Listening to the Will of the Work: A Conversation with Vincent James

Over the next few months, we’ll be chatting with writers (who also happen to be teachers and editors) who have exciting new projects in the world. The series begins with Vincent James. James is the managing editor of the always-amazing Denver Quarterly and is the co-author most recently of the fiercely imaginative, collaborative novel, Swerve (Astrophil Press 2021). A good story resists paraphrase, said Flannery O’Connor, so I’ll bypass a clunky summation and instead say that the novel is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered. Imagine if Patricia Highsmith and Roberto Bolaño took a few bong rips and had a conversation about string theory, and you get the idea of how wild and compelling and wildly compelling the work is. Vincent was gracious to answer questions about his process and his work. The following interview took place via email in February. Read an exclusive excerpt from Swerve in Juked.

Ryan Ridge: You recently edited a dynamite issue of Denver Quarterly with a focus on collaborative writing. What sparked your interest in this type of work?

Vincent James: I came up in bands with multiple songwriters, and I’ve always been excited by divergent ideas feeding into a shared creative work. Writing is so often considered a solitary medium, and when the opportunity to curate that issue of DQ arrived, the theme of collaboration quickly came into focus. Immersing myself in how all of the artists responded—with visual work, writing, and sound—was thrilling.

RR: Can you share a bit about the origins of Swerve? How did the process begin?

VJ: Swerve was written by three writers: Rowland Saifi, McCormick Templeman, and myself. Rowland and I took an Early Modern Literature course with W. Scott Howard in our graduate program at the University of Denver. Scott is terrifically warm to collaboration and Rowland and I hit on the idea that we’d each write our own novella using a shared set of OULIPO-inspired constraints and source texts from the course for our final project. Later, when we realized we had a book on our hands, we approached McCormick about joining the project and she wrote her section using those same constraints.

RR: As someone who has also worked with other writers and artists on projects, I notice a stigma to collaborative work from a publishing standpoint. I feel like it’s much harder to find a home for a collaborative book than a more traditional solo project. How did you come to work with the excellent Astrophil Press?

VJ: Early on we had the spreadsheet of potential publishers and contests and different publishing avenues. I believe it was McCormick who suggested we send it off to Astrophil and duncan b. barlow. We were lucky to find duncan; the book needed a publisher like Astrophil.

RR: Swerve is a novel with such swagger. All three of you write electrifying sentences. For you, is language something that you foreground as you work, or do you go-back and turbocharge the prose in the drafting process?

VJ: I learned through my mentor, Selah Saterstrom, to deeply listen to the emergent will of the work and to pay keen attention to language at the level of the line. I write very slowly and spend meditative time in each sentence as it’s unfolding, and so whatever charge there is is at least in some ways present in those first gestures. I edit relentlessly too, though, but that’s often less about revision as it is an assemblage process, building clarity or scaffolding around those first sentences. And that process is as slow as the beginning efforts; slow motion writing.

RR: Could you speak to the way revision and finalizing this manuscript happened within your collaboration? I think about the challenges of shaping a work into its final form and knowing when a project is finished; I’m wondering how that part of the writing process worked for you all?

VJ: Initially, we all refrained from reading each other’s pieces. Because we had the connectivity of the constraints and source texts, we wanted to let the work build out without each other’s influence. When we did share the work with each other, there were inevitable resonances across each of our sections. We spent many conversations talking about these emergent themes and then returned to revising our individual sections with the aim of juicing some of those resonances.

RR: In Laird Hunt’s jacket blurb, he speaks to the book’s playfulness: “Mathews, Perec and Jarry would have had a blast with this. I know I did.” I did, too. It’s such a fun book to read. Was it also fun to write?

VJ: At least for me, the book held the full spectrum of joy, excitement, frustration, and bewilderment, which all books seem to hold. Around the time we were writing the book, the three of us did a concentrated study on OULIPO with Laird Hunt. Those conversations were important, and I think we all admired the joy, the play, and the permissive limit found in Oulipean constraints. Creating our own constraints (reference texts and geographic touchstones determined through the role of a 12-sided dice) meant deemphasizing our individual ideas of the text’s ultimate direction (also a consequence of working collaboratively).

RR: You’re a musician and a writer and I wonder if you could speak to how one creative process informs or complements the other. Do you draw from similar places? Do they play two different roles in your life?

VJ: There is kinship for me with any kind of artistic effort. I go through seasonal periods of intake where I absorb as much art as possible and then work from the sum of what I’ve inherited. The tributaries of all these mediums feed into whichever channel I’m working in at the time. I think of the vision of a work appearing like a bolt of sunbeam through the clouds and wherever it lands—written work, music, visual art—is the place I go to tend it.

RR: What are you listening to lately? What’s good?

VJ: I’m lately returning to some of the punk I came up on—The Broadways’ Broken Star and Fifteen and Jawbreaker. I’m never far from Judee Sill; she is a prophetess. I love this singer named Sophia Kennedy from Germany; her 2017 record fires with some theatrical baroque influences that remind me of John Cale’s Paris 1919, a top-five favorite record. Joe Wong’s recent record, Nite Creatures, is exquisite too, full of lush, weird textures and hints of Scott Walker’s operatic apocalypse.

RR: Similarly, who are some of the go-to’s on your bookshelves, those writers you can always rely on for inspiration?

VJ: Kobo Abe (The Box Man especially), Leonora Carrington, Percival Everett, Sophie Calle, Hiroko Oyamada, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Anne Carson, and Harry Mathews are heavy hitters for me. The work of my teachers as well; reading and re-reading their books has a way of revivifying our past conversations and my love for writing along with them.

RR: What are you working on now or what do you hope to write in the future? Any projects percolating at present? I know you’ve got another book coming out soon.

VJ: I’m waiting on the urgency of the next book to arrive. I feel like I’m in a low tide period and I’m looking at seashells and driftwood in the meantime. And yes—happy news! My novel, Acacia, a Book of Wonders, or the Meditations of Fontaine Caldwell, containing the true account of her captivity as written in her little books will be published by Texas Review Press in Spring 2023. I’m thrilled for this book to make its way into the world! Like Swerve, it was written with combinatory strategies, though Swerve and Acacia are worlds apart in every way.  

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