Travis Jeppesen is a novelist, art critic, poet and artist. Born in Florida, Jeppesen lives and works in London and Berlin. He is the author of four novels. His play Daddy premiered at the HAU Theater in Berlin in 2009 and his criticism regularly appears in publications including Artforum and Art in America. Jeppesen was a participant artist in the Whitney Biennial 2014 and is currently completing a PhD at the Royal College of Art, London.
Ajay RS Hothi When did you start writing, either seriously or not seriously?
Travis Jeppesen I started writing when I was a child, around the same time that I learned to read. Rewriting stories, adapting favourite storybooks into stage plays, etc. From the age of 10 I became very interested in theatre and I began writing plays as a teenager. I guess that’s when it became “serious”. I was also writing poetry and prose, producing sort of interdisciplinary texts – things that would bleed into each other. Plays with outrageous, fantastical stage directions that could never possibly be staged. I made my own zines, wrote for other people’s. I was writing fiction and poetry and plays, but then also reviews of bands for punk and indie-rock publications. I was all over the place. Still am.
AH Your first novel, Victims (ITNA Press, 2003), is about the final days of a religious cult preparing for the cosmic event their leader has prophesied will end their time on Earth. Is there a relationship between this book and your previous writing?
TJ I was very young when I wrote it, though I don’t know that this is as important as people make it out to be. The intricate, episodic structure of the novel – the way it jumps back and forth in time, often giving very few clues along the way – came out quite organically through the composition of the thing. It’s something of a miracle, I think, the way it turned out. I’m proud of the audacity and sophistication of the thing. I wonder how I pulled it off at 23 and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to accomplish something similar again! And I think that’s why I have such pleasantly nostalgic memories of writing Victims, how organic the process of its coming-together was. That’s not to say it was smooth sailing all the way, but I was learning by doing, and that is a most pleasant way to go about things. I guess it’s related to my previous writing in that it was the crystallisation of a particular voice. And maybe my voice was a bit stronger and better developed than other 23-year-olds because I had already been writing my whole life – since I learned how to read, practically. I don’t think I was meant to do anything else, really.
AH Victims is an American novel: there’s something very pervasive about its American Gothic-ness, but I think of your work as distinctly un-American. Does living in Europe give you some kind of perspective on America, a kind of license to comment on America more objectively?
TJ I’ve lived in Europe for 14 years now, pretty much my entire adult life, so it’s hard to think of myself as fully American. You know, I could never write anything authoritative on the American scene of the past two decades. Though I’ve been back plenty of times to visit, it’s different from living there, you know, hearing and contributing to the daily lingo, paying taxes, dealing with the various bureaucracies of daily life, understanding the politics from a ground perspective – all of those things are lost to me. Not that Victims is a realist novel; it was more about capturing the otherworldliness of a particular world. So even though about half of it was written when I was still living in the United States, there isn’t the documentary realism that you’ll find in a very American writer such as Philip Roth. At the same time I feel silly asserting that I’m European, although in terms of my lifestyle and ways of viewing the world certainly a lot has been absorbed. I really belong to no place, and I’m fine with that. I’m a cosmopolitan outsider, I guess you could say.
AH Music, theatre, poetry, visual art – what relationship to writing novels do these things have in your head?
TJ I think there’s a fluidity that unites all the arts. Unites art to life, also. I’m interested in abolishing all the artificial boundaries separating these things. I’m anti-categorical. The clearest manifestation of this, I suppose, is the development of “object-oriented writing”, one of my major ongoing projects for the past four years.
[He has described this as “writing that enacts a subjective, embodied encounter with and response to art objects.” For 16 Sculptures (2014), he invited viewers to put on a pair of blacked-out sunglassses and listen to recordings of spoken descriptions of sculptures, noting, “Something that is located within an object can never be ‘about’ that object – aboutness is always external.”]
AH I just want to return to Victims for a moment because it is a prism to explore the wider – sometimes very wide – themes of your work, and because it was recently republished. Does revisiting the story have any effect on how you view your stories going forward?
