Following his debut collection, Rabbit Punches (Low Fidelity Press, 2006), Neighbors of Nothing (Dzanc, 2013) marks Jason Ockert’s triumphant return to the press, offering ten distinctly original stories, alive and full-bodied, hysterical and depressing—a reminder that sometimes when things get difficult all you can do is laugh.
The following accolades are stolen from his website (www.jasonockert.com):
“[Ockert] has received awards from The Atlantic Monthly, Mary Roberts Rinehart, the Dzanc Short Story collection contest, and been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. His short fiction has appeared in New Stories from the South, Best American Mystery Stories, Oxford American, storySouth, Ecotone, The Iowa Review, One Story, McSweeney's, and Post Road. Jason serves as fiction editor of Waccamaw and is an associate professor at Coastal Carolina University.”
Pat Siebel: First of all, I’m glad you wrote Neighbors of Nothing, which Junot Díaz called "searching and generous." In addition to the stories from Rabbit Punches, I’ve seen several of the recent stories in journals and magazines. Your characters are always memorable. They not only live on the outskirts of the physical landscape—in the woods, squatting in an attic, in a weathered house along the railroad tracks—but they also seem to occupy a complex psychological fringe. How do you create your characters? Is your impulse grounded in the physical more so than in the psychological or vice versa?
Jason Ockert: Thanks for taking the time to do this, Pat.
I’m humbled by Junot’s generosity and by so many others who have extended kind words and gone out of their way to shed light on my work.
That you consider my characters memorable is high praise, which I appreciate. Good stories refuse to be forgotten. If a character keeps scratching away at you once you’ve stepped away from the book, I’ve done my job.
My characters often rise up from the landscape. I was standing in line at the post office, for example, when I saw this guy in front of me wearing a Ray Lewis Baltimore Raven’s jersey. What do we know about the people we celebrate? What does it mean to wear someone else’s name across your back? Does that make you culpable to the athlete’s actions? Those questions were the seeds for “Everyday Murders.”
When I wrote “Max,” I was commuting an hour and a half to and from work (at the time I was living in Western New York). Every day I’d drive past this pumpkin patch. Around Halloween, yeah, of course, pumpkins make sense. After the holiday, though, as the frost sets in and winter encroaches, the orange fruit starts to feel out of place. I watched those gourds wilt into the ground as I zipped along. Then, while I was listening to the radio, I heard about a local crow hunt. Apparently, tens of thousands of crows migrate to this one town every year and the birds wreak havoc. The story, then, found me. I’m not from Auburn—I was just passing through—but there’s a part of that universe to which I belonged, temporarily, and that’s what I tried to capture.
For the most part, I’ve divided my life geographically by decades. I spent the first ten years of my life in Indiana, the next ten in Florida, then in New York, and now the clock is ticking in South Carolina. I can relate better to transience than I can to rootedness. Perhaps that’s why most of my characters hover on the periphery?
For some reason I’ve been able to maintain a high level of curiosity as I’ve gotten older. I might not like people much but I like the idea of them. I try to stay open to the world. To notice things that exist between where I’ve been and where I’m going. To do justice to the fictional places I invent and the inhabitants who populate them. To be truthful to those pumpkins, the folks that kill birds, the loneliness of youth, the sharp edges of revenge, and the ways in which we try (and fail) to talk about the kinds of things that words cannot quite connote.
PS: The NoN epigraph, an excerpt from Mark Strand’s “Elegy for My Father,” draws attention to the theme of fatherhood. Did you intentionally organize the stories around a father/son relationship? What do you think of theme-specific short story collections?
JO: Writing to theme strikes me as asinine. Stories aren’t assignments.
I do think that ideas cluster. Sometimes writers need to use multiple avenues to feed a singular obsession. Take Junot’s recent collection, This is How You Lose Her. Each story stands alone. Each piece is nuanced and beautiful. When read together, it’s pretty clear that the lovelorn take center stage. The stories refract and reflect off each other like a mirror ball and illuminate heartache and longing. My hunch is that the writer didn’t write to the emotional epicenter, he wrote from it.
I think you know you’re done with a certain topic when your obsessions say so.
PS: Stories not being assignments seems like a decent segue into your professorship at Coastal Carolina University. How does teaching fiction influence your writing?
JO: Teaching writing is a privilege that I don’t take for granted. I mean, my job is to read and talk about stories all day. What could be better? Discussing writing helps me clarify what it is that I prioritize in stories. Since I’ve sworn off hypocrisy, the advice I offer students, I heed.
