Jason Fisk on Putting Art Out into the World
Let me put my cards on the table. Full-disclosure. Transparency. All of it. I’m a fan of the poet, essayist and now debut novelist Jason Fisk. His take on human nature and all its frailties, frustrations and sadness never doesn’t feel spot-on to me. Jason Fisk is also a long-time friend, and drinking buddy. And now a client as well. Which I would suggest gives me at least some insight into what I might ask him in an interview. That said, did I know he’s creeped out by things that are larger than they should be? I did not. Did I enjoy his debut novel The Craigslist Incident? I did, as heartbreaking as it was. Was I excited to talk to him about the book and things larger than they should be, among other things, and share those results with you? I was, I am, and here you go.
Please tell us who you are and what we need to know about your new book.
I am a husband to one, a father to three, and a teacher to many. I have lived in the Midwest my whole life, and I love it. I was born in Ohio, spent my formative years in Minnesota, and have lived in the Chicago area since I came down for college in 1992. I have taught language arts to eighth graders for the past 15 years. I have been writing poetry for a couple of decades, and I think I’ve been working on my fiction for about as long. I am creeped out by things that are larger than they should be. For example, penguins are cute, but emperor penguins creep me out. No penguin should stand four feet tall. Along those lines, aren’t Koi fish just giant goldfish? They creep me out, too.
My debut novel, The Craigslist Incident, was released into the world on June 15th, 2022, and I’m thrilled about it. In The Craigslist Incident, Edna Barrett takes an advertisement out on Craigslist: I’m an 18-year-old female and I want to take a hit out on myself. Joe Dolsen, a 20-year-old who has suffered from periodic blackouts his whole life, answers the ad. What would bring two people to such ominous points at such young ages, and will they actually go through with it? The answers to those questions can be found between the covers of The Craigslist Incident.
I really want to talk about your book, but first please take another beat on this: "I am creeped out by things that are larger than they should be." What? Why?
I’m laughing at this question. I honestly don’t know why I’m creeped out by things that are larger than they should be. I know it’s irrational. I made the mistake of telling my sister my fear, and now she randomly sends me pictures of anything that she comes across that’s larger than it should be. I think one of the last pictures she sent me was of a 33-pound cat.
I’m also freaked out by birds, but I can explain that one. Birds have hollow bones, yet if cornered or threatened, they’ll fight like hell to free themselves despite those hollow bones. That level of disregard for their limitations freaks me out. I mean, really, the audacity, right? My little sister knows that I’m scared of birds, too. So, one day, she and I took our kids to the lake with a couple loaves of old bread, and the kids were feeding the ducks and seagulls, and then, all of a sudden, these geese and ducks start waddling toward me really fast, like it was a race to see which bird could attack me first, and there were seagulls dive bombing me. I turned around to flee, and my sister was behind me laughing. She had thrown pieces of bread around my feet, and she had thrown more in my hood. It cracked me up.
We may have covered that topic in its entirety, so let's talk about The Craigslist Incident, which is not only your new book, but your debut novel. As someone who has primarily written poetry and short stories before this (as well as some nonfiction), what made you decide it was time to write a novel, and how was the experience of doing so different, and similar, to the creation of your previous work?
I grew up in a very conservative household. I couldn’t listen to rock and roll music. I couldn’t watch a movie if it had an R rating. The TV shows that I wanted to watch were regulated and restricted; I couldn’t watch more than an hour of TV a day, and the programs were heavily controlled (for example, I couldn’t watch The Smurfs because of the magic). The one thing that my parents didn’t restrict was what I read. They viewed reading as a “wholesome” activity, so that’s where I disappeared, into books. The magic and mystery that I found in books, and the escape they offered, was intoxicating and liberating. It was that escape that made me want to be a writer, and writers wrote novels, right? So, I’ve wanted to write a novel for as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, which is pretty much most of my teenage and adult life. Having my debut novel published by Unsolicited Press is the pinnacle of my dream thus far.
I started writing poetry seriously in graduate school. I had a professor who was a published poet (Debra Bruce), and I submitted some of the poems that I wrote for her class to online journals, and I had a few of them accepted. That started my love affair with poetry. I found that I would jot down a poem and then, while editing, strip it down to its naked essentials. I found that the practice of stripping a poem down to its essence does not translate well when it comes to writing novels. I think learning to expand on an idea and stretch it into a chapter was the hardest thing for me to do. The chapters in The Craigslist Incident are very short, partially because I wanted to have a fast-paced novel, and partially due to my learning how to move from poetry to novel writing. Expounding on an idea rather than stripping it down was the hardest thing to unlearn.
So much good stuff here, but I really want to hear more about this, "Expounding on an idea rather than stripping it down was the hardest thing to unlearn," which is to say, please expound on how you went about unlearning this.
All of my poems start with an idea (I imagine the same could be said for most other poets). Then the idea ferments in my head for a while. When I think it has fermented enough, I sit down and write it out like prose, straight across the page, no line breaks or thought of rhythm or any poetic devices whatsoever. After that, I pull the main ideas from it, deleting the other fluff on the page. I then add the line breaks and poetic devices. Then the cutting begins; I cut as many nonessential words as I possibly can. I may change a word here or there and add lines for clarity, but for the most part, when I’m at this stage of writing poetry, I am trimming it down to say as much as I possibly can in as few words as I possibly can. That doesn’t work with novel writing, at least it didn’t for me.
