On Manga Cafes, Convenience Stores, and the Taste of Human Flesh: An Interview with Justin Isis

July 30, 2013

This is an interview I did with Justin Isis for the BSC review. It was a bit ago, so I am reposting it here:

On Manga Cafes, Convenience Stores, and the Taste of Human Flesh: An Interview with Justin Isis

Justin Isis. He’s like Jonathan Franzen if Jonathan Franzen was better looking and could write. Like Paul Leppin meets Kawabata in an empty brothel with cold tile floors. His just-published book, I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, is plastic romance at its best—something sure to cause anger and distress and be gripped by lonely housewives at 2 a.m. while their husbands are in the backyard digging holes. This is neo-decadence for the unincarcerated—the book that will keep you up at night until your lips grow numb mouthing the words. So, cover your cheeks with glitter, paint a big pink heart on your depilated chest and read the following interview, because the price of food has just gone up again:

Brendan Connell: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

Justin Isis: The ability to send messages to my past self, like “Don’t go to that party at Alfredo’s house because the microwave is going to blow up and permanently scar your ankle,” or “Invest heavily in the startup company your friend Edmund’s cousin just founded, because it’s going to take off globally,” or “Heather from your third grade class is actually in love with you and waiting for you to do something, but won’t have the courage to say so until fifteen years later on Facebook.” I’m sure in practice the laws of physics would fuck this up somehow by creating an endlessly ramifying series of parallel universes on the basis of the altered decisions, which would mean multiple (or endless) versions of myself would have to keep sending different messages to different past selves, similar to having an inbox full of millions of unopened e-mails to reply to. X-Ray vision would be easier, probably.

BC: What do you think is the message of your book?

JI: I don’t think there’s an explicit message to the book other than for it to be an ornament, but I’m aware that people might want a message, so I think the message should be, try to have a good time if you were born in a first world country. Most of the conflicts in this book are based on psychological and/or existential problems that, however debilitating, are not as bad as extreme poverty or being ethnically cleansed. Every time I feel depressed in real life I usually think “I own an iPod” and then I feel better. I think the iPod is a reliable source of existential meaning, or that my life is more insane than Napoleon’s because I can listen to the same song indefinitely and get pork buns from the convenience store. Lawson is probably my favorite convenience store in Japan, but I also like Daily Yamazaki.

BC: Why do you consider Lawson to be superior?

JI: Generally higher-quality baked goods and meat buns, high-quality oden (broth with meat, eggs and pickled vegetables) in winter, etc. I think the real reason though is a kind of undefinable atmosphere or spirit. I like standing around in Lawson doing nothing, especially in the early hours of the morning, when usually hostesses, drunks, and other interesting people come in and you can have random conversations with them. There’s also a sub-chain called Natural Lawson, which sells organic and more health-oriented foods at unreasonably higher prices. They’re rare though and I never see anyone in them, so they have a different atmosphere, kind of like ghost convenience stores. They feel like they’re from the future for some reason too.

BC: Are you single right now or are you dating someone?

JI: The last girl I thought of as a girlfriend in the “girlfriend” sense was an ex-hostess who I lost to a Taiwanese plastic surgeon with much more money. It was pretty unfair because I had better clothes and dancing skills than him. So now I usually introduce myself as a lawyer or financial consultant. You can meet interesting people and girls by posing as a priest too—they often don’t believe you when you say you were just joking. The collars are easier to come by than you might think.

BC: Is hierophilia common in Japan?

Probably not as much so as in Europe, although I did have sex with a girl behind a shrine once. A lot of these shrines are located in very urban districts and have open space in the midst of an otherwise condensed area, open pavilions with trees and minimalist architecture, atmospheric at night and during festivals.

BC: I noticed that all of the stories in your book take place in Japan. After reading it, will I be better prepared to visit the country?

JI: I think you’ll be prepared to go to Lawson, go to karaoke, listen to idol music, and maybe go clubbing or something in Shibuya. I wanted to keep everything on the level of what the characters would experience every day and take for granted, so a lot of the settings are kind of monotonous and not what the characters themselves would consider culturally interesting. I think I mention izakayas (combination eating and drinking establishments, often with all you can eat/drink deals) and karaoke in maybe every other story, since they’re a pretty big part of everyday life. There are even homeless people who live in karaoke or manga cafes, they just keep renting the same room every night, much cheaper than a hotel. Probably the book could take place in any first world country in the early 21st century, although there are some cultural references and in-jokes in it about Japan, like the list of gyaru fashion models from 10 years ago in one of the stories, and also a ridiculously obscure video game reference in the last story that no one has gotten so far and which I don’t really expect anyone to get.

