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Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Write Stuff: Jeff Von Ward on the Piquant Top of an Unreachable Andean Mountain

Posted By on Thu, Sep 18, 2014 at 8:00 AM

The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen, where authors give exclusive readings from their work.

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Jeff Von Ward is a San Francisco Bay Area writer, author of Mormonia: Stories, and director of "The Space Invaders: In Search of Lost Time", a documentary film about arcade game collectors. He works in tech and in his spare time helps curate three reading series: Writing Without Walls, The Bernal Yoga Literary Series, and the MFA Mixer. He is also the managing editor of Samizdat Literary Journal.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them?

I don’t know that anyone has ever asked me that specifically, until now! I’ve been asked: Spare change? Can I see your ID? Wanna buy some weed? Where do you work? How much money do you make? Where you from originally? How long have you lived in the Bay Area? How old are you? (or When did you graduate from high school?) Where do you live? Where is that? Do you rent or own? When will you be home? Can you pick up some milk? How was your day? What did you do this weekend? What’s for dinner? Do you believe in god? What do you want to do with your life? Are you happy?

Now if someone were to stop me on the street and ask me this question, I would probably have to consider his or her intent. Is it a probing existential query or asked in drunken jest? I suppose a fine line exists between the two, but here I have the luxury of being as prolix as I’d like since I’m typing, which I guess suggests that I enjoy writing, which is true, and, more importantly, the subject of your column. But writing is just the piquant top of an unreachable Andean mountain, and really a microcosm of life, an attempt to embrace the mysterious worlds that exist inside and outside of each of us, am I right? So we try to make the inchoate a little more (in)comprehensible.

That was awfully pretentious wasn’t it?

What's your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

I live a charmed life. I’m aware of my privilege. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have won whatever cosmic scratcher that allows me to enjoy clean air and water, and to live in a time where there are antibiotics and modern dentistry, and where the average lifespan is longer than forty sun rotations. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to bed hungry. I have a roof over my head. So my struggles are petty and bourgeois and likely of little significance to anyone. Usually I can’t even get too worked up about them myself. On the rare occasion that I do, I have to remind myself to get over myself. Which isn’t too difficult. I’m no big deal. Really. There, I did it.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

What exactly is it that you think that I do? Please tell me because A) I usually don’t know myself from day to day and B) You probably have no idea either. If you have some romantic notion, I can disabuse you of that quickly enough by pointing out all of the overlooked details and inherent contradictions. Here’s the thing, though, really: I’m still trying to figure out what I do. If you want to do what I do, at best, you’ll only ever become a pale imitation of me. A sorry state indeed. Better still to do what you do and to become what you enjoy. Now kindly deposit twenty-five cents in the advice bucket and move along, kid, you’re starting to bother me.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Success seems like a constant state of becoming, a place at which one never truly arrives. Success also breeds success, or so they say, so when you’ve had a taste of a little of it, it’s only natural to become greedy and want more and wonder why most of the time it seems elusive. But each day is another opportunity to celebrate minor triumphs or puzzle over major setbacks. Most of the time I feel like the guy who’s been granted a cape but not given any instructions on how to fly. Every now and then I remember to flap my wings and when you’re up in the air, it certainly feels great.

When you're sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

I guess I’ve never thought of YouTube as an analgesic before. I hate to see any animal, including my fellow human beings, in pain, whether it’s police brutality or an America’s Funniest Videos kick to the groin. I guess it’s useful as a window into a nostalgic world that no longer exists and probably never did. I’m talking about old sitcoms and 80s music videos here, of course.


Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

I have a lot of favorite ancestors. I’m a collector and curator of a rich and deeply meaningful (at least, to me) extended family history, and I can say I’ve learned more about all of this within the last seven years when I had the time to really do the research after my mother gave me a genealogy chart. She didn’t know much other than names and dates but it sent me off on a personal odyssey. I now have two filing cabinet drawers stocked to the gills with photos, oral histories, published stories, and poems, tracing the ancestral lines of both of my parents back several hundred years. I’m a descendent of two people who arrived on the Mayflower and got mixed up in early Mormonism during the Great Awakening in upstate New York. Most of the rest of my ancestors converted to Mormonism during the first wave and arrived in Illinois from Great Britain and Scandinavia, before walking across the country to arrive in what would eventually become Utah. Except for my paternal grandmother who is of German and Jewish ancestry.

