City of Illumination: An Interview with Jack Eidt
by Silver Webb
Jack Eidt is the author of "City of Illumination," published by Borda Books in Delirium Corridor, A Dark Anthology, curated by Max Talley. It includes fifteen tales of psychological suspense, altered states, noir crime, and the surreal. Featuring authors Zane Andrea, John Reed, Shelly Lowenkopf, Sacha Wamsteker, Jesse Krenzel, Genna Rivieccio, Jack Eidt, Trey Dowell, M.M. De Voe, Stephen Vessels, Fred Williams, Silver Webb & Max Talley. Available for purchase here.
Jack Eidt is an interesting man. I say that tongue-in-cheek and also quite seriously. I’ve known him primarily as a writer, and I’ll begin there. Jack is master of the tsunami. One of those prose waves that starts at your ankles and builds slowly, not via twenty-foot wall of water, but an inexorable flow of words, so descriptive, immersive, wry, and serious, that before you know it, you are picked up off your feet, there is no other option but to let the current take you. And thusly, Jack has taken me into acid trips in the desert, cliff-climbing to find the sun, into the sewers of Los Angeles to face the dark goddess of the underworld, through the sights and sounds and stink of political unrest and brothels and hostels in South America. Quite literally, there have been moments when I’ve read his work and felt like I was losing my breath. It is that good. And that challenging. “Half of his face had broken out in a rash, and his small permanent red welts made him appear deformed. Doctors had no treatment for what they called an ‘environmental autoimmune disease.’ They surmised he might have been exposed to something toxic…yeah, like with every breath of smog, drink of chlorinated fluoridated pharmaceutical-residue pipe-water, and morsel of chemically spiced and preserved food products. He could about see the suspended heavy metals, gas emissions from trucks, tire-rubber and brake dust hovering, settling into carpets, breathed directly into lungs, blood-stream, brain, taking over, dismantling his life force. Everyone in the city must be sick from this poison, but they called it ‘reality.’ ‘It’s all in your mind,’ some medical practitioners had informed him. The planet’s existence was all in Bon’s mind, so what did they know?” -Jack Eidt, “Medicine Walk,” Santa Barbara Literary Journal, Volume 3
Many people come away from his prose feeling baffled. After his last reading for the Literary Journal, I had people mention, months later, “Who was that guy? You know, the guy who read the weird…that…I don’t know what to call it.” I just stop them and say, “The vulture acid trip through Los Vegas?” And they go, “Yeah! That guy. Who is he?” Months, years later, they are still trying to process what they are going to conclude, what they will take away from that one story. So in interviewing Jack, on the occasion of Delirium Corridor’s publication, in which he has a story, now is my opportunity to attempt an answer to the ubiquitous question, “Who is that guy?”
Silver: The call for stories to Delirium Corridor asked for the surreal, the strange, altered states, noir, and beyond. Tell me a little bit about “City of Illumination,” your Pushcart-nominated story and the process you went through in writing it, and how you feel it fits with the theme of Delirium Corridor.
Jack: The story I endeavored to write is a story about a Dia de los Muertos journey, a day of the dead journey to the underworld. I had the idea of the main character on the last day of his life, which was Halloween, going on this journey across the river and through the many stages in the Mexica and Aztec myths, where there’s this incredible journey the soul takes into the land of the dead. I realized that it was a big thing to take on and a culture I’m not part of, so I held off on it. And when Delirium Corridor came up, I had a way to finish it off set in Los Angeles. All of it was rich territory to go into…Where do you go when you die?
“Edmondo recognized the Lizards were closing in. The door would soon be locked, and the blinking daylight, swallows, hummingbirds, and gnatcatchers, all would be lost to the Owls. He unlocked the embrace of the cold pale lips, grabbed his conch trumpet, and dashed toward the pipe, the hole in the ground, mocking them, the owls, lizards, the laughing girls, and sound of lapping water, coming for him, to keep him down there forever.” -Jack Eidt, “City of Illumination,” Delirium Corridor
Silver: Your land of the dead is an incredibly strange, surreal party under the sewers of L.A. It features a goddess figure at the center of it. Who is she and what does she represent?
