BY JORDAN A. ROTHACKER
I’ve been a Pam Jones fan for a few years now, before I even read one of her books (and luckily the book lived up to the impression of brilliance I already had). Besides being a fan of her work, she’s my label-mate twice over (at Blackhill Press/1888 and Spaceboy Books), and I consider her a friend although we’ve never interacted beyond electronic communication. Fan is an interesting and strangely appropriate word here. It’s our sweetly sanitized word for liking something a whole lot, often applied to celebrities or sports teams, and totally devoid of the complicated danger associated with its original longer form: fanatic.
Am I fanatic for the literary works of Pam Jones? Where is the line drawn between fan and fanatic? In common usage it seems like a question of intensity and commitment. In common usage it also seems like the difference between celebrity adulation and religious devotion. Where the dividing line exists is an important debate for our celebrity-obsessed era and one beautifully, albeit frighteningly, addressed in Pam Jones’ new novel, Ivy Day (Spaceboy Books, 2019).
Jones’ last novel, Andermatt Country: Two Parables, consisted of two long tales set in a fictitious Texas county full of dark criminality and religious themes. Faulkner, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O’Connor are easy comparisons but it is the Pam Jonesness of it all that truly stood out. She brought her own twisted and sacred beauty to the southern gothic tradition. In Ivy Day her authorial gaze is turned from religiously tinged violence to celebrity fascination, specifically a movie star named, Ivy Day. Young and old, male and female, everyone loves Ivy Day. In the book she’s compared to Audrey Hepburn, Selena Quintanilla, and Elizabeth Taylor. It is a world with artifacts from our own that ground and place us but there is a delicate and very particular tone again reminiscent of parables. Ivy Day is a meditation on devotion and the religiosity of celebrity. Without giving up the thrilling plot summation of this brilliant novel that touches on science fiction, I thought it best to talk to Jones about the various themes address in Ivy Day along with what else is currently going through her literary mind.
Jordan Rothacker: I think of you (like myself often) as a religious writer. By this I mean the same category with writers like Flannery O’Connor and Dostoevsky. It’s clear those two saw themselves that way. Is this a fair way to describe you as a writer? How do you see yourself?
Pam Jones: I’m still trying to figure that out, to be honest. My big influences are Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Jamaica Kincaid, Sylvia Plath, Jeanette Winterson being the biggest. When you’re finding your stride, you’re kind of an amalgamation of who you admire the most. I might put Jeanette Winterson in the same category as Flannery O’Connor, in that, they’re trying to restructure the world around them, which they felt was coming apart, O’Connor’s through her failing health and using Catholicism as her scaffold, Winterson through her sexuality in a Pentecostal household and using what she learned from the Bible about storytelling.
I was not raised Catholic, nor was I raised in the fire-and-brimstone brand of Protestantism. The Bible Students, where I came from, did not have a church—they rented space in Masonic Lodges or practiced in each other’s homes. They believed in a time called the Kingdom, in which everything on earth will be as in heaven, the dead will rise and all will be well. I’m glad for that, no damnation—but also no glory. I think that might have been the first thing that set me apart from all of that. It made other places of worship, like Catholic churches or Buddhist temples, where things are tangible and grand and real, intriguing to me, as well as the idea of sainthood.
I don’t think I’d use the term “religious.” And “faith-based” doesn’t work either. But there’s a beauty in faith that I envy. I’ve never been able to quite achieve it since childhood, and that’s what I connect it with, that feeling that anything is possible and that there is magic and a benevolent omnipresence that will look out for you, no matter what.
JR: The Ivy Day of the book’s title is an American film actress, a starlet, but the protagonist—a captivated fan—works as a mortician preparing the aesthetics of the dead for immortality. The juxtaposition of the two or really combination of the two makes gives the feeling of a sort of contemporary American Egyptian Book of the Dead. How do you understand the relationship between celebrity and immortality?
PJ: It’s a fine line. I don’t know of many celebrities who have achieved that untouchable god status who made it to old age, like 80 or 90. I guess it’s because you start to see them as just like us: thin hair, hearing aids. And when you think of a celebrity, you think of them flash-frozen in that moment in time, when they were at their peak. I think of Audrey Hepburn and I think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I think of Shirley Temple and I think of Bright Eyes or A Little Princess. Hepburn died at 63, Temple died at 85. They were both incredibly talented and strong women, though they don’t have the same allure as, say, someone who’s in the 27 Club. People like Edie Sedgwick and Janis Joplin never had a period in which they could deflate because their entire lives were building up to that peak and in death, they are crystallized. You know everything about them because they never had a chance to be sensible and take time out and become just another one of us.
JR: There is a brilliant use of the Peter Gabriel song “Family Snapshot” in the book. It sets a scene perfectly and since the protagonist is actually listening to the song it could almost be thought to influence him. Using rock music in relation to spectacular violence to support a theme in a novel reminded me of Jeff Jackson’s Destroy All Monsters. I see that he blurbed Ivy Day. Were you influenced by his work?
PJ: I read Mira Corpora and am still working on Destroy All Monsters. I’m still at the beginning of Destroy, so I’ll talk instead about Mira Corpora. I don’t know if that was his intent, but Mira Corpora seemed to convey (at least, to me) the image of kids and teenagers as feral. When you’re young, those are supposed to be the best years of your life. And that he portrayed those years as obsessive, savage, day-to-day was actually pretty spot on. And I think the same feelings can be said of the celebrity-fan relationship. A celebrity wants to be seen but not stalked, and that’s what you risk for fame. Being hunted and knowing that you are being hunted takes the glamour from it.
