Interview with John Dermot Woods

johnwoods-cover-lgI’m pretty sure John Dermot Woods hasn’t killed any presidents, but he still opts to use his assassin name on the cover of his book, The Complete Collection of People, Places & Things (BlazeVOX 2009).

That’s a title worth remembering, but I don’t blame anyone who can’t do it. I always call it The Complete List of Stuff, even though John’s title is better. I like how he places no limit on what is included. Apparently, it is the complete collection of everything and everyone, everywhere, ever.

I’ve given up writing reviews until our boys come home from Iraq, but I will note that this book is not as comprehensive as all that. Sorry John. It isn’t his fault, though – the problem is that the old man character in the book, who laid out the history, kept breaking his pens.

And that, as it happens, is a smart device – especially when combined with John’s extraordinarily gifted language. Most of all, All This Stuff & Junk impresses me with his knack for creating new objects from a familiar vocabulary.

For instance, I was struck by how chopsticks, which are a centerpiece of the book, must mean more to the characters in this history than they mean to me. And for them, they are a key resource. But: they are still chopsticks and nothing more, even though I want to ascribe more to them. I want to change the definition into something that is not two thin sticks. There is a constant shifting of meaning between the reader and the presented things and characters in All of This.

Shifting meaning is my favorite literary maneuver. The more I think about it, the more Woods’s writing does in and out of the book.

The characters in The Complete Collection of People, Places & Things are named after celebrities like Punky Brewster, Gargamel, Optimus Prime, Jem, Alf. But after the naming, the similarities end. Optimus Prime is a man. There is a drawing of him, as there is for all the characters, and Optimus Prime looks like one of the author’s friends. This breaks the contrivance of using celebrities, who are people I can’t identify with, and replaces it with people I can. Throughout the book, this becomes an interesting way to bounce out of the narrative and into the hypertext. John Dermot Woods created a new, savvy book convention.

(He also has a helluva good story in the new Anemone Sidecar.)

RHP, strengths: split seamer, control. Weakness: strength
RHP. Strength: split seamer, weakness. Weaknesses: 4-finger fastball, strengths.

I think, to start, it would be interesting to hear how you describe your book to very intelligent people. Will you do that?
Words, pictures, and titles. You put ‘em together any way you like.

How would you describe it to people who don’t read very much?
The Complete Collection developed from my experiences living in Tokyo, as a way of understanding that city’s intense consumer culture through the consumerism that defined my own American childhood. The stories describe the mounting anxieties of a fictional town’s residents, and then eventually they narrate the decay of Optimus Prime’s mayoral administration, and the decadence of the town itself. As much as The Complete Collection is an account of the town’s residents’ lives, I believe it is also a study of memory and record, and what is lost as time moves on and events are forgotten and – most importantly – what new realities emerge from the resulting fragments.  The book is as much inspired by Samuel Beckett, Donald Barthelme and Lydia Davis’s fragmented narratives as it is by the anatomical story collections of Sherwood Anderson and Jean Toomer.

And, by describing the book this way, I ensure that non-readers basically stay that way.

Although it’s often very funny, The Complete Collection of People, Places and Things doesn’t seem flippant — except for the names you given the characters. How did you develop this idea? Can you share what your intentions and expectations were for that?
I’m glad you thought parts were funny. I really appreciate funny writing – I’ve always wanted to write like Flann O’Brien – but I don’t think I’m very good at it, so I rarely attempt humor purposely. If it happens, it’s a Bob Ross-style happy accident.

I’m interested in the repetition and reclaiming of mythical systems. But I’ve always felt something false (while terribly interesting) in relating to Classical mythology, which is usually the inspiration for the contemporary reinvented myth. Classical allusion runs rampant and deep. I think there’s an assumption of universality in it. There’s also a cold distance in it. Instead I wanted to co-opt the myths that formed my understanding of narrative. And, mostly, those myths are the products of the American toy industry in the mid-80s and the various media offshoots that come from there.

Do you see a relationship between the names and the characters? Like, is Optimus Prime like Optimus Prime? I mean, he’s a leader.
As I wrote about Rainbow Brite and the Snorks and the other characters, I tried to put my personal associations aside, just to see what kind of cultural detritus nomenclature alone drags along with it. But, of course, this rule that I gave myself is an inorganic one, and one that I often failed at maintaining. (I even use the words “big rig” in the Optimus Prime chapter.) Some of the connections happened subconsciously; some were coincidental. The juxtaposition of my characters, and those they’re named after, makes me laugh.

Did you ever watch Jem, really? I did, and liked it.
I did watch it, but I’m not sure if I liked it. I remember watching it on USA, in syndication, when I was home sick from school. I found Jem and her Rockers pretty annoying. Pizzazz and the Misfits have stuck with me more – they were the bad guys. I think they fell apart when Pizazz left for a solo career and Glenn Danzig took over on lead vocals.

