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Still Standing: Jason Flores-Williams and the American Condition

Brutally raw and unnerving, but always infused with a perverted charm, Jason Flores-Williams’ works are commentaries on greed, superficiality, the pitfalls of pop culture, and in the case of his latest published novel, The Last Stand of Mr. America, the American drive to use sex as a release from the bonds of consumer society. Following a recent return to his birthplace of Los Angeles, the “Caligula of American letters” sat down with Flavorwire to discuss the warped trajectory of his writing career, which includes selling the film rights to Last Stand.

Flavorwire: Describe your readers.

Jason Flores-Wiliams: I was at a funeral reception several years ago. This guy came up to me and said, “I know who you are, man. The Last Stand of Mr. America is the greatest novel that I ever read. I’m, like, a huge fan.” I had a drink with the guy and a good, meaningful conversation about the American condition. Three months later, he was busted on pedophilia charges.

FW: Who are your literary influences? How do you believe your work resembles/differs from theirs?

JFW: I want to say Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy, but I grew up on The Love Boat and Suicidal Tendencies. I’m an American to the bone. I like reading People magazine on the treadmill at the gym. (Kerouac is important for me to this day, but I don’t share the same optimism about America.)

FW: How is your writing similar/different from what’s out there now?

JFW: Outside of Houellebecq, I have almost zero regard for contemporary fiction writers. The world is drowning in the blood of corporate greed and war, and these people are happy to pretentiously ensconce themselves in insulated scenes and MFA programs. They actually disgust me. You can reduce 99 percent of contemporary fiction to the following: Ice cream will continue to remain delicious. We have a duty to say meaningful things. We have a duty to disturb, provoke, and compel. We have a duty to eviscerate the gut of American society. We have a duty to expose the hypocrites who control this world. It’s no fun being arrested for protest; it’s no fun having guns pulled on you in New Orleans; it’s no fun being screamed off stage for reading gay sex scenes in the South; and it’s no fun having people hate you because you called them on their bullshit in the North.

I’m lying, it’s been fucking beautiful.

FW: How has the quality of your writing changed since you first began to write? How has your interest/drive to write changed over the years?

JFW: After I won the National Book Award, I fell into a period of crisis. Who is Jason Flores-Williams? What does Jason Flores-Williams mean today? I’ve gained an appreciation for tone. You can say what you want, but you need to say it in a way that doesn’t jar the bourgeois ear. You can’t just throw it out there, but gently guide the reader into making her own conclusions – like I’m doing in this interview.

FW: What is your writing philosophy/methodology?

JFW: I think about death: that I am going to be in casket soon. I think about injustice; America is supposed to be a just society, but if you’re from the lower classes, you know that it ain’t. I think about pain: that writing is one of my best ways of dealing with it. Death, injustice, pain, and the usual need for people to know about my suffering to give my suffering meaning.

FW: You’ve lived in Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco, Prague, Edinburgh, Valencia and now, Los Angeles – your birthplace. How have audiences in these cities received your work? Why did you decide to move to LA? How do you hope LA responds to your writing?

JFW: Ah, Scotland got me. Those dour drinkers like their writing dark and twisted. San Francisco got me, but back then I spent a lot of time hanging out in bathroom stalls and didn’t think the rules applied, so I pretty much alienated the entire town. I apologize to you, San Francisco. You, too, New York. You, too, South America.

Concerning LA – there’s a surreal sexiness here that speaks to me. Things can still happen here. Anything goes. I like to walk my dog at night and think of all the people out there doing cocaine. It gives me hope.

As far as how LA responds to my writing: if I can change one Angeleno’s life, then that’s all that matters to me.

FW: What did you hope to accomplish with Last Stand of Mr. America?

JFW: Disturb the powerful, empower the disturbed, along with an explosion of drug use and anarchic sexuality amongst middle-schoolers.

That, and of course, the selling of feature film rights. (Come to my readings and there could be a role for you in the film!)

FW: How much of the book’s contents did you have mapped out beforehand? How much of it developed as you were writing?

JFW: I take a page to outline the chapters, then another page to outline the themes. After that, it’s all Sudafed and cigarettes.

FW: How do you identify with the main character, Sam?

JFW: I go back to what I said about being American to the bone. The will to power, the perverse relationship to sex, the love of the Steelers, the longing to kick ass and take names, the feelings of being trapped – that’s all a part of me. But the end of the book and what it’s saying – that’s more a part of me. Moreover, Sam is a character. I’m an actual person. Some people who read Last Stand don’t seem to understand that.

FW: Does the book carry a different meaning in the wake of 9/11 than it did when you were writing it?

JFW: I don’t think 9/11 lowered the greed and superficiality levels of American society to any appreciable degree. Sort of like a creep-on blow, it brought out our worst tendencies. It would have been nice if 9/11 had set us on a more honest path, but the American condition is a twisted addiction. We’re probably going to die of it, and take the rest of the world down with us.

FW: Is there anything you would you change about Last Stand, if you could?

JFW: Milan Kundera asked me the same question in Stockholm in ’82. I’ll tell you what I told the table that evening: A writer’s regrets are like flowers in the storm. The sad elixir imbibed, but never spoken of again.

(No, the book is what it is.)

FW: What are you working on now?

JFW: A novel entitled Tiananmen Square. It’s about an unemployed lawyer with a conscience living in a shitty apartment behind a strip mall in the suburbs of Philadelphia who gets offered a high-paying job with a corporate law firm in New York City. Does he stay in the fight, or does he go get a nice life… The Tiananmen Square reference comes from the time I tried to run from Santa Fe, NM to Albuquerque to protest the Chinese government. I almost didn’t make it, but looking back… it was worth it.

FW: What words of advice would you give to anyone starting out as a writer today?

JFW: Get in fights, offend people, have sex in bathrooms — but don’t buy into the myth of the drunken writer. You don’t need to crucify yourself with Jameson’s to get to the promised land. If you want to spit in their face — fine — but own it. A number of the people I came up with, either died or became casualties.

Jason Flores-Williams (along with Gordon Grundy and Missy Galore) will be reading from Last Stand of Mr. America at Stories Books and Café on April 22 at 7:30 p.m. Details here.

Photo credit: Lynda Burdick