Transcript - Episode 89: Julia Dixon Evans

[Note: This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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Intro

Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 89. Today’s guest is Julia Dixon Evans.

Hey there, folks, welcome to the show. Today I’m talking with writer Julia Dixon Evans. Julia Dixon Evans is author of the novel How to Set Yourself on Fire, published in 2018 by Dzanc books. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Paper Darts, Pithead Chapel, Fanzine, Flapperhouse, Hobart, San Diego CityBeat, and elsewhere. She is Senior Columns Editor for The Coil (an imprint of Alternating Currents Press), Nonfiction Editor for Noble Gas Qtrly, and hosts the brand new literary reading and workshop series Last Exit. She is the former program director and editor for So Say We All, a literary nonprofit and small press. She lives in San Diego.

So, I read Julia’s novel How to Set Yourself on Fire last month and really enjoyed it. The book is about a woman named Sheila, she’s in her mid-thirties and sort of aimless. She is caught up in a certain ennui but it’s not quite right to call her a slacker, rather, she’s more… struggling with depression and anxiety, I would say. She has a crappy apartment and crappy temp jobs, no real friends and a strained relationship with her mother, and a sort of unhealthy obsession with a delivery guy she met once at an old job. Then early in the book her grandmother dies and she sort of inherits this cache of old letters between her grandmother, Rosamond, and this man Harold who used to live in the adjacent house to her grandmother, but she only has one side of the conversation so there’s a lot that’s sort of a mystery about the relationship. And that mystery is what propels the plot along, as Sheila tries to figure out who Harold was and what happened between him and her grandmother. At the same time, she’s developing a relationship with her neighbor, Vinnie, and his daughter, Torrey, and… well, there’s a lot going on here but what really made this book stand out to me is voice. That is, Sheila’s voice. The book is told in this very close first-person, and you get this really absorbing view into all of the details of how Sheila thinks and feels, in this way that makes her into this amazingly well-realized character who somehow manages to be relatable and interesting even when she’s making… well, some of her decisions are not perhaps the best decisions, let’s put it that way.

Anyway, I was very excited to talk with Julia about this book, not least because I always love talking to local San Diego artists and authors. Before we get started a couple of things. First, I mentioned that Julia is the host of the Last Exit reading and workshop series, well coming up on July 27th Last Exit is having their next reading, which features Kristen Arnett, Tommy Pico, Sarah Rose Etter, and Lilliam Rivera. The full details haven’t been posted yet but keep an eye on lastexit.org for details and follow Last Exit at @LastExitLit on Twitter or Facebook for updates, there are links in the show notes for all of that.

Also, for subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign, I’ll be adding a new reading to the bonus archive. This time around it’ll actually be me doing the reading, and I’ll be reading Julia’s short story “Ghost Stories,” which was originally published in MonkeyBicycle. That will join readings of poems, stories, and excerpts by authors including David Bowles, Lydia Kiesling, Shivanee Ramlochan, Rachel Lyon, and more. All Patreon subscribers get access to a private podcast feed with all of the bonus content plus all of the regular episodes, which post a day early. Your pledges are what keeps the show going, so if you find these conversations valuable and would like to hear more, please consider making a monthly pledge at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river.

OK, so here we go. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenFiction on Twitter for your comments and questions. And now here’s my conversation with Julia Dixon Evans.


First Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: I was—before we get started, I just, the first thing I wanted to say is that I really enjoyed your book quite a bit.

Julia Dixon Evans: Ah, thank you.

MS: Um, and I thought it was kind of interesting. So we met at AWP this year, which is—

JDE: Right.

MS: —very funny since we live in the same town and we met 1500 miles away.

JDE: Uh huh. [laughs]

MS: Um, and, uh, you very graciously signed my book and uh, I thought it was kind of funny that you, you, you wrote, like, something about, um... I actually have the copy here, let me... You wrote... So you wrote "Enjoy this strange book." [laughs]

JDE: Yes.

MS: Um, which I thought was a funny way of, uh, of doing it, but I was trying to think of like whether or not I thought the book actually is strange.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: Um, I thought it was good. Sort of when I'm thinking about the structure of it, uh, a lot of the plot sort of revolves around these letters—

JDE: Right.

MS: —that the main character Sheila sort of inherits when her grandmother dies. Right. And, um, you know, when I think of like the sort of epistolary, letter format for a novel, um, I wasn't quite sure whether this exactly fit that model, but I wanted to sort of get your thoughts on whether you consider this book to be an epistolary novel or something else.

JDE: That's, um... That's such a great question because I think about that all the time when I am, it's like on the tip of my tongue that I would describe it as an epistolary novel.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: And, um, I think in the sense that it is a foundation and there are—they form a really specific structure—

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: —to the book, but it's not all of it. I think it's like the absence of letters that is what propels the plot, in a way.

MS: Mm.

JDE: So it's like the parts that are not epistolary are the true plot-propulsive part. So...

MS: Yeah.

JDE: But yeah, I hesitate to call it epistolary because it is not entirely in that form.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: And to master that genre is to be able to propel plot, to show how characters live and are and breathe without ever having them act.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: And mine only does that with a few characters.

MS: Yeah. It's, I mean it's an interesting thing, um, this, uh, thing that you were saying about, um—oh gosh, I can't remember exactly the phrase you just used, but it was something that I was thinking a lot about, about how, um, the letters that sort of propel the plot, um, and provide the sort of backbone—

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: —like this sort of mystery of these letters, that you only have one side of the conversation.

