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Parts That Don't Fit: The Short Stories of G.M. Jones




I've gotten into reading short stories recently. I always think of short stories as the indie film of the literary world. A good short story is efficient in length, but expansive in meaning. Done right, it should feel like a keyhole view into a much larger world. Japanese short stories are my favorite. Everything is so precise and foreign, like watching reels of someone else's Technicolor dreams. And yet, about halfway through, you realize this culturally distant experience is actually surgically relevant to you. Nordic short stories are good, too, but they are far less subtle and more brutal. It's like being tied to a chair and circled by a minimalist prophet with a baseball bat. But no matter where the short story originates, for me there must be two common denominators: it has to pull me right into a world that is not my own, and it has to stick with me long after I've read it, wondering about the tiny microcosm I visited for too short a time.

My uncle once said that God’s recipe for West Texas was to take stupidity, crude oil, and rocks, and put that under the broiler for six thousand years.
Now that we were driving across it, I could see what he meant.
- excerpt from Day Trip by G.M. Jones

I have never been a teenage boy in West Texas out for a joyride. I have never been a child bandit hiding in the woods building robots. I have never been a woman alone on the road in a foreign country determined never to come home. But Jones' stories trick you into thinking thinking they might actually be long lost memories. None of Jones' short stories are set anywhere I have ever been. They are set in West Texas or a mythical part of South America, or a storybook land of witches and bandits. But when you finish each brief visit in those worlds, you realize that you really do know what that sun and dust feels like on your skin. You know exactly what it means to be poor and bored. What it means to be a woman facing the hedgehog dilemma, or a small child who lives in a shack in the woods, painfully aware of how different he is.

A woman older than any he has ever seen before enters the classroom, holding on to a rail along the wall, and using a cane to tap in front of her. The teacher walks to an old desk, sits, slides open a drawer, and lifts out a big hat, decorated with mirrors and little beads. She puts it on her head. He sees her close her eyes, scrunch up her face like she is concentrating, and then reopen her filmy eyes....“I’m so happy you’re here!”
But she says it in thieves’ cant, the secret language of the bandits, and even though Ahab knows her eyes don’t work, she winks at him.
-excerpt from Ahab by G.M. Jones

Jones short stories remind me of the scene in Amelie when she takes the arm of the blind man and ushers him though through the crowd, across a busy street, and deposits him on his doorstep, all the while telling him keen anecdotes about everything he can't see. You can easily imaging Jones doing the same; a brief walk with a stranger who crosses your path only to leave you with a story you will wonder about for the rest of the day.



Interviewer

When did you begin writing?


G.M. Jones

I think the earliest thing I remember writing was maybe in 2nd grade for a school project. I wrote a story about kids in some fantasy village dealing with an army of dragons. Then in high school when I figured out how to print out fake doctors notes, I would skip school and spend a day scribbling in various spiral bound notebooks. Side note: spiral bound notebooks suck if you're left handed. I was pretty much writing Catcher in the Rye fan fiction, mutated by 1980s Cold War science fiction and the oppressive Texas Bible Belt scene. But goddamn, I had shit that I wanted to say. I got a computer in like 1992 and after getting dumped by the girl I was sure was the love of my life, I actually filled up the 40 mb hard drive with awfully earnest blank verse poetry, so many unfinished short stories, and maybe a few letters to Sylvia Plath that of course she'll never get because she died before I was born. Then, a few years after college, I pretty much stopped writing. The rat race was my new focus. And then twenty years later, a good friend and a personal role model of mine took his life. I reread Death of a Salesman. I read my friend's favorite book, Walden, by Thoreau. I realized that I still had shit I wanted to say. It started with keeping a journal again. Then I started putting together short story ideas.


Interviewer

Tell us about your newest work.


G.M. Jones

My most recent work is a short story that I titled "I clocked out early tonight" and I decided to stop messing with it in August of 2020. There are two other stories on that same website. I got more stuff coming. But man, I just don't always have a lot of time or energy to write, so it takes a while.

But I've received some kind words from friends (who I don't always believe) and completely random internet weirdos, so at this point, I'm in. That kid skipping school and writing at the shitty 24-hour diner was actually kinda cool, and he deserves his shot.


Interviewer

Can you share the first line with us?


G.M. Jones

"I clocked out early tonight" is actually the first line and the title. I heard that Emily Dickinson never titled her poems, so when they were published, the publishers would use the first line as the title. I really like that. And I tend to overthink shit, so I either pick a purposefully stupid simple title, or just use the beginning.


Interviewer

Let's hear the elevator pitch.


