An Interview with Paul Nicholas Jones

By Nora Bearman


Jone’s short story “Documentary” appeared in MAKE issue 3: truthiness.

What is the setting of your story “Documentary,” and how much time do you usually spend to visualize a setting for your characters, or do you at all? Do you ask yourself “who, what, when, where, why” when you are editing your stories or other people’s stories or do you let it come together at the end?

The setting for “Documentary” is the Sulzer library in Chicago, the branch I use the most. I don’t recall spending anytime trying to visualize it, but interestingly, when I saw the outside of the building in my head while writing the story, it resembled a bank I used to go to when I first moved to Chicago. And the park across the street, Welles Park, looked like a park I used to play in as a kid. Generally I don’t like to get bogged down in unnecessary details. If the story needs something that’s not there, I prefer to allow my imagination to fill it in and create a kind of composite. The setting then becomes a more vital part of the story and also more alive for me.

On the whole, the immediate setting of my stories works as a kind of set for the action, but the farther I get away from the action, the geography gets more and more indistinct. Perhaps this is because I moved around a lot as a child. I used to envy writers with a profound sense of place, but then I realized that place, like so much, is a complex, shifting thing, and depends so much on what you invest in it.

I never used to ask the questions such as who, what, where, at least not at first. I’d turn off my mind and let it flow. Those questions would come up in the revising process and I’d deal with them there. Now, I ask myself these questions while I write, mostly because my process has changed so much. Due to responsibilities, I don’t have the time or ability to turn off my mind the way I used to. On the one hand, I feel like I’ve lost some spontaneity, but on the other hand, I feel more present as a writer in my stories.

Location and time are very important aspects of stories, for the reader especially. They provide context with which actions, reactions, thoughts and emotions can be understood. Do you find that travel has had any impact on your writing, or on your character studies? And if so, how, and which characters have changed because you have changed?

As I mentioned, I moved a lot as a child. And after college I traveled a lot. I like the traveling mentality because it gives you a kind of detached engagement. I used to write a lot when I traveled—nothing more than observations and the usual personal reflections that travel inspires. I was never comfortable trying to produce travel writing, though. I felt too much like I was exploiting people and a landscape I didn’t know. But I think traveling does help people figure out where they’re from, and I can see why writers who travel often write about a place they’ve left, especially a place that has a lot of significance for them.

I’ve written several characters who return to a place that was important to them and confront the change, though it’s never the most important action in the story, more of a backdrop. It’s hard to know what’s more responsible for the change, the actual traveling or the mere fact of being absent. Probably both.

When I read “Documentary,” it struck me as a funny and terribly sad story. There is no reason given as to why the son would kill his father, except to excel on his school project, and there is no information given after the father’s death. The father’s original true story is manipulated and turned into a truth in of its own. This is a very interesting process. It means that truth is relative and circumstantial — how does truth fit in to your stories in general, and how do you find a “true” setting?

This idea of relative truth is at the core of all my writing. I don’t know if there is any other kind of truth for me. People may strive for the absolute, whatever that is, and yet they have to try to get there in a leaking boat or wearing painfully tight boots. I hope that doesn’t sound pessimistic because at heart I’m not. I happen to like flaws, both in people and things, and I’m fascinated by the efforts people go to in order to try to hide or compensate for them, and also how they overcome them. Regarding your question, I suppose you could say that flaws—and strengths—are really different kinds of circumstances and they’re what you have to use to find your particular truths.

As for the story, the relationship between the father and the son from my perspective was more positive than anything else, almost like a rite of passage. The child has to sever himself from the parent to become independent, and in this regard, the action of the story is so inevitable that it’s almost impersonal. It is sad on the one hand, but on the other, the father is so pleased that his son is starting to define himself. And the father, having been an actor, is pleased that his son was impressed at his performance. In a way, he’s finally been granted an opportunity to be his “true” self in front of his son and this has been helpful for his son. I like when characters discover truths they weren’t looking for.

All in all, I guess I’d say a true setting is one where something truthful happens.

How do you choose between settings? Have you ever fallen in love with a location? If so, when, where, why and if not, is there any place you haven’t been that you think would make you never want to leave? Where and why?

I remember reading how the writer Paul Bowles absolutely fell in love with Morocco, that he moved there because it was where he was meant to be. I would love to become captivated by some specific place like that, though I can’t imagine what it would be. Because I moved around a lot, I grew up in many different landscapes, and I appreciated different aspects of all of them. That said, I particularly love the desert, especially in New Mexico, and the ocean, especially the Pacific Northwest. Now that I think about it, I’m trying to finish up a novella set in the desert so I can continue working on a novel set by the ocean. I’ve never really thought of it before, but I guess I can distinguish between two types of settings in most of my writing: one is the city, where the human landscape dominates, like my story, and the other is the small town, where nature dominates. Maybe landscape is more important than setting, if such a distinction makes sense, though I don’t think it does and should probably change that sentence. But I like the way it sounds.

What are you to these days? Any new stories in the making?

I’ve been slowly working on the novella and novel I mentioned. The keyword is slowly. I have a family and full time job and do most of my writing while riding the El to work. I have an unfortunate tendency to stare out the window and watch the cityscape as we roll through it when I should be writing instead. But it’s coming.


NORA BEARMAN is a recent graduate of Bennington College.

PAUL NICHOLAS JONES’ writing has appeared in MAKE and The Greensboro Review, as well as on-air on WBEZ for their series On Working. Stuart Dybeck selected his story “Documentary” as the winner of the 2005 Guild Complex Competition. He appeared at the Steppenwolf and Remains theaters as an actor, and his play The Barrow was produced at the Chicago Actors Ensemble.


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