An Interview with Jackie Ess - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Jackie Ess

by Hayden Bennett
July 30th, 2021
Oskar Kokoschka Job with Horns (Hiob mit Geweih) (plate, page 45) from Hiob (Job) 1916–17, published 1917


For the last three months, whenever possible, I say: Darryl. I say Darryl when friends ask what I’m reading. I say Darryl when ordering a small coffee. I say to myself late at night that Darryl might be one of the only novels published in the last few years that brings me back to a more innocent time, before I worked in the industry, when books were something to read for pleasure, before I knew blurbs were primarily a marketing tactic and I assumed all novels were ambitious projects out to bare the soul, have a place in the cultural moment, and change lives. Darryl, I guess I’m trying to say, is a good book.

The reason I say this isn’t because it’s funny, erudite, readable, versed in matters of the soul, or deranged and delightful in a way that makes the process of reading the book not unlike eating candy with a high-nutritive profile—it’s really just that it’s so damn open-hearted and tender. Darryl, 43, living in Oregon, finds himself ready to explore new things: embracing cuckoldry as a lifestyle, GHB, sleeping with men, buying a hamburger for a dog, shaving his arms, questioning his gender, meditating—all of which, in practice, allow him to explore different subcultures and meet people with a too-open heart that lets him imprint himself, as Jackie Ess has put it, like a baby bird, onto other lives to consider their frameworks for living. There was a moment mid-way through the book when I didn’t understand Darryl’s project: you’re a cuck, I said. I understand that. You like when people sleep with your wife. But repeat any word until it loses its sense, accept the emptiness, and over time, it’ll deepen. This book, over time, has really done nothing but deepen. I hope you read it.

—Hayden Bennett

I. Gunpowder Stashed in the Psyche

THE BELIEVER: A funny thing about interviewing you is that I really have no idea who you are. It sort of feels like, am I talking to God? You’re the creator of Darryl, I guess. 

JACKIE ESS: That’s not a comparison that I get often. You’re definitely buttering me up a little bit.

BLVR: Just with interviewing artists in general, there’s always a weird question of who you’re talking to, the persona. I mean, I’ve looked at your Twitter a little. You like jokes. I don’t know a lot about you. I think part of me didn’t want to know. 

JS: Oh, I know. And actually, a journalist friend always tells me that I’m fucking myself by not creating enough of a personal narrative. I think it’s okay because my attitude is, I’ve got this novel, my ambitions are to write the next novel, possibly to do some TV or movie adaptations. And all of this stuff doesn’t really require me to be in circulation as a person in the same way that I had to be in circulation for the last year or so. I had total fun with that, but I don’t know. I think I’m probably on a path to disappearing a little bit more as a public persona, now that I’ve shepherded the book into the world and can give it a toss.

BLVR: Does spirituality play into your writing? The book feels keyed into Buddhism, in its way.

JS: Yeah, it’s a big topic for me. I had a friend give me some very good advice a few years ago, which is that meditation will ruin your life. And I felt like, well, no, it makes you concentrate better, and have slightly better moods, it’s a self-help alternative to Adderall and CBT and whatever else. But I think if you do it enough, you will see that it does. Or at least that it can.

BLVR: How do you interpret meditation ruining your life?

JS: I think that you can find yourself in situations where the compromises that you’ve made are no longer tolerable to you, or you have access to a quality that looks like resoluteness but turns out to be ephemeral. I think it’s possible to come up from these experiences with something that doesn’t fit into your life or character, maybe you pay a price for integrating it. Maybe the price is literal, like quitting your job or skipping town.

And maybe another way is that sometimes people just kind of turn over some rocks, and they panic as a result of what they see. I think that happens more to people who meditate alone, like it does seem like the reason that there is a scaffolding around meditation in terms of communities, texts, blah, blah, blah, is precisely that some people will wake up from a dream and they were a trophy hunter in their dream or something like that. And they’ll freak out, because they’ll be like, does this mean I’m a trophy hunter? Those poor dream tigers. That’s not a particular dream that I’ve had. But it’s, you know, a dream that someone could have: you wake up and you realize that you’ve done something terrible, in the sort of spirit world or something.

Maybe I don’t really mind that there’s quite a lot of gunpowder stashed in the psyche. And you know, who knows what happens, but I think that’s what I interpreted that to mean.

BLVR: It seems to me like the possible upside of meditation ruining your life is that when you get rid of everything, you really are left with nothing. I’d like to hope that people in that space can play more games and can choose when to interface with stuff that’s typically considered stressful. 

