I’ve known Simon Jacobs for several years, but not through his mohawk phase. That’s a side of him I’ve only seen in old photos or the semblance of what remains in his @mohawko Twitter handle. We met as people entering the workforce, both trying our darnedest to put on airs of professionalism. We used to joke about the unspoken uniforms we would find ourselves in — staunch button-ups and slacks — the things we would never wear except as the versions of ourselves we became for 40 hours a week. This is how I like to imagine Simon writing Palaces — shifting from his days at the office to another world at home with his novel.
It’s all a matter of extremes for the two punks at the center of Palaces. John and Joey make themselves at home in abandoned mansions and don the clothes of the wealthy. Hell, they even assume roles as the mother and father of a household that only has a lost girl left to it. That’s their thing: trying on different personas, seeing who can outdo the other. The book is full of doppelgängers and fragments of who they used to be. It all blurs together. There are even moments when John and Joey fail to recognize each other. Palaces masterfully explores how thick identity is put on — the many people we try to be for ourselves and others.
Simon and I met at a coffee spot near where we used to work together to discuss authenticity, the many selves people juggle, and the master of all of those things: David Bowie.
Freddie Moore: If you strip the book down, Palaces is about the relationship between John and Joey. What drew you to them?
Simon Jacobs: John and Joey evolved over a long period of time. Since college, I had been writing all these tonally linked stories that were exploring different versions of what was ultimately the same contentious relationship. I would give the characters different pasts, different names, different genders. They had no fixed identity. I wrote a full collection’s worth of them but never settled on a fixed form.
So then, when I started writing the pieces that eventually became Palaces, I felt like I was finally taking this tone and anchoring it into these specific characters. By doing all of these experiments in other stories, I stumbled into the way I wanted to tell this one. That other material was like stories that John and Joey would make up just to fuck with you.
That’s a really interesting approach. Many writers go about plot thinking “how is this character going to shape the story?”, but to start with a mood or conflict between characters is different.
Yeah. I started Palaces not from the beginning, but somewhere in the middle — these disjointed scenes that were tonally related — and as I knit them together and decided what I wanted to do with the book at a political and structural level, I was able to turn those into characters.
It’s funny thinking of how these characters started — especially thinking of them being genderless at first, because for a good portion of the book I kept asking: “Joey’s a girl, right?” What made you want to keep her gender ambiguous?
I think it’s a big part of how the characters would see and present themselves. The book evolves as it goes along — to be about gender, subversive male power, etc — but I wanted their identities to be as fluid as they would have you believe. Even if, in the narrator’s case, the reality is that it’s quite rigid.
That makes me think of the scene when they’re playing family and all of a sudden, Joey is “Josephine” and she takes on this very maternal role. John’s completely thrown by it.
The two characters enjoy performing — especially performing other identities and switching them around as fits their situation.
Yeah, and they evolve with their setting, too. In college, they’re deep in the punk scene. When they’re squatting in abandoned mansions, they’re literally changing into the lavish clothing of the people who used to live there. Did experimenting with a wardrobe of possible identities help you develop your characters? Just that notion of “dress up”?
For sure. At one point John says something along the lines of: What are we doing but just using the items we suddenly have in our hands? There’s a point to be made in the book about reinventing your identity based on where you find yourself and the props that are at hand. Like finding yourself in this richly appointed mansion and deciding: Okay, this is my mansion, these are my clothes and I will wear them now. The whole mysterious, desolate environment that they find themselves in is sort of a playground for them to experiment and play against each other.
It’s funny, because it seems very absurd and experimental, but when you think about the way people are day to day, everyone juggles different identities. You might be a different person at home with your family versus at work or with friends.
I think that’s also a part of the culture that John and Joey are a part of — name changes, changes in gender identity or expression, rewriting their own histories — it’s an organic part of their scene, so it becomes part of their expanded world.
In the punk scene, there’s also all this stress over authenticity — who really is punk vs. who just wants to join the scene. There’s a lot packed into it that drives people to prove themselves.
John and Joey’s relationship is definitely one of extremes. John says at one point that they’re locked in a battle for who can be more extreme, who can refuse more. That’s one of the ways their relationship is a poisonous one—in that they’re embroiled in this: who is more punk?
Yeah, and one is always trying to outdo the other.
Exactly. It’s an escalating competition … of dire results. [Laughs.] So there are definitely the performative aspects of that culture. I was interested in telling a story about male power and the insidious undercurrents within this relationship, but one that was filtered through a subculture that claims to be free of all of these same dividing lines and gross social mores. It was more interesting for me to explore those themes via a character who himself would say “I’m not a part of this brutal capitalist patriarchy.” But in reality, that’s what he becomes.
You’re going to hate this question, but do you feel like you would describe the spirit of the book punk?
Yeah! I think so — in its shameless grabbing from a bunch of different genres and sideways take on various political and social themes. And the way that I — in every subsequent draft — decided I had a new concern that I wanted to rope in. It was like throwing everything against the wall.