The workshop setting creates a community wherein meaningful bonds are formed. As ringleader, I approach the classroom with a lot of energy which is often reciprocated. That energy, in turn, guides me to the page. It’s a cycle, really; teaching gives my writing energy and writing gives my teaching energy.
Also, I’ve had so many fine instructors in my life and I owe it to them to give as much as I can to my own students.
PS: You earned your MFA under George Saunders at Syracuse University, but your writing has its roots farther south. What is it about the low country that intrigues you?
JO: You’ll appreciate this, Pat, since you work at an airport. The other day I was between flights and passed one of those airport kiosks and saw Tenth of December right below some Bill O’Reilly book. A collection of short stories bravely facing the bustling travelers. Made me super-happy. It’s more proof that short stories are thriving.
Anyway, yeah, I’ve had a tremendous amount of dumb luck. I suspect someone in admissions made a clerical error, I was accidentally accepted into SU’s MFA program, and for some reason nobody kicked me out for being a hack. Before that, though, as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, I lucked into classes taught by Padgett Powell, Wendy Brenner, and (briefly before he dropped the class) Harry Crews. I was really young and hoisting banners and fell in love with the cadence and swagger of southern sentences which has had a lasting impression.
PS: The stories in Rabbit Punches are paired (each story has a loosely-connected counterpart) with the opening story, “Infants and Men,” bookended by the last story, “Milkweed.” The stories, read in order, seem to offer an over-arching journey. I assume that was intentional. How did you decide to arrange NoN?
JO: In my mind, the stories are arranged—from beginning to ending—around a kind of acceptance of circumstances. The first few stories (“Into the Dead,” “Jakob Loomis,” and “Still Life”) are inhabited by characters that are lashing out at loss because they’re not prepared to let go. The protagonists in the last few stories (“Piebald,” “Sailor Man,” and “Echo”) are starting to come to terms with the absence of loved ones. They’re trying, anyway, to wiggle their way out of the chokehold of grief, and I think that’s something.
Part of what I was after in this collection is the feeling of being almost, but not quite, gone.
PS: Kyle Minor’s latest collection of short stories, Praying Drunk, comes with the following disclaimer: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON'T SKIP AROUND.” Do you think it’s important for a reader to start from the beginning and read all the way through?
JO: Well, that’s how I read story collections. And as I mentioned above, I see a rhyme and a reason to the order. To be honest, though, I’m just happy when anyone takes the time to read something I’ve written. Look at all the lovely distractions out there? Who has time for a short story? My suspicion is that plenty of people are reading stories these days. Folks get the import of the form. Good stories crackle and set an otherwise dreary day on fire.
PS: The characters in NoN exist very much in today’s world. “Everyday Murders,” for instance, taps into an online entrepreneurial endeavor (centered around the exploitation of the victims of serial killers), something that might speak to the millennial generation—like those familiar with the television show, Dexter. On the other hand, there’s “Insectuality,” one of my personal favorites, in which Arc, the protagonist, attempts to court a woman in an antiquated 1950’s way. How does audience play a role when you write?
JO: Literature is for the young. I believe writing can save your life. So can reading. When you’re younger, the world is brighter. There are countless possibilities and the fact that the adult world is repressing your opportunities pisses you off. It should, anyway. So, kids rage. They seek banners to wave around for a while before the great nine-to-five mulching begins. Young love—for music, art, writing, other people—is the stuff that fortifies folks through the workweek. If you’re lucky, when you’re older, that love carries over and you’re still capable of being moved by words marching up and down the page.
I write, then, with two versions of myself in mind: 1. The punk I used to be, and 2. The broken man I will become. I’m hoping the stories I write now act as a conduit which are capable of jolting me out of the torpor of living. If I jolt others, too; hot damn!
PS: You told me once that you're not the kind of writer who can sit down everyday and write. Tell me about the eight-year "break" between Rabbit Punches and Neighbors of Nothing.
JO: Two feelings I’ve tried hard to avoid in my life are guilt and regret. What happens, more often than I’ll admit, when I try to commit myself to a regimented writing schedule is that I’ll fail. I’ll say, for instance, “Write for two hours every morning, lazybones!” (Sometimes I call myself names.) And, I’ll dutifully try. And, I’ll dutifully fail. Then I’ll crank up the old excuse machine: “You had so many papers to grade, the oil needed changing, twitter really matters…” and before long I’ll start feeling pretty disgusted with myself. Writing disgusted blows. Better to write in a space that doesn’t feel restrictive. Most people know when they’re procrastinating. It’s what you do with the knowledge that matters. I don’t need any help feeling guilty when I’m not writing or regretful when I realize that time’s sliding by and the good work isn’t getting done.
