Interview with Jinnwoo
October 5, 2022
MM) First thing that jumped out at me was Laura and the protagonist, their back and forth, their almost twin-like dyad reminding me of Ágota Kristóf’s Notebook Trilogy but of course Laura is a girl and this creates a difference the book explores magnificently. Was that always the plan, to have Laura maybe as a proxy for the protagonist, able to go where he sometimes can’t such as the first scene — and was that first scene always conceived of like that? I ask this because those are two elements that sew the whole together really phenomenally but if you just dreamt them up out of thin air, then you’re even more of a wunderkind than I already think but I suspect there’s maybe an element of craft and deliberation? Would love to understand that process, how they came together, and that first scene.
JW) The protagonist is obsessed with femininity and female sexuality, and Laura becomes his window into these realms. He has other windows – his dance teacher Miss Stella, Scully from X-Files – but none of them are as accessible as Laura. In being female, Laura has something that the protagonist feels he will never have. The protagonist sees Laura as wasting her opportunity to be a woman, and as obstructing his female experience by competing with him for heterosexual male attention. So, as much as he needs her to experience that world, he also resents her.
Laura needs the protagonist as well – she craves male love and attention, and as ‘un-male’ as the protagonist is, he is the only consistent male in her life. Their relationship is symbiosis or toxic co-dependency.
The opening chapters are designed to encapsulate this dynamic. Laura and the protagonist work together to construct a sexualised dance for the much older boy – Palmer. After they have lured him, Laura reaps the ‘benefits’ and performs a sex act on Palmer, whilst the protagonist stays outside and looks after their bikes. Palmer soon abandons Laura not long after, and she is left only with a poor facsimile for the masculine love she craves in the form the protagonist.
They represent each other’s unobtainable obsessions. The craved access to masculinity of one, and the craved access to femininity of the other. But neither perform their gender role in a way that is satisfactory to the other.
MM) A brooding, maybe even seething, quiet but steady energy describes the ending for me. A kind of wink that says “Hey, remember me? Yeah I bet you do” vibe. It’s nurtured throughout the book how the boys will eventually see the protagonist as a girl, they’ll forget for a moment who he really is, while not really forgetting. Do you think about how the reader will receive this?
JW) Two of the final chapters are written as letters from the protagonist to the older boy who abused him – Lee. The reader plays the role of Lee by reading these letters. As the addressee of these letters, it’s up to the reader how they interpret them. There’s enough in the letters to be seething and threatening, but I think there is also a lot of forgiveness and understanding in the letters. That is the duality of a protagonist who has fallen in love with his abuser. I forgive you, I hate you, I feel sorry for you, I want you to feel sorry for me. We never see Lee’s reply or see whether he replied at all – it is a one-sided conversation, or rather a 2-sided conversation existing within the one person – the protagonist. In the final scene, the protagonist has a spiritual experience in which Lee is ‘removed’ from him. This implies a letting go, a forgiveness. But he is removed with fire, which implies a rage.
MM) This is your second book and your second book to incorporate dolls in a creative way. Your debut, Little Hollywood, entirely paper doll sketches and scripts to be performed, an incomparable format–like POLO–thoughtfully explores quite sad and profound situations. Do you think of dolls as somewhat central to your work? In a sense, all characters in a book are pliant like dolls, to be wrestled and massaged by the author into position, so I’m thinking on a meta-level it makes sense. Does it? How do dolls influence you? Could you elaborate for the uninitiated what POLO means?
JW) POLO stands for ‘Pants Off Legs Open’ – it’s a term from my childhood in rural Leicestershire. Polos are the name of a well-known breath-mint in the UK. So you could ask people if they wanted to have sex discreetly – “Do you want a polo?”. The combination of the highly sexualised suggestion, with the childlike slang-term or secret code, represents the experience of the children in the novella.