G.M. Jones

"Gloomy young waiter goes to an art show by himself because nobody he knows wants to go with him, and has a wild adventure."


Interviewer

What inspired you to write "I clocked out early tonight?


G.M. Jones

This one is 50% autobiographical, 50% man I wish I was this cool and my life was this cool. Really, it's all about expressing a feeling that I used to have so much when I was younger -- why does everyone else seem like they have a plan, while I'm completely bewildered?



Interviewer

How long on average does it take you to write one of your short stories?


G.M. Jones


It took me about six months of calendar time. I don't know how many hours I spent in the chair writing. It would be fun to know.


Interviewer

What kind of research did you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a story?


G.M. Jones

I did a little research, but not too much, because it was mostly written from my own personal experience. I was a waiter for several years, the restaurant that the narrator works at is based on a restaurant I worked at, the dinghy bar he visits to see the art show at is based on a dinghy bar I remember, etc.


Interviewer

What does literary success look like for you?


G.M. Jones

That skinny kid skipping school in Texas visits me in a dream after I write something, and he says "yeah, that's what I was trying to say."


Interviewer

Do you want each story to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each?


G.M. Jones

I kinda think I'm writing about different people that live within the same universe. Most of the time, anyway.


Interviewer

What do you think is a common trap for aspiring writers?


G.M. Jones

While I'm a rookie writer, I have spent the last twenty years getting pretty dang good at computer programming. And I can say that when I try to encourage rookies in that world, the main thing I want to emphasize is that feeling frustrated is okay. Feeling frustrated is not a sign that this isn't for you. Being clever is ultimately irrelevant too, because the puzzles you will face will grow in complexity and difficulty until your cleverness evaporates. At that point, it's all about just sticking with it past the point at which a sane person would stop. Beyond that, I know about two traps that I fall into. One trap is not fleshing stuff out enough. Metaphor: imagine that I draw three dots on a chalkboard and say "Those three dots are points on the edge of a circle. Do you like my circle?" Well, it's not a very obvious circle, unless you are me. Taking the time to describe the scenery, add a little more context, it leads to a more satisfying experience for the reader. But holy hell, that's so boring and hard work for me. I just drew three dots! Can't you just use your imagination for the rest? Another trap is freaking out when I realize I'm writing something that resembles somebody else's work. It's a terrible feeling! But I'm trying to just acknowledge it and move on. I don't know why writers are so hard on themselves about this though. It's fine for a musician to cover or sample another musician's work. Side note: the thing I'm working on right now is heavily inspired by the amazing 1990s movie Pi by Darren Aranovsky. And that's OK. Imitation is flattery.


Interviewer

How does your environment shape your work?



G.M. Jones

See, this is an interesting thing for me. None of the three stories are set in an environment that resembles Cleveland. Don't get me wrong -- I LOVE this place. But I'm writing mostly about shit that I remember from my teens and twenties, and back then, I lived in Texas. I borrow people and conversations from my real life all the time, but right now, the setting here hasn't yet made an appearance. I'll say this -- if it wasn't for the super cool people I've met since living in Cleveland, I don't know if I would have gotten back into writing. Hell, I saw and talked to Harvey Pekar one time in the grocery story for a really long time one day, until he made an excuse to escape. This place is full of amazing people but none of that elitist fuckery that usually comes along with a high density of talent.


Interviewer

What is your connection to Cleveland?


G.M. Jones

I didn't grow up here, but I moved here in 2003. I'm an Eastsider but I hope that doesn't mean we can't be friends.


Interviewer

What are the challenges specific to living and working in Cleveland or the Midwest? The benefits?


G.M. Jones

Well, it's fucking cold and gray and dark here. And by the middle of February, I'm often in a bad mental place. But my biggest challenge isn't really related to the Midwest. One time I heard this snarky quote: "There is no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."

I think that overly simplifies a complex issue, and gives a lot of assholes an excuse to be shitty parents. But I kinda agree that when I'm focused on paying the bills and making sure my family thrives, well, that's what uses up my best, most creative flashes of inspiration. And that's almost certainly the right choice!



Interviewer

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?


G.M. Jones

None! I didn't think this was gonna be on the test. I can't say I've taken a pilgrimage anywhere in my whole life to anything. I haven't traveled much. I've moved around a few times, and loved that. But I actually don't much love traveling. Traveling feels like starting to fall in love and then the other person suddenly dies. I wanna live somewhere until it becomes a part of me.


Interviewer


Do you believe in writer’s block?


G.M. Jones

Well, I've never personally had that experience of not knowing what to write. My struggle is holding myself on a particular topic rather than starting notes on a fun new idea.


