Credulous: an Interview with Tyrone Jaeger
For decades, Americans’ relationship with truth — or even simply, fact — has grown increasingly elastic. Philosophical theses about the nature of perspective, hyper-specialization in the professions creating an emotional distance between us and the very goods and services that compose a typical life, the polarizing aesthetics of 21st century journalism — all have eroded our sense of surety about how the world works and injured our ability to know how best to live. Under these conditions, where it seems perilously difficult to know what to think, we more and more often find ourselves turning to other ways of knowing: belief. In this context, Tyrone Jaeger’s new story collection, So Many True Believers (Queens Ferry Press, 2016), arrives at a particularly significant moment.
The nine stories in the collection, all of which are linked through a web of character association and geography, show the dangerous thread of belief and credulity that runs deep in the lives of so many Americans. Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies, writes:
Tyrone Jaeger is a new writer with a big heart, a delight in language, and a deft and subtle touch; So Many True Believers is gentle and melancholy, a story collection linked like a set of Christmas lights, a series of bright bulbs glowing against the cold and dark night.
A pleasure on multiple levels, So Many True Believers is collection to satisfy the heart and the mind.
JC: With a title like So Many True Believers there might be a suggestion that the characters in the collection — Americans — are credulous. We want and do believe in things. Sometimes goofy, destructive things. What drew you to this theme?
TJ: I’m fascinated by beliefs extreme and minor. We live in an era where technology is changing our lives so quickly, where media screens and human bodies are ubiquitous. Information is so readily assessable, and yet surveys show that the approval ratings of facts are at an all-time low. Belief is a way to steady the ship; it helps us endure.
When I write about extreme belief, I’m not usually looking to explain away or present causality for those that hold extreme beliefs. I’m more interested in how those beliefs shape behavior and affect family, friends, and bystanders. In The Atlantic in 2000, I read an essay by Carl Elliot called “A New Way to be Mad” discusses how otherwise healthy people desire the amputation of one or more of their limbs because they identify somehow as amputees. After reading the essay, I began writing “The Mermaid,” which explores the phenomena through the character of Mary Lou, an amputee prostitute who tells her story to a john, the protagonist of the story. It’s his understanding of Mary Lou’s desire that shapes his own choice of actions.
In the collection’s title story a similar thing happens, where extreme belief — in this case the belief that the mothership is flying behind a comet with the intent of harvesting a few chosen bodies — informs the narrative but is not at the heart of what the story is exploring. The story is a love story wrapped around self-destructive zealotry in the guise of New Age benign. Still, a love story.
It’s very likely that as a person I’m too much of a coward to have deep-seated beliefs, and I compensate for this lack with a writer’s attraction to the fringe and the bizarre.
JC: All of the stories are set in Florida, Colorado, and Arkansas. Will you tell us something about the role that place plays in the collection?
TJ: I don’t always feel like I am writing about a place. The stories in the collection are set in Florida, Colorado, and Arkansas, but the impetus to write the stories didn’t necessarily come from a desire to pay homage to those places or come to better understand those places. Instead, I begin with an idea, image, or situation — like a psychic who believes a spaceship is coming for him. Once I decide on a place — and sometimes the choice is made for me — the details of the story rise out of that place. So if I had made the choice to set the story “So Many True Believers” in Colorado, Nevada, or New York, it would have evolved into a different beast as it adapted to its environment.
JC: The collection also features linked and recurring characters. A figure who is a secondary character in one story often becomes the protagonist in the next. Was this always part of the plan for these stories? What effect does it have for the reader?
TJ: I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, but for much of my writing life, I’ve been returning to the same characters and expanding their fictional family trees. I guess it’s born out of a sense of play. I’ll write a minor character that I like, but who didn’t get much page, and want to sit in the company of that character a little longer. I didn’t write the individual stories as a story collection, but when it came time to think about a book manuscript, I revised the individual stories so that they were more overtly in conversation with one another. It’s not a story collection masquerading as a novel, but I do think that recurring characters give a sense of time passing with all the leaps, omissions, and head-scratching that life offers.
JC: The phrase “fictional family tree” puts me in mind of a comment that Milan Kundera made, not about his characters, but the ideas/themes in his fiction — that something he described as a motif in one book might become a major movement in the next, and that there were a rotating set of concerns and preoccupations always present. I wonder if we go beyond the main theme of belief in your collection, what other motifs — preoccupations — show up in the text?
TJ: Regret and shame figure heavily in a number of the stories. “To Thy Speed Add Wings” is about a man near the end of his life whose major sins rise to the surface of his consciousness, taking the form of a powerful regret such that I hope the reader is able to forgive him. When I wrote the story, I had Barry Hannah’s “Green Gets It” on my mind. While my story and “Green Gets It” approach plot quite differently, I appropriated the structure from Hannah’s story, which uses a series of point of view shifts to present Green’s past. The story then oscillates between the present action (that act as a manifestation of the regret) and the past actions (the acts regretted).
