Interview With Joseph Young

My students at Western Washington University conducted
interviews with writers Joseph Young and Sara Greenslit. Here's
the first of the two interviews, with microfiction writer and artist
Joseph Young. Thanks to both authors, and to all of my students!
Joseph Young lives in Baltimore. His book of microfictions, Easter Rabbit, was put out by Publishing Genius Press in 2009, and his chapbook, 5 drawings of the maryland sky, by Ink Press in 2013. He also makes his own pdf chapbooks, which can be found on his blog, Joseph makes visual art as well, which has appeared in various galleries and some of which can be found on his blog. 

When writing, do you start by writing a longer piece, and then compress it, or do you write compressed to begin with?

I write compressed to begin with. The stories start out small and I write them all at once. The revision comes in playing with the words, syntax, and rhythm to get them right. Often what will happen is I will get a story almost right but then spend several hours to several days trying to figure out one or two words that aren’t clicking with me. 

How did you come up with the individual titles for your writings in Easter Rabbit?

I try to use the title to stretch what the story is doing, to give it an added dimension. Because of that, they often aren’t descriptive—telling you what’s in the story—but rather I try to made them open things out, expand the story. One thing I’ll pretty often do is think about the story contents and then do wikipedia searches to find words, phrases, or ideas that can work as titles. I’ll end up reading about all kinds of weird stuff during this “research.” 

Why use the spaces on the page and how do they function? 

I’m really interested in visual art, as much so as writing, and I have been pretty devoted to making it over the past several years. One of the reasons my stories shrank the way they did (I used to write more conventionally lengthed stories but then they got smaller and smaller) was in the attempt to make them as “visual” as possible. What I mean is that I wanted the reader’s eye to be able to take in the whole story at once, the whole thing on one page, in one compact unit. The white space helps in that, I hope. 

Would you say you could compare your form to a haiku? How or how not? 

Yes and no. I definitely thought about haiku a lot as I was first getting into microfiction. I admire how a really great haiku takes those 17 or so syllables and a few images and points to the entire world. It’s like this haiku by Issa:

With his radish, the radish picker points the way.

There’s everything in the universe in that poem!

And I want to be able to point to a much larger world beyond the story itself, for the reader to find a lot more between the words and between the sentences. But haiku usually does that with a great deal of clarity, whereas my stories are often (usually?? always??) so obfuscated!

Is there an over-arching theme that you wished to convey? 

I think a theme I come back to a lot—or at least I used to—is the one sort of pointed to in the story “Epistomology.” How do we understand, or not understand, the things we say to each other? How, honestly, do we manage to understand each other as much as we do? We actually make meaning for ourselves despite the fact that the world is so confusing and strange. 

Are you okay with the audience interpreting the writing different than you mean it? Is it meant to be specific or vague?

Yeah, I love when a reader interprets a story in a way I never thought of. Matter of fact, I often don’t have any idea what a story might “mean” until some really sharp reader tells me. Oh, right, that’s it!

I think the language is supposed to be very specific but the meaning, it’s not supposed to be vague, but what I hope for is that the story is big enough to carry more than one meaning. If I do it right (once in a while), then a story can mean X but also mean not-X, too. And it can mean Q and E as well. Actually, and sorry for getting so “out there,” but I’m more interested in a story having meaningness—that is, being meaningful—than having a particular interpretation. I mean, what’s the meaning of a rock? Rockness. So, what’s the meaning of a story? 

What is your intention with the front and back cover? 

The cover was made by my dear friend and collaborator, the encaustic painter Christine Sajecki (encaustic is painting with molten wax). We’ve done a bunch of art shows and other events together over the past 6 or 7 years. When I had a book coming out, she was my very first choice to do the cover. She’s actually done two different covers for two separate printings of the book.

In any case, the painting on the cover is filled with a lot of references to our friendship and to our work together over the years. The swans on the back, the dark window-like squares on the front, stuff like that. And the figure on the front walking away from us is actually based on a photo of me that Christine took. 

But more to your question, Christine had in mind the “white spaces” I try to put into my stories, the feeling of things between and among and outside of the words. And she had in mind the feelings she personally gets when she reads the stories.
Have you ever thought of putting pieces on Facebook or any other social media site for review? How do you feel about putting this down in publishing rather than forever documented on the internet? Do you feel like the effect of people seeing your work on Facebook would be different from reading it in a book? Why mention it in the story on 61? 

I put a lot of stories on my blog, I used to text message stories to a big list of people, and I often put together e-books of my stuff that people can access or download online. I’m putting together a new tumblr for the art books I make, but it isn’t live yet. Never have put stories on Facebook but I def promote them there. 

I’m all about putting work out in whatever format works. I like reading paper books and I like reading online magazines, and Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc. These are all tools available to people, and I say use them! Get creative and use them! And sure, the effect of reading something on social media is different than in a book, but one’s not better than the other. I always say, give a creative person a burnt stick and a square of toilet paper and they’ll do something awesome with it. Same with social media, same with pen and paper.

As for that story on page 61, in that series I was thinking about how inanimate objects could be characters in a story. Facebook seemed like an interesting character.

How does religion tie in to your stories, if at all? There were some times in the story that even from a secular stand point, these iconic images could be imagined. For example we talked about, “Light of No Understanding” (18.) Here take this, is similar to handing over the bread in communion, she could be putting down her faith. “Easter Rabbit” (30) could be references the holiday of Christ rising and saving humanity, but there is still the pain and sin of humans living on. His death was also hurtful. 

It does tie in! I’m not a religious person in that I go to church or temple or what have you, but I’m utterly fascinated with religion and the power of its signs and symbols and the emotion and meaning of it. So, Christianity and Christ and the Saints show up in my stories and so does Buddha and Taoism (the “10,000 things”) and Zen. Although I didn’t think of communion myself in “Light of No Understanding” I like that someone did think of it. Communion is a really powerful thing.

Are you mentioning religion and Facebook as the faiths of people at large, or social media and religion being the things people devote their time and thoughts to? Even if not, do you feel as if there could be a discussion made about this? 

I’m sorry, I don’t understand this question. But in general, yeah, a discussion could be made!

How did Easter Rabbit get published? 

The publisher and editor of Easter Rabbit lives in Baltimore, where I live, and he asked to publish it. Before we really knew each other he had published a broadside of my writing and both of us liked how that turned out, so then we were both really excited to work on a book length project. We were just starting to be friends when he asked to publish the book and through the process of working on Easter Rabbit we became really good friends.

How much control did the editor have over your work, and are you satisfied with the final product? 

REALLY satisfied. He didn’t do a lot of editing—just some small things here and there—but we worked a lot on choosing the stories and putting them in the right order. It was really collaborative. Same goes with the cover artist and the designer for the first printing—it was a collaboration. It was a team effort, and given that, I enjoyed the process so much. 

If you had the option to shift from an independent publisher to corporate would you? Why or why not?

Nope! I mean, if Random House wanted to give me a whole bunch of money to publish with them, okay I probably would, but it’s pretty doubtful that will ever happen. Given that, I want the hands-on, collaborative magic that happens with an indie publisher (another small press, Ink Press, just put out a little book of mine called 5 drawings of the maryland sky). I’m also pretty keen on self publishing and have put out a lot of stuff in pdf form. I like making my own covers and laying it out in InDesign and working with Photoshop, etc. It’s really satisfying. 

Why would you choose a paper print over electronic publication? 

I wouldn’t choose one over the other. Both are great. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Be strong, protect your vision, do the “wrong” thing. Taking advice is great—do it—and learn from people, your friends, your teachers. But writing is yours. Own it.