An interview with Jon Billman, PN's new fiction editor
Passages North is delighted to introduce you to our new Fiction Editor, Jon Billman, author of the story collection When We Were Wolves. Below, he takes questions from our newest Associate Fiction Editors – Marie Curran, Robin, McCarthy, and Matt Weinkman. Read on to see what Jon’s looking for in story submission, how he responds the pressures of a New Yorker subscription, and why writing a novella in three days might actually be a brilliant way to ruin your Labor Day weekend. Follow Jon on Twitter here.
Marie Curran: What are looking for in fiction that’s coming into PassagesNorth?
Jon Billman: Okay, a phrase I love is this blurb that Clyde Edgerton did for Rick Bass’ collection The Watch: “These stories jump off the page and run around the room naked.” That’s what I’m looking for, stories that jump off the page and run around the room naked.
I think my favorite stories inhabit a space in between realism and the magical. I’d be happy if all stories affected me the way Denis Johnson’s work affects me, where most often characters are beset by lack of a job, somehow struggling just to make it.
Marie: So you like struggling characters?
Jon: I like struggling characters, and I like parasailing, red-headed ex-wives. She’s one of the characters in Johnson’s “Work.” Everyone should read it.
I like this territory in the story where these things are possible. These stories are jumping out at me. The best collection of stories in several years, I think, is Claire Vaye Watkins Battleborn. It’s because the setting is the main character. And it’s Nevada. And it’s huge, and it’s strange. Setting is a big player in the stories I gravitate towards. So, yeah, Jesus’ Son and Battleborn, and you’re good. (So if your name is Denis Johnson or Claire Vaye Watkins, send us some stories.)
I’m actually a fan—I know some people love to hate the term magical realism—but if that’s what the stories, like in Rick Bass’ The Watch are, then sign me up for that too. I like wondering, is that possible? And not knowing for sure.
Marie: I’m always asking when I read Jesus’ Son, is this a different world, or is he just that strung out?
Jon: Exactly. Blurred lines.
Matt Weinkam: You’ve written features for Outside Magazine for a number of years and I’m curious how you got into that. Was magazine writing an ambition or something you fell into?
Jon: Well, to back up, when I was a kid growing up we had a black and white TV and the neighbors had color cable. But my parents went crazy buying magazine subscriptions for me and my brother. If there was something we were interested in and it had a magazine subscription associated with it--boom, we subscribed. We probably spent more money on magazine subscriptions than we ever would have on satellite TV.
Matt: What do you think that did for you? Growing up on magazines instead of TV?
Jon: I was, I still am, an extremely slow reader so without trying to I think I deconstruct and reconstruct words and sentences as I’m reading. I read almost every sentence three or four times. It sounds like a type of dysfunction but I think I trained my brain to see how language was put together without trying to.
So then, when I taught high school, every high school teacher gets this, “Well, why do we have to do this stuff?” Talking to a 14-year-old kid in Wyoming, all he wants to do is snowboard. So my shtick was, “You could get a job for a snowboard magazine and they can send you New Zealand and Antarctica and pay for it and that’s your job. How about that? Maybe pay attention for that reason.” After three years of my shtick, I started believing myself.
Matt: So it worked on one person.
Jon: [laughter] Yeah. So I got a book of stories published and that was just sort of my calling card, that’s how I saw it. I enjoyed doing it but that’s what I enjoyed about it, that the book allowed me to get on the phone with editors. Before that they wouldn’t take my calls. So actually I had editors calling me more and it just allowed me to transition out of teaching high school (which I enjoyed) and into freelancing.
Marie: But now you’re back to writing novels. What caused that shift back away from freelancing?
Jon: Some of it was making a living, making an income from it, you have to take jobs that your heart’s not into but they pay. It’s probably like any job, even brewing beer at a certain point you just want to go roast coffee.
Robin McCarthy: Can we talk a little bit more about place?
Jon: Oh, sure. Place is my favorite character, in almost every piece of fiction I write. Even stuff that’s so out there a drug-soaked like Jesus’ Son, place is integral to those stories in a way a lot of people could probably dismiss. I don’t think you can. In America now, what when you sense when you travel is a vacuum of a sense of place with the Arby’s and the strip malls that everyone has. That’s part of what I like about living in Marquette [Michigan]. It still feels like a real place in the Upper Peninsula, with the mining and logging culture. I’m an environmentalist and I get such a boyish kick out of seeing the logging trucks pull by my house. There’s something real about that. I gravitate toward writing that utilizes the place as the character, and writers who understand that place is the fuel for their characters.
