Jim White :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview (Part Two)

Few songwriters have the gift that Jim White has. Channeling the strange and weird side of life into song-stories that are as compelling and moving as they are sometimes disturbing, Jim has helped push the Southern-gothic genre into music and back out into the limelight. His latest album, Transnormal Skiperoo, is a continuation and expansion on his familiar themes.

Earlier this month, in coordination with Aquarium Drunkard, Jim took time out of his current tour to stop at Northeast Guilford High School outside Greensboro, North Carolina, to talk with some creative writing students about what writing means, the process of writing, where ideas come from, where they go, influences, inspiration and hoping not to ever serve Tom Waits a quiche. Joining him was his touring guitarist, Pat Hargon, who also has an MFA in Creative Writing in addition to having played on Jim’s latest album and being a songwriter in his own right. Part one of this interview can be found, here. | j neas

Aquarium Drunkard: The new album, of course, is called Transnormal Skiperoo and that’s kind of a unique and different sounding title, can you tell us a little bit about where that came from?

Jim White: Well, I talked about my notebooks before. I have pages and pages and books and books. I have a stack this big of notebooks – notes – and when I’m working on a song or story or something and I get stumped, I open the books up to see if there’s something that would jog my mind. Sometimes I have three or four open at a time. And I had one open over here and one open over there. In one book there was the word ‘transnormal’ – it was something I’d misunderstood or something someone had said to me that they said wrong. And the other book was the word ‘skiperoo’ and I looked at one, and I looked at the other, and I said, you know, they belong together. And then I thought, you know what, that’s a good phrase. It makes me feel kinda happy. And I’d been feeling this kind of growing sense of happiness with life and being here after years of – when I was in my 20s and 30s, I was suicidal. I wanted to kill myself. There were days in my 30s where I thought hundreds and hundreds of times a day ‘I have to figure out a way to kill myself.’ I thought that. So to get to this point where I’m not even thinking it once a day, where I’m not even thinking it once a month, that’s a good feeling. And I told you, I’m trying to figure out a vocabulary for happiness. And that sounds like a good phrase to describe a happy feeling. So I decided to call the album that.

Pat Hargon: Plus you don’t have to filter the results when you do a Google search for it. You type in ‘Transnormal Skiperoo’ and you know what you’re getting.

JW: [laughs] Yeah, there’s not a lot of Transnormal Skiperoos out there.

AD: Yeah, you can hit the ‘I Feel Lucky’ button and get right there. [laughter] So, I wanted to open up the floor to questions from anyone in the audience who wanted to ask Jim or Pat anything.

JW: How ’bout this – have you run into troubles writing? Can you describe a situation where you’ve had trouble writing something? Do you have aspirations to become a professional writer? You don’t have to ask us questions about ourselves. You can talk about something you’re doing.

PH: Which is fine, so long as we can use that as an opportunity to talk about ourselves. [laughter]

Audience: When you get really stuck, and you have no idea about what you’re writing about or how you’re going to write it, what do you do?

JW: That’s a good question. When you’re a starting writer, that’s 90% of your condition. You just don’t know what to say or how to say it. Sometimes you can just do free association. You can put on music without words and the music will kind of make stuff rise out of you. Sometimes you can put on your favorite album by another artist and you can write phrases like the lyrics that your favorite artist is singing. There’s a band called the Handsome Family and the husband writes the lyrics and the wife listens to them from a distance and the misunderstanding from the lyrics, she writes, and they use those lyrics. So they’re based on her misunderstandings of his lyrics and she writes some of the best lyrics of anyone I’ve ever heard. She’s an amazing writer too – she has a book of short stories called Evil which is really, really weird and really, really scary and really beautifully written. So there are lots of ways to get yourself out of being stuck. Frequently I’ll put on instrumental music and just start writing things that make no sense. Or I’ll write about dreams I’ve had or a conversation I’ve had and in the process of it, little ideas will spin off of it. And you’ll say ‘Oh I can write a little bit about my crazy idea about this.’ Crackpot theories are great to put in your writing. I had a theory that the reason when people get older their eyes go bad was that they don’t look around enough. So I would look around all the time and I sincerely believed it was true until i talked to an optometrist and he said, no there’s macular degeneration of nerves and such and even then I didn’t believe it. So any theories you have – any ideas you have – if you have bad thoughts you’re ashamed of, write them down and let people see them. It’s really important to tell the truth about what’s going on inside you. If you try to hide the truth in fancy pretty words and pretty sentiments and idealism, you’ll never really get anywhere as a writer, but if you write what’s true, even though it might scare people or anger people, write it down and tell them. Make it known. A lot of times, if there’s something dark hiding inside you, if you can find an outlet for it and show it in the world, it will become less dark. It’s the people who keep things bottled up that are the most troubled people. If you can find an outlet, that’s usually a constructive way to deal with intensity inside of you. I don’t know if you agree with that.

: No, not a bit. [laughs] No, that’s good advice. But I mean, there’s simple advice that’s as old as dirt: lower your expectations. If you’re stuck, it’s because you want something just absolutely magical to happen as soon as you sit down and it’s not happening and you get frustrated…

: You say, I’m no good.

PH: Yeah, and it’s easy to get stuck into that, that system of just wanting something and you’re not even sure what you want. You just want the magic to come forth when you summon it. Well, it doesn’t always come forth when you summon it. But you know, it’s just a process – like any process there are slow parts and fast parts. The slow process is just generating words to work on, but that’s really what I think of it as. The process of looking at a blank page or screen – that’s not when the magic is going to happen for me. That’s when I’m going to create raw material. Sculptors can work with fallen trees or marble or something – they have material they can go out and find, but writers have to generate the raw material and then have to go back and sculpt it. So it’s like you’re sculpting yourself out of yourself, but you have to get enough of yourself on the page in order to sculpt it. So the process of generating material to work on is the part where you’re stuck. So, even if you get only ten words, that’s something to work with.

