Interview with Justin Isis

"I would prefer to write something in which everything is a crisis"


Justin Isis is the author of I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like (Chômu, 2011) and co-editor of Dadaoism (An Anthology) (Chômu, 2012). He has had stories published in Postscripts and The Master in Cafe Morphine: A Homage to Mikhail Bulgakov (Ex Occidente, 2011). He co-founded the Chômu blogzine in 2007 and now occupies the role of strategist and occasional editor for Chômu Press. His next collection, Welcome to the Arms Race, is due in 2013. He has been featured in the street snaps sections of the Japanese fashion magazines Egg, Men’s Egg, and Men’s Spider. He currently resides in Tokyo.

I recently interviewed Isis via email to discuss his writing and editorial work with Chômu, along with his thoughts on weird fiction and the fantastical/supernatural in literature, among other things… What kinds of stories did you read growing up? Do you remember reading anything that stands out as especially unusual, weird, or out of the ordinary?

Justin Isis: Growing up my first interest was video games, and what seemed like the arbitrary nature of the alphabet struck me as “unusual.” Being made to learn to read stands out as more memorable than any specific books read in childhood, although I did end up reading widely, as my father was an obsessive reader, an Italian who taught himself English by camping in the library; I think my father’s anti-drug stance and lack of interest in being a barber kept him bothering with books. I went into everything from Victor Hugo to Algernon Blackwood. But learning that “s” and “h” create a “sh” sound when combined startled me more than anything that followed. I’m still interested in the way language is injected into children.

WFR: How would you define or describe your personal aesthetic as a writer, in your own words? What are your touchstones? Writers, stories, artistic movements, etc.

Isis: “Emo Situationist Expressionism,” maybe…I don’t approve of the supernatural in fiction, or at least my own fiction. I’ve been trying to remove as many elements as possible that could be perceived as supernatural or fantastical. To try to explain it in terms perhaps relevant to this site, Lovecraft and Ligotti, for example, seem focused on the removal of meaning to arrive at their effects — just as in Kabbalism, removing life or essence creates a qliphothic state where objects become “weird” or “haunted,” like in Ligotti’s stories, in which everything is reduced to the status of a puppet. Lovecraft does this by invoking scale — you can imagine him telling Fred Astaire, “Getting better dance moves doesn’t matter, time to retreat to the safety of a new dark age.” Machen locates the meaning — or spiritual, numinous reality — elsewhere; it is situated behind the world, interwoven with it but not immediately apparent.

But instead of remove or abstract meaning I would rather superadd it. Or to put it another way, redistribute it; the removal of meaning from somewhere should be just the pretext for inserting it somewhere else. People who reallocate meaning — especially in cases where it happens against their will — are usually considered insane or schizophrenic, even if, like David Icke, they are otherwise personable or “normal.” To me scale doesn’t matter; doing laundry seems as significant as extradimensional monsters. In a universe where no human concerns are important, all human concerns are finally important; everything is either a crisis or it isn’t. I would prefer to write something in which everything is a crisis.

WFR: So, what do you mean when you refer to “meaning”? In the context of your answer, it feels to me like you’re making a distinction where numinous awareness or insight doesn’t depend upon supernatural stimuli, and also that what you refer to as “meaning” exists in some kind of tension against nihilism (per your examples with Lovecraft and Ligotti). It’s an intriguing viewpoint to examine in the context of many assumptions about weird fiction.

Isis: The meaning of meaning, haha…I do think numinous awareness or insight can arise from anything; it doesn’t have to be hidden or remote. As for nihilism, I think I just take it for granted and want to get on with what interests me. I think if there’s a tension it’s the sense that…in a lot of this kind of fiction you get the sense that existence is a nightmare, human concerns are cosmically irrelevant, etc. I’m not disputing any of that, but I think it’s actually more enjoyable to examine mundane concerns in light of those assumptions rather than to dismiss them entirely, or else drown them out with supernatural or fantastic content. Again, I’m not totally against that approach, but with my own writing at least I’d rather try something else.