BC: That’s great. I didn’t get the obscure reference, but one of the characters was playing Minesweeper, and I appreciated that. Do you think video games make people more aggressive?

JI: I don’t know, but I feel like playing them constantly from a young age, like four or five years old, possibly affects your unconscious somehow. My dreams always used to warp into pixellated landscapes after a while. I haven’t played anything for a few years though. Minesweeper may possibly subtly increase antisocial tendencies.

BC: If I wanted to spend some downtime at a manga cafe, which one would you suggest?

JI: The chain I usually go to is called Gran Cafe Bagus; they have fairly decent rooms. I don’t read that much manga, but I used to go there and rent rooms for writing purposes, because if I knew I was paying for the time I was more likely to get work done. About half of Human Flesh, especially the later stories, was written in various manga cafes around the Yamanote Line.

BC: Some of the women mentioned in your book: Ayano, Miyabi, Shono. Are these real people or products of your imagination?

JI: They’re mostly real people. Miyabi is called Miyabi in real life. The book I’m writing now, about a professional gambler, I’m using her real name and if you read the book closely and went to Hiroshima you could probably find her workplace. I used to tell people I was going to do this and they didn’t take it seriously, like “That’s not going to happen, I don’t believe you’re really a writer.” Their image of a writer is like some old man or university professor. Anyway, none of these people can speak or read English.

BC: That’s good. Too many people can speak English already anyhow. But let’s talk about that book you’re working on. The internet has been abuzz about something called Girl Revolution with talk of a movie deal and so on. Is there anything you can tell us about it?

JI: It’s essentially the sequel to Human Flesh. There’s another book I have to publish first, but Girl Revolution will pick up where Human Flesh left off and will be twice as long. I wanted it to be like 1000 pages, but I’m not sure I can write that much. All the stories are about hostesses, vomiting, and the Catholic Church.

That said, I actually do have a movie deal, the Malaysian filmmaker Edmund Yeo is currently making a feature-length film based on one of my unpublished stories, which will be set in Tokyo and Malaysia. It has a lot of suicides and people doing inappropriate things to reality. There was originally going to be a film based on the story I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, Etc. that was being developed by graduate students at Waseda University, but they eventually lost funding. But it had gotten to the stage where they were trying to cast actresses from television dramas.

BC: I have a lot more questions I’d like to ask, but people on the internet have really short attention spans. Anything you would like to add to this interview before we sign off?

JI: Nothing to add other than that I hope everyone who reads this will buy at least five copies of the book and also consider sending me money, which will be used to fund drinking and buying new clothes. You know it makes sense.

BC: Thanks!


June 18, 2012

Jason Rolfe did an interview with me at Bibliomancy.

Interview with Justin Isis

February 9, 2011

I interviewed Justin Isis for Gestalt Mash. Check it out here.

Robert Freeman Wexler: The Painting and the City, an Interview

December 3, 2010

The following interview was originally done for the BSC Review:

Robert Freeman Wexler’s latest novel is The Painting And The City, out from PS Publishing, and it was recently named one of the top 10 science fiction novels of 2009 by Booklist. He has also published a novella, In Springdale Town, (PS Publishing 2003 and reprinted in Best Short Novels 2004, SFBC, and in Modern Greats of Science Fiction, iBooks), a novel, Circus Of The Grand Design (Prime Books 2004), and a chapbook of short fiction, Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed (Spilt Milk Press/Electric Velocipede 2008). The following interview was conducted by Brendan Connell via Skype and e-mail during the month of June, 2010.

Brendan Connell: The Painting and the City takes place in New York. Obviously there are many novels that take place in this particular city, but what was your reason for choosing it as the setting?

Robert Freeman Wexler: I actually can’t remember ever thinking about it being set anywhere else. A notebook entry from when I first started thinking about the story puts it in a quasi Latin American setting, but that wasn’t something I considered seriously. The main reason has to do with an earlier story, The Green Wall, which appeared in Polyphony 5. In that story a man is working in an art gallery in New York. The current exhibit is a painter and a sculptor. Although The Green Wall is older, I started working on The Painting and the City before I found a publisher for the story, so I turned the sculptor from the story into Jacob Lerner, the sculptor/main character of The Painting and the City. I think the way it happened is that I was envisioning Lerner’s art and realized that the art I described in the story was Lerner’s, and then put Lerner’s name into the story. The gallery in The Green Wall is based on a gallery and gallery owner I knew when I lived in New York. Even with such a specific basis I didn’t have to set the novel there, but it felt natural.