JDE: Right.

MS: But it struck me that like having only one side of something was sort of a kind of recurring theme throughout the book, that there were a number of, of ways in which you... Like characters, um, are referenced but don't appear, you know?

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: Or that you wonder about what.. You, you, you're only able to wonder about them because they—

JDE: Right.

MS: —don't actually speak. Like for example, Sheila's father who, I wasn't even sure if he gets a name. [laughs]

JDE: Right, no.

MS: But [I] mean he's definitely a presence in the book insofar as he's a presence, like a constant presence for her. She's thinking about him a lot, but you never really get his side of the events that unfold that she describes. I thought that that was interesting there. It seemed like there were a lot of things like that and I was sort of wondering how... Like, like what is it that sort of attracted you to that form?

JDE: Well, I think it goes back to letters in a way where I—as I started writing this, it wasn't, um, before I started, it wasn't the seed of it in any way, but, um, I found this box of letters from when I was a teenager that some long-distance boyfriend had sent me. And they were so eloquent and I could remember none of it. And, um, clearly they were responses where he would answer questions, he would pose questions to me that I clearly answered in the next letter. But I have no idea.

MS: [laughs]

JDE: I don't have that half of the archive. And that's not how the world operates anymore. Where you search for someone's name in Gmail or even in your text messages and you can find the last thing that you said to them. You can find a full archive of a full conversation. And that wasn't the case when people were just writing letters. And so that really built the mystery, I guess, of the plot is like what else is out there? What's the other half? What did she say in reply?

MS: Mm-hm. Yeah. I mean, I just, I thought it was, um, uh, like in some ways because the story is so close in perspective to Sheila, like everything is, um, you know, it's very interior to—

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: —her experience, that in some ways it almost seems like even the characters that do appear, um, like for example, her, her neighbor Vinny who, um, her relationship with him forms a very important part of the story. Um, it's always a little bit of a mystery what exactly he's thinking at any given moment. And then she actually even spends a lot of time thinking about "What is he—"

JDE: Right.

MS: "What must he think of me?" kind of thing.

JDE: And the thing with Sheila is she'll never have that conversation with anyone.

MS: [laughs] Yeah.

JDE: She'll never ask. She'll never, um, go to somebody and approach them in that, in that way of searching and answering her wonderings. She'll leave them as wonderings. So.

MS: Yeah. I found Sheila to be a really fascinating character, and when I reading sort of like the different reviews and, and uh, you know, other interviews and things that talking about this booklet, something that I, I wasn't necessarily sure I wanted to go in this direction, but it—just because it, it seems like it's a thing that other people consistently want to talk about or mention is whether or not she's a likable character?

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: Um, which that obviously has a lot of baggage to it. But I thought it was... You know, I actually found that I did really like her. [laughs]

JDE: Right.

MS: Um, but I... That's such a difficult question to sort of, you know, reckon with everything that goes along with that question. And I sort of was curious how, um, like you know, how your thought process is towards like both in developing that character and then sort of in, you know, talking about the book after the fact.

JDE: Right. Um, I knew you were going to bring up that word as you started introducing it. I'm like "I know which word it's going to be." The "unlikable" word.

MS: [laughs] I, I, I hate to be predictable, but...

JDE: But yeah, it definitely came up and I knew it going in and I think maybe it was even in our pitch, like as we were sending the story out on submission.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: I think the word may even have been in there as a way of reclaiming it or of, of taking permission to have this woman who is unlikable.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: I think it's more prominent to see men who are unlikeable and we love them for it, we're charmed by it.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: But when a woman is an unlikable character in a story, it's like all that she is identified as and um, rather than just like one part of her character.

MS: Right.

JDE: So I think that I really wanted to take that on, I wanted to tackle it. And it really is hard to talk about unlikability without also talking about sexism.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: And I think in Sheila's case, also ageism in some way.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: Which is funny, when I started writing the story, I was younger than her, thinking, "Oh, by the time the book comes out, I may be the same age as her." But now I'm like four years older than her by now.

MS: [laughs]

JDE: It took that long. So I do think that thinking of this like mid-thirties character who spends a lot of the book interacting with a 12-year-old girl—

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: —I think that that is a big part of the language, too. Like a weird, older woman being unlikeable. So.

MS: Hm. I mean it is sort of a strange—just even saying that a woman in her mid-thirties is older...

JDE: I know, right?

MS: You know, like you wouldn't think of like a male character in his mid-thirties as being... I mean, you—

JDE: No.

MS: —in our culture we still refer to the like mid-thirties guys as like, "Oh, he's a good boy." You know, like "He's a good kid."

JDE: Right, exactly. And I mean when you think in terms of like movie main characters and leading roles, that would still be like a romantic lead.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: Whereas someone Sheila's age would just be like the spindly, older... [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

JDE: I feel like I can say this now that I'm older than her.

MS: Well, I mean, it's just, I mean I, it is, it is a very, I think, minimizing kind of question to like sort of reduce these characters to likability. That's sort of why I was a little unsure about whether I even wanted to bring it up. Um...

JDE: No, no, no, I love talking about it.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: And I do think that it was, um... I took it on head-on as, as like a project or something I really wanted to, to distill down into a story and say like—almost try to figure out what my thoughts were.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: Like what did I think of unlikable characters? Let's make one and, and see how I can work with her in a story. And, um, honestly I think most of what I write, there's some element of unlikability to the characters just because that is what is interesting to me.

MS: Hm.

