John Haskell On, Below + Above the Surface

John Haskell is the author of the novels American Purgatorio and Out of My Skin, as well as a collection of short stories entitled I Am Not Jackson Pollock.  His writing has appeared in magazines such as Bomb and The Believer, and he is a currently teaching writing and literature at Columbia University.

BLACK CLOCK: So you’re quite the rambling man – living in San Diego, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.  Has travel or living in such disparate environments changed the way you approach your writing?

JOHN HASKELL: Travel broadens the mind.  Or, if it doesn’t, at least you see different places, and if you open your eyes, a different place can be a different world and seeing a different world does influence my work.  Writing fiction is about creating worlds and yes, someone can write about one world and make that world real and believable and fantastic, but for me, seeing and being in “disparate” places has changed the way I see my own world, in that I see my reality as comprised of many worlds, some below the surface, some above the surface, some right on the surface, but still different, still amazing, still full of those things a rambling man can take in and live with.

In both American Purgatorio and Out of My Skin, the main characters seem to be interested in the malleability of reality – what is perceived or believed to be the truth, is in fact the truth.  Was there any particular source, experience, or idea that you were inspired by which helped form the unique inner logic of these characters?:

All the sources and experiences and inspirations of mine (and my characters) get thrown into a blender and mixed up so completely that I can’t say where they come from, or even if they come from anywhere.  Logic comes from life, and the experiences and thoughts and forms of that life and too complicated to be so clear about.  Life is confusing if you try to make too much sense of it, and although I sometimes get confused, I try to react differently.

What really interests me about your characters is that they seem to have a public life which they present to everyone and a very different private life inside their heads.  They have elaborate facades, which I guess we all do, or a layering of their personality that is visible to the reader.  Even in I Am Not Jackson Pollock, the famous people that you write about already have a public persona or story that most of us are already aware of but in that particular collection we are suddenly privy to their fictionalized private life — which is voyeuristic and above all, very intriguing.

What excites you about creating characters like this?  Or what excited you about particular real people such as Jackson Pollock, Janet Leigh, and others whom you have breathed new life into?

You talk about the private life that is inside the heads of the characters and the public life that these characters present to the world but for me it doesn’t seem like that.  Not exactly.  Maybe there’s the aware world and the unaware world, and I’m trying to get to the unaware world and shine some light on it.  I agree that we all live with a certain amount of façade, and certainly in the Pollock stories, because the characters are usually famous, there is that dichotomy – we know the history of the people and the movies they made, and I was trying to get below that, but not to show a private side so much as to show the same side, or maybe the underside that everyone has.  What excites me about that – it’s not excitement, although I like that you said that – but more like what interested me were the real people I wrote about, and I picked them for a variety of reasons: I saw the film in which Topsy was electrocuted, my aunt was a John Keats scholar, people used to tell me I looked like Tony Perkins, I saw a great painting about Paris, the Greek, and I like haikus and Basho is a fabulous haiku poet.  When I try to write a story that doesn’t get to something I find interesting – I’m bored.  All those people/characters got under my skin, or I let them burrow into my brain, and then by looking closely, I could begin to see that private side, or more accurately the real-life interior that meant something to me.

Some of the stories in I Am Not Jackson Pollock were originally monologues.  Do you often keep performance in mind when writing?  Do you think anything is gained or lost when these stories are silently read on the page?

I don’t think about performance, but I think about the sound of the voice.  I hear the writing, and in fact, often read what I’ve written out loud.  All writing is a kind of performance, but a performance for the reader, to read the text in a way that will mean the most to that reader.  And yes, something is lost when the stories are read silently, but that’s up to the reader.  Maybe something is gained, in terms of thoughtfulness, or stillness, or contemplation. I like the “out loud” aspect, but it’s certainly not the only way to go.

Could you explain a little about your Psycho website?  What was the concept behind it?

Many, many years ago, I thought that the internet, that new invention filled with hypertext ideas and optimistic notions, could be a way to use and possibly transform writing.  The website hasn’t changed since those optimistic and amateurish days.

You had thought the internet could transform writing — how did it not?  What was the effect that was achieved (or non-effect)?

I was entranced by the idea of a new way of writing, a new way of thinking about stories.  When the internet happened, and that included hypertext ideas, there was a kind of anything-is-possible feeling.  So I put together that website from scratch by cutting and pasting other websites and finding pictures.  I don’t think it “works,” but reading is old-fashioned, and although Kindles may take over, it’s still reading.  Having said that, who knows what reading and writing will be like in fifty years?

Movies are brought up a lot in your writing.  How do you see other mediums, like film, interacting with literature?  Or even multi-media interacting (the combination of movies, internet, literature)?

I see movies as an extension of life.  If I walk down a street and someone stops to talk with me, or I see someone bend down and pick up a guitar pick or someone in a movie refuses to light someone’s cigarette, it’s all part of the same canvas that I can use to transform what I experience into art, or at least into writing.  True, life is what gives a person the experience, but that’s not wholly accurate because anything gives someone an experience.  Maybe you have to, say, have been in love, to be affected by a love story, so they go hand-in-hand.  Movies and literature (and the internet and games and dance and theater and puppet shows) walk hand-in-hand.  Because we make literature doesn’t mean that’s the only place to look for inspiration.

by Ashley Tomeck
an MFA candidate at CalArts with an unearthly penchant for snow and a writer of short fiction that often incorporates elements of the fantastic and bizarre


  1. marivi blanco says:

    Hey Ashley,

    Great interview! Glad to see you’re doing well with your MFA and writing a lot. UCSD laid off many of its lecturers, myself included, but I finally finished that first novel began during Nanowrimo…and landed a book deal with Penguin! Let me know if you’d like to attend any book events when it finally comes out (probably late next year)



  2. […] into writing…. Because we make literature doesn’t mean that’s the only place to look for inspiration.” A Q&A with APS favorite John […]

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