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Based on extensive research into the rhetoric of religious cults, Victims is a novel about the final days of a religious cult called The Overcomers.

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Interview with Travis Jeppesen by Akashic Books staff

You’re an American living in Europe. Your writing is very influenced by European literature, yet Victims is set in America. How do you think European life and literature has shaped your perspective on America? And more specifically, what is Victims saying about America?

Well, it’s complicated. Take politics, for example. In America, politics is a disaster. In power, you have the Right, who are so obviously stupid and corrupt to the rest of the world that they’re not even worth debunking, and then you have the Left, who occasionally gather together on the White House lawn to rally against their own impotency. American society is a maze of conflicts, but only on the most superficial level, mostly because there is no longer any real violence in the fabric, but also because everything seems rooted in the same impulse: the desire to make everything—the entire world—as bland, mind-numbing, and easily digestible as possible. Americans are unable to foresee the negative consequences of this impulse, they have no desire to consider what all this will lead to: namely, that there will come a day when people are so stupid that they will be unable to function; when that moment arrives, the entire continent will freeze, all action will halt, there will be no more motion. This is why I, at all costs, feel compelled to resist this impulse via constant movement—it’s the closest I can come to staying outside, getting beyond all that.

This is also why liberalism repulses me—it’s all built on this notion of progress, but if you look closely at what America is progressing towards, you find that it’s not progress at all!—degress or regress, those are more accurate terms. Politics always fails, because it’s rooted in this corrupted notion of progress, which strives for utopia. And utopia is impossible to attain because it consists of corrupted components. (The most obvious example, of course, is 20th-century Eastern Europe.) Look at the idea of equality, for example, America passing laws to ensure equality. I don’t know what’s funnier, the idea that Americans are naive enough to believe that this abstract thing called equality actually exists, or the fact that they pretend to desire it.

The fact is, if you remove hatred and conflict from the equation, the world becomes a really dull place. Imagine how boring it would be if people didn’t hate each other.

To sum up the situation in America, how I see it: The Left represents all of these vacant, expired ideals, the stupidity of which they’re unable or unwilling to see. The Right takes these stupid ideals, which they don’t really understand, and attempts to impose them on the rest of the world. Then the Left gathers together on the White House lawn to protest the Right’s misunderstanding and misrepresentation of these so-called pure ideals that they themselves don’t really understand.

Me, I think the whole thing is fucking hilarious, so I laugh. And Victims is a very particular form of laughter, one that is bound to alienate a lot of people. It even alienated the person I was living with at the time I was writing it. I’d be alone in my room late at night working, and he’d knock on the door, annoyed, asking me what this demented laughter was, what was so goddamn funny. And he’d look down at the desk in front of me to find nothing but a blank page. These are some of the things Victims says or implies about America, but I’m an artist, not a philosopher or sociologist, so I’m compelled to convey these things through an abstract framework. It’s a less-than-direct form, and it’s one rife with contradictions; I can’t not contradict myself in anything I do. I am an American, and I can never deny this. But in order to understand America, I have to physically distance myself from it. In the process, I find that the America I love is the America I find in my dreams, in my imagination. Thus, the real America (or how I perceive the real America) is absent from Victims—or the real is mapped out in contra-manifestation as the imaginary.

It’s but a coincidence that many of the writers I like are Europeans who aren’t widely read in America today. But I’m opposed to the idea that there exists two separate things called European Literature and American Literature, or that Europeans write differently than Americans. I started writing Victims in America and finished it in Europe. I don’t think that living in Europe has had much effect on my writing, other than it’s somehow easier for me to live here so I get more done.

You use experimental techniques in Victims. Contemporary readers in the United States are unaccustomed to reading fiction that takes the kinds of formal and stylistic risks you take in Victims. What do you see as the virtues and limitations of the techniques you employ?

I would object to the phrasing here (the use of experimental techniques), because this implies that I set out to do something via a method, and that wasn’t the case at all. For me, it all stems from intuition. The writing of this book was an incredibly slow process, and for a long time I had no idea what I was doing. It wasn’t until halfway through, or maybe even later, that things started to cohere, but the whole process was organic, and it wasn’t until the later phases that I was able to make sense of the novel’s internal structure. Since this is my first novel, I have no idea whether or not this process is unique or not, but I know that in the end I felt more like a sculptor or a composer than a novelist. It was only towards the end that I was able to find the wisdom in the waste, because I’d made a big mess, there were papers scattered everywhere, there was no order to it, but then it became sort of obvious where all the bits were supposed to go.