JDE: I think most people have, have those tendencies and we just wrap them up differently.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: We either have our social niceties or, um, the things that are very, let's say someone who is super nice and has a very good heart, they may still have this, this, um, feeling about themself or they know that something that they do as unlikable, where to the rest of us we would be like, "No, you're pure and holy."

MS: [laughs]

JDE: Whatever. But to them they may have something that is like, "That's my unlikable part." So I think everybody could relate to having unlikable side, having something that they kind of either shield or keep hidden or um, compartmentalize maybe.

MS: Mm-hm. I mean I think that that, you know, question of relatability is in a lot of ways more interesting—

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: —than the question of likability because that was something where a lot of the things that it seemed like Sheila sort of thinks about and the ways that she expresses herself and even she has a lot of sort of self destructive kind of tendencies, um, were things that I could relate to. Not necessarily on the same, like, like to the same degree but certainly of the same kind.

JDE: Right.

MS: I kept thinking throughout the book, there was this Twitter meme that, um—I mean maybe you've seen it, but like it was, uh, something like, um, "Am I perfect? No. But am I trying my best? Also no."

JDE: "Also no." [laughs]

MS: Um, you know, and it's only funny because it's like, yeah, I can—that's everybody, right?

JDE: Right, right. No, I, I feel like with Sheila in terms of her, like the interaction she has with other people and in terms of the relatability element, these are all things where I could feel them in a very real way as I wrote them.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: Like I could see myself either imagining having this conversation or actually having it or knowing that that is the course a conversation might take were I not to choose to say something that's a little more socially acceptable.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: And that's not to say that she is entirely always this base—baser version of myself or a baser version of someone with a filter. Like I do think there's more to her than that. So.

MS: I found her to be pretty compelling, um, you know, because... I mean I think one of, what it really is is that she just felt really real?

JDE: Mm.

MS: You know, like even in the ways that she might be like, to some degree dysfunctional, um, like those are all things that are—you know, real people are like that. Like, we all have our dysfunctions and we all have our... You know, like, like one of those things that I found so interesting about her is that she isn't, she doesn't always make great choices, but she's also very aware of how the choices that she makes are... Like sometimes, even before she does it.

JDE: Right.

MS: Um, and that's also something that I found really, you know, like you, you do something sometimes or say something just in your real life and you're like, "Oh, why did I do that? I don't know. Why did I do that?" [laughs]

JDE: Right. Absolutely. And those moments where you're like, witnessing the poor choice being made, you're witnessing, "This is the moment I could change this. This is a moment where I could stop this downward spiral, or I could stop this decision or this awful thing that I'm about to say or do and I'm not stopping it." And what's funny is that I think not until I was at parent—

MS: [laughs]

JDE: —did I ever quite realize that. I don't think I've had such a volatile relationship as those I've had as a mother, where, um, it's so easy to be aware of how a conversation or an argument with a child is like going south and you're like, "I'm engaging in a power struggle with, with my daughter. Like I should stop."

MS: [laughs] Yeah.

JDE: "No one's going to win. [laughs] This is a poor choice. If I win, I lose. If I lose, I lose. If—whatever, there's no winner."

MS: Yeah.

JDE: And then I'm still powerless to stop for the most part.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: But the awareness that I have found on several occasions in the middle of those things, I'm like, that is something that I recognized in Sheila as I wrote her, that, that moment of clarity, of enlightenment, I think there's something somewhat admirable about that, admirable about that that's not necessarily, um, beyond relatability. It's not necessarily beyond likeability. And then of course she would, Sheila would just say the thing, the absolute worst thing—

MS: [laughs]

JDE: —to say to her mother or to her neighbor.

MS: Yeah. I... You know, so something that I, another thing I, like from a technical standpoint that I found really interesting [that] I think kind of plays in where you were just saying something about like you can kind of see a conversation going in more than one direction, but then in several points in the, in the story you actually show side-by-side like two different ways that a conversation could go.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: Which I found really interesting and I, it's, that's not something I can really recall seeing before in, um, certainly not like in literary fiction. I mean—

JDE: Right.

MS: But one of the things that I thought was—so, structurally I thought that was very interesting, but also the fact that at the end of it, either way the conversation ends up in more or less the same place, but also you never tell us which way the conversation actually did go. [laughs]

MS: Right, right. I love that, actually. I love doing that. And um, it was one of those things where I'm like, "Okay, that was fun or that was cute. Or that was like some narrative exercise. I'll cut those before I send it out for anyone to read." And then I never did. And I wonder if part of what I loved about those in the story was what it did for that sense of here's how a conversation could turn and here's how in control we are, and also not in control—

MS: Yeah.

JDE: —of those things. I mean, structurally, I was sort of inspired by, um, Jennifer Egan's book, Welcome to the Goon Squad. That's the title, right?

MS: I haven't read it. I—

JDE: Right.

MS: —have heard of it, but not enough to know if I have the title exact.

JDE: Well, I think I read it, um, on a Kindle the first time I started reading it and it's like, "Please go to our website to download the PDF file of the PowerPoint" in the middle. And I'm like "The what?"

MS: [laughs]

JDE: A PowerPoint in a novel? And then I eventually got a copy of the book and it really is like page after page of this PowerPoint in the middle of the story. And, um, in that sense I'm like, okay, if someone can put a PowerPoint in a novel, I'm just going to do a couple of little tables.

