Jared Young is the author of the novel Into the Current, from Goose Lane Editions, which debuted September 20, 2016. He’s the co-founder of Dear Cast and Crew and is a Creative Director at MacMillan. His work has appeared in the The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Millions, and has been anthologized in McSweeney’s. He’s originally from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and currently lives in Ottawa.
Jared and I first met when we were both students at Humber’s School for Writers in 2002. Two years ago, when I published my debut novel, he interviewed me in this space. Now I get to turn the tables. We met in September at the Black Squirrel Books Café in Ottawa on the day he was launching Into the Current, right across the street at the Mayfair Theatre.
Christine Fischer Guy: Congratulations on giving birth to this stylish existential thrill ride. Tell me about the genesis of Into the Current. How did it begin? An image, an idea, a character?
Jared Young: I remember the precise date that the premise occurred to me because I was on a flight between Jakarta and Bangkok. I had been reading a book by David Mitchell, Ghostwritten, and I’m kind of semi-afraid of heights. I’m not afraid of flying, but I don’t love being high in the air. I have these weird fantasies like, what if the plane turned transparent and totally lost its mass and I just fell through it? I remember that exact weird half-fantasy, that drowsy semiconscious fantasy, what if the plane blew apart in mid-air? Would I be able to climb, gain purchase on something?
CFG: Wow. So that was a fully developed image, right at that moment. And it stuck.
JY: It’s been 11 years. May 7, 2005.
CFG: You remember the exact date. Sounds like the image was really powerful for you.
JY: It was probably something I’d imagined or thought about before in some form or another. I was reading that book by Mitchell, short stories united by a common theme, and I had a collection of stories. I was thinking about how all of my stories had a protagonist that was a straight white male of about my age reminiscing on events that were very much like events in my life. How could I turn all of this into a book? Maybe not on that flight, but it very quickly occurred to me that the idea I’d had could be a framing device for all of these stories. Over time, the framing device grew and grew and pushed those short stories out. None of the content of any of the short stories remains. Maybe a paragraph or two. The narrative conceit, which became the framing device, became the main story.
CFG: I love that ghost traces of the stories are still in there.
JY: For some reason, I was recently re-reading the very first story I published in Descant (“Incredible Feats of Strength”). Remember when we went to the party and Edward Burtynsky was there?
CFG: I do!
JY: There were lines from that story that made their way into this book, verbatim. Certain phrases.
CFG: They were demanding to have a place in your work.
JY: Or else I’m really lazy about how I describe certain things.
CFG: So you’ve been to Bangkok. What were you doing there?
JY: It’s like the character in the book says: why does anyone go anywhere? For a girl. I lived there for two and a half years, with my now-wife, who had gone there to teach, and I followed her there like a creepy stalker.
CFG: No, not really. She invited you to come.
CFG: You just said, ‘Oh hey, I’m coming too’?
JY: I was working in the hospitality industry, AKA I was a desk clerk at a hotel. I was a night auditor, so I did the overnights, which was cool because it got quiet and I could write short stories. I can say that now because the Radisson has no sway over my fate. I’d saved up all this money and had these grand plans to go to South America, Buenos Aires. I was going to make the money last as long as I could. I was going to type in an old room somewhere.
CFG: Sounds very romantic.
JY: Yeah, totally. That’s what kept me going, saving the money to go and do that. And then I met my future wife and she was moving to Bangkok, and I thought, I could do that in Bangkok instead! And she had a place where I could crash. I moved there and lived and worked for a couple of years.
That flight I was on from Jakarta to Bangkok, by the way, when I had the idea for the book, was a business trip I had the second year I was there. Like the character in my book, I was in Bangkok during a coup and the visa rules got a bit weird. I ended up having to find a permanent job so that I could get a work visa. I was on a business trip to Jakarta when the executive board of the company I worked for all got arrested by INTERPOL because they were on INTERPOL’s most wanted list for fraud and had to sneak out of the country. I remember hiding in the hotel in Jakarta, destroying all of my identification and anything with the company logo on it. That’s a whole other long story.
CFG: Sounds like a good one. In this book, your character is ejected from the plane into a kind of existential purgatory. And Daniel actually uses the word purgatory. Is this plane explosion a kind of secular equivalent to it?
