JONATHON ENGELS has been an EFL expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected life as an instructor of freshman comp. He has lived, worked, and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way between them.
ALTERNATING CURRENT: Describe your writing style to someone who’s never read you.
JONATHON ENGELS: Have you ever wondered what it would be like if someone envied Kurt Vonnegut’s simplistic, sardonic delivery but, at the same time, relished the winding, word-packed sentences of Tom Robbins, the grasp and control of poetic forms of Elizabeth Bishop, and the political angst of Noam Chomsky, then that person tried to make some sort of imitating ode to these authors in the single greatest literary achievement ever? This is what happens when, after quite a few years, he realizes his folly and just gropes for the right words to get his piddling ideas across in a palatable way.
How would The New York Times categorize your writing?
In the long lineage of authors with impressively unkempt beards and penchants for travel — think Hemingway, think Twain, and when all the beards are said and done — Jonathon Engels puts his lovely facial locks into the mix, slurring each turn off (not a typo) phrase into a mishap only the most inept but hopelessly adventurous rogues can achieve. He is a traveler, outcast by his own refusal to stop being one, and a writer just the same. At his best, one way or another, he’s good for a laugh.
What was the catalyst that made you start writing?
Seriously, just hear me out. I was a romantic from an early age, penning my first poem or any such piece of writing, when at the tender age of twelve, I moved away from my girlfriend, whom for the next week saw several poems likening her to roses appear in the mail. Sadly, the gesture was quelled with the reality of several hundred miles, only a few months of knowing one another, and apparently faulty postal service that never delivered her heartfelt replies. Somehow, that made me (and my ever-encouraging mother) feel that I was good at expressing myself through the written word.
Your favorite —
Whisk(e)y: Jim Beam (I can’t afford the others often enough to develop a taste.).
Wild animal: Sharks. From a comfortable distance.
Waffle topping: Maple syrup? Isn’t that the whole point? Have I missed something here?
Poem: “The Red Wheelbarrow.” It started this way because I liked the idea of memorizing an entire poem, though lacked the discipline for reciting “Howl” by heart. But, WCW is an absolutely amazing poet, spitting at all the rules the way he did, and I love the fact that so much can depend on how one explains the significance of all that is happening in such a simple poem.
Scientist or inventor: Albert Einstein. What a cop-out, right? Einstein is so obvious (and may have been the first, or only, scientist to come to mind). However, despite indirectly contributing to the atomic bomb, he was a pacifist vegetarian who was hopelessly devoted to creativity. Being a pacifist vegan hopelessly trying to be creative, that means something to me.
Broadway musical: Oh, my. This is a head-scratcher. Hair. (Honestly, this answer did not begin as a pun.)
Badass getaway vehicle: A moped. Love the idea of cracking down that accelerator and faking the whiplash. Plus, the gas mileage.
Movie to watch alone: Umm. Is it wrong to say porn? Respectful, consensual, well-plotted, mind you, but definitely something I wouldn’t want to be caught watching.
Quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi. I’m not a big retainer of quotes, but I’ve read through lots of collections — bathroom readers, I think they are called. This one has always stuck with me as one worth remembering, worth living, really.
Tell me about your favorite books or authors.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut is my default favorite book, mostly because I remember it was so good that I finished it in one day, the first book ever to inspire in me such immediate and intense devotion. I love nearly all of his books. He was so clever from a simply human standpoint and so amazing at expressing it in a simple yet deep way. And he forever makes me laugh.
If you could witness or participate in any historical event or time period, what would it be?
Again, at the risk of sounding boneheaded or overly usual, I would love to have been around for the hippie movement of the 1960s, not so much for the drugs, music, and rampant nudity, though let us not fault those attributes, but because there were a lot of people doing — all in — things they believed in. I’m not sure how successful the movement was, but it would have been exciting to see so many — even if not all flower children were so motivated — trying to make the world a better place. I’ve been involved in permaculture for a while now, and it often provides the feeling I imagine. So, maybe now is the time.
Weapon of choice:
The pen. (Cymbal crashes offstage.) Again, however cliché, this is actually true.
