Anchor Points and Improvisations: A Conversation Between Jeff Jackson and Dashiel Carrera
Correspondence continued for many months. My novel The Deer (2022) had its release delayed; Jeff got COVID; I got COVID. Somehow, we stayed lively. In this conversation, Jeff and I zoom listlessly across artistic disciplines, always in search of the perfect art piece, the perfect metaphor, creating our own landscape to describe the shifting forms of our world.
— Dashiel Carrera
JEFF JACKSON: I get the sense that we’re both music obsessives — as listeners and people who write music and perform in bands. How has music and music-making influenced your writing? What role did it play in shaping The Deer?
DASHIEL CARRERA: My writing practice began almost accidentally, as a byproduct of my musical practice. I was an obsessive songwriter who listened voraciously to records. Jumbles of sounds and phrases were constantly buzzing in the back of my head, from which I could pluck melodies and rhythms and piece them together into songs. The Deer began as one of these sounds, a voice I discovered as if recalling a dream. From there, all I had to do was listen.
The album form of The Deer is more or less there to signal to the reader that this is first and foremost a sonic novel. The syntactical pitter-patter and evolving phrases, images, and motifs follow an emotional arc that I think of as driving the work more so than any plot. Its surrealist departures and dream logic came into shape from my compulsive tendency to read aloud as I write.
I’m very curious how music influenced Destroy All Monsters as well. How did you end up settling on the A/B structure?
JJ: Music has always shaped my writing. I wanted my first book, Mira Corpora, to move like a great punk song — let’s say an early Sleater-Kinney tune — something that packs an emotional wallop but moves faster than you can fully absorb. Something that delivers a visceral thrill that’s tinged with confusion, inviting another reading.
For Destroy All Monsters, my music obsession became the main subject. I worried that music was losing its ability to move the cultural needle. That it was becoming more noise in a world of information overload. Sometimes it feels like society has been organized in recent decades to nullify the power of art. How to combat that?
Although the book is set in punk clubs, I was thinking about more ambient music for the texture of the prose — especially the metaphysical drones of Éliane Radigue. I wanted there to be space in the work that felt charged by unseen presences.
The book’s B-side came late in the writing process. I didn’t want to simply retell the story from a different perspective, but to offer a flip side with a distinct but complementary narrative. A few people said they experienced it like a jazz improvisation on the themes of Side A.
How does Side B work in The Deer? And in terms of how the “songs” are sequenced in the novel, were there any albums or musicians that served as models?
DC: It’s interesting that you’ve had some people refer to Side B of Destroy All Monsters as a jazz improvisation — that’s very similar to how I think about Side B of The Deer as well. It’s as if I took all the motifs and phrases of the first half and remixed them into a new narrative. There’s this album I love called HLLLYH (2008) by the Mae Shi, which does something similar: Side B is a 12-minute-long electronic remix of all the songs on Side A. I love the idea of a narrative evolving by recontextualizing or developing images rather than just moving through time. There’s an excitement to it that I get from those really brilliant jazz improvisers, like Mary Halvorson, where my conception of the piece keeps changing because she keeps presenting the motif in some inverted or variegated way.
Leo Ornstein’s Six Preludes for Cello and Piano and Grouper’s Ruins were particularly influential for me when thinking about how to structure each chapter. I wanted it to feel like each paragraph took on some unique formal movement that would resolve of its own volition. Grouper describes her album Ruins as a document of failed structures in the remains of love; I thought about that often while writing The Deer. How can the novel, with all its causal logic, embody the failings of narrative, of memory, of certainty?
One of the things I really love about Destroy All Monsters is the backdrop of indie music venues. What was the experience like of gathering and piecing together materials for those settings?
JJ: It was a pure pleasure. I drew on the different local scenes I’ve experienced in North Carolina as well as the musical subcultures I watched wax and wane when I lived in New York City. Some of the dynamics were inspired by NYC’s indie theater community, which operated similarly to music, only with less glamor.
I also revisited memorable shows I’d attended — from clandestine loft gigs to sweaty house parties to glitzy corporate venues that only lasted for a few months. Most of the clubs in the novel are composites, but Echo Echo is a direct stand-in for The Milestone, a punk dive in Charlotte whose walls are signed by bands like Nirvana, R.E.M., Bad Brains, etc.
