An Interview with Jason Porter
Jason Porter’s first novel, Why Are You So Sad?, concerns the particular sadness of Raymond Champs, illustrator for a large, bland furniture manufacturer, who secretly surveys his coworkers to prove that his is only one point of light in a global constellation of sorrow. Porter goes well beyond the typical office satire by drawing every single human—readers and characters alike—into an epidemiology of gloom and isolation. As someone who once wrote instructions for patio furniture, I identify with Champs’s desire to find company for his misery, but I mostly admire Jason’s writing. His control of tone is remarkable, his characters resonate, and he is in my estimation one of the funniest authors making fiction these days.
Jason Porter and I have known one another for several years. We have grilled together. I know the names of his dogs. Despite the fact that he lives six blocks from my house, we conducted this interview by email. Somehow it just seemed sadder, lonelier, that way—much like the woeful questionnaire Ray leaves anonymously around the office.
I. SMALL TALK
THE BELIEVER: Ray Champs is an illustrator for a furniture company. Did you reach back to a personal job experience to “get inside” his character? Also: what is it like to be “inside” a character?
JASON PORTER: Getting inside a character is very much like when you dress up as a mascot and attempt to elicit the enthusiasm of a highly fickle and fairly inebriated sporting crowd, all of whom feel a certain degree of entitlement because they paid a good amount of money for their seats while avoiding other more essential expenses in their life, like health insurance and water softener. It is at turns thrilling and horrifying, and the ventilation leaves much to be desired.
For this character I did zero research outside of trying to assemble a few intensively laminated bookshelves that smelled like spray-on cancer. I also borrowed some memory of working for what was, at the time, referred to as a web portal. There was nothing specifically lifted from that, just the idea of endless cubicles and a minimum of natural light. Oh and they also had a really dreadful, and, in my opinion, inhumane color scheme, which for some reason was a source of pride. It’s one thing if you are the Minnesota Vikings. Otherwise, don’t do it. And maybe even the Vikings should reconsider.
BLVR: One of your gifts as a writer is the ability to find the hidden portent in small talk. Can you unpack for the reader the heartbreak buried under the following banalities?
1) Sure feels good to sit.
JP: Here are two men who work standing up: Donald Rumsfeld and Phillip Roth. Does anybody want to be either of these men? Of course not. However, the current science on sitting down is that it is bad for us. We descended from non-sitting people. We need to not sit so much, to regulate our metabolisms and our circulatory systems, and for the sake of our poor, poor hamstrings. The problem is, to stand up all day is to risk becoming a Rumsfeld or a Roth. Can you imagine being married to either of them, let alone being one of them? You can’t. You don’t want to. It’s a can’t-win proposition. And, more importantly, it sure feels good to sit. So good. Even though it’s killing us.
BLVR: 2) Heh, that’s a cat for you.
JP: I believe it was Siegfried who said that. Unless it was Roy. Either way, we haven’t heard much from them since.
BLVR: 3) I mean, I know what the little spoon is for but when the waiter lays it beside the bigger spoon on the napkin, I just want to tear my fingernails out.
JP: This one is personal. Prior to any visit from my grandfather, my father would try his best to coach my sister and me on the elaborate Episcopalian dinner table etiquette. You clear the table from the left. You start with the center dishes first. There was something about napkins in laps and hands either above or below the table. You were to chew with your mouth closed, and I seem to recall an appropriate number of chews, if that is even a unit, prior to swallowing. There was an overwhelming amount of pressure—to remember the rules, but also to navigate the dual urges to both please and disappoint. It was often the latter that won out, as we came from deeply passive-aggressive stock. To my mind, they were meant to pay for putting the institution of a rigid dining syntax before true and open expressions of love, or really expressions of anything. But of course in that tactic, everybody goes down with the ship. And years later you just want to tear out your fingernails when you think about it, if you aren’t still chewing them down to the point where there isn’t much left to tear out.
BLVR: So, how about that weather?
JP: I have arrived at a late appreciation for this question. When I was younger, naive and idealistic, and more hopeful about our potential, I thought it was a stupid and meaningless topic. Another way we avoid sharing our deeper experiences, or deepening our shared experiences, but now it feels like such a lovely conversational space we can occupy safely and without consequence. The older I get the more I appreciate a mutual effort not to say anything to each other. The tragedy, though, is that this question is becoming less and less banal, as that weather has become truly insane.
II. A TACIT ENDORSEMENT FOR READING LESS
BLVR: Apply for this job:
_________ is a line of men’s footwear headquartered in Ft. Worth. High-quality dress shoes for medical professionals made in Italy or Croatia using time-honored craftsmanship and top materials.
