Jackson Bliss is the winner of the 2020 Noemi Press Award in Prose and the mixed-race/hapa author of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments (Noemi Press, 2021), Amnesia of June Bugs (7.13 Books, 2022), and the speculative fiction hypertext, Dukkha, My Love (2017). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Ploughshares, Guernica, Antioch Review, ZYZZYVA, Longreads, TriQuarterly, Columbia Journal, Kenyon Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Witness, Fiction, Santa Monica Review, Boston Review, Juked, Quarterly West, Arts & Letters, Joyland, Huffington Post UK, The Daily Dot, and Multiethnic Literature in the US, among others. He is the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University and lives in LA with his wife and their two fashionably dressed dogs. Follow him on Twitter and IG: @jacksonbliss.
Interview with Jackson Bliss
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
I’d cook for Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, Tommy Orange, Karen Tei Yamashita, or Sandra Cisneros. I’d probably make oko toast with avocado, homemade ramen, or kimchi jjigae because those things are hard to fuck up if you know what you’re doing and they also make you look more talented than you actually are in the kitchen. We all need shortcuts to greatness. Also, those foods can be so deeply satisfying on an emotional level and I’d want my fave author to experience joy so they know how I feel when I read their books.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
Not being able to write anything, or anything that feels good to me when I read it again later on. I’m also afraid of people using my vulnerability in my writing against me. People can be such assholes when they’re trying to flex their moral education on you. When I’m afraid of something, I head right towards it because I know it’s not going to get easier by avoiding it, even though negative reinforcement is the most understandable defense mechanism there is. I guess I’d rather try and fail then not try at all. I don’t want to have regrets in my life. Also, I feel like we can always learn from our failures, but we can’t learn from the failures we didn’t make (because we were too afraid to make them). Fucking up is part of our agency I think.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
I have language crushes on Junot Diaz, Zadie Smith, Milan Kundera, Lydia Davis, Toni Morrison, Carole Maso, Sandra Cisneros, JM Coetzee, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, and WG Sebald. I have idea crushes on Haruki Murakami, Karen Tei Yamashita, Jorge Luis Borges, Ted Chiang, Octavia Butler, David Mitchell, Aimee Bender, Natsuo Kirino, and Italo Calvino. And I have story crushes on Yiyun Li, Adrian Tomine, Dostoevsky, JD Salinger, Alison Bechdel, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Tayeb Salih.
What books are on your nightstand?
Right now, I’ve just got Bryan Washington’s Lot on my nightstand because I’m a monogamous reader.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
It’s a toss up between a period and a colon. I like the openness of the colon, the way it opens up the sentence but also insists on a forced pause. I admire the closure and the definiteness of the period. I fucking detest the semicolon, though. If a pushy editor tries to replace my punctuation with a semicolon, I do a search and destroy mission immediately.
What book were you supposed to read in college, but never did?
James Joyce Ulysses. I still feel guilty about it to this day.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
The sun for feeding the world, for always coming after leaving us in the dark, for its endless energy, devotion, and circularity.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Get out while you can!
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Both. In the initial creation phase, so unbelievably energizing I can barely sleep sometimes. But in the subsequent revision and editing stage, which is the other 80% of the writing process for me that usually takes years and years to finish, it starts to wear you down. It can feel futile, monotonous, repetitive, and unrewarding at times.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Undervaluing your work ethic and overestimating your talent. Not knowing how to revise a draft a million times until it sparkles. Forcing your workshop to clean up the shit in your draft. Not knowing how to critically and objectively evaluate your own manuscript (and then fix the issues you discovered along the way). Comparing yourself to other writers, many of them with completely different circumstances. Believing that the only way to “make it” is to get an agent, a six-figure advance from a Big-5 press, and a story published in the New Yorker. By all means, fight for that shit, but just remember that there are so many different streets that lead to Midtown (and some of them are closed for construction).
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Work & love for totally different reasons. At least love inspires me to write better and harder whereas work just makes me daydream about taking a bath, listening to Lana Del Rey, and playing Mass Effect on my PS4 in my bathrobe as I sip guava kombucha and snack on midnight nachos.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yeah and I try as hard as I can not to feel bad about it (especially during this goddamn pandemic). There are times I just don’t want to read at all, whether it’s my writing or someone else’s. Most of the time, though, I’m only adverse to reading when I’m hella absorbed about the manuscript I’m working on at that moment. Also, sometimes I get scared about the possibility of idea leakage between another book I’m reading and my own draft. Sometimes, I just don’t have the head space to cohabitate two different literary worlds at the same time.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Yes, unfortunately. There are some amazing writers who don’t seem to feel a damn thing but technically, they’re fantastic writers. I’m not hating, I’m just saying. Writers are allowed to write their books however they want and I don’t have to agree or understand either. But I will say this: most of my favorite writers seem to feel very deeply, which is probably why I love their writing so much (& also, I’d imagine, why they feel called to write out their lives in some way).
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I have friends who are writers and then I have writer friends (most of whom I’ve never met IRL) and then there’s everyone in between. I’ve been writing for a while, so I’m friends with a lot of writers, both completely unknown ones with insane talent and literary rockstars, but there’s too many to list here without doing someone a major disservice. Also, I know that I’ll obsess about who to (not) include, so I’m gonna peace out of this question before I overthink it!
