Author Interview: Jesse James Freeman


After hours spent trading pictures of canoes on twitter and facebook, I finally got to meet—in person– Jesse James Freeman at a golf club in Snoqualmie Washington. First I was struck by his incredible size. Next I was struck by how much he can talk. 
                                    
In the course of the interview we covered everything from Satanism to fanboy culture to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Only a small part of that conversation appears here. I mean, I am usually the one who takes over at these functions! This dude can hold court almost as well as I can.  He is very well read, thoughtful and makes everything he does entertaining.  

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SM: First I knew you as an author, now you serve as Director of Community Management at Booktrope. You are such a dynamic figure: mysterious, capable, and effective. You seemed to have arrived out of nowhere. What did you do before you started writing about Billy Purgatory?


JJF: When I was a kid I asked Papa Freeman where our family came from. I think we were doing some project at school about heritage/ancestry and whether or not you were related to some old queen or other as Morrissey would sing. He didn’t miss a beat and said, “No idea. I figure we just walked out of the woods one day.” So, to answer your question in regard to all the really nice things you said about me just now, I don’t really have a clue. It all just kinda happened and nobody is more surprised about what I’m doing now than I am.


I have always written, but I was never sure exactly what the right medium for me to write in would be. I went to film school and had this idea that I was going to be a famous film director, but I was always a better writer than I was a director. When I showed up in Hollywood with no money and knowing literally nobody (the first time I saw the Pacific Ocean was when the 10 turned into the PCH and I realized that I had just driven as far west as I would be able to unless I was willing to do a Dukes of Hazard off the Santa Monica Pier) the people that I ultimately fell in with and became friends with were the writers. I guess I always knew that writers were my kind of drunken, moody assholes. Or, I was that anyway, not to stereotype all the lovely people reading this. It was all about screenwriting back then and trying to get the foot in the door. It was still near enough to the indie movie craze and charging up all your credit cards to make your own movie still sounded like a really swell idea back then. A few of us banded together and shot a movie that we thought was pretty funny, but ultimately never saw the light of day.


The important thing that I was learning, and didn’t realize at the time, was I was finally learning a methodology that ordered my writing. I had always just rambled before, and I guess some it was good rambling. Learning script formatting gave me something I had never had before, which was a set of rules to follow and a respect for plotting and story structure. It also taught me how to write hard and fast and to leave out the stuff that doesn’t matter. The best compliment I’ve gotten on my novel writing recently was something to the effect of, “Well, he certainly doesn’t ramble.”


When I got over screenwriting and left LA and had no idea what was next, I decided I’d take some of my ideas and turn them into a novel. What I learned pretty quickly is that just because you got screenplays all figured out doesn’t really mean much when you’re approaching a novel. Novels are snatched up by Hollywood and they hire someone to turn it into a script so they can go turn it into what may or may not end up being an awful movie. What I did was go backwards and take something that was already written as a script and turn it into a novel. It wasn’t nearly as easy to accomplish as I had lied myself into believing.
 
   


It’s a conversation that you and I have touched on before, how much rambling can you get away with and how many tangent trails can you go down exploring the emotional this-and-that of your characters and still be on target so you deliver a product that isn’t a complete rambling mess? How much of a responsibility as a novelist do we have to really grab onto those big world literary contentions and squeeze the very life out of them so they’re screaming and bleeding emotion onto the page?


SM: I LOVE THIS! Here is where you show you are educated enough to be a pretentious a-hole, but smart enough to know you don’t want to be one. 


JJF: When does it turn into responsible writing and cross over into that samsara wasteland of masturbation and the delusion of the importance of our voice?


SM: I just recently posted this line from David Foster Wallace’s essay, “The Nature of the Fun” which speaks beautifully to this:


“You discover a tricky thing about fiction writing: a certain amount of vanity is necessary to be able to do it at all, but any vanity above that certain amount is lethal. “


                   


JJF: I guess there’s a fine line in my head between showing off and giving the reader what they need. I like to think that I make the reader the most important member of the equation and what I’m doing is almost secondary.