But you’ve asked me to choose one relative. How about my maternal second great grandmother, Ellen Lee Jakeman, 7 Mar 1859 – 5 Feb 1937. In 1888, she began writing and publishing short stories and poems in various literary journals in Utah, including Western Galaxy Magazine, the Young Woman’s Journal and the Juvenile Instructor. Some of these are modern and interesting human relationship stories. There are even a few ghost stories. For a while, she had some controlling interest in the Young Woman’s Journal, which was part of the early “home literature” movement in Utah and begun by one of Brigham Young’s daughters. Her writing also appeared in The Relief Society Magazine as well as in Provo and Salt Lake newspapers. Her published works include a serialized novel and a book-length poem. She also appears in the Local and National Poets of America, published out of Chicago in 1892. She was a member of the Utah Women’s Press Club and president of the Sanpete County Woman’s Suffrage Association. A strong advocate of suffrage and equal pay for women, she became, in 1896, the first female to be elected to the office of Utah County Treasurer. She was an excellent speaker and a peripatetic traveler; she received invitations throughout Utah County to relate her experiences traveling in both California and Mexico. They say she married three times: once for love, once for money, and once for her church.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

Oh, that one’s easy. The Fonz. Heeyyyyy! Since Robin Williams’ suicide, I watched the clip where the Fonz is trying to give Mork dating advice. One thing that occurred to me is that Arthur Fonzarelli is kind of old to still be acting like a teenager and also sort of an insecure jerk hiding behind his leather jacket with his preening moves (hip flexors and thumbs up). So he’s a comedic and a tragic character. I don’t think I got any of that subtext when I was ten, though. I grew up without a dad so I always thought of him as proxy father figure of sorts. That move with the jukebox? Too cool. Also the whole bathroom was his office.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn't have to be ideal.

It wouldn’t be ideal. I’m terrified of the wilderness and prefer major metro areas, even though they’re a little wild too. I suppose this is vestigial from my time as a boy scout. I “earned” my Eagle badge at age 13 and my joke is that my life has been mostly downhill since then. But we had to do all sorts of strange character-building activities then, like sleep in a snow cave, kill and eat a bunny rabbit (I’ve been a vegetarian since age 16), hike fifty miles through the Uintahs. In hindsight, some of this stuff probably bordered on child abuse, although that may be controversial to say. Others who experienced it may remember it more fondly, of course. I don’t.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

Boy would I! But no one has ever asked me to and the world is probably a better place because of that. But you know, let’s throw on some black lights, lay down some Sade (Marquis de or everyone’s favorite singer), get me a feather boa or two and a pair of skivvies with that elephant trunk thingy in the front and I’ll shake my money maker.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

I haven’t checked recently, which is a lame response and I could check now but I won’t. So far I think all of the bills have cleared, and mostly on time. Honestly, I don’t spend too much time thinking about money and for better or worse. It’s never been a motivating factor in any decision I’ve made, which I realize again sounds like something only an ignoramus bundled in downy privilege would ever say. But I do understand all of this could disappear in a heartbeat. There are no safety nets and except for the 1%, of which I’m decidedly not, there’s a wafer thin line separating my relative life of luxury from that of those who are forced to live hand to mouth on the cold and dirty streets. To quote Flannery O’Connor, if I may: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” Also, Flannery may have had more money in her bank account, since she lived with her mother and didn’t have to pay outrageous Bay Area living expenses.

What's wrong with society today?

Well, rather than point the finger outward, I would turn the finger in on me since most of our ills are probably directly traceable to our inherent individual weaknesses as human beings. Some are built into the system and part of the rules of operation governed by simple biology and the limits of human consciousness. Like I can never really know another person’s heart. Which is awful, really. It makes everything so difficult and sometimes awfully lonely. In spite of this, I have chosen to operate from the assumption that most people are good and that even when we make a terrible mess of things, we usually do so with limited knowledge and with the best of intentions. Now this may be a Pollyannaish way of considering the world, but it seems to be better than becoming mired in cynicism and/or becoming a bad guy oneself by torturing some folks. This is just me speaking about me but I’m indolent and ignorant. I frequently lack empathy. I’m quick to assign blame and the blame too often resides elsewhere. I’m too judgmental. I don’t take enough time to genuinely consider where someone else is coming from. And again perhaps this is why fiction is of interest to me, in that it is another way of attempting to solve the issues of ego and consciousness by performing longhand human calculus (and, of course, showing your work).

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

No. Wait, does aspirin count?

What is your fondest memory?

