Q&A with Jackson Bliss: ‘Counterfactual Love Stories and Other Experiments’ & The Rules You’re Allowed to Break

Peter Schlachte

Jackson Bliss’s debut book of fiction, Counterfactual Love Stories and Other Experiments (200 pages; Noemi Press), is exactly what the title claims—a collection of exciting, bold experiments that stretch the notion of what a story can be. Of the thirteen stories in it, no two share the same form. Yet underneath the narrative invention, the genre-bending fireworks, and the speculative characters, Bliss’s stories are meditations on classic themes: time, autonomy, race, and, of course, love.

Bliss is the winner of the 2020 Noemi Prize in Prose, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from USC. ZYZZYVA spoke with Jackson via Zoom about his recently published collection, his prolific year, and the role of politics in art.

ZYZZYVA: Can you share more about why you chose “Counterfactual Love Stories” as the collection’s title?

JACKSON BLISS: It took me probably four years to come up with a title because I had so many other titles I loved. I’d think, “This is brilliant! No, this is terrible! No, no, this is brilliant. No, this is fucking heinous.” This cycle of invention and self-loathing went on forever. One day, I decided I needed to simplify the process, so I asked myself, what are some of the most important things that I’m interested in artistically? I’ve always been fascinated with the counterfactual narrative. There are not many works that are written with the counterfactual narrative, and none that have counterfactual love stories. I also realized that so many of the love stories in this collection aren’t even existentially true, they just could have been true. I’m very interested in memory studies and the concept of nostalgia, and I realized that it sometimes dislocates us to think about a love that could have existed in another world. It’s painful if that’s not the world you have, but I, somewhat stubbornly, insist that there’s something redemptive and beautiful about imagining another world where you could have been happy and in love with someone.

Z: That reminds me of the story “Sola’s Asterisk,” which feels like a centerpiece for Counterfactual Love Stories, not only because of its literal position in the center of the collection, but also because it captures a lot of themes that come up throughout. That story in particular—with the reader following Sola through all these different, potential futures—has a fascinating structure. Where did the idea for the story come from?

JB: Fun fact: “Sola’s Asterisk” is the oldest story in the collection. I wrote that in 2002. I wrote it after I’d binged the fuck out of Run Lola Run, City of God, and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. I also read Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. It was an interesting meditation on time, and it seemed like Lightman was clearly vibing with Invisible Cities and a lot of other Italo Calvino pieces. All those experimental influences were working in the background, first in cinematic terms, and later in a philosophical sense. They made me ask, what would it mean to not center one specific plotline? What if a character could actually have eight different plotlines based on the choices they make?

I also bring up how old that story is because it gives you an idea of where my mind began in my writing career. I was trying to figure out who I was and what my voice was as a writer. It became this huge fiction heuristic for me. So, I do think of this story as microcosmic of the collection. I think it gives a strong idea of what’s at stake in the collection, and what the soul of the collection is.

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Z: When you were writing Counterfactual Love Stories, you were working on other projects at once: a novel, a memoir, and a digital novella. How did working across such different mediums and genres influence this book in particular?

JB: It gave me a coherence of artistic vision. When you’re going from work to work you start to realize who you are as an artist; you notice thematic elements that pop up, or certain tendencies that you lean in to too much, certain favorite tropes, backstories, metaphorical tendencies. It was really useful in helping me have a sense of my own generic identity. For example, with the hypertext you mentioned, I wanted to contribute to speculative fiction, but I wanted to write it in my own way. I wanted to update the hypertext as deeply character-based, but also I wanted each reader to be able to create a different story, as if they were each reading a different novella. That mirrors the construction of Counterfactual Love Stories because between each story you can move around if you want to. I like giving readers freedom to direct their experience. My memoir also has variable narratives—the reader gets to choose pretty much everything. They can jump into the heart of my trauma, or they can totally avoid it. There’s an incredible amount of directing ability for readers and, as an artist and a writer, I’m excited that every reader is going to read a different memoir based on the choices they make.

Z: Yes, I was fascinated by—for lack of a better term—the interludes that occurred between each story in Counterfactual Love Stories. It’s something I haven’t encountered in a collection. Where did that influence come from and why did you decide it was an integral part of the structure?

