Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rebels & Misunderstood Creatures | The PJ Lyon Interview

PJ Lyon is my favorite kind of author, the kind you can't read while waiting in line or sitting at the bus stop. He gives himself over totally to his stories and demands the same from his readers. Some burn with raging intensity, some simmer with understated grace, but all compel you to slow down, roll them across your tongue and savor their elegance like a fine wine.

My introduction to him came by way of a collection of shorts called Small Victories.  Though the individual pieces spanned a variety of genres and tones, they were all unified by a central theme: in this world, you have to enjoy your victories any way you can get them.  It may seem hollow or bittersweet at first, but as long as you take a stand, as long as you stay true to your principles, that's one victory no one can ever take from you.

Since then, he's consistently confounded my expectations, eschewing conventions while retaining an unflinching clarity of vision.

MM: Your stories tend to revolve around individualists who stand apart from the herd. Sometimes they're loners, sometimes they're rebels, and sometimes they're just misunderstood. What about this particular archetype do you find so compelling?

PJL: As far as I’m aware (and I’m not very aware most of the time) these characters are me, and sometimes they’re what I’d want to be, and often they’re what I never want to become. It took me a long time to let my subconscious take over when I write, it just so happens that my subconscious produces those loners and rebels and misunderstood creatures that now populate my fiction. There’s a line in the Operation Ivy song 'Knowledge’ and it goes “All I know is that I don’t know nothing.” When it comes to my own writing and the characters within that writing, I believe that quote sums up exactly how much I know about what I do.

MM: While much of your writing can be interpreted as social commentary, The Rorschach Sands struck me as perhaps your most overtly political story to date. Do you think the writer has a role to play in our social discourse? Is it too much to expect fiction to have a tangible impact, to be able to change minds or serve as a call to action?

PJL: Writers have to be involved. They have to show that the world has touched them on some level or other. Writing without this kind of involvement is useless, it is nothing but the buzzing of a vuvuzela horn. I’m not an actively political person, I don’t like politicians and I no longer believe our votes count, but I do believe that fiction (along with music and all the other arts) can be a force for change. Good writing always has a tangible effect on the reader. It stirs emotions, it makes us think, sometimes, if we’re lucky, it will change our whole perception of the world. If we’re even more fortunate it will inspire positive actions in others.

MM: Your stories often involve strong images and symbols - for instance, the photograph of the girl in I Remember Yves Montes or the image of the oil-splattered beach in The Rorschach Sands. Do you tend to start writing with a particular image in mind, or do you start with characters/plot and construct the imagery around them?

PJL: I have absolutely no idea what I’m writing until it is written. I’m entirely driven by what I feel. I never plot, I don’t plan, I don’t jot down notes or character descriptions and I never do research of any kind. If it isn’t there when I start writing, then it will never be there and I just walk away from the story.

I Remember Yves Montes started with the image of the girl (which became the front cover) and the honest expression of love by the photographer in his words to describe that image. That simple declaration, the beauty that the photographer saw in the girl, touched me and all I wanted to do was write a story about that photograph. The story I found was only possible because I didn’t know what story I was writing to begin with. They say write what you know, but I believe I’m writing to discover what I know more than anything else.

MM: You have some of the most gorgeous, striking covers, far better than most "professional" book designs. What makes a good book cover to you, and how important is it to have the right cover for a story?

PJL: A good book cover is something that can be taken away from the fiction it represents and be admired all by itself. I do believe that the best of book covers are artworks. And they are important to the overall experience, but they’re not everything. A good title is just as important to me, or the approach of the author to their creation. The cover could be plain text on a white background if the title intrigues me or the author has some attitude beyond 'buy my product’.

MM: Liseuse seems to be about begrudgingly coming to terms with the technological age, and this plays out specifically embodied by the shift from paper to e-books. Yet, you publish your own work exclusively in e-book format. Is there something bittersweet about the emergence of e-books?

PJL: Oh it’s most definitely bitter-sweet, but no more so than any of the other shifts I’ve experienced in my life. I’m in my mid-thirties, so I’m from probably the last generation that will ever have a reverence for physical books, even to the point of assigning value beyond the words those books contained. But it’s just a form of nostalgia, the same as when I see a DVD or tape cassette.

I own no paper books and I will never own any in the future. Paper is as much a lock on knowledge as DRM or Geographic restriction. It was good while it lasted and I have fond memories, but I have fonder memories of the words within those books. Knowledge and freedom trump nostalgia.

MM: Do you think the so-called e-book revolution is going to make it easier for self-published or indie authors to gain broad exposure and challenge mainstream lit in the marketplace? Is that possible, or even desirable?

PJL: I believe mainstream literature will be dead within ten years along with the traditional publishing industry. We have nothing to fear and they will not be able to challenge what replaces them, but we do have to create our own marketplaces, our own points of interest and influence. And to do this writers have to band together and start their own publishing houses. The overall aim should be to give back the respect to writers and readers that the publishing companies stole from them over the years. If this is done, we’re looking at a very exciting future for everyone.

MM: You've stated before that you don't read "mainstream" authors. What is it that you think that mainstream literature is lacking, and do you think that there are real independent alternatives out there that are accessible to the average reader?

