YOU WILL NEVER BELIEVE HOW WRITER TRAVIS JEPPESEN READ A SHITLOAD OF BOOKS AND DROPPED OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL
Travis Jeppesen had his first novel, Victims, published over ten years ago at the age of twenty-three. Back when he was studying at The New School in New York, he met Dennis Cooper at a reading, slipped him the manuscript, and they became pen pals. Apparently, Dennis was so taken with what he read, he started his own imprint (Little House on the Bowery) to put that book out. Back in Charlotte, North Carolina, Travis didn't exactly fit in at the performing arts 'Fame' school he attended, and although he is technically a Southern writer, you wouldn't know it by his accent — his mother was quick to discourage any drawl or twang. I meet Travis to chat about his flaming new book, All Fall, the first part of which reads like a Final Destination flick with a faggy voice-over.
Danny: Are you an avid reader?
Travis: Um yeah, I am. I mean, I read constantly.
What are you reading right now?
I’m always reading several books at once. So I’m reading Samuel Beckett’s first work of fiction, More Pricks Than Kicks, it’s a collection of short stories. And I’m reading the Semiotexte’s anthology, Hatred of Capitalism, which is great. It’s sort of a compendium of all the best writers of Semiotexte over the years.
Have you ever been in or hosted your own book club?
Not a book club, no. I was one of the people who started Pork in Berlin, and then we had a second party called Slum at Ficken3000, the sex club. Every time it would be something different. So sometimes we would have readings in the darkroom, or we would have bands playing, or we would have one-off installations. But as far as like a book club, you know, I’ve never been a part of something like that. Reading’s always been such a solitary activity for me, writing as well.
What’s the perfect conditions to read? Like, do you like to go to a library, or do you like read in bed?
I read everywhere. I like reading on the U-Bahn. Everybody in Berlin has a bike except for me ’cause I really like taking public transportation and reading. I almost always read lying in bed, before I fall asleep at night.
Would you say you need to?
Uh, yeah. Sometimes I write before I fall asleep as well. I either read or write before I fall asleep. Yeah, I would totally say I need to.
What are your guilty pleasures when it comes to reading?
Well, I like true crime books. My mother is an avid reader, and she loves like true crime. She’s kinda like the person who got me into reading. I like a lot of sorta trashy true crime books, like The Stranger Beside Me, one of Ann Rule’s books about Ted Bundy. You know, I read that and I had to sleep with the lights on for two weeks.
Yeah, and I read a lot about UFOs. I was going through a period where I was obsessed with watching UFO documentaries as well.
Do you believe in UFOs?
Yeah. It’s kinda sad. I’ve always wanted to be abducted, but they didn’t want me — staring out at the night skies, like ‘Come get me!’ But they never came.
Did your mother read to you when you were a child?
Yeah, she would always read to me when I fell asleep at night. Like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and some adventure stories about boys and their dogs.
What was the first book that really made an impression on you?
It was probably those Judy Blume books.
Like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.?
Yeah. There’s one that she did about a boy. It’s filled with like jacking off and masturbation. I forget what it’s called, but they’re all like really, really pervy.
What was the one where the girl has her first period?
Isn’t that Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.? I think one of the school librarians even refused to carry her books because it was considered so taboo, which made it even more appealing. That was kinda my first sort of recognition that there’s like erotic or sexy writing. And that was before puberty, so yeah.
Are you like a book person, or do you also own a Kindle or something to read e-books?
I can’t say I’m a big fan of reading e-books, but because I travel so much, it’s just convenient. I have an iPad with like one hundred books on it, but I am still a total bibliophile. I have to stop myself from going into bookstores. I always like buy something. I’ll go like three years without buying clothes, but I buy books all the time. I own more books than I’ve read, so it really is a compulsion just to like have books, even though I buy them faster than I can read them.
Is reading dead?
Well, I think people read more than ever because of the internet, but if you look at what they’re reading, a lot of it is crap. Facebook has become the new tabloid media. Like, ‘Which character are you in The Golden Girls?’ It’s all just like forms of advertising, really. I don’t really think it has much value. Reading books is becoming more and more of an esoteric activity. The ways that people read have changed because of technology.
How has it changed?
Well, the only value of writing in the so-called information era is to convey information, so people just consider writing for the content without paying any attention to the form or style. I like reading prose completely detached from meaning, and just considering the rhythmic or musical qualities. Maybe I’ll lean out the window and smoke a cigarette.
You can smoke in here if you want.
Yeah, let me find an ashtray.
Or I could sit by the door.