JB: I tried to write every interlude in a narrative modality of each story. For example, one interlude is written a little like “Sola’s Asterisk,” one is written a little like “French Vowels that Make You Look Like Goldfish,” and one is written like “How Not to Find Love with Your Fakeass Guccis.” I tried to have each story decide one part of the connective tissue of the collection. Partially due to my investment in play as a narrative technique, I also always included one choice that took the reader nowhere. For example, in “Astral Projection Sequence,” option number four is: “Two beautiful men dressed in giant GOLDFISH COSTUMES decide to move to Montréal where they become obsessed with la viande fumée (p. 337).” Well, good luck reader, you’re never going to find a page 337!

The connective tissue gives readers an emotional palette cleanser after each story. It’s also informed by the craft maxim that choices have consequences. It gives readers the ability to have consequentiality if they want it, but it also invokes the element of playfulness and the love affair with the world that’s super strong in this collection.

Z: How much were you thinking about the sequencing of the collection as you were preparing it for publication? In a sense, it feels very much like an album to me where each song has a specific place.

JB: Absolutely. Each story has a specific place. I think about the trajectory of stories in the same way you think about albums. If you fragment the songs, you lose the sense of album-ness. I thought almost obsessively about where I wanted to open in order to situate readers into the world, and where I wanted readers to peace out. Sometimes, the choice wasn’t that aesthetically deep—I just didn’t want two long stories next to each other. There’s also the classic short story rule about putting some of your best stories first or last, so I had to ignore my favorites and put what objectively were some of the strongest stories up front. However, I was very adamant about “Sola’s Asterisk” being at the midpoint of the collection. I think about the collection as having its own compelling narrative arc, the same way an individual short story should.

Z: In the collection, you’re writing from a diverse number of voices. Particularly, hapa characters and mixed-race characters play a central role. Can you share more about how being hapa and Nisei influenced Counterfactual Love Stories?

JB: In the beginning I didn’t know what this collection was. I just wrote “Sola’s Asterisk,” and I didn’t sweat the details. It’s only been in the past three years that I’ve understood thematically what this collection is about. I was very invested in the idea that there was a book about being mixed race in Michigan. Truthfully, there aren’t that many. I wanted to expand the literary archive, and I wanted to complicate the idea of what is the central component of the Michigan narrative.

I also wanted to write the type of book that I wish existed when I was growing up. I would have loved to read a book about a person who’s mixed race. I’m second generation. My mom and my obachan were both born in Japan, and they both moved here together. I never lost that sense of the fascination and wonder with that side of my family. Yet, because I don’t read as part Asian, I’m constantly having to tell people who I am racially. My narrative identity is connected to narrative obligation.

I also think the polyphonic nature of this collection is connected to my music background. I’ve always been interested in the fugue as the guiding musical principle for a collection—the idea of several different melodies playing at the same time. That’s because, if you’re mixed race, and if you’re “othered” in any way, you are often several different types of identity at once. Basically, I wanted the cultural, linguistic, and racial richness that I’ve experienced in my life to come through in this collection. I made the very conscious choice not to translate most of it because I wanted to celebrate the intrinsic multi-racial nature of this country and not compromise to the white gaze as I wrote.

Z: A story like “Conspiracy of Lemons,” which opens the collection, makes me think about the political stakes of writing. The story has such a clear vision of how society should be and of how youth can play a role in manifesting that vision. Do you view your art as political?

JB: The role of the artist is to respond to the culture, and I think most great art does that. If art isn’t doing that, I think it’s often trying to keep everyone happy. It almost feels like an economic choice as opposed to a spiritual or artistic choice. If you’re not going to talk about the world we live in right now and everything that’s happened in the last two to three years, then why the fuck are you creating art? What’s the purpose? If it’s escapism, I can understand it, but I do feel that, in general, good art should be engaging with our world.

Usually, I don’t write pieces that are so overtly political because I think my politics will come out anyway, but this story was partially my attempt to push back at people who label anything “political” as “polemical.” A lot of political fiction gets labelled as polemical because you’re not supposed to be overtly political in literary fiction. I feel like that’s bullshit advice and that if you’re a good writer you should be able to write a good politically-infused short story. The problem comes if you’re sacrificing craft to make a political argument.

Z: Is there anything else that you want to share about the collection?

JB: I want readers to be patient. At the beginning, it might be a little demanding for readers, but the more you read, the more intersectionality there is between concepts, characters, and themes. With time, the collection pays back the reader. This collection is very complicated and it violates a lot of different rules. If I’m doing my job as a writer, I want readers to leave the collection invigorated, excited by the different potentialities that fiction can achieve, excited by all the rules that you’re allowed to break to honor your voice and tell unique stories, and excited by the fact that this work can be emancipatory.

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