Interview: Jason P. Reed

1. What led you to start writing?

Honestly, it’s probably because writing seemed like the easiest creative pursuit available to me at the time. I had already given up on guitar and drawing, so I sort of fell back on writing because it was the only thing I could use to impress the one like minded, artistic friend I had in high school. The guy’s name is Toby Frey, and even at 15 he was already a pretty badass visual artist (he eventually became a tattoo artist and basically was the inspiration for my first book, Tattoos and Tans). Anyway, I would write little stories and read from books like Tropic of Cancer to impress him.

Even though I was just an average student, I got put in the advanced English class junior year of high school. English was the one subject where I could hang with the smartest kids in school–the serious nerds. Then in Freshman comp at the little community college I went to, the instructor taught us appositives, absolutes, and other impressive-sounding kinds of clauses, phrases, and sentence structures. I already had a knack for writing, but the formal instruction of that one class really helped me understand how to write for maximum impact. To make the writing flow. I’ve been developing my voice and learning about the cadence of language ever since.

2. Do you draw from events in your life?

Not just my own life, but everyone’s life. I try to be a good listener, to ask people questions and then just let them talk. A lot of times when a person tells you a story, it can start out pretty vague. But if you ask pointed questions, details start to emerge. Which is a whole lot more interesting, I think. The other thing I try to do is observe people on the sly. Not just people watching, but trying to go deeper. Like sitting at a cafe and surreptitiously watching someone’s eyes. You can watch someone watching other people–tracking their eyes, for example, when a good looking woman walks by. The eyes don’t lie.

I try to soak up as much as I can in my regular life so that, when I’m inhabiting a character in my writing, some of those observed details can bubble up. Of course, it’s not like you see something in real life and then say to yourself “oh, that’s perfect for the hero in my story.” It’s more organic than that. When my writing is going well, I’m not really aware of where, exactly, all the little details come from. I find that if I pay attention in real life–if I am genuinely curious–and I respect “the muse” by actually sitting down everyday to do it, then it just comes out naturally.

3. What writers do you read, or feel influenced by?

T.C. Boyle is the big one for me. He’s an absolute giant: towering intelligence and a master of the craft of writing. I could go on and on–I’m in love with him on so many levels–but really it comes down to two things for me. The first is his range. He writes credibly about 18th century explorers, modern day scientists living in a biosphere, a deaf woman who has her identity stolen, a fictionalized Timothy Leary at the start of his psychedelic journey. And on and on . . . the man can write anything (you can just tell he’s a voracious reader). 

The second quality of T.C. Boyle that I’m in absolute awe of is a little harder to describe. His prose is just so colorful. The best way to describe it, I think, is: he writes in high definition. The best most other writers can do is the equivalent of a sort of 1980s cathode ray tube TV . . . it’s in color, but it’s not HD. T.C. Boyle writes in the highest definition you’ve ever seen. Plus, the guy’s a total rock and roller . . . he’s got that rock swagger that for me is just cool as hell.

4. What inspires you, or how do you become inspired?

I don’t really spend too much time thinking about writing in those kinds of terms. Really what I’m doing is writing the kinds of stories I want to read. It’s just about that simple. Especially when it comes to Louisiana literature, most of the stuff that’s out there just doesn’t do it for me. I’m not interested in reading about plantation homes and gothic vampires and Southern damsels and such. I want to read about modern day characters you either feel like you know or you wish you didn’t know. Colorful and flawed people.

So what I do is create a situation or a character that I personally find interesting, and then I try to flesh it out and see what happens next. I won’t say it’s easy, but I will say that, now that I have more than two books worth of characters and situations, the inspiration comes in thinking about how those characters and events relate to each other.

Ultimately I’m trying to do a kind of Faulkner/Yoknapatawpha County thing with my characters in Acadiana. Minor characters from one story or book will show up under the spotlight in another. Somebody’s cousin from one story is somebody’s mom in another. I’m not interested in writing a series, but with everything I do under the New Bayou Books imprint, the characters and the settings will be interconnected. Fleshing out this fictional web of Acadiana characters is what inspires me.

