Interview: James Bernard Frost
a while back ferg asked me to do some interviews. i never did them. shit with Peter Rock, Jess Walter. and James Frost... just to drop names, i suppose. not that i never had chances to do them, in fact, i had opportunities to proposition all of those people, and more. im just a big chicken-shit-bitch. I got to do the interview with Frost, after all, though, for a class. what you see below is that.. which is to say my term paper.
Some time ago, some friends of mine over at The Velvet (http://www.welcometothevelvet.com) asked me to interview James Frost. Of course they also wanted me to do one with Peter Rock. I did neither, and don't remember why, really, except that Rock was on his way to an after-party.
That said, this interview is something like three years in the procrastinating, and it wasn't as viciously intimidating as I thought back when I was asked to do it. Though, I will admit, approaching Jim on facebook is a hell of a lot less intimidating than trying to snag some impromptu Peter Rock interview in a Powell's store.
CK -- First off, would you mind telling us a little of your background. Where are you from, if not from the Northwest where and what brought you here?
JBF -- I'm from Texas originally, moved to the Bay Area for college, lived in an ungodly number of different places in my early twenties, moved back to San Francisco for seven years, got financially obliterated in the dot-com bust, moved to a tract home in the swamps of Alachua, Florida to save some dough, and found my way to Portland, which seemed the most-San Francisco-like place to live that wasn't as expensive as San Francisco.
CK -- You also write travel books, or I guess that is what you would call them, don't you? Do any of those effect the way you write fiction, or the stories you tell?
JBF -- Totally. Writing travel guides—and in my case, I was writing for vegetarians—forces you to have a keen eye for cultural hotspots and weirdness. I like to write about the anomalies of the world, so when I came to Portland I immediately discovered C.H.U.N.K. 666, Voodoo Doughnuts, Stumptown Coffee, the I.P.R.C. and Reading Frenzy, hipster churches, and agro bicyclists. It seemed something necessary to write a novel about.
CK -- When did you start writing, and how was it in those first few years?
JBF -- You know, I wrote a twenty-page handwritten epic in 2nd grade about how the gods formed all the planets, so that was my start. It was really fine back then: I got an A, my mother was a supportive matron of the arts, and there wasn't a whole lot of pressure to publish
CK -- When did you start to think that writing and you were getting pretty serious?
JBF-- It's funny. I got my first book deal before I got serious. I had this notion that someone should write a travel guide for vegetarians, and so I did the natural thing: I wrote a book proposal for it and sent to a bunch of publishers. A few months later I get a letter from Hunter Publishing, this outfit in Florida that specializes in travel guides for scuba divers saying they were interested. The writing of the book was horrible—I had never taken on a project of such magnitude, had no idea what it was like to write that many words, etc—but eventually I got through it.
So after I wrote my first book, I decided to get an MFA and learn how to write.
CK -- Who locally and in general has had an influence on you and your writing? Who are you favorite Northwest authors, and who are your least?
JBF -- I've always been a huge fan of Douglas Coupland, who lives up in Vancouver BC. The influence he had in defining my generation in his landmark novel Generation X goes completely without comment these days. I also love how unmoored his characters are, and how they struggle with their lack of gods. There's Ken Kesey as well—One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest—which was a huge influence on the novel I'm currently trying to sell, A Very Minor Prophet. Katherine Dunn, Ursula LeGuin, and Chuck Palahniuk should also be mentioned here.
I don't really have any "least" favorite authors here. Every writer who "makes it" out of the Pacific NW generally had to work their ass off to get there, and I respect that.
CK -- How would you define Northwest Literature? What characteristic's does Northwest Lit or Northwest writers have that is distinctly from here?
JBF -- Weirdness, maybe? Edginess? (Although, I hate that word.) Lots of trees in their landscape? We're just not as boxed in here. We're too far away from cultural centers and pop culture and the publishing world. We can't have our friend from Columbia U. send our books to their friend who is an agent. We tend, in our naivete, to just write, and every once in a while one of those works created under the rain and the darkness miraculously makes it to the surface.
CK -- A lot of people talk about Northwest Lit in relations with Literary fiction, what do you think about that? Do you think literary fiction is really a genre or more an ego stroke for literary people?
JBF -- There's definitely a genre—but I think a lot of people writing "literary fiction" don't understand how narrow a genre it really is. If you want to be the next Jonathan Safran Foer, you have to be really f-ing smart, and not many people are actually equipped to be that. As for me, there's literary fiction that I hate (Jonathan Franzen) and literary fiction that I love (David Foster Wallace) and I can't really account for my tastes.
CK -- How did World Leader Pretend come into being? How is it similar and different from your pervious writing and your future writings?
JBF -- I very distinctly remember jogging in Golden Gate Park in SF one day while I was getting my MFA in Creative Writing. I was angry with myself because I had spent the whole day gaming rather than writing. That's when I had one of those hair-standing-on-head moments—I should write a novel about gaming addictions.
CK -- Sort of on a side note, where did the title for the book come from, and were you pleased with the cover? (I ask because I can remember people on the bus asking me what I was reading, and the title and cover together made everyone think it was an anti-Bush book, I wondered if you ever encountered that).
JBF -- Funny. I wrote the book pre-Bush, so there was certainly no intention there. I got the title from the R.E.M. song World Leader Pretend—the lyric "I sit at my table and wage war on myself" sort of my theme lyric for what it felt to be writing. Of course, my original title for the book, The Strangely Peaceful Citadel of Blue Orcs, was way better, but the publisher wouldn't have it.
As for the cover, I hated that motherfucking cover. I even had a sticker artist create stickers so I could plaster it. That didn't make me many friends at St. Martin's, but I never really felt like I was a part of that world anyway.
CK -- Are there any local authors under the radar that you feel should get more attention and recognition? Are there any that you feel have been way over blown and overshadow equally, if not more talented writers?
JBF -- Damn you! So many questions! No one's overblown here, because honestly, even the people who might feel overblown to Portlanders are pretty much nobodies on the national stage. I'm a fan of Monica Drake and Lidia Yuknavitch's work—Lidia has a couple of books coming out though Hawthorne Press in the next couple years that are spectacular. Joe Sacco's graphic novels are incredible, and he stays pretty hidden.
CK -- I have you on my facebook, and some time back you mentioned that you had finished a book and as I remember, called it Jesus.... care to comment?
JBF -- Paul Neilan, a Portlander who's since moved to San Francisco, wrote a book that everyone should read called Apathy and Other Small Victories. Paul and I used to joke about the futility of the "Jesus novels" we were working on, because, despite their total unpublishibility (yeah, I know that's not a word), we were both writing novels that made fun of Jesus. (The title isn't Jesus, it's actually A Very Minor Prophet, but just calling it Jesus is a great idea.) Neither Paul nor I will ever be mainstream writers, because that's the kind of stupid self-destructive shit we do, but maybe that's what being a NW writer is really about—writing stupid shit that no publisher in their right mind would ever buy just to prove that nobody has us by the balls…
Jim's book World Leader Pretend can be found: http://www.amazon.com/World-Leader-Pretend-James-Bernard/dp/0312352239/r...
“...There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one's head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people's pain. You ought to have some apprehension that the man you see before you was once even younger than you are now and arrived at his present wretchedness by imperceptible degrees.”