Jason Ockert Interview on Shadowselves

Photo credit: Jayden Ockert

Jason Ockert is the author of the novel Wasp Box and three collections of short stories: ShadowselvesNeighbors of Nothing, and Rabbit Punches. His fiction has appeared in Best American Mystery StoriesGrantaOxford AmericanOne Story, and Shenandoah. He teaches at Coastal Carolina University.

January 17, 2022

Kimiko Lumsden: Hey Jason! In preparation for this interview, I read an interview you did with Panhandler Magazine from literally a decade ago. Since then, you’ve published Wasp Box with Panhandler Books and Neighbors of Nothing with your current publisher, Dzanc Books – and I’m actually going to ask if you can pronounce the name for me.

Jason Ockert: First of all, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me. It means a lot.

Yeah, it’s Dzanc (“Da-zaynk”) Books. The two founders took the first initials of their children’s names and came up with Dzanc.

KL: Ah, thank you! So, I also had to Google you and it’s really creepy doing that to someone that you’re going to meet. But I found out that you’ve won a lot of awards in this previous decade. I wanted to open with in the past ten years, how has your writing changed and in what ways have you been changed by your writing?

JO: Well, it’s changed because I feel like I’m more aware of how I am positioned in the world than I used to be. That’s probably a consequence of just aging, but I think it’s also a result of having children and responsibility that I didn’t have before. 

I think that when you’re in the world and you’re just an artist and your responsibility is simply to the page, your imagination can kind of run wherever it wants, and the subjects I wrote about were mostly stuff that I found myself interested in at the time. My writing was a little bit more playful, funnier. I slanted toward comedy. These days, I’ve become more ruminative. Hopefully, I haven’t lost my sense of humor. 

For me, I’m always trying to push beyond the writer I was before. I wouldn’t say that my stories are more serious now, but specifically in Shadowselves, I’m taking on subjects that I don’t think I did earlier in my career and engaging with issues in a way that’s more overt than I did in previous pieces. I think it has something to do with just psychically being alive in the world with so much turbulence, and I’m trying to make sense of it as I always have through the created world on the page.

KL: I wanted to comment on what you just said about how writing right now you feel you have a responsibility outside of just what you want to write. You know, I read Shadowselves out of order, and I gravitated to “The Salt Life” the fourth in the ten-story collection. It was an interesting story because within that story were short, numbered vignettes about different lives on the beach. It seemed like in each one there was a subtle sadness and loss. And to me, being down here near the beach in Pensacola, it gave me a sense of an undertow. There was something very real lurking underneath the surface of that story. Not quite political but definitely at least a social commentary

There is a line from that story that I really liked. You wrote, “Collapse, curse, embrace the numb, and get over it by saying you’ll never get over it.”

JO: Yeah, you must be jaded just like me.

KL: Oh yes! You have such a rhythmic way of writing. Your stories just beg to be read aloud. Basically, how do you find these lines? Do you have a sentence that comes to you out of nowhere and you’re like, “Oh, I want to use that in a story!” then write it? Then the second question: do you build a story around a lyrical or rhythmic line that you have thought of, or do you have a theme in mind? 

JO: I think the honest answer is both because each story comes from a different place. Like you, I’ve lived near a beach, in Myrtle Beach, for a while. It’s a lovely place because it’s filled with all kinds of beautiful weirdos, including myself. Those “Salt Life” bumper stickers are everywhere. So, this specific story didn’t come out of a sentence, though there are stories in this collection that do. “The Salt Life” came from me trying to figure out a sense of place. I was trying to understand what it means to identify with the Salt Life. And I know that it’s representative of a casual lifestyle and the “life’s a beach, everything’s going to be all right” kind of a thing. But for me, that is just the veneer. My goal in that story was to start with the place, and then to populate the setting with people who are dogpaddling in shallow water that suddenly becomes deep. I’m interested in the liminal spaces, the ecotones, the blurry line between local and tourist.   

To answer your second question, I don’t write to the politic or to some didactic understanding or thought process. Mostly, I try to be honest with how I feel in the world at the time that I’m writing the story. I use that emotional truth as a compass and let the story guide me. 

KL: Although the stories in Shadowselves are not necessarily interconnected, these stories do have a theme linking them together. Of course, I have an idea of what my theme is when I read the stories. What I took from is the shadow figure and what causes the shadow, which is the interplay of light and dark. Which brings me to my next question: which came first, the theme or the stories? And because you said you don’t do the didactic style of writing, I’d like to talk about the construction of the individual stories. How long do you plan ahead for a collection, and in particular, how much time passed between the first story and the last one written for this collection?

JO: Probably about four years. The very first story that was published was “The Immortal Jellyfish” and the very last story published was “Golden Vulture.” In between, I was working on a novel, In Back with the Loudmouths. Unfortunately, the novel still hasn’t found the right home, but I’m optimistic that it will.

Normally I can write a draft of a story in about three or four months depending on how heavy the story is. In any collection you’ll find some pieces that are heavier than others. In my opinion, there should be room in a book for the reader to catch her breath.

