A Conversation with Author Jay Shearer
This is the Editor-in-Chief of The Literary Orphans Journal, Mike Joyce. I recently had the opportunity to have a conversation with author of the Cairn Press book FIVE HUNDRED SIRENS, and Chicago inhabitant Jay Shearer. I ran into Jay at AWP 2014 in Seattle in that awful February, while stopping by the Cairn Press booth to talk to Jody Thompson, a past contributor. When I ran into Jay and we struck up a brief conversation it felt immediately like a piece of Chicago in Seattle. This interview has been a long time coming, but it’s well worth the wait. In it we talk about the city we both live in, we talk about the title of the book, we talking about where Jay writes, we talk about themes, we even talk about picking a cover for the book. Please read more below!
1. Why do you write?
In part, I enjoy it a great deal, even though, on a bad day, it can be incredibly frustrating, a fruitless process. On a better day, there’s an intuitive alchemy involved that’s hard to beat. That is, the process of discovering what you mean to describe or say while immersed in the act of composing. So much of what’s good or surprising can’t be planned for.
Of course I also hope to speak to some reader out there, to draw one along with a story or idea. When it clicks, it’s an intimate connection like no other. I’ve felt it as a reader many times and hope (pray) to do the same for someone else.
2. Did the idea for FIVE HUNDRED SIRENS come a little at a time, or did it occur in a single moment?
Little at a time for sure. It started with a short story about a self-defeating stay-at-home dad with too much time on his hands who can’t help but ‘spy’ on the neighbors. That story led to another, set only days after the first. When the second was published, I decided to keep at it and see where it led. When the stories started moving in a ‘straight’ narrative line, I committed to the course—some would say curse—of making the thing a novel. That first story/chapter was cut from the book, actually, as were two or three others in different places. Lost orphans on the cutting room floor, never to be read.
3. In a book filled with many uncomfortable moments, what was the hardest part of this book to write?
I suppose I take some pleasure in writing uncomfortable moments. I don’t see them as a difficulty, more a necessary challenge to create suspense and tension. The most difficult part came in the last revision, with a chapter near the end called ‘A Friend of the Professor.’ A few early readers said they wanted to know more about Adam Swivchek (Philip’s neighbor), where he came from, how he grew into this potent prick with such toxic influence over the narrator. This meant having Philip look back while the story’s present also moved forward. Not a pleasurable task at all. Felt like performing complicated dental work with a blunt screwdriver. I must have written six, seven revisions of that part alone.
4. Emasculation plays a big role in Phil’s life: from being sexually frustrated, to living in Adam’s philandering shadow, to playing a traditionally feminine role by being a stay-at-home-dad, to being robbed and taken advantage of: how much of his actions would you say are an attempt to assert his gender identity?
Some of the bad choices he makes are clearly tied to the need to assert himself and/or his masculinity—certainly in the pallid ways he attempts to emulate Adam—though he also seeks escape from the malaise and aimlessness that can come with at-home work like his. His crisis is more complicated than just a macho aversion to Daddy Land. Another question might be: is seeking adventure, release or human contact, sexual or otherwise, always fueled by masculinity and aggression? A stay-at-home mom might yearn for the same. Philip’s a frustrated artist and something of a fuck-up. He’s struggling to assert his identity period. Gender’s just one part of it.
5. Chicago is the city we both live in, as well as the setting for your novel. How did the geography affect your writing of this novel? Is there an allegory in Phil’s life with how you see this city?
Chicago’s demographically cobbled in strange ways. You can find wealth and opulence only blocks away from abject poverty and destitution. Philip lives in a ‘neighborhood-in-transition,’ a real estate term that obscures who’s being ‘transitioned’ out and away due to pricing and development. Philip’s a part of this gentrification, yes, though by no means in a million dollar way. He’s aware of his place there and curious about those around him, especially the ‘little league gangbangers’ who live across the street, how and where they’ll end up, etc. His foil Adam has similar curiosities about other locations: he likes to drive into dangerous, blown-out hoods at night and see what he can see. His alleged incentive is to keep an eye on the ‘terror’ that’s closest to home, as opposed to what’s targeted in the war on terror. This all figures strongly in the book, though I’m not sure if there’s a related allegory to Phil’s life or if I’d be the best one to see it. Someone else should probably see it for me.
6. If you were a Psychological clinician, and Phil walked in and laid down on your couch, what would you diagnose him with? How about Adam?
Armchair diagnoses are always risky, even fictional diagnoses of fictional characters. Nonfictional professionals get it wrong half the time with real people. But here goes: I’d probably diagnose Philip Palliard with minor but chronic depression, a tendency to self-defeat and, if he revealed as much on the couch, an addiction to watching the lives of others. Not super pathological. His voyeurism is mostly just excess curiosity.