JY: The ideas that you’re chasing evolve over time. I wrote this for almost 10 years. A lot changed about what I wanted to say. There was a time when there was nonsense about quantum mechanics and astrophysics. Then for a while there was semi-religious sort of stuff. The whole purgatory thing seemed so obvious to me so I didn’t really ever go too far down that path. Maybe it’s obvious because, you know how a thing can be obvious because it’s right?
CFG: Or obvious to you because you’ve been working on it for so long.
JY: Or you change things just for the sake of changing them because you’re bored by them. Perhaps that’s the danger of spending a decade writing a book. What you’re writing about in the beginning isn’t necessarily what you’re writing about (or want to write about) by the end. While purgatory is an accurate way to describe the state that Daniel is in, I didn’t want to dwell on that connection; I didn’t want the story to be about where he was, rather about how it enabled him to see who he was.
CFG: So you have Daniel in this existential purgatory, and it’s a real high-wire act, narratively and literally. Besides marooning your characters in suspended time, you’re taking your reader forwards and backwards in Daniel’s memory banks in an almost free-association way. I was thinking about this Alice Munro quote: “A story is not like a road to follow. It’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.” Do you know that one? I was thinking about it as I read this novel. We aren’t so much traveling as visiting Daniel’s house of memory.
JY: That was exactly it. It’s kind of weird to talk about it now: you’re alone in a room at 2 am, thinking, what’s it all about? And you have these grand designs in your head. Then it becomes a book, and it’s so hard to reconcile that academic, deep, theoretical, ambitious thinking with the words that are inside the book at the end. I thought it would be cool to reconstruct the experience of how you remember things.
[Cookies arrive at the table.]
Oh, cookies! I remember when I was a kid my grandmother used to make cookies like that. My grandmother had this backyard with a raspberry bush and every year on my birthday I’d get some raspberries and read a magazine up on a hill. I remember I’d read Entertainment Weekly and I used to love the movie reviews. I read the review of Speed one time … so you’re thinking about the cookies at your grandmother’s house and you end up thinking about the movie Speed.
CFG: That stream-of-conscious flow.
JY: Yeah, and trying to re-create that somehow. The weird back-and-forth and the details that lead you from one place to the next. The sentence that ends a paragraph, the sentence that begins the next paragraph will be some sort of rearrangement of those words applied to that situation … trying to tell the story in a way where you’re remembering someone telling you a story, and remembering your experience of that story simultaneously.
My early drafts were so all over the place it would have been unreadable. I was so committed to this idea of doing it totally out of order. The way David Mamet put it is: the art of the dramatist is all about the vouchsafing of information, when and how you reveal a thing. So if you’re going to do things out of order, there has to be a purpose to it. You can’t just jump around for the sake of jumping around. That was the balance. I had this idea that I wanted to capture how it feels to remember things, but the story also has to be compelling and information has to be revealed in the right order for it to be engaging.
CFG: That’s such a postmodern, brainiac idea. But Into the Current, like my favourite novels, is also compulsively readable. It has this incredible momentum. Who came up with the idea of the little symbols between the sections that tell us, now we’re going forward, now we’re going backward, now we’re rewinding …
JY: I had those pretty early on, but they had a different form. Dashes going one way, then dashes going the other way. A few people read it and didn’t catch it, so I made it more explicit—not wanting it to get in the way, but explicit enough that it helps you follow along as it’s bouncing back and forth to lots of places.
CFG: You play with the idea of the unreliable narrator via the idea that memory is fallible, malleable, and ultimately toys with us. “We are all unreliable narrators,” Daniel says. There’s been some pretty interesting neurological work around memory. Were you drawing on any particular science to inform this idea?
JY: Every book about memory or unreliable narrators is about how over time memories evolve or coalesce and become different from the act that occurred. That territory seems to have been deeply explored by others. What interested me was that even if you went back and observed a memory exactly as it happened, you can still misinterpret, not catch everything, or see it in a totally different way. And it has nothing to do with, “The couch was red and not blue!”
To me, it was more interesting to think about, “What if you could inhabit your body and see things exactly as they occurred, would you still interpret them the same way, or differently?”
CFG: In the novel, Marti says, “You can choose to remember it however you want. I choose to remember it another way.” Were you thinking about the creative process here? Was that a metaphor for how we tell the truth in fiction?
