Jeff Wood – The Glacier
Jeff Wood’s cinematic debut novel, The Glacier (Two Dollar Radio) unfolds during a turn-of-the-millenium construction boom, as Midwestern forests and fields are transformed into superstores, corporate centers, and endless suburban housing developments. The destruction of one landscape to make way for another is rendered in visceral, atmospheric prose, and Wood’s characters, a land surveyor with poetic sensibilities, a caterer in a vast, empty hall, an ice-cream truck driver delivering pharmaceutical oblivion, to name a few, are both victims of and complicit in the dissolution of their own world.
In this week’s Late Night Interview, Jon Raymond talks with Jeff Wood about the inspiration for The Glacier, the “novel as screenplay,” and Wood’s vision of a “pre-apocalyptic” transformation of the Midwestern landscape.
JON RAYMOND: So, Jeff, I really, really dug The Glacier, a true art movie bound into a book, in part for its radical, even possibly unprecedented, form. I wonder, before we get into the content itself, if you’d want to talk a little bit about how and why you chose the screenplay format, loosely defined, as your writing template. Is this simply an unmade movie, or is it more than that? Is it a film script that evolved? Or did it always aim for paper?
JEFF WOOD: Ah, man- I am so glad that you have dug this project. It’s my first published work of any significant length and with a project like this, particularly with regard to your initial questions, I think I really have very little idea of who it’s gonna connect with or not, or in what way. So often you’re probing around in the dark when you’re making something, or at least that’s how I was going at it – and that’s exciting but precarious.
So to answer your questions – I would say both, yes and no, to all of them. It went through a lot of developmental incarnations:
It started out in a very raw way as just sentences that I was using to try and make sense of my headspace in the world coming out of the mid-90’s and leading up to the turning of the millennium. I had these two jobs back then in Ohio, in quick sequence, the two jobs that are featured in the book: land surveyor and cater-waiter, during the housing boom. So the way that I was working on it initially was very life-based and influenced primarily by literature (and music). But I needed the form to reflect the metaphysical, psychedelic and essentially non-narrative quality of the way I was processing these experiences, so I developed a set of prose poems that became an early baseline for how I wanted things to operate, as an archive of feeling and a quality of light and sound, and probably also as a magical quality that served as a personal medicine for some of the really bleak aspects of the world that I was confronting. A way to keep it magnetic for myself, and thereby I suppose, keep myself magnetized to the world. I was trying not to float away, or dissolve, and I needed a lightning rod.
But then I went traveling again and was performing as a performance poet out West, and acting in San Francisco, so I started really paying attention to the tonal and rhythmic qualities of the language. I spent some time in LA, which was wonderfully strange and excruciatingly lonely, and the more I worked on the literary language the more I wanted to see pictures and landscapes and hear sounds with them and see people having to reckon with those elements. So those early abstract experiments kind of morphed into something else that I felt wanted to be more comprehensive, more total. I came back to Ohio again and decided it should be a screenplay. I could never really resolve my obsessions with literature, cinema and music, as well as my encounters with nature, so this was my attempt to do so. To work on them all at once – and that meant movie. Even though I’d never had the formal ambition to be a screenwriter I think in a way it reflects to a large degree how we work things out in this culture. We work them out through the movies (and TV). Even in our daily lives, in our sequencing and comprehension of events, we work things out cinematically. That’s fascinating, particularly when you realize that is indeed what you’re doing with your own psychology.
So then The Glacier did have a whole life as a screenplay. In LA… In NY…. And even Europe. But the ironic thing is, as much vigorous support as I enjoyed for it among my peers and from some very very supportive individuals, I’d inadvertently get essentially the same response from whomever gatekeeper I was trying to sell on it. They’d all say: this isn’t a script. And I’d say, yes it is. And they’d say, no it isn’t. If it is, then tell me what it’s about. And I’d say, well what do you think it’s about? And then they’d tell me what they thought it was about and I’d say, That’s exactly right! And I’d get all excited. And then they’d say, yes but I had to tell you what it was about, and it should be telling me what it’s about. Not the other way around: I shouldn’t have to tell you – you’re the writer.
And I was going deeper and deeper into the mind-fuck of The Castle, which is exactly what I was seeking to escape, or transcend, and then a funny thing happened. I started to see the thing as this very strange form of literature where the words made pictures, and those words were neither literature nor not literature, but some strange kind of epic haiku that made pictures and sounds. And I put it in a drawer, and it was this thing in there that was neither what it was supposed to be (as a blueprint for something else: an un-made movie) and also wasn’t something else either. So it became some kind of third thing and I wasn’t quite sure what that was, but I started to think of it as a kind of literature: this odd poem that structurally was capable of producing pictures and sounds. And I thought, huh. That’s kind of cool. I’m gonna just leave it in there. I’m not gonna touch it with a ten-foot pole. It can go ahead and do its thing in the drawer. It is what it is, or not.