Brendan Connell: Is there any specific artist Jacob Lerner is based on?

Robert Freeman Wexler: No. As an artist, he has bits of people I’ve known. As a character, he has bits of me. I knew a sculptor who lived in Manhattan and taught at Rutgers, which was a pretty long train ride—I figured Lerner could do that too. The art I described isn’t from anything that I’ve seen, and I tried not to be too specific in describing the art. I didn’t want to use words to recreate a visual object. I think that would have been confusing, and boring. My first description of what Lerner is working on: “a small bronze with the appearance of a distorted cage, burst open at the top from the inside” is specific because of the word cage, but anything more about how it looks depends on the reader. As an artist, Lerner knows it’s a cage. If it was a real sculpture by a real artist, and people were looking at it in a gallery, some might think cage, some might think something else. The way I visualized the art, and the way I described it, are both abstract enough to allow interpretation. Read the rest of this entry »

Robert Freeman Wexler

July 7, 2010

The BSC Review has my interview with Robert Freeman Wexler up in which we talk about his new book, The Painting and the City, which was recently named one of the top 10 science fiction novels of 2009 by Booklist.

Read the interview here.

The Painting And The City by Robert Freeman Wexler

Time is Memory, an Interview with Allan Graham

September 24, 2009

The following is an interview I did with Allan Graham, also known as Toadhouse, in 2003, for a Canadian magazine called Espace:

Allan Graham was born in 1943 in San Francisco, California and later moved to New Mexico, where he has lived for most of his adult life, exhibiting continuously at both galleries and museums, from Santa Fe, to New York, to Switzerland and Italy. His works are in several major collections, both private and public, noteworthy among them being that of the Villa Menafoglio Litta Panza, a public space created by the collector Panza de Biumo in Verese, Italy with the organisation FAI.

‘Non-conceptual.’ This is the first word that comes to my mind when confronted with the work of Graham. His art is not so much the art of the idea, as the art of what the idea indicates and what it cannot possibly say – visually or verbally. Whether it be the two bronze coffee mugs sitting alone in an empty room (TIDE: two ideas defining emptiness), the word-groups pasted as bumper stickers on vintage automobile bumpers (Toadhouse), or the wooden doors painted with a palette knife (Pre-hung: for those who suffer form), Graham consistently points to what is on the other side of thoughts and concepts.

‘Time is Memory’, last exhibited at SITE Santa Fe, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is one of his most interesting pieces and consists of, in Graham’s own words, “16 death poems by 16 Zen Buddhist masters, 16 zafus (meditation cushions) and 16 reading lights connected to a central hub which is then connected to a solar electric computerised tracker. The poems, zafus and lights form an oval or circle on the floor with the solar electric tracker on the roof of the building. Weather, light shifts and human consciousness create a sensitive flux to the room’s events. Rising with the sun, flowing with the weather and then setting into darkness. The zafus are to be sat on, the poems are to be read and change to be experienced.”

The death poems used in the piece were composed by the various Zen masters just before they died, and are Graham’s renderings from various translations that he has read.

The following interview took place toward the end of January, 2003.

Brendan Connell. A lot of your work, and obviously ‘Time is Memory’ in particular, has what I view as a Zen Buddhist theme. Many contemporary artists use the same type of ‘minimalist’ aesthetics found in traditional Zen Buddhist art. But do you think, visually, a piece of artwork can have the same sort of affect as say, a Zen Koan, – an enlightenment effect?

Allan Graham. From a Zen standpoint art is only the pointing finger. Multiplicity, simultaneity and connections that become too vast for our logic or reason to hold onto have been my ‘focus’ for many years. That is my connection with Zen. But it also occurs in say, Sufi (Rumi), even in the most resent science – a beyond-self related comprehension. Physical details in art are just the language. I have no loyalty to a style or subject but there are reoccurring loops that feel like a part of me, whatever I do. Read the rest of this entry »

Interview with Ivo Soldini

May 5, 2008

This is an interview I did several years ago with Swiss artist Ivo Soldini. It was done for a Canadian magazine called Espace:

For several years now the works of the Swiss sculptor Ivo Soldini have been drawing more and more attention throughout Europe, and for good reason. His work is sophisticated, while still maintaining a level of ritualism and humanity that does not exclude a large public.

Born in Lugano, Switzerland in 1951, Ivo Soldini has been exhibiting his sculptures, paintings and drawings since 1973, the year he graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. His fame however primarily rests on his giant bronze heads, which appear almost masked, and his mummy-like figures, which give the impression of people tied up, or constrained. Extremely texturised, yet almost sado-masochistically rigid, Soldini’s work has continually been referred to as “Romanic” and “Egyptian” and critics are always quick to refer to primitive art movements in their discriptions.