Adam’s easier. Narcissistic Personality Disorder crossed with minor but chronic substance abuse. What you might also call: Perpetual Asshole Syndrome (PAS). I’d strongly recommend he get off my couch and go see a licensed professional.
7. I love the title of your book; it conjures images of Greek tragedies and police emergencies. Can you recount the story for choosing that title? Were there other working titles before going with FIVE HUNDRED SIRENS?
The first version of the book was called Unwarranted , the title to an early chapter, which was also published as a short story. I never loved that as a book title though. A bit vague, hard to see/hear, not quite right for the entire novel. When a friend suggested “Five Hundred Sirens,” the title to another chapter, it instantly took. As you know, the sirens that come in that chapter are inexplicable. They seem to sound city-wide, air-raid-ish or tornado-related, despite there being no trouble or inclement weather in sight. Both unseen terror and trouble without forewarning figure prominently in the book. Random bursts of violence. Slightly unsettling encounters with the Law, etc. And yes, the sirens of the title are also meant to suggest the Sirens of the Odyssey. Philip and Adam are both enticed by Siren songs, sexual and otherwise, and eventually find themselves dashed on the rocks. Five hundred’s just a number, meaning, essentially, a whole lot (i.e. – many warning signs, many temptations).
8. Many corporations and institutions often choose a word in which to (attempt) to define themselves and their corporate/institutional identity. What word would you choose to define your writing?
That’s a fabulous question but I’m afraid I have to pass. A single word? Unwise to attempt. My corporate/institutional identity needs to grow a bit, raise more funding. Talk to my publicist (when I get one).
9. You mention that you take pleasure from writing the difficult scenes—in that light, what was the most pleasurable passage to write?
That’d probably be the scene near the end of the title chapter, “Five Hundred Sirens,” when Adam confesses the truth about his wife and child, then heads into a lengthy reminiscence about the night he first met Maribel. There’s a dark surprise buried in there that I didn’t know was coming until it was written. Vonnegut said the most inspired moments of writing always feel like some other force has taken the wheel. It’s true for writing music as well. Obviously. As likely for painting, comedy, whatever. When I wrote that particular scene, that sort of feeling was present and intense. But I’d rather not get too magical or cosmic about it. Setting yourself up to reach that space is pretty arduous work.
10. What does the space you write in look like?
Nothing remarkable, perhaps what you’d expect. A lamplit study with multiple bookshelves and stacks of books and papers on chairs, endtables, the floor, etc. Old computer, printer, crappy old wooden desk, guitars and amps in corners, etc. I’m either back in the study or on the laptop in the living room with earphones on, listening to something propulsive or space jazz expansive.
11. Is there a story behind the cover of your book? Did you pick it?
There is a story there. The press photographer, who’d read only the title chapter, went out on a few photo shoots. We narrowed a fair number down to a final four. But the photo that became the cover showed up in the last round accidentally. I hadn’t seen it before. Neither had the editor/publisher Joshua Cochran. Turns out it was from some other shoot of the photographer’s that accidentally got in the pack. It’s the first mock-up they did, and Josh and I knew right off that was the one. Those telephone or power lines suggest something about surveillance and the city, a perfect bleakness, though at the time, it was simply that it looked the coolest. Felt like an inspired coincidence, as if someone or something else had taken the wheel.
12. Guitars and amps? Do you play music, any particular genre?
I play guitar and write songs of the three-to-four chord variety. Rock, folk, punk, et cetera. For many years, I played ‘indie rock/pop’ songs in an ‘indie rock/pop’ band (Meet the Head, on Lost in America Music). I still write songs here and there, though live performances are rare—mostly in my study, to no one in particular.
13. Do you listen to music when you write?
Nearly always, at least when writing at home. The music can’t be too lyrically familiar or I start singing along in my head and it gets in the way. My go-tos right now are Juana Molina’s Wed 21 (lyrics in Spanish) and Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (no lyrics at all).
14. How do you get into the optimal frame of mind to write?
Sometimes I clean the kitchen first. Some physical task to clear the mind. Other times, I take handwritten notes in a precious little notebook and talk to myself about where the writing needs to go. Music on. Cup of coffee or glass of wine, depending on the hour, and we’re off.
15. Is there a particular book or author you feel every new writer should read?
I can’t imagine just one particular book or author for every given aspiring writer. I’d say find someone whose voice speaks to you, who rocks your way of seeing the world, and then ingest them in massive doses. For me, early on, that was Vonnegut and Flannery O’Connor. Later, it was Philip Roth, Nabokov, T.C. Boyle. Then Delillo, Foster Wallace et cetera. I could rattle on and on but that sort of list should be unique and heartfelt to the individual.
16. Is there any question(s) I should have asked but didn’t?
You haven’t asked me what I’m working on now, but that could get tiresome if you let me start. Great questions, sir. Thanks so much for caring to ask them.