The Boy With A Thorn In His Side: An Interview With Jarod Powell

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The author and filmmaker talks to Vanessa Martel about reality TV, the publishing industry, his favorite movies of the moment, Donald Trump, class warfare, and his upcoming novel, TweakerBaby.

Before he released his landmark experimental YA novel, Boys In Gilded Cages, Jarod Powell stumbled along a path to limited success, working in the film industry as an intern, office manager, and on-assignment screenwriter, as he could find gigs.

He grew up in southeast Missouri, and spent some time in Los Angeles before settling back in St. Louis, where he wrote and published two books, the 2009 short story collection Inheritance and Other Stories, and 2014’s Poor Man’s Imaginary Friend, both of which foreshadowed some characters that were to be in his first novel years later. If his fictional work is any indication, his childhood in Missouri was rife with struggle, leading one to wonder about his own origin story.

After spending years in St. Louis, Powell is newly settled in rural Missouri, outside of a small town he has declined to name.

After abandoning LA, he wrote, produced, and directed two short films, Hypnos and Smoke Colored Light, which screened at festivals from Indiana to Switzerland, and published a Kindle Single, Quiet Light. He is currently working on a graphic novel, and has turned in his official follow-up to Boys In Gilded Cages, a novel that is curiously titled TweakerBaby, to his publisher. It’s due out in May 2017. Meanwhile, he is working on several more films, as well as a fiction anthology with the working title It Burned Me Alive, And Then It Set Me Free, presumably collected from his now-defunct blog Project Hawthorn.

The Boy With A Thorn In His Side: An Interview With Jarod Powell PhotoConversation with Powell is a bit of a whirlwind, dryly funny with a hint of sadness and the occasional feeling that he is scared by his own considerable intellect. He is secretive, softly but flatly rejecting probing questions with a soothing, stoneresque baritone. When he speaks of the state of culture and politics, his voice gets raised and almost angry, and his vaguely southern accent starts to show itself. He occasionally stops himself when he’s aware of this change in cadence.

He’s blunt almost to the point of absurdity, plain spoken, and witty. Even when he rambles, which is often, he seems mysterious. When he muses on his self-described “tragically uneventful personal life,” his voice reflects a strange kind of hope.

VANESSA MARTEL: What have you been up to since Boys In Gilded Cages?

Jarod Powell: I’ve just been working on projects, and trying not to stress about anything. Taking care of my health. I just turned in the next novel (2017’s TweakerBaby), maybe two weeks ago. I make sure I work out six days a week now. Why not, you know?

I’m always working, but in the past year I’ve been learning to relax, so I can actually write. I live in the middle of nowhere now, after living in major cities my entire adult life. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done, because there are no distractions and I can just be alone with my work. It’s cheaper, too.

I don’t have cable or Internet. After a couple of weeks without reality TV, I realized how dumb it was, and how dumb it was making me. I admire Andy Cohen in a weird way. We’re both from Missouri. But he’s definitely a purveyor of trash, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. Low culture has its place. I just wish it were less pervasive. Those kinds of shows are fun, but they’re addictive. And they play them in marathons! You can’t just watch one episode, that’s the problem.

Anyway, I just recently got an antenna so I could watch PBS, which it doesn’t even pick up. So I’ve been plowing through my movie collection. Apparently I had been buying movies compulsively and not watching them, because I hadn’t even seen half of my collection.

VANESSA MARTEL: What have you been watching?

Jarod Powell: Anything and everything. Every genre. I’ve mainly been watching The Holy Mountain and Akira over and over. Kind of fits my mood lately, and they fit the tone of what I’ve been working on. I’ve also been reading a lot. I alternate between Room and American Gods, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve owned for years, but had never bothered to read until now. I’m actually a really slow reader.

VANESSA MARTEL: What made you decide to move out of the city?

 Jarod Powell: I’ve moved around a lot the past 15 years or so, but I lived in St. Louis for about eight years, with about a six month break in between, two years ago. This move was supposed to be temporary, and I toyed with the idea of moving back to LA, but I think that’s probably a stupid idea. In order to produce the way I need to, I can’t be worrying about how I’m going to make rent. Obviously, I can write from anywhere. But the funny thing is, in order to make films I can’t be on the west coast. So I’m sticking with Missouri for a while.

VANESSA MARTEL: What films are you working on?

JP: TweakerBaby was supposed to be a feature, but I’m rethinking even making a feature right now. I don’t think I’m ready. I still want to make TweakerBaby, but I think it’ll be better as a short film. I might skip the festivals with that one, and just put it online as tie-in book promotion. I actually was in talks to write several features, but I either pulled out or turned them down.

