Interview with James Chapman

February 6, 2010 at 11:03 pm (Uncategorized)

James Chapman is a writer and publisher who runs one of the most exciting hubs of experimental literature today, Fugue State Press. He’s released eight novels of his own so far, including Stet and Degenerescence (the book I reviewed yesterday), and many more if you include the other writers he’s given a home with Fugue State: guys like Eckhard Gerdes, Prakash Kona, and Tim Miller. To me, James is the most inspiring example of how to ignore the hyper-commercial atmosphere we’re surrounded by and keep making art that’s unique and reflective. If you don’t know who he is yet, learn.

FA: You live in New York, crazy city, all kinds of people. What does being there do for you?  

JC: Well you can’t be solipsistic here. There’re way too many interesting people who aren’t you. Even if you feel empty on a particular day, this PLACE, this organic MASS goes right ahead pulsing around you, it draws you out. You start to fill up with beauty despite yourself. You SEE humans constantly. Facial expressions, overheard conversations, the way people of every age and a hundred different cultures walk and talk and move their hands. And, god, the physical city – the dead are still here in 150 years’ worth of details, lovingly-designed lintels and columns and caryatids and ironwork, all overlaid with this constant colorful CHANGE as the living add their layers. 

See I grew up in a suburb-like desert town, and every day I felt fucking desolated by the hideous emptiness of it, the lack of life. People like me end up here a lot because New York’s such a immensely GENEROUS place, it pours pours pours images into you. Like you remember that night we walked from 59th Street down to the East Village? We talked the whole way,and seemingly took no notice of the city, but our talking had that tense energy you get from DEALING constantly, fielding impressions, staying awake in all parts of the mind.

You know how much I love Stet. I think it must have been an interesting time, when you were writing it, for one because of how exhaustive an examination of the way we interact it was… in the book you say it was written from 1999-2003, and then it came out in 2006. What were those seven years?

Ohh, no, god I was just fucked. That wasn’t an interesting time at all. Clinging to a rock because I was scared that if I dove into the ocean I wouldn’t be able to breathe. Writing that book instead, to try to feel freedom. I’d given up on actual life being a place of freedom, and was pouring all of life into a book. Did that all my life really. Shit, a total misunderstanding, but it was all I knew then. 

Stet, the guy, just wants to be left alone to play at art by himself, and instead he’s constantly interfered with. See, that’s odd, because it was more like my official statement of my desired life – whereas what I really FELT was the opposite – I wanted friends and readers and life, joy. That book got so intricate because there was such a contradiction in my world. I like it maybe best of my stuff, but I could never write it again. In the long run it seems so literary to me now.

Tell us about the process of How is This Going to Continue? It’s partly original text, partly samples of other texts – arranged as if a musical composition. 

Ohh right. I had this idea I never did achieve, and I guess I won’t describe it in case I do write it sometime, but it involved a structure of recurring dreams. That idea got canned ’cause I wasn’t ready, my heart wasn’t ready to write in a mode of ALL GORGEOUSNESS which you’d need for a book like that. Also writing dreams is hard because narratively dream books are usually terribly boring. I was going to have to find a way to solve that. 

But I did end up with this leftover structure, this frame story of a composer whose wife dies, and who then becomes ill himself, and you don’t know any of the DETAILS of that – all you know of him are his choices as he puts together this libretto. You have to sense what emotions are going through him. 

The musical component makes it easy. Digging through stuff, I was startled to see how much of classical music really hovers around subjects of death and loss. 

And god, again, that’s a book I wouldn’t write now. Not for anything. It was me projecting my own death. And I don’t care about death now. It’s got nothing to do with beauty or truth either one. Even if it did, I still don’t care. 

I just reviewed Degenerescence so I wanna ask you a few questions about that. First, biggest – what is WOE? What does it mean to you, what does WOE encapsulate?

WOE is the creator of the world, and she’s created it in total freedom. And then she finds, through “education,” through experience, that what she thought was an entire world is nothing really. 

It’s like when you’re a little kid living in your dream of light and color and imagination, and then you have to go to school, and suddenly there are these fucked beige rooms, and community standards for how to dress and look, and other kids who tell you what they think of you, and you’re supposed to sit still in rows and receive the truth, and forget whatever you were feeling. You lose the thread of yourself right there. 