JY: Can I say yes even if that’s not the case? That’s very smart. I wish. Maybe? Subconsciously. I think it ties back to what I was saying before about having two people who agree about the objective fact of the thing, and those two people can still feel completely differently about it. We pick and choose which memories mean something to us. You can say everything you want about buried past traumas, but I also feel like people choose which memories to hang on to on purpose, which ones define them.
CFG: When you say “on purpose,” do you mean we consciously accept and reject memories?
JY: Yes. If you’re a person who is prone to feeling like a victim, and feeling like a victim is the thing that gives you purpose and allows you to cope with whatever the world throws at you, you’re going to pick and choose those memories in which you were victimized in order to explain where you’re at now. If you’re an egomaniac and think you’ve never done anything wrong ever, you’re going to remember those moments of triumph where you proved someone wrong, those wings that you had. I do think that’s a conscious decision.
CFG: I think it takes a fairly self-aware person to make those kinds of judgments though, no?
JY: But there’s a difference between consciously and subconsciously deciding. The subconscious is all those things you don’t remember happening that affect you. But if someone asks you, how did you get here, you’re going to build a mythology about yourself based on the most convenient memories to explain who you are and who you want to be in that moment. They’re not always positive or negative. You build a playlist of memories.
If you could have a playlist of ten memories you’d love to re-experience, what would those 10 memories be? Losing your virginity, or that really awesome thing you did in sports that one time, or that awesome speech you gave where everyone laughed? I should ask people.
CFG: It would be a great project. In her 1981 essay “World-Making,” which appears in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula K LeGuin had this to say: “What artists do is make a particularly skillful selection of fragments of cosmos, unusually useful and entertaining bits chosen and arranged to give an illusion of coherence and duration amidst the uncontrollable streaming of events.” I feel like you’ve made that philosophy literal in this novel.
JY: For some reason that makes me think that if we were writing about this moment right now, we’d want to describe the chairs, our past together, what you’re wearing, what I’m wearing, why we’re here, but you can’t have paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs of setting the scene before something happens. That’s Writing 101. But I can describe three things, and whoever is reading it can fill in the rest with their own subconscious.
CFG: If it’s done well.
JY: Yeah. It’s that Inception thing. The person who’s dreaming has to fill it in with their own subconscious. Same thing when you realize, “I just need three sentences and I can create all of this.” It’s going to be a little bit different in everyone’s heads, but you’ve created a world with anchors. So in this world,  I have an iced latte because that’s important to who I am as a character,  we’ve known each other for this many years, and  this is happening three hours before another thing is happening. Then the whole scene is there.
CFG: But it takes a lot of skill to do that. Rookie writers will put way too much detail in. It takes time and experience to develop a sentence that will be a depth charge, a sketch that will suggest a complete world.
JY: Daniel’s going back and re-experiencing, with all of his senses, this memory. So it seemed important that if I drop him into his 6-year-old body and the house he lived in when he’s six, and if he’s the narrator, that necessitated that I indulge his senses, take in every detail of the environment. Oh my god, the carpet! The smell of the roast in the oven! The clothes I’m wearing! What my mom is wearing! It was hard to restrain myself.
CFG: But that’s different. That’s using creative empathy to get in to the head and consciousness of a 6-year-old kid. There’s a purpose.
CFG: Let’s try something. You know the Proust Questionnaire, right? Can you to do it as Daniel, your character?
JY: Of course I can.
CFG: So we’ll do this for 5 minutes. Speed date approach. Say Pass if you want. Ready?
CFG: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Jared Young-as-Daniel: Pass.
CFG: What is your greatest fear?
JY as D: Heights.
CFG: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
JY as D: The fact that I deplore myself.
CFG: What is the trait you most deplore in others?
JY as D: That they can’t sense how much I deplore myself.
CFG: Which living person do you most admire?
JY as D: Pass.
CFG: What is your greatest extravagance?
JY as D: Buying a $500 pair of shoes at the Paragon Mall.
CFG: What is your current state of mind?
JY as D: Introspective.
CFG: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
JY as D: Chastity.
CFG: On what occasion do you lie?
JY as D: Most.
CFG: What do you most dislike about your appearance?
JY as D: The plainness of it.
CFG: Which living person do you most despise?
JY as D: Myself.
CFG: What is the quality you most like in a man?
JY as D: Self-deprecation.
