Persona Cracked is a series that explores the intersection of artists, their work, and social media. My next guest, Jon Bassoff, is author of nine novels. He was born in New York City in 1974 and lives in Longmont, Colorado where he teaches high school English. Jon’s work is described on his web site as ‘gothic-noir.’ His latest tale of existential torment, Beneath Cruel Waters, a mystery involving what a man discovers after returning home to his mother’s funeral, releases in June.
I’m a high school student in your English class. I want to be a writer when I grow up. What do you tell me? What do you tell your students about your work?
First of all, I apologize that you have to be in my class as it is filled with layers of turmoil and torment. Beyond that, I have remained amazingly uncynical about writing and the creative process and I would encourage you to follow that dream, understanding that it might not be a great business decision, but it is a great decision for your soul. We live in a society of consumption—food, booze, drugs, media—and we desperately need more creators. But allow yourself to write badly for some time without the pressure of creating the great American novel. As far as my own work, I have to tiptoe around it a bit, since it’s not exactly teenager appropriate. But I think that students are impressed that their English teacher doesn’t just talk the talk, and quite a few have dug up copies of my work and read. This one incredibly sweet and innocent girl read one of my more violent novels and approached me after finishing and said, “Mr. Bassoff, I’ll never be able to look at you the same way again.” I took it as a great compliment.
Your posts on social media are rife with self-deprecating humor: a pic on Instagram of you hugging nobody, your ‘biggest fan;’ a Tweet about you having ‘two dozen restraining orders pending in Colorado’ but also ‘the best-selling book in Boulder;’ a post on Facebook about you keeping your mind ‘sharp’ by completing a seven-piece puzzle, and so on. While your books are also often laced with humor (and sometimes drowning in it), such as the absurdity and irony of your last novel, Captain Clive’s Dreamworld, that novel itself—in which a sheriff’s deputy must come to terms with his own depraved past—is pretty damn bleak. What do you believe is the relationship between humor and melancholia? What should a reader understand about your worldview that may better help them prepare for and appreciate the experience of your novels?
I’m assuming that my publisher would prefer if my online persona was more in keeping with the mysterious nature of my novels, but the truth is that I’m a pretty goofy guy who happens to write bleak novels. We all know people who take themselves a bit too seriously, and I don’t want to be that guy. My debut novel, The Disassembled Man, was twisted as hell but was also filled with plenty of ridiculous humor. The other novels have moments of absurdity but darkness tends to win out. So maybe I don’t take myself very seriously but I do take my novels seriously? It’s managing those contradictions. On the one hand, it’s crucial for us to recognize how important our life is, our world is. It’s crucial for us to live each day with great importance, to strive for monumental results. But on the other hand, at some point we need to be able to stop and mock our great expectations. We need to be able to say, “Damn, dude, it’s only life.”
Beneath Cruel Waters is being released on the heels of major back-to-back mass shootings in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas. What do stories such as yours, which explore violence in such an intimate way, say, reflect, or suggest about a society as violent as ours? Is there any peace that comes from reading twisted tales about our twisted American life?
I’ve always avoided writing stories in response to societal ills. Instead, I aim to tell stories about the characters and places that have haunted my own dreams. That being said, we’re all influenced by the world around us, and I’m no exception. I don’t think my novels glorify violence but they’re also not meant to be moralistic statements. I try to write novels that stay away from the simplistic good guy vs. bad guy that some thriller novels ascribe to. The NRA has used its talking point that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, but after Uvalde, we saw how simplistic and faulty that philosophy was. There were plenty of “good guys” with guns, but they stood outside while a slaughter happened. So maybe it has less to do with good and bad and more to do with the circumstances presented. While novels and art can provide some comfort and help develop a sense of empathy, they certainly don’t provide peace with the backdrop of these American slaughters. But then nothing can.
What do you love about Beneath Cruel Waters?
This is my first book that’s primarily about family. Not a family friendly book exactly, but about families. It’s also about memory and blind faith and mental illness and violence. Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote that everyone has three lives: a public life, a private life, and a secret life. This novel is about those lives and the chaos that ensues when those lives interact. But I also worked on creating a mood. You know, the sound of a distant train in the wee small hours of the morning or the way branches look like skeletal hands in the moonlight. I wrote this book so we could see the world not only without clothes but without skin.
Sometimes I think you get your inspiration by sleeping at the bottom of a lake. But, honestly, where do your stories come from?
Some stories come to me whole, presenting themselves as a fedora-wearing dwarf holding a machete and ready to whisper a lyrical 320-page novel into my ear and not wanting even a mention in the acknowledgements. That doesn’t happen too often. Other stories are temptresses, and it’s only once you start writing them that you realize they were unfaithful and only aimed to suck your soul through some twisty straws. But most of my stories come in pieces. You go to the junkyard and find a bowling ball and a table leg and a Shangri-Las album and ball of rubber bands and you have to figure out a way to put them together. And most of the time you have to force the pieces to fit even though the table leg is screaming and the rubber bands are moaning. In other words, it’s a damn torturous process and it’s my favorite thing in the world.
Is there a realm within fiction you have yet to explore, and you would like to do so?
Well, I just finished a novel called The Memory Ward. You might call this one science fiction, but I’ll leave it to the marketing people to decide. But there are definitely some echoes of Philip K. Dick, down to the paranoia and disorientation. I’m hoping this book sees the light of day because I like it a lot. It’s different than everything I’ve ever done. It was either that or a werewolf coming-of-age romance with lots of werewolf sex. Now that I think of it, I should have written that one.
What are your inspirations/the writers you appreciate who have taught and helped you to develop your own style?
The book that made me want to be a writer was The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. I’d never read anything like it. I was used to reading about likable protagonists, but Lou Ford was a complete psychopath. That got my attention. After reading that book, I tried writing my own version of The Killer Inside Me. It was a complete rip-off and about 1/100 of a percent as good. But it got me writing. Since then I’ve been influenced by a lot of writers and musicians. Old crime writers like James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett. Southern gothic writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Brilliant novelists like Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. Songwriters like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen. And in some way, I tried imitating all of them. And my imitations were so poor that I ended up developing my own style. Whatever that style is.
Any summer plans, besides promoting your books?
We’re going to Singapore and Dublin and Machu Picchu. Maybe stop in Prague and Moscow for a bit. Just joking. Mainly running errands at Target and Home Depot. And then driving around in my car, chasing after the neighborhood kids, throwing darts at them. The usual.
Thank you for sharing your story!
Ryan Hyatt, June 21, 2022