In the spotlight: Jon Shanahan

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I met Jon Shanahan several years ago in my writing workshop at Banff. His writing had grit and a spark to it; he wrote with a sense of humour, and obviously loved the plasticity of language. His sentences were never boring — sometimes they could be quite bold.

When Jon told me that he'd gone back to Banff to work with Alexander MacLeod and that the workshop had changed the way he thought about writing, I was curious to see what that looked like. Generously, he agreed to share some of a work-in-progress in this month's spotlight.

I love the way he's using a ticking clock structure in this story to keep us on edge. Tyler's race against the golem download (63% downloaded… 64%. 68%!!) keeps us tethered to time and slightly anxious, so as we read Tyler's spinning thoughts, we get more and more wound up. Then we read a line like this:

"Tyler’s mom sighed in her medicated way. 'Okay, c'mon, let's go, Ty-bot, I'm serious.'"

And just like that, Jon releases us from some of the tension by giving us permission to laugh.

Uncomfortably.


Portrait

Meet Jon

Jon Shanahan was raised in Detroit and Ontario, and now lives in Vancouver, where he works as an ad copywriter. He holds a BA in English Literature from McGill University, and has studied short fiction at Canada's Banff Centre. Jon is mostly concerned with ghosts, gods, and demons, and where they intersect with our family obligations. He is working on a collection of short stories, and editing a novel, both in that vein.


Handwriting or computer?

I make a lot of notes before I begin, lately on a big sketchpad. But I write drafts on an old PC that’s not used for any other kind of work, and that never connects to the Internet.


Page count or time count?

Mostly time, especially during revision, which is like 80% of the process for me. But when I was trying to get the novel draft done, I had pretty aggressive daily page counts. (There were many, many junk pages from this tactic. There are still many junk pages, come to think of it.)


First drafts or revision?

First drafts, for sure. But they can also be like drunken sprees, with a sort of malevolent glee behind them, a dark tinge that blooms in the morning into full-on aching shame. So even then, yes, first drafts: definitely prefer those.


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

I went to the Banff Centre twice in the last three years — once with Sarah S. and once with Alexander MacLeod — and both stints completely napalmed my mind (in the good way). I made some friends I really love there. But workshopping is tricky. When you get the right people, it’s like manna — it feels so good to have someone see your work. It makes it real. But then, you also have to be careful about where and from whom you take direction, and how much to the bone you let things go. Personally, I think you have to have a kind of maniacal faith in your own work. It’s your voice, after all, and the best stuff is always like, “That’s allowed? How did she have the guts to try that?” It’s a balance, I guess: good to get out there, so good to find allies, but you always have to keep a core that’s confident in your own work. But one thing’s for sure, I really do wish for more of a community of writers here in Vancouver, just to hang.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

Berlin minimal techno with lots of tones and soft beats and some light melody, like Pantha du Prince, Dominik Eulberg, Barry Jamieson, DJ Tennis, Nixon, etc. I find the repetitive machine beat helps me to focus. (Not sure what that says about the quality of my attention.)


Why do you write?

I’ve always wanted to write, since I was ten. I spent a lot of time waiting, though: talking about writing, journaling, reading, before I really hunkered down. Since I have, though, I can honestly say I feel more settled.

A good friend of mine once said about music, “We do this because if we didn’t, we’d fucking kill ourselves.” That’s obviously extreme, but if I’m writing regularly, it definitely makes my interior landscape so much warmer and more welcoming to live in. And yet, a strong writing practice doesn’t guarantee happiness, either. This is the thing that can be so hard to explain to spouses, parents, etc.: “I have to write, but, ermn, well, I don’t always enjoy it, exactly.” Looks pretty grim to outsiders.

But as a practice, it’s so essential for me, right to the bottom. When I’ve had a strong session at my desk, I step away and into the day with this incredible quiet clarity, a “Vedic calm” (to lift a sweet-ass phrase from Donna Tartt). It seems like I can more directly apprehend the rolling of the buses out back, more softly relate to the silent stand of greenery past the porch. Notice my eyes, my breathing. It’s like I’ve purged a lot of the static out, and then something clean has risen up behind it. It’s the closest I’ve been able to get to the Great Mystery. So I’m grateful about all that. It goes way beyond trying to “be a writer.”


What's the best advice you would give a new writer?