I have so many fond memories. It would be hard to choose just one. But I think, with writers, we have a tendency to remember everything. I don’t really. I have to rely on all the Proustian tricks of food and smells and music and even then I feel like my memories are generally unreliable, which is why I only attempt to write fiction. Like, for instance, when I talk to my brother who is only a year and twenty days younger than me — we shared a bedroom for nearly sixteen years or so, which is longer than many marriages — but when I ask him if he remembers x, y, or z, he doesn’t, or his memory of the events is very different than mine. So it is interesting how our minds decide what information to store, what’s important and why it’s important. I tend to have a better recall for sad than happy. My uncle took me to see Jaws in a movie theater on my sixth birthday. I remember when the half-eaten leg floated up out of the water. That was pretty terrifying. But I recall it now fondly. I try to think he must have only been about seventeen himself. He gave up a date night to take some punk kid to see a scary shark movie. We ate popcorn and had a good time.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Multiple times. All the time, every day. That sounds a little disingenuous but it’s more or less true. I have a promiscuous and prolific and very active fantasy life, which isn’t to say everything is sexualized but I do frequently feel the vibrations and the warmth of all the activity going on around me. I try to pay attention to every little thing because there is beauty everywhere and you don’t have to look too hard to find it. I’m haunted by the way the sun catches a woman’s auburn hair, pulled over one arched shoulder as she mindlessly talks on her cell phone whilst riding down the BART escalator, the outward instep of another person’s right foot in boots that appear two sizes too big, the cast of fog coming over Twin Peaks, and all the morning and evening commuters, each person on some path which started well before the commute and will hopefully continue for some time to come, and of which I get to share only a tiny glimpse. I like to imagine all of their hopes and fears and dreams.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

It’s a great time to be alive. The best of times and the worst of times, as with any time, I suppose. But as we approach a global population of 10 billion people, there are naturally a lot of concerns about the sustainability of our natural resources and food supplies, of which I am not an expert. But we seem to possess the tools necessary to create clean and efficient energy, solve endemic hunger, disease, and poverty, and even travel to other planets. So if we survive the next one hundred years, that is if we don’t blow ourselves up due to outmoded religious beliefs and short-sighted territory skirmishes, this little experiment called humanity might do a-okay for itself. It would be foolish, though, to think we’re the evolutionary end-state, especially as Johnny-come-latelys. More likely we’re just a minor blip on a much larger cosmic path of hive-mind silicon-based consciousness. I suspect I’ll be around for at least another twenty years if I don’t get cancer or die in a car accident. I look forward to continuing to learn new things.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

What is the earth without art? It’s still the earth dammit and pretty goddamn extraordinary if you ask me. The world is full of wonder and natural beauty, and it will hopefully continue to be long after we self-loathing artists have shuffled off this mortal coil. So, no, art isn’t necessary exactly. Not in the same way that food or water or oxygen is. But on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we have love, understanding, esteem, and self-actualization. These are all synonyms for art, so from that perspective art is pretty damn important. What is it? I don’t know, as the old say goes, but I know it when I see it! If I had to guess I’d say it’s a by-product of human consciousness, a curious form of expression which, when it works, well, whether it’s an Adrienne Rich poem or some pictographs on an ancient cave wall, it creates its own codex and becomes shorthand for understanding how and why we live, and that we’re not as alone as we’d previously thought.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

I like this question because it leads with the optimistic assumption that I actually have a sex life. Hey, listen, sex is either sacred or dirty or boring; all three at different times if you’re doing it right, or so the old joke goes. In short, I’m game for anything. I’ve studied the Kama Sutra, but never religiously. I could attempt to give you a mechanical play-by-play account but that will merely make most readers of this, including my parents, queasy and, at best, read like arid stage directions, without actors to inhabit their roles. This is why it’s so difficult, I suppose, to write well about sex, and yet some people manage to do it. The other thing that’s happened of course is the pornofication of everything, which while demystifying some things, also comes with its own false aesthetic, rules, and assumptions, which we need to find ways of challenging. Ultimately, I suppose, the challenge is to remain open and vulnerable, to take risks and to be trusting and loving; and of course all of this also applies to writing, so I see now that your interest wasn’t entirely prurient.

What are you working on right now?

A new cycle of short stories. I’m reluctant to say too much about them since I don’t know yet where they’re going or how they’ll ultimately relate to one another. My writing practice is a little crazy at the moment: I write on the BART to and from work, El Cerrito Del Norte to 16th and Mission. I’m someone who thought I needed absolute quiet to write, and I’ve never once attempted to write in a café. I’ve never felt the urge to be seen or be a part of anyone’s scene. However, when the needs are great, a solution usually presents itself. I have a hard and fast stop which is good since there’s no time to dally or to procrastinate. The only problem I’ve run into so far is that sometimes I’ll get so engrossed into the world I’m falling into, that I’ll look up and realize I’ve missed my stop. Also, whenever you come up too fast from writing, you get the bends. It’s true, you do. The whole world can seem overwhelming and dizzying. It’s like waking up from a dream.

