a conversation with Shelley Jackson      


Bold Type: This collection is like nothing else I've ever read; in particular, the tone of the stories manages to alternate between mournfulness and humor so effortlessly. So how did The Melancholy of Anatomy come about?

Shelley Jackson: A long time ago a friend told me that when she was a kid she was under the impression that sperm were big enough to see and kept an stern eye on the sofa cushions whenever she sat down next to a boy so that if she spotted one of the nasty things heading her way she could clap her hand down on it. That story, which is funny but laced with nightmare, stuck in my head. Years later I was thinking about the way some objects are so swollen with metaphorical associations that they almost lose their literal meaning entirely. (Think of saints' relics.) But there is always a residue of the material thing left behind: a tuft of hair, a shard of bone. I was fascinated by that residue, which seems to sulk inside a nimbus of strangeness, both resisting it and making it possible. I wanted to write stories that exaggerated the resistance as well as the collusion. The body is the original magnetic object: it has both a bumptious physicality and a metaphoric life, but usually we move easily between the two and think nothing of it. So I thought of my friend's sperm story, and the way its peculiarities of scale make visible what is comical and unnerving about sperm, and I thought, that's what I have to do. If I separate sperm from its usual context but still draw on all the feelings associated with it, maybe I can write a story that while absurd and fantastical is also strangely heart-felt, like a dream, or a love letter written in a code to which you've lost the key.

I think these stories are both mournful and humorous because the body is. I don't have a secret recipe for those mixed emotions, though I do try to keep the two in balance. That tension makes both more interesting to me, takes the sentimentality out of tragedy, invests the cartoonish with mortal implications.

BT: You're well-known for your work of hypertext fiction, Patchwork Girl. What was different about creating a print book?

SJ: My mind doesn't travel in a straight line, and neither do my stories. I like digression and interruption and the clash of styles and voices. I like weirdo formal devices. I probably don't have to point out that these are not conventionally understood to be good things! But in hypertext, plural voices or storylines can make perfect sense. In print, it's harder to make this work; you can't ignore the linearity of the form, the fact that page one is followed by page two is followed by page three, and so on. (Usually. There are exceptions.) Sometimes I feel like I am trying to squeeze three dimensions into two, like trying to get a broken umbrella to go back in its little condom. But there are pleasures specific to linear flow (and also, perversely, to the interruption of that flow); I wrote this book under their influence.

BT: Following that question, you've also worked in other types of artistic mediums — how does this work in with your writing? Is it just another outlet for creativity?

SJ: When I was an art student a professor took me aside and told me I had better make up my mind whether or not I was serious about art, because there was only one way to succeed: focus. I have completely ignored this advice. Sometimes this means shuttling manically between art and writing and other, more unmentionable obsessions. More and more, though, and partly because of the ease of mixing media in electronic work, I've come to see all these projects as interrelated. In my writing, I often run a central image through a sort of translation process to yield a new set of images: the central image in "Nerve" turns up in the language of fashion reporting, a public service message from the fire department, and a children's rainy day activities book. It's not such a big leap to add songs or paintings. I guess there might be a point at which enough is too much, as Franklin Pangborn said in some movie or other, but I haven't found it yet. In my opinion, too much is generally not quite enough.

BT: You've also got a very interesting website, How does having a strong Internet presence affect your relation to readers and fans?

SJ: I get email from around the world: a student in Czechoslovakia is writing a thesis on Patchwork Girl, a Romanian newspaper and a Greek journal interview me, a web site in Italy wants a photograph of my elbow, and somebody at an undisclosed location wants to tell me what his scabs smell like. I'm so lucky!

BT: The body, as it is represented in pieces, is a recurring theme in your writing, providing a metaphor that is both abstract (the body is a text, and the text is a body) and material (the body as skin, fluids, organs). Why this fascination?

SJ: The body is the original proof that the material world is lovable, and also terrible, and full of news. We are caught up in this awkward love affair between things and ideas. This mismatch that won't split up is the basis of all the art forms: there's all this stuff lying around- tubes of paint, clay, language-that looks inscrutable and meaningless, but the same stuff in a new arrangement can break your heart. How does that work? I'm stuck on the fact that the body is made of stuff, and yet it has soul. In fact, we only know soul through the body. But it is easier to think about the thingliness of bodies when they are taken to pieces. (Whole bodies are, well, people, and people are not easily understood as stuff.) In The Melancholy of Anatomy I take a good look at some of the stuff the body sheds or oozes: hair, milk, blood. That unnerving stain on the carpet was once part of your body. Now it's something you should probably clean up. What happened in between? I became fascinated with that question, and with those entities that seem permanently suspended somewhere between our selves and the outside world, sperm (again) being a most perfect example because it has a fugitive and partial life of its own. Is it a little animal? Is it a mess? Is it part of you, and at what point does it become part of someone else?

BT: You spent some time living on an island to write — what was that like? Would you recommend taking such a retreat to other writers?

SJ: Living on an island was like going insane! I stalked around in the rain and had apocalyptic dreams. I did some good writing, but my sense of humor languished. Turns out zealotry and writing do not go well together, at least not for me. The good thing is that I have finally put to rest the fantasy of confining myself in a jail cell with a pile of papers and a quill pen and writing a masterpiece in my own blood. My stories will be written in ink from now on, or pixels. I would recommend ink to other writers as well.

BT: You worked in bookstores for a good portion of your life. How did that affect your decision to become a writer, and the kind of writing that you eventually started producing?

SJ: Not only did I work in bookstores for a long time, I grew up in them. When I was little my family ran a tiny women's bookstore in Berkeley, right next to People's Park. The store only survived for a couple of years, but the impression it made on me lasted. I was already in love with books by then, as a copious and obsessive reader, and the family store just confirmed what I already suspected, that books were the most interesting and important things in the world. Of course I wanted to write them! When I went back to work in bookstores later on, in possession of a fair liberal education but almost no knowledge of literature after 1930, I read and read. I dug up obscure authors, followed hints and passing remarks, began to map a labyrinth of secret links and affinities that connected my favorite books. I had the time and the means to develop my own favored routes, with their particular twists and blind spots. Working in bookstores, and particularly in used bookstores, gave me a sense of a universe of writing and reading that stretched far beyond the current state of the publishing world. I saw books that had been out of print for years and were still loved, collecting gravy stains and bathtub warp; I saw books published with hoopla that burbled and sank from view in a few weeks. Thanks to this time spent on the margins of the publishing world, I have a healthy lack of concern about its fashions. The word abides, one way or another.

BT: What's next for you? More hypertext? More stories? A novel?

SJ: Exactly.

author's page
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  -- interview by Megan Lynch  

Photo credit:Laura Buchwald
Photos taken at Obscura Antiques & Oddities
263 E. 10th Street, NYC