PJL: The fault is that mainstream fiction is about profit not fiction, not stories, but which unit will sell enough to make X amount over the investment. Fiction as a product soon becomes fiction that must appeal to as many consumers as possible, just like any other product. So you’re left with more and more product that apes preceding successes, but less actual choice. The independent author is in a perfect position to offer the variety that the publishing industry is lacking. It’s already happening right now as more and more writers forgo the mainstream and decide to publish themselves. The alternatives are in place and they’re becoming more and more successful with every passing day. Not only are they accessible, but I believe they’ll create a whole new generation of readers who are more open to new fiction.

MM: How much of an obstacle do you see in the issue of gatekeepers or tastemakers to help readers/consumers sort through the wealth of indie lit available? The "accepted wisdom" is that faced with an infinite number of options, readers might become somehow overwhelmed and seek refuge in comfortable and identifiable brands of the Rowling/Brown/Meyers/Larsson variety.

PJL: There will always be a section of the audience who have to be told what to like, who are terrified of anything without an official seal of approval. Thankfully, there will always be people who embrace change, who are willing to take a risk and who will inform others of their discoveries. The gatekeepers and the taste makers will emerge, if they’re not already emerging now, and they will be as varied as the communities they serve.

MM: You are very vocal about your support for Creative Commons and equally critical about the way major publishers use copyright laws to usurp artists' control of their own work. Have we outgrown the usefulness intellectual property rights as classically conceived, and if so, what should take its place?

PJL: Intellectual property is dead. It died in the hands of the Walt Disney Corporation when they resurrected that zombie mouse of theirs for the umpteenth time. It means nothing to the general public and it is a barrier to our progression at every level. Creative Commons is okay as a stop-gap, but it is not the solution. At some point we’re going to have to admit that copyright doesn’t work for either creator or the public at large and we’ll have to put it to rest. Beyond that, I couldn’t even guess what might take its place and I’m not even sure we should put anything in its place, except maybe some much overdue common sense.

MM: Earlier this year, you shut down your old web site, pulled your old works off Feedbooks, and relinquished control over the work to MobileRead. Can you talk a little about how you arrived at that decision?

PJL: I believe it was a combination of people close to me dying and a creative crisis that found me hovering between the writer who I’d once been (striving for the mainstream with thrillers, mystery and horror) and the writer that I was becoming (increasingly uneasy around genre fiction of any kind and completely disinterested in the mainstream).

Looking back I believe I was shedding skin, readying myself on a subconscious level to fully embrace what was about to come next. Giving away copyright, deleting my books were the conscious actions that made that transition final and permanent. Without that decision I would have been stuck ping-ponging between what was and what could be for the rest of my life. That was no place I wanted to be creatively.

Also I gave up smoking and it drove me a little insane. :)

MM: How important are online communities like MobileRead to you as an artist? What are your ambitions in terms of growing an audience and promoting your work?

PJL: I’m convinced that online communities are the most important aspect of our interaction with audiences, and they’ll become even more important once diaspora* is released and we start using the web in a more democratic way. The future, creatively and otherwise, is in the communities we build. Saying all that, I have no ambitions when it comes to growing an audience or promotion. I’m just as happy with one reader as I would be with a million. I’ll continue to write and publish, but the writing has to be my sole focus, nothing more. Whatever good comes from my writing beyond the writing itself, I’ll consider a bonus, but I’m not looking for anything more.

MM: What are you working on next? I'm particularly intrigued by what you've teased about The Pier at the End of the World.

PJL: I have at least twenty or thirty projects going on at once. Short stories, novellas, scripts, poetry, whatever tickles my fancy. Most of it goes left unfinished, or deleted, but at the moment I’m working on two bigger projects that I strongly suspect will see publication.

The first project is a three book meta-narrative. Book one, The Pier at the End of the World, tells the tale of a pulp author writing his last contracted novel in the odd cinema cum cafĂ© he inherits from his dead uncle. The second book, Fortune’s End, is the pulp novel the fictional author is writing within the first book. The third, The Unfortunate Merman - the life and fiction of Jon Wen, will be a fictional biography of the fictional author. Each are separate, but when read together they should form a richer, more informed narrative. It’s an exercise in different styles, but also a investigation into the three stages of a fictional work - what the writer feels - what the audience receives - how the author and his creation are seen.

I’m about a quarter done on the first two, and the third I’ll write after the first two are finished.

The second project is a collection of short stories inspired by the fifteen tracks on the Tom Waits Album "Swordfishtrombones" which, when collected, will be called “Rainbirds". I’m done with the writing on that project, but I’m letting it cool for a few weeks while I continue with other projects.

MM: I've loved having so many new stories from you released in such quick succession. Have you had a recent burst of inspiration, or is this a planned full court press to market or brand your work?

PJL: I’m more buzzed, intrigued and excited by writing now than I’ve ever been before. But I don’t have any plans to market myself or build a brand. Every plan I’ve ever made has failed. My only concern is writing and publishing that writing whenever it’s complete.

Free e-books from Feedbooks
The Rorschach Sands
I Remember Yves Montes

A Flag for Mr Bellamy
Toward the Latitudes

If you want to kick it old school, download Small Victories via MobileRead: epub | mobi

All images are the work of PJ Lyon and used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license.


Philistine Press said...

Great interview - I haven't read any of PJ Lyon's work, but definitely will do now.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interview, to both of you. It's refreshing to see such an open and honest dialogue with a writer, and I really enjoyed this insight into your motivations and thoughts. I think both of you are real models of engaged and sincere writers and I'm very happy to be able to follow your work. Can't wait for more of it. :) Keep writing, and my heartfelt thanks to you for sharing it with us.

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