TJ I think it was just a very good opportunity to give the book a new life. There were some things in the original edition, just very minor things, that bothered me and I was able to clean it up a bit. But I didn’t change much – rereading it after so many years, the prospect could be a bit scary; you know, what if I hate it now, think it’s a piece of shit? – but that didn’t happen, I’m happy to say. It’s a book I can still stand by, that still resonates with me today somehow. And on a personal level it brought back a lot of happy memories from that period of my life.
AH What sort of things do you read?
TJ I’m fairly omnivorous. Since I work all the time, often on several projects at once, most anything that I read these days tends to be research-related. It could be anything, as my obsessions are quite diffuse, spread pretty evenly across poetry, fiction, art criticism and philosophy/theory.
AH Writing novels, writing for gallery work (I’m not saying artwork), writing in or as artwork, poetry, plays, writing for performance – what’s the difference to you? Does anything in your head have to click or change to say “OK, this is what I’m doing now”?
TJ It’s all pleasurable for me, though pleasurable in different ways. The less it feels like “work”, the happier I am. Deadlines are the worst, they create all sorts of pressure, though I understand why they are necessary, and all that pressure, though I hate it, can even be useful and enrich the work.
I guess the major difference between working strictly on my own projects and writing for publication is the heavy editorial process that the latter often entails, though this varies a great deal according to the publication and the editor. There can be times when it’s quite unpleasant, when there is a communication breakdown, for instance. There is also an editorial culture that exists at certain publications where they feel it is necessary to meddle with every single line, even when there is nothing apparently wrong with a sentence or the idea it contains. For some reason they think that this needless meddling is “good editing”. Sometimes, one wishes that there was more of a focus on the individual’s authorial voice, maintaining and honing that. An awareness as to the poetic aspects of language, such as sound, musicality. I like writing where a certain degree of ambiguity comes through, necessitating more of a collaborative endeavour between reader and writer on the path to meaning-formation, rather than a writing that is more journalistic in form and strictly intended to convey information.
AH Does your approach remain the same? You read your novel The Suiciders (2013) in one long bash at the ICA here in London last October. I’m interested in whether your approach to it as a novel remained the same knowing that it was going to be read as an endurance performance.
TJ My approach is still the same in that I have no approach! Nearly everything I write, the process is completely different. It has more to do with the peculiarities of the project itself. Which is not to say that there’s no advance planning. That’s what notebooks are for. I have ideas for dozens of different projects and books that I want to do and those ideas have existed for years, all catalogued in both my mind and on paper, in notebooks and files on my computer. The generation of work is an ongoing process – it’s hard if not impossible to clarify the moment that it begins. Increasingly, life circumstances determine what it is that I am going to be working on at any given moment. Though I could be walking down the street and get an idea for one of the other projects that I intend to work on eventually, so that’s where the pocket notebooks come in handy. I have to write everything down or else I forget. So it sounds very chaotic but in my own way I’m also very organised.
With art criticism, it has become a bit more standardised, because the deadlines are more immediate and time is a luxury. So, for example, if I’m going to review a show I have a rule where I will see the show at least twice before I can write anything. The first time I just go to look and think, the second time is for taking notes. I then go home and write a draft from my handwritten notes. If it’s for a longer feature or something more essayistic then the process is usually a bit more layered, as it involves research, possibly talking with the artist, then two or three or four drafts, including the back-and-forth with the editor.
With The Suiciders I didn’t know in advance, while I was writing it, that I was going to do these endurance readings of the entire novel. That idea came later, after the thing was already published. Like the object-oriented writing installations that I’ve produced, I look at it as publishing “in the expanded field” – to hijack Rosalind Krauss’s phrase – a different means of disseminating the text. I don’t think I’ll ever do it again. It was really an idea tied to that particular book. §
Travis Jeppesen’s most recent book, All Fall: Two Novellas was published by Publication Studio in 2014. His object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and at a solo show at Wilkinson Gallery, London.