I just sort of woke up one morning and realized I’d rather focus my energy on my own projects for now.  That’s the beauty of being indie. I can do what I want. Now that people are actually buying and reading my stuff – they’re paying attention. So I’m in a really good spot. Not so much with the films, yet, but with my writing.

VANESSA MARTEL: Tell me a little bit about your next novel, TweakerBaby.

JP: It’s really a novel about our perceptions of good and evil, and how they change within the same person as years go by. It’s Eric Redmond’s novel. He narrated Boys in Gilded Cages, but this is actually about his and his adopted brother Daniel’s lives, from birth until death. There are some moments of BIGC that are revisited, like Kenneth McAdams’ house fire. I hesitate to use the word sequel, but I guess it fits. It’s written more traditionally. It’s a very different, and in my opinion, more mature book than Cages. Not as self-consciously experimental.

VANESSA MARTEL: Is TweakerBaby being released independently?

JP: Probably not, actually. It’s pretty much a done deal, which is a relief because I’ve had such a horrendous time with publishers in the past. I don’t really want to say whom yet, sorry [Laughing].

It’s just a weird position I’m in, because I could easily release this book on my own. Other than the occasional intern, I don’t have any people – no publicist or even an agent at the moment. So I don’t have anyone telling me what to say in interviews, or post on Facebook. I don’t want to screw it up by opening my big mouth. There is only so much promotion I can do on my own.

VANESSA MARTEL: Boys in Gilded Cages did pretty well before it got picked up.

JP: Well, yeah, because I was literally giving it away for free [Laughing]. I mean yeah, it did well, and it’s still doing fairly well. But I made a lot of mistakes. Turns out, most of the feedback that came with my zillions of rejections from publishers was worth listening to. Go figure, right?

I used the fact that it was doing well on Kindle to get someone to traditionally publish it as it was. The second edition of that book is going to reflect what I originally intended it to be. The first time around, I just got caught up in releasing it, because I got tired and impatient. And I’m stubborn. I didn’t want to change anything.

VANESSA MARTEL: When does the second edition come out?

JP: I think October. I’m in the middle of recording the audiobook for it now, and I’d like them to be released at the same time, but unless I’m lucky, that probably won’t happen.

[The second of edition of Boys in Gilded Cages is] going to have illustrations, and I fixed the text. We used multiple editors. I experimented with the narrator’s voice a little too much the first time around. I mean, he is a meth addict, but it didn’t come across as a stylistic choice. It came across as poor editing, which I swear it wasn’t. It was just the wrong creative choice. I believe that’s what kept it from really blowing up. But that’s part of being independent, and having the guts to experiment. Some things fail, but I have fun doing it.

VANESSA MARTEL: Will you do any readings, or perhaps a tour for TweakerBaby?

JP: I’d like to, if any place will have me. The last reading I gave was in 2014 (At Meramec College, in support of the poetry collection Poor Man’s Imaginary Friend). I gave one at my last launch party, but that doesn’t really count. I was supposed to be at Book Expo America in Chicago this year, but I couldn’t make it.

Actually, I was supposed to do a Midwest tour of sorts about a year ago, but my life was kind of complicated at that time, and emotionally, I just wasn’t with it. I busted the pavement getting press and promoting, but I didn’t have any follow through. That sucks, but that’s life.

VANESSA MARTEL: So the first draft of TweakerBaby is done. Is it time to focus on films?

JP: I haven’t decided yet, but it’s time to make a decision, for sure. I don’t really have time to waste, and I get bored. I thought about, I don’t know, going to New Zealand and being a tourist for a year. Going on guided tours of Europe, stuff like that. I could. God knows I could use a break.

I’ve just started a graphic novel I’ll probably release independently, but that’s a long haul type of project. That’s new territory for me. The idea actually started as a film. It probably still will be, but at this stage of the game, I don’t really feel like making stand alone films. I’m not a super-confident filmmaker, and these days, I am leery of releasing anything that isn’t absolutely perfect. Getting money to make a film is hard, and self-financing isn’t very wise.

[2016 Kindle Single] Quiet Light actually was a film! I made it in film school in 2008. It was typical film school fare – terrible. But the story was good, so I reworked it into a longer script, then a short story. Scripts make good outlines sometimes. I save everything I write, obviously. But it took eight years for that story to become what it is now.

VANESSA MARTEL: Can you tell me anything about the graphic novel?

JP: No. [Laughing]

VANESSA MARTEL: Is it overwhelming working on so many projects at once?