We seek a copywriter to create engaging footwear content across multiple social media channels and on our consumer blog, “Heel Thyself.” Candidate must possess the following human qualities:
– saintly perseverance
– youth or youthfulness
– little/no regard for personal comfort
– worshipful attitude toward large men
– a working car
This is a fantastic opportunity.
JP: Dear Sirs or Madams,
Are you seeking the pizzazz and flash of a go-getting pro-active wordsmith who, when it comes to customer mindsets and consumer soft spots, simply gets it? Are you interested in someone who is even more interested in what you are interested in than you are even interested in knowing? Are you willing to take a chance on a former felon whose only real crime (unless you count a public and, depending on how you define naked, naked display of reverence toward footwear a crime) is understanding shoes on a religious and spiritual level? Have you ever wanted to see a civil war reenactment in which a recently freed troop of black penny loafers fights alongside a very pale platoon of limited edition picnic brogues? Would it make you feel good to know that your employee health care plan might help pay for a new employee to get medical treatment for polish ingestion? Are you willing to take a liberal interpretation of what it means for a car to be “working?” When you ask about a worshipful attitude toward large men could you elaborate on what said large men are wearing on their feet? By "youthful” do you mean having the emotional IQ of a seven-year-old? Is it possible to get paid in advance?
If the answer to any of these questions is “I guess so,” well then, look no further. And ask yourself this one last question—"Is Randy Randalls III the man for this job, or even something in the warehouse?“—while knowing without doubt that the answer to that question is also the new slogan I offer you for free*: Shoe Better Believe It!
R. Randalls III
*contingent on guarantee of employment and loan to cover legal fees unfairly incurred from pending lawsuit unjustly carried out by former employer Feets of Nature LLC
BLVR: I’m sorry, we filled that position internally. While reading Why Are You So Sad? I didn’t think about Kafka. Which authors were you not thinking about when you wrote it? And why?
JP: I am a terrible reader, unless you count the Ann Arbor News’s television listings supplement from the years 1979–1990. I read that cover to cover and never missed an issue. Why am I, or was I, a terrible reader? Well, I have some attention issues. Also, I was addicted to television. Is it possible that I have not read Kafka? Well, if that were true, how would I know that Anthony Perkins starred in Orson Welles’s film adaptation of The Trial? Is my admission of being poorly read a tacit endorsement for reading less? Not at all. It’s just taken a lot of perseverance. I have this thing where I read several pages before realizing my attention has been on some alternate path. It caused my undergraduate degree in Philosophy to include even more speculation than normal. But I do read, and I am catching up, and I probably read more than most, unless you count email and gossip blogs, though I have read those too. But let’s just say, I was not thinking of Kafka, other than thinking, I can’t wait to finish writing this novel and free up a little more reading time, since there is so much I haven’t read.
Now, if you are wondering if I worry about thinking about writers while writing, the answer is: not any more. I did. But eventually I felt comfortable, or at least came to terms with, my own voice, and found that even if I wanted to write sentences like DeLillo, I am just not that good, so I shouldn’t worry about it.
III. IN WHICH YARN ART IS MADE
BLVR: Speaking of Don DeLillo, let’s make yarn art. We’ll place DeLillo’s picture beside yours on a bulletin board, with bits of yarn underneath attaching each writer to a worldview. I see DD’s yarn forming a byzantine pattern that represents a Baby Boomer’s certainty that a conspiracy of power drives society. Underneath Jason Porter I see a stylish fringe, loose lengths of yarn whose pattern comes from the fact that everything is disconnected. We all live alone with our sadness, imagining that everyone else is satisfied with life, get over it, and cheer up. Do you think there is a generational shift in the way we view society’s mechanics? Or crafts?
JP: I was hoping you were going to stop at “let’s make yarn art.” I am uncomfortable with this question for a few reasons. I shouldn’t be on the same bulletin board as Mr. DeLillo, though it helps to know this bulletin board is a completely imagined illustrative device only serving to propel our very important conversation. And I am also uncomfortable claiming to understand what I am trying to say exactly, or to speak authoritatively about the intent of others. With that disclaimer out of the way I will proceed, mostly on the hope that nobody will ever read this besides our wives, and they’ll probably just say they read it, because they already know well enough to nod at the times it isn’t necessary to listen. Maybe one difference in our yarn art is that at this point, whether or not it is a conspiracy seems beside the point. Power no longer needs to conspire. They are very open about their meeting in Davos. And instead of the verb “drives” I might find an alternate like “yoke.”
(There is a little meter in the back of my head with masking tape below it and on the tape is written “pretentious fiddle faddle,” and as I wrote the last few sentences the needle started to wake up.)