Jack: Well, there’s this society of the owl of Minerva, a sort of blending of urban legends in Los Angeles and the culture I’ve experienced there underground. In my younger days, when I first came to Los Angeles as a graduate student at UCLA, I spent a lot of time at these underground type parties. But I blended that in this story with some mythological currents. It also still sticks with the Day of the Dead theme. It was really an anteroom to the land of the dead and I was blending in something I experienced in Guatemala, when I travelled to an area in the creation myth of the Mayan people, where there is an incredible network of caves, so I went through these caves. I remember there was this one cave where we went further and deeper down, in complete darkness. My guides went in with candles. It was slippery, extremely dangerous at times. We came to a body of water, a kind of lake. And all we heard were these voices laughing, it sounded like sisters laughing. We had to turn back there. This underground scene was a similar thing to "City of Illumination." Finding a way out of that underground world was important.
Silver: When the women start laughing, Jack, it’s time to back it up and get out of the cave!
Jack: You know, it was really sweet, it was childlike laughter. I’ve visited that cave and village multiple times and I continue to write about it. But it’s very hard when you take on another culture’s history and mythology; there’s the danger of cultural appropriation. One that comes to mind is Mel Gibson doing the film Apocalypto. He didn’t treat the history appropriately. And one could argue that things didn’t turn out well for Mel after that. The spirits have a lot of power and don’t kid yourself that they don’t.
Silver: "City of Illumination" is set in Los Angeles, although it progresses to a party in the underworld that feels far distant from L.A. Here is an excerpt of it:
Edmondo saw clouds. When would it rain? He could think of nothing else while driving to work. He admired the serpentine contrails striping the sky, but he had to focus as cars ahead clamored for preeminence. A helicopter strafed him from above, eye in the sky, noting his movements, surveilling his surrender to required presence at a fifth floor Arts District gentrified condo down the river wash from where he heard about a suicide of an under-appreciated screenwriter, almost a Sunset Boulevard cliché, except the guy did not end up at a starlet mansion west of the Strip, but crumpled and bloody at the bottom of a dry culvert, swarmed by maggots and cockroaches. People wondered if he was rolled before he jumped from the bridge into the graffitied dry gulch, or after he hit bottom. No rain. No hope. No one cared. Why did Edmondo have no hope?
“You have hope.”
A City Official sat next to him in the car. “Take a left.”
He took a left, admiring how the hills careened off toward the exotic-weedy cement culvert, set apart by 12 striped lanes, guard rails, and chained link.
The helicopter seemed to have taken over the steering wheel and the City Official said, “We have assumed control.”
Drones like these documented the city’s collective pain and sorrow as a gasping civilization in deep decline from thousands of feet in the sky.
This is how it ends. The City Official and his pet drone were escorting Edmondo to his demise, of this he became certain.
Delirium Corridor is available for sale here.
Silver: You're writing about a futuristic, surreal L.A. You present a sense of the city that is corruptive to the soul. How does that relate to your actual feelings about Los Angeles? A lot of authors take a city and make it part of the landscape of their stories.
Jack: I'm an urban planner in exile. It's frustrating to try to change things, a better way to live. It's another thing to fight for those changes and work though the system, the political, economic, and human nature systems that are all byzantine and beautiful and horrific and awful all together. I do environmental advocacy as well. My blog Wilder Utopia is to put out the positive or negative, creative or destructive messages that are necessary to envision a better universe.
"City of Illumination" is very much a climate change story. There's no rain. It involves a Woman of the Water, people praying for rain, figuring out how to survive in a place that is dying slowly for lack of rain or lack of connection with Native reality. I work a lot with the Native folks here in Los Angeles. We as settlers to this land know nothing about it. We removed all the natural topography, the water courses are turned into cement. One of the issues in the story is the L.A. River and how it's this concrete mess. I do a lot of work on trying to rethink rivers, rediscover the fount of life in this natural ecosystem. I would love to get the heck out of L.A. and go hide in a mountainside. But these days, of course, the mountainsides I truly love, are in danger of burning in this ecosystem because of so many things we humans have brought into our lives to make life easier that have all these secondary effects. I had to go back to where my family now lives, and try to make this place better. Just take it a day at the time.
Silver: You're an important part of the SB writing community, at workshops and the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference (SBWC). I wondered how long you've been writing and are there any mentors or other people who you're willing to admit to who have shaped your writing along the way?