MS: [laughs]

JDE: I can get away with it, right? [laughs]

MS: It is, I mean, I, I like, um... There's something really interesting about ways that a novel can be sort of experimental in form. Um, it, it sorta reminds me a little bit of, um, a lot of the poetry that I've been really interested in lately, like Franny Choi's poetry or Fatimah Asghar's poetry will include like diagrams. The poem is a chart, you know, or something like that, which I find really fascinating, but is not something that I feel like I see in fiction a lot.

JDE: Right.

MS: And something like that, I feel like done, uh, you know, not well, could feel really gimmicky, but it didn't, it didn't feel that way here. Like it just, it... I want to say that it was sort of like called attention to itself in a way that made me sort of pay attention in a different way to what was happening in the story and that there's this sort of, um, like emotional truth to the choice and to the moment that happens in such a way that you almost don't really need to know—

JDE: Right.

MS: —what happened. Um, which I thought was also just as a book as a whole seems to sort of follow that same pattern where there are times when you don't know exactly what is happening or what has happened or necessarily how it resolves, but that it doesn't necessarily matter because the path you took to get there was satisfying in itself.

JDE: Hmm. Right. And I, I do think that those conversations could also just not have happened. Um, there is that—when you get to the end of it, there's the either-or, which one was it? Did she talk to the, the male temp recruiter or the female recruiter? Did she say this one thing to her mother or the other thing? There's also this element of like, actually neither of those could have happened. Maybe she didn't even go through with making the phone call, which as an aside, that would be the most relatable thing for me. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

JDE: But, um, I, I think, in terms of it being a gimmick, I'm always worried about that sort of thing because I know that for me it's like a selfish... It's like a selfish sort of tool as a writer—

MS: Hm.

JDE: —to explore things like that or to play with things like that where I love to test the edge of form or I love to test the more unknown elements in a narrative, like rules that I can break or, or places where I can really obviously play with rules. And I, I love that. I love doing it and I think it breaks through writer's block for me. Or it will pull a story out of out of nothing.

MS: Mm.

JDE: Like I wrote a story once just going by like a clickbait title and then it, that's all I had and I was like, "Oh, I'm going to write this like total clickbait." And, um, then it turned into a story that I would never have written otherwise.

MS: So, I mean, I'm kinda, I, I, uh... I'm kind of interested in that thing that you just said about it being a selfish impulse.

JDE: [laughs]

MS: Um, because like I guess I just sort of wonder is that—like if you were reading someone else's story or book or something and you found something that was sort of experimental or rule-breaking or something, do you feel like generally that's how you would feel or...?

JDE: No, not at all. It's just like me being unfair on myself, I guess.

MS: [laughs]

JDE: I think when I encounter those things, those, um... Those things that play with structure or form or even just test my boundaries in anyway, I am always challenged and I often will do my best to read into it. Like, "What does this serve that is greater than its form? It's here for a reason. I know it."

MS: Yeah.

JDE: So in that sense, I'm more fair on everyone else except myself.

MS: Well, I mean that's relatable, too. [laughs]

JDE: Right. It's just me being relatable here on the podcast. [laughs]

MS: [laughs] I, I mean, I find... You know, uh, you know, for myself, like when I'm... Um, you know, I do write, uh, but you know, primarily if I'm known for anything other than the podcast, it would be my photography and I—

JDE: Hm.

MS: —go back and forth a lot. Um, because I find that I have these sort of twin impulses as a photographer where I, on the one hand really—and this never has anything to do with anybody else's work cause I just like all kinds of different kinds of photography. Right? But there are times when I feel like, like a real photographer wouldn't need to mess with their photos or like do something like make sculptures out of them or like paint on them or do any of that kind of bullshit.

JDE: [laughs]

MS: They would just take a straight photograph and that's it. And that's how you become like a master photographer is just—you know, those are the people. Right. And but at the same time then like I also find myself saying, "Well why, why, why, like why not? Why can't I, you know, make something that is uh, an object or make something that, you know, where like things are folded or things are like stitched on or like heavily Photoshopped or whatever. Like, what's the problem with that?" And then I actually, mostly, most of the stuff that I end up doing is like kind of fucked around with a lot.

JDE: Right. Well that sounds cool.

MS: Um.

JDE: I think it's funny you mention photography because at least in like film photography, there's only so far you can go with messing with the, the form and the structure or like the picture won't take.

MS: Mm.

JDE: Like you can't go, you can't just like write completely differently like you could in, um, fiction. But there's like these limits to creating something visual with technology like that, that I feel like at least you are making art.

MS: I mean—

JDE: At least you're producing something.

MS: Well, sort of. Yes and no. I mean, I don't know. I, uh, I guess what I sort of... You know, the thing for me is just that like I find that, um, I also am very of wary in my own work and nobody else's of, and I'm very like sort of nervous about being gimmicky.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: But like I don't—I mean, and there are definitely times when I've looked at somebody else's work and thought, "Oh, that is gimmicky." But, um, for the most part just like the general idea of experimentation in form and stuff like that, I more often find it really exciting.

JDE: Right. Absolutely.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: I think that, um... I will say that I read one of the sections allowed at a reading—

MS: Mm.

JDE: —and I think that might be the limits of the form [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

JDE: —is reading it out loud. It, um... I think it was a shorter one so I was able to like get through it and have it be somewhat entertaining still. But I am definitely, as I was reading it, I was like, "Oh my god, this is a poor decision. I should stop. I should walk off stage. Just go."

