An Interview with Simon Jacobs about Palaces
We have signed a new novel, a debut novel by writer Simon Jacobs called Palaces that'll be out January 16, 2018. It's phenomenal, a surreal and spellbinding story of horror and intrigue, which follows a young couple—John and Joey—who in the first chapter flee their Midwestern punk scene for a coastal city. Late one night, forced out of their living space, they shelter in a chain pharmacy before emerging to a city embroiled in a full-scale riot.
Boarding a commuter train headed north, they find they're the only passengers, and exit at the final stop to discover the surrounding area entirely devoid of people. As John and Joey negotiate their future through bizarre, troubling manifestations of the landscape and a succession of abandoned mansions housing only scant clues to their owners' strange and sudden disappearance, they're also forced to confront the resurgent violence and buried memories of their shared past.
Simon Jacobs is the author of Saturn, a collection of David Bowie stories, whose work has appeared in Tin House, Black Warrior Review, Joyland, and Paper Darts. Following is an interview with Jacobs about Palaces.
Q: Palaces is a strange genre-buster. On the surface, I could see it classified as lo-fi dystopian horror, but it’s also a mystery, as well as a subversive consideration of some timely social constructs, such as male power and class. How did these varying threads find their way into the novel?
SJ: And it’s a Romance! This was a long-brewing project, and as such it basically grew to encompass all of my concerns as they evolved over time: I wanted to write a novel with an unreliable narrator. I wanted to write about violence. I wanted to write a novel about punk. I wanted to write about personal agency. I wanted to write about art. Every time I returned to a new draft I did so with a new cultural lens and different motivations, either pulling certain elements towards the surface or burying them deeper: a draft focusing on hunger; on money; on family. Palaces is a young person’s novel. I started writing it when I was 22: I wanted to take it all on.
There was (I thought) a really good line about police that I ended up cutting, where I described a heavy police presence as “an advanced way to stand with hands on hips” – you see what I mean. That’s like a Crass lyric! That’s a line you write when you’re 22.
I have a bookshelf beside my desk where I keep a collection of reference materials for a given project, to return to for inspiration during the writing. A sample of the shelf for Palaces: Brandi Wells’ thorny short story collection Please Don’t Be Upset; Charles Burns’ Black Hole; Ben Kopel’s transcendent poetry collection Victory; a book of horrified 19th-century Goya etchings called The Disasters of War; and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of course. A mix of intimacy, terror, black humor, heart, and math-professor fantasy.
Q: You’ve spoken about the novel’s origins as a “tonal experiment.” There’s an almost clinical detachment to the writing that I found chilling. I think it’s similar in a way to Dennis Cooper, or Jeff Jackson (whose Mira Corpora we published), as well as to the Swedish writer Lars Gorling. The action is almost harder to look away from because of the unemotional delivery. How important was the tone for you in settling upon what happens in the story?
SJ: The book evolved in response to the tone, for sure. In 2011 and 2012, prior to starting work on Palaces, I had written a whole book’s worth of short stories from this “you and I” perspective, exploring different versions of these two meta-characters with different histories, genders, etc. They were fun to write, but I never felt like I’d gotten it right; the stories felt like exercises or sketches, a context without history.
Those stories were the testing grounds for Palaces, which I started in 2013, where these two characters finally coalesced and found proper form in John and Joey. I realized that the earlier stories I’d written might be stories that John and Joey would make up about themselves. And as the novel developed, the tone became fundamental to the narrative, more emotionally and politically necessary, until it felt like the only way that I could tell this story. I wanted to communicate the sound of two dry hands rubbing together in an empty cell.
Q: The opening scene is of a bunch of Midwestern punks outside of a house show shooting fireworks at one of their friends. Other than the obvious fact that the characters are punks, there is something very punk about the book. I almost visualize the book as two punks traveling through a classical fine art painting. Do you think that’s accurate?
SJ: Absolutely. If you look at the work of an artist like Pieter van Laer, a 17th-century Dutch genre painter, he’s mostly known for these very finely-rendered scenes of various “sordid” people – pickpockets, carnies, travelers, etc – people who look like they just wandered into the frame of a landscape painting. That’s kind of how I imagine Palaces.
Q: John and Joey abscond from the Midwest punk scene to an unnamed northeastern city, where they squat in a derelict building and loiter at art museums during the day, which seem entirely accessible and unprotected. At one point, John lifts a vase from a collection and later the pair deface Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Death of Socrates.’ What inspired this?
SJ: In the first sequence of the book, I wanted to depict a city that had been broken open in some ways but fortified in others. This city has clearly forsaken its art in favor of other institutions. One of the first steps taken by a new regime is to spoil/discredit the cultural heritage of the system that it’s replacing.
In school, I studied for a few months in Amman, Jordan, and took a course on Jordanian art taught by a pretty well-known local sculptor. When we visited museums, she would handle all of the artwork: she’d pick up the sculptures to test their weight, run her fingers across canvases to check the thickness of the paint, rub her face on tapestries that were hundreds of years old. It’s stayed with me, this sculptor and her visceral attachment to the art; I was always taught to view from a distance.
Palaces, a novel by Simon Jacobs, is out January 16, 2018.
If you are a book critic, librarian, or bookseller, and are interested in receiving an advance reading copy of Palaces, you may request a copy here.
You can also pre-order a copy of Palaces here.