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Both. I’m not aiming for thematic, stylistic, or generic continuity in my body of work, I just want each book I write to stand tall and glimmer on its own because I’m vain, industrious, perfectionistic, and crazy ambitious like that. At the same time, I hope there is overlap in content, in voice, in imagination, and in stylization. My hope is that despite the huge differences between my books, readers will be able to open up to a random page and then say, “That shit’s Blissian!” or whatever.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Well, Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments came out about two and half months ago and the longer it’s out there, the more I think about a conversation I had with my friend and mentor, Aimee Bender, who said that just knowing your work is OUT THERE for the world to read changes everything in a small but profound way, and I think she’s absolutely right. Until you publish a book, all your creative work is atomized into occasional literary journal publications at best and hiding in your hard drive at worst. But when your book is out there for readers to consider, read, and engage with, it kinda makes you feel like your art is finally real in a material sense. It feels legit, like your work can now speak for itself.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
You mean money I got from my writing, specifically, or the best money I spent in my writing life? I did a reading last month from my short story collection and when they paid me, I bought a pair of dope kicks that I probably couldn’t have afforded otherwise. That felt good, not gonna lie!
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
At first, I wasn’t really into Toni Morrison, at least not Song of Solomon. In retrospect, I kinda hijacked my reading by putting the book down over and over again, forgetting the plot structure, then rereading the parts I’d forgotten, only to put the book down again. But by the time I got to Beloved and The Bluest Eye, I was completely sold. Not only are those better novels in my opinion, but I was more patient as a reader and just in a better place, emotionally speaking, to approach the novels on their own terms. Now, I’m a huge Toni Morrison fan.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
There’s an essay in Dream Pop Origami that answers this question way better than I’m going to RN called “When Words Make You Free.” It’s about the time I translated for a Mauritanian refugee at his asylum interview with INS. Shit was intense!
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is a quiet masterpiece, but for some reason, people always forget about it.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
My wifi network is “LanaDelReyIsMySpiritAnimal,” which is all you need to know, I think.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Well, every person I write about in Dream Pop Origami is real since it’s a memoir, so I guess I owe them a lot of gratitude for their authenticity, individuality, struggle, and hard work to exist in this cruel world and never give up. I’m indebted to them for giving me so much to write about.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Okay, I’m triggered! Seriously, though, I have two completed books that I’m trying to sell RN: a racial bildungsroman called Ninjas of My Greater Self about a mixed-race protagonist who falls in love with a suicidal movie star and later discovers that’s he part of an ancient ninja clan and a second short story collection called All the Places We Were Broken about mixed-race/hapa protagonists who get their hearts broken (and sometimes mended) all over the world that’s been longlisted at YesYes Books. I also have two early drafts of several other novels I won’t even think about touching until after Dream Pop Origami comes out in July 2022: an untitled novel about a family of mixed-race/hapa prodigies from Chicago and a second novel called We Ate Stars for Brunch that intersects with Ninjas as a counterfactual narrative exploring what happens if the protagonist makes a different major life decision.
What does literary success look like to you?
For me, the definition of literary success HAS to change at every stage in my writing career, otherwise I’d plateau. In the beginning, success meant publishing a piece in a literary journal. Then it meant publishing pieces in my fave literary journals like Fiction, ZYZZYVA, Guernica, Triquarterly, Boston Review, Longreads, etc., etc. Later it meant getting something in The New York Times. After that, success for me meant selling a book with a press. I was never picky about whether it was a Big-5 press or a small press, I only asked that the editors publish my book because of who I was as a writer, not despite it. In that regard, I’ve been hella lucky. Now, my new definition of success is selling my second short story collection with a readership that is already familiar with my writing, finding the perfect agent who is passionate about advocating for and selling books by BIPOC writers & getting them the kind of advance they deserve, and lastly, selling a bunch of screenplays that deal with mixed-race love, identity, and experimental forms of storytelling that center non-white characters.
What’s the best way to market your books?
If you can afford it, hire a freelance publicist! My other advice since I couldn't afford to hire a publicist for my first two books is this: You gotta bust the move to promote your own work because no one else is gonna do that work for you but you if you publish with a small press. No matter how good your book is, your book is not going to speak for itself if no one knows it exists and no one knows where to buy it. Those are just facts. I remember sending out hundreds of emails to literary journals, newspapers, editors, writing conferences, and bookstores just to get a couple interviews and several remote readings for Counterfactual Love Stories. It was a long slog, but what else can I do except try?
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
I don’t know what this says about my gender identity (and to be honest, I don’t care how people read my gender since it’s never been completely stable or static anyway), but almost all of my fave characters in my fiction are female characters. I’ve been told by quite a few women readers that I write female characters well, maybe because I can relate with them or because I care about them so much or because many of the most important people in my life are women. Either way, I feel like if you’re devoted to creating and developing characters that are complex, multidimensional, nuanced, surprising, defiant, and profoundly human and if you give those characters agency, backstory, and vocalization, more times than not, they should be pretty damn good and fairly complex. My trick is to give characters the freedom to act in ways I don’t always understand.
What did you edit out of this book?
Other travel essays, other personal essays, other lists that repeated many of the same things I’d already written about in this memoir. Also, I sometimes scaled down certain essays in Dream Pop Origami since their length really affected the overall pacing and narrative flow when read collectively even if separately, the length of that particular piece was fine.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I’ve tried not writing so many times and I just don’t know how to do it. That’s the goddamn truth. So, not writing isn’t an option for me since like many poets I know, I identify with my own language and I can’t survive without it. OTOH, if someone devised a cruel neurosurgery tool that could erase the part of my brain that needs to write, that knows how to write, and that seeks companionship in language while still leaving all the other parts of my brain intact, I suppose I would probably make a living traveling and taking pictures and writing music. I think it might actually be time to start my second post-rock/downtempo EP.
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