JMWW: In your story “Cage,” Tripp Sayler is the star of the Funky Ass Bees and the star of this story, as far as the grip he holds on Kent and Deeny and all the girls in Virginia Beach. What gives people like Tripp such power over their Kent’s and Deeny’s?
Jeff Landon: He doesn’t really doubt himself—he seems, at least, to be confident, handsome, strong, talented, charismatic, all of that, but of course he’s a user and a phony so…there you go. But people, I think, lots of people, feel so unsure in life as they bumble around, and they think, oh, maybe a stable, confident person might help. I don’t know. I don’t understand confident people. I always feel like, how does this happen?
JMWW: Shame and, to a lesser extent, the concept of sin are important to the tone of “Cage.” Can you talk to us a little bit about the difference between the two, and how you use them to underpin the story?
JL: Well, it wasn’t an accident that church plays a part in this, and it’s an easy target but that’s just my way. So much of life is spent trying to connect, trying to feel connection. It’s rough out there and up in here.
JMWW: For such a short piece, “Cage” is littered with examples of longing, failed connection, and exploitation.The only happy couple is the imaginary one at the end of the story, dancing under a streetlight. What’s this story saying about the possibility of enduring connection?
JL: It’s really, really hard to have an enduring connection, but it can happen, with care and understanding and work. For many reasons, things fall apart, but, again, things can fall apart and still somehow get glued, back. Damaged, but intact and trying.
JMWW: Your stories are known for what Leonora Desar recently called “The funny-sad thing (n): The way certain writers captivate readers by disguising something Incredibly Deep using humor.” One of my favorite lines from “Cage” is when Kent retorts that Tripp’s dad would “crucify” Tripp if he knew what they were doing. What profound things are you using humor to disguise in “Cage”?
JL: I always look for the funny-sad thing, in stories, novels, songs, friends. Life is horrible and life is incredible, but most of the time Life is eating cheese and then feeling bad because we like cheese so much. Oh, and the crucify line came from something I read. A bunch of UVA students were playing in the snow. A guy walked by, an actor, and the actor had appeared the night before as Jesus from the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar and he was recognized. One of the students said, Hey, it’s Jesus, let’s crucify him, and then they pummeled him with snowballs. I love that story and stole it. Always steal, that’s the lesson—and I’m mostly serious. Life will always hand you these great/awful/funny things to write about, but you need to get it down.
JMWW: Beginnings and endings are so important in flash fiction—and especially so in your stories. Talk to us a little about how this ending came about, this heartbreaking mash-up of longing and anger and shame.
JL: I like to either slow things down or speed things up at the end of a story. In this case, I used long sentences (most of the sentences that came before where short). I admire the story “Next Door” by Tobias Wolff, and urge the entire world to not only read it, but to read it out loud for the music.
JMWW: This line: “She shook her head, more sad than angry, but I wanted angry.” Why does the narrator want angry?
JL: It’s the old parent deal. We aren’t mad, we’re disappointed. Of course, that’s a total lie, but still…
JMWW: As a teacher, you spend much of your time mentoring young adults. What advice would you give Kent? Deeny? Tripp? Anything you want to say to the Pastor Sayler’s of the world?
JL: Yeah, please stop shaming LGBTQ kids and using your position to attack instead of mend.
JMWW: How has your writing changed over the years?
JL: I can tell more quickly when something isn’t working. It’s easier to get from one place to the next. I’m finally coming around to pay attention to the shapes of stories and why that matters. Still, it’s still super frustrating and no fun in those moments spent pre-writing. After writing, you get a glow, even when it wasn’t great. It’s like, look at you, trying!
JMWW: Who are you reading at the moment?
JL: Jill Ciment, Marcy Dermansky, Peter Orner, Ben Loory, Mary Miller, Elmore Leonard, Sarah Elaine Smith: That’s the stack beside me, now. At work, I read student writing, for hours and hours, and days and years, and decades. I like teaching, though. It takes time but it’s completely worth it—the students and colleagues, all good.
JMWW: Congratulations on this story, Jeff. And thank you.
JL: Thank you, and everyone else. Enjoy the days.
Bonus Feature is the interview behind the story at JMWW (and sister column to ORIGINs). Thanks for reading!