That's what good art does - it makes us feel seen, and known, and understood

Interview of Marni Jackson by Lara Touitou (January 09, 2017)

Marni Jackson is a writer based in Toronto. Don’t I Know You? is her first collection of short stories.

Don’t I Know You? is your fiction debut. What made you stray from nonfiction and led you to the short story form?

The line between nonfiction and fiction doesn’t concern me when I write. That’s for publishers and bookstores to worry about. I normally rely on fictional techniques – scenes, dialogue, voice, setting, etc.- when I write my nonfiction books anyway. And, of course, I work just as hard on my nonfiction sentences as I do when I sit down to write a short story. As a journalist, I was always working on little stories on the side. They piled up over the years, until they turned into a book.

We stumble upon celebrities from different horizons, such as John Updike, Bill Murray, Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan… How did you go about the selection process?

Using celebrities in my book was a kind of Trojan horse for introducing the subject of Art, and how it can console us, guide us, change us, at turning points in our lives. Most of the stars in the book are artists whose work I’ve “lived with”, grown up with, and admired. Our family summers at the cottage in the past were spent listening to Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell… So they felt like honorary members of the family, really household gods. Through their songs and words, you feel as if you know them – and that they know you, intimately. That’s what good art does – it makes us feel seen, and known, and understood.

Also, it was fun to write!

Did every celebrity lead the direction of each story, or the other way around?

Well, in “Free Love”, it’s mostly about the main character, Rose McEwan, and the unravelling of her relationship on the island of Crete. Joni Mitchell is just a minor character in it. But as it happens, she did spend a few weeks in the caves of Matala, in the winter of 1970, which is when the story is set. I get a kick out of embedding obscure facts like that into the fictional narrative.

This sometimes reads like the ultimate reader fantasy, at least it did, for me—with the last story featuring Karl Ove Knausgaard. After being completely immersed in the first two volumes of his series, I feel that, much like the character, I would have talked to him as if I’d always known him. When you started writing, did you have the reader in mind?

The problem with fame is how isolating it is, both for the star, and for the fans wanting to reproduce the same relationship to the artist as they have to the star’s work. It’s not gonna happen. So in these stories I tried to divest the stars of all the fame trappings and let them run free – so they can have a normal, cosy relationship with ordinary Rose. (Well, Keith Richards operating on her liver is not so normal, I admit). So both star and fan can step outside that rather toxic, alienating bubble of fame and fantasy. The book is anti-fandom, in a way.

The great and brave thing that Karl Ove Knausgaard does in his fiction is to strip his writing of as much artifice and literary tone as possible in order to lay bare the main character – who is and isn’t Knausgaard. He’s not trying to create a heroic or even antiheroic character; he’s trying to recreate what it really feels like to be alive, using all the small things and big moments that takes us through life. It’s Proustian, without the elegance. Knausgaard is not afraid to write about the most mundane stuff – I admire and relate to that. Updike came at that with another kind of brilliance, of course.

In the end, would you say you preferred working on your made up characters or from the “readymade” personalities of the celebrities?

It’s a pretty big challenge to create a Meryl Streep character who actually sounds like Meryl Streep – because, of course, we’ve all seen her onscreen and on award shows. So we feel as if we know her. So it’s as if I’m writing about various distant cousins of the reader – it’s not easy to get it right, so the reader says “that sounds just like Alice”. I’m kind of proud of my Dylan character for that reason. He’s not a simple guy. Bill Murray, on the other hand, has already crafted a sturdy public persona, so he’s already done half the work on making him a fictional character.

I would say that it was easier to write the fully invented characters. But I loved bringing them together, to see what would happen.

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