“It seems absurd, to be trapped inside a volcano. But here we are.” Such are the surreal worlds Simon Jacobs so casually places readers. When I first met Simon, we were both interns at FSG, chatting between sad desk lunches about vegetarianism and how the water there sometimes tasted like spiders. The 22-year-old from Ohio has a way of enchanting readers with an ominous yet tender tone that’s sure to woo anyone who picks up his new collection Saturn, a series of 19 stories that feature David Bowie. That’s right, DAVID FUCKING BOWIE.
Before Saturn, Simon’s short fiction made its home across the Internet ― in PANK, Paper Darts and Necessary Fiction, to name a few. In 2011, Simon also founded Safety Pin Review, which publishes 30-word flash fiction stories, declaring: “We Want to Wear Your Fiction.” Each piece is transcribed onto patches and assigned to various “operatives” to wear for the public’s reading pleasure. It’s punk publishing at its finest.
I met with Simon at Hummus and Pita Co. (one of our favorite lunch spots from our time at FSG) to discuss Saturn and what it takes to make fiction fashionable.
Freddie Moore: How did Safety Pin Review begin? Where did the idea of "wearing your fiction" come from? There's something old school punk about it.
Simon Jacobs: That’s pretty much it! The idea first came to me when I was in college in 2011 and was in the midst of studding a leather jacket I’d inherited from a friend. Of course, if you want to have a super-punk jacket, you need to have a super-punk back patch, but most of the traditional punk-ish patches didn’t really interest me, so I figured I’d have to do the job myself.
At the time, I was becoming aware of all kinds of short fiction on the Internet, which also seemed very D.I.Y. and punk to me. These literary magazines and micropresses were built completely independently, with work by people like xTx and Brandi Wells, who were playing with the form and writing fiction in a tone like I’d never read before. ... So, given these two lines of thought, I came up with the idea of presenting fiction in back-patch form. The safety pins are burgled directly from ‘70s punk fashion, and until I got volunteers to start wearing the stories, I wore them all myself, on my freshly studded leather jacket, naturally.
How do you select stories for Safety Pin Review? What catches your eye, sings to you?
The nature of the project is that it inspires a certain tone, because when you see someone wearing these stories on the street, there’s always an element of self reflection about it, you know? Because they’re basically glorified “kick me” signs. So you have the opportunity to address the reader or to implicate the reader in some way like that. I tend to respond best to stories that are kind of playful in their tone or assertive.
Is it to inspire a conversation?
Yeah, kind of. I like the idea that the person reading it would feel implicated by the story in some way ― and also, just the fact that someone has chosen to wear it around with them everywhere they go is kind of a statement in itself. A lot of people will agree to wear a story before they know what it is, so I enjoy stories that can be appreciated in different contexts depending on where they’re worn. For example, one guy wore this story called “Hostage Situation,” and it was about a family basically in the throes of … well, it used family as a metaphor for Stockholm Syndrome. He was wearing it around all the time, including dropping his kids off at school and stuff like that. It was this very strange “family is like a prison” story, and he’s dropping his kids off with fellow parents staring him down…. That was a really satisfying moment that I helped orchestrate, this weird combination of things.
How do you enlist your volunteers to wear the patches?
I get people who volunteer, which is great. I always love volunteers. (Any readers of this interview should feel welcome to volunteer!) So it’s a lot of volunteers and other people that I approach, either out of the blue or … whenever I accept a story from a writer, I ask if they would like to be an operative as well, and usually people are pretty enthusiastic about it. That’s one of the reasons I think this is a cool project, because you can involve a lot of people at different steps of the process. You can write a story, but you can also wear a story or you can be one of the people who takes pictures of people wearing the stories.
The people who volunteer to wear the stories are also in charge of getting photos of themselves, and if they want, they can write up the experience, and I put all that on the website. So it allows for a lot of different people to be creative about it in an interesting way. ... There was one guy, here in New York before I lived here, who wore this story around on Valentine’s Day. It was a “love is dead” kind of story, and so he had all these photos of himself with all these Valentine’s Day balloons, and there was this whole narrative to his photographs ― and that, that was a very memorable issue. You never know what you’re going to get, so that’s another element of why it’s always a fun and rewarding project to do.