Don’t wait. Just don’t wait anymore. You can pack on the way, tie your shoes in the car. No matter how fucked up your life is now, or how scared you feel about sucking, don’t lose any more time. Work, make writing central, write your shitty stories and move forward into better ones, and then even better ones. Decades can go by waiting for the muse to turn her shining gaze upon you, and that’s a tragic fucking waste, to wait. Just go, in, into the muck. It’s a mess, but then it exalts. That’s the nature of it, and the thrill. I’ve only made the humblest, most modest strides in this thing, but I feel so much more satisfied for it. Don’t wait. Go.

Also, read twice as much as you think is a reasonable amount.


Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today

I grew up on comics and fantasy and sci-fi books and movies, and have never really left my love for that stuff behind me. As I’ve developed as a writer, I’ve struggled with how to bring those occult streams into my own work, and still take myself seriously — still make work I’d want to read. The crucial question: could I credibly knit childish monsters and heroic themes with the dark hankerings and emotions that define our actual life? I flirted with it at first, trying to create what I thought looked like literary fiction, stitched in with a lot of dreams and some half-assed ghosts. But then I recently discovered Benjamin Percy, who definitely works in a genre grey area, and also Italo Calvino, and then remembered stories like The Demon Lover by E.B. Browning and Work by Denis Johnson and Steven Millhauser and Kubla Khan and of course there are a zillion other examples of the uncanny in “real” fiction. I finally just shook off what I thought I should do, and one morning, I scratched out a list of about a dozen story ideas that all had some outlandish supernatural element, as well as a really difficult emotional core. They all seemed to hang together, and I knew I had a direction. This story, ClodAlive, is one of those ideas. It’s supposed to be about grief, and bodies, and pain, and sexual confusion, and other forces that get way beyond our control.


Excerpt from ClodAlive#247, by Jon Shanahan

The D&D Monster Manual describes four distinct types of golem — iron, earth, flesh(!), and stone — but from what Tyler could gather from this Illuminato website, the one he was making would be a clumped combination of all types. And he couldn't fucking wait to see what it would do.

The shem-code ticked out its download progress, flicker-quivering as the numbers clocked upward. 62%, 63%. Stalled. Tyler shook his mouse, sat forward, tried to breathe evenly. 64%.

The shem-code. The key to the whole thing, the animator. A strand of characters ripped, Tyler had it on good authority, direct from the servers of the Illuminato in Switzerland. Ancient malice made digital; vengeance incorporated. Transmitting now, to his USB dongle, almost ready to [eject hardware] and slip into the mouth of the golem he’d moulded in the backyard. Almost ready to lurch his herky humanoid into action, and wreak hot havoc on those finance fucks at Jefferson Tabernacle who engineered his dad’s final downfall and death.

A knock at the door, muffled. Tyler lunged out of his chair and flipped to the window like a guerilla. There’d been a Suburban out front earlier. He thought he’d covered his tracks, but the shem-code could trigger, he knew. Curtain flipped, peeked. Gone now.

“T-bone?” Just his mom; Tyler breathed. “You know Roy’s coming over, right? You remember?”

Roy, Jesus, Tyler thought. Fartshit. Here he was, finally, finally really acting like the man of this house, finally getting something done. Getting done sprayed glass and blood on the crystals and the moans of the moneymen crawling on carpets, if it all went down as planned.

And his mom wanted him to change his fucking sweater for dinner? To hang out with that gaywad boyfriend of hers? Roy? Who, by the by, even worked at Jefferson Tabernacle, walking in every day with the lizards who’d sold his dad snake oil securities, causing Tyler to find him dangling from the garage door opener by an orange lawnmower cord? Sorry, no. That simply would not wash, not this time. He walked to his terminal again. 65%.

“Tyler, pal, c'mon, let's go, no monkey business tonight. Get ready for dinner, please.” The door creaked open, and there stood Wendy, his mom, in the light. Tired in an apron. Tyler squinted up like a discovered dog in a den. He held Wendy’s gaze as he reached up to click away the download window. Behind him, his room lay piled with webs of deadstuffs and rot. Even he knew it: his dragon's lair had gone full infernal in recent months.

