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Jordaan Mason

Jordaan Mason is a filmmaker, musician, and writer. His writing has appeared in UNSAID, The Scrambler, Everyday Genius, NOÖ Journal, and red lightbulbs. He lives in Toronto with his husband and his cats.

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This novel is something very rare, and it's about as beautiful as fiction can ever be."

– Dennis Cooper

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The Skin Team

The Destruction and Violence of Identity and Identification

07/16/13

It’s probably not true that I met Jordaan Mason by Google image searching “two headed boy.” But that’s how I remember it. This was back when I was in high school, for shivermouth’s sake. Jordaan was pretty much my age and he was doing a record label called Oh! Map. They put out haunting twitches, hopeful folk, scream cream. Then I remember driving up California foothill Black Bart madrone and straw-colored highways to Nevada City to see Jordaan and his friends play music in a theatre that smelled like silver dollars. Jordaan and his friends hugged each other and knew how to play the saw. It was maybe the first time I ever wore my favorite cowboy shirt in public.

Years later, in October of 2007, I made a to-do list that included “clip your toenails” and “buy chips and shit for Jordaan’s show.” Jordaan showed up in an essay I wrote for Nerve but they cut most of him out, even though he made the essay sadder and more nuanced and less huckstery. He is always doing that kind of shit to the world. Like one time he told me he wrote a novel, and I was like, “Oh? Can I read it?” And lo and behold: The Skin Team is that novel, here with us now maybe three years after I first read it, and it is as good at itself as Jordaan is good at every room I’ve ever known him to sing his way through.

The Skin Team concerns the interloopings and intercouplings and mind habits and drastic measures of three people. Two boys, one girl, all young. Plus there’s a Power Company, but that catches on fire. The Skin Team is one of the most honest books about sex I’ve ever read. There are horses and maps and light-bulb vomit and tag teams. This is a thick book rioting all over itself with skin and shaking its head at science and stomping/sobbing pretty much every time the world tells it to shush. What I’ve been telling people is that it’s like if Dennis Cooper rewrote The Virgin Suicides. What Dennis Cooper says is that “it's about as beautiful as fiction can ever be” and “you would never suspect how difficult it is to write even fairly about such things, much less with Jordaan Mason's radiant emotional grace and super-deft detailing and flawless style.”

This isn’t just a novel I published because I’ve known Jordaan for like ten years; it’s more like the only reason I’ve been friends with some random dude in Canada for ten years is because he has one of the truest throats. Jordaan is double-talented, what a jerk. Playing his high school songs on my high school radio show or adult-putting his adult book out in the world are two things I’ve done because of the same feeling. Which is this feeling: Jordaan Mason is hollering so much real-talk through this all around fucknut dark that he makes our crooked faces feel not so apart.

Here’s some talking I did with him:

Mike Young: You’ve been working on The Skin Team for a long time. This book has traveled with you through a lot of crazy singing-saw time on the road as a musician and now into your homey plaid domestic life as a filmmaker/student/husband. Can you completely ignore my oversimplification of your life and tell us about The Skin Team's genesis and process?

Jordaan Mason: I started writing what is now The Skin Team around the time that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was in my first year of university, but I was traveling a lot, playing music, and my ability to focus on school was diminishing. During that time I went through a series of medications until I found the right balance or whatever. One of the medications I was taking early on made me feel really detached from everything and that detachment was a big part of where the text originated from: trying to describe this complete separation of my body from everything around it and from itself. And trying to figure out how or even if this had any effect on my sense of identity, how does having this illness inform it, how do we get named and categorized through these intangible things through medical discourse. This detachment from my sense of self turned into these three characters who then stuck around in my head even after I sorted the medication stuff out. I kept picking at them, gradually, wondering why they had taken up residence in me. I wrote as a way of trying to figure them out even if they refused to be figured out, even if they didn't want to be categorized.

