Interview: Jess Stoner
Written by Andrew Keating
Cobalt: Tell us about Choose Your Own Adventures. And You’re Going to Die Jess Wigent. Please.
Stoner: I loved the crap out of those books. Even though I always cheated. Paul Fournel, of Oulipo, did a choose your own that was fun in McSweeney’s #22. Also–there was always this image floating around the internets. So the chapbook just came out of play. Also, though my husband and I were just dating then, I felt assured that we were in it to win it and was thinking about what would happen if I changed my name (from Wigent to Stoner). Way back in 2010 it was a finalist in the Fact-Simile Equinox Chapbook competition, although it changed a bunch before it came out last month. JenMarie Davis and Travis Macdonald of Fact-Simile are really great–they make Poet Trading Cards and really beautiful, handmade, labor-intensive, books that are objects that are gifts.
Cobalt: You told me that you wrote I Have Blinded Myself Writing This entirely in the Adobe inDesign program. Did you treat the program as a typical word processor, except with extra toys? Or were there specific differences and challenges presented by using this tool rather than something more standard?
Jess Stoner: Ha! Your question made me think of someone smoking a pipe saying, “You typed your book in Word? How quaint. I typed mine in InDesign.” I actually only know about 1/5 of what InDesign can do, but I felt like I couldn’t write unless I knew what the pages looked like. I wanted to control where the lines were broken in the prose and manage and measure, a bit compulsively, the white space. I needed to see the gutters, change the kerning, the leading. I needed to work in spreads, moving back and forth between pages. Whenever I was going through drafts, I always printed in spreads, so I could feel how the pages, the progression, worked. When Aaron Burch and Elizabeth Ellen and I were working on the book, I felt kind of nervous, that I had “taken away” his control, but he was super cool; and I think (hope) that Elizabeth Ellen, when she first read the book, saw that it was already the object it had to be.
Cobalt: What were your initial goals for I Have Blinded Myself Writing This? How much has this book changed from its first iteration? What prompted some of these changes?
Stoner: I started the book at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where I became obsessed with text and image. The first iterations (it was also my thesis) had much less text–the images and design were meant to reveal and not reveal everything. Looking back, the book almost felt aggressively resistant to telling a story. I think it was obnoxious. That being said, when I revisited it a few years later, the story didn’t change at all. Everything that happens in the first drafts happens in the final, I just realized I was doing the book a disservice by not inviting readers into the layers of context that would give the book the texture and, hopefully, emotional connection I wanted. For instance, Teddy is much more realized in the final book. Which, maybe, isn’t saying a whole lot, since a number of people have mentioned they wanted to know more about him. I really struggled with how much to reveal about other characters, considering that they only “exist” in the narrator’s memories. For instance, Teddy doesn’t speak in the book; he spoke in the conversations she remembers–which is different.
Cobalt: The end result is what appears to be a composition notebook, like those we used in grade school, but the inside is beautifully crafted, typed, and designed. When I think of a composition notebook, I think of the most basic, low-tech writing tool; in comparison to inDesign, which is high-tech. How do you justify the bipolar nature of the final book design, inside and out?
Stoner: First of all, I love this question! Your reaction speaks to everything I ever wanted–that what you’re reading is meant to be this private thing, but the book is still, you know, a book like any other on the shelf. If you felt this tension, if you wondered about it or questioned it, well then I am freaking thrilled. In the days of the book being obnoxious, I was like: I’m going to longhand this book–I’m going to publish all five copies of it in the narrator’s handwriting. But that would’ve meant losing the tension between the private document and the printed book. I’m fascinated by the experience, the intellectual and emotional and physical act of reading. And this is the very reason why I sent the book to Short Flight/Long Drive, because the beautiful books they publish (Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels is perfection), well they get it. The “form,” the objectness of their books, is wedded to the content, the experience of reading the story. I would’ve been devastated if Elizabeth had passed on mine, because the books she was publishing were already doing what I most hoped to do with mine.
Cobalt: I think it’s worth asking right about now: how do you define a “book?”