After I wrote the first draft of The Craigslist Incident and sent it out, some of the feedback I got was that the manuscript felt more like an outline than a first draft of a manuscript, and that’s because, at first, I was trimming everything out of the novel, like I did with my poetry, and that made it feel more like an outline than a novel. It just didn’t work. It wasn’t until the good people at Unsolicited Press worked with me and pointed out where I should expand and ground the scenes that it finally clicked for me. I know, I’m still relatively sparse with my prose, but I’m working on it. Always working on it.
You state how the "idea ferments in my head for a while," which reminds me of a long running discussion point of ours: does one define that fermentation as writing? I argue it's not, it's part of the writing process, that sitting down to write is writing, but you disagree, and most people I ask about this disagree with me as well. Maybe it's because I'm so universally incorrect about this sentiment, but this idea somehow always feels important to me, so can you please share your further thoughts on this?
Yes, I believe that the fermenting process that happens in my head is technically writing. Most of my early writing/fermenting occurs when I’m running or walking. I’ll wrestle with a scene or come up with new ideas during that time. I’ll often stop in the middle of the sidewalk to take notes and jot down ideas. That is, perhaps, my favorite part of writing. I love it when an idea pops into my head, and then I wrestle it into shape on a run and put it on the page later that day.
I think the discussion you and I have had surrounding this topic has more to do with semantics, but, in my opinion, if you look at writing as a continuum, then the fermenting process, or early stages of a poem or story, is part of that process and is technically writing. I think you and I believe similar things but hang different terms on the same process. I could be wrong, though.
First off, we know you're never wrong, so, there's that, and second, fermenting, good, and turning back then to The Craigslist Incident, what was the idea that popped into your head that you went to wrestle and shape into the book we now have before us and, how did you go about wrestling with it?
Ha-ha! I’m never wrong? I need you to convince my wife of that.
The ending of The Craigslist Incident came to me first, and then I had to figure out where to start the story and how to get to that ending without making it feel contrived; knowing where I was going, but making it feel like the reader got there naturally. It was so difficult for me. Much of it was hit or miss, trial and error.
I was also able to incorporate part of a failed novel into this novel, which presented its own set of challenges. For example, the Joe Dolsen parts existed before, but I had to adapt them to this story. I had to make sure that all of the side characters worked within the overall story. I wrote a lot of new parts for that storyline, too, so there were some inconsistencies between the old portion of the storyline and the new storyline. I wrestled with all of that and more, but those are the most significant wrestling matches that came from working on this novel.
Given that The Craiglist Incident is a departure from your previous publications, can you please talk about the reception to the book so far?
I feel great about the reception so far; however, I was initially surprised by the mental health comments that reviewers were making. It was only after I read their comments that I realized I lacked a bit of perspective. I had a few blind spots. While I was writing, I was so invested and immersed in the characters on the page that I didn’t realize that it was, essentially, a commentary about mental health.
I worked at a residential school for 11 years with students with severe emotional disabilities; many of them were there due to court orders, or it was the end of the line for them after they had exhausted all of the foster homes that had been willing to take them. I also worked in a locked psychiatric unit for adults for a couple of years. I was so steeped in the mental-health scene that it became a part of my everyday life. It is only through hindsight that I realized it is an intense book. So intense that readers were giving trigger warnings (suicide, mental health issues, rape). To me that was simply part of my everyday life with students and patients.
Being told what your book is about is one of the most bizarre things that has happened to me as a writer. Bizarre in the best possible way, of course.
My father who was an artist, once said that viewers of his work were welcome to project whatever they wanted onto it, whether he saw what they were talking about or not. But please take another beat on this, what are the comments exactly — meaning are people saying they're surprised how focused on mental health it is, and that’s what surprises you? Which reminds me of my debut novel, Lucky Man. There were people who wanted to focus on the rampant drug use by the characters, and I thought, rampant drug use isn’t a theme, isn't that just everyday life? Apparently not. Maybe people don't think about mental health quite like you do. Which raises a second question, what did you want and/or expect people to take from the book?
I have loved what I’ve seen of your dad’s art, and I really enjoyed reading Lucky Man. I agree with the idea that once you put art out into the world, it is no longer yours. What surprised me the most was that people categorized the novel, you know? They fit it neatly into a two-paragraph review. To me, the novel was about these two characters and what happened to them. They came alive for me (I know, I’m not special … every fiction writer says the exact same thing). While I was writing, though, I was so focused on what was happening to Edna and Joe that I wasn’t able to see the big picture. To me this is simply a story about two people who have pretty messed up lives. Are they mentally ill? Yes, but aren’t a lot of people? Isn’t mental illness a spectrum that we all fit into somehow, somewhere? What is normal, anyway?
Regarding the second part of your question, while I was working on this manuscript, I honestly never considered what people would think about it until others actually read it and started reviewing it. That probably sounds incredibly naïve, but it’s the truth. Along those same lines, I was oblivious to how intense and dark my writing is until I got feedback from others. In the real world, I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky guy. Hell, I teach eighth graders for a living! I have to be!
I'm reminded here, of something you said to me early in our relationship, you seem so calm and in control, but there's clearly a lot going on under the surface. One good thing about having so much going on is lots of material. So, what's next?
I will continue to jot down ideas and write poetry. I think I'll always be writing poetry. I also have a very rough draft of another novel sitting on my desk, ready for me to go back through and fill in the blanks. There is also an idea for another novel rolling around up there in my head, too. You're right; lots of material.
Finally, what have I left out or failed to ask you, the final word is yours.
Do you ever feel like your approach to the world is not on par with others? The release of this novel has opened my eyes to how intense my writing is, and sometimes that intensity drives me nuts. At times, I wish I didn't see the world the way I see it. That is all.
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