utility and fit organically with the subject. I didn’t recall clear models of a convincing explicit first-person plural POV out there beyond some serving arbitrary literary conventions, so I hope this story works for many in terms of that collective POV. People who do recall some great fiction that does the collective first-person, let me know of those examples!
XT: As a professor at Texas A&M University teaching folklore, creative writing, and literature, how do you feel your students impact you as a writer?
JMH: The responsibility to “practice what you preach” becomes more immediate. How can I urge my students to be performing imaginative and disciplined approaches to storytelling if I don’t manifest those criteria in my own writing life? If I’m emphasizing revision in the classroom, I’m simultaneously exhorting myself to hurry up and do my own revisions. On the other hand, there’s the practical reality that a lot of energy and time goes into teaching that might not then be available for writing. However, overall, teaching helps you—the teacher—also learn better; as a writer, you can improve in proportion to your dedication as a teacher. It feels holistic and right.
I’m grateful to be teaching creative writing, literature, and world folklore because there’s a synergy there of the storytelling impulse. Folk narratives, whether jokes, anecdotes, folk legends or zaubermärchen (what most people know as “wonder tales” or “fairy tales”) offer so many perspectives through a diverse range of international motifs and tale-types that challenge national, ethnic, and moralistic stereotypes as well as defying religious orthodoxy—despite the simultaneous presence of variants that embody conservative perspectives. It’s always exciting to learn new examples of tales that people have for too long assumed had only one form and ideological viewpoint because the history of publishing distorted the richer and infinitely more creative universe of folk tales. For example, while many children grow up learning from Perrault’s literary version that Little Red Riding Hood had to be rescued by a woodsman, related tales in France, China, and Japan have versions of the “ogre defeated” where a monster or wolf tries to disguise itself as a relative but the children—often, but not always, girls—outsmart its predatory pretensions. Or consider the quotation that Neil Gaiman uses in the beginning of American Gods, drawn from the eminent folklorist Richard Dorson, regarding how “immigrants” only tell tales of supernatural beings “in relation to events remembered in the Old Country,” and Dorson cites one of his “informants” who insists “’They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far.’” Yet, despite the prevailing tradition of how bodies of water or flowing water tends to be an obstacle to the movement of demonic beings and fairies, there are folk tales that offer exceptions to such beliefs within the very same cultures that circulate with tales of such supernatural defenses. Take, for instance, the Scottish tale, collected by J. G. Campbell, called the “Iona Banshi” where a fairy woman relentlessly pursues a man past flowing streams and even to America. The exuberant defiance of these tales against dogmatization is wonderful.
I encourage students to recognize that revising fairy tales is only one of the many ways of engaging global storytelling as a creative writer: becoming more informed about the tales that already exist but have not been often taught in schools or anthologized is another. Recognizing that we only get the tip of the iceberg with what’s even included in collections is a third. People too often attribute a black-and-white rigidity to morality in fairy-tales, when in fact there is a huge diversity of perspectives represented. There is significant fluidity among character types too. A Helper may turn out to be a Devil and a Devil may also be a Helper. Richard Dorson’s anthology Folktales Told Around the World has one of my favorites, “Wanto and the Shapeless Thing,” a Gbayan tale where the hero-trickster Wanto encounters “something big and shapeless” that acts as a Helper in his life, but later on when Wanto breaks the taboo of revealing the source of his wealth, the shapeless thing takes great pleasure in celebrating Wanto’s downfall.
Whether it’s in a class dealing with devil legends or a prose workshop, there are always students who share in the enthusiasm of a life lived more fully through the narrative arts. That feeds my own hunger for creation and nourishes the commitment. On the most basic level, I want to help other writers along. I’m still very much struggling step-by-step, but that doesn’t mean I can’t point out obstacles or pitfalls for others to avoid—or perhaps to suggest that those rough paths may still be better explored and down those perilous routes are opportunities for innovation.
XT: How has working as a fiction editor of Mid-American Review contributed to your experience as a writer and as a professor?
JMH: It helped me to become less patient with reading new stories. That sounds terrible, but by this I mean that since we—the fiction staff of Mid-American Review—had so many submissions, and we were all trying to find the most compelling fiction, we focused on prose that engaged right away on the sentence level with meaningful details but also lively characters and an intriguing plot. Too often we encountered well-written sentences that didn’t offer a compelling story. Or, we waited in hopeful suspense to see if the writer could make it to the end of the story without falling off the high wire, by delivering an ending that fulfills the promise of the premise and does justice to the narrative’s various components.