Eric at Two Dollar Radio saw some value in that: this structural conundrum of a thing that is neither what it is, nor what it isn’t. As we moved into sort of reverse engineering it back into a prose form, or novel form, or book form, we talked about that: this structure that produces sounds and images, like a hologram, rather than a more tonal and meaning-based or semiotic literary encounter. Not to overemphasize it or hyper-inflate it into something more important than it is, but I find that really fascinating, and has also informed some of my performing and subsequent literary encounters: the alchemical properties of language. Ironically, it’s a quality and mythology that informed The Glacier really early on: Philip K. Dick’s encounters with the Logos. Charles Burchfield’s sonic meadows and light producing trees. When Kafka tells us that Gregor has turned into a bug, is it a metaphor, or has he really turned into a bug? What’s the difference?
Early on I wouldn’t let it just be a book. Then it wasn’t allowed to be a screenplay. Now I’m not sure whether it will be allowed to be a novel or not. But I’m really really happy with this book form. It feels settled to me. And also, of course, facilitated.
JR: Wow, you are hitting on so many of my favorite things. Charles Burchfield is one of my all-time favorite artists and in fact played into the visuals of the last movie I did with Kelly Reichardt, Night Moves. I’ve also been absolutely loving some of the late Philip Dick books lately. VALIS, in particular, absolutely blew my mind and as I write, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer book lies nearby. All this not to mention Kafka. If all this was feeding into your mythology, no wonder The Glacier feels so deep. I also really admire a slow-basting creative process you describe. The gradual shuttling between categories and forms and expectations seems altogether healthy and strengthening to the core poetics of the thing. Now you can call it whatever you want, but the images and music are in there, like you say.
So speaking of the images and music and story et al., you mention the conception of The Glacier going back to certain jobs in the 90s. How would you describe the actual content of the novel/script in the most unabstract terms? What are the concrete figures or patterns that make up the experience? What is the “story,” even in the most vague terms? I’ve read it, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to give people a little summary.
JW: Charles Burchfield!! Yeah, man…. He’s like Prince. I don’t know what that means except that maybe they should be in a graphic novel together with Dale Cooper and Alice Coltrane using their special powers to bend the forces of evil into embarrassing states of vulnerability and cosmic empathy.
In the simplest terms The Glacier is about a guy (Jonah) who is working two day-jobs in Ohio circa 2000: one as a suburban land surveyor, and the other as a cater-waiter at a convention center – and he’s consequently trying to work out the poetic logic of being at the serviceable core of a civilization that is in the midst of a slow-motion free-dive toward irreversibly poisonous and corrosive self-loathing and is all the while perched atop the potential for instantaneous self-annihilation. Jonah’s antagonist is the development of the world and to a certain extent the other characters whom he encounters on the job, but only insofar as their antagonist is also the development of the world. This is not an other that unifies the tribe. It’s an other that’s comprehensively alienating, like a gas. When there aren’t clear categories of self and other any more than there aren’t clear categories of good and evil. We must manufacture one to sustain the other. It sounds like I’m already veering into the abstract. But really I don’t think I am. It’s a narrative structure: there seemed to me to be a direct relationship between the rudderless, insect-like quality of the suburban housing boom and the seemingly antithetical capability for spontaneous vaporization at any moment – like as a society we’ve given ourselves a panic button for when we just can’t take the heat anymore (or the burn of the dry ice). To me this was a subterranean river that was just raging out in broad hazy daylight. And the question becomes: so where does that position us a mass in relation to itself? What happens to the Social? Well, we know what happens to it. We’re living it now, on our little screens and in the noosphere of the network that is perpetually manufacturing itself as a social event-relation.
To bring it back into the concrete, on a narrative level: I was riding around in the back of the surveyors truck, out on the sprawling new suburban developments in the dead of winter, and to pass the time in the truck, and occupy my head, I was reading Kafka’s tome The Castle. And I paused – and the dudes in the front seat are listening to conservative talk-radio and talking about antique tractor shows and Hooters – and I looked out the window at the fields and the vinyl siding and realized that in that very moment I was a land surveyor navigating a post-modern labyrinth on the brink of some massive sea change while reading about a land-surveyor navigating a pre-modern labyrinth on the brink of some massive sea change; and in both cases it’s not clear whether the labyrinth and the navigation of it are self-imposed, or in the world, or invisible, or material, or utter chimera. It’s not clear whether the sea change is imminent or a mirage. And it’s not clear whether the antagonism is something that is real or something that is fictional. Since I was a kid I had these two mythologies that really dominated my unconscious and it’s not really clear which one is more real or more science-fiction than the other. One, of course, is Star Wars and the other is The Day After, about the nuclear annihilation of Kansas. They put that shit on TV and showed it to kids and this is heavy duty stuff. And if you watch it today it’s just as horrifying as it was back then and still stands up pretty well as a movie. But is it real or is it just a TV show? Well, the truth is, it’s both – and when you discover that, as a child and young adult, you’re well on your way down the rabbit hole to the center of your own culture at the level of some pretty primeval forces.