JW: There are two stages to it – getting the raw material and refining the raw material. There are some people who are great at getting the raw material – people who can write hundreds of pages, but have no ability – and this has been my problem a lot in my life. I could write and write and write but have no ability to know what’s meaningful in it. Once you generate the material, really focus on what is meaningful in it. I will write a story and I will write 20 pages and I will look through it and I’ll find one paragraph and I’ll take that one paragraph and put it at the top of the page and erase, or put in another file, the rest of it and start working on that paragraph. And you may think after writing 20 pages, I’m done, I’m tired of this. But you’re not. That’s just the start.

PH: Yeah, you’re nowhere near as tired as you’ll be when you get done. And that’s how recording an album is too. You write a song and you think man, these chord changes feel so good, I love this song. And then nine months later, after you’ve recorded forty different versions of the song, and you’re in the studio and you’ve listened to it 700 consecutive times, it’s like, you have boiled that thing down to its essence and that’s what you have to keep responding to – the essence of the thing just staring at you. But as far as editing goes [gesturing to a poster at the back of the room], I assume that’s Woody Guthrie back there – but he wrote a book called Seeds of Man or something like that – the manuscript was like 2,000 pages – he just wrote and wrote and wrote because by the end of his life, he had some kind of writing mania. He would write 20, 30 page letters to people. And he gave this manuscript to a publisher and they were excited about it because it was Woody Guthrie, but it was a thousand pages or something. So, only over years and years of other people editing it down to something has that manuscript turned into a book. By the end of his life he as in no condition to edit it. It was written in strange dialects that no one else could understand because he’d gone so far into trying to capture words how they sounded instead of in proper English. The magic happened as soon as he looked at the page, unfortunately, there was too much magic. [laughs] There is too much magic syndrome just as there is too little magic syndrome.

JW: Yeah, I had a writing professor at NYU and he told a good story. He went to Union Theological Seminary and there was one guy in the class who was much smarter than anyone else and these were all the smartest people you’d ever met. Everyone thought he was going to be the next Nietzsche, the next Kierkegaard. He’s going to be the next influential philosopher that people will remember for hundreds of years. Everyone wrote their dissertation except for this incredibly smart guy and he went and lived on an Indian reservation and disappeared. Well, ten years later, at a reunion, everyone got together and they said, hey, whatever happened to him. And someone said ‘oh he’s living on this Indian reservation and he’s still writing his doctoral thesis.’ So my teacher decided, well I’m going to go visit him. And so he got in the car and drove to the reservation and saw the guy and said ‘are you willing to sit and talk with me?’ The guy was ecstatic. He was so thrilled that one of his contemporaries was there, and he said ‘gosh, I’m almost done with my thesis. Would you read it for me?’ And my teacher was thrilled because he figured he was going to be the first person to read Being and Nothingness or Fear and Loathing or one of those famous novels or philosophy things. So my teacher said ‘Sure, I’ll read it.’ And the guy said, ‘okay, I’ll put it out on my desk when I leave for work in the morning.’ And he came out the next morning and there were stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks of paper, and it was about 2,000 pages long and it was about the life of Nietzsche and the philosophy of Nietzsche. And my teacher, who is an expert on Nietzsche, at one of the foremost universities in America, read the first paragraph and didn’t understand it and then read the second paragraph and nothing made sense and there were 2,000 more pages. So it’s really important to be able to recognize what’s meaningful in your work and it’s helpful if it’s meaningful, not just to you, but to others as well. If you put one of your stories out in the world and people say that makes no sense, that might be a problem. If you put a story out and people say that makes me angry, that makes me happy, that makes me feel compassion, then you’re onto something and you keep pursuing that.

Audience: Is everything you write about something that’s happened to you?

JW: No, sometimes I’ll overhear a conversation and think oh, that’s interesting and want to write about it. I have no problem, when I’m creating fiction, taking stories from other people and incorporating them into my stories. Pat recently incorporated a story I told him into one of his. It didn’t bother me. I was happy. Stories aren’t personal property. If, however, for example, a friend confides in you that their stepfather is abusing them and you write a story and use your friend’s name and the stepfathers’ name, that’s where you kind of cross a line. You can tell the story and tell it in a way that doesn’t do harm to people. Write about anything. If you can’t write about your own life – I like to write about my friend Jimmy Tuck’s life, Jimmy Tuck, the crazy haz-mat driver – who will kill you if you pull out in front of him because he cannot jackknife his trailer. First time he met my wife, I told her all about him. He showed up at our house – he’s driving explosive gasoline and dynamite and he’s crazy. He’s a crazy, hot-roddin’ redneck..

Audience: Wait, they give explosives to crazy people?

JW: Well, they give them the license to haul them around. And my wife says ‘Oh, I just heard you finished your haz-mat course. You going to be driving soon?’ And he said ‘Yeah, that’s right, and if you pull out in front of me, I’ll kill you.’ And she said, ‘Uh, what?’ And he said ‘If a truck going 50 miles an hour tries to break because someone has pulled out in front of him, he will jackknife and kill many people because the explosives in the tank will explode. So he therefore has to just keep going straight and kill the people in the car. I will kill those people in the car.’ And he was looking forward to killing them. He was hoping someone would pull out in front of him so he could kill them and prove that he did not jackknife his trailer and kill a lot of other people.

Audience: How many people has he killed?

JW: Jimmy? There’s no telling. I saw Jimmy once and he had a black eye and he’s a big guy – no one ever gives him a black eye. And I said ‘Jimmy, what happened to your eye?’ And he smiled and said, ‘Family reunion.’ [laughs]

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