Flashback Interview: Wonderland Book Award Winner J. David Osborne
Spring, 2008, I met J David Osborne at the end of a road trip across the central United States. A handful of us were in the Wichita Mountains drinking cheap beer and climbing giant rocks and shooting the shit. David would sparingly mention his long-in-the-pit novel, THE CALF. I didn’t know at the time that I had just met a real talent. And I didn’t really expect anything to come of it, because, let’s face it, most people reading this have been that guy or girl writing a perpetually unfinished story in a coffee shop somewhere. We ended up keeping touch and becoming long distance friends. Here and there he would send me pieces of this thing he was working on. Sometimes it was good. Other times great. And sometimes it was just okay. Like he was still working out the kinks. One day, he disappeared from contact only to emerge weeks later explaining that he had figured it out. He sent me some new pages. He was right. It was there. Almost three years from the day we met, it was released by Swallowdown Press as BY THE TIME WE LEAVE HERE, WE’LL BE FRIENDS. It is a slim and harsh book. It was written obsessively and with great care and it shows. It won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel of 2010.
Michael Kazepis: Good to hear from you, my raft paddling companion on this journey down life’s Mississippi.
J David Osborne: You too, my friend.
MK: You spent a long time working on this book. How has the end result differed from what you were originally visualizing?
JDO: I remember when I first conceived the book there was going to be a giant spider at the end. Kind of like in South Park, the Catholic church episode. Giant spider gods are pretty cool. But yeah, now there’s no giant spiders.
I also conceived of the book as a kind of Ellroy-esque noir, so using AMERICAN TABLOID as my model, I had three characters in it, the Boyd, the Littell, and of course the Bondurant. The Bondurant character was this giant, needle-toothed dude covered in bright pink tattoos. And he’s still in there in his original form, in a dream sequence. His introduction involved him tearing the head off of a yeti. He was kind of the agent of these Siberian tribes, he was their muscle, and he was going to act as a liaison between the shamans and the camp administrators. He was going to be one of those characters that is almost larger than the narrative, but then he started to get in the way of the story and I started to hate him. So eventually the Bondurant-type character became more human, and in doing so became more Bondurant-esque, this guy who’s trying to do his job, but his job involves him being a cold-blooded murderer.
The novel went through several different versions where each of the three main male characters were the focus.
I also wrote probably three times the number of words that end up in the book. I wanted this thing to be tight and missing all of the bullshit. So if there was something that I felt was extraneous or needlessly explanatory, I took it out. It gives the book a more hallucinatory quality, I think, and also this feeling that it really exists in its own world. That even if the reader doesn’t get everything that happens, there’s this feeling that the book knows what it’s doing, but maybe it wants you to read it again to figure it out. Lots of small lines that add up to big things.
MK: What influences did you draw from? Particular music, video games, gulag fetish porn, etc.
JDO: First off, I think that videogames are the devil. I don’t begrudge their existence or their validity as a storytelling medium, but I know that I experience deep existential crises any time a controller is in my hand. I played Resident Evil 5 several months ago and I almost had a panic attack when I realized that I had been playing a game for five hours and the sun was going down. I had missed out on a day to stare at pixels on a screen. There are several smart arguments for why this position is silly, but I can subscribe to none of them, because I know viscerally how I feel when get these crises, and they are not to be talked down.
Music, on the other hand, is great. Aesop Rock, to me, is one of the greatest living artists that we have. His lyrical style is sort of the opposite of my writing style, dense and convoluted. But it gets the brain working. A warm up. Mental gymnastics. Mostly it’s hip hop, Wu Tang, El-P, Cage, Kanye, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, etc. When it’s not rap, though, it’s usually either McLusky/Future of the Left or Sleigh Bells.
My little brother, who’s sort of a savant when it comes to music, wrote this awesome little theme for the book based off an early manuscript that he read. Plays like Ennio Morricone meets Beirut. I loved it, and listened to it a lot as I was revising.
Book-wise, I am ultra picky. There’s a Borges quote (and Borges is one of my favorites) about how as soon as a book bores you, you should put it down, because there are millions upon millions of books out there that could be entertaining you. Talk about existential crisis. So yeah, I’m ruthless with what I read, but some stuff that I love: David Foster Wallace is my god. I write nothing like him. He is the awesome unattainable. I have a little picture of him on my desk, the one with the dogs. The one where, he kind of looks like he might break your kneecaps. Big hands. Other writers: Bolano (with an en-yay), Denis Johnson, and Grant Morrison. Morrison is my other god, kind of the evil DFW, but I don’t think he’s really evil. But the personas, you have gentle David and wild Grant, they work well together. Different mediums, too, but we’re talking inspiration so fuck it.
