Smoking With Tim Jones-Yelvington

Read the Story March 29, 2015

What in the current climate of the world evoked the image of a dungeon for you? It feels quite fitting for the times.
I’m a little bit of a mystic where writing is concerned—I feel like the strongest stories come from somewhere beyond myself, and I strive to unconsciously channel (like a medium) rather than consciously determine their content. This story was like that—it came to me in an afternoon, relatively fully-formed, without my doing much of anything to consciously think it up. I think I wrote this as a way of processing my own anxiety about the current economic climate, as well as processing all the anxiety I’ve been feeling around me. While I’ve always been invested in politics and political issues, I’ve grown up with a somewhat anesthetized feeling regarding current events as presented by major media, like what I was seeing and hearing about never seemed fully real, like it didn’t directly affect my life. And I thought this feeling might just be a characteristic of my generation (born 1982), that we all feel a bit anesthetized. But the current economic anxiety has felt very real to me. I was a half hour away from New York City on 9/11, and even those events didn’t feel this “real.”

Maybe it’s because I’m a grown-up now, and these things affect me more directly. Or maybe it’s because I work in a sector (social justice organizing & philanthropy) where people are pretty freaked out right now. The decline in foundation assets and potentially decreased giving by individuals to social justice groups and organizations is coming at a time when the need to organize for economic equality is greater than ever. So I’m swimming in that reality on a daily basis. A lot of our conversations are about how to best support our grantees (we fund activists and community organizers) during this difficult time.

As far as the dungeon thing, I do have an acquaintance who recently began working as a professional dom, and I had coffee with her the morning I wrote this story. We didn’t discuss the economy, but I’m sure our conversation contributed to this story. Probably some of the questions I had for her are echoed in the questioning tone of this piece. I think questions are way productive for fiction, probably for any kind of writing. I’d also recently read Spencer Dew’s fantastic collection “Songs of Insurgency,” and really liked the way his work examines this intriguing intersection between so-called deviant sexual identities and practices and the political and cultural climate of the Bush years. I think it’s important and really informative to look at the affect of big political issues and current events on more marginal individuals and communities. When we talk about how the economy affects us, who’s “us”? Who’s the “we”?

What have been your own experiences with corporate America?
I’ve never done the Dilbert or The Office-style corporate cubicle thing, but I have worked for the same corporate retailer on-and-off for almost ten years, and I think in any institution (even the ones I support), there’s a level of rhetoric and doublespeak that can be poisonous. Also jockeying for position within the hierarchy. I’d really love to see someone give this subject a more serious exploration through literature. I’d like to see someone get inside the mind of the middle-manager, the kind of person we describe as having “drank the kool-aid.” What are their real fears and anxieties? Do they really believe all the lines they spew? What did they have to do to convince themselves? I’d like to see someone write about that. I’ve tried doing it myself, but I’m not a good enough writer yet. It’s very difficult to write about corporate culture without it reading as satire.

That “never to reopen” has a haunting sense to it. Do you still feel that way? What might get that ending to change, if anything?
It’s interesting you ask this. My initial instinct was to make this ending more open, to more broadly question what will become of us, all of us, over the long-term, but I couldn’t find a way to write that kind of ending without overreaching, and I ultimately thought it wiser to stay rooted in the characters and their experiences. I hope readers will ask your question—what could change this ending?—of themselves, rather than having me answer it for them.

“Erasing my messages, erasing my profile, creating a new one the following day.” The virtual existence we all have nowadays! How is “Virtual Tim” alike and unlike Tim?
In real life, Tim is a deeply feeling person. He feels things deeply.

(Sorry… Beaches reference).

I don’t know that my online persona is especially different from who I am in “real life.” I’m not really a guarded or private person. I think I’m very much a product of my generation in that I don’t naturally worry about the ramifications of putting my business out there in public forums. I have to remind myself to take them seriously.

I think I might be more consistently articulate online. I suspect people, when they first meet me in real life, think I’m a bit of a dork and a spaz and only gradually realize I’m intelligent. Or maybe that’s just my own self image. A few of my friends from the Zoetrope Virtual Studio have told me that when they first “met” me online, I intimidated them because of the hyphenated name. They thought I’d be pretentious and judgmental. That made me laugh, b/c pretentious and judgmental are the opposite of who I am. Well… maybe I am a little bit pretentious sometimes.

What’s going in your writing life? How is Chicago? I love that town. And I know you have a real love for music, so what songs on your current playlist would we find the most surprising?
I’d like to use the “writing life” question as an opportunity to generate some buzz for Bannock Street books, a new Idaho-based micropress started by Sarah Black that publishes handmade flash fiction chapbooks. I recently signed on to edit a collection of writing by women about menopause, which I’m quite excited about. American popular culture is glutted with stories about men in midlife, but I think women’s experiences are less socially and culturally validated and are generally swept under the rug. The menopause collection includes work by some great writers, including Smokelong contributors like Meg Pokrass and Gail Siegel. Bannock Street’s first two chapbooks—one coming of age-themed, the other about exile and unrequited love—will be available on April 21st on Amazon and Etsy.com.

Chicago is wonderful. I’ve developed a much richer relationship with my city since I began my current job at a community foundation. We raise money and redistribute it to grassroots community organizers and social justice groups around the city. I’m really proud of all the work Chicagoans are doing to improve their communities and resist injustice. Chicago was recently the site of one of the riskiest and most impressive worker actions in recent memory, when the workers at Republic Windows and Doors occupied their factory. This wasn’t a spontaneous uprising, but the result of years of organizing. Chicago has become more than just a place for me to be. I’m more invested in living and working here, in working to change the city and support others’ work for change.

As far as music goes, the new Neko Case album kicks ass. But it’s probably not surprising that I like Neko Case. What would be more surprising? Maybe the several weeks I spent obsessively replaying Bruce Cockburn’s “Stealing Fire,” an album he wrote after visiting Nicaragua in the 1980’s. My partner’s sister-in-law recently referenced it when she was telling the story of how she and my partner’s brother met when they were both doing solidarity work in Nicaragua. She said they were “lovers in a dangerous time,” which is the title of the first track on the album. The album brilliantly captures that tension between the awfulness of violence and political turmoil and the beauty and power of survival and resistance, and so I spent the next several weeks imagining how intense it would be to fall in love in the midst of such intense historical and political events …Although I’m probably grossly over-romanticizing the experience.

About the Author:

Tim Jones-Yelvington lives and writes in Chicago. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Keyhole, Monkeybicycle, elimae, Wigleaf, Titular and Mud Luscious.