Interviewer


Does writing energize or exhaust you?


G.M. Jones

Writing down notes for a new idea is a lot of fun, particularly when I'm doing it while I'm supposed to be doing something else. When I was younger, I would pass time in class this way. Teachers just saw a kid scribbling. Now I spend time scribbling in office meetings. That part's fun. But going back through and adding more detail is so tedious! Like I said a while ago, I drew three dots and told you those are points on the edge of the circle. I already have written the story in my mind at this point. Now I'm just "showing my work" like in math class.


Interviewer

How did publishing your first story change your process of writing?


G.M. Jones


I finished something and random people who have no reason to flatter me said it wasn't too bad. That positive feedback made me want more.


Interviewer

What is your favorite childhood book?


G.M. Jones

I hate this question because I worry that if I forget one, then that book's feelings will be hurt.

But I think one of the first books that I read and connected with really emotionally was Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander. It is the fourth book in a five-book series about an orphan boy that turns out to be the chosen one blah blah blah. But in the fourth book, Taran doesn't know that. He just knows he is an adolescent now, and while his friends are all going on to do great things, he seems to have no future. So he travels around this medieval fantasy world and learns various vocations, and he's good at them, but nothing sticks. He meets a guy that says he is Taran's father, and Taran lives with him, and is pretty miserable, and then the guy gets hurt, and confesses how he just wanted free labor. It's almost like an Albert Camus novel in the sense that the hero Taran faces the cruel unfairness of life and then meets it with heroic kindness. Or maybe I'm just remembering it far too fondly.


Interviewer

What is your relationship to the finished product when you are working? Is it a thing you are building in real time or do you feel the thing is already in there and you are just clearing away the dirt?



G.M. Jones

Well, sometimes there's scenes that are in my head already done. So the work here is to clear away the dirt, like you say, or in other words, get the details about the scene out of my head and into something that somebody else can read. And there's other times where I have a note like "the boss explains that the company is up for sale and this terrifies Rollie because he thinks the new owners will stop his project because Rollie can't explain why it is so amazing, because Rollie gets flustered and stutters around strangers." Is that enough detail? Almost certainly not. You can't read a recipe and then know what the dish tastes like. But from my point of view, the fun part is done.


Interviewer

What is your work routine, if any?


G.M. Jones


This is a thing I want to get better at. Usually it all starts when I get bored enough in a work meeting to jot down some ideas. And then at night, I replace these notes with richer text, when I feel like it. But this approach is not reliable! I just recently watched this video by Zoog Von Rock from the band, ANGELSPIT, and he describes his advice on how creative people can make sure they get time to be creative. It feels right to me! I doubt I'll do exactly what he says, because I never do anything exactly according to the rules, but I love the idea.



Interviewer

Do you find that your work has a theme? Is there something about this theme that has particularly drawn you in?


G.M. Jones

I think the main theme I've identified so far is humans want to belong to something, but maybe not bad enough to deny their own senses or morals or experiences. We all want to fit in somewhere, but not all of us do. And so, what do we do with the parts of us that don't fit? Hate ourselves for them?


Interviewer

How has your role as a reader informed your role as a writer?


G.M. Jones

Well, nowadays, when I read, I follow the story, but I also look for the signs of how the writer wrote the text. Like, how does the writer do dialogue? How many drafts do I think there were of this chapter?


Interviewer

What is the title of a book that has really stayed with you?


G.M. Jones

Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein. YA sci fi from the 1960s. It deals teen angst so beautifully.


Interviewer

What is the title of the book you wish everyone would read?


G.M. Jones

The Bible, duhh. Ok no, not really. Not sure, damn it. I feel like books make sense when they resonate with the reader’s life experience. Like I just read Jude the Obscure in my forties and loved it. I wouldn’t have loved it until now. So, not really sure. Other than this nonfiction book, The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. That book rawks. He describes the patterns that apply to mass movements. You’ll never see religion or politics or sports or crowds the same after you read that.


Interviewer

What about your early life influenced your work or your journey toward becoming a writer?


G.M. Jones

Maybe just loving reading stories? Maybe not finding meaning in the shit that other people enjoyed? As far back as I can remember, I've made up ridiculous stories, and it thrills me when people like them. So certainly there's some aspect that is based on positive feedback. But beyond that, it's also a chance to somehow make people see the world through my eyes, or feel how it feels to be me.


You can read all of G.M. Jones' short stories at gmjones.ink, and you can follow him on Instagram.


Dana McSwain is a bestselling author and principal at Webb House Publishing. @writersofcleveland is a project dedicated to amplifying the voices of Cleveland writers. 2021 All rights reserved.