I’m blown away by some of the language here. You use words in a way that they aren’t supposed to be used, but often contextualize them so that it’s possible to derive a rational connotation. The meaning of the words changes and culminates in something akin to what happens in The Age of Wire and String, but I find the way you handle the effect a little less antagonistic. Was this something you were conscious of — were you intentionally, like, giving something at the same time as you took it away?
A lot of the language in the novel owes a debt to the marketing copy, written in English but for a Japanese speaking audience, on iced tea and water bottles in Japan – particularly those made by Suntory and Itoen.  Writing this book was very much an investigation into the English language for me. I wrote the first draft mostly outdoor in Tokyo, surrounded by people speaking a language I barely understood, but the rhythms of which I was learning. I wanted to create a new world, and, for that, I thought a new understanding of the language I was writing in was necessary. Some of it is a reaction to Japanese syntax, but more if it is based on lessons learned by the Japanese use of English, which seems, at first, nonsensical to a native English speaker like me, but which makes clear sense with an understanding of context (and, I’m not referring to Japlish or Engrish, or whatever racist term is preferred, which is simply mildly amusing accounts of misused English). I gave myself the challenge of creating a context in which my non-standard use of English would eventually seem the norm. It’s a kind of a litmus test for successful world-building.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s clear that when you’re referring to seemingly nonsense things, like chopsticks, you actually mean chopsticks. Right?
Yes, I do. But chopsticks are anything but nonsense. They are marvels of simple design that can serve as a blank canvas for any number of graphic, political, commercial expressions. This book was written in an earnest attempt to make the lives of the people in this town felt by the reader. The only way I know how to do that is through the quotidian – that’s the level on which most of my living happens.johns pic

Is there something wrong with our world that you had to invent another one to mock it?
I cannot – nor do I want to – take on all the ideas of our world. I built this one to address a personal concern of memory and language. But this thing is fully built with pieces of the world I live in. My intent isn’t to mock, but to draw attention. Maybe embarrass our world a little. But that’s important to keep things honest, right?

Talk about matching your drawings, which alone are worth the price of admission, to the characters.
Sometimes the drawings came first, sometimes after. I’m pretty insistent that they’re not illustrations (although that speaks more to creative intentions than the ultimate effect on the page). The title, the story, and the drawing were each created independently, and I tried to apply as little glue as possible when assembling them together into a chapter. The hope was that whatever story resulted would be something more than I could create with my own intention.

It looks like you were able to keep the design very similar to the way you envisioned it. Did Geoffrey Gatza give you full control over that? What was it like working with BlazeVOX?
Geoffrey trusts his writers. His idea is that books should be authors’ works, not editors’. He’s no Gordon Lish. It’s tough to find a defining characteristic shared by his books, except for the broad term “weird.” I like that. The physical design of my book was absolutely essential to the story’s composition, so I really appreciated the faith in design that Geoffrey gave me. He allowed me to design the cover completely, and he was incredibly patient with my nitpicky edits of his interior design. I can confidently say that this book looks exactly the way I hoped it would – which, I think, few writers can say.

The other thing I like about BlazeVOX is that they get it. Geoffrey sees where publishing is going, and he doesn’t even vaguely cling to any old-school hang-ups about legitimacy and “proper publishing.” He’s learning the ins and outs of the on-demand world, he has no insistence on copyright (my book has a Creative Commons license), he creates electronic versions of many of his books, and he makes them available for free. He is not precious with sharing the books he publishes. He knows that the key to promoting literature is to forget making a buck off of it, and to just find a way to get the books out there, and to not rule out any possibility of how that might happen.

If “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes on the radio, will you listen to it?
1994, probably not. 2009, definitely. Because I realize it’s a great song. In 1994, I was still pissed off that Nirvana got all the attention that I thought Jawbreaker deserved (I still listen to Jawbreaker a lot). In high school, I wrote “Eazy-E 1963-1995” on my backpack, more in protest of my classmates’ Kurt Cobain tributes than out of respect for NWA. (Although, I’ve definitely listened to NWA more than Nirvana over the years.) I was a dick.

What is some music that you think would complement reading The Complete Collection of People, Places and Things? Like, for Gargamel I hear Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” but it would be funny and melodramatic. What song could you point to as representative of the whole book?
Every morning while I was writing this book, a group of pre-schoolers would assemble in the little park, Panda Koen, across from my apartment in the Nakano Shimbashi neighborhood of Tokyo, and do a synchronized dance to theme song from the Anpanman TV show. To me that song is this book. (I even Photoshopped an image on Anpanman drinking coffee in that apartment – it’s attached.) Here’s a link to opening credits.