I dropped out of university before entering my third year. I wasn't in the right head space for academic thinking and was much more interested in traveling and playing music, in losing myself in creating things for a while, and so I did. I devoted a lot of my time when I wasn't traveling to this text until it grew into what seemed to be something like a novel. It took about two years of writing until that's what I realized I had been writing. But just as it was starting to really come together, I lost the majority of the book in a thunderstorm computer crash. I was left with a document of hieroglyphics and symbols and sentence fragments. I also had a very early draft on paper that was about twenty pages long. I had to start over (and also learn to back things up).

During this time I was living at a house/art space called The Oxford Hotel and I was working on a record called Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head with my then-band, The Horse Museum. When it was nearly finished, I took a break from touring to save up some money so we could release the album and worked a shitty telemarketing job. I rewrote most of the book during my time there. In between phone calls, I would write. I would then come home and work with what I'd been able to jot down between calls, expand it. After two months or so, I was back to a working draft of the book's narrative. I spent the next year editing and working on structure until it became essentially what it is now. And then I went back to school.

MY: The Skin Team has three main characters and a lot of heft placed on the idea of threedom. Even the cover image was sewn in three parts: the cover fabric, the spine fabric, and the back fabric, which—hey, look at that—has three boxes on it. These three fabrics overlap and shove together in interesting and even somewhat violent ways, just like your three main characters. Can you introduce those three main characters to us?

JM: Since the novel is largely about the destruction and violence of identity and identification, the characters in the book are generally nameless and devoid of physical description. Their identities are fluid and bleed into one another but they still stand alone as separate entities through the structure of the book. The characters are:

1. A boy who has a series of physical ailments which doctors cannot detect, including but not limited to the feeling that he is swallowing fire in his sleep and that he is being magnetically drawn to True North. He begins to believe that his illness is caused by the distribution of energy through electric wires which spread throughout his town and, in turn, through him, and the genesis of that energy is the Power Company Building. He has varying sexual experiences with both of the other characters. His sections are called “The Power is Out, Sing.”

2. A girl who is called Sarah (despite the fact that this is not really her name). After the death of her mother, she spends most of her time with horses in the stables and sneaks out of the house at night to be with boys at the Power Company Building. She still believes in singing but does not want to admit it. Her section is called “Of Moving Water, Erosion, and Other Alterations.”

3. Another boy who is slightly older, who spends most nights wandering the woods, who builds up conspiracies in his head, who thinks often of fire and destruction. He acts as a kind of guide to the others; the voice of unreason. His section is called “Of Thermal Energy, Continuous Operation, and the Efficient Use of Land.”

MY: This is the portion of the interview where I pretend to be really dumb and use the word “stuff” a lot. For example: I began falling in love with this book after meeting my way around the three characters we just talked about, but what really drove my heart into my knees was what I’m going to call “all the science stuff.” So what’s the deal with all the science stuff (Continuous Operation, Thermal Energy, True North) in the book?

JM: Science is the realm of naming, so I had to wrestle with that in this text. I wanted to destroy the logic of science, to unname things and start over. So while I was writing I started reading science textbooks instead of poetry and discovered that they aren't that really that different somehow. I tried to write science textbooks but it sort of came out backwards. I ended up writing the kind of science textbooks that make sense to people like me who think that science textbooks don't really make any sense. Science is the kind of the thing where if you explain it to me that this is the reason why the earth is tilted on an axis it's like, yes, rationally I understand that, but also really why is the earth tilted on an axis? It's like when you're a kid and you ask adults questions and they give you the answer but you keep asking why. The characters in this book keep asking why.

So all this science stuff really started to infect the world of the book. Fragments of language and concepts from the textbooks I was reading turned into characters. They grew bodies and they spoke out and took up space on the page. They interacted with these three people I had been trying to figure out. And the science stuff kind of makes it feel like sometimes the book is really grounded in a kind of real-logic of the real-world but then it refutes itself, it asks why again, and it does so from its own mouth, with its own language. I basically almost failed all my science classes in high school, so there you have it.

