J.I. Daniels is the author of Mount Fugue, available through Kernpunkt Press, a board member for Writers @ Work, Fiction Editor for Quarterly West and a PhD Candidate at the University of Utah. Recent fiction has appeared, among other places, in Lunch Ticket, Far Enough East, Juked, Southwest Review, and Printer’s Row.
J.I. Daniel’s new book, Mount Fugue (Kernpunkt Press, 2016) never ceases to surprise and delight. In the novel, fictitious author, JI Daniels, explores the historic expedition of Tara Oritz and her team of international climbers up the dangerous mountain, Mount Fugue. The team meets disaster at over 26,000 feet, and though the media attempts to report the truth, no one knows what really happened that high on the mountain. JI Daniels does his best to piece together the events of that fateful day, but his research uncovers more questions than answers. Mount Fugue is a powerful exploration of identity, risk, motherhood, and ethnicity, as well as a playful experimentation with form and narrative. You can buy the novel here.
Let’s start with your new book, Mount Fugue. One of its most distinctive elements is the form and the postmodern approaches it employs. The novel is composed mostly of fragments—interviews, news articles, tweets, clips of songs, and movie scenes. When you began the book, did you know it would be told like this? What did this more experimental approach allow you to do that more traditional narratives would not have allowed?
JID: Not to the degree that it ended up, but there was a little of the slippage of perspectives in the earliest version. Mount Fugue began as a short story that primarily examined how different news organizations might seize upon different interpretations of facts to suit their narratives (and would eventually become chapter 11 of the novel), but this was a relatively limited exploration of the idea. I realized, as the story came together, growing more formally inventive, that it had to be part of something bigger, and it was in figuring out what this meant that I realized the necessity of the work being a fragmented collection.
When the story became a novel, it became clear that what fractured our understanding of truth wasn’t only the kind of biases and examinations that any particular news media puts into their work, but the entire landscape of how people process the world. Content is always being fitted to ‘best’ suit the format, so that a person’s twitter feed, their blog, and their long form writing all hone in on different facets of a story, for instance: even the same person, with the same biases and goals might deliver contradictory information. When we add into this mix of all the things an individual might miss, or choose to ignore, and the way information is processed in waves—supplementing or negating previous knowledge—it can overwhelm. And yet, in the end, we tend to construct a singular narrative of all of these disparate sources and formats and opinions, and forget about the method in which it came to us. I think of the books and the movies that come out after some chaotic event that purport to tell the “truth” about what “really happened.” I had hoped, by fracturing the narrative, to draw the reader into this process, and then to interrogate their own instinct to conglomerate information into the narrative they have constructed. A more traditional story could have cast doubts about the characters themselves, about what they believed happened, but I feel it would have let the audience off the hook, as if they were not complicit in the process of making narratives simple and digestible.
One of my favorite components of the novel is the made-for-TV movie that (perhaps falsely) dramatizes the occurrences on Mount Fugue. Toward the end of the book, the author interviews the makers of this film and asks them “what their point was” in making it. He receives many half-felt answers, and comes to the conclusion that the only real answer is “because the job paid money.” That made me wonder, what was your impulse in creating this novel and telling this story? And does your reason for writing differ from the fictitious JI Daniels’ reason?
JID: Two books played a huge role in my writing this novel. The first was Vain Art of the Fugue, by Dumitru Tsepeneag, and the second was Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, by Maureen Corrigan.
In Tsepeneag’s novel, the same events keep happening, over and over, with permutations until it seems like every possibility is exhausted, all of the realms of human existence are covered by the variations of what began with a simple narrative: a man running with flowers, past a pig being slaughtered, to catch a bus to the train station. While that book was intellectually exciting, it seemed like something that pointed to a possible future—the things that could happen—whereas I am more interested in the recent past, the things that have already happened. And what has already happened is set in stone, it is definitive. Yet despite the fact that the past is set in stone, descriptions of it, experiences and reporting, etc. are so widely varied. Maureen Corrigan’s memoir, on the other hand, discusses something that frustrates her, how the male extreme-adventure novel typically revolves around a man performing impressive feats, such as climbing a mountain (and she nods to Jon Krakauer’s famous book about the 1996 Everest disaster), whereas the female extreme-adventure novel tends to revolve around the domestic, of holding a family together, of dealing with a dying loved one, of raising children. While women in fiction and non-fiction have done many great feats of heroic, death-defying bravery, the stories tend to focus on their feminine attributes, and the focus isn’t so much on the herculean accomplishment (as it does with men), but with the Sisyphean struggle.
