10(ish) Questions for Jacob Paul
- By Edward Clifford
When Courtney suggested over late-night tacos that we just go there, go to Standing Rock to stand with the water protectors and help out however we might, I had that dizzy recognition that this was actually something that we could do, and that I was scared to do it, but that I should do it. We debated whether to go over my Thanksgiving break, or in December when my semester ended. Then maybe a day later I saw a photo of a line of police and men in fatigues wearing full body armor and face shield...I thought: This is a picture from a history book, this is the U.S. military getting ready to slaughter the unarmed Sioux à la Wounded Knee again. This isn't supposed to happen in my country —from "Get Up, Stand Up," Volume 60, Issue 4 (Winter 2019)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
My first undergraduate creative writing class was with Raymond Federman at SUNY Buffalo, who was one of the founders of the experimental fiction movement in the US and of the Fiction Collective. He encouraged us to write without punctuation, to "break some fucking rules," and play a bit. I wrote a four-page story in which the punctuation were rebellious characters, outraged by their lot. I guess I bring it up because it would seem that my fiction remains what most would call experimental, but I can't help but write characters and outrage, which makes me a shitty postmodernist.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The Italian writer, Elio Vittorini, who was Italo Calvino's teacher, was an important early influence for me. His work reads as if it was written by the unrelenting flaming sword of the vengeful archangel Gabriel. His novella Erica tells of an adolescent girl forced to tend for her younger siblings after her father and mother disappear during the depression. Rather than turn to her neighbors for help—who are slowly stealing her store of polenta—Erica proudly prostitutes herself. In some ways, it's a story that performs the same false dialectic as does Camus' Stranger, but more boldly, without using any Arabs as props, and, it should be noted, by championing a female protagonist. Vittorini's Travels in Sicily remains a surrealist, anti-fascist classic, one that he repeatedly revised into an increasingly biting allegory, ever more surreal, with each rejection by the censors, until it was too smart fo the censors to understand, and so it passed. I am currently enthralled by the work of David Grossman, Cynthia Ozick, W.G. Sebald, and, most recently, Maaza Mengiste.
What other professions have you worked in?
My first job, at twelve, was as a window washer for a stationary store. After that, I worked in cafeteria kitchens, libraries, and theaters before an eight-year-long stint in finance, which ended when I went for my doctorate.
What did you want to be when you were young?
First a farmer, then a navy pilot, then an astronomer. The astronomy took me into college, where I realized that I really just wanted to read (and write) books, but that reading books had led to the romantic notions that had driven my earlier ambitions.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Less what than who, in this case. Emily Wojcik and Jim Hicks heard I'd been to the protests at Standing Rock and asked if I would write something. Later, they asked if I'd write a new introduction and outro to recontextualize the piece. I'm super grateful for their support and encouragement to do so. Both the 2016 and 2019 writings forced me to examine my relationship to privilege and activism in ways that, while quite challenging, were also personally meaningful, even when—or especially when—I felt chastised by my own realizations.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
My novels have all depended upon imagined versions of real places. In my most recent novel, Last Tower to Heaven, that place, oddly, is New Mexico.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Definitely architecture. I love the contemporary architecture influenced by Bauhaus and brutalism, spaces whose exteriors pretend that only the most serious of work or naked of living must occur within their walls, but whose interiors manipulate light in impossible ways.
What are you working on currently?
I'm working on a translation of my friend, Hayden Carron's 2017 novel, Humano y Anejo, from Spanish to English. The book tells the story of a contemporary Dominican journalist unearthing the story of the editorialist, Orlando, who was murdered by Balageur's regime in the 1970s.
What are you reading right now?
Scott Black's argument for a history of romance, Without the Novel, and Alice Munro's collected sotries, A Wilderness Station.
JACOB PAUL is the author of the novels Last Tower to Heaven (forthcoming from C&R Press), A Song of Ilan, and Sarah/Sara. His most recent performance-based collaboration was showcased at LadyFest CLT. His shorter work has also appeared widely in print and online. He currently teaches creative writing at High Point University.