So yeah, as far as the story goes, and what it’s about, I had a lot of autobiographical material going on that certainly related to a phase of American culture but I knew at the time I wasn’t going to write Big Sur or Desert Solitaire…or Slacker or Dazed and Confused…that kind of fictional/biographical naturalism. But neither was I going to write Neuromancer…or something as clean as Donnie Darko. (All works I mention of course because they were hot in my orbit, and I greatly admire them, not because I was capable of them.) I was more attracted to the raw dynamism of Sam Shepard, the lyricism of The Thin Red Line and Dead Man, and a magical realist sense combined with the cut-up psychosis inducing quality of something like Lost Highway. Or the lyricism and cut-up psychosis inducing quality of John Coltrane’s Ascension… You know, there’s an unexpected triangulation between Charles Burchfield, Spielberg and VALIS– a kind of transcendental alien idealism-so I had to search for a new form, or at least a personal one.
I realized that I had been looking at the whole phenomenon of The Glacier as a geologic event: an inhuman event that was sweeping humans up in its creeping path and is controlled by no one. It’s an Event, a sphere more than a line. I found that if I focused on the “geology” itself rather than on the “stories” of people then I could grow the characters out of the geology in a way that would serve the landscape. Narratively, it functions more like a wake and a funeral than as a proper arc. In that sense I was just as interested in what the trees might have to say in the picture, or the sound of distant traffic, as what the characters might have to say. I wanted all the spokes to be equal on the wheel. As a reference point for a study of region and character, I sometimes liked to think of Jonah, the protagonist, in terms of the little wooden canoe in Paddle-to-the-Sea. Please Put Me Back in the Water.
I have to apologize for doing an extremely poor job of sticking to the non-abstract. But I’m also a very big fan of the elliptical quality of your scripts that allows them to breathe with this specific banal strangeness, or the strangeness of banality – although I haven’t seen Night Moves yet, and am really looking forward to doing so. I’m curious what you anchor yourself in, if it’s dialogue, primarily, or something else? When there is so much algorithmic story structure going around… not to criticize a certain kind of craftsmanship that I have a lot of respect for: I’m in awe of the clockwork-like precision of complex trigger-happy stories with lots of set-ups and turning points and reversals and payoffs. But I’m also thinking of Antonioni and Sergio Leone’s open arcs that seemed to really bring in the sky itself. Or the absolute, stunning cruelty of Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which seems to defy the center of the earth.
JR: Now Prince and Alice Coltrane too? How can the inspirations get any better???
So you’re also an actor in addition to a writer. I find it really interesting to hear an actor who’s so inspired by such imagistic and landscapey and abstract sources. Did any of your acting talents find their way into this project? Or is acting an utterly different muscle? Or does your acting draw on some of the same inspirations, too, for that matter?
JW: Well, there isn’t any Prince in this project, unfortunately. But who isn’t inspired by Prince? I do hope there’s a little bit of Alice Coltrane hiding in there somewhere.
Acting and writing are pretty different muscles that can sometimes interfere with each other. But I was first drawn to the theatre by Shepard (after all the obligatory midwestern high school musical stuff) as much for his conversation with American mythology, with family pathologies, and with the landscape, as by his characters, the rhythm of his dialogues and the sometimes extreme physicality required of his actors. All those things are attractive to me. So even though the processes are different I think the inspiration is much the same for me: wanting to be a part of the landscape and the ideas; to engage with the landscape and the mythology; and to have an essential physical function there. Even if the function is fictional or poetic, it can still be essential if it’s working.
I discovered that I really enjoy writing dialogue, and working out physical solutions to puzzles that might otherwise remain abstract ideas or feelings. So there’s something of the acting in that translation, I suppose, even if it’s happening on paper.
