For most of my life as a writer, I have been content to sit on the border of the literary community. It’s interesting – writing is such a solitary act, and yet there is strength and inspiration in surrounding yourself with likeminded people, those who you admire and share your work with, those who push you to be better simply by being so good. I originally conducted this interview one year ago. Jason Lee Norman is an author based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books of short stories, Americas and Beautiful Girls and Famous Men, along with his latest chapbook, Help*, which is a compilation of stories he wrote disguised as Yelp! reviews. You can visit his website here and follow him on Twitter. This interview was one of my first steps into the literary world, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did conducting it.
To start off, let’s address a common interview topic in a different way; becoming a writer. We all have different pathways concerning our falling in love with the written word. In your case, was there a single specific memory, experience, work, etc. that you can trace your life as a writer back to? In other words, was there a specific catalyst that you can point to and say “THAT is when I became a writer”, something that convinced you to take those first few steps out onto the path?
So in terms of becoming a writer, that actual decision to pursue writing came after high school. The thing about me as a kid was that as a young child I was in love with books. In my 30s, as I’ve looked back on the things that contributed to me becoming a writer I always start at this point in my life. My love of reading was always there and then in high school I would pounce on my opportunities to do creative writing. Especially writing that was good enough to be used as an example in English class. Even when that kind of thing would happen I never ever thought about trying to become a writer. I had no idea what that entailed and I didn’t really have any interest at the time in going to college or university or anything like that.
Just after high school graduation I went to live in Argentina. My dad was working there and took the whole family with him for the final year and a half of his two year contract. While living in South America I started to keep a notebook of books and songs and albums and movies that I would hear about and then I would start to cross a lot of books off of that list while I had this year away from everything and didn’t have to worry about work or school anymore.
This is when I got into some really serious reading. Apart from Hemingway I don’t think I had really read a lot of “Literature” during high school. I was pretty all over the place. I read The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie and that’s when things started to change for me. I was blown away by the possibilities of literature while reading that book. This was really the first thing that set into motion the thoughts in my head that I wanted to maybe try being a writer. Maybe one day I could write something that was one percent as good as the things Rushdie had written.
When I was 19 and back in Canada I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and that was that. It completely blew me away. It created this whole universe and I realized that writers could do pretty much anything they wanted. You didn’t have to be Tolkien to create a whole universe. It wasn’t just the fantasy writers who could have magic in their books. Rushdie and Marquez did it all the time and those two guys are the reasons I thought I would give writing a real shot. I finally got off my ass and got into university to study literature. I still needed to absorb the great literature out there to see how it was done and I thought that by studying writing I could get closer to figuring out what kind of a writer I wanted to be.
I often find that I can remember these formative moments myself! Jumping off of that question, you mention Rushdie and Marquez brought you to consider giving writing a shot. Often we attempt to emulate our idols in order to hone our craft and learn about what works within our own styles. What were some of your earlier memories of forming your identity as a writer like?
When I really started to give writing a shot I stayed far far away from Rushdie and Marquez. They were wizards and I knew they couldn’t be touched…yet. So I started with a lot of realism. Hunter Thompson and Hemingway. I tried to write short pithy things and I’d try to observe my surroundings the way that Thompson did but it was all pretty much garbage. I think I was about 20 or 21 when I finally started at university. I was so excited about their humanities library. I spent a lot of time in there with my notebook filled with authors and books that I’d heard about and started really crossing things off the list.
That was my most productive phase of reading in my whole life. It was pretty early on that I realized that I really liked short stories. I think it’s because at the time I knew that I could get through more of an author’s works that way by reading short stories. I discovered Borges, Graham Greene, and so many other South American writers, which was ironic considering I never read any of them while I was actually living in South America.
Towards the end of my time [at university] I started to write some more short pieces that had a little more edge to them but things were still wrapped up neatly at the end and it was just not that great. I used those stories in my grad school application and was accepted to the University of Manchester.