Here, use this as an ashtray. How important is the public reading of your work to the writing? Does it take on a different dimension?
Sure. You know, I never really liked reading my work in public that much before, and I would get really, really nervous. I would actually have to like pop a Valium and have a few drinks before, and then I would be like really slurry. That was a bad idea because people just thought I was a drug addict, you know, because my writing is considered weird anyway. I don’t want my writing to be considered drug-writing or whatever, so I’ve learned to do it straight. With The Suiciders, I did these two readings where I read the whole thing. It was eight hours long, so it was kind of an endurance test.
Was that difficult?
Yeah, it was really difficult. I was sort of inspired by Fidel Castro, who would give like eight hour long speeches.
And did you stop to eat something or did you just read all way through?
No, I just did it all the way through. The most painful thing was not being able to pee, because I have the world’s tiniest bladder.
What kind of writing jobs have you done to support yourself? I know you’ve done some art criticism, but have you also done like more commercial copywriting and stuff like that?
Yeah, I’ve done every kind of literary prostitution imaginable. I did SEO writing…
What’s SEO writing?
It’s search engine optimization writing. People will buy like a thousand domain names, just for sticking ads on all of them, but of course you can’t have a website that’s just all ads, so you have to have content on it. It can’t be content copied from other websites, or else you’ll have very low rankings. You have to have unique content. So they would hire writers to write unique content about various subjects. Like writing fake hotel reviews. I worked in porn for a while.
When I lived in Prague, I worked for William Higgins. I would write for their website, and write copy for the back of their DVDs.
Like a synopsis?
Yeah, and a lot of it was SEO writing as well. You don’t go to a porn website to read the text, you go there to watch a video and jerk off, but you’re writing for the search engine. So I’d watch the scene and write, in as descriptive way as possible, what goes down. So when people are doing Google searches for like, I don’t know, ‘three way sucking and fucking’, they’re more likely to come to that page. I also worked for this big porn conglomerate in Prague. They own like thirteen websites and one of them was a gay website, Guys Go Crazy, where there were like big orgy parties. But there were all these weird fetishes I would have to write about, and make it sound hot. Like there was this fetish called wet and messy. It’s basically just like women, wearing like really expensive silk dresses, who would just like smear disgusting shit, like cakes, all over their bodies.
The British have a term for that. It’s called ‘sploshing’.
It was called like ‘wet and messy’. I totally didn’t understand what was sexual about it.
Weird that that’s a job.
Well, it was! I mean, they paid me a really good monthly salary. Then the recession happened and I got laid off, along with a bunch of other people in porn business. It was like an hour of work a day, and then I had the rest of the day to work on my own stuff.
Do you write every day?
I do, yeah.
Do you spend the first four hours of every day at your desk?
No, I wish I was that organized. Every day is kinda like a new adventure for me. I never have a set schedule, I write at different times. I was going through a long period where I was a very nocturnal person, so I would like stay up all night writing. But then I was going through a period where my brain was more fresh in the mornings, so I was working more in the mornings into the late afternoon. In recent weeks, I’ve gone back to being nocturnal again for some reason.
Do you have a lucky pen or certain kind of notebook you like to write in?
Well, the notebooks change all the time ’cause I fill them up quickly. I tend to use these refillable pens, Bionic pens, like the Stabilo type. They’re like ink pens and you can refill them.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
No, I don’t really get writer’s block. I don’t really believe in it.
You’ve never had it?
No. I had this really good teacher when I was sixteen, this playwright Naomi Iizuka, and she taught us this exercise, which I still do every day, and which I always teach to my students now when I teach writing.
What is it?
It’s basically like, when I say ‘go’, you start writing without thinking. It’s like an automatic writing exercise, and the goal is to just fill space with words. I do this every day for like two or three pages in my notebook, just writing whatever comes to mind. A lot of it is like completely incoherent, fragmentary writing, but it sort of gets your gears into motion and helps your brain to start thinking in language. Writing’s not just a cerebral activity, it’s a physical act. I’m really into this whole notion of the writing of the body. To put it crudely, it’s like you’re just like excreting on paper. You come to realize there’s no such thing as writer’s block. You can always put words on a page.
Do you have a certain spot in your home that is dedicated to writing, like a desk or maybe you write in bed?
Yeah, I have one of those lap desk things, so that I can write in bed if I want to. I also have a massive desk in my living room, where my computer is. Most of my writing I do first by hand. I really like writing by hand. That way, I can be really mobile with it. The first part of All Fall, called ‘Written in The Sky’, was written on a red-eye flight from Beijing to Vienna. It’s like a prolonged description of a plane crashing.