What kind of work would you like to do?

Someone at my work asked me that yesterday. Fortunately it wasn’t my boss. I’d never been asked before. I’m not sure. I’ve always just taken whatever opportunity has come my way and tried to make the most of it. I’ve thought an ideal life, for me at least, would probably consist of being a full-time writer and a documentary filmmaker. The thing about writing is that it is a life of solitude. It can get a little scary sometimes when you know more about the fictional people in your tiny, broken diorama than actual people and problems. The nice thing about making a documentary is that it forces you out of your comfort zone. You have to find ways to be social and to put yourself out there and to meet new people, actual honest-to-god living/breathing humans with all of the problems and complexities that come with each life. Sometimes, naturally, some of this will make its way back into your writing, too. It’s a virtuous circle. I’m naturally shy so I struggle with all of this, but I’ve also enjoyed getting to know people who I may never have met otherwise. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I also try to host various reading events in the Bay Area. It’s just another opportunity to get out of my shell for a little while and see what else is going on in the bigger world. I’ll do that as long as I can and eventually I have to return to the shell.

What kind of writing do you most admire?

That’s kind of a general question. I guess I’d fall back on Dickinson’s classic line: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” Reading Mary McCarthy’s The Group right now. It fits the bill.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

We live in one of the best places in the country so it’s hard to complain too much. Obviously some people like to complain about carpetbaggers, but hasn’t it ever been thus, going all the way back to the Catholic priests who established Mission Dolores in 1776? I do think it would be interesting if someone attempted to start a reading series on Google busses or in the Twitter cafeteria. As artists, we need more patrons. What I usually see at readings is a whole bunch of broke-ass writers attending to try to support one another, emotionally if not financially. It’s a close-knit scene, and an encouraging one. But if we take a step back we’ll see SF has become too Balkanized and the arts and cultural scene has suffered due to a spike in land valuations based simply on the hard-coded limits in the amount of land (49 square miles). Whether you’re homeless or struggling, an artist, or one of those techie douches people like to make fun of, of which I may be one myself, for all I know, ultimately we’re all made out of the same stuff, so we’ve got to find better ways of coming together.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Some G and T’s and some dancing. I love to dance and I love to sing. I’m not very good at either one, unfortunately. So maybe some karaoke if I’m lucky. I’ll try to sing just about anything. I prefer the private rooms, of course. Usually, though, if I make it out at all it’s to support a fellow writer who is reading somewhere. I feel fortunate to have met so many gifted writers while living in the Bay Area. Oh, the other thing I like to do is watch movies. I’m obsessed with movies. I try to watch one movie a day, if I can. I rarely watch movies more than once though. I would recommend Jodorosky’s Dune and Boyhood as two of my recent (and probably glaringly obvious) favorites.

What's the strangest thing you've ever seen?

I saw a cow made out of sagebrush come up to my fire pit once in the middle of the Arizona desert, but that’s probably a story best saved for another time.

What can you do with 50 words?

After the revolution, there were two kinds of people: weather balloons and diving bells. Deep sea diving affords one an opportunity to comb the wreckage, and really survey history, but it’s easy to get the bends. We weather balloons are generalists. We see everything, but if we go too high, we also get sick.

Well, that was fifty-four words. Close enough!

What can you do with 50 dollars?

I’m interested in that Twitter account where the guy was going around giving away free money. Would it work for such a low denomination? Like what if we could hide a single US dollar in every state and then tweet about it. Would it present enough of a novelty that people would still be eager enough to find the dollars and tweet about them and retweet them, or would that just be too little money in order to get people genuinely excited? Let’s try it and find out!
What are some of your favorite smells?

Eucalyptus leaves in Golden Gate Park, ocean fog, a lavender bush near where I work, the basil plants at Trader Joe’s, clove cigarettes, the rosemary plant in my back yard, paper whites at xmas, the bark of a coastal oak, a steep Kenyan roast coffee, and the nose of a good Cabernet Sauvignon.

If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

Hard to choose just one. One of my co-workers started an NGO and spent a year traveling and working in Africa. I’ve never been but it sounds like it would be really interesting. I do like to travel.


For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. This interview was conducted by Evan Karp. Follow Litseen at @Litseen.
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