The following interview took place in his house/studio, in the small village of Ligornetto, Switzerland:

Brendan Connell. What first made you interested in sculpture?

Ivo Soldini. Well, sculpture is natural, automatic. Even children, when the use their hands and touch things, make sculpture. Of course, as time goes by, this simple way of touching becomes more elaborated. Read the rest of this entry »

An Interview with Ben Peek

August 30, 2007

Ben Peek is an author to watch out for. I mean it. Writer of Twenty-Six Lies / One Truth (very cool stuff), another of his books, Black Sheep, has now become available to the public. The following is an interview I did with him, about this novel and other things:

Brendan Connell: Ok, a dystopian novel about race. First question: Why?

Ben Peek: Basically, race is one of those interests I have. One of those big, life defining interests. When I was a kid, I grew up in this neighborhood filled with Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, British, Turkish. . . . Well, a fairly diverse racial group. I never thought much of it until, when I was about ten or eleven, I noticed my mum saying things with a vague bit of racism in them. Nothing huge, mostly about how those kinds of people came to the country for free benefits, and jobs, which impacted on people like her getting what she deserved. That she herself was an immigrant never seemed to enter her mind. Since then, it’s just been this thing for me. Racial politics, thoughts, the like, plays such a big part for me in my life that there was never not going to be a novel about race.

Brendan Connell: So race and racism are the same thing?

Ben Peek: No, not really. It’s just that my first interactions with race are filtered through the memory of racism. I guess it’s fair to say that I noticed different races, and became aware of my own race, through racism, if that makes sense?

Brendan Connell: Sure. . . . So, is Australian society especially racist in your opinion?

Ben Peek: I hesitate to say it is. I haven’t seen much of the rest of the world, but my opinion, from what I understand, is that the world is a fairly racist place, and Australia is no better and worse than a lot of other places out there. But, it has done a lot of fucked up things to people who aren’t white, and continues to do so. And yet, at the same time, y’know, there’s a really beautiful multiculturalism here. So . . .

Brendan Connell: Maybe it is a bit like the US in that way.

Ben Peek: Maybe. I’ll see in November when I’m there. It’s going to be interesting to see the States first hand, I reckon.

Brendan Connell: Yes, it’s an interesting place.

Ben Peek: It’s got such a dominating culture throughout the world. In many ways I feel like I’ve been living in a society that is full of simulations of American culture.

Brendan Connell: Yes, but of course US culture is a simulation of everything else. At least these days. . . . Anyhow, race is a pretty heavy-weight topic—compared to a lot of the escapist literature currently in the fantasy circuit, anyhow. Which sort of brings me to the next question: Do you think writers have a moral obligation to their readers?

Ben Peek: Nah. What I think they’ve got is a moral obligation to themselves. If they’ve got a thing—and every writer has a thing that guides them, motivations them, centers them. . . . If they’ve got that, then they should put it into their work. Read the rest of this entry »

Catherynne M. Valente Interview

August 18, 2007

The following is an interview I did with Catherynne M. Valente for Fantastic Metropolis when her book The Labyrinth came out. She is currently a finalist for The World Fantasy Award (best novel) for her book The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden:

Brendan Connell: Who are your major influences as a writer?

Catherynne M. Valente: I write a great deal of poetry-even my fiction is very informed by poetry. So Sylvia Plath, Lorca, and T.S. Eliot-classic though they may be-were always big influences. In fiction, Anaïs Nin, Milorad Pavić, Clarice Lispector. Diane Wakoski’s books are combinations of prose and poetry, and I have loved her work from the time I was a teenager. I’m also very interested by the cadences of non-English work: Greek and Latin, which I can read in the original; and translated works-Neruda, Pavić, Ahkmatova. The assumptions are different; the way language is used is just slightly off the linear path that English often takes.

Brendan Connell: So, you are very influenced by the Greeks?

Catherynne M. Valente: Certainly. It’s hard to study anything for such a long time and not have it become a part of your psyche. The mythologies and archetypes of classical culture are a profound influence on me. Stylistically, I would say they are less so. The unique rhythms of the Greek language really opened up possibilities for me in the use of English. Greek is fundamentally different from Latinate languages, their conceptions of colour, time, love, are wildly Other, and each of their words packs about a paragraph of English explanation into it. Exposure to such a radically separate language, in some sense, inspired the focus on language that always seems to dominate my work. Read the rest of this entry »