Jesse Michaels is perhaps best known for his seminal Bay Area ska-punk band Operation Ivy, but the former frontman has in recent years revealed himself to be not only a talented lyric-writer, but also a talented novelist, publishing his first book, Whispering Bodies: A Roy Belkin Disaster in September of 2013. The novel is great: a dark yet amusing murder mystery centering around a depressive and eccentric, yet deeply ethical, shut-in (or as Michaels calls him “busted up old fucker who is kind of world weary.” It’s a little noir, a little surreal, and a lot funny, and definitely brands Michaels as talented fiction writer in his own right.
Because I really enjoy his Twitter and because a click on our “Books” section still yields depressing results, I asked Jesse for an interview about his book and his take on writing in general.
Have you always been a writer? Or rather, have you always written, your whole life?
Jesse: Well, my father was a writer. So there was a context for me. I’m very wired for the arts. And I say that in a very unpretentious, newspaper article kind of way. Everything that I’m good at or comes naturally to me is some sort of creative thing. Again, if I was a plumber, I would say that’s what I’m naturally drawn to. So it was very natural for me to write very early on. I started trying to write a novel when I was a very little kid. As soon as I got into punk, I started writing lyrics immediately. But in the past I wasn’t very consistent with anything. So while it was something that came to me out of nowhere, it’s not something I did all the time. Because I would stop for a couple of years to take drugs, or to do nothing.
Sure. Drugs are often more fun than writing.
Jesse: It’s interesting. Bukowski, and by the way I’m not an ultra Bukowski fan, but the interesting thing about that guy is that he stopped writing for like 30 years or something, and then he started again, and became prolific. So I think the patterns for writing are very unpredictable.
So if not Bukowski, who were some of your favorite writers growing up?
Jesse: Well, let’s see. Without thinking about or trying to cool-wash it…that word comes to mind because I was recently thinking about this on one of those stupid Facebook posts where I was prompted to make a list of favorite books. I tried to come up with it honestly without trying to make myself look smart. The books that I really, really like, a lot of them come from when I was a kid. Let’s see. Phantom Tollbooth was a huge one. There was a series of books, kind of swords and sorcery books, about this character called Taran, I don’t remember what they were called, but those were big. (Ed Note: They’re called The Chronicles of Prydain). I really like Hemingway’s prose. I think he sometimes gets overly serious, but I really like a lot of his writing and the less-is-more thing that he employs. I really like Flannery O’ Connor although I haven’t read her in years. What else…I’m going to bracket this for a minute.
Do you remember a specific book that had a particularly large impact on your life? Maybe in terms of making you think “Oh, I’m going to be a writer now.” Or maybe not, maybe in completely different terms.
Jesse: No book has really changed my life. I’m not that deeply moved by books, I’m just very entertained by them. But White Noise by Don DeLillo was really big because I thought it was so fucking funny and smart, and I really liked the character. My father, his books were really influential. When I first started writing, I wouldn’t say I tried to write like him, but it sort of happened a little bit. But since then I have, deliberately or not, changed my style.
This may be a bit redundant, but if you had to isolate what caused you to start writing as a kid, was it the fact that your father was a writer and you kind of wanted to emulate him, or was it more of just a inner urge to get thoughts down on paper?
Jesse: Well, the first time I tried to write a novel I was like 11 years old, and we were driving across the country, and I just sort of needed something to do. That was a Western called Batman’s Boots, which never went anywhere (laughs). I wish I had kept it. Speaking of which, McMurty’s books, none of which are very cool, I also loved. The Lonesome Dove series was huge for me. He’s a legitimately great American writer. S.E Hinton, all of her books…
The Outsiders, Rumblefish. I always loved that young adult genre. I also really love this book Sati…
Jesse: What is Sati?
It’s a young adult novel that came out in the 90s by this writer Christopher Pike, who was a contemporary of R.L Stine. He mostly wrote those types of books for youth, but he also wrote more mature young adult books, and Sati was one he wrote about God coming to Earth as a young woman. It’s great; it’s always stuck with me.
Jesse: Interesting. Wait, so you asked me what inspired me to write? Well first, it was something to do in the car. I admired my father, and of course, you want to do what your dad does. But then, the reason I started writing more seriously was that I was done playing music, I was in my thirties, and I had to figure out something else to do that could potentially lead to dollars in my life. Or some kind of place in the world, you know what I mean? So I started writing, not super careerist, I wasn’t tying to write best sellers, but I was trying to figure out something to do next. And that’s what got me to actually write a novel. I was working terrible jobs, and I was like, I gotta do something to give my life some kind of fucking meaning.
So that first attempt back at writing, after you finished music, is what resulted in this latest novel.
Jesse: Well I think I started in 2005, and I was writing short stories. I wrote one failed novel. There was always good stuff about it but…you have learn when you’re writing not to be too clever. A lot of popular writers are very clever, and they’re successful, but they’re shit. And I didn’t want to write shit. So I had to learn that, and that took a long time. Then I decided I wanted to write a novel. And my way of writing was, I was going to finish it whether it was good or not. That’s what got me to go through with it. It’s not easy. There are very few people who can write a novel without having many points at which they decide their writing is shit and they don’t know what they are doing.
I can hardly get through writing an entire short story without wanting to kill myself.
Jesse: It’s hard to go on when you feel that way. But I decided it didn’t matter if it was shit, I would finish it anyway. So I would sit there writing stuff that I knew was bad, because it was part of my practice. Then I made this weird discovery reading it back where I couldn’t tell the stuff I thought was shit from the stuff I thought was great. So it was basically all a complete hallucination a lot of the time.