In terms of the influence of music, I do a lot of my best thinking when I’m listening to music, particularly if it’s in tandem with driving or walking or running on the treadmill. Everything else is sort of turned off and set on a course, and so I don’t have any other distractions. I have what’s going on in my head and whatever I’m listening to, which makes what I’m imagining seem very operatic and grand.
JR: Your book made me wonder about the effect of devotion on the devotee. How essential do you see the role of devotion in the human condition? Can we be human without it?
PJ: Being a devotee implies a measure of innocence, whether it’s willful or not. You become very defensive of the things you admire, the way you might be very defensive of your parents when you were a little kid. And the minute you find out that the one you’re devoted to is less than perfect, you want to either double down on defending your devotion to that person or you feel personally betrayed, even though John Lennon and Kylie Jenner have nothing to do with you.
Nonetheless, I like to have my personal saints. I’ve seen those votive candles for people like Frida Kahlo and Prince and thought that was such a great idea. I have all kinds of people I’m inspired by. They make me think, “If they can do it, so can I.” I think that’s why the concept of sainthood appeals to me so much.
JR: Was there any particular music that you were listening to for inspiration while writing this book?
PJ: I like making playlists for each project. Ivy Day’s was a mix of Peter Gabriel, Aphex Twin, Sinead O’Connor, and Boards of Canada. There was a song by Bobby Caldwell called “Down for the Third Time” that really hit home. It’s very relaxing in a groovy 70s sort of way, the kind of thing you might hear at the grocery store. But the lyrics are quite dark: “Left your mark/In a distant past/But somehow it’s all gone now/Good things can never last.”
JR: What was your favorite part in writing this book? I imagine it was fun making up all the movie titles and descriptions for Ivy Day to star in.
PJ: Actually, it was the three girls. I had initially never planned them, but then they just grew more and more insistent until I had to let them grow. Writing the girls was a chance to examine memories of myself that that age, through little details. They’re trying to become vegan and the foods they’re eating is junk, or not really vegan at all. They resent each other, getting sick of each other, and yet they feel like they have to stick together because no one else will understand their devotion to Ivy Day.
JR: This book is in some ways about the allure of film and how it can broadcast and solidify celebrity. I know you’re a film enthusiast. What do you love about movies? Why are they important?
PJ: In a movie, you can have your leg amputated or be blown to bits, and then in the next movie, you’re good as new. When I was really little, I thought that that was what happened, that actors really did sacrifice themselves for a movie and then were somehow resurrected.
Nowadays, I’m more sensible. One of my favorite actors is Sean Harris, who can play an assassin for the Borgia family, then a pathetic small-time crook, then a sleazy stock-car racing stepdad, then Ian Curtis, then Macduff. He can be so many things and do it seamlessly, so you can’t pin him down.
JR: What are you reading now, and are there any recent books that have you really excited?
PJ: I just finished The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and was fascinated. I’d heard that Warhol could be a real asshole, that he manipulated everyone he knew and would say things like, “If so-and-so commits suicide, I hope she tells us so we can film it.” Despite that, he presaged things like YouTube and reality TV and Instagram. His insights look very vapid, but then a minute later you realize that they’re kind of spot on. And you see that that’s part of his schtick, too.
JR: What are you currently working on? I get the feeling that you are always at work on something?
PJ: I am. I’m working on two projects at the moment, but one has taken precedence over the other. It’s about etiquette and magic and inbred evil.
JR: Do you have any writing rituals that you think would shock me?
PJ: I’m not much of a shocker type. I usually like to wait until after I’ve eaten dinner or after the sun has gone down. I’ll have water next to me; it used to be tea or coffee, but I have a full-time day job, so I can’t do caffeine at night anymore. I have a laptop, so I’ll write in bed.
I’ve always wondered how people like Hunter S. Thompson managed to work on a schedule of cocaine, then weed, then booze, then cocaine again, then more booze. I’m a lightweight, so I could only ever handle the weed.
JR: Alright, here’s a biggie… why do it? Seriously, I ask myself often and so I’m asking you. Why bother?
PJ: I’m not a big talker and I’m a little shy when asked to speak in front of an audience. And I hate small talk. I think in big images and the best way that I can convey what I feel about something is to make a story of it.
Pam Jones was born in 1989 and raised on the East Coast. She now lives in Austin, Texas with her husband. She studied creative writing at Hampshire College and is at work on her next book. She released The Biggest Little Bird with Black Hill Press/1888 Center, and Andermatt County: Two Parables with The April Gloaming. Her short fiction has appeared in The Cost of Paper and Boned: A Collection of Skeletal Fiction.
Jordan A. Rothacker lives in Athens, GA where he earned a Doctorate in Comparative Literature and a Masters in Religion from the University of Georgia. Rothacker majored in Philosophy at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, and his life has been split between New York (where he was born) and Georgia. His journalism has appeared in periodicals as diverse as Vegetarian Timesand International Wristwatch while his fiction, poetry, and essays can be found in the likes of Red River Review, Dark Matter, Dead Flowers, Stone Highway Review, Mayday Magazine, As It Ought to Be, and The Exquisite Corpse. 2015 saw his first published book-length work, The Pit, and No Other Stories, a novella (or “micro-epic” as he calls it) from Black Hill Press. His most recent work is the novel And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds Publishing, August 2016). He loves sandwiches (a category in which he classifies pizza and tacos) and debating taxonomy almost as much as much as he loves his wife, his dogs, and his cat, Whiskey. www.jordanrothacker.com