Robin: Your first book was about Wyoming, is that true for your subsequent novels?
Jon: No, the novel I just finished a travelogue that starts in Montana, goes to Missouri, then goes west. It’s sort of a Huck Finn of the west, but instead of going to the northern tier, they go to California through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Nevada.
Robin: Did you take that trip?
Jon: In segments, not sequentially.
Robin: Where did you grow up?
Jon: In the Black Hills of South Dakota. And then my parents moved to Iowa, and then I went back to South Dakota. I was born about thirty miles from Wyoming, and I always knew that’s where the last semblance of the real west was in my mind. I want to get back there. I’d still be in Wyoming, but my wife likes Marquette. They have a co-op here!
Marie: You’ve published a short story about bike missionaries, and your other work has some western religious narrative.
Jon: Yeah. I don’t know how to extract myself from that religious baseline.
I have a bunch of dear friends who are Mormon, and it will never stop fascinating me. You see them all over, and it’s like, yeah, it would be cool to do that because you could ride your bike right? I admire the cold-calling ability; to go out on your bike in all weather and knock on the doors of strangers who don’t want to talk to you. Spiritual motivations fascinate me in characters, for sure. I was raised Congregationalist, it’s just part of my fabric, I guess. I can’t write characters bereft of religion.
It seems like an important and often overlooked aspect of western culture. Mormons especially, they moved into hard, hard country when they were kicked out of fertile country, and they made it work in spades. It’s something I try to keep in my work.
Other writers that write with that spiritual bent that I like, you know, Flannery O’Connor, Marilyn Robinson. I think a lot of the time, characters want to turn all that off, but they just can’t. One of my favorite novels of the last decade is The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon. I don’t like his other books, but I think that’s a masterpiece. Tremendous setting.
Marie: Tell me a little more about setting. You say that Battleborn’s main character is the setting.
Jon: I think that’s true, as well with a writer like Annie Proulx, whom I love, and Thomas McGuane. And Rick Bass. The settings are as memorable as the protagonists. I just feel like, even here, I walk outside, and I’m immediately aware of place. I’m not interested in stories that take place in a vacuum, and it’s surprising how many of those that I see. Place is character. Maybe that’s cliché, but it’s important.
Lately I’ve been thinking about what doesn’t work for me. I’ve been seeing quite a few—though at first you might say well-written stories—overwritten stories. There’s this palpable sense of trying too hard. I’ve been noticing a lot of these lately. I like stories that don’t try too hard.
Marie: I grew up dancing, and the best ballerinas who didn’t look like they were even trying. Isn’t that so true with everything?
Jon: Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son: it’s barely trying! Of course, it just looks that way.
Marie: Right, the best dancers were killing themselves to make that pose.
Jon: Absolutely. I think the way I see it manifest itself, that over effort, or trying too hard, is in the sense the stories come off as being clever. The best stories aren’t clever. They can be smart, and not clever. I’m also weary of stories that are too smart.
I think that’s a new writer’s tendency, to overwrite. I get that.
Marie: Why do you think? What happens?
Jon: I think one thing, well this can happen to me, with my own writing, is this love of language play. And you want to use the ingredients. I could make a bad cooking analogy with this. So I’m really into Himalayan sea salt, so I’m going to use it all; I’m going to over salt everything with it. Yeah, like that. We’re looking for slacker fiction.
No, I’m kidding. I would really—[Billman’s wife Hilary walks in]. Hey, your hair looks good. [Hilary laughs, gets what she needs from her desk.] I would love to know the true story of the revision, the process, that went into Denis Johnson’s stories. I don’t think we’ll ever know, because it’s Denis Johnson. I’m so hung up on that book this semester. Why? Those stories… where were we?
Marie: Why do people overwrite?
Jon: I think they’re just having fun. And writers should have fun! I should sense when writers are having that fun, but you can have that fun and then in the revision process, that’s where you need to sand it down.
Marie: Do you have any advice for the writer who has this super smart, clever, quippy draft and this writer’s thinking, there’s a story in here, how do I dress it down? How do I get rid of all this cleverness?
