Interview with Jonathan Harper, Spring 2010
In Capital Letters: What authors, books, poems, stories do you return to again and again?
Jonathan Harper: The usual suspects: Mary Gaitskill (my all time favorite), Stephen Elliott, Angela Carter, Anais Nin, Henry Miller (in theory), the short stories of both Jameson Currier and Flannery O'Connor, the plays of Tennessee Williams. And, of course, Mother of Sorrows and Dancer from the Dance are two of my favorite books.
One little treasure that I've found myself rereading lately is The Zombie Pit by Sam D'Allesandro, which is totally weird because the stories aren't perfect, but sometimes I'm in the middle of one and realize that I've been holding my breath like he's sitting right there choking me, demanding my attention. I just hope that one day someone will read my work and have half that reaction.
ICL: What have you read most recently that has inspired you?
JH: This past summer, I finally reread The Great Gatsby. It's simply flawless. Also, The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliot. He manages to weave in multiple story threads together in each chapter in such a way that you never feel overwhelmed. Plus, Stephen Elliott is kind of hot.
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
JH: My absolute favorite part is the conceptualizing phase. It's so much easier to write about a story than to actually write the story itself and some initial ideas spiral out with multiple story threads. I'm currently working on a piece about a man who confronts a childhood bully from fifteen years prior. Before even starting the first draft, I already had notes on his childhood memory loss, an addiction to pain killers, his job as a high school teacher and a troubled relationship with his twin sister. The challenge is structuring all these ideas into one story. My least favorite part is the editing process because my first drafts tend to include too many threads. Editing usually means sacrificing story components, which is a difficult choice to make. The surprise is when all the mix-matched ideas do eventually fit together into something coherent.
ICL: How did you come to writing? When and how did you realize you wanted to pursue this medium?
JH: In the fourth grade, I tried writing my own version of The Hobbit, replacing all of the characters with the kids from my class. It was a ridiculous saga that took up a full spiral notebook and was never finished. So, according to my mother, that's my unfinished masterpiece. My first job out of college was with a nonprofit that supported LGBT literature. All of the sudden, I was surrounded by all these amazing people who were publishing queer books that I never knew existed. That was the first time I started seeing my own fiction as an actual goal instead of just a fun idea.
ICL: How do you think your writing has been informed by your personal history?
JH: I grew up in a military family and we moved at least every two years. We lived in rural and urban communities, all over the US and overseas. There was a time when I was sent to a psychologist because I wouldn't socialize with other children and then later on, I would sneak out of my house in New Jersey to go play in Manhattan with my friends. Also, I was the gay son of a Brigadier General and with living on military bases it didn't feel safe for anyone to know. I was a teenager with secrets and it really put a strain on my relationship with my family.
I've actually avoided writing about my childhood and my experiences as a military brat. But it still influences a lot of my fiction. Most of my characters are isolated in one way or another; they constantly seek some sort of acceptance or seem to thrive off being a self-pronounced outsider. My favorite story I've written here is about a group of people going to participate in suspension art. I've never participated in body modification, but I felt like I understood my main character and both his attraction and repulsion to the suspensions. As for the other practitioners, their destructive and nurturing sides were partly inspired by my own life experience.
ICL: Are there themes that are central to your work? Do you see themes repeating in your stories?
JH: Andrew Holleran once said I was writing about characters struggling with what they want to be versus what the world will allow them to be. A lot of my stories' subject matter has dabbled in queer identity, suburbia, masochism, adults living out childhood fantasies and so forth. But I'm terrible at describing my overall focus. So when Andrew said that, I was all like, "Egads! Are you serious?" and he was all like, "Yep."
ICL: How do your stories come to you? Is it by an image, a character, line, phrase, idea?
JH: Ideas mostly. I'm prone to daydreaming, especially in public.
ICL: What have you learned while being part of this MFA program? How has it influenced your writing?
JH: This may sound cheesy, but I learned what type of writer I wanted to be. One of the first things this program did was force to me to explain what I was trying to accomplish in my stories. I tend to be drawn towards very explicit subject matter, but also strive for very complex psychological profiles of my characters. I've felt for a long time that what physically happens in a story isn't necessary what the story is about and the faculty members at AU, both past and present, have all been so supportive in helping me articulate that emotional core I'm working towards.
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
JH: Ha! "Still Alive" by Jonathan Coulton, as sung by GLaDOS.
ICL: Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.
JH: I totally have superhero fantasies. Sometimes, when I'm driving in my car and the right song comes on, it becomes the soundtrack to one of my epic battles against evil. It is literally just too awesome to describe here.
ICL: What projects are you working on right now?
JH: I am currently working on a short story collection. My thesis was thankfully finished a semester early and Richard McCann and Jeff Middents were a powerhouse committee. They had such intense criticism and advice and it just took a long time to absorb it all. I'm really proud of my thesis as an accomplishment, but I know now that it will be better. So, I'm currently working on new material in my last workshops, making notes about which thesis stories I want to resurrect and after I graduate in May, I will focus all efforts on putting together a more publishable collection.
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
JH: Taking cooking classes and opening up my dream café.