MS: [laughs]

JDE: [laughs]

MS: So you know, another thing that I, I was thinking about with this book is, um, is how much a obsession plays into the book.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: And in particular, um, there are two sort of characters or um, sort of ways that that manifests that I found to be parallel, but they manifest sort of in different emotions. And I, I kind of wanted to unpack that a little bit.

JDE: Sure.

MS: Is that on the one hand you have Sheila's obsession with this, you know, delivery guy—

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: —that um, she met once or twice and, and like becomes obsessed with him.

JDE: Right.

MS: But also you have in the letters Harold's obsession with Rosamond that—

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: Um, and the way that that's presented in the book, the way the characters think about and talk about these two things, that Sheila kind of really beats herself up when she's not giving into that obsessive impulse. She really sort of seems to think about it as something kind of shameful. It seems to me.

JDE: Right, right.

MS: But also, but like when they, when she and Torrey or you know, you know, anybody is talking about Harold's letters. It's not like that different of an impulse—

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: —but everybody talks about it like it's really romantic. And I thought that was fascinating, that sort of dichotomy.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: I wanted to sort of see what you thought about that.

JDE: No. Um, I mean that's a big part of it is like she is approaching this... This discovery of these letters and trying to figure out who Harold is as she's reading. And Harold's obsessive personality like really gets stronger and stronger as the, as the book progresses. They're like dosed out throughout the book. Um, it's all tempered by her own experience of doing the same thing.

MS: Mm.

JDE: In a very strange way. Like she really does have only one remnant of that person, Jesse Ramirez, and that is one letter that wasn't even meant for her, she found it on the ground and it may not even have been from him. But she built it up in this really, really, um, all-engulfing way. It's almost like she dives in voluntarily to the obsession. She keeps it in a drawer. She will drive herself over to his house, she'll stalk him. All of those things are very... You can't do them entirely on autopilot. Like there is something there where she is knowingly getting into this stuff. And I think in that sense the obsession that she is struggling with is, it's like feeling how she is eating up these letters from Harold as well. But of course it's like, "Oh this is a historical thing. There's two sides to it somewhere. Um, let's set out on this quest to find the other letters." There is something really romantic about that quest that almost overpowers what really was going on in Harold's letters. And also he's this like charming gentleman.

MS: Yeah. But he's also like right from the very beginning, very insistent.

JDE: Yes. Right.

MS: You know? He's like, he's not taking no for an answer. Like or not even a no, but just like not taking being ignored for an answer.

JDE: Right.

MS: Which, I mean that too was a very interesting... You know, like the fact that that, I dunno, I feel like if that were now it would not seem charming. [laughs]

JDE: Right. Of course. It's like, um... I guess what Harold does is he really does like lay it out there at the start that he has one goal and that is to get this name of a doll so that he can replace the doll that was ruined over his fence. And, um, it's again, one of those things that's like, this behavior in a man is like dashing and charming and everyone always says how they love that first letter. It's funny, and, um, Harold is endearing.

MS: Mm.

JDE: And it really does make you think about those male characters in media where their, it's just like a character quirk, their persistence or obsession. But I really do think that Harold was just like completely lovesick as well.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: And it's like, put those two things together and you have quite the storm.

MS: Yeah. Yeah. Um, why don't we take a little break and then we'll come back and do the second part.

JDE: Okay.


Second Segment

Mike Sakasegawa: Okay. So for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever happens to be on your mind. So what you would like to talk about today?

Julia Dixon Evans: [laughs] I have no idea. You were supposed to tell me.

MS: [laughs]

JDE: I thought we agreed on that beforehand. Um, I don't know. Could you, could we talk about like the absolute lack of things to talk about.

MS: [laughs]

JDE: Which is not necessarily how I operate in my daily life. There's always something to talk about, that...

MS: Yeah.

JDE: Um, we could talk about how one of the things that I've... I wouldn't say that this is one of the things that I've found a lot of, uh, creative joy from, but there is something, some element of satisfying in that it's almost like the same compartment of creativity, is, um, going into the wilderness by myself to go running.

MS: Mm.

JDE: Like that's something that I didn't use to do. I would always think, "Oh, if I'm going on a trail, I will go alone—or I will not go alone." I will take someone with me. Always go on group runs, which are really agonizing for me—

MS: [laughs]

JDE: —in terms of, like, [laughs] competitiveness or what have you. So I started going running by myself a couple years ago and I feel like it's, it's something that feeds me but also scares me at the same time.

MS: Hm.

JDE: And I wonder what the parallels are with creating art. I know there's something to it.

MS: Mm.

JDE: But that's, maybe that's what we talk about.

MS: Yeah. Well, you know, so what I'm thinking of there is, um, uh, I... Well, first what I'm thinking of is that I really miss running that I, uh, up until uh, about four or five months ago, I was a runner. Um, which that in itself is something that would have just utterly shocked and disgusted my teenage self. [laughs]

JDE: [laughs]

MS: But, um, one is this, that I miss running and I, I'd really appreciate it if my legs would, um, you know, get through this rehab process. But, um, you know, when I think about what I get out of running, what I tend to find is... I was actually just talking to a friend of mine about this, uh, uh, the night before last. Um, I don't really like using my body that much. I find it kind of physically unpleasant.

JDE: [laughs] Right.

MS: Um, but there is something really great about if you can get into sort of a groove when you're running, when—and it's like you're, there is no past and there's no future.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: There's just the feeling of my feet on, on the ground and a rhythm and the feeling of my breath going in and out of my lungs.

JDE: Right.

