The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Friday, May 06, 2011

An Interview with Jon Armstrong

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Jon Armstrong, author of revolutionary "fashionpunk" sci-fi novels, Grey, and Yarn, has been kind enough to stop by The Daily Monocle and answer a few questions for us. :)

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How long have you been writing?

I started writing in Mrs. Lentz's class in my senior year of high school back in Maryland. We had to buy one of those marble composition books and write something each week. If it was okay, you got a check. If she liked it you got a check plus. If it wasn't to her liking, you got the rare but dreaded check minus. I started the year writing one page spoofs a la Saturday Night Live, but by the end of the year, I was cranking out twenty-five pages a week about myself, my friends, philosophy, and I don't even remember what else. I doubt Mrs. Lentz is still teaching, but if she is, here's what I learned: mention urination or any bodily function and it was always a check minus. You've been warned!

When did you get the idea to work fashion into science-fiction?

I developed an interest in fashion while an exchange student in Japan. Needing a coat, I found a store whose inventory was black and white clothing as contrasted with much of the garish, neon, costume-like clothing that dominates the press coverage of Japanese fashion. Through discussions with the owner or the store, I became aware of how much technology and engineering is behind the scenes. When in New York City after college I followed up this interest by taking courses in fashion history, technology, and design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
When it came to writing scifi, I suppose the old adage applied: Write what you know.

How did you choose the settings for your novels?

The world views that I create can be thought of as multiplying the excesses of Japanese culture by the influences of consumerism and applying the result to existing locales, some of which are places where I have lived.

Who was your favorite character to write?

That might be impossible to say. It's the characters who were cut, I disliked.


I am amazed by the vivid descriptions and offbeat names of things in your novels. Did these just flow naturally from the story, or were you consciously thinking about them?

Yes and no. I actually cut back (in some cases dramatically) on the descriptions during the editing process of Yarn, but I'm glad you enjoyed them. I have done a lot of work in visual media, so perhaps I tend to think that way. The language flows from the impulse of the story. Then, after they occur, I review them consciously.

As for the names… Naming characters, places, things, restaurants, etc. can take hours and hours. It may seem odd, but it can really be one of the most difficult parts of writing. Often I'll come up with a name and love it for forty pages, only to, inevitably, hate it and change it again. I'll fiddle around in another files with versions of words, click through the dictionary, Wikipedia, and doodle and doodle. For example, there was a relatively minor tailoring shop where the protagonist of Yarn, Tane Cedar, worked for a chapter or two that I called YeOld#1CostumeShoppee. Below is a list of some of the ideas I went through for that one minor name:

SuperNumberOneLuxMart

Super#1LuxuryMart

Fantastic#1Luxury Mart

YeOlde#1CostumeMärt

SeattlehamasYeOlde#1CostumeMärt

YeOld#1CostumeShoppee

SkyHiSeattlehama#1 Epic Shoppee

sKY-hi Seattlehama IchiBan Epic Thread Shoppee



On average, how long does it take you to write a book?

It's probably too early in my career to take a meaningful average. Grey took decades; Yarn took a couple of years. I'm writing faster now, but we'll see what emerges when.

Do you have any writing rituals?

My writing doesn't need any special food, drink, drugs, clothing, postures, artifacts, sounds, smells, or sights. It's best when I am writing on an electronic device not otherwise connected to the world-at-large so that interruptions are minimized. Otherwise, it can be about anywhere, at my basement writing desk, while waiting in a car, in a bank lobby etc. etc.
I tend to listen to rhythmic music. It seems to keep the fingers moving and some part(s) of my brain occupied. I employ everything Bach to electronic.

What is it that you find so interesting about the world of fashion?

I grew up like a lot of guys, wearing whatever my mom bought for me and never giving clothes much thought beyond wondering: I don't look like a dork, do I? or Are my jeans highwaters? Later on, when I began to learn what went into the designing, engineering, and manufacturing of clothes, I got very curious.

Take blue jeans—it was originally a specifically engineered product built for a specific task. (Yes, I've used the word engineering twice talking about fashion!) Levis Straus devised a pair of pants made with a twill fabric and riveted seams to create the most popular fashion of the last century. We're probably all familiar with the rivets, but what blew my mind a few years ago was that the reason they're blue and lighter on the inside was to produce a fabric with a tough exterior, using indo dyes on the top yarns and softer on the inside with undyed yarns there. It wasn't just whim, or accident. That to me is what's so interesting about fashion: that something we use daily, take for granted, we know almost nothing about.

Are you an author who outlines before he writes, or do you just wing it?

Yes.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

House repairs and golf. I prefer the house repairs; they're much more satisfying.


Since making your debut with Grey in 2007, you’ve been nominated for numerous science-fiction awards, including the Philip K. Dick award. Has this changed your outlook on writing, or the way you write, at all?

I have been surprised and pleased at the critical attention, but I am not aware that it has had any affect on my writing.

Who would you say is your greatest writing influence?

Kobo Abe. J. G Ballard. Annie Dillard. Witold Gombrowicz. Vladimir Nabokov. William Gibson.


Do you have any plans to continue writing in the world of Seattlehama, or are you looking towards new projects?

I have several more projects, including at least one short story and maybe two more novels.

Thank you so much for stopping by The Daily Monocle!


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Be sure to check out the author's official website, and his works on Amazon!

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