As an editor, something of that experience of demanding a story that succeeds on those levels gets internalized for your own work as both a teacher and writer, and so you try to pass it on to your students and also manifest those aesthetics on the page. Try does not always mean succeed of course! But developing the habit of looking for a compelling narrative helps the inner storyteller, as does the ruthlessness of the editorial mode when it comes to revision. I’ve massacred many of my pages and more will fall bloody. It hurts, but from the dead words, the new army of teeth will rise—sharper and fuller—to thrash and gnash and wail across the page.
XT: While writing, “The Handle,” what struggles did you come across and how did you work through those struggles? What was the revision and editing process like for you?
JMH: Because the story involves a retrospective POV and an unusual type of consciousness with the collective aspect, there were challenges with developing a sense of meaningful immediacy and chronology, as well as sufficient character development that did not blur into the “we” until the right stage. I got some great feedback on an earlier draft from one of the MFA Fiction alumni who was part of my cohort in Bowling Green’s program: Liz Breazeale. She made some points about the need to stick close to more of the townspeople, as well as doing more to develop conflicts, and her responses really resonated. I worked with those elements in the revision. The challenge of heightening conflict that ultimately works with the resolution took some doing, but I like to think that Minister Davis, Mr. Trunder, Mr. Peakes, Mrs. Bell, and Morgan offer an interesting array of views and actions that conflict and help drive the story forward. The Minister arrived in a revised draft, and I expanded Mr. Peakes in particular, as well as the others in terms of diverse perspectives.
XT: As what genre would you classify “The Handle,” and how does it differ or compare to other works you have written or published?
JMH: I vary between realistic literary fiction and more speculative aspects, though I tend to look at fiction as a flexible continuum rather than a set of categories strictly divided by genre. This story purposely engaged science fiction precedents with horrific threats like H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Color Out of Space.” I think the “phantom zone” from Superman hovered somewhere in my subconscious too. When paying homage to previous stories and imagined worlds, I tend to slip in a bit of satire, as a form of intertextual play, which can be a delicate balance so as not to avoid disrupting the sustained vision of an alternative world that still maintains ties to consensus realism in fiction. However, rather than cleaving to a sustained fantasy or cohesive science fiction in terms of a consistent genre, I prefer the surprise and instability of the “literary fantastic” where readers face hesitation and uncertainty about what sort of world they are inhabiting as readers. I enjoy employing the literary fantastic as a disruptive mode to undercut readers’ assumptions, but I have to be careful not to go overboard. I like my fiction to occupy what maybe I can call “the Trickster dimension or genre” but still have a realistic impact on people’s sensibilities. “The Handle” may be my only overtly science fiction short story so far in terms of the expected pieces being there: after all, there’s alien technology. The novel I’m revising has some near-future sci-fi elements too.
XT: What are you currently working on?
JMH: I’m mainly working on revising a novel that I began in the MFA program at Bowling Green State University. I got some helpful feedback on the manuscript this last summer in Santa Fe from being a part of John Dufresne’s Master Class, which was part of the University of New Mexico’s Summer Writer’s Conference. I’m reworking some of the plot, character development, pacing, and style. Also, I’ve started a new short story, which in some ways I think of as a companion piece to “The Handle,” though it relies upon folk beliefs rather than science fiction for its genre context. I wrote about sleep paralysis and folklore about being “hag-ridden” before in a story called “Ridden” published in Masque and Spectacle, so this is somewhat a return in terms of writing fiction that employs folklore where psychological elements mix with so-called superstition. I’ve been revising some screenplays too, but the novel is the main focus right now.
Thanks for the thoughtful questions!
Jason Marc Harris graduated with a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Washington, and an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University, where he served as Fiction Editor of Mid-American Review. Stories in EveryDay Fiction, Masque and Spectacle, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, Cheap Pop, Riding Light Review, Arroyo Literary Review, and Midwestern Gothic. Books include Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction and (with Birke Duncan) Laugh Without Guilt: A Clean Joke Book. He teaches creative writing, folklore, and literature at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. http://www.jasonmarcharris.com/
Xai Thao is a senior English Major at St. Olaf College who was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. She can usually be found with her head buried in a book or squinting at her tablet, updating her “to read” list. When she is not preoccupied with her studies or catching up on her “to read” list, she hides away to scrawl snatches of poetry and stories in her journal.