The Youth Issue: Travis Jeppesen

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Travis Jeppesen’s a bit of an oddity in the publishing world. The 27-year old editor of literary magazine Blatt caught everyone off guard in 2003, when Dennis Cooper decided to launch his “Little House on the Bowery Series” with Jeppesen’s debut novel, Victims.

Born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jeppesen currently divides his time between Prague and Berlin, where he’s been hard at work on his forthcoming novel, Wolf at the Door. Considering his accomplishments, we thought he’d be a great addition to The Youth Issue. And, you know what? We were right.

After the jump, see what Jeppesen has to say about moving to Europe, how to be a good writer, the death of the avant-garde and why there will never be a shortage of leaders in America.

Andrew Belonsky: Let’s start with your childhood. Was it an easy one? What’s your family like? Siblings? How did they take your coming out?

Travis Jeppesen: I had a great childhood. Pretty standard: middle class, suburban. Nothing traumatic. My parents have always been encouraging and supportive. Charlotte is a banking town, very southern. The people there are mostly into money and Jesus. It didn’t have a lot to offer someone like me, so I left as soon as I could.

I don’t really have a standard “coming out” narrative. In high school, I screwed around with boys and girls. I thought that was pretty normal, so I never thought to make it a big secret, nor did I ever feel the need to make an announcement to the world concerning my sexual identity.

AB: Of course, you’ve fled America to live in Europe. Why Europe? Did you always want to leave America?

TJ: People tend to make the assumption that I despise America because I choose not to live there. This is not true. I actually love America. Gertrude Stein also loved America, but she chose to stay away from it for most of her life. You shouldn’t let something you love consume and destroy you. I think distance is quite healthy.

AB: I understand the desire to live abroad. I’m fascinated yet repulsed by America. Regardless, I’ll always love it. No matter how much I may hate our politics, I’m shamefully patriotic. It’s more of a love for my countrymen. Sure, many Americans hate the gays, but they’re such a unique breed. I can’t help but feel a somewhat patronizing affection for them. Do you feel the same?

TJ: No, I don’t really have such sentimental feelings about any group of people, be it Americans or Czechs or [fill in the blank]. There are qualities that I admire about them, but I can’t generally say that I like or dislike them.

AB: In an interview you said that the “sense of newness is very American” and go on to describe American culture as a culture in pursuit of the “new”. Can you elaborate?

TJ: Well, I think it becomes readily apparent to any American that travels outside of America. Neomania is in our blood.

AB: Onto literature: how can American “literature” be saved? Did it ever exist?

TJ: Uh, I don’t know that I understand the question, but I’ll do my best. I think that, compared to other cultures I’m familiar with, America has a very advanced literary culture. By that, I mean that in the last century, we have produced an incredibly diverse range of writers and types of work, a much broader range than countries who are smaller or less fortunate than we are.

AB: I was doing some research for this “interview” and came across something you said with regard to Victims, your first novel. You say, “If you don’t believe in something, then it’s impossible to get out of bed.” This begs the question: what do you believe in?

TJ: This is a tough question, because it changes all the time for me. Would it be too coy for me to say I believe in belief?

AB: You and I are about the age (although, I must say, you’ve got two years on me), so we’re in the same “generation”. What are your thoughts on our peers? Do you think we can successfully run nations? Personally, I don’t know if I’m ready to take over for the baby boomers, but then I think about all the people who have been inoculated with archaic political sensibilities and think, “Oh, well, they can do it.” But, of course, that’s a horrifying concept. Any thoughts on that?

TJ: I think the will to power is found in people of all generations. Anyone who has the desire to run a nation is going to be at least a tiny bit sociopathic, and I don’t see that condition dying out anytime soon.

When thinking about my generation, the thing that bothers me most is all the relentless networking and careerism in the arts. A twenty-year-old shouldn’t have a “career.” I’m 27 and I still don’t have one. The fact that I had a book published at a young age was a freak occurrence; it’s not something I was ever aiming for. I write because it brings me pleasure. That’s all. Every once in a while, kids will contact me with letters that literally say, “Hi, my name is Johnny, I’m 17 and I want to get published.” And my response is always the same: You’re writing for the wrong reason, and therefore will probably never get published.

It’s really sick, when you think about it, because the market is so youth-obsessed. Every avant-garde movement in the past has been built on resistance – resisting the dominant tendencies of the time. But rather than resisting the tendencies of a system that wants to consume and destroy them, the kids are totally buying into it! This is why there is no real dissent, no cohesive avant-garde that exists anymore. Look at the New York art world. You have galleries that are signing up kids before they even finish art school – I’m talking undergrad here – and ultimately ruining them. Not only ruining them, but also ruining their peers, who begin thinking that this is something that they too should aim for – becoming a Superstar Artist in their early 20s.

I’m not denying that there is such a thing as a child prodigy. Look at history – you have a few isolated examples: Mozart, Rimbaud. But these are extreme cases. It is not a general phenomenon. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? We don’t pay very much attention to history. I was speaking to Penny Arcade recently [and] she was bemoaning the fact that young people today have no awareness of lineage. I think this is very accurate. If you’re lucky enough to spend time with an older artist whose work you admire, listen and learn. “Get me published, Grandpa” is a corrupt attitude, but it seems to be the standard for young people these days.

What goes hand in hand with that is a lack of strong criticism in the arts. I think criticism is increasingly being erased by PR, marketing. This is bad for the culture as a whole. What we’re witnessing, I think, is the negation of an entire intellectual tradition that has existed since the Enlightenment.

AB: Any advice for young writers out there?

TJ: I think it’s really important for any kind of artist to also have a strong critical backbone. Most people nowadays you speak to have a strong hatred of George Bush. Okay, but are you equally passionate about literature and art? If not, then you’re probably not a writer.

Beyond having strong likes and dislikes, you should be able to elucidate them in a coherent fashion. If you find yourself hyping whatever is trendy at the moment for no real reason outside its current fashionability, then you’re not being honest with yourself, and you’ll never be a real writer.

No one becomes a writer. You only write because you feel compelled to do it. If you write for recognition or money, then you’re not a real writer. This should be self-evident, but it needs to be articulated every once in a while. I’ve sacrificed a lot to live the way I live – my well-being, my mental and physical health – and I’ve never expected anything in return for it. I’m not saying this is the right way to live. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not really in a position to give anyone advice.

AB: Are you a romantic person? Do you believe in romance or have you been worn down by our harsh reality?

TJ: Yes, I think I am a very romantic person. Otherwise I wouldn’t live the way I do. But we don’t live in a romantic era, and so I’m really weary of others who like to pretend that we do. I’m a romantic who’s very distrustful of romanticism.

AB: Do you believe in Utopia? I know you’ve said it’s a “corrupted notion of progress”, but do you think it’s possible?

TJ: No, I don’t believe it is possible. If we look at history, we see that every political system has viewed itself as setting up a Utopia, and that every system has failed in that respect. Sure, I’m an idealist, but I’m not stupid. I view history as a cycle of recurrences consisting of repeated mistakes and small triumphs.