The architecture of the clubs felt important, so I drew their footprints to visualize how the characters might navigate them. You mentioned the connection between music and memory — for me, there’s also a deep connection between memory and buildings and landscapes. Maybe there’s something similar in the ways memories embed themselves in both sonic and physical environments?
DC: That’s interesting — I’m wrapping up another novel now where I talk a lot about the old Greek method of loci, that mnemonic technique where pieces of information are encoded into striking images and then scattered around the memory imprint of a large empty building. You’re right, memory is tethered to place — maybe above all else — but I generally think of music as existing untethered from place usually, vibrating across locations and different memories and finding emotional resonance between them. In writing The Deer, I was often searching for ways I could get the language to describe a sequence of actions that extended beyond some discrete Cartesian point in time and space, pushing language into poignant shapes with as few overt narrative anchor points as possible.
But then again, I was back in Providence recently to give a reading — which is where I was living while I wrote most of The Deer — and was reminded of what an impression playing music in that city had on me. Artists were always renting out dilapidated wood mills, turning them into squats or performance spaces, and filling them with sculptures made from scraps. Playing punk shows really taught me how precarious audience attention can be. There’s always another friend to turn and talk to, another drink to go get, a new text to check. I learned to stay dynamic, improvisational, never writing a setlist before I got onstage, never wasting time on transitions, and never overstaying my welcome. I see a lot of that ceaseless, reckless urgency in The Deer.
In hearing you talk about Destroy All Monsters, I’m reminded of the part of David Byrne’s book How Music Works where he talks about how regularly performing at CBGB, with all its jagged walls and off-kilter acoustics, deeply influenced the early work of the Talking Heads. He thinks they would have been a different band had they gigged somewhere else. You’ve got me curious: do you feel like Destroy All Monsters would have come out differently if you were part of a different environment?
JJ: I love that Talking Heads story. I suspect environment shapes all artwork — even if only on a subconscious level. I’m sure Destroy All Monsters would’ve turned out differently if I hadn’t written the novel in Charlotte. The textures of the city’s neighborhoods and clubs became more foregrounded — plus, things like the eerie feel of the empty streets here at night. But those influences also came early in the process. At some point, the internal landscape of the novel became fixed, so it could’ve been finished anywhere and wouldn’t have been that different.
John Hawkes talks about how he set all of his novels in completely imaginary landscapes. Everything in his books grows from those environments. But interestingly, he couldn’t tap into these invented spaces at home. He had to travel to places he termed “exotic” to summon his imagination. Landscape was the anchor point that allowed him to be less beholden to what he famously called the “true enemies of the novel — plot, character, and theme.”
Do you think work needs some anchor if it’s going to venture deeper into abstraction and/or concern itself deeply with language?
DC: I think it depends. I’m able to look deep into a Rothko [painting] or an Ashbery poem and feel emotionally moved despite the enigma. A Mozart or a Leo Ornstein piece will provide little information beyond its title and then bring me to tears just through deftness of harmony. I think some anchor is always needed in order to keep the pulse of a literary piece, but that anchor may be felt rather than understood. In other words, plot, character, and theme may be the usual suspects for anchor points in literature, but voice, pacing, and style can be anchor points as well, just as they are in music.
I think of each track of The Deer as not so much an episode in a story as a performative unit that can stand alone. It’s funny — since I’ve been doing all these readings on my book tour, I’ve understood the track-listing form of The Deer more deeply. One track takes almost exactly as long to read as a typical song and ends at a moment when it’s appropriate to step briefly away from the mic and breathe. I imagine a reader can similarly give the novel brief spurts of intense attention.
I have a similar question for you. Whenever I’m explaining Destroy All Monsters to a friend, one of the first things I mention is the incredible design. I love the way the narrative lines are shaded differently, and the way that, in Side A, the background color of the pages slowly grows darker. I feel like this intimates an abstract movement that would be difficult to capture with language alone, and it provides an unusual anchor for readers. Could you talk about the process of designing the book?
JJ: I started work on the design while I was writing the book. Destroy All Monsters has several narrative modes, and I wanted each one to be distinctive so that readers knew when to change gears. Giving each mode its own layout was the most elegant solution. This revealed something unexpected: sometimes what seemed like a story or structure problem could be solved through layout.