Tyler’s mom sighed in her medicated way. “Okay, c'mon, let's go, Ty-bot, I'm serious. Put on the sweater. Comb your hair. Get ready. Or we send some hazmat ladies in here tomorrow, and the computer’s on lock for a week.”

This was Wendy’s nuclear option. The last time she tried to snoop around in his computer, it had been a melee — puffed drywall, a broken chair from OfficeSmart. His terminal was the way the eff off limits, and she knew it. She meant business, with this Roy. Troubling on many levels.

In any case: Tyler obvs could not risk losing his rig. Not now. Not with the shem downloading, and the golem formed of earth and animal teeth and rocks in the backyard under a blue tarp. Waiting to lurch into violence and set things aright.

“Okay, mom. I'll get ready. Sorry.”

A pause. “It's okay, Ty-Bot.”

“Be out in ten minutes, okay?”

“Okay.”

Wendy pulled the door closed and the room softened into dark again. Tyler clicked the screen up. 68%. Two hours left. He pulled his Dark Knight hoodie off, and took the ugly teal sweater from the bag from Zellers. He pulled it on over his bare torso. It felt cold and hot at the same time, and picky. He sat on the edge of his bed and his hair hung over his eyes. He would have to ask his mom for a comb.


Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.

Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Jon's work?

  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt — and more importantly, why it’s working?

  • How is your own writing practice like Jon's? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Jon!


Photo credit (top): Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash.


Don't try to make it symbolic.
Manifestos, guides, and best friends.

6 comments

Jane Moore

a boy in pain - his dad, growing, his mom. The new boyfriend? But behind it all the downloading and the would-be golem. Who wouldn't want to keep on reading? It restored my faith in writing after reading a short story in a literary magazine that left me, for a minute, thinking i can never be published. I'm old, nonwhite, have worked in a job for years that is not academic but practical. Then I read this great middle and was so glad Jon is writing and will keep on writing.
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I love how the background is introduced in this draft! The D&D details are so loud and almost hyperactive (in a good way), but the major plot points are placed down so softly (his dad is dead, Roy is his mom's boyfriend, Tyler found his dad's body). I tend to introduce my plot points with Michael Bay subtlety, so I learned a lot from this sample. Every reveal was like a glancing blow. Just when I thought I was recovered another one came, but I stayed unguarded because everything was done so casually. By the end, I was suitably shaken. This is random, but I also love the exclamation mark after "flesh." It was early on but when I saw that I felt like a person appeared. It felt like a really real detail. And Jane Moore, I agree; I can't wait to read more of Jon's writing. And yours too! Keep at it, both of ya!!
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Jon Shanahan

Jane! So gratified that this herky-jerky golem could restore your faith, even for a few moments. Believe me, I completely relate to the ups and downs, the wild swings your your own internal barometer around writing. I suffer them all the time, big time. Keep going, your soul needs it. Thanks so much for your generous comments!
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Jon Shanahan

Elle, Many thanks! I really set out to pack an almost cinematic density of story into the front end of this piece, so I'm especially mollified to read your comments. And yeah, the flesh(!): always tricky, especially for a young kid. And, true, Michael Bay is seldom subtle, but that Hummer scene in "The Rock"? Rad. In all seriousness, something tells me your plots fall together with a lot more finesse than you're letting on. Thanks again.
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Amanda Robinson

Waiting. Yes, I've been waiting to write for too long and now, finally, I'm doing it. I've yet to discover if my first book attempt is shitty, but I'm fully prepared for that eventuality. I am inspired by Jon's voice as much as his story. For years I've been slowly eradicating my own voice. You know, "you shouldn't do this in your writing." Well, guess what? I should, and I will. Thanks for the much appreciated reminder that I'm the only one who can write in my voice.
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Amanda Niehaus-Hard

WOW - this post is exactly what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it. For almost 20 years I struggled with what I wanted to write (what is now called "dark fantasy" with what I considered "real" literature, all the while completely ignoring the fact that Bradbury, Calvino, Oates, Atwood -- these people were all exploring "dark" or horror/SF/fantasy writing. It's so wonderful to have the reassurance that someone else recognized the same thing. And Jon, I'm NOT waiting! I spent far too many years waiting. Thank you so much for that advice!! I loved this selection -- the D&D references were perfect, and I could so easily empathize with Tyler. In just this short piece you've introduced a character so real to me I think I might have grown up with him. Amazing job!!
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