I tell people that my year studying in Manchester was like going from Kindergarten to 12th grade in one year. I came in just a little baby who really didn’t know how to do anything and I left with way more confidence and having written way more things than ever before. I stripped words down and tried to write sentences that were honest. I received good feedback and encouragement during that point and it felt like I was starting to find my own voice in there somewhere.
It was after my time in Manchester that I really embraced what I would call flash fiction. I definitely have a style that people recognize and I feel comfortable writing in. I wrote my first short story collection in 2012 and it was inspired from a short story I wrote a few years before that called Honduras. It was a story about Honduras where I took facts about the country and mixed them with pure fiction. It was something I really enjoyed doing and I thought it was playful but still had some strong subject matter to it. The story collection was called Americas because it had a story in it for every country in the Americas. I liked linking all the pieces together even though the links were tenuous at times. There were other times when it seemed like one story would inform the other and if you read it all as one long story you could get something out of it as if it were one long prose poem or something.
I’m wondering what your process is like for writing flash fiction; not the physical as much as the mental. What do you consider when writing a flash fiction piece? Do you find many of your flash stories stand alone, or do they often work in tandem with other pieces that you write (such as in Americas)?
I do think that for the most part everything can stand on its own as its own piece. When I’m talking flash fiction now I’m talking about anything under 1000 words.
Anyway, I like to start with titles. A title for the Americas stories was easy because they were already set out for me. But the names of countries are like people’s names. They have meanings behind them and also there are certain things that a person thinks of immediately when they hear that name. So if someone is introduced to another person named Jason and they knew a Jason before who was an ex-boyfriend or husband or someone they used to work with they’re already going to bring that history into it when they hear that name. Names like Mexico or Argentina or Belize might not bring certain memories to people but they certainly try to bring an image to mind when they hear the name. My whole idea with those stories is to take what you think you might already know and then try to see what else I can get you to believe about each place. Some things you won’t believe but they’re actually true and some things you will believe and they’ll be completely made up.
I remember hearing people on a New Yorker podcast talking about Donald Barthelme and all the brilliant stories that he wrote that were so short. They talked about it like walking a tightrope or surfing. He just tries to stay upright as long as possible before everything collapses. You try to make the story end before everything falls apart.
I made an eBook a year after Americas called Beautiful Girls & Famous Men and the idea with that book was to do the same thing with people from history that I’d done with the countries of the Americas. I took facts about people like Leonard Cohen or Nostradamus or Glenn Gould and would weave them around some sort of narrative. It becomes a bit of a paint by numbers situation after a while and as much as I enjoy writing like that I still want to try to test myself a bit more.
I love that analogy of “trying to stay upright” without everything toppling in upon itself. Shifting gears a little bit, I would actually like to know a bit more about your project in Edmonton, “Words with Friends” (WWF). How did that come about, and what has the experience of creating this community in Edmonton been like?
WWF came about shortly after I returned to Edmonton after being in England for about a year and a half. When I came back to Canada I had to start life all over again. I was no longer a student so I had to find a place to live and find a job but I was also really curious to find out where the other people like me were in the city. I wanted to find the other younger writers and see if there were any reading nights or even open mics and stuff like that but not just for poets- for people who were writing fiction like I was trying to do.
Edmonton is a city in Canada that is pretty far north but we hover around a million people which is a fair size in Canada. There are a lot of writers here. Lots of poets and a lot of genre writers and things like that. We’ve had our fair share of people that are more literary-type writers that have come through as well and some have received varying degrees of national recognition, and a couple even won the Giller Prize which is basically Canada’s Booker Prize.
I think it was around 2011 or so and I’d been spending a lot of time on Twitter, again trying to find where all the writers in my city were. I finally just reached out to a girl who said she was a writer and poet and asked if she wanted to meet and go over some ideas I had. In Manchester, right before I left the city, there was a writer who started a monthly reading night where he would invite writers he knew to read stuff and also have a little open mic portion. There’d be 6-8 writers in a little bar somewhere and people would listen attentively and then drink beer afterwards and chat and that would be it. That was what I wanted WWF to be. I didn’t want to just host an open mic. I wanted to know some of the people who would be performing but also open up the stage to others.