I know you started by writing erotica, and there are some sex scenes in this book that are fantastic and kind of absurd in a really entertaining way, where a lot of writers would just cut away and be like: “ . . . and then they had this moment together.” You were like screw it, I’m going to make this moment as memorable as possible.
They’re not tender scenes. [Laughs.] I think having written so much of that stuff, I was like: I’m tired of this. If I have to write sex scenes from now on, I’m just going to make them unpleasant.
But they’re so entertaining!
Well, that’s good. I think my proudest achievement in all of Palaces is that I use the word “gooily” in one of the sex scenes.
[Laughs.] Going back to authenticity, I think it’s interesting that their identities grow out of the boundaries they set for themselves. When things don’t feel authentic, they draw the line. Like when John invades August’s house and panics when he realizes he’s gone too far by bringing a gun. What made you want to explore that? I feel like part of what drives John to test the water with his various confrontations is that he thinks it’s expected of him to go that far.
I wanted to write about what happens when a fantasy suddenly comes true and then spirals out of your control. Like maybe John harbored these violent impulses towards August for various … not entirely convincing reasons, but then to have that suddenly manifest itself as: Okay, now you’re in this position where you have a gun and you’re in a room alone with him. I was interested in taking this violent impulse and shooting it to extremes.
If you’re a person of extreme persuasion, what happens when the tools to be as extreme as you fantastically imagined yourself being suddenly show up in your hands?
The reality of it is harder to handle. Would you call it a breaking point when he calls his parents? I loved that because all of sudden he’s a different person.
That was one of the fun things about writing an unreliable narrator like John. You can choose when you want to break the mask. He purposely hides that aspect of his past and doesn’t want to admit that maybe he comes from money and from a loving family — or from a family at all. So you get these glimpses into the life he would choose not to present to you. They were fun to write. I imagined those as sections where there was a little ray of light breaking through.
Was there a scene while you were writing the book where you felt like everything started to click into place for you?
The first scene I wrote was the first mansion, where they find the fancy tub and then a wolf shows up in the foyer. It started as a short story for a Paper Darts contest. And over the next four years, it sprouted into a book.
But as far as where it all clicked — I wrote it in such a disjointed way over time — I don’t know. If I had to choose one moment, I’d say the scene where they find Vivian in the closet. I distinctly remember writing that scene in my kitchen — and that was when I felt I was finally bringing all of these ideas together into a full narrative. They’re exploring this mansion and all of its weirdness and then they find this girl—
Well, they’re so in their own world until then.
Yeah, and then there’s a new element introduced into it that opens up all of these other possibilities, that creates a larger mystery. It brings about the idea of consequence. When I found that, I felt like: Okay, now there’s a story here.
Another thing I really liked was the way identity was elusive and slippery. The way John thinks that he spots Joey on the street in the city and it turns out to be someone else. And the reader finds out he’s not even thinking he’s seen her as she is currently, but her back in her college mohawk phase. It’s like seeing a ghost.
The whole book is full ofdoppelgängers. There are people who show up as echoes of other people, or echoes of past versions of people. I wanted the book to be in this recursive loop that John inhabits—
It’s like the room full of mirrors they find in one of the mansions!
Exactly. Everything to him is loaded with this symbolic and dreadful potential, so it stands to reason that everyone he sees is a shocking reminder of his past. But, are they really? Who’s to say? If you’re inclined to think that everything is an omen, then sure it is. In creating John’s headspace, it was fun because everyone in one part of the book got to have a mirror in the next.
Oh man, I never thought of the room full of mirrors as “his place.”
Recurrences galore! Shared aspects in every reflective surface!
I feel like it’s too easy in life to be drawn to people who have qualities you’ve enjoyed in other people.
And if you condition yourself to see the world that way, or to look for specific people in the world, you will continue to find them. If you’re searching, you will find them.
So what’s next for you?
I’m finishing up a short story collection for Instar Books, which is very humbly called Masterworks. So it’s got short stories and then two novella length things. That will be out later this year. I’m also almost done with another novel about Ohio teens enthralled by mysterious cultic forces.
Fantastic. One other thing. I know you’re a fan of David Bowie and I was thinking of how rock stars are always evolving and changing their identity.
[Laughs.] There’s this weird misconception people ascribe to—that when you’re an adult, your identity is settled. You are who you are going to be for the rest of your life. And I just think that’s a sad idea people get wrapped up in. It stops them from trying new things.
I think that’s why I was drawn to David Bowie so much. In his career, he was constantly reinventing himself and dabbling in different styles and artistic media. He was ahead of the times and a trendsetter in whatever area he dipped into. I thought that was a brilliant way to have an artistic career—in addition to his output being amazing and so diverse.
I don’t want to be the kind of writer who kind of does the same trick over and over again. That’s kind of how I felt when I settled into the tone that I used to write Palaces, I thought: Can I do this? I’ve written so many of these stories. People are going to think I can’t do anything except for write this one thing over and over and over. So now that I’ve done it, I’m ready to move on to a different mode of storytelling. Never again.
Do you think we should all live life a little bit more like David Bowie?
Everybody should. It would be a much more curious and interesting world.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer and ice skating instructor. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Storychord, LitReactor, and Quartz, among other places.