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A Seat in the Big Chair: Jordan Harper

Today it's Jordan Harper's turn in the Big Chair. I'd seen the name, heard the rep, even published one of his stories, the rock 'n' rollicking "Midnight Rider." But nothing could've prepared me for his latest offering.

American Death Songs is that rare collection that transcends the genre: short stories that play like a novel. Drawing on heavyweights of the form like Anderson and Pollock, ADS redefines convention and everything you thought you knew about short fiction writing. It will be the best collection you read this year. That is FFO's promise to you.

Carving Out a Voice in Search of Slow Clapping by the Utterly Wretched Jordan Harper

1.) Let's start off by heaping some praise. American Death Songs is the best collection I've read since Donald Ray Pollock's remarkable Knockemstiff.  What gets me right off the bat is just how different every voice is. It reminds me of early Stones, where the instrumentation is so diverse it makes each track unique. Is this something you actively strove for (i.e., a conscious decision), or more a result of the story itself?

For me, story doesn't dictate voice as much as the voice dictates the story. I tend to find my way into a short story when my mind upchucks a single line at me. I take that line and use that to determine the voice and then figure out what the story is. For example, when I wrote "Red Hair and Black Leather," I knew I wanted to do a femme fatale story, and then one day "She had an ass like a heart turned upside down and cut in half, and that's what you call foreshadowing, friend," popped into my head out of nowhere (I might have been looking at an ass at the time, but I can't swear to it.) And I knew I had a story.

Once I have the key sentence to the story, I work from that to build the rest of it. Beats me if it would work for anyone else, but it works for me. I'm pretty good about locking my brain into a specific voice, which is why I have to be careful about what I read when I'm writing. A really strong author's voice can get in my head in a bad way sometimes. Maybe all of this is a long way of saying that I haven't found my voice yet. 

2. Kind of like reading Catcher in the Rye. I had a writing prof who said there was nothing more dangerous than reading that book and trying to write. Strangely, though, I think this chameleon-like quality of yours is a distinct voice. And that stems from your themes. I can’t imagine another title for this collection. These are American Death Songs. This is a copout question, since the answer is in the book, but what does that title mean to you?

I had a thing I was doing on Twitter last year, "Murder Ballad a Day," where I posted a song a day having to do with murder. I got up to about 140 before I quit. Murder is one of the unifying themes of music, and especially American music with our constant obsession with the outlaw. And the fun thing about posting those murder songs was how it tied together all of these different kinds of music, so that you can see that Johnny Cash and the Kossoy Sisters and Ghostface Killah aren't that far apart. (By the way, Ghostface Killah is one of the great crime writers working today. I wish I could write something as densely packed as his "Shakey Dog," or as close to the bone as "I Walk Around.")

So the American Death Song is one of this country's great art forms. And if you stop taking the word "song" literally, it grows to encompass almost all of my favorite things. I collect weird true crime books, like dog-fighting manuals and meth cookbooks and Knife-Fighting Techniques from Folsom Prison. I grew up on Ice Cube and The Godfather and Quentin Tarantino and Goodfellas and Westerns and Jim Thompson and serial killers. American culture and American history are full of people who told the world "fuck you" and spelled it in blood. It's not always pretty and it's not always right but it's what I'm interested in.

3. I really feel each character here, right, wrong, indifferent, or otherwise, does the absolute best with that what they have. Stories like “Beautiful Trash,” “Agua Dulce,” “Heart Check,” these protagonists are hardly likeable (and in the case of the last one, downright deplorable). Yet we care about what happens to them. How do you, as a writer, manage to be empathetic to the utterly wretched?

Because I'm utterly wretched. I read a quote one time by a Roman playwright named Terrence, who said "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me." That's a great writer's creed right there. If you're going to write a story about a White Power child killer and what you have to say about him is "he's bad," I have to ask why you're bothering to write the story. I mean, no shit. He's bad. But who is he? If you can't crawl inside his head and put your own finger on the trigger, you've got no business trying to tell his story.

4. You are a writer for The Mentalist on CBS. Can you take us a little through that process? Everything I know from TV writing comes from the movies, where everyone sits around a big table and brainstorms ideas (and there's usually a really cute dirty librarian-type in horn rims). I'm guessing it isn't really like that. Or is it?

We do in fact have a writers’ room with whiteboards and notecards and a big table we all sit around. We aren't in that room as much as other shows. Some writing staffs really do spend all day in their writers’ room, ordering in lunch and smelling each others' farts and learning to hate one another. We're a pretty independent group of writers on The Mentalist, and we're expected to come up with our own ideas. There is a lot of cooperation, brainstorming, and most importantly there's a lot of challenging and constructive criticism. Television writing is a hard job if you have a problem with criticism. As a writer, though, it's fantastic training. You get where you want people to tear your stuff down so you can build it up stronger. There's still a part of me that stings when it happens, though. You keep hoping for the day when your bosses come in, having just read your latest script, and just stand there slow-clapping with tears in their eyes. But that's not going to happen.

5. Pimp time. What's up next for Jordan Harper? Where can we find more of your work?

The next thing I've got is a short film I made out of the short story that opens the book, "Midnight Rider." (It also was published in OOTG’s Flash Fiction Offensive.) I did a reading of the story that went over pretty well, so I decided to see what would happen if I got a real actor to tell the story. I asked Nina Corrado, one of the producers on the show, to direct it and we got Ryan Hurst from Sons of Anarchy to star as the protagonist. It's sort of a filmed monolog, and it came out pretty great. I'm going to be putting it on the Internet in the next couple of months.

And 2012 seemed to be the year of rough drafts for me. I wrote the rough draft of a novel, a Lone Wolf and Cub kind of thing about a man and his eleven-year-old daughter taking on Aryan Steel, a murderous prison gang that has marked them both for death. I also wrote something closer to a novella called How to Kill, a bleak noir featuring a suicidal stand-up comedian. And I started a dog-fighting story called Lucy in the Pit. I got part of that published in Thuglit as a stand-alone story but I'm not done with it yet.

So I have a lot of things I need to get out into the world. I love my job but it takes a lot of my creative energy, and I've got to try and spend more time on fiction.

Jordan Harper was born and educated in Missouri. He's been an ad man, a rock critic and a teevee writer. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, dog and imaginary friends. Follow him at @jordan_harper