I do connect with the idea of disconnection. But I can’t say how much of that is unique to me and how much of that is societal or generational. I am definitely having a sharp reaction to this huge technological shift we are going through that leaves us feeling more alone as we become more interconnected. But I am an introvert. An outgoing one, but still an introvert. And I have some issues with what they call executive function, so that my mouth doesn’t always sync up fast enough with my thoughts, or people seem to want to move faster in conversations than I am willing to proceed because I want to try to diagram everything that has been said in my mind before I respond to it. It’s not a big deal. It’s subtle. But it gave me incentive at an early age to proceed inward. So maybe that’s why I am focused on emotional isolation. My concern for what others are or are not feeling may be nothing more than a projection of my inner disquiet. Or, maybe that experience enhances my perception that if people slowed down and shut up for a minute they would notice their feelings, and they might not be happy about what they notice. I’ll never know for sure which it is. Only that it feels hard to believe I’m not the only one to have this experience.
The other dilemma at the root of the novel is pretty simple, and I don’t think I’m uncovering anything new here. The problem is we have replaced religion with capitalism. (The fiddle faddle needle is starting to quiver again.) I’m not sad because we killed religion. It’s just that we replaced it with capitalism without acknowledging that that is what we have done. And then we can’t figure out why we feel empty. So we consume things to distract ourselves, and also as a civic form of deference. (Now the needle is having a seizure.) But mostly I’m just excited that I made some yarn art and that you can now buy my yarn art in the same stores as some really renowned yarn artists.
BLVR: Let’s push that fiddle faddle needle into the red. I’ll start by misquoting a Donald Barthelme narrator, who didn’t exactly say, “The future of literature is the litany.” I wonder, in light of your book and Padgett Powell’s Interrogative Mood, if the question might be more apt as a rhetorical device today. No question; just wondering.
JP: I would agree that the future of literature is in question.
Also, I loved that book. I heard him read from it just before it came out and I was certainly jealous. I had just completed my book, though there was no indication at that time that I would ever get to call it a book, only that my super awesome agent had signed on to try to make it a book, but being deeply insecure about the whole enterprise, and looking in every direction for some sort of sign from the universe that I was either meant to write or about to make a fool of myself, I initially felt panic when he read, because his questions were so funny, and it was only questions, which seemed more interesting to me, and bolder—plus he’s terribly gifted as a writer, so that’s always a great opportunity to feel inferior and insecure. But I soon realized that was a fairly irrational and self-centered response to his project, which was completely different, other than its (much greater) emphasis on questions. So then, I just read it, because I would have anyway as a fan of his work, and I loved it. It took a little bit of time to surrender to it, but when I did I was fully engaged, no less than with something more traditional with those old-timey things like plots and characters. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to say there weren’t characters in it, because I think the reader becomes the central character in a way. Or at least the questions create a very personal dynamic with the reader. Which I suppose is something I hoped for with my book. I found it was a very rich experience to read The Interrogative Mood on the subway, because of the vast flow of humanity passing in and out along with the dizzying flow of questions. I would highly recommend that to anybody with access to both the book and the subway. I guess since that wasn’t a question I don’t need to worry if I answered it, do I?
IV. TERRITORIAL EXPANSION
BLVR: Let’s move on. Or circle back. Let’s stagnate. It’s funny that you initially saw The Interrogative Mood as treading on your territory—they’re so different from one another. Writers do that a lot, though—stand out by the fence on the edge of our property with a shotgun. What would you say to a young author hoping to write a bleakly funny workplace novel of ideas with a questionnaire about existential sorrow?
JP: I can tell them what an agent told me when I first shopped mine around: “I like this, but because it involves an office it is reminding me of a book which just came out which also has an office, and that book is doing well, so I think I’ll pass, but good luck.”
But, yes, it is funny about the standing on the edge of my property with a shotgun, especially considering that I abhor firearms. I think this tendency has been amped up even more because of the Internet, which allows for a greater flow of ideas, or at least a greater sense that all these ideas are making a lot of noise, and it’s going to take that much more to have your idea rise above the din.
BLVR: I see that you shifted to italics. Is that some typographical ploy to expand your territory in this interview?
JP: I think if you refer to the pre-interview rider you’ll find the section that says I may change the typeface at any point during the interview. But yes, it is a power move. How do you feel about that? Before you answer I’ll first need a glass of sparkling water with all of the bubbles removed.
BLVR: I understand what you mean about questions inviting the reader in. Because the centerpiece of your book is this hilariously depressing questionnaire, it explicitly asks the reader to evaluate her own character. Do you hope to make readers realize how miserable they are?