There’s a scene in The Glacier where two characters, Jonah and Simone, have an encounter and a subsequent conversation in a break room at the convention center. I wanted their encounter to be determined by the conditions of the room and their respective situations with regard to that room. And then I wanted their responses to each other and to the condition of the room to break down as the physics of their conversation is absorbed by the physics of the room. So the breakdown happens first at a conversational level, then at a theatrical level, and then at a cinematic level – which results in a breakdown at a psychological level or on the level of intimacy. I hope it goes full circle. Ultimately, what they’re trying to say to each other, or avoid saying to each other, is manifest in the perfection of a catered table setting: a plate, fork, knife, spoon, coffee cup, etc. – and by the paranoid realization that there’s a nauseating vertigo in the relativity of dialogue between two people. It wants to have a triangulated witness or be grounded in a third, the voyeur, whether real or imagined. So that scene kind of became this little experiment as a Brechtian melodrama.
There’s also something just really physically compelling about placing actors out in an open field, on the landscape, things like that. I think it kinda comes from wanting to watch the creature in the field, and be the creature in the field, and be the field, all at the same time. Flights of imagination I suppose.
I’ve always been astounded at the abilities and careers of actor / writer / directors like Dennis Hopper, Cassavetes, or Sam Shepard who were able to navigate a continuous, vigorous exchange between the disciplines that seemed to inform each other.
JR: I wonder if by any chance you’ve read an essay by Charles Baxter called Stillness? I think that’s the title. It’s in his book Burning Down the House and it talks about the problem of creating palpable silence in text and also about his awe at the landscape of the Midwest. You did such a good job of summoning the mythic landscapes you talk about. I wonder if that came about through some strategy, or simply by way of magic?
JW: Ah I’m really happy that aspect of the book has resonated with you, and that you think it was successful. I believe it was my primary ambition- to render the landscape and the ambient qualities of the landscape. I do think there was some strategy to it. I felt that if I could nail that layer of the text and the story, that ground, as it were, then I’d have something real to work with: a believable landscape and a charged landscape. I also needed to be able to counterpoint the specific exterior landscapes with the specific interior ones, namely the open winter fields with the “field” of the convention center. And within that, the differences between the different regions of the convention center; and the different sonic qualities between being out on a cut winter corn field or within the trees. You know, you should really feel like you’re standing there. That’s important too for the antagonism of the domestic spaces: a tactile quality to all the new houses encroaching like some living egg-colony. That sort of thing. In that sense, the project really is much more about that effort, than say about “people.” Or at least they have equal billing. Characters are inseparable from landscape, at least in this case. So there were all these zones to be really attentive to. And that also proved to be an interesting tension between prose and screenplay prose – a relationship between density and space: just describe what’s happening, but it’s loaded. How does one do that?
I have not read that essay by Charles Baxter but it definitely sounds like something I should familiarize myself with. I was paying a lot of attention to a handful of things that maybe were making a similar impact: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, Deliverance by James Dickey, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki; some haiku collections…. I worked with the structural sensibility of haiku quite a bit in order to try and establish a relationship between silence and density and momentum within scenes and settings.
And Miles Davis. In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Man. Those records are all about palpable silence and responding to it. Listening, listening, listening. Acting, too, should be about listening. Even those Burchfield paintings. He painted sounds in with the light!
I’ve also always been fascinated with the way that horror films use silence to create tension. And equally, the scariest scenes in horror films take place outside in broad daylight. Reality is taken for granted and suddenly there’s a profound vulnerability.
I don’t know. There’s just no substitute for being on the landscape. And paying attention. Maybe that’s the magic part. Or the magical part. My days as a land surveyor back in Ohio were so personally charged that I felt like a raw nerve just picking up everything. You’re out in the cold all day with just two other dudes, and you stomp your feet on the frozen ground, and then you stomp them again a few seconds later, and then you stomp them again…and this was before all our devices – and this is important – you are just out there. There’s a lot of breaths in the day.
A 4 am breakfast call at the convention center was also pretty raw. The spaces were all alive. They were haunted. So I felt they deserved that kind of attention in order to summon that palpable quality. The architecture is the narrative.
When I started the writing in earnest, out on my Dad’s land in Ohio, again in winter, I started bird watching. It’s a tool to put myself in the position of having to be quiet and pay attention. To look for certain textures and patterns, even at great distances in a way that is not normally required of you. I’m fascinated by this notion, that Polynesian canoeists, like the ones who may have paddled to Easter Island, could read the water and the horizon like a map. In the middle of the Pacific. There’s a similar notion in the Aboriginal Songlines. Ways of seeing background for foreground. Burchfield’s paintings are a record of that in the modern. It’s awesome to look at his landscapes alongside Hopper’s, his friend and much more famous contemporary. Those two different ways of seeing.