5. What are your writing goals?

Five by 50. That’s the near term goal, to publish five books by my 50th birthday. Which means three more over the course of the next two and a half years. It’s kind of an arbitrary thing, I suppose. But I feel like I got a late start in my writing career. I basically spent my twenties and thirties climbing the corporate ladder and drinking heavily at night. I wrote a lot for my work, so I did manage to hone my chops . . . but I damn sure wasn’t engaged in any kind of healthy creative pursuit. Far from it.

So I feel like I have some ground to make up, and “five by 50” is my way of putting myself back on course. By the time I get to the fifth book, I think I will have done my sort of penance for the way I abused my mind and body during what should have been a more productive period. I suspect that by then I’ll be ready to move beyond South Louisiana in my writing. I’ve lived in a variety of interesting places– Mongolia, west Texas, Germany, to name a few–and so at some point it’ll be time to explore those settings.

Another big part of that calculation is the other Louisiana writers I hope to attract through New Bayou Books. I didn’t really start the label for me . . . I started it to raise the flag for other like minded South Louisiana writers. I want to inspire the next generation of authors who can write the kinds of stories I can’t.

6. Let’s talk about New Bayou Books. How did it come about?

It’s a case of necessity being the mother of invention, I think. When I finished Tattoos and Tans, I started looking around for other Louisiana literature in the same vein. And I just couldn’t find any. Don’t get me wrong. The market isn’t totally barren. There’s at least one pretty well known writer who’s made a career of what is basically mainstream detective fiction set in South Louisiana. But there’s nothing like the kind of thing I’m doing–like the kind of storytelling I hope to see more of.

South Louisiana is a truly special place–maybe one of the last parts of the U.S. that hasn’t seen its culture totally diluted and homogenized. If you visit there, you won’t necessarily feel like you’re in a different country, but you’ll definitely know you’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s kind of like the way Vincent Vega describes Europe in Pulp Fiction . . . “they got the same shit there, but it’s a little bit different.”

When I was younger and I didn’t know any better, most of the unique aspects of South Louisiana culture sort of embarrassed me. I didn’t get the music. I thought people talked funny, and I didn’t understand the origins of all those strange French words in the language. Now I see it in a totally different light. And if my own eyes and ears weren’t enough to convince me that South Louisiana has something special to offer, the reaction from people when I tell them where I’m from says it all. People are intrigued by Cajun culture. I’ve been around the world, and every time I tell someone where I’m from, their eyes light up . . . and then they usually proceed to spit the same old tired tropes about Louisiana back at me.

So that tells me South Louisiana still isn’t well represented in the culture. You don’t get a nuanced, rich picture of the place in mainstream books and movies. You get archetypes. New Bayou Books is all about flawed, interesting characters who are uniquely and deeply Cajun . . . but with the volume turned way down on all those tropes about pirogues and alligators and marrying your second cousin. I mean, I liked The Waterboy as much as anyone, but the real stuff is actually way more interesting than Adam Sandler doing an over the top accent (even though [laughs] I have cousins who actually talk like that!).

7. Does a writer need to be from Louisiana? or Just have the setting of the story be in Louisiana?

I don’t have any kind of litmus test set up. Though I will say it would probably be pretty hard to pull off writing characters that are deeply infused in the modern version of Cajun culture if you haven’t spent time there. As for the second question . . . well, yeah, I’m looking for stories actually set in Acadiana. There are already plenty of books that get classified as Louisiana literature because they’re tangentially related to the state. As far as I’m concerned, that box is already checked. The void that exists is stories set in the Southern part of the state. Stories that show characters from there . . . people who reflect the way that culture shows up in the modern context . . . like the mom who makes a pot of spaghetti for her family and seasons it with Tony Chacheres, or the football coach who buys his team shrimp po boys after the game. Not that it’s all about food!