JP: I don’t think that was my goal, but it was Raymond’s goal, and he is a product of a subconscious that was given pretty free rein over the storytelling, so, no, but also yes. I know that’s a cute answer, but it’s not disingenuous. Having a stated goal for the reader was pretty far down on my list of ambitions. My goal was to write something of novel length that might sustain someone’s interest, including my own, to the extent that they might be inclined to read all the way through and not laugh at me. Sure, there were secondary goals, but I didn’t even feel like I had satisfactorily completed a short story prior to this, and I had never thought of myself as a person who is a strong finisher, so just getting to the end was enough of a goal. It’s not that I am without some confidence when it comes to writing. But that confidence is weighted down greatly by an elaborate wardrobe of doubt and self-criticism, so the act of saying out loud (while alone at my desk) that my novel one day might make people come to some deeper understanding of their feelings would have been so severely mocked by all these voices inside of me, which then ups the fear, which in turn makes me more likely to avoid writing. I never would have been able to finish. Also, if I am too aware of what I am trying to do it kills it for me. Maybe for the reasons I stated above, but also because of the magic of trusting your subconscious to tell you a story. It doesn’t work if you tell your subconscious how the story is supposed to go.
BLVR: Do you think that literature can create a community from shared sorrow?
JP: I never really thought about it. Is that bad? I probably should have. Again, it’s new to me, this idea that I might be making something people might read outside of a writing workshop. I was very heartened to read that a study came out recently that somehow proved reading literature improves people’s ability to empathize with others. Not that I was surprised, but we need all the help we can get or they will soon eliminate all arts education. Of course that’s under the assumption that we as a culture value empathy. Do we?
BLVR: I have no idea what people value or what they’re thinking or feeling, but I intend to give them some empathy if I have to feed it in their ears while they sleep.
JP: Oops. You caught me, or I caught you. I’ve gotten into this habit of ending with a question as a sort of distraction, like in a card trick, or the way the secret agent’s car shoots out smoke so you can’t see where he turned. Sorry. I should have warned you. You weren’t supposed to answer. I was hoping that the host site for the interview could insert the sound of a large audience quietly whispering the word “wow” like their mind had just been blown. But that’s okay. I think it says a lot about you that you are thoughtful enough to use their ears, rather than other points of entry.
Getting back to the question, which also relates to the question before that, if I only partially considered the possibility that the book might open something up for the reader, I certainly didn’t think about what the reader would do with that experience. I suppose that mirrors Raymond’s experience. He’s set on proving that the human population is in fact clinically depressed, but he has no idea what he’ll do if he can prove it. And then of course the deeper he gets into the “data” the cloudier and more hopeless it all becomes. Initially I think he just wanted to get fired. So he wrote a survey and subconsciously made some bad choices at his workplace. As for me, I really just wanted to feel better about myself as a writer, so I wrote a novel, and the novel ended up being about how I didn’t feel good about myself. Go figure.
BLVR: $224 to Orlando or $172 to Ft. Lauderdale?
JP: I see you are trying to trick me into a one-way flight. I’m not sure why you want to get rid of me, but I don’t appreciate it. There was a time in my life when I did hold a fondness for Florida. My maternal grandparents lived there. And my great grandmother lived there with them. And I had an especially profound connection to the grandmothers. I still do. So Florida was a special place where I could be with them and hunt for shark teeth on the beach. I could also drink sweetened iced tea and watch game shows with my grandfather, as long as I didn’t make a lot of noise, which I happened to be very good at. Florida also represented a more innocent time when people thought it was a good thing to get a sun tan. But my relatives there have passed away, and when I was down for my grandmother’s memorial service it happened to be when the love bugs were out earning their name. They were everywhere letting windshields crush them while they fornicated. They attempted to make love in my mouth and eyes and hair. It heightened the already existing apocalyptic overtones I feel are present in Florida. Of course the 2000 election and their gun laws don’t help. And besides, I was born in America’s greatest peninsula, so I don’t need Florida. And yes, it is a competition. (Of course I am happy to visit any book clubs or festivals there on the condition there is a return flight.)
BLVR: Do peninsular writers work or think differently than island writers or river-delta writers?
JP: I think you could snip off the “p-e-n” and cut that down to just insular writers. Even though I brag about being from a peninsula, as is my right, I grew up in that peninsula’s most famous college town (sorry, East Lansing) which is pretty removed from everything else. Or that is, you get to learn a lot about the world, because everybody is well educated, but you don’t really have to experience the world. In some ways it was great preparation for the Internet. As for the others, and I don’t want to generalize, but island writers tend to have access to better tree-fruits and the infinity of stars and sea to draw on for inspiration, whereas river-delta writers are adept at your fishing, flooding, and rafting metaphors. Insular writers, like myself, just whinge on about how all this super comfortable insularity is not entirely fulfilling. Obviously we have it the hardest.
Jeffrey Rotter is the author of The Unknown Knowns. His second novel, The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering, is forthcoming from Metropolitan Books. @JeffreyRotter is his Twitter name.