Author and new Champaign-Urbana transplant Jensen Beach's short story "Water Festival" appears in the latest issue of Ninth Letter, vol. 8 no. 1. 9L staffer Laura Adamczyk, who also co-hosts the popular local reading series Stories & Beer, talked to Jensen about the blending of fiction and nonfiction in his work.
Q: The Saab JAS 39A Gripen crash that you describe in your story "Water Festival" was a real event. How did you come to know of this incident and what about it intrigued you?
A: I wish I could say I was there. I didn't live in Sweden for another ten years after this happened but it's a story I wish belonged to me. I wish I had been there. I would have been terrified, but still, I wish I'd been there.
It seems almost comically lucky to me that no one was injured in the crash. The pilot survived, and no one on the ground was hurt. The plane crashed on an island very close to the center of the city; and that island was full of spectators. Yet, no one was injured. The fuel in the plane caused a fire on the island and still no one was hurt. The island the plane crashed on is not all that densely built up--there are a few buildings--including a hostel that used to be a prison--some trails and wooded areas. It's a good place to go for a swim off the smooth, rocky shores on the island's north side. The plane came down in a clearing on the western part of the island, basically as far from anything manmade as possible. I guess I think it's sort of funny the way all the variables of the crash--I mean it could have gone so terribly wrong--arranged themselves in such a way that, in the end, nothing much came of the crash. I was interested in that. I was also interested in the ways this event is part of the collective memory of Swedish people of a certain age. I'm that age. And I'm interested in events, facts, experiences that I don't have access to as an outsider. I'm interested in the ways those things add up to a cultural identity. That identity is one that I share, but incompletely. I think that's what I was trying to write about. I was trying my best to witness an event that I did not witness. I think fiction is particularly well suited to that.
Q: Initially, your story sticks pretty close to the facts of the crash, almost as though it were a lyric essay. As the story progresses, though, we get more and more fiction and conjecture. Why did you set the piece up this way? Are there any works that blend nonfiction and fiction that you particularly admire?
A: The only things I really knew about the crash were that it happened and that the pilot's name was Lars Rådeström. I made up almost everything else.
I love that fiction permits me (and the reader) to be in the air with the pilot of a crashing plane. And it lets me view and revisit the event from angles that do not exist. In this story, I knew I wanted to go where archival information couldn't take me. I wanted to know what it felt like for him to eject from the plane and watch it fall to the ground below him; I wanted to know what it felt like to be that lucky; and I really wanted to see what it would be like for him to, like I was doing, watch the whole thing from the other side. They've shown the footage on television often enough that I think it's a safe bet that he's seen the crash as it was filmed from the ground. What a strange thing it would be to watch yourself in that situation.
I love the work of W.G. Sebald. Also, though I am interested in the intersection of nonfiction and fiction, I am also interested in the ways writers use the truth--of a place or of some historical event, or experience--to create fiction. Nam Le works with this in really interesting ways. And a book you don't often hear about is Sterling Hayden's autobiography/novel (we might call it memoir today, but I don't think that really covers it) Wanderer. He uses letters and newspaper articles and memory to really interesting effect. The story he tells is true enough but there is a still a wonderful sense of the artifice of his having written it down. It's a great book.
Q: What is your personal "Water Festival"? What moment from your life will they play on the local television to commemorate your 50th birthday?
A: I've never really thought too much about this, to tell you the truth. I hope it's nothing shameful, whatever it is; though I'm pretty sure it must be. I think it would be interesting to see those events that lead to good stories; to see just how far from the truth of that event it's possible to get after telling a story dozens of times; to trace exaggeration, I mean. I think we all have these stories, right? Sports triumphs, or crazy drinking, or near disasters that make good cocktail party conversations and so on. I think it'd be weird to have to see all those laid out, in truth and detail, at some point in the future.
I have a terrible memory, too, so even if someone filmed some miraculous event I took part in and then showed it to me on my 50th birthday, my response would likely be, "That happened?"
Q: So, you've got a book coming out? Tell us about that. Please.
A: It's a book of stories coming out next February from Dark Sky Books. There are no plane crashes in the book and there is no truth.
Q: Jensen Beach, Jensen Beach. Might you let us in on the origin of your name? Are you really a town in southeast Florida?
A: I am a town. And I have been to me. This past May I was in Jensen Beach. I took pictures of signs and restaurant menus. I told everyone I came across what my name was. Most people responded very strangely to this. A woman at a gift shop where I was buying some shirts with my name on it asked if I was from Jensen Beach; and I thought about this for a second. How strange to be named after the place where you are from. I suppose this must happen but it seems strange. And it seems an odd first thing to ask a person when told he shares a name with the city you are both currently in. "So, are you from here?" the woman asked.
"Yes," I said. "Born and raised. I haven't been back for many years, though."
"I just moved here," she said.
"That's probably why you don't know me." Then I paid for my shirts and left.
The shirts are pretty cool, too. They change color in the sunlight. My kids love them.
Q: You're reading Sunday as part of Champaign-Urbana's reading series Stories & Beer. What should the audience expect from you?
A: Like Mike Don, I'm all about nipples. The audience should expect those. Meaning either I'll read about them or show some.