7 Questions With Jay Spencer Green
Based in Dublin, Ireland, Jay Spencer Green has worked as a writer and professional editor for the past 25 years, first for a major US academic publisher and subsequently as a freelancer. On three consecutive occasions, his novels have won the Comedy category in ReadFreely.com’s Indie Book of the Year Awards.
His works combine social satire and surrealist wordplay to poke fun at the patriarchy, organized religion, capitalism, machismo, the state, and what he mockingly refers to as l’esprit de sérieux, the pretense that we aren’t just making it all up as we go along.
Comparisons have been drawn with Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Angela Carter, Chuck Palahniuk, Muriel Spark, and Lenny Bruce, all of them negative, but that need not concern us here. His website can be found here, and his works are widely available online. He is also on Goodreads, Amazon, Twitter, and Instagram.
In today’s interview, Jay speaks about his journey as a writer, life behind the scenes, and how much research goes into a novel. If you are a writer, please stop by to check the best tips & tricks From Writing To Publishing and sign up to my Newsletter for the latest & greatest.
Esther Rabbit: Looking back, what advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your journey?
I wish I’d had sufficient self-confidence, self-knowledge, and knowledge of the publishing industry to go indie from Day One, instead of hanging around for ten years waiting for my agent to strike a deal with one of the big publishing houses. I’d have realized sooner where my strengths lie.
My works are tough to categorise. They aren’t commercial fiction and would at best have a limited—let’s say, select—audience. They’re absurdist, Rabelaisian, very dark, and very adult. And that’s just the audience. The books are funny, daring, ahead of their time, and the purest manifestations of rarefied genius.
If Goya’s Black Paintings fill you with mirth, then these are the books for you, but you’re also the kind of reader who hasn’t been seen since they locked up the Marquis de Sade. Had I copped on that the readers who would “get” my books would be disparate and difficult to reach, I would have initiated my search for them much earlier and in all the right places—Goth dives, knitting circles, chess clubs, anarchist ateneos, opium dens, Scotland—and by now we’d have constructed an orgiastic underground community of revolutionary hedonists and mild-mannered killer librarians.
It’s ironic that all of my musical touchstones have been stalwarts of the indie scene—some of them even burst into flames the moment they came into contact with commercial labels. I should have had the courage of their convictions and learned from their example. It was a combination of cowardice, ignorance, and self-delusion that prevented me from going the indie route earlier.
Esther Rabbit: Just how much research is there behind a novel? Tell us how it looks behind the scenes.
The advice to “Write about what you know” should be stood on its head: “Know about what you write.” Find a subject that intrigues you or that appears to present possibilities for a plot, and research it until you know it inside out. My first novel, Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s, featured a CIA agent based in Dublin.
Now, I’ve never been to Langley or met a CIA operative, but in the two and half decades prior to the book’s publication, I had read hundreds of books, articles, and journals on and around the various intelligence services of the world. I subscribed to Lobster magazine, Statewatch, Black Flag, I’d read biographies by former operatives from MI5, MI6, Special Branch, the DGSE, the KGB, and so on.
Ninety-five percent of the material I draw upon for a novel is never mentioned in the final work, but it’s still there, providing a structure, like a skeleton, or haunting the text, like a ghost, lending the story verisimilitude even if the world it describes is utterly bizarre.
For the book I’m writing now, I’ve conducted two years of research on Spain, as well as spending nearly half the year there, and for my fifth book, set in Paris, I have a shelf of books, fiction and non-fiction, ranging from the short stories of Jean Rhys to Luc Sante’s The Other Paris, Eric Hazan’s Walk Through Paris, and Laura Elkin’s The Flâneuse, which I’ll read and take notes on once I’ve published Book 4, Manuel Estímulo’s Fascist Book of Everything.
Esther Rabbit: How long do you self-edit your manuscript before sending it to a proofreader/beta reader/editor?
I’m a professional editor by trade, so I probably get these things done quicker than most writers do. There’s a lot of preparation in terms of plot and structure before anything gets written—and hundreds of pages of notes have to be collated even before that.