JS: I see what you mean. I’m slightly worried here about speaking out of turn. 

BLVR: Sure.

JS: But I think it’s of course true that if you somehow have less to lose than others, or if you lose it lightly, then you can play by very different rules than other people. And I probably have experienced that in a few ways. Although I don’t really see myself as a person who’s done that materially. I’ve followed a relatively safe path, with some losing lightly.

BLVR: You’ve mentioned before that Darryl’s a little like a baby bird, imprinting himself onto all of these different people, adopting whatever scaffold they use to live. Spirituality is one of these scaffolds but everybody in the book’s got one. 

JS: Well, I think that Darryl is in some small way wise, the book may be a parable about how his kind of wisdom isn’t enough. It’s something that he’s got that I think most of us don’t. He’s a seeker without an object, and he knows it. He doesn’t really believe that anything holds. What he says about himself is, “this is who I am: no one.” But more: “I can take the waves.” He says, “everything destroys me” and he sees this kind of divinity in everyone that he meets and he connects to that and lets it rewrite him. He attaches to them spontaneously, and believes in them totally. This is why I wanted to connect him to Walt Whitman. I think of Whitman as kind of playing that very same game. But there’s something scary about it. His lack of self is something with severe and very ugly consequences, certainly in his life and for everyone around him. As I think it would be for most people who tried to be like that. 

BLVR: He’s interested in something deeper.

JS: He is very faithful to something that is a little bit underneath the self. And he is trying to say, Well, what is it that transforms? You know, there’s something that has taken every form that I have been and every form that I will be, what was that spirit? He’s interested in the soul. He’s spinning Being from Becoming, or something like that.

BLVR: All of it feels a little spiritual. 

II. Finger Memory

BLVR: I heard a story about Franz Liszt taking time off composing a while. And the way he came back to it was that he basically decided that he wanted playing the piano to be like singing, and from that came up with some pedagogical methods, that like, Glenn Gould, and Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, all learned from—and you can hear the subvocalizing, obviously in Jarrett and Gould. I was always really, really compelled by like, how, especially with Jarrett—just, it’s so strange. The way he’s singing and barking. 

JS: I love that. That makes Keith Jarrett for me like, I think if he didn’t do it, I would get bored by his music. But yeah, it’s so odd. Do you play piano?

BLVR: Yeah, I do. Not at any level of…

JS: I play, too.

BLVR: Classical stuff? 

JS: Nah, jazz.

BLVR: I had a jazz teacher first and I remember he was always against me rocking while playing. He regularly told me to stop dancing. 

JS: I mean, I will say that there is a point where that kind of like, stop cheating advice is a little bit helpful. I’ve found in my own playing that there are things that I rely on, where it’s like, okay, if I didn’t have these really thick chords, I’m fucked. And I realized this at some point where I was like, why is it easier for me to play jazz that’s relatively hard than it is to play, like, simple, sweet pop songs. And the reason is because I’m so reliant on these block chordal textures. I’m always going to do McCoy Tyner chords in the middle of the keyboard, so I can only play music where that sounds right. 

I think that there’s a fair point to ask the person who’s wiggling around: Hey, where are you going? And how much of that is finger memory? Maybe the answer is: probably some. 

BLVR: Do you feel like you play McCoy Tyner chords in fiction? How does that translate?

JS: A little bit. I mean, there are definitely some slightly hacky things that I do. I like putting on voices, and sometimes putting on a voice is enough for me. Maybe it shouldn’t be, and I should write with more plan. I think that there are definitely story elements where, when I can get them spun up, I feel good regardless. In some ways, Darryl is a little bit of a record of my fun, right? The fact that it’s possible to thread ideas through the book so much, is really the record of the book, having gone through several rewrites and me carrying the manuscript around for five years. 

If you judge Darryl by the first draft, or if you judge Darryl by my intention at the first moment of writing, so much of this stuff wouldn’t be there. So much of it would just be well, like, Why does it have short chapters, people ask me this? Well, it’s because I would write in the morning until I was tired. And that was, you know, those chapters are actually my days, they’re units of time, not even units of thought and there is some kind of deflation that can happen there. And you end up with something that’s quite mysterious, you know, after you’ve sort of pushed on the novel for long enough that you’ve done these rewrites. And you’ve changed the texture and you’ve made things resonate from one scene to another that may not have before. By the time you’ve done it, you end up with a thing that I don’t think that you can really feel that you completely intended. 

I’m already having this experience with the second book where I wrote 40,000 words of it, that extends to the end, but it’s not done. And then I walked away from it for a couple of months. Just came back to it. I needed that time to get a reader’s distance from it. 

