April 24, 2012

Writers You Should Know - An Interview with CHRISTOPHER JUG GEORGE

Christopher Jug George is a writer, photographer, and filmmaker who lives in St. Paul, MN. He is originally from “The Valley of the Jolly Green Giant”, also known as Le Sueur, Minnesota. George writes flash fiction and takes photographs for christopherjuggeorge.com. He is currently writing a novel, Terry in the Blue World, and a screenplay, Coachlight. George has written a novella,Yeti Colliding with Angels, and wrote, directed and produced a short film based on his story 1331 Minutes After They’ve Never Met. He is currently shopping a collection of short stories titled, I Hope You Laugh Forever and Other Stories. George attended the University of Minnesota where he earned a B.A. in American Studies. He has written for Minnesota Daily and Le Sueur News-Herald. George has been previously published in a multidisciplinary online arts magazine, Eye Caramba. Most recently George read in Riot Act Reading Series at Nick and Eddie in Minneapolis.

Christopher was kind enough to answer some questions about his background, his influences, his process, and his thoughts about writing.

Daniel Elkin: I thought we would start with some of the basic kinda interview questions just to provide some context, if that's alright. First, can you tell me a bit about your background? Like where you grew up, your family dynamics, your education, etc...

Christopher George: I grew up in the “Valley of the Jolly Green Giant”, Le Sueur, Minnesota, about 50 miles SE from my house here in Saint Paul. It was a rather simple childhood, my family life was good, there was no dysfunction in our home, life was strange to me but not scary, it was beautiful there in the valley.  At the age of 13 I started to live an entirely different life after my father died of cancer.  Puberty coupled with being in the room for his Christmas death turned life into a surreal sport, sending me down a dark path. My psyche was being formed and then there was just this explosion in my life and it took me a long time to understand what happened, just really bad timing. High School was a blur, I don’t even know, I was outgoing yet introverted. I’m still that way. Nobody really knew how dark the world had become for me, I hid it well, although I think my mother knew because she had to hear The Cure’s Disintegration pouring out of my bedroom night after night.

Although I knew I wanted to pursue creative writing beyond college, I chose to be an American Studies major at the University of Minnesota instead of taking creative writing classes. The professor in the only writing class I took at the U told me it would be a good hobby for me. I didn’t like that too much. The American Studies program there really gave me another view of the world, one somewhat detached but hypercritical, it was just what I needed, coupled with the importance placed on the quality of the academic writing in that program really opened the door to my prose. Imagination was never a problem for me but there was no focus or structure. I applied the principals of writing academic papers to fiction and it really worked for me and the people in that department were incredibly supportive, sharp, and creative in their own way.

DE: Why writing?

CG: I fell in love with writing in my first creative writing class in High School. Patty Prince was my teacher and after one of my first pieces she pulled me aside, pointed at my chest and said “You are a writer.” She whispered it, like it was a secret that I should be telling myself. I was like, ok, well, that’s that, I’m a writer. I didn’t quarrel with the notion at all, I just accepted what she said. It kind of struck me because I had felt a real spark when I was doing my first assignments for the class. I found it to be an incredible comfort to be writing about my father because at that time I was running from his death as much as possible.

DE: Who do you feel are some of your influences, and how have they influenced you?

CG: There are many authors I adore, but as far as visible lineage in my writing it would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Raymond Carver. Marquez showed me how dream and reality can coexist within paragraphs, even sentences. His writing is so down to earth yet not of the earth at all. It made such an impression on me because it negotiated the surreal and the real that I was negotiating in my life. For better or for worse, I've always been a dreamer and reading Marquez gave me an amateur license to write in fog or sunshine or rain or in the cosmos or, more importantly, all of them at the same time. He taught me that dead things were still living and living things were often dead and that the beauty of the world is unique to your set of eyes.

