Writing as a compulsion

Posted on February 8, 2008

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Matthew Coleman interviews Travis Jeppesen

Matthew Coleman: I have recently read, and greatly enjoyed, your recent novel Wolf at the Door. It is a very fascinating and, at times, darkly funny book, was it an easy thing to write or a bastard of a struggle?

Travis Jeppesen: This one pretty much wrote itself. The book is written in two voices, and once I was able to nail each character’s voice, it pretty much just came out on paper on its own. Unlike, say, Victims, my first novel, which was a real struggle to write and required massive re-writes and editing, Wolf at the Door seemed to know what it wanted to be from the outset and required little interference from me, as funny as it may sound.

MC: What, or who, is the wolf you have in the title, what is its significance?

TJ: I will never reveal the answer to this question!

MC: The character of the terminally ill sculptor ends up destroying all of his art before leaving the city to head into the village. What is your perspective about the art being produced in the here and now?

TJ: It’s a strange sort of sacrifice that the sculptor makes. One of his reasons, I believe, for withdrawing from that world in such a dramatic fashion is because he feels there is a lack of integrity in current art practices. In the last quarter of the 20th century up to the present day, the art market has become so overinflated and powerful that most people working in the arts sector are more interested in capital than they are in ideas or individual works. There is very little interest in formal matters, there is very little criticism that anyone pays much heed to. This has had a detrimental effect on young artists, as well as the art that is produced under these conditions.

At the same time, from my tenure in Prague, I was able to gain an insight into a very different kind of art world – one that had not, until very recently, been touched by the late capitalist model of production and consumption. This situation is unique to post-communist Europe, and the art being produced in the late 90s and early part of the 21st century, I think, looks a lot different from Western European and American art from this era. My next book – and my first non-fiction book – will be a collection of essays on contemporary art called Disorientations. The primary focus will be on art and artists from Central and Eastern Europe, most of who are not so well known in the “West.” Social Disease will be publishing the book in May or June.

MC: Writing, for me at the start, was a cathartic experience. I was very angry and hurt and ripped up after being left by the first woman I fell in love with. What made you begin to write, was it because of a singular event or did it happen organically?

TJ: For me, it’s always been more of a compulsion. I’ve been writing stories, plays, and poems ever since I can remember – probably around the same time I learned to read. I know I can be very self-deprecating about it sometimes, but I actually take writing quite seriously and have dedicated my entire life to it. I’ve supported myself as a writer ever since I finished university, doing every kind of writing job you can imagine – ghostwriting, porn, journalism, commercial writing… Sometimes I get frustrated, because people have a tendency to regard my style as primitive or undisciplined. But I put a lot of thought and work into all of my poems and novels, and have never attempted to publish anything that I felt uncertain about just to get it “out there.” I think I’m actually quite careful as a writer, and the question of style is of utmost importance to me.

MC: You spent some time living in Prague, how was the whole writing and art scene out there?

TJ: The years I spent in Prague were probably the most important ones in my life so far. I still get really nostalgic whenever I think of Prague, and hope to go back there someday to actually write the book I always wanted to write about that city and my time there. But I got to a point where I realized that that phase of my life had come to a close, and I had to move on. I don’t think I would be in a very good state, had I opted to remain there.

I think BLATT and the Prague Literary Review (I only edited the latter publication for a short while) both give you an indication of the kind of writers from the Czech Republic – and Central and Eastern Europe, in general – that I have been most interested in. I would also recommend the entire back catalogue of Twisted Spoon books. Not only are their books beautiful as objects, they have managed to bring so many of the best writers from this overlooked region to an English-reading audience – from the Czech Republic alone, Ewald Murrer, Eva Svankmajerova, and Pavel Brycz are all worth reading.

While I was living in Prague, I was writing a lot about contemporary Czech art, as well as art from the surrounding area, for magazines like the Prague Pill, Umelec (the Czech art magazine), and Think Again, a free city magazine that comes out monthly. A bunch of these writings will appear in Disorientations, so I hope that does something towards bringing the art from this region to a wider audience.