MS: That is sort of the purest form of presence that I ever actually get. Like [I] don't seem to achieve that by... Like, not like I try real hard to meditate, but, um, I don't really get anything like that anywhere else. And I think that's the thing that I miss about it the most. And I do usually run by myself. It's one of the things that like running with other people sounds kind of awful to me—

JDE: [laughs]

MS: —because, because I wouldn't be able to, cause I'd have to feel like I'd have to talk to somebody or pay attention to somebody else instead of just sort of getting lost in the moment of it.

JDE: Right. And I... I mean, I—that was all very beautiful what you said—

MS: [laughs]

JDE: —about like that very meditative, um, distilled-down action of running. But I do think that I—I mean, I definitely cut my teeth at least as, as, um, a non-child, so in high school running with groups.

MS: Mm.

JDE: And it was always like, "Don't be last, don't be last." Like the, this like stress of approaching a group run, about how something bad is going to happen to me, everyone will resent me. Or maybe the upside is like I'm the fastest one on the run and then I'm resenting the other person who's having like gastric meltdown or whatever in the back. [laughs]

MS: [laughs]

JDE: You know, which honestly has never happened, that I'm the one resenting somebody else. But I still stress out about that in group runs. And I think that—I was injured a couple of years ago. I had a stress fracture and coming back into running, I just didn't want to deal with running with other people. I wanted to run for a half a mile and stop.

MS: Mm.

JDE: Or I wanted to maybe run two miles or I wanted to go out there for two hours and run some of it—

MS: Mm.

JDE: —and walk some of it. And I didn't want to have to explain to anybody or answer to anybody or have somebody else be inconvenienced by my recovery in any way.

MS: Mm.

JDE: And I think that's when I really was like, "Oh, this is better."

MS: Yeah.

JDE: "I really like being out here." And um, what's funny is that I love the relationships that I've formed with other runners, particularly women.

MS: Mm.

JDE: Like having that group of women that I run with is really, um... Like that's one of my favorite things is those people and having those connections and bonds. And it's funny to say out loud—like, I hope no one listens to this—but it's funny to say out loud how problematic it can be for me. Like on the interior. I will—we were talking earlier about like witnessing and being aware of things completely spiraling out of control and knowing what you could do to change it, but letting it spiral out of control, that I will have those meltdowns on a run when I'm running with other people and I will be like—I'll just stop and cry—

MS: Mm.

JDE: —on a trail somewhere. And um, that just doesn't ever happen when I'm running by myself. And, yeah, I think that one thing that I'm up against a lot is like my own fear and everybody else's expectations of me going out somewhere alone. And I think that I could easily say like, "Oh, I'm brave." But I'm not. I'm just kind of somewhere between stupid and curious—

MS: Hmm.

JDE: — is maybe more like it. And...

MS: Well, I mean I—you know, listening to how you were describing, um, the difference between running in a group and running by yourself, there is something that does seem like a bit of a parallel with the creative process in that, you know, for most of us when we're making something, it is a fairly solitary activity. Some people do collaborate, but oftentimes even the collaboration is more involving passing something back and forth rather than working in the same space at the same time.

JDE: Right. Absolutely.

MS: And there is something that is very pure, I find, about feeling like you can do whatever you want, like you're beholden to no one but what your own desires are. Um, I'm not sure that... I'm not sure I ever actually get there with my work, you know? [laughs]

JDE: Right, right.

MS: I do get there with running, like being able to just sort of listen to my body and what it needs right now, whether—like knowing when I can push it and when I have to sort of ease up and then can do that entirely on my own terms and just—

JDE: Right.

MS: —be, um, taking care of myself. That seems kind of aspirational as an artist. Like if I could just think about exactly what I, what I want instead of trying to figure out how will it land that's...

JDE: Right.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: Or even how to finish or how to, how to make something, but thinking about what you're trying to achieve or—

MS: Yeah.

JDE: —what your, what your product will be. I think that there are, there's so many like famous writer runners or athletes that, um, it's really, it's really hard to not think of them, like Murakami or I read somewhere that Joyce Carol Oates in an interview, she said that she, if she's having like—she's stuck in a plot problem, she'll just go outside and do hill repeats and then come back and sit down and finish writing the scene. I think it's Joyce Carol Oates, I could be completely wrong, but um, this idea where writers and people who like physically exert themselves are living in these parallel worlds and they feed off of each other. And um, what is it about writing that attracts a kind of person who is inclined to do a little bit of like self-punishment or do something that pushes the edges of what is comfortable—

MS: Hmm.

JDE: —physically, emotionally, are also like pushes the edges of what they're afraid of or what they're used to doing.

MS: Hmm. I think I do my best writing when I'm able to access a place that's very immediate.

JDE: Mm.

MS: Where I haven't overthought it. And where it's very sort of honest and vulnerable. And I think that there is something about, um, when you are pushing the limits of your physical endurance that it can access a similar sort of emotional state. Like, I don't know about you, but sometimes... Like the longest run I've ever done was just over 11 miles and I wasn't training for anything. I just was like, "I'm gonna run around Lake Miramar three times."

JDE: [laughs]

MS: And I got like about a mile into the third lap and just couldn't do it anymore.

JDE: Right.

MS: I couldn't go any further. And I had this just total emotional breakdown. You know, like I had to—I couldn't sit down cause my, like my body wasn't able to do that.

JDE: [laughs] Your legs weren't going to bend.

MS: Right. But I just was sobbing like on the trail and people were walking by, you know, seeing me sobbing.

JDE: Right. And they don't know you'd done it two times already.