So I met with this girl and she was reminiscing about her time as an English major and the poetry nights she used to go to. We decided to organize our first night at the end of the summer and later came up with the name Words with Friends. We found a space to use for free and invited people to come read. We tried to keep building and changing the event by having it in different locations or having different theme nights and stuff like that. It felt really good to have something that was finally starting to resemble a community of writers that I cared about and respected. WWF was meant to bring everyone together but my selfish purpose was to find the younger writers who were trying to do something a little differently.
In reading your stories from Americas, I’m struck by not only the stories themselves but the beauty of the language. Yet the sentences are not simply sweet when taken out of context – they all are necessary and add to the overall stories. When you are writing, how do you strike a balance between style and simply telling the story? For many authors (I am certainly guilty), it’s easy to drown in crafting beautiful sentences, often losing sight of the overall goal of actually telling a story. I’m just wondering if this is ever an issue for you, and if so, how you overcome it?
Wow! You said a whole bunch of nice things about my sentences. Thanks very much.
I’m going to try to answer this question as best as I can and with my head not up my own ass. So first of all, when you say that my sentences make sense in the story but there’s also a beauty to them that is a great compliment to receive. It’s hard to answer why this may be the case without sounding full of myself. There’s probably a lot of luck involved. There have been a few times where I’ve had a sentence in my head that I thought was really great and I tried to find a way to jam it into a story. That usually doesn’t work.
Usually I let that line, or sometimes it’s just an image, inspire its own story. I think I said before that I like to start with a title or sometimes a first line and that’s usually before I have an idea for any kind of a story at all. I let the words and the images they conjure help me think of something. With Americas there was so much information floating around my head about these places. Some of it was real information and then I’d let my imagination mix with these facts or trivia about a certain place and I’d make sure my sentences helped to paint a picture of what I wanted to show people.
I think some of it is just knowing yourself as a writer. I don’t really know how beautiful of a sentence I could just create out of thin air and out of context. I think of my favourite sentences from literature and I don’t think I’ll ever come close to those type of sentences, but then I’ll read something by Shane Jones or Ravi Mangla or even Brian Oliu and I think that maybe I could come close to that, maybe one day. I think that part of me wants a reader to love something I wrote but not in such a way that it gets put on a pedestal. I want it to be a real place that they can visit over and over. There, I’ve gone all the way up my ass now.
It really does seem like sometimes certain sentences and images are best left to create their own story because while you KNOW they’re good, they simply aren’t working for a specific piece. I like that whole “kill your darlings” maxim in a certain sense; I don’t tend to fully kill them, though, so I like to send the sentences that I love but just don’t work off to a Google Doc prison to sit and wait with all of the others until I find the right time to use them. Every now and again it’s fun to wade back into that pool of cast-off words and images and see what comes out of it.
Jumping off of that, there’s a certain feeling we get after writing something that we know is a true reflection of ourselves that makes us feel good…do you have a single piece (or a few) that you think define your style? In other words, if someone asked “Who is Jason Lee Norman as a writer?”, which of your pieces would you have them read?
I used to joke all the time that “Best” was the best story I ever wrote. I called it “Best” at the time because I was trying my best to rip off my writer friend Crispin Best. I was trying to echo his style as much as I could at the time. This was almost ten years ago now. His style is really something that can’t be copied. Crispin is the real deal. I look up to him so much and his friendship in Manchester was such a gift. This story also started with a line that I had running around in my head. It hit me in the shower.
It was also similar to a line from a story Crispin read to me in his living room one night. He was just reading things aloud to see how people reacted. My story wasn’t really copying him or his style at all but there’s lots of intertextuality in how the story came about. I wanted to write something that felt hyperactive and alive and bright and shiny.
I also wanted it to be about sports and being in love. I thought that people didn’t really like stories about sports so I wanted to make the sports crucial to how you felt about what was happening in the story. I was really writing from the heart in “Best”. Not that I don’t always write from the heart but I was really trying to cultivate something in both those stories and I was working from something from the heart instead of the brain.