Realistically, if I do anything even remotely literary at all, and I’m sure that’s a topic that will always be open for debate, I mask it all with genre tropes, skateboards, and monster fights.


SM: In 2003 Stephen King was the recipient of the National Book Foundation’s medal for the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In Walter Mosley’s speech  on that day he said that what Papa King does is to honor the achievements of average working people amidst all of the monsters and demons and such.  Every reader wants to see a piece of himself in the books he reads, or a way to transcend his own experience. Billy reminds me of this sort of hero.

Junot Diaz said that we find out the most about a society by reading it’s marginalia– the sci-fi, the porn, the horror…He also refers us all to read Victoria Nelson’s The Secret Life of Puppets which looks at why our “important” literature does marginalize the supernatural–while so many people are still so entranced by it– in favor of more “rational” topics.


JJF: I think I went off topic from what you even asked me by like a lot.


SM: Is this a hint that I need to get back to the interview and quit tossing off supplemental information? 

     


JJF:  In closing I had a lot of shitty jobs as either a bartender or a waiter and I was an actress’s personal assistant for awhile. Oh, and I used to design kitchens and sell people cabinets.


SM:  Through part of the first Billy Purgatory book I could not help remembering scenes from Clash of the Titans. How much research did you do into Greek Mythology?

                


I have always had maybe not a love, more like a sick “I’m in the tree with a pair of binoculars outside your house, Persephone” fascination with mythology. It started with my grandmother’s World Book Encyclopedias back in the day and it transcended into my sociology minor with emphasis on world religion. …and mythology minor.


SM:  COOL!! I am in this weird Catholic phase. Twisted considering I can’t get down with most of the actual teachings…I think it has something to do with a desperate need to escape into memories of my childhood.*

JJF: One of my college textbooks was actually the transcript from the Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth.


SM: Mine too!


JJF: I have had this love affair with Campbell ever since. Not like I want to have his babies love,  but the way he was able to connect the threads of different myths together from around the world and sort of point out that Jung was definitely onto something was a big deal for me.


I know Campbell makes a lot of people groan, and he does have kind of a bad rap in some circles, mostly due to how lazy Hollywood has become with telling the same story over and over again in the Joe Campbell format. To me though, his works are essential reading, and I still listen to the audio from his lectures all the time. Right now I either fall asleep to Campbell, old Art Bell Coast to Coast episodes, or Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to the Last Temptation of Christ.


I promise, all that being said, that I’m the life of any party.


SM: And you are fun to have around the adults too! 

                                
SM: As you know, my novel featured a red canoe in one of the final scenes. I heard you were going to include a canoe in Billy 3. What do you think it is about canoes, specifically red ones, that has so captured the writer’s imagination?


JJF: There is a very important little section in Billy Purgatory: Tacos Before Armageddon, where my female protagonist, the emotionally-unavailable vampire Anastasia, finds herself waking in a red canoe. I’m not sure it symbolizes the same thing in my book that it symbolizes in yours, but she is gliding across this near frozen lake towards a remote cabin surrounded by trees. It’s a dream world sequence for me, and it has a lot to do with playing off King Arthur sailing into Avalon, Viking funerals, and crossing the River Styx. It’s a vessel to carry her spirit on a new adventure to this place that exists outside of what we generally consider to be reality. A lot of what I write includes that jumping off point where to go on the adventure you have to leave what is safe and familiar behind, because until you do you’ll never reach the underworld or Nirvana or wherever it is you’re supposed to be headed so you can learn things and decide if Heaven is the right choice for you, or if Hell is more your thing.
                                                                    


Also, putting that in there was not only my way of showing appreciation for the amazing work you did in Sex and Death in the American Novel, but was a way to really freak you out for a couple of weeks while you wondered what I was going to do with it and whether I was goofing on you or not.