Then, the first draft is fairly meticulously written and revised as I go along; although this sounds drawn out, the fact that I’ve planned so much of it makes the first draft quick to write when I finally get down to it because I know what I want to say.
The handwritten first draft then gets typed into Word, during which it undergoes a second revision. I then send it to beta readers while making changes before I get it back from them, and then I carry out a fourth draft, the complexity of which depends on the beta readers’ responses.
I have a small number of close friends who are regular polymaths, and I trust their opinion implicitly. Breakfast at Cannibal Joe’s also went past a wonderful developmental editor, Elise Hendrick, whose advice transformed the book. It’s a much better work as a result of her input.
Esther Rabbit: What’s your own definition of an author/indie author?
Hemingway’s dictum that you can’t call yourself a writer until you’ve been paid for your writing has always resonated.
It’s the criterion I’ve always unconsciously measured myself against, whether it’s true or not. Having complete strangers buy my books and give positive feedback feels like the real thing; it isn’t just friends and family being kind, it’s people who have no ulterior motive telling you they value what you’ve created. I can live with that.
Esther Rabbit: How do you deal with negative feedback/reviews?
See my answer to Question 1. I don’t mind at all that some people don’t like what I’ve written. Reviewers in general are a pretty decent bunch and recognize the amount of work involved in producing even just one book. In my experience, they’ll say, “This wasn’t for me” or “I was expecting something else.”
Besides, as an editor, I’m confident enough to know that I can identify good writing, and as a writer I know what I’m trying to achieve; I don’t publish a book unless I believe that I’ve achieved my goal. The fact that my books are weird and transgressive means there are always going to be disappointed readers. I try to advertise up front that they’re about to read something different.
Esther Rabbit: What’s your favorite genre as a reader?
I have no idea. I might read a horror story that’s beyond brilliant and think, “I must read more horror,” only to find myself bored beyond tolerance by endless pages of tedious unimaginative gore. I might read a J. G. Ballard novel like The Atrocity Exhibition and have my mind blown, then read Kingdom Come and think “Oh my God, no, not again, pleeeease.”
Terry Pratchett and Tom Sharpe give me the odd giggle. Rebecca Gransden and Lisa McInerney write extraordinarily sophisticated literary fiction, not my favourite genre by any means, but I revel in their turn of phrase and find myself wondering “How the hell did they do that?” Mary Papastavrou has transcendent passages of intelligent humor that leave me chortling till dawn.
I’ve found that rather than having a favorite genre, I’m loyal to a few particular writers—Rebecca, Lisa, Mary, but also William Burroughs, Martin Millar, and Steven Aylett—who rarely let me down and regularly generate compelling and original texts.
Esther Rabbit: What should readers expect from your next novel?
The usual unusualness. Restless fascist retirees, surfers with hydrophobia too afraid to go into the water, the history of the dildo, Brexit in the Badlands, dogs who shoot back, the revenge of Juana La Loca.
Every book is an attempt to convey the fragility of normality, the barbarity behind the civilization, the hilarity beneath the hubris. I always try to surprise my reader; to entertain them but also to inspire, to re-awaken their childhood curiosity so that they see the world afresh.
There’s a wonderful story about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein being approached by one of his students, who said to him, “I can understand why people used to think the Earth stood still and the Sun revolved about it, because that’s exactly how it looks.”
Wittgenstein thought for a moment and then asked, “How would it look if the Earth moved and the Sun stood still?” I love that story, whether or not it’s true. It just shows the importance of framing. If you can get people to question how they frame the world, show them the possibility of alternative interpretations of their reality, you’re on the way to subverting the hegemon. And isn’t that all any of us wants to do?
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And if you’re a fan of Paranormal Romance, check out Lost in Amber:
“A new Interplanetary Alliance ambassador on an earthbound mission.
A handful of genetically altered humans to be rescued.
Meeting her changed everything.“