Stoner: Oh jeez. You know. Let me think. I’m not one of those people who worship at the shrine of the printed page. (Victoria Dahl, a contemporary romance novelist I really like, put this up on her twitter a while back, in response to e-book outrage: “You’re reading paper, not eating pussy,” which made my day). I feel afraid of answering this question wrong. Maybe a book is a thing that has in it an invitation to a universe of its own creation? Argh, I’m failing hard here. Is it wrong to not care about settling on a definition? Is that lazy? Lily Hoang wrote a great piece for HTML Giant about the books that exploded her expectations, and how she still seeks that feeling, even if she doesn’t find it as often anymore. I think maybe I’m more interested not in defining a book, but in discovering all the still-new things books can do. Even if they’re only new to me.
Cobalt: You’ve published these two books (I Have Blinded Myself Writing This and You’re Going to Die Jess Wigent) through two different independent publishers: Short Flight/Long Drive and Fact-Simile, respectively. In what ways did the process of publishing with these presses differ? How were they similar?
Stoner: The two presses are amazing and amazingly different. Fact-simile makes things hand-made, exquisitely and friskily designed–but they’re very hands off. I thought we would edit the book together a bunch, especially as it had been accepted for publication two years prior. But I think they see their role differently–like they’re conduits of poetry. I hope they don’t mind me saying that. I also knew Travis and JenMarie. They were my neighbors in Denver. I didn’t know Elizabeth or Aaron at all. I knew Hobart; I knew Adam Novy’s book, which I loved so much. So as we were going through edits and talking about design-stuff, I felt like we were online dating. Or maybe that was just Elizabeth, who I’ve hardly hung out with, but I feel like should be my email best friend forever. We spent months emailing back and forth before we did anything with the book (because they were working on Karl Taro Greenfeld’s NowTrends and EE’s Fast Machine). When it was time to get into the details, to rid the book of the infection of “that”s which I’m so fond of, to make its sentences better, to make it better, well I really loved that process. Even when we’re we were just copyediting, it felt like a collaboration. I feel really lucky that both of these books ended up with these presses. And that they believe in them and wanted to see them in the world.
Cobalt: Do you think that the modern author needs to be better-versed in tools such as inDesign, in order to get a competitive edge? Or, perhaps, that publishers might be looking for more “finished products” than they used to be?
Stoner: That’s a really interesting question. I’m not a publisher, but if I was, I don’t think “finished products” would interest me as much. My use of InDesign didn’t make my book a finished product; I just needed InDesign to write it. Elizabeth and Aaron made the book a finished product. I didn’t make the cover; I suggested the composition notebook and then Elizabeth and Aaron ran with it and made it so much better than I ever would have. I’m using Word to write the book I’m working on now, even though it depends way more on images. I think submitting a “finished product” would mean losing the opportunity to collaborate with publishers, the very people you wanted to work with in the first place.
Cobalt: What other advice would you offer to an author seeking to publish their first book through an independent press?
Stoner: The same advice everyone gives: read the books the presses publish. Better than that, buy them. Support them. Join the community, go to readings, read the publishers’ interviews, read their own work. It saves everyone time and most importantly, it can save the writer the crushing heartbreak of rejection. I overhead someone telling someone else at AWP that they weren’t buying anything, they were just taking whatever they got for free, and I thought and nearly said out loud: you are an asshat. If you aren’t willing to spend $8 on a book, a publisher shouldn’t have to spend weeks with you, editing your work; a publisher shouldn’t have to invest time and money on your behalf if you aren’t willing to do the same. Dang, I got overheated. But I just made breakfast, came back and read that paragraph, and I still feel the same way.
About Jess: Jess Stoner’s novel, I Have Blinded Myself Writing This, is out from Hobart’s Short Flight/Long Drive Books. Her choose-your-own-adventure poetry chapbook, You’re Going to Die Jess Wigent, was recently published by Fact-Simile. Her fiction, poetry, essays and reviews have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Two Serious Ladies, Caketrain, Everyday Genius, Alice Blue Review, and other handsome journals. Jess lives in the sweat and breakfast tacos of Austin with her husband Frank Stoner, who is a bad-ass rollerblader-linguist, and she’s the Education Programs Coordinator at Badgerdog Literary Publishing.