MC: How was the magazine BLATT (and the manifestation of BLATT Publishing) born, and what are your aspirations as well as your regrets about it?

TJ: After Miro Peraica, who owns the Prague bookshop Anagram, heard that the Prague Literary Review was dying, he suggested the idea of somehow continuing the publication with two of the editors – me and Joshua Cohen – and Mario Dzurila, who was the art director and designer. We said yes, but had to change the name for legal reasons. It was Josh who came up with BLATT – a German word meaning “leaf” or “a sheet of paper.” Within a couple weeks, the first issue had gone to press.

I would like for BLATT to be a much bigger phenomenon than it currently is, but we have our limitations. I think people aren’t always clear on what the term “limited resources” means, so I’d like to take this opportunity to spell it out. At the moment, BLATT is just the two of us – Mario and I – and we are both involved in a number of work-related projects, and have to worry about making enough money to pay our bills, all that shit. It would be great if we could figure out a regular source of funding in order to devote more of our energies to BLATT, but we simply don’t have the time to seek out grants or track down a private sponsor who can fund both the books and the magazine and pay us salaries. Sure, there are EU funds, for example, but grant-surfing is a full-time job in and of itself. There’s just no way for me to read manuscripts, maintain a web presence, do publicity, edit six issues a year, edit the books, find funding, do all the necessary mailings, fill subscription orders, liaison with the printers, organize readings and events such as BLATT Fest (which we did for the last two years in Prague), and write my own books – while trying to earn a living by working my various other jobs – on top of all that. There are only so many hours in the day. I feel very bad that I can’t be more supportive of other writers. I get asked all the time to read manuscripts, and I almost always have to say no – not because I’m not interested, but because I simply don’t have time to read them, and as a writer I hate it when I send a manuscript off and it takes them a year or longer to get back to me, which is what the situation with BLATT ultimately winds up being. To run a proper publishing house, you really have to either have a full staff working for you or at least two full-time employees, plus interns. Anything else, and it’s going to be a hobby, whether you like it or not.

MC: How did the BLATT and 3:AM literary shindig go in Berlin recently (Heidi James, who was reading there said she enjoyed it immensely), did you get a good response from the whole thing?

TJ: I had a good time, the crowd seemed to enjoy it. Of course it would’ve been nice if more of the 3:AM people had showed up!

MC: What is the most mind-blowing book you have read recently, and why?

TJ: I thoroughly enjoy the work of Peter Sotos, and his latest book, Show Adult, is no exception. He is quite simply the most important living writer on aesthetics that I’m aware of. I’ve discussed with Peter the possibility of putting out one of his books through BLATT sometime, and hopefully that will happen in the near future.

MC: Who are your heroes?

TJ: I haven’t found any yet.

MC: What do you love in life?

TJ: I like to walk and think. I think mainly about the future. The past rarely has much resonance for me. I love being in the company of friends, and spending time at home with Mario, who’s my best friend and with whom I’ve lived for the last four-and-a-half years. I also love my cat, Atmos.

MC: What do you loathe?

TJ: I hate all forms of authority, I hate exploitation of any sort, and I hate competition in all its guises.

MC: And, finally, what is next for Travis Jeppesen this year?

TJ: Well, I’m looking forward to the publication of Disorientations. I’m working on a novel, a couple of novels actually, so we’ll see what happens there. We’re on the verge of finally releasing our second book with BLATT, a collection of poems in English translation by Ales Mustar, C(o)urt Interpretations. We’re putting out a great novel by Clarence Bard Cole, This is Where My Life Went Wrong. We hope to put out a couple more books in the coming year, and hopefully another issue of the magazine. The last one sold out pretty quick, which is a shame, because it was really a beautiful issue.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Matthew Coleman is a filmmaker, writer, word whore and a confirmed member of The Offbeat Generation.

Posted in: Interviews