I think often it’s tied in to your current state of self-esteem, but it’s also kind of like being asked a question and having to keep rambling until you actually get to the answer. Like if you don’t keep writing, you may not get to the thing you were actually trying to say. You have to go through all the extraneous, sludgy parts to get to the real stuff. I had a writing teacher in high school who once told me to isolate my favorite sentence out of any piece or page, and delete it.
Jesse: Oh my god.
Yeah, because he was like that’s you being clever. That’s you drawing attention to your writing.
Jesse: That’s a style in and of itself these days, one that’s very ornamental. Even when it’s heavily edited and terse, there’s still this sense of “look how smart I am.” Some of these writers write good stories, but there’s a lot of subtle swagger to it, and I hate that shit. I think writing is sacred, and you have to approach it with kind of a sense of humility. And that doesn’t mean you can’t be forceful, or write beautiful prose, it’s just that there’s a certain kind of, I don’t know, ornamental quality that needs to be subtracted. It’s hard to talk about.
I think that makes perfect sense. You’re in school studying literature right now at UCLA. What made you want to do that?
Jesse: Well, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing with my life, and I had these shit jobs, one after another, and they were killing me. Not because I’m above writing, but just because I was no good at them, you know? So other people I trusted told me I should go back to school, so I just started, even though I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I found that the action of actually going to school generated the plan, rather than the other way around, and I found myself drawn more and more to literature classes. Just because, again, that’s what I’m good at. I don’t know how practical it is, but it can’t hurt.
If your craft is writing, reading certainly can’t hurt.
Jesse: I’ve learned a lot from it. I’ve learned a lot about stories, structure, thought, everything. I’m lucky to be able to go to school.
Let’s talk about your book now.
Jesse: Well, the book is about this guy. He’s a broken down, 50-something year old man. Which is a character I always liked in the books I read, you know like Fante, Bukowski, DeLillo. It’s kind of an archetype. Even Graham Greene, his guy is often a busted up old fucker who is kind of world weary. The reason I like it is because these guys are funny in these books. It’s not like my only interest, but that’s what I was into when I started this book. Anyway, there were a couple of different influences. One was Celine, and a couple of others, but basically when I started writing, I didn’t know much about plot. But then I kind of found out what a plot was, which is that the character basically has to have a problem. And so I kind of hung a mystery frame on this story, but it’s mainly just jokes.
It is a funny book.
Jesse: I mean, it was funny to me. I would write down whatever was funny to me. Some people think it’s funny, and others don’t. But what can you do? You can’t please everybody.
Not all of the time anyway. The character is really interesting. You know how they say you’re supposed to write what you know? How well would you say you know Roy Belkin? It seems like you know him really well, in terms of his mannerisms, his neuroses, and the way he views the world.
Jesse: The funny thing about these old busted up character is that when you read a lot of these books, whether it’s Hemingway or Graham Greene or Bukowski or other people…and I’m sure there’s a female equivalent too.
I don’t necessarily find them alienating to me as a woman in their maleness, like I would with, say a Kerouac character. Those are characters I can never see myself in, but these aren’t.
Jesse: Right. A lot of times when I read these books, I immediately recognize the character, whether he’s supposed to be a spy, or a big game hunter, or whatever, is actually just a writer (laughs). It’s a personality, a kind of introspective, sort of insecure, bitter, but sort of tender person. I think that’s the way I know Roy Belkin. He’s basically a writer.
A little bit of you in there?
Jesse: A little bit. I have a little bit of depression and I’m a bit neurotic and sometimes misanthropic, but not to the degree the character is. It’s a very exaggerated version.
In that vein, do you have one favorite hero of fiction?
Jesse: I like the guy in Island of Dr. Moreau, the protagonist? It’s funny because there’s this idea that for a character to be good, they have to be very proactive and decisive, but I find that often characters that are under duress and beset upon and uncertain are the ones I relate to most (laughs). And are no less interesting. I think that line might be true for genre fiction, but I don’t think it’s necessarily true for interesting characters.
Do you think it’s more challenging to be a musician or to be a writer?
Jesse: It kind of depends of how successful you are. Given the same amount of success, I would say for me it’s harder to be a musician because you have to deal with other people. I mean as a musician you’re dealing with usually at least three or four other individuals, and there are always conflicts. With writing you pretty much get a blank canvas. Then you have to deal with editors and shit, but I’m not in that league.
What was the last book that you read?
Jesse: Right now I’m reading a book on directing, and before that I ready Story by Robert McKee, which I read over and over again. Actually I don’t love McKee, I think he’s sort of an old crank and a lot of the stuff he says is too dogmatic, and yet he writes about plot like no one else. So I read that thing at least once every couple of years. I read that recently because I started writing scripts. This summer in my time off, I wrote a first draft for a feature film, and a short. So that’s my next thing. I want to write scripts, and maybe even get into movie making.
Do you prefer screenwriting to prose writing?
Jesse: I like script writing better than prose because, and I‘m ashamed to say this, I probably like movies better than books. You know what I mean? I like writing prose, but scriptwriting is deeply satisfying to me because I can really see the visual. It works for me, and I’m going to keep doing it. It’s a new venture for me so we’ll see.
You can buy Whispering Bodies: A Roy Belkin Disaster on Amazon. Michaels also just recently illustrated a 2015 calendar with Sam McPheeters. They are having a release event tonight, November 17, at Stories Bookstore in Los Angeles, with a special musical performance by Spencer Moody. More info below.