As far as actually gulag stuff, I read the Applebaum book cover to cover, to the point that the cover actually broke and spilled half the pages onto my floor. I had about two dozen sticky notes, and this sounds exploitative but it’s true, on the “good stories” that I found therein. I had the Russian-to-English gulag term glossary tacked to a corkboard in my wall. For all that though, I really found myself simply internalizing a lot of the info and then going and writing the thing without directly referencing the book. It felt too fake if I ever did. I also read “Ivan Denisovich” by Solzhenitsyn. And “Gulag Archipelago”. I also had two volumes of a three volume “Russian Criminal Tattoo” encyclopedia that worked wonders. Volume 1 has an essay in front of it about the embodiment of the Lacanian other in these tattoos, made from piss and toasted boot heels. That was definitely formative. Also the documentary “Mark of Cain”, which Cronenberg used for “Eastern Promises”, which came out as I was writing the book and acted as a huge influence, too. Mortensen’s hair, good god. And the eye-stabbing, so brutal.
MK: I actually love the image of a diametrically opposed “nega-DFW” in Grant Morrison, where his twitchiness during interviews seems to almost distend more from excessive alcohol consumption than from neurosis. What is your day-to-day life like, do you have routines?
JDO: It used to be: wake up, get dressed, drive up to the city (I live in Norman, about a ten minute drive from OKC), deliver furniture all day all over the metro, go home, drink, fall asleep, wake up and do it again. That job was fun, but it took a long time, every day. We’d show up to the furniture store, make a route, load up and head out. Oklahoma is the largest city in America, area-wise, so we’d usually be doing this for ten hours, at least.
Then school semester started, so I moved furniture less and read Derrida more. Which, I’m in love with the man’s writings. I also took this great class on Native American film, got to watch everything from old DW Griffith flicks to THE SEARCHERS to DEAD MAN to AVATAR, and had some awesome class discussions over each and every one, very illuminating, also very inspiring as far as the writing goes. It sparked a fascination with American Indian culture that I will try to explore in my next novel.
As far as writing goes, there really is no routine. I got the iPhone, which is the greatest invention known to man, so when I was delivering furniture or sitting in class or at the bar I could jot down notes or story ideas. The trick is sitting down in front of the computer to do it. Can’t really do it at home. I used to go to Bizzell, the library here on campus, and do some work there. I write by hand over at the Gray Owl coffee shop on Gray St., which has a friendly staff and delicious and beautiful coffee. I tried to write outside a few times but the wind wouldn’t have it.
MK: For those unaware, what is there to do around Oklahoma?
JDO: I live in Norman, which I would consider, besides maybe Tulsa, to be about as awesome a town as Oklahoma has to offer. Norman’s got lots of great places to eat. Himalayas on Berry is some of the best Indian food, ever. There’s Sandro’s Pizza on Main. It’s also got a shitload of used bookstores and the one and only ATOMIK POP comic shop. There are tons of bars. It’s great.
OKC has a zoo. It’s got the Paseo arts district. It is a truly beautiful city, in its way. The other day I went to an art show, my good friend Eric was selling his stuff, and I took this pill called a firecracker and drank a lot of beer and wandered around downtown OKC, basically rolling my balls off. Dogs on chains, windows boarded up, the whole shebang. My buddy Jason and I looked for crackheads. It was massively fun. There are parties with ninja throwing stars and BB gun tournaments and hunting boars with bowie knives. The last part is true, too. Out in Ada I have a friend who rescues feral pit bulls, and they chase down boars and he stabs them to death with a knife. There’s a ton of peaceful things to do here, too. I don’t want to make Oklahoma sound like this horrible violent place. The Wichita mountains are god’s gift to OK. They’re just outside of Lawton/Ft. Sill. You climb those, there are these huge rocks, boulders everywhere. It can get really spiritual. Especially when you’ve finished off a few Steel Reserves.
MK: You once told me about a particularly amusing incident up there . . .
JDO: My friends and I decided that we were going to climb to the top of Mt. Scott, in the Wichitas, which is not really a mountain but a large hill. Falls about ten feet short of the official mountain-title, or something. We made this decision late in the game, sometime in that lazy point in the afternoon when everybody is wandering aimlessly, plucking guitar strings or making nachos or dozing off. This was our pick-me-up, this adventure. We got there hopelessly late, and by the time we hiked up the mountain, the sun was going down. So we ate oranges and set off down the mountain, using primitive cell-phone glow to light our path. There are these giant rocks on the mountain, and we got to one and could not see the bottom. I had a friend lower me down, I slipped out of his grip, my feet flew out in front of me, and I landed ass-first on a serious cactus. Walked the whole way down the dark mountain, coyotes rustling the bushes, with these tiny, lady-mustache thin spines poking my ass cheek. My mom had to pull them out with tweezers when I got home, which was after we were picked up and forced to walk back to our car by a douchebag cop. Not my proudest moment.