BLVR: What do you listen to when you rewrite the 40,000 word draft?

JS: In some ways, this is part of what’s interesting about the process of writing, because you have a lot of interior resources that are less consciously available, that are quite useful. And I’m not particularly, you know, reading the phases of the moon, like Yeats or something like that, but I, or doing cut ups or whatever. But I do feel that I have a kind of overdeveloped internal censor, which makes my ordinary speech often a little bit halting, a little bit wooden. I don’t like the way that I sound a lot of the time. However, I can really hear the way that I sound. That’s probably why I trip over my words. 

But as a writer, it’s very helpful. Because I can read, you know, I can just read a sentence for the sound of it. And just know that that sentence is wrong. And I have to rewrite it until it’s right. That’s one part of my editing process, which is unfortunately brutally inefficient. I don’t know what I’m going to do if I ever get enough writing work that it becomes a problem. Maybe it’ll be impossible to go on like this and I’ll have to get sharper. But for now almost everything I write is read through it out loud, many times, rewriting as I go. I try not to rewrite too much on the first pass. So that’s like at the very sort of superficial kind of craft level. But when I’m listening for the ideas, I have a couple of processes for that. And like one of them is that I have a close group who I share chapters with in real time, and sometimes subject to readings on the phone. 

III. Oh Honeybees

BLVR: As a writer, do you feel the limits to your craft?

JS: Overall I would probably benefit from more hours at the desk rather than more refinement, that’s the boring answer but it’s certainly true. But what are some proper craft limits? I often feel glued to the first person, though I’m glad that person doesn’t have to be me. I think that limits me, some novels are much more panoramic, I don’t know if I could write one. I would always be afraid of just tipping into an essay. I wish I could edit faster. I’m jealous of my friends who can write short stories, that doesn’t feel like enough room for the way I write.

BLVR: Your Peach Mag list and mention of Louis Zukofsky’s A as formative for a section of Darryl thrilled me. Can you give us your erotics of reading? Are you picky about it? Do you use your telephone or your Rakuten Kobo? Do you need a wingback chair? 

JS: I like to live well and sometimes live up to that, but I don’t think erotics come into it for me, except in some very generalized sense. I like hot tea, cool air, and plants growing in the room. We’ve been growing tarragon. 

I’d love a good chair, that’s a very good idea. I spend too much time in bed. Everybody tells me I’ll die of it. It doesn’t feel possible to do anything about that.

BLVR: Darryl carries over an anecdote about a dog from Zukofsky and Charles Reznikoff, and has also got an interesting relationship to The Sluts—a plotline carries over. It’s working in the background. You don’t need to know Cooper’s novel, but if you do, what a treat. How deep does the contact between texts go for you?

JS: Oh, not very. I think that for me, I liked the handling of virtuality in The Sluts. And that particular way that the reality of The Sluts is the unreality of The Sluts, and I wanted my book’s unreality to meet Dennis Cooper’s unreality. In The Sluts, it’s possible that Brad doesn’t exist, that’s kind of the whole drama of reading it. You’re trying to figure out if all of these people are lying, did any of this stuff happen? And it feels like, you know, you’re really getting into some forum lore. And Darryl is actually getting into some forum lore, and I kind of wanted to keep that same ambiguity. But I think that, for me, that’s like a model of light contact between texts that I wish that more people did. Less a matter of textual mastery, and less beholden to the conventions of argumentative writing. At least the school kind. 

BLVR: I think that kind of carrying over of a text like an image or something has a more of a relationship to visual arts. The mode of expression where you just recreate a particular image or text, tweak something small. Nobody cares about Pierre Menard’s Quixote without the preface.

JS: Yeah, and I mean, I think there’s maybe an ante raising that’s going on. I remember in school, I was always asked to write an argumentative essay. And I don’t think I wrote very good ones. I have a lot of arguments now. But I think at the time, my feeling was always something like, well, I can either say something true or something crisp and original, but probably not both. In retrospect I didn’t have a hold on either pole. Like, I don’t think my relationship to texts is usually one of mastery. So it’s like, what are you trying to get me to do? 

I would much rather, you know, argue a prompt, or explain an argument or something like that, or render an argument. And I actually think those are more useful skills. And I think that in some ways, like, I got a lot of training in arguing for things I didn’t believe, like a less extreme version of competitive debate. But I didn’t get any experience writing the kind of thing I’d want to read. Or in saying something worth saying. 

