Smoking with Jeff Landon

Read the Story September 15, 2008
story art

“Jane and I used to play kick-the-can with the other kids on our street, and at dusk all the front doors would open at the same time while our mothers-always our mothers-called our names.” What advice, as a grown-up, dad, writer, do you have for your narrator for such moments, not only for now, but forever?

That’s a great question, and I wish I had a great answer. I’m not sure advice really helps people. Living, making mistakes, and occasionally stumbling onto the thing that feels right—that’s all I know about this. Go home, when called. That’s probably a good idea. And, also, listen for that call, because it will always be there.

“How can that be bad?” How would you answer Zeke’s question, even though it’s most likely rhetorical?

It’s bad, from a practical standpoint, because he is committing an act of destruction upon that headboard. And also, remembering too much can put you in a holding period, right? I’m going to answer for me, and, man, the answer is Yes. It can hurt to glorify the past, and it can hurt to hold on too tightly to past wounds. I’m not in love with this part, because Zeke isn’t essential to this story—his presence is, but I think the focus may be in the wrong place here. It’s pretty hard to let stories go; they’re never as good as you think they’re going to be in that moment before you write that final, imperfect, sentence.

Led Zeppelin 3. I happen to know, Mr. Landon, that music is kind of an important thing to you. What are some essential CDs/albums for any collection? What is the key to making use of music in stories?

Well, I love music, always have, almost from birth. Possibly even pre-conception. I used to listen to music when I wrote, to get a mood, to bring in something swoonier. But now I can’t concentrate with music playing, or I need to write in places where I can’t play music (library, work) but I still bring out the I-Pod and just listen to, say, Curtis Mayfield, on infinite repeat.

I know many people, smart people, advise against the use of music in fiction. The strongest argument here, and it’s a great one, is that the reader may not have heard of the Velvet Underground or The Replacements, and, well, that’s sad, but it’s a good argument. And I absolutely think it’s a cheat to let your music define some key emotion in the story, even in a subtle way. But if someone hears a soul ballad, say “Oh Girl” by the masterful Chi-Lites, and they are sitting by a pool, there is a tendency, I think, to get lost in that music, and that’s what interests me the most, the getting lost, more than the song. So the music is an agent, but say a marriage is falling apart. You sure don’t want to have that great Tammy Wynette song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” suddenly play—and that’s an obvious example, but that’s my way!

I love old soul music—Motown, Stax, Al Green, Smokey Robinson, Aretha, the Spinners. I love country, if it’s not slick, from George Jones to Miranda Lambert. Guy Clark, Whiskeytown, Patty Griffin, Wilco, Drive-By Truckers.

I love pop music, “Brandy” and “Beach Baby Beach Baby Lend Me A Hand”

Oh, and I like the usual music snob stuff: Big Star, Replacements, Cheap Trick, Gram Parsons, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Superchunk, Yo La Tengo—-you know the list.

And, fun stuff, Joan Jett, Cheap Trick, ELO, Raspberries, Sly Stone singing “Hot Fun in the Summertime”

And even stuff I used to hate, like Chicago, I hear it now and turn that shit up!

Uhm, not to ramble.

You ended a story with “Jesus.” Jesus! How did you do it?

Because the first ending was weaker, and I was prodded by writer friends to try harder, which is always good advice (although, again, advice can really screw up a story, too). For this story, I just closed my eyes and tried to feel the weight of her feet in my hands, and how I’d hold them, and I thought of that picture of the three wise men, bearing gifts. It didn’t have any religious weight. I’m Unitarian. Worse, I’m a lapsed Unitarian. But, back to your question: I think I was trying to show that this guy—who does go to church every Sunday because his parents are trying—would have this sort of feeling for this girl that he is never, never, never going to get.

Begin this answer with the words, “I write.” Complete the sentence. Then, write as many sentences as you’d like, each one beginning with that “I write….”
I write because the world is a crowded, angry place, and writing is quiet, even when it hurts. Maybe especially when it hurts. I think that quiet hurt is the source of the best stuff. I don’t know. Sometimes, many times, writing fiction feel pretty self-indulgent and egocentric, but the best thing about writing, aside from the incredible fame and fortune, is when you write, you need to think about ALL the people in the story, and this forces you to see people, to try harder. I don’t think, as a group of humans, that writers are more sensitive, or more special, or more empathetic, or more talented, or more important than anyone else. But I also know how much, on every level, stories mean to me, have always meant to me. Still, writers were not sent here to save the world, and, if they were, the world is doomed. More doomed.

About the Author:

Jeff Landon has been published in numerous places, print and online, including Crazyhorse, Wigleaf, FRiGG, Another Chicago Magazine, F(r)iction, and others. He is also a contributor to New Micro, an anthology of flash fiction published by W.W. Norton in 2018. Lately, he's been doing some chair yoga.