Carver's stunning simplicity and knack for being in the moment had my eyes bursting toward the page. Reading his stories is like listening to a well-crafted 70's song, sentimental, heart wrenching, beautiful, and sad wrapped up into the most mundane things like buttering bread. I’ve always thought the title of his short story “A Small, Good Thing” is a perfect summation of the craft and something I always keep in mind when I’m writing. I think about this title when I’m writing my shorts or flash, write “a small, good thing.”

DE: You seem to pursue the theme of loss in a lot of your writing, what is it that you are trying to figure out and/or hope to tell others about loss?

CG: While I hope I’ve left the worst of the depression I battled behind, loss will always be an integral part of my writing because my writing, as it is for so many, was born out of loss. In the past few years I've written myself closer to the personal want and meaning I would like to achieve with my writing. I've finally made the leap from the idea of “mourning” in my writing to “living for” when it comes to my father/loss. There was a 8 year transition there where I barely wrote a thing. I went from being an overly emotional, introverted, sometimes wildly extroverted person, to finding peace and the ability to look at things detached from my own emotion. In the transition, as far as writing goes, I’m now attempting to live for him rather than mourn him. As I live for all of my grandparents, great aunts and uncles.

DE: Talk me through your writing process. Do you start with a theme, a character, a mood, setting, word, what?

CG: To start a new piece, I’m constantly looking at old photographs and eventually a line, ending, or idea will strike me from the expression on a person's face or the way the land looks or the person’s body position against the land. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly hits me because it may by tapping into something personal that I haven’t thought about in awhile or some thing based on a personal experience, feeling, or mood or trigger for an idea I’d been thinking about. What old photographs do for me is keep me in the process. Instead of staring at the walls and thinking about how I’m not writing, I'm keeping my brain actively engaged in a creative way. Once I am drawn to a photo, I’m figuratively drawn into it. I try to get into the picture and, if it’s a house, I try to get into that house and try to find a room not visible in the photo. If I can see that room through the eyes of the character, detached from myself, I tend to give into that world and find my way to the front door, open it and walk out into their world. Similarly, if the picture is an outside setting, if I can get my mind to travel with them back home and walk into their front door, I am able to stay there awhile.

I’m a very visual person and usually the old photographs are used for a spark. When I’m writing a story or rewriting, I’m walking around in the world I created, I see everything in there.

DE: Where do you do most of your writing?

CG: In 2008, I was with a good friend of mine, Craig Nelson, in his Saint Peter, Minnesota backyard and asked him if I could write in this cabin he was a caretaker of on the Saint Croix, about 40 minutes east of the Twin Cities. He asked the owners, the Schneider’s, and they were more than happy to let me write there and it’s changed my life. I’m very lucky in this way and very grateful to Craig and the Schneider’s. There is a screened in patio that allows me just enough shelter, but firmly set in nature with a view of the Saint Croix River, an island I’ve dubbed Feather Island across the way, and woods to my left. It is my favorite place to write and take pictures. With owls hooting at night, an occasional (one) bear wandering by, Pileated Woodpeckers about and, my favorite, Great Blue Herons soaring by just above water all day, I’m enthralled every second I’m there.  Nature is very important to my writing.

I can’t write there in the winter, so recently I created a writing studio at home. I painted the walls green to simulate the nature surrounding the cabin’s patio. It’s working for me so far.  I’ve found I can write anywhere, though, by imagining I’m on the set of the story no matter where I am.  Sometimes when I’m in my den, I look out my window and imagine it to be another decade out there.

My dream place would to write would be down by Rushfrod, MN, in the bluff country. I’d like to have a city getaway there. And, of course, the countryside of France or Italy.

DE: Are you on a writing schedule?

CG: Between April and November I try to go to the cabin every other week for two days. It’s only a 45 minute drive so it doesn’t take much to get there. I go during the week when it’s quiet. At home, I write in the morning. I get up at dawn, sometimes pre-dawn, and can be very productive, but I'm sometimes cut off because I have to go to work. As the day goes on I find it more difficult to concentrate and lose myself in the day a bit.

