This Atmospheric Weight: A Conversation with Jackson Culpepper
Jackson Culpepper is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of South Carolina, now living in east Tennessee. His work has appeared in Armchair/Shotgun, decomP, Paper Darts, and other publications.
His most recent story, “‘Bozart’ Cohn’s Don Quixote,” appeared in our Next Gen Temple Issue. Below, he talks with editor William Hoffacker about Borges, economic pressure, game narratives, and more.
To date, Cartridge Lit has published three of your stories, all featuring “Bozart” Cohn and his chronicler. How did this series start for you? What inspired it?
Initially I actually wanted to make the games, especially Age of Tribes and Don Quixote. Around the time I realized how huge of an endeavor it is to build a game I was reading Borges. In Ficciones there are several fictional novels that he describes, particularly showing their effects. Here, then was a model: I didn’t have to make the great game, only describe it in the same degree of complexity.
Another big inspiration was the work of Em Lockaby, especially his stories on the sadly defunct Nightmare Mode. He’s brilliant at writing about games, and influenced me greatly in how I think of them.
Your “Bozart” stories are fiction masquerading as journalism, like a mockumentary. What appeals to you about this framing technique? Are you drawn to it in other contexts as well?
The form is an extension of the Borges idea, that of examining the complexity of a nonexistent work. Having the character Bozart be part of the story (with the narrator as foil and, as you say, chronicler) gave me the chance to imagine his ideology as he created the games.
There’s something to the idea that because of where we are as a culture, maybe because so many things have become monetized and advertised, that even our fiction needs to hold close to reality to matter to us. I think of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which is a novel but is also exactly autobiographical.
What are your obsessions in your writing? What themes or subjects do you return to most?
I go through phases of obsession, as I’m sure most writers do. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about economic pressure and how it forms this atmospheric weight on us, or how it can preclude some of our most basic human joys like family, meaningful work, even love. Granted, this obsession came after working a few years in retail.
Maybe the common denominator of my work is the question of making livable, meaningful lives for ourselves. We tend to think that’s the goal, but just how possible or achievable is it? Is it better to travel and enjoy oneself, or to devote oneself to a worthy vocation? Bozart is one of these artists who makes art solely to see what is finally possible, and that is another goal of dubious worth.
Describe your personal history with video games. Any favorite games you care to mention? Do you play often?
I started with TIE Fighter, and sleepovers with my friend and I working our way through Myst. Wild Arms for PS1 just captured my imagination when it came out. The first few Silent Hills, especially 2 of course, helped me through some dark parts of my adolescence—one day I’ll have to find a therapist who has also played it and see how that works. The narrative and exploration has always been the hook for me. Lately I’ve lost track of things; I’m no good at all at most of the console games. Still, I adored Undertale and Life is Strange, and when I have the time to devote to it, I’m looking forward to The Long Dark‘s story mode.
What writing project(s) are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on the short story collection from which the Bozart stories come called The Economic Despair Game. I’ve got a solid draft and will be hunting readers soon. The collection is largely about that economic pressure/despair, with a millennial narrator on a quest for meaningful work and to make a living both. It’s also got Dragon Dice and a fair dose of Appalachian magical realism.
What have you read and/or played recently that you want to recommend?
Anyone who hasn’t played Undertale should go play it immediately. For books, Night at the Fiestas is an excellent short story collection from a few years ago, and Proulx’s Barkskins was incredible. I wish there were more of that book for me to keep reading.