The perfect soundtrack to your writing:
I always wanted it to be Tom Waits, especially the slow, crooning stuff with his voice at its most romantic, songs that are so damned sad and sweet you have to have another glass of whiskey just to wash them down. Then, I got married and stopped wanting to be so depressed, as well as started trying to edit the things I’d written and realized drunk was not the best way for me.
Which literary figure, dead or alive, would you want to —
Take tea with: Pico Iyer, the great travel writer, to capsulize him far too much. As an expat of ten years now, I write a great deal about travel and experiences abroad, but Pico Iyer manages to write about so much more, merely finding worthy themes in the places he goes. I read somewhere, and tend to agree, that his level of observation could make anywhere interesting. Taking tea, just by the phrasing alone, sounds so formal, smug, and boring that it might require that sort of power to keep me from getting too distracted and behaving badly.
Arm wrestle: Truman Capote. How funny would it be to see Truman Capote arm wrestle! It’s worthy of an exclamation point, even.
Ice skate with: Hunter S. Thompson. However funny it would be to see Truman Capote arm wrestle, imagine Thompson’s swaggering, jittering mannerisms gliding atop ice, the strings of language that would be emitted upon each slip. Did he ever write anything about ice skating? That’d be worth finding.
Drink under the table: If ever there was a Hemingway set up, this one is it, but I won’t fall into that trap. Maybe James Joyce. I’ve always felt as if I were a lesser reader (and writer) for not enjoying his work, so maybe it’d be nice to see him as a lesser drinker. Unfortunately, I’m afraid — to harken to his brand of dull realism — this would end up with me utterly frustrated at how long it takes, bored by the thought of another whiskey with supposedly one of the greatest authors ever.
Get a blurb from: Obviously, Oprah. (Aren’t I snarky!) She’s done more for literature in the last half-century than anyone else … blah, blah, blah. Frankly, I’m not really worried with acceptance from the literary crusties. I’d rather my writing reach audiences and be instantly loved on Oprah’s recommendation. Plus, more importantly, I’d be set then.
Beat in a duel of wits: Dr. Seuss. I feel like, in some fashion, I’ve been battling him my whole life, still pulling out truths of life from those silly rhymes. If I could just come up with the nonsensical turns of phrasery to take him down, what a feeling! He was amazing. (Check out Shakespeare Vs. Seuss.)
Have on your side in the apocalypse: George Orwell. He’s ready for that kind of thing, at least more so than me.
Write your next book for you: No one. I’ll write my books. They write theirs. That’s what makes them great and me the ubiquitous “struggling artist”: they aren’t limited by the narrow boundaries of my intellect and the lack of boundaries that corrupt my writing on a word level. At some point, I have to admit that I write as much or more for myself as an audience, and even if it is wrought with retrospective imperfections, giving it away to even the authors I most admire would make it less in my eyes.
The one thing in your writing routine you couldn’t live without:
Routine. Got to do it regularly, be it with a cup of coffee, glass of whiskey, or stale crust of bread. Without an actual routine, a schedule, my whole world starts to crumble into procrastination, self-loathing, and avoidance.
Set the perfect scene for you to write your next masterpiece.
The word “next” makes it sound as if there were previous masterpieces. I like the idea of writing in a small cob house in a warm climate somewhere, a plot of fruit-bearing trees not so far away, patches of vegetables just outside the house so that I could spend the mornings with my hands and feet in the soil and the afternoons content to be sitting in front of a computer, running on off-the-grid solar power. More so, I don’t want to have to leave that setting to do promotional tours for said masterpiece to sell the appropriate amount of copies.
When writing makes you rich, you will …
… have more money but likely live much the same. I like my life. I travel. I write. I rarely have an imposed schedule to dictate what I do. I guess it would mean that sleeping in a bus station to save the cost of a night in a hostel dorm would become a bit less defensible, maybe even less common, but knowing me, I’d probably still rough it more than necessary. It makes for more daunting, sometimes painful, adventures, but I love that challenge. Slumming with a backpack is me at my most comfortable and happiest, and luckily, that seems to be the life I’ve stumbled into, with a woman who digs it even more than I do.
Interview originally published on 2/28/15