Q&A: Jason Skipper
“Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history …”
When I first heard about Hustle, the debut novel from Jason Skipper, I was intrigued, to say the absolute least. Here’s a guy who’s from the same part of the world as I am (Texas), writing about fathers and sons (a common milieu for me) and the way those relationships, when they’re difficult, repel and attract, constantly drawing men who love and hate each other together, then driving them apart.
It’s my own weird combination of manic energy and peripatetic attention that has kept me from reading Hustle, but thanks to the connection of Facebook, I’ve been watching closely as Jason has embarked on a backbreaking schedule of travel to put this book in front of readers, and I knew he was someone I wanted to feature here. I shot him questions while he was on the road, he promised to get to them, and he turned out to be a man of his word. The interview exceeded my considerable expectations, and I can’t wait to read this book.
I bet you won’t be able to wait, either.
Give us the skinny on Hustle. Where did the idea come from, and how long did you work on it before you started looking for a publisher?
Hustle developed from short stories I wrote that stemmed from my life. Like the central character Chris, I grew up in Texas selling shrimp from a van on the side of the road for my con artist grandfather and my father. Those earlier pieces were closer to my personal experiences, like being taught how to hustle people, dealing with my grandfather’s alcoholism, and my family’s financial struggles. My childhood crush on Olivia Newton John and the movie Xanadu. But the characters began to speak and act on their own, and through revision I started writing toward the patterns and underlying ideas I saw emerging, like Chris’s development as an artist, concepts related to masculinity, and struggles with disease and illness, until eventually the events of these characters’ lives were pretty much their own. The first draft of Hustle, written as stories from multiple characters’ points of view, took four years. I revised for five more years, cutting some parts and expanding others, eventually weaving it into a first-person novel, which is the book as it now stands. I submitted it to agents off and on throughout that time, but eventually landed it with a publisher on my own. I had writer friends help me out – Kyle Minor, who directed me to Press 53, and Ann Pancake, who gave my editor, Robin Miura, and publisher, Kevin Watson, a slight nudge to read it. Then, after nine long years, came the magical call at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning.
The story centers on three generations of men and, according to your publisher’s website, is a “coming-of-age story (that) explores the ways people struggle to fulfill their wants and desires–and what they are willing to sacrifice to feel free.” What drew you to the family dynamics, and particularly the interplay among men, in this story?
I believe most stories are about the struggle for connection, and I am particularly drawn to dynamics between parents and children. People tend to believe that these relationships are inherent and the connection is, or should be, unconditional. So, particularly for the children, when that relationship is strained or nonexistent, it affects their sense of self worth, which manifests throughout their lives in many ways. Funny, heartbreaking, and destructive ways. With Hustle, I became interested in the blind devotion that many sons maintain for their difficult fathers. For example, when Wrendon is driving Chris to Florida to kidnap Buddy to rescue him from a drinking binge, Chris asks why they are going, since Wrendon hasn’t talked to his father in ten years. Wrendon responds by saying, “Because, what kind of son lets his father die like that?” and then he answers his own question: “No kind of son.” Wrendon feels this devotion, and he expects it from Chris. When Wrendon doesn’t get it later on in the book, he knows how to work Chris, to get it out of him – poking at his soft voice, his desire to be an artist, ways he doesn’t fit the portrait of a typical male kid. But I honestly don’t think this sort of manipulation is so unusual. We see it in families all the time, and it gets passed down from one generation to the next. These people just happen to also make a career of it.
On the other hand, in this book, you have Chris’s mother, who doesn’t hustle at all, and she tries – to an almost destructive degree – to be honest and to keep things together, which also affects and shapes the type of person Chris becomes. She is a counterpoint to Wrendon, a direct contradiction. I think we find ourselves within contradictions, so this is part of Chris’s development in discovering the type of person he will become, raised within all of this tension. As I’ve met more people who have read the book, this relationship between Emily and Chris comes up frequently, as well as his relationships with the many other people – “unreliable mentors,” as Charles Baxter called them – who come and go throughout Chris’s life.
Your biography notes that you’ve been a bartender, a snowboard instructor and a freelance journalist. How do those varied work experiences come to bear on your work as a fiction writer?
My favorite part about writing is getting to know the characters, and I tend to be a magnet for freaky people and weird situations. I think all of these jobs call for a desire to be out in the world and a sense of curiosity about the lives of others. They also often present challenging situations, requiring persistence to see them through. As a bartender, I dealt with people whose personalities would flip from introverted to outrageous without warning; as a snowboard instructor, I sometimes had these super-skinny kids or really big kids who thought it would be easy to learn to snowboard, like in a video game, who got frustrated and would not listen to directions and instead just tore down the hill, careening into everyone. It would start out kind of funny, then get not so funny, and I’d have to figure out that particular person in order to deal with the situation, because you can’t just walk away from them. As a journalist I have to really think about what people have interesting stories – teaching stories – and be willing to ask them questions, which can be intimidating. All of these traits – the curiosity, the willingness to ask questions, the empathy, and the persistence – have helped me out as a fiction writer. Plus, these jobs gave me all kinds of characters and situations to write about. Have I written about the actual jobs? Not quite yet. The people? Yes. Some are in Hustle.
You teach creative writing and literature at Pacific Lutheran University. How does teaching enhance your approach to your own writing?