The other part of it is – and I apologize for going at these responses in such a long-winded, circuitous way – but the other part of it is… I guess you could call it strategy: I was watching the land disappear. Rapidly. On a grand scale. And for what. For crappiness and inhumanness, and for what I believe in many ways can just be distilled down to the mechanisms of bad food. And just more. And I could see that it was not going to stop. And now we’ve got the more, everywhere all the time. So attention to capturing the landscape in writing seemed like a survival strategy, for me at least, if not the land, because as a land surveyor I was participating in it directly. In that mechanism. Like Meriwether Lewis, the land surveyor who shot himself in the stomach. And for the land, well at least is it was getting it down in the Judge’s notebook, as it were. So there was an urgency to it. And some regeneration in learning to love where I was from as it was disappearing or transitioning in the sweep of the culture at large.
JR: All right, I think we have to wrap things up so we can turn this thing in. It’s been so fascinating hearing about your web of thinking and inspiration. I love how many streams have fed into this text, musical, visual, textual, personal. But there’s definitely one question that I’ve been saving for last. As readers surely don’t know, we share a very special bond, i.e. my wife was your high school girlfriend. I must know: what was Emily like in high school?? Tell me something I can use against her for the rest of her life!
JW: Oh man! Now I’m really in the hot seat. And here I thought my previous answers had been circuitous…. I’m suddenly having a massive deja vu: how can I not get into trouble with Emily or her father. Thin ice all around. (Hi, Don!) Actually her brother I’m sure would have a whole lot more ammunition for you. Ask him about the potato gun incident and the ground hog that used to live in the front yard, if you haven’t heard that stuff a million times already, and if I don’t have my stories all mixed up. Ben was quite an inventor and if I remember correctly many of his experiments were aimed at novelly harassing the local, semi-domesticated wildlife (including the house cat) or at driving Emily crazy. I tried to stay out of the crossfire. But – okay, here’s the deal (sorry Emily)….
As you fully well know, Emily, like her brother, was (is) maddeningly intelligent, precocious, stubborn, disciplined and let’s say healthily competitive. The maddening part is that she will deny all of that. And I would credit Emily for single-handedly introducing me to “advanced” literature…but in this way: At some point I saw her carrying around what at the time looked like a tome of a book. It had a crazy sophisticated adult-looking cover and I could barely pronounce the name of the author or the title. The inside of the book looked like hieroglyphics to me, even though it was English. Again, it’s that thing about what are you willing to see. Or in my case, not. I asked her what it was and she said Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So I think I had to ask her again, Well what is it? And she said something like, It’s the most gorgeous thing ever written. I didn’t even know yet that writing could be gorgeous, so I asked her what it was about and she said something like Oh it’s a love story… but really it’s about everything and it’s too complicated to explain. You have to read it. She was like 15 and I think it was summer and not even for a class assignment or for anything. She was just reading it. She was probably the only 15-year old in town who had ever read Love in the Time of Cholera. And even if that’s not true, what is true is that when 15 years later I could finally comprehend that Love in the Time of Cholera and 100 Years of Solitude were in fact probably just about the most gorgeous things ever written I thought back on that moment a lot – like when I first learned how to listen to The Major Works of John Coltrane, or metal music… those really specific languages that sometimes require building new neural pathways – and consequently, what else Emily might have been seeing in town that no one else could see. I like to think about that with regard to how deeply and physiologically interactive literature is with reality. Thank you, Emily!
[She was also, even way way back then, a total hound-dog for usage and syntax. She could hear a misplaced preposition across the gymnasium. We had arguments about the pronunciation of the word “mauve.” In high school. I lost them.]
Purchase a copy of The Glacier at IndieBound and a portion of the purchase price will support Late Night Library.
Jeff Wood is an actor and writer from Ohio currently living in Berlin. He is a founding member of the experimental film/art group Rufus Corporation and a Wallabout Oyster Theatre Player. His 10-year collaboration with Eve Sussman and Rufus Corporation produced the works 89 Seconds at Alcazar; The Rape of the Sabine Women; whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir; and numerous international screenings including the MoMA, SFMOMA, The Smithsonian, The Whitney, and the Toronto, Berlin, Thessaloniki and Sundance Film Festivals. He was a 2014 Fellow in Screenwriting with the New York Foundation for the Arts. wolvesdontbark.com. Author photo by Linda Rosa Saal.
Jon Raymond is the author of the novels The Half-Life (2004), Rain Dragon (2012), and a forthcoming novel with Graywolf Press. He helped adapt two stories from his 2008 collection Livability into the films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy and wrote the film Meek’s Cutoff. He also co-wrote the film Night Moves. He lives in Portland with his family.