You’re safe though, if I goof on anyone it’s generally me.


SM: Sadist. I guess I can cancel the thrice weekly shrinky sessions I had booked. You really had me going… just for that, how about you tackle this question?


As a male writer who includes female characters who are often very strong and unemotional, at least in the usual typecast sense, I am curious as to what you think of the following quote.


 Our great novelists, though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and a woman, which we expect at the center of a novel. Indeed, they rather shy away from permitting in their fictions the presence of any full-fledged, mature women, giving us instead monsters of virtue or bitchery, symbols of the rejection or fear of sexuality.


                                                                  –Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel


I sadly agree with him, and I don’t really understand why that is. I’m not sure if the ultimate context of his quote involves all writers or if it’s more directed at male writers – and in wondering that I’m not trying to get a dig in on anyone, but I’ll go ahead and say it: I think a lot of male writers don’t do females justice. I think in the literary realm they do a much better job than in the trenches I generally play around in of more genre based fiction. There’s a female comic book writer whose work I enjoy named Gail Simone, she coined a term that I’ve gone back to from time to time: Women in Refrigerators.
                                                            
Basically, she came up with the term in relation to comics, which is as genre as it gets, to illustrate how many female comic characters have met with ill-treatment for the sake of moving a lazy plot forward. Simone started a website of the same name to illustrate just how rampant this was in comics. The term comes from a 90’s Green Lantern comic in which Green Lantern comes home and finds that his girlfriend has been killed and (you guessed it) stuffed into a refrigerator. (I’m paraphrasing some while looking at Wikipedia, lest anyone think I’m plagiarizing here while fact checking what I write). Just because it was illustrated so effectively by looking at trends in comic book plotting by Simone, doesn’t mean that it’s not going on in all forms of media, which it most definitely is.


SM: I read this article a while back that explained how a woman who dared to criticize this community got horribly ripped up over the internet. Who knew bullying was something that happened to adults?


JJF:  Well, the worst part of fanboy, or any, culture can go misogynistic and homophobic and all the other horrible “ics” that are present in the backwaters of any group. I think when it veers into unconscionable territory a lot of that comes from the sort of peering through the looking glass at that which you’ve chosen to worship and making the decision to ignore your true reflection in exchange for that you idolize. Where you’re never going to be the big strong guy with the muscles and save the hot girl in the metal bikini. That deep seated idolatry that composes the building blocks of the altar of the alpha male hero. You’re not using mythology as it’s meant to be utilized. You’re not looking for the hero within yourself through the song of the myth. You’re falling in love with the ideal of the hero, you’re skipping a step and headed straight into blind devotion so you don’t have to look within yourself. At their most reverent, they want to pull down Batman’s tights and blow the guy, but they don’t want their friends to know the fantasy goes quite that far.


I try to really be cognizant of who I’m writing and what their place is in the story. I’ve always tried to write strong female characters in my fiction and I think I actually write women pretty well. Our mutual editor has told me so, and I can’t argue with Katie Flanagan. Beyond the respect that I have for people in general, and my characters as a whole, I think I’m doing bad by my readers if I was to create anyone, male or female, that was there simply to die so I can shove them into a refrigerator and get some shock reaction out of my readers. The Billy Purgatory world is a rough place, and people die and it’s my typing fingers that commit all these murders. I made the decision that a pretty popular character with my readers was going to die in the second book, and I really questioned myself a lot while I was writing it and wondered if I was doing right by her or not.


It’s something that really irks me though, the cookie-cutter weak female character who is just there to look pretty until she gets kidnapped by the evil mastermind and then she can look all messy while she screams for him to swing down and save her from the crocodiles. It’s just a worthless enterprise from my point of view. I think Billy and Anastasia are currently pretty even as far as sacrificing themselves and saving one another so far. I plan to keep it that way. 