Again, I have to object to the way this question is phrased, but will try to answer some of the issues it raises. I just want to be clear on one point: that I didn’t set out to be a giant risk-taker, or whatever. It happened because of the way it happened. The only approach or technique employed is the need to write a novel, which isn’t very radical. I think the virtues and limitations of this approach are one and the same. A lot of readers are going to feel that people like me have no business writing novels. I have no reaction to that, either way. My message to the reader: take it or leave it.

What is it about the novel that attracts you to write novels?

I mainly read novels by dead writers. Most contemporary fiction is shit, which is fine, since nobody really cares about literature anymore, particularly in the Anglo-American world. Whenever a novel is hyped up, anyone vaguely familiar with the psychology of the mass can pretty much write it off as garbage. It’s unfortunate, but true. “Literature is worse than life,” Bruce Andrews once wrote. Music, art, and poetry are much more exciting forms for me. Although I don’t like everything I hear, see, read, the fact is there is a lot more to choose from in these three areas than there are in the contemporary novel, which is essentially a dead form. This deadness is what attracted me to the novel. You have to possess a keen understanding of something before you destroy and subsequently reinvent it.

In Victims, to a certain extent, I’m deinventing the novel, although I certainly didn’t set out to do this. It was motivated by the intuitive forces of boredom and depravity, or striving for what one critic termed “the bucolic ideal” (in reference to a tendency in early 20th-century Czech representational painting). That’s what America means to me: all the negative forces people strive to keep under the surface. What people don’t understand is that America wouldn’t be America without them.

It’s sad, because the entire publishing industry is so jaded. “Write something we can sell to Hollywood” is the attitude. To me, the novel is an artform, up there with music and painting and sculpture and poetry and film. This is how I treat it and why I believe in it.

What is music’s relationship to your fiction in general and Victims in particular?

Well, music and language are alike in that they both involve sound. I’m not aware of it until afterwards when I read it, but I think the music in my prose is there, it plays a pretty important role, often privileged over meaning. Music has always been important to me, I received formal training as a musician from a very young age, and no formal training as a writer. So yeah. I don’t get the impression that a lot of novelists pay much attention to the music in their writing, which is a shame. But I don’t think it’s something you can really work towards. You know, you either have an ear or you don’t.

When did you start writing? Why and how did you decide to be a writer?

I’ve always written, for as long as I can remember. I got serious about it as a teenager, when I started writing plays. But I eventually broke out of that because there were too many rules, I wanted to get beyond the proscenium. Fiction and poetry seemed like the ideal realms, because you could do anything and not worry about how your initial vision would be compromised through the collaborative process that theatre entails. That’s it, I guess, I don’t like rules, I don’t like compromise, I’m generally unable to hold down jobs. So writing’s about the only thing I can do. Of course, the inherent freedom of writing can also be a great burden. What starts out as a great freedom eventually becomes a dire need. I have all these books in my head, but they don’t exist until I get them down on paper. It’s a lot like mental illness. In fact, I don’t think there’s ever been a sane writer. I just don’t see how it’s possible.

You’ve described Victims as a philosophical novel. Can you talk about that?

It simply means that the ideas in the novel form the main crux of the narrative. Today, this may be an unusual approach to take in writing a novel, but it wasn’t 100 years ago. I think it bores and angers most readers when they’re confronted with a novel that makes them think; after all, novels are supposed to be entertaining like Hollywood films, filled with car-chase sequences. If not, then a novel must at least reveal intimate details about the author’s life in order for it to have any value, right?

People pick this book up after reading the publicity for it, expecting to read a novel about religious cults. (Meaning: I expose in explicit detail my torturous life spent in a religious cult and my miraculous rehabilitation.) But this novel isn’t “about” religious cults at all, so of course they’re going to be disappointed! And when the so-called cult (I never use the word “cult” in the novel; I prefer the term New Religious Movement) does appear in the book, the focus is on their philosophy, not the dirty sensational tidbits; in fact, I consciously chose to exclude anything that could be remotely construed as sensational pertaining to the Overcomers, because I didn’t want to undermine their ideology. Instead, by taking them seriously and listening to what they are saying, word for word, and taking it seriously as a valid philosophical doctrine, Victims does the opposite of what the media has done whenever the cult story has come up in the past.

Naturally, people’s responses to these types of issues are conditioned by the media’s response. Even people who are highly critical of the media (I understand that this is a trendy thing now among left-leaning Americans), the fact is you can never completely escape the fact that by definition, it operates as a vehicle that taints your intellectual and emotional reaction to events.

Without intending to, I ended up writing this book against the reader, to a large extent, at least to the reader who comes to this book with any preconceived notions of what a novel is supposed to be. This is why it is immensely gratifying for me, on a purely egotistical level, when readers have a negative reaction to this book; it merely confirms everything I suspected! I’d much rather people hate this book than like it. If people like it, that means it fails. Then again, failure is a lot more interesting than success . . .