I think that breaking apart a story or a poem to consider how it functions is the best way to learn to write. To teach the material, I have to know it inside and out, and I learn a good deal about craft when I prep. Then students – at least those who have read closely and with intent – come to workshop and they lay out their take, which is hopefully quite different from mine. Together we compare notes and figure out the ways that these writers have manipulated the fundamentals of craft in order to break our hearts or make us laugh or make us hungry, in every sense of the word. From teaching, I have learned that most stories have a similar blueprint made up of similar fundamentals, which is what makes them recognizable as a story; our goal then is to figure out the ways certain writers have manipulated those fundamentals toward a desired effect, then practice these approaches until we have them at our fingertips, or at least can say we’ve tried them. That’s just one way, but this is how teaching in general enhances my writing.
There’s a whole lot of your home terrain of Texas in Hustle. What was it like to tap your memories of that place now that you’ve escaped to the Pacific Northwest?
Texas was never so alive to me as after I moved away and while I was writing Hustle. You are correct to say I escaped; I left because of the heat and because I wanted to know more of the world. I got away as quickly as possible. I didn’t actually want to write a Texas book; in fact, I wanted to avoid writing a Texas book. But eventually I got steamrolled by the characters. In my day-to-day writing process, I draw heavily from setting, both to anchor myself in the narrative and to give the story tone. Writing Hustle, I found myself thinking a good deal about the weather in Texas, like those ground-shaking thunderstorms and their greenish-pink afterglow. That was essential in the chapter titled “Tangled in the Ropes,” where Buddy teaches Chris how to hustle people. There’s the summer heat and the rattle of the window a/c unit when the babysitter, Theresa, teaches Chris about sex. The cold weather and the snow toward the end of the novel, when Chris starts to harden. Writing the book, I also came to better understand the people of Texas. Something I noticed was a systemic underlying tension in the dual nature of many people I’ve known, both men and women – that strong sense of loyalty combined with wildness, and how this manifests as people grow older and get responsibilities. What happens when that wildness prevails and cannot be overcome? That was a question that kept coming up with the characters as I wrote.
You’ve done a lot of traveling in support of Hustle. What’s been your worst road experience? Your best?
This year I was away from home almost constantly between September 2nd and December 1st, visiting bookstores and universities, and doing house readings. Self-funded and self-organized, with advice I got from friends and my publicists. Writers talk about the crazy loneliness of touring alone, but no one can prepare you for the ways it manifests throughout many of the days: waking up in a different place, often under threadbare blankets in an old motel room that reeks of decades of carpet cleaner, so you know it’s hiding some awful history (one room was so bad I slept fully clothed, wearing a hoodie); putting another $35.00 in the gas tank each morning (then getting lost several times while en route); passing all the dead raccoons on the roadside (gross but completely true!); eating salt-soaked fast food and growing rounder while learning the temperament of drivers in each new state (if you don’t go ninety in parts of Michigan, you get run over); the severity of introspection that comes with being alone in a car for hours (salvation comes from singing loudly to anthemic punk rock); that mild relief/panic before opening the door on another motel room (you know if the a/c is on full blast, it’s thinning out some smell); and hoping the reading would go smoothly (which it almost always does). At the same time all of this is quite beautiful, and it was great to stay with friends and family when I could. I knew it would be challenging, but, like most things I end up doing, I wanted the experience.
The events themselves are the best part. So no two readings are ever the same, I do something different each time: I’ve sung Dwight Yoakam as I read, and I’ve sung Wilco songs during Q&A’s as part of an answer. I’ve had audience members read with me. I’ve truly – above all else – enjoyed meeting the many people that I have met along the way. Bookstores owners and booksellers who are excited about Hustle. Other writers and teachers. Book clubs are great. People who have read the book and are nervous to talk about it. People who say they finished the book in a single plane ride or they couldn’t go to sleep because they couldn’t put it down, which really surprised me. People who want to tell me which actors should play which parts in the movie version, if there is a movie version. Someone said Gary Busey for the grandfather, and I thought that was a riot. Also I’ve been able to hand off books to Rhett Miller, the singer for the Old 97’s who appears in the novel at a crucial time in Chris’s life, and to Dorothy Allison, who is a hero of mine. Many times, over the nine years it took to write and publish the book, I thought it would never come out, and I still freak out when I see it on a shelf at a store. Now people are reading it, and I’m reading it to people, and to me that is amazing.
What’s your preferred way to work? A certain time of day or place?
I tend to write best in my office at night, usually starting around 11, especially when I’m writing initial drafts. I talk to my characters, and this seems to be the time when they’re most vocal. When I’m revising, I can work all day, every day. I am learning more to write away from my desk, to go for walks and drives and think through the scenes before trying to write them down.
What’s next from you?
As I’ve been traveling to support Hustle, I’ve also been doing research for my new book. I’m working on a nonfiction project about my father and stories he told me while I was growing up – his involvement with the suicide of his first wife at sixteen, his twin brother who was crushed beneath a car while they were working on it – and other tragic events wherein he situated himself as a sympathetic protagonist. Stories that I have since learned he reconstructed almost entirely. The events occurred, but his involvement was not as a he claimed; in fact, often he was in some ways to blame. The book is going to focus on the whole of his life and our relationship. I’ve been traveling to different places where he lived – the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Florida, Massachusetts – to interview people and see where all he lived. The experience of coming to know him as a ten year old and as a twenty year old has been startling and amazing. It’s been a lot to take on, but I’m excited to see how all of these stories are starting to come together.