Tampa Bay-based writer, columnist and self-proclaimed “poet-economist” Jason Leclerc is no stranger to Watermark’s readership. He’s been brave enough – even lexicon-swirled-in-laughter enough – to make a strong argument for being a gay Republican, which is no easy task in these pages. In 2013, Leclerc released his first book, a collection of math and reflections in the mirrors of logic like few before it called, oddly, Momentitiousness. On Aug. 7, Leclerc’s follow-up tome Black Kettle hits the stores and the internet with a different tone. He’ll be doing some reading and mingling and signing among friends from his hometown and fans from all over.
One reading, Leclerc says, will be a story called “Baptizer.” (“I’ve read it a couple times since Pulse, and I weep,” he says. “I don’t know how selfish that sounds. In light of Pulse, I think you’ll get chills, because I wrote it three years before.”)
As is his strength as a writer, Leclerc constructs characters in a revolving structure – this time utilizing more emotional short stories and observational fiction – to make his point: mostly, that things aren’t always as they seem. We caught up with Leclerc by phone just as he noticed that his work socks matched his work underpants. To put it lightly, Leclerc is a stickler for detail.
Watermark: Having been shoe-worn in the legwork for your last book Momentitiousness and coming back into the fray with Black Kettle now, there’s a definite difference in how you’re communicating to your readers. Was it a conscious decision to come out with a book that would push your own boundaries into fiction writing?
Jason Leclerc: The project was a little bit different. I agree that Black Kettle is much better from a reader’s perspective. Momentitiousness did what I was trying to do as far as experimenting and building out a new genre, but I was more conscious about story, character and drama than I was about form with Momentitiousness. Quite frankly, I will say that there was more of me in the characters of Momentitiousness than there is in Black Kettle. I was more free to be more imaginative.
I think there’s more observation in Black Kettle than there is in the internalization of Momentitiousness. The term that kept coming to mind as I was reading through was “binary,” exploring the binary code of existence. For instance, when you speak about a piece of matter entering the body and exiting the body, and all of the dopamine and endorphins filling the brain making you more happy than you’d ever be in uninterrupted life, that was one of the more brilliant turns of phrase I’ve ever seen. I feel like a lot of the characters you’re introducing here are to be seen as where they fit in the binary of life. Where do these characters come from?
If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about the binary thing a little bit. Even though there is an in and an out, one of the things that I was pushing at is the fact that everything is an on and an off, that there is a truth and a lie. I really tend to do well in that area of nuance. Interestingly, it’s one of those things that my people – the Republicans – hate; they want everything is black and white. I really tried to push against that and say, “Hey, there’s this way of looking at this, and there’s also this way of looking at this. The idea of hypocrisy, which I think is a permeating theme, is that we’re all hypocrites in some way or another, especially if we put things in binary terms. I kind of place that binary term of fact and fiction and how they come up [in order] to exploit it.
If the situation is as ornate as a lot of the situations you choose to portray, then you don’t see the right angles necessarily. It’s a funhouse mirror full of curves. You see the blur of existence. I see this great sense of empathy for both sides of a decision that everybody has to make.
I like the way you describe that part of this. These are events going on in people’s lives. In a lot of ways, it’s just people living their lives. But there is so much going around it. The characters don’t necessarily see this, but I like to give the reader a view into everything else that’s going on as a central piece of narrative is going on. I appreciate that you appreciate the way I feel about the scenery. You said ornate; it could sometimes become baroque, which in some ways can turn people off stylistically. I kind of think back to “The Flag” from Momentitiousness; that’s the story that we’re making into a movie. I had the producer call me and say, “OK, let’s make this, it’s a great story.” And then when we really sat down to convert that short story into something conceptually logical – with a beginning, a middle and end – we realized that it was 80 percent description, and that told the story of the tiny little 20 percent of the story of where the kid ran downstairs to save the flag. We had to build out a whole story around just a mood that we didn’t even realize was the driving force behind that story.
Where are you in the process of making the film and tell us a little about what that has meant to you.