       


I think that if I reach a point where I’m writing women that don’t sound like women, don’t feel like women, don’t have the desires and longings that make up a woman’s soul, then it’ll be time to hang it up.


I think Billy and Anastasia are pretty equal at being monsters of bitchery too.
                                                                                                                     


I’m not sure if I agree that my female characters are unemotional. I use the joke ‘emotionally-unavailable’ when I’m describing them a lot, and it applies equally to both of them. I think my female characters are just as strong, and can be just as withholding, as the male characters are in the world. I know that Anastasia can seem very cold at points in the story, especially in the first book. A lot of that has everything to do with being a vampire, and being raised that she was superior to humans and that they were nothing more than prey. What ultimately breaks that cycle for her, is that she does care and she doesn’t buy into the whole hunter mentality, not fully. If she wasn’t that way, in my mind, she wouldn’t have that redemptive arc that is so important for me to present, from my standpoint anyway. The books are called Billy Purgatory, but in my head they have always been just as much about Anastasia.


She has to learn that she’s not a monster, like so many of us have to learn, you can be a little cold when you take those first steps out of the dark.


I was afraid I was taking his quote out of context. But if it says what I think it’s saying then I completely agree with it — I think women are used as plot device doormats in so much fiction, genre is the worst, but it occurs across the board in some of the oddest places.


SM: On Leslie Fiedler…he was analyzing literature in America–up until the 1960s– and comparing it to European literature and the traditions it comes from. The reason his big book, Love and Death in the American Novel was relevant to my novel and to this discussion is because he made a pretty convincing case for men in American literature wanting to be with each other! That blew a lot of minds, then he went on to say that he thought the men who represented the “savages,” or natives, in many books also represented freedom. If there are no women out there in the woods, but the guys are still as manly and lusty as ever, they have to be fucking somebody. Fiedler used Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Last of the Mohicans as two famous examples. Men want to go off and be woman (responsibility) free, so they go to the wilderness and build things and kill things. Women just bug them to have kids, go to church and wipe their feet when they come in the door. Even though he wrote these things over five decades ago, as I read Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom I could not help recalling all of this and wondering if some of what he argued for remains relevant in more modern fiction.


JJF: And with the rest of it, how can it not be that way? I realize you’re making a point about high-literature, but I’m still stuck on comics. You’re reading stories about hot bodied perfect male specimens, usually in tights. Why can’t Superman be Superman in a pair of jeans and sweater? I think that type of hero-love is a lot of times actual love to the point of wanting to be Wonder Woman to their heroes Superman. I think a lot of it begins as “It’d be great to be that guy” and eventually turns into “It’d be great to get saved by that guy and then be with that guy.”

It’s idol worship of the highest order just like the tribes of old. It’s very base culture. 

                                  


SM: My specialty! Imagine the trouble I would get into if I looked like this.


JJF: Now, Leslie was probably making more of a point with “They don’t look like us so they must be the bad guys. We don’t know where they’re coming from and what motivates these savages. We should probably kill them, but it would be kinda awesome to go native. But, we should probably kill them first.” Hasn’t the argument always been that the contentions of our society are holding us back? So maybe the idea is that you give up that which is unnecessary and let the natives take you into the unknown lands with them. They provide you freedom and you provide them with whatever they need in return.


The more I keep turning the question around in my head the more confused I make myself. I think I’d like to close by saying that anyone who wants to be Wonder Woman should be Wonder Woman and that’s okay with me.
                                       


SM: Chelsea Quinn Yarboro was writing them in the 70s, Anne Rice in the 80’s, now Jesse James in the new century. What is it about vampires and mythology that makes you want to write, whereas maybe a western or romance would not?


