HCE MEETS: J. RYAN SOMMERS
CONDUITS: THE BALLAD OF JINX JENKINS BY J. RYAN SOMMERS
Publisher: TRANSMUNDANE PRESS
£3 for ebook/£10.75 for paperback/226 pages
If you enjoyed J. Ryan Sommers’ short story You Don’t Just Come Here, published on our website for The Brutal Issue…you might also enjoy his upcoming book. His collection of linked urban fantasy stories is called CONDUITS: The Ballad of Jinx Jenkins, and it’s scheduled for release at the end of this year.
Sommers studied screenwriting at UCLA and has an MFA in creative writing. He is based in Houston and teaches at San Jacinto College. Places his stories have appeared include Zoetic Press, So to Speak, Helen Literary Magazine, Storyfile Magazine, Menda City Press and The Paragon Review.
What has been your journey as a writer so far?
Writing for me was nearly a missed opportunity. I stopped writing for a time, about seven years – always thinking about stories to tell, but resisting, in order to work on my design company (Culture Cloth). But I was encouraged to try writing again and, shortly after, I received a full scholarship to Columbia in Chicago for my MFA. This allowed me to structure my writing around deadlines. This is where Conduits was born.
It was as if I’d been building up with stories in a pinched off hose and now the ideas were flowing freely, rushing at me quicker than I could write them down. I’d never had much success with publishing stories. Every contest or magazine I’d submitted to had turned me down. It wasn’t until I’d graduated and edited my stories multiple times that I got my first acceptance. After that, it was crazy. Every couple of weeks, I started to get more acceptances. I had a number of short stories that were very well-crafted and apparently connected with a number of different readers. This was beyond my wildest expectations – I had started to assume I’d never be read and would simply write as a hobby.
I’m still baffled by the fact that I was accepted by eleven separate publications in nine months. The greatest surprise was hearing back from Transmundane Press that they wanted to publish my series, starting with the first two books (due out on 3 December 2018 and 4 January 2019, respectively). Since then I’ve been through countless drafts, fine-tuning my world and characters with relationships that readers will be able to obsess over the way I have.
Tell us about your book and why people should read it.
Nearly all of my work is based in some sort of parody. I was always attracted to these kinds of stories as a child, in cartoons and comics. Conduits is based in a mythical Midwestern city in the US, Lakeview. There is an element of homage or parody in everything I write. I then take these great works, interpret them for myself and how they might work within my universe.
The first book in the series is The Ballad of Jinx Jenkins, in which we follow its name sake, Jinx Jenkins: the most unfortunate soul to walk the Earth, plagued with a stench so fetid and unpleasing an aura of bad luck hangs around him everywhere he goes. We see Jinx’s connection to nearly every strange occurrence in Lakeview and greater Green Valley. Each chapter is its own smaller story within the larger Conduits world. We meet characters that will be, in some cases, single stories, and yet other chapters introduce characters that we will follow throughout the course of the series. I like to think I covered all my bases in writing stories that will connect with a number of different readers. After all, this is how I was able to reach so many readers up until this point.
Did you start off with the intention to write a collection of linked stories, or did they connect up organically?
Kind of, yes. It all started with my story The Ballpark Poet and it occurred to me that the world I was creating for this one story was so much larger than that of a couple weird characters. Luckily, I write fairly fast. (First drafts, at least.) I was able to build the world organically. I didn’t resist any of the directions my muses set me on, I took the ride and then figured out the connections later. Originally, Conduits was meant to be a single work. But with the amount of writing I’d produced in such a short amount of time, it became apparent this might be a series.
The actual structure of which story fit where it did took forever. Every new edit had a completely different line-up of stories. Eventually I remembered the teachings of one of my favourite professors, Sam Weller, who is the foremost expert on all things Ray Bradbury. Bradbury is a personal hero of mine, having grown up not far from where I grew up. I remembered his collection The Illustrated Man and how it was structured. I realized this was yet another genius idea I could borrow from the masters. As soon as I made this change, The Ballad of Jinx Jenkins was completed in about three days.
Although you describe the genre as ‘urban fantasy’, to what extent is this writing inspired by real-world experiences vs. imagination?
Every story I write is inspired by things I’m experiencing in the real world – books, movies, music, legends, paintings, and of course from my own life. Another source of a few of the characters within Conduits was cartoons I created when I was a child. I went back to these when I was writing Conduits. The idea was that everything is connected, both the literature I was exposing myself to in grad school and the subconscious doodles I’d created as a child. I find a story or character that intrigues me and I consider if there is a way for me to use something about it for myself.
Do all the stories in CONDUITS work as stand-alone pieces, and can readers dip in and out – or does the book have an overriding narrative arc, like a novel?
A little of both. Sorry if that’s confusing. I specifically wanted to create a world that was complex and rich with all the elements that make for real visceral experience. When people read Conduits it’s important to remember: this is the story of a place, more so than any specific group of people. They are all connected in some way, but Green Valley itself is always at the forefront of my concerns as a writer. In Ballad I have a number of stories, varied in length to help the ease of reading them. Most of these are storylines that can stand alone. In the second installation, The Death of Jinx Jenkins, I begin to introduce stories that will continue throughout the rest of the series. The idea was first I’ll show you the place, then I’ll show you its people. Death is far more similar to a novel-in-stories; a complex web of characters, fighting for the fate and existence of Green Valley as a whole.