I’m frustrated, because, just like writing a book, the easy part is writing the book. The selling of the book, the publicizing of the book, having to talk to everybody that you don’t know, and you’re a shy person and you don’t want to talk to anybody, and you have to talk to people about your book. It’s kind of the same thing with the movie. We wrote this great screenplay; we’ve raised “x” number of dollars for the production of it; we want to retain its intentions. We are still in fundraising. We may be doing that for another four or five years, until the right person comes and says, “I hear this and I want to see it come to fruition.” With this book coming out, I’ve pushed it further to the backburner.
Are you working through an infrastructure created by the success of your last book, or is it a whole new world?
I’ve got people in New York who have their connections, so I’m working through them and through their connections. But really what it takes is much more glad-handing on my side, and I don’t have as much time as I need to get up to New York that often and pat the backs and kiss the babies to really make it. It’s as much politics as politics, and I didn’t expect that.
So you pat the babies and you kiss the backs!
Maybe that would get me further!
Your level of language and the depth of description – emotional cinematography – is intense in what you’re doing here. You’re willing to go outside of the narrator’s position and allow each experience, whether right or wrong, to be explored. As somebody I know to be straight-laced, is it difficult for you to go to the darker corners?
I consider myself to be straight-laced, but as in my admission in last issue’s Watermark, I’ve done my share of Ketamine and Ecstasy, right? I also consider myself pretty open minded. I’m a gay Republican. I’m able to overlook a lot of what seems on the surface to be bigotry among people with whom I identify in many ways, and, at the same time, to be a proud gay man and out.
One of the main stories is called “Trayvon,” and in it, I retell the story of Trayvon. I take the position of where – and it’s not a retelling of fact; it’s a retelling of fiction – I imagine George Zimmerman as an evil devil, where I see him as a normal guy who’s gone through a bunch of crappy things in his life. What seems like hatred and anger at another person is really hatred and anger at himself. It’s a terrible series of tragic missteps that lead to the encounter between George Zimmerman and the kid, and I think that’s really ballsy.
I see that a lot of that in Black Kettle. It’s as if you shift the perspective by 45 degrees. And though you and I do not agree on many issues, you’re not asking anyone to agree here. This is the comfort of fiction.
Let me talk about the essay. If you started at the beginning with the essay “Black Kettle” and go straight through to the end, the footnotes create the framing essay. This is the big reveal. Basically this is the story of Black Kettle; I want to highlight what we just talked about: perspective.
Black Kettle was a Cheyenne Indian chief born in the early 1800s – nobody knows exactly when, because they didn’t have calendars; they were Native Americans. He rises up through the ranks and becomes this peaceful chief of this group of Native Americans who keep on getting pushed and pushed and pushed. Basically, manifest destiny and the gold rush push the Americans further and further into their lands. Black Kettle keeps making a series of treaties with the white man, and they say, “If you move here, then we won’t bother you.” Each time, the Americans keep breaking their trust. And finally, Black Kettle and Chief Lean Bear pack up their stuff and take their happy selves up to Washington, D.C., and meet with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln gives them a flag and says, “If you ever have any more trouble with these Americans, just raise the flag over your teepee and the American Army will know that you’re peaceful and that you have a special place in my heart.
So, they go back and the American Army attacks anyway. This became known as the Sand Creek Massacre. If you know that story, then it kind of puts everything else into perspective.
Are you going to continue to write things like this that relate to each other in format?
I’ve already started a third book that will be similar in style to Black Kettle. It’s called Jericho. I think Jericho is going to be super timely, especially if Trump wins. God, please don’t let this happen, but there’s a lot about walls. People will still be talking about walls; people will still be talking about Trump in two years. It’s not the party of Jack Kemp or the party of Ronald Reagan anymore. It’s just gone off the rails. I can’t be associated with it anymore. I wasn’t able to say I was gay until I was 22, or that I was in love with a guy until I was 30. But I’ve always been a Republican. It’s the one thing that I’ve always been to put a label on myself about. I’m kind of sad about it.
Black Kettle Book Launch Party will be at the Daytona Playhouse (100 Jessamine Blvd, Daytona Beach) August 7 from 2:00-5:00 p.m.