JJF: Yeah, what is it about vampires? I like how they channel id emotions and I like how they live in this place that’s slightly outside of our own world. They run through the night hunting prey and pretending they’re human so they can get close enough to us with their beguiling ways and then they latch onto our necks and take everything that was important to us, that we didn’t realize was so important, in an instant. They’re our killers, but they’re also our angels, because the last thought that crosses your mind when it’s too late to get away, is that none of the bullshit we chase our tails and break our necks to add to our personal treasure troves means anything in the cosmic scheme of things. All your hopes and dreams flow out of you and into them, so they can discard your silly fantasies along with your lifeless corpse.


To me, they are the quintessential perfect monster. There will always be a place for them in folk tales, and good books, and nightmares.


In the 70s it was probably a drug metaphor. I think with Anne it was a lot to do with turning away from our desires that we felt we should be ashamed of and then once we’ve finally given in and taken it too far, finding redemption – which kind of takes it full circle now doesn’t it? Apologies to Anne if I’m reading too much into it. Vampires currently, I have no idea and will not even begin to try and comment on the big, sparkling elephant in the room. 

                    


Billy Purgatory gets labeled a vampire book a lot, and I don’t really fight that too much because again, vampires are a huge deal and vampires sell. Realistically though, it’s not a vampire book in the same vein (wow, I really just typed that) as Lestat and Dracula and Salem’s Lot and 30 Days of Night is. It’s a book that happens to have a very important character in it who is a vampire. Because I am an obsessive, crazy-type person, I can’t leave well enough alone and I felt like I had to go back and get into all the history, and the subculture, and how they thought and what motivated the species. What it was that made my set of vampire powers different than all the other books (not a lot really, although, I worked in some quirks).


I think the main thing that I did was to decide that most vampires in my universe weren’t pure any longer, and that includes Anastasia. She had a vampire father and a human mother, so she’s half-vampire, and yeah, that’s been done 1000 times before I got around to it. I think a lot of where she ended up shining is in dealing with the two halves of her nature, the vampire versus human. There’s a chapter in the first book where she decides that she doesn’t want to be a vampire any longer, she’s fallen on some hard times and in her mind, it’s become pointless. So she enrolls in university, and begins living life in a way that’s reliant on her human side, she becomes one of us.


She’s still beholden to the rules and vampire hang-ups at first, but she starts to slowly change and almost doesn’t notice it. She doesn’t feed on humans any longer and the taking blood from others changes her. The fangs don’t pop out anymore and she realizes that she’s walking around in the day and no longer beholden to the night. She makes friends and falls in love and eats our food and gets the sniffles.


Anastasia reaches the point where she’s acclimated to a human life, to the point that she begins to question if she ever really was a vampire. It seems silly to her that she might have at one time believed herself to be one and that they even existed. It was something fun to play around with, and she discovers a lot about her true nature in becoming something else and tapping into that place inside herself that she had always kept hidden from all, especially to herself.


SM: At this point I was struck by a woozy sensation and became dazed–drunk on enlightenment. Booktrope founder Ken Shear helped me to a chair. I sipped a chilled beverage while concerned party goers tried to help by waiving copies of Caramel and Magnolias in my face.  





Both Billy Purgatory: I am the Devil Bird and Billy Purgatory and the Curse of the Satanic Five are available on Amazon. 

–If you’re curious as to why my blog interview format has changed so radically, Mr. Freeman himself has been the inspiration. If you haven’t heard enough, check out the interview I did with him here


 *here we went on at length about Anton LaVey, world religions, porn stars and Warren Ellis. Sadly I had to cut it for interview continuity. I may have him come back and cover these topics for part deux!

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2 Responses to Author Interview: Jesse James Freeman

  1. Luna says:

    I talk to the guy every day, and yet this interview still held surprises at every turn. Nicely done, you two…brilliant stuff!

  2. Sarah Martinez says:

    How did I miss the fair Luna commenting on my blog? If it were not for the damn Russian spam I would have comments post automatically. 
    This is better than going viral.
    Thanks for taking the time to comment, I put in alot of work here trying to get my level of admiration and his brilliance to shine through in the right proportions.
    Glad you enjoyed it!

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