An Interview with Joss Lake - Believer Magazine

I had been following Joss Lake around, accidentally, for nearly two years before we actually met. He was a year ahead of me in the fiction track at Columbia, and he preceded me as an editor at Conjunctions—I joined the masthead about a month into his absence. I don’t remember the circumstances of our first official hang out, only that when we talked it was quickly obvious that our sensibilities overlap. We’re both processors, feelers of feelings, miners of affect, and we share myriad frustrations about the state of contemporary fiction while remaining a little bit Pollyanna about the possibility of writing to enact…something else. Something better.

I was excited when Joss’s book came out because I like him, but I decided to read it for selfish reasons. I had just begun my second novel (still very much in-process), and I knew that in order to keep going I had to figure out how to take pleasure in writing it. From the excerpts I had seen of Future Feeling, it was clear that this was something Joss already knew how to do. I wanted to read a book that was smart and a little bit pissed off but not so cynical that it wasn’t also luminously, optimistically enthralled with the world and all the ways we might figure out how to live inside it. 

Future Feeling is that book. It begins when narrator Penfield, a crabby, self-conscious trans guy who spends too much time feeling sorry for himself, hexes the wrong person on a social media platform called “the Gram.” In order to course-correct, Pen must enlist the help of his original (very handsome) target, and together they must traverse a future New York/Los Angeles that looks a lot like a Psilocybin-enhanced version of The Present. There are roommates and cold-pressed juices and ignorant or absent parents, but also attenuated rituals of self-care and subway cars that change color based on the riders’ emotional states. Witches abound alongside a benevolent cabal of queer spies and elders. The book is not utopic, but it is filled with tenderness—a reminder for its readers that these days a real appraising eye sees not only decline but connection and potential as well.

—Ari Braverman

THE BELIEVER: The book is so fun! Was that tied in with your writing process, as in—was the book fun to write? 

JOSS LAKE: The way that it became fun only makes sense in context. I’d written a much more serious, experimental fiction novel, and I had worked on it for a long time and couldn’t get it published. Then, while I was transitioning, I wrote a memoir in the third person that contained all my darkest shit. I didn’t try too hard to get it published because the project had no perspective; I had used it to process. After those two projects I knew there was no way I could sustain writing another book, not knowing if it would ever be published, unless some enjoyment came out of the process of doing it. I had also started The Artist’s Way and was writing pages every morning about my everyday life, feeling very salty. That was very generative and it evolved. At first [the text] was more autobiographical, then I began making a fun world using these fantastic elements, in which people could transform and change—and I found I could finally get some visceral release or pleasure from the process of writing. 

BLVR: As you’re describing it, the book is not exactly speculative or sci-fi but it sits on that spectrum. I wanted to ask you about the link between a speculative narrative and a trans narrative. Why did it feel important to you to have a sci-fi slant? 

JL: When I was writing the book, it was hard to fully think of myself as transitioned or as someone comfortable in a trans identity. I needed the future. I wanted to build out a landscape where things that felt harder for me to grasp in the present could be fuller versions of themselves. The book’s future-pointing orientation exists more for reasons related to being trans than for reasons related to genre. I wanted to imagine myself in a more comfortable place.

I also wanted to consider all of these technological possibilities—whether it’s injecting testosterone or using social media—in a neutral way. Any of this can have a heightened negative impact and a heightened positive impact. Setting the book in the future allowed me to explore the effects of all this mediation—medical, technological, or social. I find the idea of dystopia kind of boring; imagining the future getting worse is a habit I am trying to interrogate on a daily basis. So part of the speculative element allowed me to explore positive things happening to the narrator without making it sentimental.

BLVR: The book also contains a lot of gentle fun-poking at identity politics—and it’s the kind of send up that can only come from lived experience. 

JL: When I read Paul Beatty’s book The Sellout, I was like “Holy shit, you can say that?” He modeled ways of writing about identity in an incendiary way. I wasn’t trying to write a trans Sellout but [it taught me] you don’t have to be precious just because there’s a faction of society that doesn’t accept certain identities. For me, what was pleasurable and real in the writing were the messy areas of trans identity where people inside the trans community rub up against each other. Tensions arise. I wanted to play with the messiness of people trying to relate to each other from one shared identity—being trans—while having all these other facets to who they are. Originally the book was just going to be about Penfield, but I realized I wanted it to be relational. So much of how I’ve learned about being trans has happened through other people. So I needed to bring in a network, a structure of interconnectedness and not structure the book as a western picaresque, saying “Here’s a hero on his journey.” That model is not helping us.

I think it also ties into the character of Aiden and influencer culture and social media. When I was transitioning it felt very hard, there was a lot of grief around it and a lot of awkwardness. But I would go onto social media and see accounts with a lot of visibility putting out this message “Trans is beautiful,” etcetera etcetera. And of course social media is not the place for nuanced conversation, but I didn’t feel like there was any room for the messiness that feels important to me. I was counter-inspired by the internet and by a lot of social realist literature. I needed to do something that was totally different from what these dominant forms are doing. 

Honestly, a lot of what went into the book were things I wasn’t finding in fiction, and not just about transitioning but so many ways of thinking about the world. It feels tricky to try to consider how our world can evolve in literary fiction. There’s climate fiction of course, but so much fiction is still concerned with the individual psyche without connecting it to broader questions. So I took from other areas that interested me. I had found out about fungi that help trees signal to each other; I was doing a lot of work with contemplative practices like meditation, and thinking “How do I bring this into fiction?” 

BLVR: So your resistance to dominant narratives tied in directly to your interest in writing about so-called “alternative” spiritualities or modes of care?

JL: I want to imagine wellness and spirituality as ultimately liberating processes. In contemporary culture these things are framed on a very individual basis, which I think is very myopic. As I was writing, I wanted to mock inauthentic aspects of contemporary wellness and spirituality while elevating the elements I genuinely respect and engage with. It’s hard to be genuine and say “wellness” because it brings to mind a spa or GOOP; the wellness industrial complex. It goes back to the question of social realism and contemporary fiction, which usually satirizes wellness and spirituality but doesn’t engage those things otherwise. Especially if you’re talking about marginalized communities, wellness can be very hard to imagine. There aren’t tons of models for trans well-being; it’s way easier to access narratives of trans suffering and harm. So just satirizing [wellness] wasn’t giving me anything. It requires more imagination to think about what genuine well being and connectedness can be.

BLVR: I also wanted to ask you about affect because the book clearly is preoccupied by it (your title is Future Feeling!).

JL: In a way, affect is the primary engine of the book. It was also one of my big challenges. Penfield and the other characters deal with things on a very interior level, and IRL there’s not necessarily a lot of narrative drama around that. The challenge was how to keep affect at the center of the book, while also giving it a plot that feels very alive.  So it’s not just Penfield sitting somewhere, having his feelings.

BLVR: I would love that book, by the way. 

JL: In an alternate universe it was just that! And taking Penfield’s affect really seriously was what drove the book. It was like, “All right, Pen, what do you want and how do you feel?” I took the characters’ affective bubbles and translated them into a plot; in a way, affect was the whole architecture of this project. [A character] doesn’t always have to grow towards some transcendent, blissful state. I wanted to meet Penfield where he’s at—salty, kind of bitter, filled with resentment—and to use the book to change all that, to alchemize it into something different, something new. 

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