Tyrone Jaeger lives in Conway, AR and teaches at Hendrix college. His first book, The Runaway Note (Shakespeare & Co, Toad Suck, 2012) was released in July of this year. The book follows the exploits of a boy named Tyro and a cast of his strange companions. In some ways, the following passage speaks to the overall tone and aesthetic of the book:
Life tasted of two rocks to one dirt, a bitter ratio tempered by the soft teats of a cow, warm milk, and steaming shit. Days tasted of glue made from flour and cement used to bury the living with the dead. Boys wear sailor suits, and even in black and white, we recognize royal blue and yellow hair. We recognize the dead among the living. Here, this, is ghost, and this is living, little girl. (7)
Jaeger roots his story in a northeastern, rural landscape composed of dirt, rocks, and steaming shit; and he’s always concerned with the thin scrim between life, death, and the ghosts that pass between it. Jaeger graciously took some time to answer a few questions about his book for me via email.
The Runaway Note opens with Tyro, the protagonist, “writing a runaway note on [his] red typewriter” (1); but soon thereafter, his mother says: “That's no runaway note, that's his memoirs” (2). At least to the extent that the same tropes, settings, and characters recur throughout the entirety of the collection, Tyro seems unable to escape his past, which lends credence to his mother's interpretation. How does both the note and the concept of flight function in your book? As an author, do you believe that one can flee their past by writing about it, or does the act writing give that past a second, thus inescapable, life?
I'll tackle the second question first. The Runaway Note was born of equal parts memories, dreams, and flights of imagination, so the writing did indeed give the past a second life. That second life, however, is warped and re-visioned as some nightmare or terrible adventure. The notion of second life intrigues me. “Scissors, Paste, & the Dead” is a piece that was written about this old photograph that my mother has of her mother's family. My great-grandmother snipped out pictures of her dead son and her dead parents and then glued these onto a picture of the living members of the family. Someone then took a picture of this picture. On one hand, this is a beautiful art act, on the other it's like conjuring a ghost or giving the past a second life. That said, when I write from my memories, I'm not trying to flee the past as much as I'm poking at them with a stick and seeing if there's any life left.
The runaway note in the book functions on a similar level: a runaway note is fueled by the competing desires to escape and to remain. Runaway notes are a wonderful combination of threat and love letter. In so far as Tyro is my cartoonish doppelganger, the book acts as a love letter to the Catskills, which I moved away from twenty-six years ago. While the action in the book is all about flight—or fleeing—the writing act itself was a fleeing-into, rather than a fleeing from.
It's interesting to me that you call The Runaway Note a “second life” that is a “warped and re-visioned...nightmare” because, as I read your book, I sensed an indebtedness to a dark brand of surrealism or magical realism, etc. In fact, many of the blurbs on the back cover reference hallucinations, dreams, and nightmares. To your mind, what kind of relationship does your book have to the dream world? Are there any other books, surreal or otherwise, that serve as aesthetic touchstones or fore bearers for The Runaway Note?
Some of the episodes and characters are drawn through warped memory. Others, like “Letter to You, During This Our New Reincarnation” and “Specter,” arrived almost fully-formed from dreams. For a while I was having all these Civil War dreams, odd considering that I've never been a Civil War buff. I was writing down my dreams first thing every morning.
These pieces were written over a long period of time, so the influences are pretty far flung. When I moved to Arkansas, I was introduced to Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. The voice Stanford achieves via Francis—its ability to go navigate high and low dictions, dream and reality, humor and darkness—gave me a lot of freedom to experiment. The dreams and the warped memories in TRN are told through varying filters, including some that I copped from American folk tales. So I'm drawing from tale tales, boasts, yarns. More specifically, the “Little Morisa” pieces—10 extremely short pieces that act as a darkly comic interlude in the middle of the book—were influenced by Little Audrey, a folk-lore character whose exploits are humorous and ironic catastrophes. I've long loved Bob Dylan’s lyrics (and his book Tarantula) and Barry Hannah’s stories, and both these are writers are not afraid to spin a wild yarn. Maybe, folk tales and the like are surrealism told to be true.
I like that you list Battlefield as an influence. In the same way that Stanford employs narrative and longer lines in order to create a poem that sometimes feels like prose, you wrote much of The Runaway Note in short, musically-charged blocks that read, at times, like poetry. In fact, while reading your book, I often wondered if it could be categorized as a lyric novella. As a writer, do you find genre classifications of any use? When you first began writing material for what would become The Runaway Note, did you consciously strive for that prose poem (or rhythmic flash fiction) aesthetic, or did that happen organically?
Not too long ago, I did a reading with Zach Schomburg and Janaka Stucky, and we were introduced as three poets, and I felt completely uncomfortable because my poetry chops are pretty bush league. Since The Runaway Note has been published, I’ve had friends and fellow writers call it a novel, and this too makes me squirm. I’ve written a few novels, but for me this book is something different. I've grappled with what to call it, and like a coward I go with “book.” But I like lyric novella—it takes some of the pressure of plot expectations and puts it on the language. That's what I'm calling it from now on: lyric novella.
The first pieces I wrote for The Runaway Note were written as prose poems or flash fictions, not necessarily as pieces that were part of the same series, but as I kept writing a conversation evolved to the point where it became obvious that they were all part of the same manuscript. I knew when I sat down that I was going to write something short. For example, some of the epistolary pieces (the “dead letters” as I think of them) seemed best suited for these short bursts of prose as they were messages from the dead. Historically, the dead may be bothersome, but rarely are they long-winded.
And by calling the book a lyric novella, it sounds as if, at least nominally, you’ve created a new genre! That being said, what are you writing now and does it engage, either formally or thematically, the concerns of The Runaway Note? What did the writing of The Runaway Note teach you on the level of aesthetics or craft? Are you still working on those older novels, or have you moved on from them?
The novel I’m working on is called Radio Eldorado. It's set in ‘69-70 in Colorado and follows an activist turned revolutionary and her intimate relationship with the members of a proto-punk rock band called the Wound Tights. The novel is more complex from a plot standpoint, and it's much much longer. I had been moving back and forth between the two projects for some time, with The Runaway Note offering me the occasional reprieve from the novel. With Radio Eldorado, I feel like I'm working in a much more controlled and intentional manner, and less from dream logic. While both books embrace chaos, The Runaway Note embraces a structural chaos that I don't think would work for this particular novel. On the craft level what I learned from The Runaway Note was that I run with my subconscious and let it speak, perhaps in a way that I never had before. It gets messy at times, but that's part of the fun.
Both projects, like most of my work, engage with outsiders, subcultures, those things bubbling at the fringes. I hope to get back to those other novels, but it will really depend on where my head is once I finish the current project.