Beyond your successful acting career, you are both involved and passionate in a number of different art forms. With six MFA’s in poetry, art, fiction, and film, when you finally decided you wanted to pursue a PhD, what made you select English as your area of study?
Literature was my first love. When I decided to get a PhD in English I had already been through a few MFA programs in creative writing. In those programs we read a ton of books, but we analyzed them as “writers,” not “readers.” I realized that there was a great divide between the way that creative types and critical types talked about writing. I have always hated feeling left out of something, and I didn’t like feeling like an animal in the creativity zoo who made things, but had to wait for others to tell him what they meant. I wanted to be on both sides of the fence.
AB: Palo Alto reminded me a lot of William Faulkner’s distinct first person narrative shifts in As I Lay Dying. Were you at all inspired by this technique, and if so what appealed to you about it?
JF: As I Lay Dying was a direct influence on my book Palo Alto. I have loved Faulkner since I was a teenager and have since adapted two of his books – As I lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury – into movies. Originally my book, Palo Alto was meant to be a single narrative fractured by multiple perspectives. But as I worked on it I decided that I didn’t need the linking narrative (in this case the death of a student), and let the different stories be linked simply by time and place.
AB: In the story Killing Animals, the narrator asks himself “…when are things supposed to start mattering? Now, and now, and now.” During adolescence, it seems like we experience everything at a saturated level. Was it all painful revisiting this mindset while writing Palo Alto?
JF: No, it wasn’t painful. Some experiences were hard when I was younger and going through it, but when I was writing about it, years later, it was liberating. When one uses the material from (his) life for creative work it is usually a completely different experience than what it felt like when it actually happened. The creative use of experience transforms the relationship with that experience.
AB: To dull the pain of experience, the characters in Palo Alto distract themselves. I think it was a smart choice for you to contrast the (at times) illegal activities, with watching Beavis & Butthead, or playing Street Fighter II. Growing up, how did you distract yourself?
JF: I have always loved literature, film, acting, and art, but I spent a lot of time getting into trouble because I was afraid to engage fully with the things that I loved because I didn’t want to fail. So, instead I ran from them by getting into trouble. It was only after I got into enough trouble that I started to dedicate myself to the things that I loved.
AB: In contrast to writing about your childhood, now that you’re a global celebrity, what experiences do you find momentous, or worth exploring?
JF: I have my subjects like any writer—subjects that fuel me and make me want to write. My subjects seem to be youth, and identity.
AB: You cite Salinger fairly regularly in your work, and have portrayed some very iconic characters including Allen Ginsberg and James Dean. Thus, as both a writer and a professional actor, what do you think determines authenticity? How does a writer avoid becoming what Holden Caulfield would call, a phony?
JF: I think about Holden’s phonies as people who do things for impure reasons. Writing that is less about the art and more about the business. That being said, it is no crime to write something that many people respond to.
AB: All writers need time to write. With the obligations that come with being an international celebrity, how do you make time to do so?
JF: I, like everyone, have things pulling at my attention. I just have to discipline myself to write a little bit everyday.
AB: Directing Herbert White deals with the idea that popularity creates isolation. In this way, were you at all inspired by the Confessional Poets of the 50’s and 60’s, or, like Berryman, do you reject that categorization?
JF: Yeah, I wrote most of those poems while I was a student at the Warren Wilson College low residency writing program. Some of my big influences were Frank Bidart, Tony Hoagland (who is a kind of contemporary confessional poet), John Berryman, Mark Doty, Thom Gunn, Robert Lowell, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Louise Glück and Elizabeth Bishop.
AB: Your poem “River” reminds me of Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun On Fire Island.” In it, the sun visits O’Hara and gives him a pep talk about his poetry (and unspoken depression). In “River,” the deceased actor River Phoenix calls you on the phone and talks about legacy. Are you already thinking about what you want to leave behind?
JF: That’s interesting. I haven’t quite thought about what I will leave behind, because I hope to live a little longer. But I am a teacher, and I like imparting experience and inspiration to others. It took me a while to find my creative mentors, so I try to be an available source for inspiration.
AB: I had the pleasure of talking to your Grandmother Mitzie at the opening of A California Childhood. She implied that if you had the choice, you would pursue writing full time. Is there any truth to this, or do you have too many passions to pick just one?
JF: Variety is the spice of my life. I don’t want to pick one thing. It’s too much fun to do everything.