At the cabin, I start my writing days by taking pictures of the sunrise. It gives me vision and really leads me into productive mornings. At home I drink coffee and listen to records. It has the same affect.

DE: Something I am always interested in asking writers of short fiction. How do you know when the story is done?

CG: What interests me about short fiction is being able to get your point across with as few words as possible. When I started this current run of writing in 2008, I think I was pleased enough just to be writing again and overwrote my stories. I wrote 15 stories that summer and there is only a couple that I may pursue. Late in the summer of 2008, I reread one of my favorite essays, Raymond Carver’s “On Writing.” When I read his phrase “Get in, get out, don’t linger,” something really opened up for me. I became less concerned with the amount of words and more concerned with each word in each sentence.

DE: Do you have any advice for other people interested in devoting themselves to writing?

CG: Have patience, and I’m not talking only about within an afternoon, but I’m also talking about a decade if need be. Just because you aren’t creating doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. My personal experience involves a 6-8 year period where writing was scarce.  Those 6-8 years were preceded by 3 extremely prolific years. After writing 40 short stories in the past four years, I can’t imagine another drought; however, there is a part of me that knows there is hint of folly to this sort of thinking.

Patience within a day is very important. There are many days that I think are going to be a waste. Bumping into things in my house is a favorite thing of mine to do when I’m struggling to write. I occupy myself and then believe the day is going to be lost, but then I will have that 2 hour stretch and that’s all it takes. You know when you are writing.

Also, I would say to any aspiring writer (something I still am by the way) that even if you’re not writing, allow yourself to be struck by the world. When I wasn’t writing, I would still be involved in the processes of writing. One trick I used to do, when a moment or a scene out in the world was making me pause, say a stranger standing a certain way in a certain place that triggers something inside of me, I would imagine a spotlight cast on that situation or person, as if they were on stage. It made certain images and feelings last for me and made it easier for me to see that situation again when I thought about it later, much like a flash enables objects to be visible in photographs, the thought of a situation being lit up by a spotlight solidifies the moment. I can still see the old man outside from a 3rd story apartment I lived in Saint Paul. He was crossing the street in the rain and he spotted a doorway in the brick building on the other side and veered off the crosswalk to get to the doorway faster. Immediately upon entering the doorway, he leaned his shoulder against the wall and I saw him visibly sigh, his arms untangling down his side. There were flowers in the big shop window just to the right of him. I can still see the spotlight on that man in that moment and have yet to write about it, until now, I guess. His day will come.

A Couple of Flash Fiction Pieces from Christopher George:

The Future of Wallpaper

He stood at the kitchen window and listened as the coffee slowly started to percolate. He watched as the sun rode into his backyard on the back of a cloud. The sun in the tree tops reminded him of the green wallpaper in the living room of the house he grew up in, where shapes of leaves were outlined with bright yellow lines as if the sun shone on them. On winter days he would stare into the wallpaper and pretend it was summer.  He then thought of being at the river when the sun reflects off of flowing water and makes the leaves on the shore turn into electric, flashing lights. He then thought of standing with her in front of the bar they used to meet at, how the neon sign bathed the side of her face in light. He then wondered if neon lights would be part of the future of wallpaper, if one day his walls would glow and cast light on her.

Advanced Coral Gables Supermarket Design

I wish she would have waited until we got home from Florida to tell me what was bugging her. She pouted the entire plane ride down there. At first I thought she was unhappy with the amount of orange juice they gave her on the plane. “Why can’t they just give me the whole can?” Then I thought she was annoyed with the size of the towel at the hotel. “It’s too small! It barely covers my body.” Then I thought she was mad because they didn’t give her enough melted butter for her lobster. “I’m going to soak it all up with the first dip!” She broke up with me in the frozen goods aisle of a Supermarket in Coral Gables. I told her I’d see her back at the hotel. I remember looking at the the lines on the floor. There was a green one that led to the produce. There was a red one that led to the meat department. There was a blue one that led straight out the door.