Jon: Wow, wow, wow. I think in terms of transitional drafts. So let’s just think about Character A, and that’s a draft, and Character A is the only thing I’m going to look at for this draft. You could probably as easily do a transitional draft for cleverness. It’s what William Goldman called “the cutes.” In my own work, I do a transitional draft for “the cutes” and I ask Hilary, my first reader, I say, you gotta kill some cutes. Goldman even claims that in the screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, that if he could do it over, he’d take away some of the cutes. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s kind of how I think of it. It’s hard to be aware of the cutes yourself. You’ve got to let it set for a while, and then have someone else look at it. If you can kill the cutes, you might find the story living underneath.
Even in a book as good as Battleborn, it feels like a roller coaster, and it feels like, oh, no, we’re going off the rails, and then just before, I think, whoa, okay, she did it. She reined it in. I wonder if an earlier draft did go off the rails. Those places have been off the rails, and a writer like Watkins wenches it back. That’s my hunch, and I like that. I like that pushing of the envelope: is this a little over the top? No, it’s not. That’s a great sensation.
Marie: It sounds like writers for Passages should be taking big risks.
Jon: Yeah, I’d agree with that. Big risks. And I want the feeling like I’ve never quite read a story like this before. I love that. What might that mean, I don’t know.
Marie: Something I hear people struggle with a lot, is they say, “This story has already been told,” and in workshop Matt Bell said something like, that if we held ourselves to that standard then none of us should be writing. Because every story has been told. But what are the stakes in this story that make it important?
Jon: Yeah, and this so often goes back to character. Okay, so the world needs another Western. I would argue with Patrick Dewitt’s The Sisters Brothers, that the world absolutely needs this book. The story has been told thousands of times, but the book is completely fresh because of the protagonist, the narrator. So Matt Bell is right.
Marie: I just finished reading Kind One by Laird Hunt. It’s a Southern novel. It’s a slavery escape epic novel. I’ve read reviews that seem to reiterate how it almost fits into those categories, but also defies them. It works near these categories that have been done over and over again, but these subjects find themselves with a new life, in under two hundred pages. But the Southern story, it’s not new. Yet it continues to be an important story.
Jon: Yeah, yeah. Sounds good. I’ll have to read that. And here [picks up a book], read The Sisters Brothers. This is the best novel I’ve read for a long time.
Marie: Hey, thanks. We’re flying to Denver this weekend, so that seems appropriate. A good time for a Western, going west to a town full of breweries. Saloons.
Jon: And you know, that reminds me! There aren’t enough brewers in fiction. Too many baristas, not enough brewers.
Marie: So that—more brewers—sums up your expectations for submissions?
Jon: Yes, yes, that’s it.
Robin: What authors and books really influenced you? Who are some of your favorite writers?
Jon: I’ll tell you the book that changed things for me. I went to a liberal arts school for a teaching certificate in college and ended up taking a lot of English general education classes. I was more on track for a literature degree, not thinking anything of writing at the time. But then the book that made me think, “Wow, I’d love to do that someday,” was a novel called The Bushwhacked Piano by Thomas McGuane. Very funny book. A kind of picaresque literary comedy.
I must be getting old though because I read the book again the other day and realized that McGuane’s later, more mature work speaks to me now. So McGuane’s definitely still my favorite writer. Favorite living writer. Are we talking living writers?
Robin: I don’t know. What do you read?
Jon: I like lots of writers. Rick Bass is one of my favorites. Annie Proulx.
Robin: Yeah, I love Annie Proulx.
Jon: She’s a national treasure. But you know, the quality I find myself gravitating towards as I get older is: I want to laugh. Jack Handy makes me laugh until I cry. It’s very puerile, it’s so sophomoric, but it’s so perfect. So today he’s my favorite writer. Tomorrow, who knows?
Robin: Do you share literary interests with your kids?
Jon: My son reads The New Yorker. I mean, he reads the cartoons, at a level where he enjoys them enough to keep reading through them. But what I recognize of myself in him is that he will run to the newspaper box to get the paper. I see newspapers and they look novel to me. He reads faster than I do, and he gets to read more than I do. We’re at the library every two days. I want him to have a science brain and think in terms of chemistry, but I haven’t seen any signs of that yet.