WOE is a very powerful woman or goddess or imagination who relinquished herself to something very empty, something she thought was better than herself. She was the strongest thing in the universe, but she became convinced otherwise. She was miseducated, like you and me.

What kind of things fed into the creation of the Degenerescence voice? 

I got to where I couldn’t read books written in civilized literary voice, with their approved ways of building novelistic reality, character and psychology and motivation running the whole show. At the time I was reading old epics from Sanskrit and Akkadian, and admiring how they just cut to THE EMOTION every time. It’s rare for a character in an old epic to be reflexive. Instead the people are forces, natural phenomena, almost like instances of weather. They just crash forward based on desire, fear, anger, love. There is no analysis. There’s a primary strength to that that I love, and in Degenerescence I tried to get myself over to that feeling. 

Also in those old epics there’s no respect for certain literary values. Repetition for instance is a bad thing now, and even within sentences we’re trained to find elegant variations to make sure we don’t repeat a word. But the ancient epics were being spoken aloud, around a fire. They were incanted. They repeated. They repeated. They made nouns into invocation, and phrases into ritual. So strong.

Something I hoped to just get you to talk about as much as you’d like is the concept of the daughters in the book… now, you told me that each daughter represented your first seven books, in fact the names are made of the titles letters of each… Opa being Our Plague, Test being Stet, for example… I feel like this is at the heart of the book, totally. The reflection – and in many ways, disapproval – of those past works, also the challenge of birthing the eight daughter – which was Degenerescence.

 AHAHAHHAHA Brandon [Brandon is my first name, Forrest is my middle name… now the secret’s out] shut the fuck up! That was a secret! Ohh christ nobody better read this blog of yours B. Noooooooo, ’cause that layer’s only me bitching, it’s only interesting to me, nobody else. The book HAD to start out that way, as a personal lamentation, an invocation of the song goddess I’d lost touch with, ’cause emotionally I couldn’t manage to hook into writing it otherwise. I felt jammed and unable to work, and this was how I got myself started again. 

But I’m HOPING that book got to be what it’s really about – this war between the actual self and the “educated” self. And between the song impulse and the prose impulse. WOE ends up accepting the European narrative judgement of her world as “primitive,” and she loses the hymn within her. But her daughters never lose that – in fact they fail to find husbands because they’re each individuals who can’t accept outside judgements. Uh kinda like me. Uh OK I guess maybe you’re right. For christ sake, Brandon.

Fugue State Press, your publishing company, has been a steady source of extremely unique art for years now. How did it start, what’s changed since it began? What is the Fugue State aesthetic, today?

 The aesthetic changes pretty often, but the whole time I’ve wanted to get away from two things: plain storytelling, and previously-invented voices. Like, here you are, you are Brandon, you exist on this planet now. You’ve never been seen before. Your experience and your emotions are completely unique, like a fingerprint. So why, HOW would you write a book that sounded like Dashiell Hammett, or Kathy Acker, or Don Delillo? How could that even happen? If you write as yourself, it’s going to be a voice I’ve never heard before. And then if you’re also amazing, that’s what I want to publish.

Any new authors coming through Fugue State soon?

 Oh lord we got two incredible women coming next, Vi Khi Nao and Carah Naseem, both unprecedented, incorrect, beautiful visionaries. They’re so different, but both of them write in a hovering gorgeous sensibility that just kills me, that I admire like crazy. I’m trying to learn from them both.

What inspires you?

 Love. My girlfriend. Her eyes. Her mind and heart. She’s alive far more than anybody I know. 

What are you working on nowadays? 

I just finished a book that won’t ever come out, because my life changed halfway through writing it, and the book got shattered by that. 

But I’ve made a good start on a book called (THIS) that’s about a religious mendicant whose overwhelming inner experience leads him to change gods. Lord, that was my first attempt to summarize it, how strange. 

J, leave us with one image. 

Brandon Armstrong eating a burrito, with a fez on his head that says in small black letters “Wake the fuck up!”


  1. abrahamharping said,


  2. Cameron Pierce said,

    Good interview. I like this. I want to read Stet soon.

  3. forrestarmstrong said,

    Stet’s amazing! And everything J does is different, and all worth reading.

  4. Kyle Muntz said,

    I just stumbled over this interview. I’ve been a fan for a long time, so it was fascinating to read.

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