Jason Stoneking: An Audience of One
Jason Stoneking is an American author and poet who has been in France off and on for 15 years. During that time, he has published two volumes of poetry, recorded an album, and made two short films. His new collection of essays, Audience of One has just been released in Paris. He lives with his girlfriend of 10 years, Leslie McAllister, a portrait photographer whose photos can be seen in this article. He loves chess, reading, philosophy and travel. He moonlights as a tournament commentator for Chess.com. He is currently working on a second collection of essays, due out early next year.
Firstly Jason, can you tell me a bit about your history and relationship with Paris (your first visit and what it means to you)?
I first came to Paris in 1996. I had just finished my first collection of poems and dreamed of having them published here. I was trying to follow in the footsteps of my poetic heroes. I wanted to learn French so I could read the original texts of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Apollinaire and Breton (among others). I wound up living on the streets for a little while because I hadn’t brought any money with me and didn’t speak French yet. But I quickly found out that being poor is much less of a cultural stigma in France than it had been back home. That summer, I fell in love with the French way of life. Since then, I’ve been trying to spend as much time here as I can. I’ve always felt welcomed here, like I can be myself and live the kind of life I want to live. No matter how much I love to travel, I always find myself wanting to come back to Paris. It’s definitely the place that feels like home to me.
Do you think writers in France are given more freedom than those in the States?
I certainly think the culture is more permissive to the artistic lifestyle. The French people treasure their writers and are very understanding about the way that writers think and live. When you tell someone in France that you’re a writer, they don’t ask ‘what you’ve done that they’ve heard of’ or ‘how much you can make doing that’ which are the questions you can’t escape in America. The French are more likely to congratulate you and encourage you to stick with it whether you’re famous or not. They care more about your passion for what you do than they care about your status. And that makes it a lot easier for a writer to live over here. It means that we can worry about learning our craft instead of worrying about having to impress the neighbors.
Do you think living in Paris influences your writing?
It must. When you’re an ex-pat writer in Paris, you’re always writing from the shadow of all those great English language writers who came here before you. You always have Wilde, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller, Beckett crossing your mind. It’s as if their spirits hover over the words you choose. You have a lot to live up to when you’re writing in this city. A lot of shoes to try to fill. So you see yourself more as part of a tradition. You feel less alone. But that comes with an added responsibility too. You don’t want to let down the side.
In what way can you relate to the long tradition of the American writers in Paris?
I think a lot of the Americans who came here to write came for similar reasons to mine. America is not a romantic culture. It’s like a Darwinian feeding frenzy. Everybody is climbing over each other’s bodies to chase down the next blood-soaked dollar. Nobody understands why you would want to do anything that isn’t immediately marketable. So I think writers and artists come here looking for that sexy mythology that we see in old European movies. We want to fill up our senses. We want to explore the mysteries of poetry, art and history for their own sakes. Everything about our image of France screams ‘Stop and smell the roses!’ which is exactly what writers need to learn how to do. Growing up in the States, I didn’t have any idea what the roses smelled like. But I think I’m starting to learn.
What was the idea behind your book Audience of One?
him choosing the subject matter and me just writing about whatever he told me. I agreed that it would, but I told him that such a piece of writing would only ever have an audience of one person. He laughed and said that we should do a book called Audience of One. And that’s how it started. He sent me 25 titles, and I wrote a piece about each on of them as I got them. Then we collected all the pieces in their original order and that’s what’s in the book. I really loved the process. I found it very liberating. In fact, I’m already working on a new book with a similar premise. This time, I have 12 people giving me titles and each of them writing an introduction to their chapter. I think it’s interesting to ask how the writer’s role changes when they’re no longer deciding what they will write about.
For more information as well as the opportunity to purchase Jason’s book please visit his website at www.jasonstoneking.com
And don’t miss the Video Profile of Jason produced by Leslie McAllister for www.MaVieFrancaise.org .