You have other books planned for this series. Similar question to the one above: are they all linked by storyline/recurring characters, or can each be enjoyed and understood in its own right?
The planning of the two books was tremendously difficult. I didn’t write any of the stories in any real chronological order. It was beyond stressful. Trying to fit everything together was like doing a jigsaw puzzle with the coloured slide down. A few times I nearly deleted it all. It was driving me crazy. But I was able to figure out my way, piece by piece, until I had a workable core storyline, multiple side storylines, a number of tiny one-off stories, and an intriguing world to tie it all together.
Was there a particular message that you wanted to convey with your collection?
It is probably very vague and not done nearly well enough, but maybe my most pressing message is that of what happens to paradise when we ignore all environmental implications and drain it of its resources. This is a message I hope to convey over the long haul of the series. But every story has a message. If you don’t have something to say in your writing, why should anybody spend their time reading it? Another major message I tackle is the corporatocracy of America. One of the scariest moments in American history was in the early 2000s, when we decided that corporations were people too. This twisted my head. Who in their right mind would allow something this idiotic to get passed? The United States government, that’s who. I have a strong belief in small business and workers’ rights. Without changing and addressing these issues first, America, or any democratic country for that matter, can’t possibly move forward and achieve true greatness.
Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote it?
Conduits is what I like to call a “Storybook for Grownups”. I wanted to create a space where adults from all walks of life would be able to find a different story to connect with. I did, however, have a large amount of inspiration from Kevin Feige and what he’s done with the MCU for Marvel. Pure genius. I definitely wanted to write what would amount to a literary attempt at a comic book universe. So, I certainly was writing for the comic book nerd in all of us. My main goal is to remind adults what it is to imagine and have fun with their reading, and provide a nicely-crafted narrative at the same time.
Do you have a favourite story in the collection, or one that particularly stands out for you as the writer?
Though I anticipate a number of readers not enjoying Ya’hootie, it holds a very special place for me. It may come off as a bit child-like at times, but I stand firm that if E.T. can make you feel something in forgotten corners of your jaded heart, Ya’hootie can do the same.
We’ve heard there’s a comic book element – so are there parts of the collection that are illustrated/in graphic novel form? If so, are you the artist as well or did you collaborate?
The easiest way to answer this question is my intention that Conduits employ as many formats and genres as possible. Originally I had hoped for some artwork in the margins, to play into the whole storybook element. I also wanted each story to have its own cover art. Almost like a separate comic book within a collection. The plans for the art fell through when my artist backed out, too busy with other projects. To say I have big plans for Conduits is an understatement. With the advent of VR and AR technologies, I believe in a world where readers and fans of Conduits might actually be able to visit Lakeview for themselves. A virtual theme park. I have always maintained that anyone telling stories today can’t define themselves so rigidly. We need to see ourselves as storytellers above all else. If we see it from that perspective, we open ourselves up to a number of different ways to accomplish our goals. If that blurs lines, all the better.
Now (and perhaps always) seems like a politically interesting time to tackle “the American way of life” as a subject. Was this something you felt driven to write about?
I think every American who is frustrated with the way things are going in our country, regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, have an obligation to have themselves heard. Yes, this book could certainly be seen as a political book. I would welcome that in fact. I don’t say anything about the president or the government specifically, but there are certainly allusions. I am not happy with America. This is a major part of who I am. To fight adding that into my writing would be disingenuous.
Who are your favourite writers, and what sort of influences have they had on your work?
Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman both turned my world upside-down. Specifically, The Watchmen and The Sandman series. As far as literary writers, originally I wanted to be a science fiction writer. So I read a lot of Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams, and Margret Atwood. But then I discovered magical realism and urban fantasy. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tom Robbins, Murakami. On top of all of that, great works and writers were exposed to me in my MFA program. Writers like Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cervantes, Bukowski, and Cheever. All of them show up in some way with my writing. Other influences include movies, music, paintings, current events, and pop culture.
When and where can people get hold of a copy of the book?
The first instillation is Conduits: The Ballad of Jinx Jenkins. This is due out December 3rd, on Amazon as an e-book or paperback.
The second book, Conduits: The Death of Jinx Jenkins is due out January 4th, 2019. You will also be able to find it in e-book and paperback formats.
Other than Amazon, I will upload to Barnes & Noble/Nook, Kobo, iBooks, and the Transmundane Press online bookstore.
The print book will also be available for a wide range of book stores, small and large, but the book physically being present in readers’ stores relies on those readers asking for the book in the store.
Any social media/readings/events etc. you would like to plug:
Is there anything we didn’t cover, that you’d like to share with our readers?
On the cover there is a certain symbol. I designed the symbol and an artist fine-tuned my vision. This symbol will come to signify all that is Conduits. A complex series of circles that fit together like gears. This is very much how I see this series. And with that, I think you know everything.