Robin: An eleven-year-old reading cartoons in The New Yorker has got to spark some interesting conversations.
Jon: I tell him to go ask his mother what things mean. You know the cartoon caption contest on the back page? He’s really good at that. To me, that’s far more difficult than drawing the cartoon and coming up with the caption.
Matt: I want to talk about one cartoon I loved in the last week or two. It was the whale on the beach with the cape on and it says “we meet again, my nemesis.” It’s just a beached whale. I laughed for days, and didn’t read anything else from that issue.
Robin: I feel like The New Yorker is this great burden to people who subscribe to it. It’s this huge meaty thing that arrives once a week. It could take up six or seven hours of your time, and you maybe had forty-five minutes to give to it, which is sometimes one article.
Marie: They’re just kind of stationed around the house, and I don’t even know what issue it is when I pick it up.
Robin: Yeah. And then I feel wasteful. It’s just always this thing to feel guilty about.
Jon: You know, if I come home from work tired, and I got to Jack Handy and Shout & Murmurs—is it Shouts and Murmurs?
Matt: That’s the humor column.
Jon: Sometimes Steve Martin?
Jon: If I get Shouts and Murmurs read, I feel proud of myself.
Robin: I like to go to the fiction and give it a couple pages.
Jon: Triage, yeah. That’s exactly what we’re going to be doing for Passages.
Marie: The first paragraph definitely tells me “okay, this is another story about this, this is just like last time."
Robin: But also, if it’s only three pages, no matter how bad, I’ll always read it, which is kind of interesting from a submission standpoint.
Marie: You mentioned you recently finished a novel. Can you say something about your writing process?
Jon: The one I just finished started out as a three-day novel contest entry.
Matt: Wait. Hold on. Three days?
Jon: That’s where it started, yeah.
Matt: NaNoWriMo was just too much time for you?
Jon: [laughs] Yeah. You should check it out. 3daynovel.com. A buddy of mine, David Zimmerman, is one of the best writers I know. His career was started when he won the three-day novel contest. Anvil Press published his book, it’s a Canadian press. They get six to eight hundred entrants every Labor Day. You pay a $50 entry fee and you’re on the honor system. You’re in your apartment writing a novel while six to eight hundred people all over the world are doing the same thing. You stop writing on midnight of that third day. You have a week to collate it and get it ready, and then you send it to Vancouver and three or four months later they announce the winner. You get 50-80 pages, which is a novella, but it presumably has the dynamics of a novel. When you win, you work on it with an editor and flesh it out to 150 pages or so. I’ve done it twice, and I think it’s worth two years of graduate school, as far as what I learned about my own writing. It because a physical endurance event.
Robin: What did you do with your family?
Jon: I send them off. I don’t even remember where they went. It’s interesting, because outside your window the world is having fun, because it’s Labor Day weekend. That’s part of the education you get; you have to focus in ways that you have never had to focus before.
Marie: How many drafts did that novel go through before you felt it was finished?
Jon: Oh, man. You know, the most effective thing I did was cut 40,000 words out of the manuscript. It really bloated and blew up, and my agent told me not to bother sending him a novel over 100,000 words because he couldn’t sell it and he wasn’t going to read it. I save all my drafts, I can go back and retrieve it, but it turned out it went from being this clumsy, lopsided thing to being pretty tight, in a way that was good for it. It was a great exercise to cut that much out of it. I love long novels, this isn’t to say a good novel can’t be long.
Marie: When you writing it in those first three days, how much were you revising?
Jon: The trick is not to revise. You have to keep moving forward with it. But the way I write, I can sit on a sentence for two hours. But forward movement, forward movement. I got shortlisted that year in the contest, and I think the judges were responding to an energy somewhere in it that came from that condensed forward movement. Plus, that kept me awake over the three days.
It’s not how you should write, these are not things that your writerly self should generally do, but at the outset, it’s an amazing education in the way you write; not the way you should do it, but the way your mind and body respond to it.
Marie: Well, Jon Billman, any last words for story writers interested in submitting to Passages North?
Jon: The right story is something, really, we’ll recognize when we see it. And as the fiction editor, I’m flattered people submit. I think I’d say the same thing whether I was the editor of The New Yorker, or Passages North. I’m flattered people care enough about our opinion to send us their hard loved, hard work.