Standing Desks and Satanic Cats: Writing with Jeremy Bushnell

This is the first post in a series called “Writing Projects,” through which we aim to produce bimonthly narratives pertaining to the  process by which a particular work comes about. Though we are obviously interested in people writing novels, we aren’t just interested in people writing novels: if you’re working on any sort of project in which writing plays an integral role, let us know

The satanic cat-idol adorning the cover of Jeremy P. Bushnell’s The Weirdness (Melvillle House, Spring 2014) glared at me every Monday for a month before I Googled the novel’s title, leading to an exploration of  cat-worship. Somewhere between that instant and reading the novel’s opening line, “Billy Ridgeway walks into a bar with a banana in his hand,” I emailed Jeremy, asking if we could sit down to talk about process. The Weirdness is Jeremy’s first published novel, though hardly his first project; he’s had myriad explorations in various mediums of expression, including poetry, short-stories, board game design (watch the video), and various experimental digital mediums.

When I entered Jeremy’s office, his perusing screengrabs from Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy steered our initial conversation toward film (Jeremy is an unabashed movie buff) and eventually to Meanwhile, an unpublished  Joycean writing project of his. The Weirdness marks Jeremy Bushnell’s foray into what he describes as a “more traditional” style of storytelling, appealing because “I had gone so far in the direction of experimental writing that it led me back to more traditional writing—it felt  experimental to write a story with a beginning, middle, end, and protagonist.” Precipitated by his agent’s excitement about a book that could be pitched, this flirtation with “traditional experimentation”- with (the) “weirdness”- was elucidated in the hour Jeremy and I spent talking.

For a project described by the author as “experimental,” writing The Weirdness consisted of very little pre-work. Jeremy describes the process as sitting down, opening a Word document, and aggregating a page or so of idea-strands. Comparatively, the aforementioned Joycean piece demanded substantial premeditation, actualized as heaps of complex spreadsheets detailing a network of characters. The latter, Bushnell recalls, was simply no fun: instead of explicitly building a foundation through gathering, he vastly prefers to research as he writes: he is adept in the art of “Google-fu.” 

In discussing the luxuries and drawbacks inherent to the contemporary writing process, Jeremy divulged that there was no circumstance in which he would willingly part with technology. In addition to “traditional” search engine practices, he also shared a wonderfully ingenuitive use for Google Earth’s Street View: “in the new novel, I have a character being chased through Brooklyn by an assassin, and when trying to describe the scene I used Street View to look around  the neighborhood  where the action was happening. When I did this, I noticed that all the buildings in the area were adorned with those little grey DirecTV dishes, so they ended up mentioned in the scene. It saved me a location-scouting trip.”

While Jeremy is a clear proponent of using the digital tools modern writers are afforded, he understands that doing so has its pitfalls. To avoid subjecting himself to the likes of Oh Long Johnson or the fruitlessness of aimless hyperlink exploration, Jeremy Bushnell stands. It’s impossibly easy to catch an acute case of writer’s block and get “stuck” in the internet: “checking emails” will almost always devolve into “reloading Twitter every thirty seconds.” Jeremy is hyper aware of the web’s trappings, and claims that writing at a standing desk can reduce squandered time:

“I still find myself stuck in the writing just as often,” he muses, “but I’m not also stuck in a chair.” In a handful of mornings every week for the 15 months it took to draft The Weirdness, Jeremy paced around his office when he couldn’t write, and was shocked by how quickly simply turning around could jostle dormant creativity.

The Weirdness was written in a series of what Bushnell calls “sprints.” He would write six chapters or so and, when appropriate, share them with his writers’ group. Jeremy swears by this cohort of Boston-based fiction writers, directly attributing the polish of the novel’s early drafts to their critical workshopping. Each “sprint” was revised and workshopped  multiple times, making the eventual editor’s job comparatively easy. Additionally, the process gave Jeremy confidence in his writing: knowing that his story had successfully navigated the waters of workshop and managed to avoid (substantial) evisceration meant it was ready.

Jeremy Bushnell’s The Weirdness is informed by a unique ferment of film, fiction and nonfiction writing, and collaboration. His forthcoming fiction marks a return to a more serious style that precedes The Weirdness, though public praise for the humor that’s so prevalent in the latter has encouraged  him to keep utilizing comedy as an element of his ongoing work.



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