CFG: What is the quality you most like in a woman?
JY as D: Fragility.
CFG: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
JY as D: Pass.
CFG: What or who is the greatest love of your life?
JY as D: It’s a spoiler.
CFG: When and where were you happiest?
JY as D: Lying on the floor, drinking a slushy, reading a comic book.
CFG: Which talent would you most like to have?
JY as D: I’d love to sing.
CFG: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
JY as D: I would like to have a better capacity to live in the moment.
CFG: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
JY as D: Spoiler.
CFG: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
JY as D: A Buddhist monk on the river taxi.
CFG: Where would you most like to live?
JY as D: In Bangkok.
CFG: What is your most treasured possession?
JY as D: Suicide Squad comic, issue 23!
CFG: What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
JY as D: Not knowing where to go next.
CFG: What is your favorite occupation?
JY as D: Pass.
CFG: We’re almost at 5 minutes. Do you think these answers accurately reflect who you are? You seem rather self-loathing.
JY as D: Sure, yeah. Am I really more self-loathing than most people? Or am I just brave enough to admit it?
CFG: So in that self-loathing state of being, Daniel has set off to the other side of the world on a classic hero’s journey, trying to transform before he returns. But he’s stuck—literally and figuratively—in mid-transformation. Time waits for him as he completes his transformation. Given the option, would he have chosen such a circumstance?
JY: In my mind, he undergoes the wrong transformation. His motivation for setting off on this journey is based on something that isn’t quite … um, accurate. So when we meet him, he believes that he’s already at the end of his journey, he has transformed, he has achieved enlightenment, but what he learns is that he has much further to go. So, would he have chosen that circumstance? I’m not sure. I’ll say this, though: he’s less self-loathing than he thinks he is. No one who really hated themselves that much would enjoy reliving their lives as much as he does.
CFG: True! And he does. Do you have time for two more questions? First one. Who are your literary mentors? Whose ideas or sentences inspire you?
JY: I’m going to give two answers, because I think I seek out guidance and inspiration in two distinct ways. Let’s call them practical and spiritual.
Practically, when I get stuck in that dangerous place where words lose all meaning and the whole idea of writing in prose seems utterly absurd and therefore impossible, I always seek out stylists like Martin Amis and Vladimir Nabokov and sometimes even David Foster Wallace, because reading them—specifically, reading the individual sentences they’ve written—is like pushing CTRL + ALT + DEL on my brain. Everything resets and suddenly makes sense again. When I was writing Into The Current, I’d carry two paperbacks with me wherever I went: Lolita and Money. I used them like style guides.
Spiritually, I am reminded of the supernatural power of good storytelling whenever I read writers like David Mitchell and Zadie Smith and Jennifer Egan. I can’t parse what they do in the same way I can with those others. What they do is magical to me. They seem less like writers than conjurers: what they can invoke with the simplest, most straightforward language is astounding. I am never less present on the face of the earth than I am when I’m reading a David Mitchell book.
Wait … can I add a third category? My writing life didn’t begin when I started to get all serious about literature; it was much earlier than that. To write books you have to love books, and there were two writers who, early in my life, made me fall in love with books. One was Stephen King and the other was Michael Crichton. To this day, I swear, I’m still using tricks of narrative structure and style that I absorbed when I was obsessively reading them in junior high.
CFG: Did your process evolve? How will writing a second novel be different from writing the first? Will there be a second novel?
JY: Oh, boy. Did it ever. The crazy thing about taking such a long time to write a book is that your process (and the world, and your life) is completely different by the time you finish. You start it one way and end it another. Which is interesting; almost like editing a stranger’s manuscript (and evoking all those feelings you might have toward a stranger: jealousy, anger, dismissive superiority, etc.). But it did give me a very interesting perspective on my own writing—one that I hope informs whatever I do next.
And, yes, there is definitely a second novel. In fact, there are a couple second novels. My dilemma, now, is trying to figure out which one to invest my time and energy in. What I do know is that it’s not going to take me a decade to write it.
Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel, The Umbrella Mender, was published in 2014. Her short fiction has appeared in Canadian and US journals and has been nominated for the Journey Prize and Pushcart Prizes. She’s an award-winning journalist who currently contributes to the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Hazlitt, and Ryberg.com, and she teaches creative writing at the School for Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto.