Daniel Miller: Your first book was Nights with Giordano Bruno (2000)?
Jack Ross: It was my first “novel”, but I had written a more conventional book of poems before that, called City of Strange Brunettes (1998), about the large number of Chinese and Korean immigrants in Auckland at the time. I’d been teaching in a language school, and found the students there were interesting to talk to. When the book was published I had a girlfriend – she was a brunette – who was irritated by the title, until I “explained” to her that I meant it to mean stranger, rather than just odd.
DM: Strange brunettes are a recurring theme in literature. Shakespeare was obsessed with a mysterious dark lady. Phil K. Dick once wrote a book called The Dark Haired Girl.
JR: I have actually read that book. I had to borrow it from someone since it seems to be quite rare. Personally I thought it quite fine and innovative in form, but most fans of the Master seem to rate it fairly low among his works. But I have to confess that the title was initially inspired by the Jeunet & Caro film Cite des enfants perdus (City of Lost Children) — I wondered what Auckland was the “city of”, and that was what I came up with.
DM: How did you get from the Brunettes to Bruno?
JR: I guess I decided that there was something too tame in what I was doing, and it seemed necessary for my survival to write in a way that expressed the really intense feeling of alienation and sorrow and exile which had been building up ever since my first marriage (to a Belgian girl) ended a couple of years before. It seemed to me that I hadn’t yet found a form in which I could go all out, and say what was really on my mind. And the metaphor that I came up was insomnia. And the result was Bruno. Giordano Bruno is a figure who has appealed to me ever since I first read The Art of Memory by Frances Yates. She read him as a magus rather than a scientist, someone who desired literally to control the universe through words and symbols. It astonished and impressed me. So I gave my character the same obsession.
DM: You said earlier that people were hostile when you called Bruno a text-experiment’?
JR: It was really just one novelist. He asked what I was writing, and I said that I didn’t really know, some kind of text experiment, and he looked as if he wanted to throw up. I thought, I want to delay that gag reflex for as long as I can.
DM: How did the book develop?
JR: I came up with the first ideas for it in 1996. My initial idea was to write a book about piobaireachd, pronounced pee-brock, which in case you don’t know is a very esoteric form of musical improvisation on the bagpipes. It was introduced to Scotland by a family of Italians called the Brunos. I think that one was called Pietro Bruno. I have a brother who’s a bagpiper, and he told me this. Well, it suddenly occurred to me that the whole thing might be connected to Giordano Bruno, and his memory systems, and that provided me with the idea for a subversive book about alternate histories and alternate knowledge systems. Then I went home to New Zealand, and the book got infected with local stuff about Auckland, and the piobaireachd got lost in the mix. But I don’t want it to sound like it was purely cerebral. I was very depressed at the time — my marriage had just broken up, and I was at a loose end in a lot of ways.
DM: Writing the book had a psychological function?
JR: Oh yes. But then so did Bruno’s memory systems. As Frances Yates explains, Bruno constructed his knowledge system so that he could control it and have it present to him at all times, so that he could interfere in nature as a magus. A magus is someone who performs small acts in the world, which have repercussions in the lower and upper realms. Bruno said the end of all his systems was to transform oneself. I quote that on the title page of the novel, which actually comes halfway through the text, for various numerological reasons.
DM: I’m very interested in the number 23…
JR: Two digits: two, and then three, which is plus two plus one. Three of course brings in all the triads and trinities. The two numbers add up to five, like the five parts of the Vitruvian man. And then if you add two to three, and then the two digits themselves you get seven, which takes us down the rabbit hole to revelations. But I should explain, the format of the published book was binary: text pages facing illustration pages, but the text pages are not continuous.
DM: The images in the book are all found images?
JR: Not all, but most of them. There are a few crude scrawls by me in there, but the majority come from alchemical texts.
DM: What is your interest in alchemy?
JR: I’m fascinated in occult systems of knowledge. I’m serious about the abilities of such systems (I would include “literature” as one of them) to do some good to the individual in terms of giving them a paradigm for self-analysis and even self-cure.
DM: Many of the people who laid the foundations of science were alchemists.
JR: Yes, that’s very much the theme of Frances Yates’ books: the mysterious zone between renaissance “magic” and enlightenment “science” — the Rosicrucians, the Illuminati — and the memory theorists like Bruno, inspired in his turn by Ramon Llull, who’s one of her great heroes. I used some of his “wheels” in another piece of fiction I wrote called “Trouble in Mind” which was a novella I wrote, or rather “combined” out of two unrelated pieces of fiction, which was published in 2005.
DM: Are there a lot of experimental writers in Auckland?
JR: Very few. The few that do exist are mostly grouped around an obscure magazine called brief, which started life as a A Brief Description of the Whole World in 1995. A few creep into sight from time to time, then are crushed, and cast aside by history.
DM: Are you familiar with ”conceptual writing”?
JR: Not really familiar with the term — unless you mean language game experiments like OuLiPo. I’m afraid I tend to rely on my isolation to excuse my lack of knowledge of contemporary art and literary practices. The whole subject for me consists of occasional hints I get from a general hiss of white noise: Henry Darger / Kathy Acker — that kind of person.
DM: A writer from New Zealand recently won the Booker Prize.
JR: Very true. We’ve met once. I know her partner a bit better, as he’s done some teaching for us here on campus. Of course Eleanor Catton’s novel is constructed astrologically; each character’s actions governed by their horoscope. The whole thing reads like a mixture of Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris and the HBO show Deadwood. I would love to be able to do what Catton does, I just don’t seem to be able to resist laying down two layers of text or putting footnotes in my text or generally foregrounding some bizarre format.
DM: How to understand this urge?
JR: I don’t know. I just get a kind of warm feeling when I see an odd-looking page, whether it’s a dream-map by Kathy Acker or an enclosed text-window by Mark Danielewski, it just fascinates me. I also very much like the idea of telling a story through a series of documents which are meant for other purposes: tax returns, or lecture notes, or annotations in the margins of another text. Perhaps it’s related to the desire to believe that the blizzard of textuality we all generate day by day is somehow adding up to…
The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis
DM: Let’s talk about the Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. The book starts with someone washing up on a beach with amnesia…
JR: Yes. I felt I wanted to write a less personal book than Bruno, and so I decided to wipe out all the personality from my protagonist, by wiping his memory clean and starting again, which is also pretty much the predominant cultural myth down here in the Antipodes.
DM: The book features many quotations.
JR: My protagonist has a notebook which he uses as a kind of portable memory. If he opens it one way, it instructs him to do automatic writing. If he opens it the other way, it tells him to index quotations from a variety of texts, some real and some fabricated. The book is the fusion of these two types of writing.
DM: What is the significance of the title?
JR: Well, on the literal level, the reader has to presume that the protagonist really has washed ashore on a beach somewhere near here, and really is compiling these notes — in that sense, then, it’s his “imaginary museum” (muses as guardian goddesses of memory), while the Atlantis identification is a fallacy based on his choosing the wrong texts to sample. On a figurative level, the whole thing is a kind of satire on our belief that we can begin again.
DM: Where does he get the texts?
JR: They’re all on the shelves of the girl, Annie, who rescues him from the beach. She lives in a cottage on the coast, and it’s her bookshelf that supplies most of the citations in the encyclopedia part of the book.
DM: Who is Annie?
JR: She’s a composite. I was pursuing a girl called Annie at the time, so I just put her name in and used her as a kind of placeholder, and then never got around to renaming her. I did also have a sister called Anne, though, who seems to me to underlie the character in many ways. In the book itself, she’s very central to the action — such as it is — a kind of compendium of everything that is most magical about the feminine, but also fierce and Dionysian in the final scene where some kind of sacrificial orgy seems to have taken place.
DM: How does the book end?
JR: Well, it doesn’t really, as it is designed to cycle around — there’s no way to be sure which direction is the best one to start in. Physically the narrative portion ends with a kind of bacchanalian ritual by a bonfire during which tales of Atlantis are told and some kind of sacrifice is performed (which is the kind of thing that really does take place in parts of West Auckland) — only hints are given about what Annie is actually holding in her bloodstained hand at the end, though …
DM: Is the Imaginary Museum of Atlantis a real place?
JR: Well, no, by definition it exists only in people’s heads. If it is a real place, I suppose it’s New Zealand: a kind of New World nowhere, which is also everywhere — very specific and very generic at the same time — dominated by European culture, ahistorical, yet also full of its own indigenous history and verities — another version is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. But in terms of the personal reality of the narrator of the novel, his quest is quite desperate — to somehow try to function as a human being without a functioning memory either of his past, or of the new information he takes in — so every deduction he makes is purely on this level of trying to continue to survive as a discrete individual. So, while it has a metaphorical dimension, this primary level of simple need to survive is the primary emotion of the narrative.
DM: The final book is EMO?
JR: Yes. It’s long and strange and was designed to cap off the other two. I didn’t have this idea when I was writing them. They seemed quite self-contained, but when I heard the word EMO for the first time, I saw the possibility of writing something less beleaguered and despairing than the other books. The book is set on Earth, Mars and “Otherwhere” There are three linked novellas: the first is narrated by an android who has been installed with the personality of Eva Braun (or so she believes); the second is set on Mars and involves the machinations of a bunch of characters caught in a kind of suburban intrigue; the third is set on earth again and involves a nurse who has a patient who believes himself to be the poet Ovid, in exile on the shores of the Black Sea.
DM: Where is Otherwhere?
JR: I originally imagined it as a virtual space – like in a computer game. So my Ovid character is living on the Black Sea, and in his house (in Auckland) simultaneously. His virtual environment was engineered by these letters that Ovid wrote home to his friends after he sent into exile by the Emperor Augustus. He was exiled to a tiny village on the black sea, surrounded by barbarians, and he wrote letters asking all his friends not to forget him and telling them about his surroundings. I translate from them in the novella — there are two collections of them: Tristia (Sad Poems) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from Pontus).
DM: And the plot on Mars?
JR: That was the bit that readers had most trouble with. I just wanted to undercut the idea that human beings anywhere would be somehow ennobled by their surroundings. It does get weird, though, with lost races hidden below the surface, pyramids, and references to Edgar Rice Burroughs.
DM: What is the importance of the title?
JR: Well, I guess the title is meant to be quite important. All of the books are designed to dwell on moments of strong emotion which might be defined as “sentimental” in earlier paradigms of art — and when I discovered there was a whole subculture dedicated to such mawkishness, I jumped on it — in all three books the sentimentality is only obvious to close readers, though. The surface impression is of explicit sex, violence and conflict, but those are just there as distractions, really.
DM: You said earlier that EMO is less beleaguered and despairing than the other two novels. How?
JR: I suppose that the other two novels hinge on the failure to make emotional connections with other people (with the respective metaphors of insomnia and amnesia to dramatize this). EMO, on the other hand, shows characters reaching out to one another and achieving some kind of mysterious fusion.
The full text of Jack Ross’s Nights with Giordano Bruno is available in electronic form at: http://nightswithgiordanobruno.blogspot.com.
Trouble in Mind is available on kindle at https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08C4WLGRV/
The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis is available at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08GJZ23P9/
The text of EMO can be downloaded from https://mebooks.co.nz/fiction/novels-contemporary/titus-books/emo-ebook
Experimental writings from the pages of the magazine brief are indexed at http://sydreef.blogspot.co.nz/
There’s also a series of online interviews about the trilogy at: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1C3B9B77EE83F4A3&feature=plcp
Links to all these, and other texts, can be found on Jack’s blog at http://mairangibay.blogspot.com/