Shane Jones’ Light Boxes is difficult to describe well. It’s a tiny book – 167 pages – that begins with the name ‘Thaddeus’ in font so large – perhaps 36 point – that it breaks onto another line. Thaddeus describes a scene in his town; he’s watching the flames of hot air balloons and children playing. But sadness has blanketed the town thanks to February: not the month we know, but a being, a person, a feeling. February has banned flight and all talk of it, and the townspeople want to rebel. It’s a curious, compelling book, visually varied and swift to offer up different viewpoints. I interviewed Shane Jones via email.
Thanks to Penguin Australia, we have a copy of Light Boxes to give away. See the end of the interview for details.
The epigraph in Light Boxes comes from Joseph Wood Krutch, an American who wrote about nature, theatre and literature, and reads: “The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February.” Was this statement the genesis of February in Light Boxes – February, who decrees that no one in the town shall speak of flight, and who may be responsible for the endless winter?
I found the epigraph about halfway through writing the book. It probably sounds lame but I think I actually googled “quotes on february” and that came up. February came from a bunch of places, mostly my own depression and a need to write something very visual. Having February take flight away seemed natural because Thaddeus Lowe is a balloonist and without the ability to fly he enters a deep depression.
That Krutch quote is, I guess, a joke, but you’ve made February into an entity that goes well past simple humour. February is at once the wintry month and a lonely, somehow powerful man who lives on the edge of the woods. His exact nature is rather elusive – on the one hand, he’s caused endless suffering to the townspeople, yet when we see things from his point of view, he seems dejected and without any agency whatsoever. He isn’t without humour or light or sympathy though (‘Lists Found in February’s Cottage Detailing Possible Cures for February: 1. Valerian Root and Vitamin C tablets taken in the dark / 2. Yoga and meditation). Whence this enigmatic character?
I really didn’t want February to be clearly defined. It’s a month, a season, a god, a person, a feeling, etc. So you have this village and then February just kind of swirling around them. I feel like I’m not being honest in this answer because I’m not sure how to respond. One thing I don’t really like is easily defined characters. This kind of thinking while writing, “Well, character Dan would never close a door like that.” It just doesn’t interest me and I don’t think people are like that. February is capable of great compassion and horrible evils and I think people are like that.
A few things that happen in Light Boxes are things that are usually impossible. A hand appears from the sky to push a kite into the ground. People who are dead come back to life. Are there any impossibilities you would not reverse in your fiction?
Ummm, no? The great thing about fiction is that you can completely flip and bend the rules of history, science, physics, etc. It’s just exciting for me. I want to be able to do anything in my fiction. But I also don’t want to be viewed as a fantasy writer or weird or experimental. I guess I don’t like definitions when it comes to writing.
Any mere description of the plot of Light Boxes would in a way misdescribe the nature of the book, which has a unique and seriously compelling form. Almost every page has a new heading, indicating who is speaking, and the font changes to aid the story: it gets larger and smaller, it changes from serif to sans serif. How did you write this book? You’re a short story writer and a poet and a novelist. How did you categorise this book before it was published?
I set out to write a novel. What I ended up with was a bunch of short segments that were barely more than 20,000 words when put together. When I submitted the book I said it was a novel. It was just easier that way. As far as the actual writing, I wrote the book in segments, 2 or so a day, similar to how it’s presented in the book. I wrote on my laptop, on scraps of paper during my lunch breaks at work, and wrote lists in a notebook. When I had 130 or so of these segments I arranged them collage style to form a narrative and then wrote some to fill in the holes. Some of the font choices were mine, some were Adam Robinson at PGP.
Another thing that Light Boxes reminded me of was the musical form, the fugue, which features a motif that surges again and again. There are a few things that continually resurface in Light Boxes: the smell of mint leaves, the epithet of the ‘girl who smells of honey and smoke’, air balloons. How did these things impress themselves on you as motifs to be repeated?
I think the language of the book just includes repetition. And a lot of the images you just mentioned I really love and wanted to see throughout the book. Kites, balloons, snow, mint leaves, are all things with multiple intense senses. So when you read mint leaves, you can smell it, you can taste it, you can touch it. Does that make sense? I don’t think in motifs or themes. My literary intelligence is much lower than my gut intelligence which tells me “I like this, this is exciting, I think this is good.”
It’s a small book, only 167 pages. How long did it take you to write?
The first draft took about six months. Then some editing. But I sent the book out as a first draft to many presses and that’s probably why it was rejected so much.
How long ago did you write Light Boxes?
I wrote Light Boxes three years ago.
The book was originally published through Publishing Genius, which 500 copies. It was then picked up by Penguin worldwide. Did the book change at all once the publisher changed?
I think the fonts changed a little, and there were some really small edits, but it’s basically the same exact book. Which was great, because I feared they would want major changes. I thought the book was too short for a major to publish it. Luckily, my editor Tom was great. One of the first things he said was “I don’t plan to change a thing.”
You thank Jesse Ball in the acknowledgments. What part did he play? He’s one of my favourite writers now writing, with his radical and beautiful storytelling. Who else do you think is doing extraordinary things with words at the moment?
I love Jesse Ball. His first novel inspired Light Boxes a lot. I sent an early draft of the book to him and he gave some feedback and eventually a blurb. He’s one of my favorite living writers. As far as others, there are just too many to list. Jesse has a new book coming out next year, as does my friend Blake Butler who is a mad man with language. Amelia Gray will probably blow up big sometime soon. I recently read a manuscript by Kristen Iskandrian that I wouldn’t be surprised to see in bookstores in a few years.
Thanks to Penguin Australia, we have a copy of Light Boxes to give away. For your chance to win, email [email protected] today with the subject line ‘Light Boxes’. Winner will be chosen at random. Good luck! Please note that this giveaway is now closed.