WFR: It’s also interesting that you mention how you’re going through the process of removing as many elements from your work as possible that could be seen as supernatural or such. Reading through your collection for Chômu Press, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, I found myself wondering on several stories whether what I was seeing was a ghostly apparition or a manifestation of the character’s subjective consciousness – for instance, in “Nanako,” the apparition of Nanako’s giant face and the narrator’s subsequent mutilation of it. It certainly left me with a feeling of witnessing the uncanny, regardless of whether it was supernatural or not. I felt like the suggestion was there, but left ambiguous. What made you decide to start removing those ambiguously supernatural elements from your stories, then?

Isis: I think the supernatural calls to my mind its opposite or shadow concept, the natural, and the natural is probably what I’m more interested in exploring or attacking, since it seems more troubling to me. How can anything be natural, or not natural? What would it really mean for something to be beyond or outside of nature? I can’t answer these questions, but I want to address them using only the most minimal or even Realist frameworks. The supernatural, even the ambiguously supernatural, comes naturally to me, so I’m distrustful of resorting to it; I don’t want to take my eyes off the “natural.” Every time I’m tempted to resort to a supernatural element, I try to disperse that element into everything else, since the dispersal then warps the other elements; the story becomes haunted by its own lack of hauntings. The supernatural seems too easy…it’s easy to get some kind of reaction or response by invoking ghosts, monsters, murders, etc. Much more difficult to get a great or emotional response using only basic materials that are familiar to most people from their everyday lives, which is why it seems more interesting to me.

WFR: Do you believe a work of literature or art can be “too weird”? How do you digest such commentary when a reader tells you’re your work is weird?

Isis: I don’t really process things as weird or not, they either seem interesting or not so interesting. I always try to write with the assumption that my writing is “normal” and as much as possible a mainstream engagement with what I’m writing about. If people react to it as weird then I think it just means they have different assumptions about writing and probably about reality/existence/meaning/etc.

WFR: What do you want to see more of, in regards to literature and art?

Isis: Total psychic automatism and an Immaterialist rather than Materialist focus, or not distinguishing between conceptual/psychic phenomena and external/objective phenomena, but rather perceiving both as a single dynamic flow…also a total destruction of the mindset that sees writing as a craft to be learned from kindly academics rather than an autonomic response like laughing, pissing or coughing, and a total destruction of the leftover 20th century marketing categories known as genres. Less stories and narratives and more images and paratactic forms. Less focus on secondary fantasy worlds and setting things in the past, etc. Some kind of Revolution of Everyday Life, with more people doing things in “real life” and then writing about it. Maybe a “New Normal” in which everyone fascistically assumes their personal concerns are shared by the world at large and writes with that in mind. A total embrace of the present with all its beautiful iPhones, Korean pop music, beautiful meat buns and beautiful plastic surgery. More focus on money-making careers; Brendan Connell seems to be doing this with book titles like The Architect and The Lives of Notorious Cooks.

WFR: What do you see as being the central objective or objectives of your writing? What kinds of questions or obsessions drive you more often than not?

Isis: If left to my own devices I would be focused on purely ornamental language-based stories or recordings of dreams, the kinds of stories I made up in my head as a small child. But I think the existence of other people and a complex world requires some kind of engagement, hopefully destructive, so I enjoy writing about everyday life and people around me. I liked when Sartre wrote about Flaubert “derealizing” the world around him by representing it accurately, destroying it without removing a single thing. I think my approach is similar, hijacking or taking back the reality studio. The individual content varies, but with the book I’m writing now, almost every story seems to be a triangulation between Japanese night club hostesses, vomiting, and the Catholic Church.

WFR: In his guest editorial on this site, Quentin Crip talks about the genesis of Chômu Press, briefly touching on how it started as the Chômu blogzine, which you suggested to him. What led the two of you to start working together on the blogzine in the first place (aside from your suggestion, of course), and what did you hope to accomplish back then? Did you ever think it would someday develop into something like Chômu Press itself?