So how is each patch made?
I paint the story. I basically take black fabric, cut out a 9-by-11-inch rectangle, write out the story in white colored pencil, and then I just paint it. It takes about three hours to paint each patch. I know it’s not an efficient way to do each patch, but it’s very like ― I don’t know, it started out as a D.I.Y., like “I’M GOING TO MAKE ALL THESE PATCHES!” sort of thing, so I don’t know. It’s a calming thing to do, to paint out these stories even if it’s not the most practical way to do it. I should probably look into more mass production methods….
But it’s cool that you paint them yourself.
It’s a human touch!
Is it a different experience for you? Because you’ve obviously read and enjoyed the stories, but then to have that act of rewriting them, then painting them …
Yeah, very slowly and methodically, where you’re like, “Oh, you chose to use this word. Huh. It’s going to take me 45 minutes to paint that.... Did you really need to use that word?” [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s interesting because through the process of painting the story, I’m pretty sure I have them all memorized deep in my head somewhere. And I probably can’t really recite them off the top of my head, but I do spend a lot of time with each of these very tiny stories — which is good because, in my head, they’re sort of like these aphorisms or they can be lessons or mini-fables. I think it has good potential. The stories are always meant as something you could read almost by accident, and then that would kind-of just be stuck in your head. They definitely do that when you spend three hours painting them.
Have you had to start a patch over a few times?
A couple of times. I’ve mailed them to people and then they’ve … disappeared. So I have had to redo them.
So what’s the farthest you’ve sent a Safety Pin Review patch at this point?
There’s been South Korea. I had one in Norway. And Turkey. Whales too.
What happens to each story after it’s worn?
... Hopefully none of my operatives have thrown it away because eventually what I would like to do, once the Safety Pin Review has run its course, is to turn it into a book. Because there are all these photos and original patches, I feel like it could make a pretty good art book of some kind. So eventually I’m going to have to embark on the process of trying to get the patches back from the people who currently have them, which is like … I’ve gotten them back from about three or four people, and there have been 50-some issues by now. So it’s going to be an endeavour.
Okay, Bowie time: How far did you go to fictionalize Bowie for the sake of your book Saturn?
As little as possible. One of the most intriguing facets of this project when I started it in 2012 was that, at that time, David Bowie had been essentially absent from the public eye for about eight years. You’d see mention of him every so often, usually in an article about Iman, where it would say that her husband was quietly “collecting modern British art” or something. But for all intents and purposes, I think most people figured he was done for good.
So I decided to write this modern/near future version of him, but one that wasn’t (at least not initially) entirely fantastical and was based as much as possible in his biography, his music, his artistic and literary influences, etc. I had to put all of my trivia to good use! The Bowie persona is always being reinvented and overwritten — that’s the nature of it. The appeal lays in the idea that my version of latter-day David Bowie was just as legitimate as anyone else’s.
Where do you place David Bowie, setting-wise, in your story?
Well, he spends much of the book in his sizeable Manhattan apartment, which, as far as I know, I think he lives somewhere in Soho. So he spends a lot of his time in his apartment … brooding. And in one story he does go to space — because he’s David Bowie, you have to send him to space at some point. He also goes to a lot of art galleries because, as an artist and as a musician, he feeds from a lot of different artistic sources. In all of his music, there are references to classical paintings or obscure writers and all that kind of stuff, so I’ve tried to place him in those situations in the book as well … like, there’s one story where he’s in a gallery in Spain looking at Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings and retreating into the past — which he is also prone to doing in the book. ... It’s a weird ass book. I’m really excited about it. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a copy into his hands because I think, even though it’s really bizarre, I think he would appreciate it in some … bizarre way.
Last question: What would you do if you ran into David Bowie on the street?
I’ve considered this exactly: Initially, I think I would hang back until I was absolutely sure it was him. Then I’d approach, verbally confirm his identity, tell him that he has been a huge influence on my artistic and personal life, etc., and then ask if he would sign whatever book I happened to have in my bag at the time. Any book, I think, would be improved with a Bowie autograph.
Finally, I would ask if I could give him a hug. I think he would be okay with that.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
(Image credits: All courtesy of author)
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