I didn’t write toward the theme. The darkness found me. Still, there is no shadow without light. I’m not a nihilist and I refuse to believe we live in nihilistic times. If you asked me what my philosophical heritage is I’d say fifty percent individualist, forty percent absurdist, and ten percent optimist. Hope is something I feel like we need, in general, especially in these times – just a little glimmer of something. These stories try to slant toward the possibility that maybe the characters are going to rise above their circumstances. 

I do feel like we’ve been living in a bifurcated time in which we’re constantly engaged with versions of ourselves. It’s much more overt and pervasive than it used to be. For example, when you look at a photo of yourself at eight years old you can remember something about the child you used to be. Maybe you remember the tee shirt you’re wearing or a hairstyle or the friend you’re with. A photograph can teleport you back in time. 

These days, it’s very different. On social media, you are an army of other people. We cloak ourselves in other selves and derive meaning and feeling from the way those selves interact in the fabricated spaces. Unlike in a photograph—where you were really there—the places we visit online don’t have tactility or depth. Those avatars we create are our “Others.” When we’re othered too often, what happens to our sense of self? That question is at the epicenter of Shadowselves.

KL: I saw that in “Five Miles from Home” when Bryce was living and reliving in both the past and the present. I felt that was an experimental piece because it was very different than some of the other stories. For example, having Bryce go to the summer of his childhood juxtaposed with the winter of his adulthood. Not only does that play with more opposites, but it goes along with what you were saying about how we see ourselves as who we are and who we were. There’s this space that asks, where is or what is the truth? I love that Bryce was an unreliable narrator, how his memories were unreliable. That was a story that I immediately re-read when I finished it because the ending took me by surprise. 

JO: I’m glad.

KL: I love that in a story. And whenever I see a twist ending in short stories, I go back and I read it again because I want to see what did I miss, where was the foreshadowing? Do you usually have a sense of an ending, or does it sneak up and find you?

JO: Well, I do have a sense of an ending but not much more than that. “Five Miles from Home” had several endings that were all missing something. My instinct, in general, is to let an emotional impulse guide me to the right conclusion. Part of the thrill of writing is not knowing where the piece is going to go. In “Five Miles from Home,” I was interested in exploring the ways that we often bury traumatic memories and the danger that comes when something that has been repressed finds its way to the surface.

KL: That story had a lot of rhythmic language that’s meant to be read aloud. For example, you have a line, “The ceiling of the sky, a cyclops’s eye.” I like that many of your lines have a sort of lyricism to them, especially read out lout. 

My first introduction to your stories was actually a video I found on YouTube when you read your latest story “The Golden Vulture” at the University of Tampa MFA Reading Series, which is the first story in Shadowselves. And what I found super interesting was reading them line by line. 

JO: Oh, you did?

KL: Yes! Because I’m very interested in revision. You walked me through a bit of your revision process earlier. Depending on the story sometimes the process is longer or shorter,  but what informs your choices in revision?

JO: It’s threefold really. The first draft that I write will be such a hot mess that nobody sees it. But what I love about writing the short story is that the first draft allows you to start asking the question, “What is the story all about?” It takes several drafts for me to answer that question.

For example, “Five Miles from Home” started with an image I had in my head from a time when I was a child visiting my aunt and uncle’s farm. Wandering around, I discovered a nearby pond and an abandoned fishing line wrapped around a stick. I have no idea why that image came to me so many years later, but somehow it came back. The other impression I had was from a time that I was standing outside of a gas station pumping gas into my car in the dead of winter in western New York. I remember looking at the desolate and snow-swept horizon and with the wind and the vast expanse of nothing I found it very hard to breath. I’ve never felt so alone in my entire life. It was so bleak and I was so cold.

When I was chasing “Five Miles from Home,” I had that image of fishing line wrapped around a tree branch and a strong feeling of loneliness in winter. That’s it. Okay, so why? The first drafts attempt to answer why these things matter to me. The third and subsequent drafts attempt to answer why any of these things might matter to someone else. 

Eventually I’ll write a story that I think I can share. So that’s the second part, being willing to show it to a stranger. That’s when I start sending it out. The third part comes if and when the story is accepted by a magazine. Once that happens, the story will undergo changes based on the thoughts of the editor. It’s at that moment that the story turns into a conversation and I am very lucky to have had many fantastic editors who helped me refine the stories in Shadowselves.

KL: It’s interesting that there’s obviously different drafts and different reasons for those drafts and edits, but I love that you still write for you, or what you want, and then you slowly edit it into how the story can resonate with other people.

Also, I do want to comment on how you intertwined little bits of humor in “Golden Vulture,” which could have been just such a bleak story without them. It was really nice to actually hear those parts read aloud because of the language, but it was also refreshing to find these small sprinkles of funny parts in a short story. Like you said before, short stories don’t always need to be heavy, heavy, heavy. 

JO: My goal in the short story is to compel a reader to have an emotional response. One way to do this is by tricking the reader to laugh. If I can hook you with humor, then maybe you’ll be willing to read the next sentence, then the next page, and before you know it, the story is over. Ideally, when she’s finished, the reader has moved through a wide range of emotions.