MY: Where/who does the “map is not the territory” stuff come from and what does that stuff have to do with anything?

JM: My partner and now-husband Jason introduced me to the work of Alfred Korzybski, who wrote the dictum "the map is not the territory." It came up because I was trying to explain my book to him, all this stuff about Map North versus True North versus the body versus our identities etc. etc., and he was like, "You should read about structural differential." He had taken this class that his professor jokingly called Science and Unsanity and he gave me all of his notes. I read them and got really lost in those ideas. They were basically the theory-version of everything I had been writing, this denial of identity, this distantiation between spoken or written language and what we really mean. It was basically the only science-related stuff that I read during the writing process that actually made sense to me and it became really integral to the project.

MY: Poker and the game of tag going on in the woods with color-named teams and horse racing—what’s the deal with games and stuff in this book?

JM: Games are a big part of the language of children, and I wanted to puncture the text with reminders that these characters aren't actually adults yet. I'm particularly drawn to how games all have their own language, their own structure of rules. And they're so ingrained that we forget that the fun we are having is actually being regimented and controlled, that we've been out in the woods playing tag for hours even though it wouldn't really matter if we got caught. I'm also just a big games person.

MY: You and I both have a lot of affinity for Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers, which he has called more of a sunstroke than a novel. I feel a little Beautiful Losers in your book too, and I don’t just mean Leonard Cohen via the “the room just filled up with mosquitos / they heard that my body was free” allusion. What are your feelings about Beautiful Losers a) as a writer, b) as a lilac tree, and c) as a Canadian?

JM: a) I think in terms of writing articulately/inarticulately about the body, Beautiful Losers is the book that really has stuck with me most. It's scattered occasionally but I admire how much he tries to pack in. It's insanely ambitious and really gets my gut. I knew pretty immediately that I was in the wrong creative writing program when I brought in Beautiful Losers to read aloud in class as an example of "good prose" and everyone else brought in very straight-forward realist stuff. My professor later called me out on trying to provoke the class by reading something so "shocking." This should reveal a little bit more about why I dropped out of university the first time around.

b) Beautiful Losers is a book that's told in fragments that all come together even when it doesn't feel like they are going to. It works so well on both the small-scale sentence level and as a larger project. I feel like I'm still returning to this book and still learning so much from it. It grows larger in my heart with each re-read; I pluck it from the shelf often.

c) My super-anglo-basic-French-skills have helped me to understand all of the untranslated French portions of the book, which is a very Canadian thing, I guess. There's a lot of Canada in that book even though he wrote in Greece and even though he doesn't really write about Canada in the way that most Canadian writers generally write about Canada. My book doesn't mention Canada once by name but I'm sure it's in there somewhere.

MY: I know you’re someone who invests a ton of energy and love toward your friends and collaboration with them. You helped run The Oxford Hotel, a now legendary old house show spot in Toronto. And, in fact, I met you at an awesome theatre in Nevada City, CA in 2003 where you were playing music with a whole menagerie of friends. Plus I think America wouldn’t let you bring your accordion over the border because we’re dumbs. What does collaboration mean for/to you?

JM: Collaboration has always been important to me but it has become even more-so with time. I played music alone for a number of years but it was always within a community so it never felt like I was doing it alone-alone. Touring and meeting people and sharing spaces and opening The Oxford Hotel eventually led to The Horse Museum, a band that I was in from 2007-2010. Even though I technically wrote those songs they were completely transformed when my friends started to play them with me. That was really a community project, a lot of people were involved in bringing that together. We all really inspired one another and it was during that time that I was also writing the book. Everyone was going through a lot of heavy shit and we were all there for one another through it. I had to talk out these ideas and I had a lot of support and time and energy from my peers. Writing a novel is a pretty solitary thing I guess, but again, it didn't feel like I was doing it alone-alone. Those years were tough, too. I wouldn't have made it through without those people.

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