Shane Jones’s debut novel Light Boxes is kept afloat by a sea of imagery, both haunting and strange. There’s a rebel group in bird masks and black top hats, clouds that fall apart like wet paper in the hand, balloons in silken colors — mud-strewn, wet with holy water, and burned black. These dreamlike visions bringing you into the story of a town doomed to perpetual February (due to a vengeful deity, also called February), where children are disappearing and any form of flight, literal and otherwise, is impossible. One man, the balloonist Thaddeus Lowe, decides to fight back. This slim and absorbing novel reads like a bedtime story that your mother forgot to tell you, and it announces Jones as a stunning new literary voice. Spike Jonze, who’s become a champion of the book, optioned its movie rights for director Ray Tintori (best known for his MGMT videos) during its initial run on the small press Publishing Genius. Thanks to Jonze’s widely-publicized interest, Penguin picked up the book for re-release. During a lunch break from his administrative job with the New York State Senate, we talked to Albany-based Jones about his debut’s wild ride, his grudge against February, and the dark days in his parents’ basement.
What was the initial inspiration for the book? I wanted to write a novel but I had no idea how to do it. For a really long time, I was writing Raymond Carver, Hemingway-esque stories. I was writing that stuff but I hated doing it. I was like, this is so awful. Then I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and was blown away, so I decided to write something really, really visual. The most visual thing I could. The first few pages of Light Boxes, I had these images of winter and Thaddeus Lowe came up.
Who is Thaddeus Lowe? He was a real historical character that lived during the Civil War. He was a balloonist and did surveillance on the South, and that’s part of where the inspiration for the book came. I was working at Borders and somebody had special-ordered a biography on him. He’s such a weird guy. He’s a scientist. He created a bunch of other things, something to do with freezers and ice storage and was constantly inventing stuff. Mark Twain said that he was the “most shot-at man during the Civil War.” There was this image I had of a guy in a balloon, doing surveillance, with a war going on. Two contradictions and a historical reference, even though the guy himself is nothing like the guy in the book. Basically, just part of his situation and the name. I love his name.
What do you have against February? I always had a weird thing with winter and the month of February. It’s just such a terrible month, a depressing, terrible month. Northeast winters, you’re just waiting for spring and summer, you get through the holidays and you just have February sitting right there. I hate it. It’s just grey. And March is really bad too. There’s one really warm day, and April’s miserable.
The book seems so carefully and precisely written. Are you the type of writer to slave over sentences? I’m just going to contradict myself. I wrote really short sections. Before, I only wrote poems. One thing I picked up from a writer is, he said write two, four, six poems a day, in pairs. With Light Boxes, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d write the short sections, almost like poems. I’d write two or four even numbered sections each day, so in that sense, with each one I’d spend a long time on it, with each sentence. In editing, Adam [Robinson from Publishing Genius] helped a lot, because I’m sloppy as far as simple basic grammar goes. I know there’re sentence writers. My friend Blake [Butler], Gary Lutz, Gordon Lish, that whole crew, they all slave over them. I’m not in that category. There’re really simple sentences in Light Boxes, very basic.
The book’s quite moving, but it could’ve been twee. How did you keep it real? I like the extremes. Light Boxes has that fantasy, fable, fairytale aspect, and there’s also a strange simplicity to it. It’s grounded in human emotions, so those two things can play off each other. There’s really dark imagery in the book, and then there’s balloons, tea cups, and really whimsical stuff. That’s brought down a bit by really violent scenes.
On your blog you mentioned that Philip Meyer’s recent Q&A for the New Yorker’s 20 under 40 was particularly interesting. Can you talk about that a bit? Yeah, I haven’t read his stuff yet, but I liked his answer because it seemed really honest in how his family thought he was a complete failure. He was rejected from grad school and all that stuff. I had a similar situation. I had finished school and then I had to come back to SUNY Albany to get my requirement filled. I was living in my parents’ basement, I tried to get into grad school and got rejected. I was writing this weird little book and my parents were like, “What are you doing?” His [Meyer’s] answer talked about a similar situation but he also said something at the end that shook me to my core with my current situation, my state job. He said you have to make a choice about what art means to you, and he quit his job and wrote his book. If he stayed in his day job he couldn’t have done that. I thought that was amazing. I remember being in my parents’ basement and getting the rejection letter from SUNY Albany. The basement was so dark and at that point there was nothing positive. I was done with school, making eight dollars an hour at Borders. I didn’t have a car so I rode my bike from my parents’ house to Borders. It was awful. But also, in a strange way, I really remember that time. There was something simple about it and I had the urge to write something. Now it’s kind of different. Now that people know about the book there’s that distraction. It’s just different.
Is Light Boxes a summer read? I don’t know if it’s a beach read. It’s quick, it’s fast, people can read it on the beach in an afternoon. June was the quickest that Penguin could put it out with a new cover and the whole process. I think reading the book during the summer might be kind of refreshing. It’s 90 degrees out and it’s a book about winter.
At least people could give it as a gift in winter. Every February, I can promote it. Every single year. That one thing.
People will be like, there goes Shane Jones. That guy hates February! I’ll be known for it.