8. Do you accept Poetry? Non-fiction?

I’d certainly be interested in reading South Louisiana centric poetry . . . though it’s really about storytelling for me. So I think the answer on poetry is maybe. As for nonfiction, no. There’s already a bunch of that already in the market. Though even in that space, there is still lots of uncharted territory. One new initiative I really like is Earth + Ether Press. As I understand it, they’re just starting out, but the idea is to explore the importance of place in our lives. So this is a cool sort of Louisiana companion initiative. Here’s their website https://earthandetherpress.com/

9. Do you have submission guidelines you’d like to share here?

The guidelines are simple: write something you’re proud of and send it to jr@newbayoubooks.com. That goes right to me. As it stands now, New Bayou Books is me . . . but I’m eagerly anticipating the inevitable moments when other Acadiana writers join me and we build momentum together.

10. Tell us about how special Louisiana is?

The first thing to clarify is that it’s not just a good news story. South Louisiana is complex. The food is amazing, but it’s not really good for you. The music is so much fun to dance to, but for me at least, it doesn’t always translate to recordings. It’s amazing in the winter time, but it’s hot and humid and dense with mosquitoes in the summer, which lasts about six months. It’s welcoming and friendly, but there’s an unfortunate history of racism that may still have echoes in the present day. Some of the funniest people you will ever meet are from there . . . but you won’t find many national comedians who claim it as home (shout out to Theo Von, who might be the exception that proves the rule).

South Louisiana is not just one thing, and that’s why I think it deserves more attention in modern fiction. The rich complexity of South Louisiana has not been fully explored. Not by a long shot.

11. Tell us anything else you want people to know about New Bayou Books.

I started this press to spark a revolution in Louisiana literature. What I’m looking for is nothing short of a full scale groundswell of new writers coming out of the shadows of Acadiana. My best guess is there are probably dozens of unknown writers out there, and I want to help them write and publish their stories. It’s not about trying to “discover” the next John Kenny Toole or anything (though obviously that would be rad) . . . it’s just about identifying emerging writers to help me and others fill this void with modern, edgy South Louisiana fiction. If we can gather a little bit of steam–with new writers publishing their work either independently or through New Bayou Books–interesting things will happen. I can easily see a near future where there are dozens of new, interesting books coming out of South Louisiana every year. I can see a broad, diverse community of writers putting out the kind of stuff that only they can . . . and in that vision, I see thousands and thousands of delighted readers. Maybe even people who don’t usually read books, but when they start to see stories set in their own communities, with characters they feel like they know (or wish they didn’t), it sparks a passion in them, and before long they find themselves following their favorite Louisiana writers just like they follow the Saints or LSU.

I think South Louisiana is an incredibly fertile ground for a new brand of storytelling . . . one that makes readers around the world say “thank God somebody finally did this!”

Jason’s Bio:

Jason P. Reed is a writer from Eunice, a small South Louisiana town in the heart of the Cajun Prairie. He is the founder and principal author behind New Bayou Books, a small press established to bring a new, inventive  brand of Louisiana literature to the world. Tattoos and Tans and All Saints Day of the Dead are his first two books. He is currently at work on the third offering from New Bayou Books, a turn of the millennium era love story called The Asian Cajun. Jason keeps a little bit of home with him everywhere he goes, sprinkling Cajun spice across the globe–from Mongolia, West-Texas, Germany, South Korea, Washington D.C., and Belgium–as he performs his duties for his Uncle Sam. If you dig his writing, support the cause at NewBayouBooks.com and follow him at Goodreads.com

His books can be purchased through his websites above, through Amazon, and located in our Bookstore. He has also written Suicide Squeeze: Colton Lacombe’s Return to Baseball and Swimming Under Barges, that are posted in The Yard: Crime Blog.

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