MS: Yeah. [laughs]

JDE: It's like these people just got out of their cars.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: But no, that's amazing that you like, you went to your limit. Like you—it's not often that people do that. Because it's risky.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: I mean, you could have gotten really injured, right?

MS: Yeah, I could have. [laughs]

JDE: We're told not to do that for a reason. But this idea of like going—like flirting with danger in a way that is not actually going to... It's not like you're in a sword fight or something.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: Or jumping off a cliff. You're...

MS: Yeah.

JDE: You're still doing something that's not a good idea. You're pushing the edges of what you're physically capable of. And um, I am not surprised you had that emotional breakdown.

MS: [laughs] I was just so disappointed in myself. I was like, "I am going to do this" and then I didn't. [laughs]

JDE: [laughs]

MS: But I think... It's not—I, you know, even as I think about it, there are—whenever I've ever made anything, whether it's a piece of writing or photograph or anything, um, it has never turned out the way I wanted it to.

JDE: Mm.

MS: And there's always been something about it that's profoundly disappointing to me. And often that will last for years. And that it's only after, you know, spending a long time after I've been done with it, that I can come back and say, "This isn't completely terrible."

JDE: Right.

MS: Um, and I think that there is something about that, too. It seems like maybe not a terribly dissimilar place.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: Of, you know, "I've done everything I can to make this what I wanted it to be and yet it is not." It is only in that failure to, to have it be as great as I wanted it to be, that it is able to be anything at all.

JDE: Right. Right. And like the... I mean, you're striving beyond where you reach. I think that is something that I struggle with in art and all artists struggle with. Like your aims for your own products, your taste in the type of work you want to create is—it's almost always beyond your capabilities. Or beyond what you're producing. And so it's like, you have to keep shooting for that or you'll never come close. Or if let's say like you're not shooting beyond your capabilities, you're going to be making not—something that's not up to your potential.

MS: Yeah.

JDE: Right? And so it's like this idea of playing with the gap between your tastes and your capabilities until... Like repeatedly trying and you'll close that gap. Supposedly.

MS: I like the thing that you were just saying a minute ago about artists being willing to go to a certain place of self-punishment. [laughs]

JDE: Right.

MS: You know? Because... I don't know, like... Well, even just the, uh, the title of this show is Keep the Channel Open.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: And that's from, um, it's from Agnes de Mille's biography of um... Uh, Martha Graham. Oh man. [laughs]

JDE: [laughs]

MS: Um, that, you know, that the two of them... I just, I haven't read the whole biography but I read this one passage from it that just really clicked with me where Agnes de Mille has just created, she's just opened Oklahoma and she's talking about how all that she can see in it is the flaws and the limitations and where it didn't live up to what she wanted.

JDE: Right.

MS: And Martha Graham says like, "No artist is ever satisfied."

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: And like the best you can do is to just keep yourself open to what's there. And... But I think like, I don't know, it does sort of require a certain, I'm not sure if endurance or fortitude or maybe masochism—

JDE: Yeah. Right.

MS: —to be willing to constantly go up against that sense of disappointment. You know?

JDE: Right. I think it's, it can wear on you. And I think that I had done it so, um, rashly for so long, almost like embracing it as a creator, as a, as a writer that I am like in this place right now where I'm worn down from it. And to approach something with great risk like that is really daunting. It's hard to say, to sit down at a paper and say, "I may fail. I may not do what I'm going to, what I'm setting out to do. I may not have anything that I'm setting out to do." And, um, I think that that is where the real endurance is, that willingness to try anyway. I don't know.

MS: [laughs]

JDE: I wish there was an answer to that because I feel like—

MS: Yeah. Well there's never answers, right?

JDE: Right, exactly. But it's funny like, um, to talk about this in the same conversation as talking about trail running. I often think in terms of, it's like a subversive act to go out in the wilderness as a woman alone and be like, "Okay, I may run into a mountain lion or I may run into like a bad guy out here and I'm by myself, or I may just fall and have to get myself out of there."

MS: Mm.

JDE: And, um, I think by countering this societal expectation that I wouldn't do that or that I shouldn't do that is part of what drives me around.

MS: Mm.

JDE: Where I'm like, "No, ha ha, I'm going to do it." And, um, I think that what I'm also trying to find in my writing is that same sense of like feisty.

MS: Mm.

JDE: Where I'm at this point right now where I'm not creating new work, I'm not writing, and I just want to be able to say like "Ha ha. I'm doing it anyway."

MS: [laughs]

JDE: And I don't know, I think it's just a time thing. Maybe I need a little more time to pass or maybe I need free time.

MS: Yeah, well. [laughs] That's pretty hard to come by for most of us these days.

JDE: Right. Is there a writer who has the time they need to write?

MS: Yeah. I have definitely been struggling a lot with output recently, especially with, with, um, with writing. Something that I've noted in myself is that it's always very easy for me to continue photographing.

JDE: Hm.

MS: Because photographing is just something that's very sort of instinctive and immediate for me. Um, because photography is largely reactive for me. Like I'm not—

JDE: Interesting.

MS: —building something to shoot, I'm just noticing things.

JDE: Right. I mean, can you approach writing in that same way?

MS: That's the thing that I always wonder is like, could I just write something? Um, and you know, like I write a TinyLetter, for example—

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: —and a lot of the stuff that I might—like just sort of observational stuff would, you know, go into that because, I don't know, it's hard to sort of find a home for weird little one-off thoughts. Um.