The difference in the Herculean or Sisyphean was on what was highlighted. When Marissa Mayer became CEO of Yahoo, the main topic of conversation was if she could be a mother AND a CEO, and if so, did this mean she would be a bad mother and great CEO, or a wonderful CEO and terrible mother? The story wasn’t about the Herculean feat of becoming the head of a major corporation, but about the Sisyphean struggle of being a working mother. Tsepeneag’s split realities of possibilities began to take shape in the various entities reporting and crafting narrative that inevitably follow a story like this, while Corrigan’s female extreme-adventure came to exist in either of the spheres (accomplishment or struggle) depending on who was telling it.
All of which does a poor job of answering your question, of why I wrote the story. These are merely the inciting incidents. As a writer, I am always concerned with narratives, with how a story ends up where it does, what events made the disaster occur, what tragedies made this character behave this way, and despite my effort, I find that it is still so difficult to understand the world. I too create narratives unconsciously, simplifying a life to what bullet points I feel should carry the most weight. With this novel, I wanted to come to a better understanding of the impulses to make a story into what it is. This lines up pretty closely with the fictitious JI Daniels, even if our backgrounds differ wildly from there.
In the novel, the media is especially concerned with Tara Oritz’s race and gender, factors that they so often use to completely define her. Obviously identity is a key issue in this book, especially because the fictitious author (who shares your first initials and last name), continues to change their bio. I’m curious about how you understand the interplay between the author’s identity and Tara Oritz’s perceived and perhaps, actual identity (if such a thing can exist). How were you thinking about the author’s, Tara’s, and your identity while writing this book? In what ways was this challenging or thrilling?
JID: I think it’s very difficult to separate a person as they are in full from a particular aspect we know about them. A person with kids is immediately told that they should meet so-and-so, who also has kids, as if personality doesn’t matter, only child-rearing. This happens with race and gender, with hobbies, etc. To a lesser degree, this happens with writing. The person who wrote some words becomes defined by the things that they have written, or the narrative voice becomes assumed as theirs, and so on. Writing is a large part of my life, but I am neither my works nor my narrators, nor even my hobbies, etc. This is similar to how Tara is a mother, a businesswoman, a wife, a climber, a leader, a participant (and etc., etc.)—all things important to her identity, but not the definition of who she is. As the novel began to try, harder and harder, to pin down which aspect of Tara was the most important one, I felt that it was important for it to be increasingly difficult to pin down who JI Daniels was, both as narrator and author. If the reader understands that they aren’t entirely sure about the author, it seems that they might be more suspicious of the subject of that author as well.
I find this play of identity to be very thrilling, though something I always worry about. While I am introducing all of this room for play with meaning, I don’t want to become flippant. With the story of Tara, I am dealing in large parts with things that I know very well, and also with things that I am less intimate with. And when you are touching on race, culture, ethnicity, personhood, parenthood, and so many other things, you want to make sure that you represent without essentializing, to give a glimpse and let the reader understand that it is only a sliver. That we are playing with, but never making fun or taking advantage of.
More generally, with a novel, or with any sort of prose, do you have a particular writing process? Any tips or tools you’d recommend for our readers? Any particular readings?
JID: Sadly, the best advice is the advice that everyone wishes were a lie: write as much as you can, as often as you can, setting aside space and time in your life to accommodate that. The other thing I do is go back to books that I have read, for specific passages. When I’m having difficulty with how a plot has progressed, or a character might react, or how point of view can be used to great effect, I go back to the books that solved that problem already, and I try to find out how they accomplished it.
What are you working on now? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
JID: Right now I’m compiling a collection of short stories. It’s been wonderful to go back to short form writing; I love seeing ideas take shape and come to fruition in ways that novels, as rich as they are, can’t quite compare to. I am a fan of succinctness and brevity, and it is a wonderful challenge to try and achieve that.