“Woe to You, Destroyer” is also deeply rooted in regret and shame. This story is about a homeless man, GI, and his sometimes girlfriend, Nellie, also homeless, during a murder spree committed against the homeless. Like in “To They Speed Add Wings,” the past — the action and behavior regretted — hangs over the story, but in this case the characters attempt an escape rather than redemption or forgiveness.
The source for that story is interesting. During the summer of 2004, I found a composition notebook covered in medical tape and the cover read RABBIT LOVES SISSY. I was going out for a jog, and the notebook was abandoned a few feet away from the parking lot at a park. There was no one around to claim the notebook, no lost and found at the park. So I took it. I had been working on a story about serial murders committed again Denver’s homeless. When I got home and opened the notebook I found that it had belonged to a homeless man who went by the name Rabbit. The first page of the notebook contains chunky script that reads, “Sissy, I don’t know what to say. I do care for you. Peppal (sic) make fun of you but not when I’m there I shut em down.” The rest of this letter details the obstacles that they would face should they have a child. When I read the first page addressed to Sissy, I knew with absolute certainty that the story I had been working on would open up around the details in the notebook. I understood then, as I do now, that the notebook contains personal information and emotions that were not meant to be shared with others. I felt torn. I still do. To use the notebook would be a violation of privacy. To not use the material would mean the loss of a story. I chose to commit the violation of privacy. Rabbit’s two letters to Sissy informed the plots of regret, love and loss, and violence that appear in “Woe to You, Destroyer.”
JC: The stories include an eclectic mix of material: self-help books, cults, medicine, politics, literature — even pet food. Could you talk about the research you conducted for this book? How does research work for you?
TJ: I mentioned the amputee phenomenon, though I didn’t research much beyond Elliot’s essay. I did a lot of research into the Heaven’s Gate cult for the title story. They left two students behind to maintain their website. I also watched all of their “earth exit” videos. When I was in graduate school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I was working a few nonfiction pieces on the homeless. I did a lot of research, hanging out at shelters, interviewing people, photographing encampments, etc. The nonfiction project never materialized in the way that I had hoped, but the research did inform stories like “Woe to You Destroyer” and “Ghost Image.”
JC: The second story, “Liar’s Lullaby,” is written in second person. Many writers experiment with second person, and yet it is always an interesting choice. What drew you to second person for this particular story?
TJ: I know that some people hate second person because they think it gimmicky. But it is intriguing. I remember Heidi Julavits calling it something like the most flexible — or maybe it was the most elastic — point of view, by which I took her to mean that it was malleable and capable of doing more than one thing. It creates distance for the speaker and sometimes more intimacy for the reader. It can perform a kind of disembodiment or act as the voice of the present self speaking to the past self. For Colleen in “Liar’s Lullaby,” we sense that she regrets most everything she does in the story, and the second person functions much like a mirror as she laments to herself.
JC: With this talk of recurring characters, research, and POV, I’m wondering what your writing process is like. How do you typically go from inspiration to draft to published work? Has a typical process of some kind developed or do you find it different every time out?
TJ: It’s different every time. For me, it’s the opposite of riding a bike, where presumably once you know how to ride, you never forget and it always feels natural. Every story that I’ve written, I feel like I have to learn how to write sentences all over again. Maybe part of this stems from the struggle to find the appropriate voice with which to tell each story, a voice that is hopefully unique, though I’m usually satisfied with it being not overtly derivative. My process is to write until I figure out what I’m doing wrong, and then I rewrite the story with this new nugget of information until I figure out what I’m doing wrong. And then it starts all over again. I know some writers who write slowly, one sentence at a time, building one sentence upon another, one paragraph upon another, and so forth. If there’s a word for my process it is probably sloppy.
JC: You’re currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. Many teachers of creative writing suggest that their teaching has had a direct impact on their writing. Has this been true for you?
TJ: Absolutely true: the direct impact is that I rarely have time to write. Unfortunately, writing stories does not pay my bills, so I teach. Joking aside (who is joking?), I love to teach. Teaching writing is hard, time-consuming work, but I value the company of young people, the energy they bring to their own work and to the work of the writers we read for class.
JC: I’m interested in the way writers change and mature over time. Your first book, The Runaway Note, is described as a cross-genre novella. Could you talk about how you’ve changed as a writer and the way this previous book may inform So Many True Believers?
TJ: Actually, The Runaway Note was written after the stories in So Many True Believers. I had begun another novel and had also been writing these short prose pieces, little fever dreams. The fever dream pieces eventually became a fragmented novella.
JC: A cross-genre novella, a story collection. What’s next for Tyrone Jaeger?
TJ: Late in 2017, my novel Radio Eldorado will be published. The novel began as the origin story of one of the characters from So Many True Believers. It’s set in the Sixties in the Rocky Mountain West, and the story follows a young woman, a peace activist, as she becomes radicalized. In its own way the novel takes me right back into the heart of the extreme belief question. Maybe that’s the bike I’m most comfortable riding?