The Ethical Challenge of Writing Violence

Jeff Jackson and Laura van den Berg

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

I first came to know Jeff Jackson’s work when I encountered his powerfully original and moving debut novel, Mira Corpora, which Two Dollar Radio published in 2013. You have never read anything like this before, I would tell friends as I pressed the book into their hands. Ever since, I have been eagerly awaiting Jeff’s next book and so was thrilled to get a copy of Destroy All Monsters. This virtuosic novel is a commanding departure from Mira Corpora and yet retains everything I love about Jeff’s work, namely the wild sweep of his imagination, the boldness of his vision. If you are new to Jeff Jackson’s fiction then welcome. Be excited. Be ready to fall in love. Be just a little bit afraid.
—Laura van den Berg, author of The Third Hotel

Laura van den Berg: I’m curious to know how your vision and practice has evolved since Mira Corpora. In an interview with the Kenyon Review, you were asked how the book began and you said, “A lot of the ideas for the book came to me on a long bus ride into New York City. Sentences, images, possible chapter titles, little moments, and feelings just started to suggest themselves. I took pages of notes, not knowing whether any of these things were related. When I started working I found an energy constellating around these ideas and phrases and images.” Did a similar kind of “energy constellating” give way to Destroy All Monsters, or did that book have a completely different kind of shape-taking?

Jeff Jackson: The genesis of Destroy All Monsters wasn’t as dramatic, but it did start with a few images and phrases that slowly generated their own gravitational field. Like Mira Corpora, it had a very gradual gestation and my notes for it go back over a decade. One of the first images was of musicians being shot mid-performance at a small rock club. It was troubling and felt surreal—this was ages before the shooting at the Bataclan in France. As I began writing, the idea of an epidemic of violence centered on music clubs took shape. When I shared some initial pages that focused on these escalating murders with friends, their reaction was that it wasn’t believable such an epidemic could happen without public outcry and government intervention stopping it. That was fine with me because I wasn’t writing a realist novel. But this was all pre-Sandy Hook. It’s been unnerving how much the world has changed since then, especially this country’s political response to gun violence.

Van den Berg: Even though Destroy All Monsters is not, as you pointed out, grounded in realism, I’m wondering if there were challenges around writing a story that concerns gun violence and mass shooting at this moment in time? Did you ever feel as though events happening in the outside world challenged or impacted or otherwise altered your work on the book?

I think the challenges around writing violence are largely the same regardless of the historical moment. For me, the issues aren’t just aesthetic, they’re ethical.

Jackson: I think the challenges around writing violence are largely the same regardless of the historical moment. For me, the issues aren’t just aesthetic, they’re ethical. With Destroy All Monsters, it felt important to dramatize the violence so that it wasn’t simply a clever narrative hook—it had to express a visceral reality for the reader, as did its aftermath. It’s by design the book spends far more time with the victims than the killers, exploring the emotional destruction left in the wake of the epidemic.

I also worked to make sure that none of the violence felt gratuitous. Hopefully it’s properly disturbing without seeming sensationalized. It’s a fine line to tread and one that I spent countless hours of revision trying to find.

While I was working on Destroy All Monsters, it was incredibly disturbing to watch reality catching up to certain aspects of the story, but I didn’t feel this changed the trajectory of the book. I wasn’t attempting a sociological depiction of gun violence. That’s why the killers use a variety of weapons and don’t have a uniform background. The epidemic was meant to be surreal, but we’re currently trapped in this terrifying cycle of mass shootings that makes the book feel more realist than I ever intended.

History creates a context around which any book is read and right now events are moving so quickly that it’s hard to guess what that might be. And who knows what may have shifted once again by the time people read this conversation.

Van den Berg: I love what you said about “creat[ing] a context around which any book is read.” So true. I feel like a reader’s experience with a text, what they bring to it, allows for our work to have many different lives and meanings all at once. And the world is a kind of macro reader in that way, in terms of how exterior events can shift or even remake context. Just as you never know what a reader will bring to a book, you never know what moment it will be published into.

I’m interested in talking about the possibilities a non-realist world can offer a writer, especially when writing into a crisis that is still unfolding. I love the way Arcadia feels tilted and outside of time. What informed your choices in terms of place and the novel’s overall sense of reality?

Jackson: As much as Destroy All Monsters explores a contemporary phenomenon, I also wanted the story to be grounded in rituals and have a mythic undercurrent. I was happy when Don DeLillo wrote that it reminded him of “an ancient folktale.” One of the reasons I feel a kinship with your writing is that we both deploy a sort of dream logic that infects our stories without rupturing their sheen of reality. I like situations which feel emotionally grounded, narratively plausible, and surreal—simultaneously. This heightened quality feels more true to my experience of our current world.

I like situations which feel emotionally grounded, narratively plausible, and surreal—simultaneously. This heightened quality feels more true to my experience of our current world.

The desolate post-industrial environment of Arcadia seemed right for Destroy All Monsters. There are many cities like it across the U.S., but they’re largely overlooked. It’s a landscape that already feels half-abandoned and haunted. It’s both a naturalistic locale and a charged one, well suited to characters in a tight-knit music scene who are experiencing a keen sense of dislocation.

Van den Berg: Violence, and reckoning with violence, is integral to Mira Corpora; Destroy All Monsters is centered on a nationwide epidemic of murders of musicians, so violence is imbedded in the premise and then refracts throughout the novel in all kinds of rich and provocative ways. How did your relationship to writing violence shift between the two books, do you think?

Jackson: The main way it changed was how I dramatized the killings of the musicians, which mostly appear in Destroy All Monsters’ Side B. Mira Corpora offers a fair amount of access to the main character’s thoughts, but in Destroy All Monsters it didn’t feel right to get inside the murderers’ heads and see things from their point of view. Instead, I wanted this section to create the sense the reader is watching these events unfold in real time while the narrator is speculating about the characters’ actions the same way a reporter on television might. I placed the reader in the role of a witness who wants to look away, but cannot.

But like Mira Corpora, the challenge was to tap into the horror of violence without making the reader feel numb to it. So after the first few killings, the violence keeps moving further off the page until in the final sequence there’s not even the hint of a threat. If felt important to create space for the reader to navigate this section however she felt comfortable, so she could remain engaged and activated.

Van den Berg: The structure of Destroy All Monsters is, for lack of a more sophisticated word, super cool: there’s Side A, My Dark Ages, and then Side B, Kill City (hello, vinyl!). These two sides allow your reader to experience some of the novel’s central events through different lenses and from different angles. Did you always know you would have an A/B side structure?

Jackson: No, that structure came very late in the process. It was only once the manuscript was being shopped to agents and publishers that I thought there might be more to explore. I couldn’t shake the image of the novel as the A Side of a vinyl single—which begged the question, what’s the B Side?

I wanted Kill City to both deepen the story by dramatizing events that were only referenced in the main narrative and to offer an alternate history that showed the characters in new scenarios and unexpected roles. I had no idea whether anyone would be interested in the B Side, but I felt possessed by the idea. It took me a while to realize that both sides together equaled the complete book.

Jeff Jackson is the author of Mira Corpora, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Guernica, Vice, and The Collagist, and five of his plays have been produced by the Obie Award–winning Collapsable Giraffe theater company in New York City.

Laura van den Berg is the author of two story collections, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, and the novel Find Me. She is the recipient of a Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Bard Fiction Prize, an O. Henry Award, and a MacDowell Colony fellowship. Born and raised in Florida, she lives in Cambridge, MA, with her husband and dog.