Jack: The Santa Barbara community helped me a lot. I started on my writing road as part of my travelling road ten years before I even started at the SBWC. I'd heard this person say that everyone has a gift to give, no matter who you are, and you have to figure out a way to give that gift away. I've been trying to give away the gift of my writing. I had an agent who agreed to represent my first novel, and it ran aground for a number of reasons, some of them real. I was having trouble giving my gift away, get better at it. My first time at SBWC was in 2007, and I became friends with a lot of the people who ran it, Monte Schultz, in particular. Also Max Talley, the editor of Delirium Corridor.
At first, I couldn't figure out why people came back year after year. Since then, I've come back and back and back, to be part of an incredible group of people. John Reed, Monte Schultz, an incredible writer, Stephen Vessels, an amazing writer. We had a group early on, a bunch of crazy people, but the work was really powerful, a lot of talent in that group. It was important how we helped shape each other's work. Over the years things have changed, but we still all work together, and that's important to have a community, and that's what the SBWC has done. I'm hoping it will find a way to continue when we can meet in person again.
Silver: Your writing has been described as half drug trip, half travelogue, the Emerald Forest in the form of a sustainably sourced mushroom latte drunk out of the same glass by Carlos Castaneda and Hunter Thompson. Here is an excerpt of "City of Illumination" that I love:
“After showering and dressing, he emerged into the outside world of cawing crows, bees buzzing the pepper trees, and morning sunshine. Then reversing his steps, he backed into their decrepit paint-peeling cottage, letting the metal-screen door slam shut, and put his arms around her.
“He kissed her lips and felt something else, a pulse, an electrode shock, the buzzing of hummingbirds. He pressed his lips harder against hers, trying to shut out the intrusion that must have been his dream of burnt metal and flashing red lights. It was Halloween, after all.
“He ran hands over the curve of her back. She could not illume nor mitigate last night’s darkness that hovered among their futon draped with Mexica blanket designs and strewn-about-rejected-Halloween-costumes in the cramped rental living room on a dead-end street in the rapidly gentrifying hills of the Land of the Angels.”
Silver: A theme in your stories seems to be the man who is seeking, depressed by the modern world, aware of its destructive nature, trapped in a job, a city, a context that he wishes to escape and yet cannot, searching for healing that he may or may not find. Are your characters a coping mechanism? A hope for the future? Or just voyeurs of the times?
Jack: Hope for the future is important. A lot of times the voice that you're referring to...I follow it. I have an idea to start something but I don't know where it's gonna go or how it's going to get there. I don't recommend that to any writer. You end up getting lost. And that's why I'm a bit lost as a writer. I create these very broad tapestries that it's really hard to live up to. But I'm also inspired by folk tales, mythologies, the traditional stories. Most of my writing is inspired by those stories, what they mean to the indigenous cultures. These are ways of learning about the land you live on, for me to understand the plants and the animals around me. A lot of traditional stories don't always end up with obvious lessons. Most of the times the lesson isn't very obvious, but there's a lot there to learn, a system of respect.
Silver: A lot of your stories include spirits, mythological figures, supernatural entities. When you write, do you have a sense of being guided by spirits or being inspired by something beyond yourself?
Jack: Absolutely. At least I hope. That's the best writing. We're conduits, writers. The concept "Write what you know is" is important, but we don't know everything. I identify as male, how do I inhabit a character of a different race, age, culture. There's an art to it. A lot of times you can't do that. But the best writers suffer a mild form of schizophrenia. The best writing I do, I have to be alone, late at night, when it's quiet, to go into that mindset. There are so many people, so much energy here during the day that it's hard to go into that state of being directed. There's a process I go through that requires me to set apart from regular people. I suffer from Dracula syndrome. I look up from writing and there's the sun rising!
Jack Eidt is Founder and Publisher of WilderUtopia and Co-Founder of So Cal 350 Climate Action. He is an urban planner, environmental journalist, and climate organizer, as well as award-winning fiction writer. In addition to regular articles on his culture blog, he has published opinion/editorials in the Los Angeles Times,Orange County Register, EcoWatch, CommonDreams, Voice of OC, LA Progressive, CityWatch LA, Win:Win Journal, and CounterPunch. He has been featured on Los Angeles television news, Pacifica Radio, and NPR. He is Executive Producer of the podcast show EcoJustice Radio, sponsored by SoCal 350 and produced at KPFK Los Angeles. www.WilderUtopia.com
Silver Webb is the editrix of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her poetry and fiction have been featured in Peregrine, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger, Underwood, Burgeon, and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5. www.silverwebb.com