I turned in the manuscript to Farrar, Straus and Giroux with these different layouts. Unfortunately, the designer didn’t read the book and eliminated everything I’d done. By standardizing the layout, they made the book confusing and hard to follow. Once they understood that my design choices created more clarity, we hit on the shaded and black pages as gestures to further highlight the different narrative lines. This also enhanced the book’s sense of cinematic montage — how the narrative cuts between different scenes and timelines.
As much as we’ve talked about music, film is also a huge influence on my work. And I know it’s deeply in the DNA of The Deer as well. What are some of the ways cinema has shaped your novel? Are there particular films and directors that loom large for you?
DC: That’s fascinating, and I love the idea of book design clarifying narrative. I think that’s why I was so struck by the design of Destroy All Monsters — it’s so enmeshed with the novel’s structure that the book becomes a living, visual object.
Film, with its rapid images and intertwining narrative threads, has had a tremendous influence on me. At the time of writing The Deer, I was obsessed with trying to capture the dramatic action of a moment without editorializing or characterizing. In the opening to The Deer, for instance, what would normally be described as a cop is instead “a man with a notepad” who “pushes his peaked cap back with his pencil.” This was an attempt to lend the text the immediacy of film, in which images appear in our field of view without a predefined interpretation.
The structure of The Deer, too, owes a debt to film. When I saw Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady (2004), I was so struck by the way the memory of the first half hangs over the second half and teases out all this metaphorical resonance. The bifurcated form forced me to search for connections between the two narratives while transcending the idiosyncrasies of each. Seeing this opened up the way I wrote The Deer — I realized I was piecing together impressionist symbols and motifs into resonant movements, rather than building out a plot.
For both Destroy All Monsters and The Deer, the atomic unit seems to be the scene, and I was stunned by the editorial dexterity with which Destroy’s narrative threads were stitched together. How has film influenced your fiction?
JJ: Film was extremely helpful in figuring out ways to weave scenes together in Destroy — crosscutting between moments, contrasting different time periods, suggesting that events are happening simultaneously. Per Tarkovsky, time feels more physical in film than in literature. Maybe that’s why film offers writers so many useful tools.
The structure of Tropical Malady was also a major revelation for me. I love the strange ways artistic inspiration circulates across genres. The film with the most direct influence on Destroy was Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), not to be confused with the Gus Van Sant movie of the same name. Clarke’s film is set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It’s a hypnotic series of tracking shots, each culminating in an act of violence. In the novel’s Side B, I tried to recreate that sensation of unbroken narrative time, the impression of continual movement, the feeling of not being able to look away.
For Mira Corpora, the early films of French director Philippe Garrel loomed large. He’s the Rimbaud of cinema, creating radical work in his late teens that he later turned his back on. Movies like La Révélateur (1968) combine startling dreamlike images with faint shards of story. Yet somehow, they feel lucid and manage a propulsive forward motion.
I suspect that different films become influences depending on the specific needs of the novel. For my new project, the German movie Victoria (2015) has proven unexpectedly useful. Can you talk a little more about your next book? Have the influences shifted dramatically from The Deer?
DC: My next book is Man in a Room, a fragmented, psychological, [David] Marksonesque novel that comes in the form of an itemized legal plea inspired by the account of the longest-held man in psychological confinement. I’m walking a similar beat as I did with The Deer, for sure, but the influences have changed a great deal. For this piece, I’m pulling more from my background in the sciences, writing with two book stacks next to me: one with Beckett, Markson, and [Carole] Maso, and the other with The Order of Time (2017), Deductive Logic (2003), and When Einstein Walked with Gödel (2018).
Still, as with The Deer, I remain obsessed with musical pulse. And my search for the perfect image continues. The perfect image will stick in the reader’s brain, I’ve learned, long after the narrative has resolved — even after the book has been closed, and all the ideas have been forgotten.
Jeff Jackson is the author of the novels Mira Corpora (2013), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Destroy All Monsters (2018). He also writes songs and performs with the band Julian Calendar.
Dashiel Carrera is the author of the novel The Deer (Dalkey Archive Press, 2022). Also a musician, he has released five albums on the label 75orLess Records.
Featured image: Marsden Hartley. Movements, 1913. The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection. www.artic.edu, CC0. Accessed October 12, 2022.
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