KL: That’s a great entry into the “Would You Rather” questions I have. The question was would you rather only write humor or only write heavy without getting the chance to include any other element.

JO: That’s a trick question. They’re inexorably linked. Still, I like to think of myself as the type of person who provides answers. I’d choose heavy, but I wouldn’t like myself afterward.

KL: Okay, so let’s do an easy one: would you rather have tea or coffee?

JO: Oh, definitely coffee. Black, by the way. I don’t put anything in it. I’m not really a Starbucks guy with a Coma-Frappe-Matcha-Loco. Just black coffee.

KL: Would you rather have your story read once and completely understood the first time, or have your story read multiple times, and each time provides a different meaning?

JO: There’s no question, the latter. One of the beautiful things about the short story form is that it doesn’t take that much effort to go back and read it again. The same cannot be said about War and Peace. If you can get somebody to reread, they might notice something they missed before. Then, the story becomes more yours. All the writers I admire give me the gift of the story which resides in my head and allows me to see the world in a way that I hadn’t before. 

KL: Totally. Okay, do you use pen and paper or computer?

JO: I write my first draft on a desktop computer that doesn’t have the Internet. It’s basically just a word processor. I write on that because I don’t like a lot of distractions. I can’t write on paper. My handwriting is just really bad. I can’t even read it. So yeah, an old school computer. 

KL: And the last question, would you rather write or revise? I think I know the answer to this.

JO: Definitely revise. First drafts for me are such a slog. But the revising process helps. There’s a time in a story where I know that it’s going to succeed or fail. It will succeed when I become obsessed with it; when it forces its way into my thoughts. There’s always a moment in the first or second draft where I can take a deep breath because I know I’m going to see this story through. I don’t know what’s going to happen or where I’m going to go, but it’s going to get made. That’s my favorite moment, and it happens during revision.

KL: Revising is definitely something I don’t like to do, but it’s necessary.

JO: It doesn’t have to be. If revision is something that you resist, then resist it! There may be something about the immediacy of the language that works for you. 

KL: But the way you explained it makes me want to try to revise. Let’s start the “One Sentence” questions now where I’m challenging you to answer in one sentence only. So, what is the best compliment your work has ever received or can receive?

JO: The best compliment I can receive is that a reader was moved by my writing. 

KL: Which of the Shadowselves stories would you recommend reading first, and which of the stories, do you recommend reading last? Or more simply put: are the stories in the collection arranged in the order they should be read?

JO: I think that collections of stories can train the reader on how to read them, so the first stories in the collection give the reader a sample of what they’re going to get from me. I would recommend reading in order starting with “Golden Vulture” which is kind of like a fable and I think that, while it can be dark and heavy, the narrative is fairly straightforward. And I think “The Salt Life” is one of the harder pieces that you should read after you get a feel for the aesthetics in the collection. If you can make it through the longest last piece, “Where the Survivors are Buried,” then God bless you.

KL: I’m laughing because I listened to “Golden Vulture” first, so I skipped it in the collection and went straight to “The Salt Life” because I liked the title. 

JO: Oh, you did? 

KL: Yeah, so it made me laugh. So, I read “The Salt Life” and then started to pick out the titles that stuck out to me first.  

JO: Which ones did you like the best, that you gravitated to?

KL: “Golden Vulture” and “Five Miles from Home,” and I have a lot of notes on that one. And “Every Heavy Thing” because although it was a really short story, I feel like you did so much in that one. That story is where I found a lot of readable lines that stuck with me. For example, “The body doesn’t always obey the brain.” Or “Sand stained red in a bloom around her head.” I just really enjoyed the lyricism of certain lines. And I also liked “Your Nearest Exit May Be Behind You” even though it was a little different from the other stories, which leads me to the next question: What is the best sentence you’ve written in your opinion?

JO: Wow, that is a challenging one. Can we go back to the coffee/tea question?

I worked very hard to get the last sentence of “Golden Vulture” right. So, I choose, “It occurs to Hoyt that there are either too many mysteries for the world to possibly contain or else none at all.”  

KL: That was a nice line too.

JO: I know you only said best line and one sentence, but I really did have fun writing the following snippet from “The Immortal Jellyfish” when Clay is talking to his shadowself about quahogs: 

“You ready?

I am.

Clams live off the dreams of children. 

They do what? 

They’ve got these infinitely long microscopic tongues—invisible to humans—that shoot out of their mouth and probe the dreamscape. They can sense innocence and when they find it, always in the young, they bore into the ear canals and probe kid skulls. They gorge on pure thoughts, suck away guiltlessness, then recoil, sated, and clamp that goodness shut tight where they nest in the muck.  

Um. They’re like aliens? 

That’s why adults are such puny, frightened husks. They’ve been siphoned by ancient clams.” 

KL: Those lines go along with your absurdist style of writing.

JO: When in doubt, I riff weird.

KL: Oh yeah, I read a couple of lines where I’m asking myself out loud, “Where did that come from? Who could think that up?” But I mean that as a compliment. To me, it’s saying that the writing is weird, but it’s also one of the reasons why it’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Jason! It was a pleasure to read your collection Shadowselves, and I can’t wait for its release on February 22, 2022!