Isis: The initial impulse was probably to make a space for stories and ideas and fragments that didn’t belong anywhere else, a kind of dumping ground for fictional abortions which could possibly coalesce into some kind of interesting catalogue or digest. I think Quentin and I both felt like our concerns weren’t being represented anywhere and that our aesthetic was pretty much at odds with everything that was going on in writing, whether it was happening on small presses or larger ones. We (or at least I) also felt a pretty total sense of boredom with most of what constituted the online writing scene — all those “online literary journals” that seemed so prevalent five years ago. And I’ve never been able to blog or Twitter or any of that because outside of fiction I don’t really have much to say, so the blogzine allowed for the expression of things which otherwise would have been deleted or never sent out anywhere. I didn’t think it would ever become an actual publishing company or attract the kind of attention it has.

WFR: You mention in your introduction to Dadaoism (An Anthology) that “the stories in this book which escape boredom do so by corrupting their own forms, digesting themselves.” We’ve reprinted two stories from Dadaoism on this site, Reggie Oliver’s “Portrait of a Chair” and Megan Lee Beals’s “Poppies.” How do you see these stories as corrupting any conventions or forms they may otherwise be held to? What about them compelled you and Quentin to include them in the anthology?

Isis: I think both stories are very strong technically while still managing to avoid the kind of formats and narrative resolutions that their initial setups might suggest, and neither of them is obviously trying too hard to be strange or unusual. The first thing we did with submissions was eliminate all bizarro fiction, horror, and anything which had too clear or obvious a structure — i.e. stories with solid beginnings, middles and ends. Anything which felt workshopped or conventionally put together we dismissed pretty quickly. But both the Oliver and Beals stories are almost like fragments; they both have persistent images and inventions which are allowed to express themselves freely, as well as somewhat abortive or even apparently disjunctive endings. And they both have an underlying, somewhat mysterious emotional content which perhaps isn’t that obvious at first but makes itself known upon rereading. That kind of technical sophistication, integrated disjunctiveness and casual mystery made us want to include them. I also want to give a shout-out to the German writer Ralph Doege, whose “Kago Ai and the End of Night” also embodies these qualities.

WFR: And then there’s your story in Dadaoism, “M‑Funk Vs. Tha Futuregions of Inverse Funkativity.” That story struck me on reading, not just for the gleefully anarchic spirit running through it, but also for how different it is from the stories I read in your collection. What prompted you to do something so different with this story? In what ways do you think it’s more or less indicative of what you want to write in general?

Isis: The story is about the future where Samuel Johnson and James Boswell are cutting the funk and M‑Funk is sent in to investigate. I think it has around 200 music references and maybe 150 writing references with frequent plagiarism, fold-ins, etc. At the time I’d gotten done writing a lot of realistic and down to Earth stories in a row, so I felt like doing some kind of ridiculous space war would be a good change.

The book it will eventually be in, which I’m hoping to finish in time to release next year, has stories which are all completely different from each other in terms of tone, structure, style, subject matter etc. — really nothing like Human Flesh. I think if I get too bored or feel like I’m not doing anything new then I will definitely retire from writing and probably go into finance or something…I don’t think it’s worth taking people’s time unless you keep pushing yourself and trying to do something original. This is generally considered commercial suicide since you’re bound to alienate whatever readers you pick up, but it seems better than repeating yourself. If I come back on here in five years and completely contradict everything I’ve said in this interview, it’ll probably be for the best.

WFR: What other projects are you currently working on, Chômu-related or otherwise?

Isis: I’m writing two books at the same time, one a story collection and one a kind of cubist novel of related stories. For Chômu, my biggest priority is getting the Tribute to Silvio Berlusconi Anthology off the ground. I’ve always felt very excited about the former Italian Prime Minister and his beautiful airplanes, underage Moroccan dancers and total control of the media, and I’ve always wanted to write stories about Silvio and see other writers I like doing the same.

WFR: Finally, what’s the weirdest thing that you’ve ever read, and why?

Isis: Again, I don’t really think in terms of weird or not weird, but one interesting book I read recently was Sex and the City by Candace Bushnell, which is a disjunctive narrative somewhere between a story collection and a fragmented novel, and examines its characters as if they were objects not necessarily separate from the space and environment they inhabit, as if their moralities and assumptions were physical attributes rather than something to be taken for granted. I want to read The Carrie Diaries next, which is about the Carrie character in high school.