Between the publication of Rabbit Punches and Neighbors of Nothing I wrote two novels. One novel is buried in the backyard fertilizing my yard. The other novel, Wasp Box, will be published in early 2015.
PS: When I read, I’m drawn to stories that are able to tap into the uncanny feeling that the writer is exposing something that I thought—prior to reading the story—was exclusive to me. That’s how I feel when I read your work. I’m excited by the realization that I’m not alone and annoyed by the fact that I’m not as unique as I thought I might be. How do you tap into this whole matter of commonality? I guess what I want to know is what you’re drawn to; what do you think makes fiction great?
JO: That’s a tough question to answer exactly because of how you put it. On some level you just know when something is moving. It’s intuitive. It’s mystical. Hell, it may be spiritual.
One thing I know is that I’m drawn to stories in which flawed characters find a slice of redemption. Despite the overwhelming odds stacked against the downtrodden, he or she discovers hope. I’m thinking of stories from Flannery O’Connor , Donald Bartheleme, and Joy Williams, of course, but you’ll also see it in Kevin Wilson, Laura van den berg, and Karen Russell. There’s a kind vulnerability, a pathos, in pieces I admire which helps me recalibrate my own sense of morality. That’s the kind of writing I seek out.
PS: When editing your pieces, what do you find is your most common instinctual writing habit that you find yourself continuously censoring?
JO: I can get carried away with the conceit of the story. I have to remind myself to “earn” the weird. In early drafts I leave little room for the reader and instead find myself enjoying getting lost in the landscape of the story. Since I’m the only one who ever sees first drafts I’m not beholden to anyone but myself. What makes sense in my mind, I’ve discovered, doesn’t in yours. If, for instance, I decide on a whim to reanimate roadkill—a dead buck—and have it speak to a disgruntled teen, I better prepare the reader for this leap in logic.
To put it another way, an editor once told me that I should reduce the “quirk quotient” in a piece. Naturally, at first, I resisted. Censoring strange defied my instinct. Now, though, I see the wisdom in the comment. In many ways, necessary idiosyncrasies are diluted when stories are crowded with superfluous oddities. Part of the reason we love Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, the protagonist in Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” is that, despite being dumped on his entire life (trash literally falls on his head) our man gets to turn into a ghost and kick some ass in the end.
PS: Some of the younger characters in your stories tend to have their personalities overshadowed by a more dominant adult figure. That is, the adult personalities seem to establish the rules governing the characters’ worlds while the youth submits to their (the adults’) eccentricities. Is this a conscious move?
JO: It’s an interesting observation. I don’t think it’s conscious, no.
I see my characters on a continuum. That is, I try to imagine previous incarnations of the people I invent at different moments in their lives. In my mind, this is how memory works. The way I see it, stories mimic memories. When we think back to childhood it’s natural for us to situate an imagined former version of ourselves into a scene or a situation. We furnish nostalgia with intent and motivation from a remove; from the “now” space. I’m not suggesting that what we remember is false but I do believe that it’s merely a facet of the truth. Sure, we’re smiling for the photo and we recollect being happy building that sandcastle on the beach on summer vacation, but have we forgotten the sting of the sand in the eyes? Do we overlook the glassy stare? The cliché is that there’s more to the picture, of course. As a writer, I feel liberated by the knowledge that who I believe I was is as much of a construct as who I believe I am going to be.
In the end, I think what matters most is the emotion contained in the memory. If you remember feeling happy when you built that sandcastle, then you were. And maybe you are now, too.
PS: Neighbors of Nothing is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read in I don’t even know how long. Why isn’t the book getting more attention?
JO: Ha. Well, I’m flattered, man. In the battle of Masses vs. Individuals, my money’s always on the individual. That it means something to you means much to me.
I look at fame and fortune the way that I look at flying and invisibility. They’re cool ideas. There are rumors that writers can achieve these feats. That doesn’t mean I’m going to throw myself off a building or don a cloak of invisibility and strut publically nude. Better to keep my shirt on, feet planted, and let the chips fall where they will.