I don’t know, there’s this sense that we’ve elevated argumentative writing to an intense degree. We’re not even in classical domain of the essay, or of journalism. And the essays I would write, maybe I was just bad at it, but they didn’t resemble scholarly writing either. Too tight! Except possibly in some very narrow fields of jurisprudence or analytic philosophy, you know. There’s like, two or three places where you do that exact kind of argument. But for those of who aren’t robots…

I wanna pull in a Yeats line, which is certainly more about the world of men and their affairs than that of form, “We fed the heart on fantasies / the hearts grown brutal from the fare’ more substance in our enmities / than in our love; oh honeybees / come build in the empty house of the stare.” There’s a sense that we are kind of brutalizing ourselves by expecting argument, by expecting political positioning, etc. I want to say something obvious which is that novels, even poems, do contain arguments and are arguments, but maybe we lose something when we boil it down to argument in a rigid propositional style. Schlegel says “What’s commonly called reason is only a subspecies of it: namely, the thin and watery sort. There’s also a thick, fiery kind that actually makes wit witty, and gives an elasticity and electricity to a solid style.” In this article I will argue that this is true and fend off a series of typical misunderstandings….

BLVR: Have you ever felt like you needed to get through your autobiography to get to elsewhere? 

JS: Oh, I definitely did. And I mean, like, I wrote a personal zine at some point. I wrote a lot of persona poems that I would perform. And of course I post a lot. You know, online. So I feel like I do have venues for my own personality and life. Enough that I don’t have to put that stuff in my books and I don’t think I’ll start.

There are some funny trans literary polemics around the memoir which affected my approach more. Because I started writing Darryl at a time when I still took that stuff seriously. And maybe it was serious. There has been a sense that it’s hard to sell a trans book that isn’t about the act of transition, the hardship of transition, a cocoon becoming a butterfly and possibly getting its wings scuffed up. But what about our entire lives we live afterward? What about the relationships that trans people have to each other? What does it mean to write so much supplication and self-justification? Is it possible to publish a trans novel that passes the Bechdel test? You could ask many more questions along these lines.

But the thing that would often get lost in these conversations is that there’s actually nothing wrong with writing a memoir at all. I feel sort of bad for the people who wanted to write about themselves and had to fuck with form or to write thin story over it. Thinner and thinner in New York. A memoir is probably as interesting as your life, maybe more so, because you can curate your life and you bring some style to it. The real reason I shouldn’t write one is that my life lacks distinction, I think it’s more interesting in the middle distance, the zone of intellectual and literary construction. Also I’m too young, that’s one of the few things I’m too young for.

What a lot of this looks like is pushing back against autobiography in order to write your autobiography more truly, or with some formal innovation. But I think the pushback against the supposedly hegemonic memoir form has been a joke. If you want to, just do something else. Ok. So I think I did something else.

But I think believing in the autobiographical hazard was important at the time because it helped me to believe in my project. I was thinking it might be really brave to write something that wasn’t about myself and that sees parts of my world from the outside, even occasionally with hostility, but more often with clumsy sympathy. It’s not that brave, but I think it worked.

BLVR: Were you concerned that Darryl would be read as a memoir in spite of that?

JS: There are forms of misreading that I wondered about. Like, for example, I’ve noticed people sometimes quoting Torrey Peters’s character Reese and attributing the lines to Torrey. Yikes! Maybe sometime I’ll be cited for a Clive-ism. Or someone might try to decode resemblances, or get underneath my intentions and start psychoanalyzing me. It’s the psychoanalytic reader you’ve really got to worry about, but I think I made enough trouble for them that they won’t get through the book.

But that’s on everybody else. It does bug me sometimes that Darryl is in effect my statement to the world, and I’m not in there. I mean, I am cryptically in a million ways. Many positions expressed in that book are my own and many are, you know, in amusing dissonance with my own or something like that. I think that a person who knew me could read that book and really know me, but a person who did not know me could read that book and, maybe not. So I think that there is definitely an element of like, I’m human, and I do sometimes look at something like that and say, damn, did I miss a chance to be human? Did I actually shrink from something, was I supposed to write my memoir? I’ve definitely had those thoughts. But they are night thoughts, as such to be endured. I’m not changing my approach at all.

I will say that I generally have an instinct to hide myself a little bit and to protect myself from the kind of scrutiny that authors can come under, which, in my opinion, is a result of the kind of decline in the industry, right? Like, if we could all get really good book deals… it’s like, the more money you make, the less of yourself, you’ve got to put on twitter.com. That really tells you what the place is.

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