JDE: Right.

MS: But you know, I think too... Like I've been circling—I've had some thoughts about some stuff that I want to write and I've been circling around it for, some of it for like two years. And these aren't like—it's not like I'm thinking about writing a novel. It's like I'm thinking about writing like maybe a 3000-word short story or something, you know? [laughs]

JDE: Right.

MS: But I, I can't seem to quite get myself there to the point where I can actually put words on the page. Um, and I think that it has to do with that fear, you know, of the disappointment of knowing—like I know that when I, when I actually sit down and write this story, it's not going to be the story that I wanted it to be.

JDE: Right.

MS: And that is just really hard to get past that first thing, you know?

JDE: Right. So this is like, um, teaching Writing 101 right here, Mike.

MS: [laughs]

JDE: This is like what I have always taught students is write, um, write anyway. Like write those observations in a form of journal. Like this is your daily practice is taking, your not-photographs in your text, maybe, and not having expectations for them.

MS: Mm-hm.

JDE: Like maybe that is—that practice will turn into a permission or, or that, um, that leap to your next thing. I don't know.

MS: That idea of permission is, I think, uh, an important one. And it seems like it's, both in terms of trail running and in terms of making art, um, like how does anybody... I mean, it's—on some level, it seems like a, almost like an arrogant thing for anybody to feel like they have permission to make art, you know?

JDE: Right. Oh my god. Right?

MS: Um, or you know, permission to go out in defiance of what the social expectations might be and go running on a trail by yourself as a woman.

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: Um, finding ways to give yourself permission for things like that. That's, I think, the trick that a lot of us are trying to deal with, right?

JDE: And I think that you can approach either as like that fire or, um, doing something in a really robust way, or doing something in a really meditative way—

MS: Mm.

JDE: —where you're just going to keep repeating that behavior until it is your habit. Somebody I recently interviewed was talking about how he thinks of himself as a writer, and he said that you are what you repeatedly do. And I think of that over and over again.

MS: Hm.

JDE: Like, um, I think that a lot, that you are what you repeatedly do. It's very meditative. It's very, um... It's almost like a litany where, do something over and over again and you become it. Or create something over and over again and it becomes something.

MS: Mm.

JDE: I don't know. I think I'm getting a little—

MS: [laughs]

JDE: —existential here.

MS: I'm here for it.

JDE: Alright, good. But yeah, I love... I love those little ways where the inspiration that we seek is not anything like I ever thought inspiration would look like as a writer.

MS: Mm.

JDE: And I think so much of my inspiration is like coping mechanism.

MS: Mm.

JDE: Like, how can I write despite this? Despite me being a stuck writer. Or how can I write despite me being a writer who doesn't know how to finish my story? Like I took, I wrote most of this book in a month and then it took me a year and a half to write the ending.

MS: Mm.

JDE: So it's like, how can I write despite not having an ending? How can I, how can I solve this problem?

MS: Yeah. Yeah.

JDE: And I love that that is not at all the glamour—

MS: [laughs]

JDE: —of being a writer where you're like, "Wait, I gotta write down this amazing dream I just had that's gonna all fall together—"

MS: [laughs]

JDE: "—glamorously as I, as I write, the wind blowing my typewriter keys."

MS: [laughs]

JDE: That doesn't happen.

MS: One of my favorite things is, uh, when like, uh, some writer will share on Twitter, like "I wrote down my dream in the middle of the night last night, convinced that it was brilliant. And when I woke up and looked at it, this is what it said: hotdog pancake."

JDE: [laughs]

MS: Or something like that you know?

JDE: I feel like that was a Kristen Arnett tweet.

MS: Yeah. [laughs]

JDE: Right?

MS: I know I've seen more than one person do it. It's always hilarious.

JDE: Yes. [laughs]

MS: I never get tired of it. I do love Kristen Arnett. Her, she is, she's pretty great.

JDE: Right.

MS: So there's one question that I like to end with—

JDE: Mm-hm.

MS: —and that is, um, if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.

JDE: I think—by nature of some of my work where I have been, I freelance for the Culture Report for Voice of San Diego where I'm constantly in this like primarily visual arts and culture scene in San Diego where I'm trying to um, write about that. It's, it's hard for me to separate like being inspired by visual art from, um, literature. But I'm going to go with a piece of literature right now because it's still so fresh in my mind. And that was, I just read The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter.

MS: Mm.

JDE: And, um, that is a book that blew my mind. And I think that it made me want to sit down and, and like type her exact sentences. I wanted to sit down and like, feel what it's like to write like that.

MS: Mm.

JDE: It's, it's profound. It's a beautiful book.

MS: Great. Well, thank you so much for talking with me, I really appreciate it. I had a good time.

JDE: Oh my gosh. Thank you.


Outro

Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so there we are. If you enjoyed today’s conversation and want to get your own copy of How to Set Yourself on Fire, which I highly recommend, there’s a link in the show notes. And if you’re in the San Diego area do be sure to check out the Last Exit reading coming up on July 27th, 2019, there’s a link in the show notes for that as well.

And that is our show. You can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, and on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, and if you’d like to respond to anything you heard today or even just say hi, you can send an email to podcast@keepthechannelopen.com. If you’re enjoying the show, please do help us out by telling a friend, leaving a review, or subscribing to our Patreon campaign, or even just shoot me a quick tweet saying “Hey, good job!” Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on June 5th with a new conversation, so do be sure to come back for that. And until then, remember: keep the channel open.

Michael Sakasegawa