JP: Short answer is yes, but it’s the only way I know how to operate. Workaholics and perfectionists raised me, and it’s more overwhelming to sit and do nothing. The longer I sit, and the more consecutive mornings I decide to sleep in, the higher my anxiety level. I need to always be accomplishing something. My ambition is my defining trait, and being married to work is something I’m proud of.  I’m terrible at meeting deadlines, but I can’t help it. I need to be creatively fulfilled, and growing up in front of the television has destroyed my attention span.

VANESSA MARTEL: Your Facebook cover photo advertises a new magazine coming in November. What’s that about?

JP: That’s been in the works for a while. It’s called Discursive Magazine, because my company is called Discursive Media. I used to work for another magazine in St. Louis that never launched and probably never will at this point, so I took some people with me to collaborate on it. We’re just going to be online at first. I’m still getting some pieces together, and some advertisers. It’s not a big deal. I don’t have time to do it full time. Mainly, I want to publish my friends, and spotlight some artists I’m a fan of that need the publicity, as little as I am able to give. It’s better than nothing. We’re focusing on the Midwest. If I’m going to stay here, might as well serve my community, right?

VANESSA MARTEL: Do you feel a responsibility to nurture Midwest culture?

JP: Of course! Don’t you feel a responsibility to nurture the culture where you live? I wouldn’t say nurture, though. I wouldn’t use that word. Because I’m not saying I can make a huge impact – I’m not famous. I’m not rich. But I’m a working artist, and there aren’t a lot of people who live here that can say that.

I see it like this: The affordability and ease of living in the Midwest nurtures my creativity, and I do indeed feel a responsibility to contribute to the creative landscape. LA and New York don’t need me. But Missouri needs all the creative professionals it can get.

VANESSA MARTEL: I was listening to an interview you gave in 2014 to Artist First Radio…

JP: Oh God. Did I sound drunk? That was a strange year.

VANESSA MARTEL: You spoke about the democratization of technology and how that’s good for authors and artists. Do you think about your work and its place in this economic climate?

JP: I think about it in terms of what I want to say, not in terms of distribution. I don’t know or care how my stuff is distributed anymore. If you haven’t noticed, this is a circus of an election year. People now aren’t afraid to say vile, hateful things in public, because they’ve been given a voice. They think they’ve found their own Daddy Warbucks, because they blame the powers that be for their disenfranchisement.

VANESSA MARTEL: You’re speaking about Trump.

JP. Yes. Obviously, this is a negative development in our culture that could be solved with education. But that horse has left the stable, do you know what I mean? It’s hard to listen to the conservative elite now say, after they’ve been baiting their constituents for decades, ‘Actually, that’s not what we stand for.’ Because, no, excuse me, that is what you stand for! You’ve been winking and nodding at them for years and years. What do you mean, ‘It’s not what we stand for?’

So suddenly, a famous huckster comes along to cynically capitalize on people’s anger and hatred. He becomes the candidate, and now the inmates run the asylum. It’s not shocking at all to me to see these angry, uneducated, ultra-conservative commentators coming out of the wood work, because I grew up hearing that garbage from people constantly. It fascinates me and repulses me at the same time. I’ll never understand it.

TweakerBaby explores class warfare, as I see it unfold. It’s definitely a thing, no matter where you go. Poor people are angry, and they have the right to be. I just wish they’d direct their anger at the right target.

VANESSA MARTEL: Is there a Trump-like figure in TweakerBaby?

JP: I mean, Father Redmond is definitely a Trump-like figure, but he was conceived while Trump was still slumming it on The Apprentice, which I never watched. Well, I did watch a few of the Celebrity Apprentice episodes [Laughing].

As far as I can see, there will always be a prominent buffoon selling the virtue of narcissism and egotism to the desperate. It’s at these cultural pivot-points when we see these types of people actually be successful. Trump is a disaster, but post-Trump, I think we have a chance to really, truly change for the better. Maybe that’s too optimistic.

VANESSA MARTEL: In what way would you hope aspiring writers are inspired by your work?

JP: I have no idea. But I do want more indie writers to achieve mainstream success – but good writers. I’m not counting myself, by the way. I’m not that successful yet. I’m essentially a cult author. So far, we have Fifty Shades of Grey as indie publishing’s sole success story, which is not exactly Mrs. Dalloway, know what I’m saying?

There are not necessarily any points given for staying outside the mainstream. The mainstream is not the enemy. The gatekeepers aren’t even the enemy, really. The fact is most writers have nothing of importance to say, and no real talent to say it in an interesting way.

Bottom line, there are way too many books. So really, to other writers, I say: Think twice. Just because you can publish, doesn’t mean you should. But if you really want to try to have an impact on the zeitgeist, you had better figure out how to be a bestseller. There’s little harm in trying.

Explore Jarod Powell’s work at his official website, or at his official Facebook page.

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