In regard to the use of dolls in both Little Hollywood and POLO – I never actually thought about it as a theme in my work until you asked. I guess on reflection, dolls are our first avatars. And both Little Hollywood and POLO look at ideas of identity and role playing. But yes, maybe something about control and compliance, too. Characters in a book, actors in a film, children in an adult setting – all have to comply and are all formed by something greater than themselves. The dolls are a vessel to be filled by their controller. There is a scene in which the protagonist takes his Barbie doll to the graveyard and talks about her hollow head getting possessed by the spirits of the dead. This is a metaphor for what the older boys are doing to the protagonist.
MM) You don’t waste a syllable in this book, while weaving together rich themes like poverty and family issues and secrecy in an efficient, stark way. To what do you owe your style?
JW) I wanted this book to read like an espresso shot. I have a very short attention span, and I hate over-elaborating. I get very tired when people discuss art or politics – in fact, I’d hate to read this interview. I love writers like Sam Pink, Sarah Kane, Marie Calloway, and books like Tao Lin’s Richard Yates. They contain nothing but direct hits. The pain, drama, comedy, emotion is all accessible – not lost in over-the-top descriptions. If literature’s primary purpose is to communicate – then communicate. That is something I have learnt from books I adore – from Sam Pink above all other writers. He cuts his work to the bone, and nothing hits in the same way as Sam’s work.
MM) The writing possesses a singular aesthetic, i.e. descriptions like “faux leopard skin plimsolls” and “a mug with Pocahontas on it.” Is your aesthetic driven by a desire for cohesion, or is it more incidental and individuated? Is there a sporadic quality meant to be jarring in juxtaposition?
JW) A few people who I have shown the book to said that they like the simple childlike structure of the sentences coming from a child protagonist. That wasn’t my intention at all, I just write like a child, I guess. Like I said above, I like to write as sparsely as possible. My first book, Little Hollywood, is a collection of scripts – and I was drawn to that format because it allows for sparse descriptions – brief stage directions instead of explanations. I tried to keep an element of that in POLO. Again, it’s about communicating for me. I don’t like to mention everything in the room, when only one thing in that room is important.
MM) There’s an antisocial, misanthropic edge to the protagonist, encapsulated best by this passage:
“I think about how if we all had head lice and rotten teeth, we would be significantly less likely to be kidnapped. They could have cancelled the nurse’s health presentation, and we wouldn’t have to worry about paedophiles at all. The whole afternoon could have been called off, entirely.
By the end of the day, the other boys in my year have all eaten their free tubes of toothpaste because it tastes sweet. This makes me feel sick, and I hate everyone. I feel cleverer than everyone sometimes. I find myself thinking that I actually wouldn’t mind if a lot of the kids at my school just SAID YES, AND WENT! I keep these thoughts to myself. I know it’s unhelpful to think things like this.”
Where does this emanate from for you?
JW)These particular passages are all based on things that happened to me at school and things I felt/thought when I was that age. I think for the protagonist, he has been very marginalised – through being gay, through being feminine, through being poor. In order to survive that rejection, he has created an internal world in which he in misunderstood by everyone because he is secretly better than them all. Deciding to look down on everyone else means he can reject people looking down on him. The protagonist is misanthropic, but why wouldn’t he be? Good for him.
MM) You also write music. How do different art forms interplay for you? What are you working on now?
JW) It’s all storytelling, which is what I am interested in – in whatever form. Making music has to be more collaborative – I play with a folk band called Bird in the Belly and we work together on every element of the music. I have also released 2 solo records, but have worked on them with heavy input from producers. Because of this collaborative element, you have to be very open about where you are up to with the creative process because everyone else needs to be able to play their part. But writing allows me to work completely alone, and I really like that individuality. More often than not, I don’t even tell people I’m working on a book until there is a draft ready to be read. I don’t want outside input for my writing most of the time, and I don’t want people checking in on it and having to have the “How’s the book?” conversation.
At the moment I am slowly working on a new solo record, and a new Bird in the Belly record. Bird in the Belly tour a lot, so that keeps me very busy. I want to dedicate some time to reading before I write again – I’m collecting unread books at the moment.