Written on a flight.
Yeah. I fly all the time, and I’m really okay with flying, although every time I get on a plane, there’s the thought in the back of your mind, you know, ‘What if…?’. I also have a big fear of heights.
Yeah, it’s like a big phobia, and I have recurring dreams of like falling. I can go onto a rooftop, for example, as long as I’m either far away from the edge or there’s like a firm barrier, like a railing or something. Then I’m okay. But if I go on a rooftop and one of my friends is like sitting on the edge, dangling their feet down — just seeing a friend doing that, I start sweating all over and it scares the shit out of me. Or like having to climb up a ladder, like really high or something. I could never do shit like that.
When you’re flying, do you have a routine to calm your jitters?
I’m okay with flying because you feel sort of protected. I’m more concerned about the consequences of a long flight, what it does to my body and, you know, jet lag. I always do things to combat jet lag, like I pop a sleeping pill or a Valium or have a few drinks maybe. I just sort of try to get it out of my mind a little bit. It’s nice if I don’t have anyone sitting next to me, ’cause then I can write.
You can’t write if someone’s sitting next to you?
No, I’m like paranoid that they’re gonna be reading over my shoulder. It’s such an unusual activity to see someone writing by hand nowadays, so naturally people are gonna be curious what are you doing.
And if you have a choice, will you take an aisle seat or a window?
Usually window. Especially if it’s a longer flight ’cause you can like lean your head up against the thing, or sleep with a pillow. Unless it’s a shorter flight and I’m in a rush, like I know I have to get off the airplane and get somewhere ’cause I’m on a schedule, then I’ll request an aisle seat. It’s the most annoying thing in the world when you’re seated by two people and they’re not getting up fast enough and everybody’s passing by and you’re like, ‘Dude, I wanna get off the plane’.
And what if you’re seated in the emergency exit row. Are you prepared to deal with that in the unlikely event of an emergency landing?
Yeah, I’m fine with that. ‘Written in the Sky’ actually came out of watching all these airplane crash documentaries, where they sort of teach you how to survive a crash and give all these tips on things you can do.
Well, whenever you get on a plane, you should count how many rows are between you and the nearest exit, because sometimes, like when the plane crashes, the lights go off. It’s incredibly dark or the plane could fill up with smoke, and people have died because they can’t see where the exit is. I have no idea if it’s true, or if they just tell you this to comfort you, but one of the things they say is that most plane crashes are actually survivable.
Oh, that’s surprising.
Yeah. But some of the things that keep people trapped are like panicking and not being able to open your seat belt in time to get off because you forget how the seat belt works, or like not knowing how to open the emergency exit door.
Who tends to have a better survival rate? The people sitting towards the front of the plane or people sitting in the back?
Oh, I think it’s toward the back of the plane usually. I remember from one documentary that people sitting in the front rows, like first class, almost always die.
Yeah. At least there’s some justice in this world, you know.
Are you good in a crisis?
I like to think so, yeah. I get that from my mom. My mom is very strong-willed and very organized. At least in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, you know. I tend to fall to pieces later.
Our mutual friend Tom told me you’d been to North Korea a few times. What’s your fascination with North Korea?
Yeah, I think it’s the most fascinating country on the planet because it’s such an anomaly. What they’ve done is created a world within the world. It is this like horribly oppressive place in many ways, but I’m just fascinated by it because they’re so cut off from the rest of the world. Their conception of like normal, day-to-day life is absolutely bizarre. In a way, it’s really sad. One of the biggest crimes of this regime is what it’s done intellectually to the people, how it’s kind of like intellectually stunted the entire population’s growth. They’ve essentially infantilized the entire population. They’re like grown-up children.
Sounds like the U.S.
Yeah, there are a lot of connections.
Do they also keep dogs as pets in North Korea?
On my last trip, I saw one person walking a dog down the street in Pyongyang. It’s highly unusual, but it might be a new trend to own dogs. Whenever something from the West or South Korea does leak in, then it immediately becomes a trend among the Pyongyang elite. The idea of owning a dog, or any kind of animal as a pet, is still a bizarre for most people in North Korea. It’s just not considered normal.
Did you eat dog when you were there?
I didn’t. One of the places where I went, there is an option where you could have like dog meat soup, but I didn’t try it. I’m not that interested. I’ve eaten bizarre things in China.
Oh really, like what?
Well, I tried roasted grasshopper, and these little, white tree worms, which are fried. They tasted like French fries…
All Fall is out now from Publication Studio. Read it for free online.