Brian Jacobs Interview: ‘I am a visual artist by training, and I think about writing the same way that I approach painting’

Author image by Michael Steinberg

Mars Violent Evenings is an innovative novel about art, by an artist, giving a unique perspective and interesting insights. To find out more, I spoke to author Brian Jacobs about the novel, his inspiration and what the future holds.

Tell me about Mars Violet Evenings and what made you decide to write a book about an Englishman trying to make it in the American fine arts scene.

Well, the fine arts aspect is pretty straightforward. After years of working a wide variety of insufficiently fulfilling fine arts jobs (most of which will likely show up in my books), I retreated to positions where I could enjoy some peace and solitude while cleaning and providing building maintenance. This gave me the time and space to think about my creative life and start imagining a protagonist who endures similar experiences in the world of art.

Originally, Marc Clemens was American. But when I printed and read the first draft of the opening pages of the novel, I mentally heard my written words in an English accent. It was the voice of a LibriVox audiobook reader I had listened to for many hours in the car. This voice continued to speak my words through several drafts and the experience was so striking that I decided that Marc must be an Englishman.

Once I knew that Marc was English, I was compelled, as I wrote, to let this fact shape the story. And interestingly, having made this decision, I now heard the novel in my own American accent as I silently read drafts, even as I wrote Marc’s lines in more of an English dialect.

How did you come to create your protagonist, Marc Clemens? I know a lot of writers create autobiographical main characters—did you include any of your own traits in your character?

Friends and family naturally interpret Marc as my alter ego. Personally, I think Marc and I are very different, and I have a picture of him in my mind that doesn’t look at all like me.

But I did put his character in situations I have known. Sometimes it’s simply that my own experiences are easy to describe. Other times, I’m drawing on personal experiences I have strong ethical convictions about.

And what can I say about Marc’s romances? Before I began to write, I gave him a few flaws to counterbalance his strong powers of observation, which I had intended to drive the narrative. One of his flaws was to be his habit of choosing the wrong romantic partners. From the start, however, the women asserted their places in the story. As a writer, I became smitten with them and they all feel like people I might have come across sometime in my life, perhaps a long time ago.

Why did you decide to write Mars Violet Evenings; what was the inspiration behind the book?

I am a visual artist by training, and I think about writing the same way that I approach painting. In Mars Violet Evenings, I’m painting a picture with words, and it’s the world of art that I am portraying. I could make a real canvas and lots of people would like it, and a few would understand why they like it. By imagining art, however, I have found a strong vehicle for expressing ideas about visual art—concepts that I think increasingly elude literary description, and language in general.

I have a less lofty and more charming reason, too, for writing the book. I’ve enjoyed creating it for myself. Joe says it better than I can. “If I had been a collector,” Joe told us, “I would have wanted paintings like these in my collection. But no one had made them yet, so I had to make them myself.”

How did you come to publish a book? What was your journey towards publication like?

I had no idea how to write a novel, but I knew it wanted to be written. When my area of the world shut down during the early stages of the Covid 19 pandemic, I suddenly had time to write. The US government became my patron. I wrote the novel during this shutdown. This just goes to show what creative people can accomplish when they have access to time, money, and resources: six weeks, $2400, and the Scrivener software program was all I needed.

Editing, on the other hand, took another couple years and many, many drafts!

And I couldn’t have done it alone. I enlisted a London hybrid press to edit my manuscript, design the cover, typeset the pages, and market the finished book. It was essential that I have professionals to explain literary conventions and an editor well versed in British English. Last year, I self-published my novel through Authoright’s press, Clink Street. This January, I republished it on my own with revisions (based on feedback from my readers) through my own imprint.

Front cover of Mars Violent Evenings (cover art by the author)

What style of writing do you enjoy reading yourself? Are there any particular writers you admire?

Honestly, I love any good writing. I used to take a subscription to New York Magazine (while living in Cleveland) and the one feature I consistently turned to was the restaurant reviews because I found the author to be the magazine’s best writer.

When it comes to fiction, two very different writers really speak to me as a reader and frequently haunt me as a writer. I think I channel a little bit of each of them in my novel. I wonder if my readers can see their influence when I say that Marcel Proust and Hans Christian Andersen hold important places on my bookshelves.

I suspect that a little bit of every author we read seeps into our writing. While I was still in the editing stages, I came across a translated anthology of short works by Denis Diderot while digging around my shelves looking for a bookmark. Easily distracted from my task, I flipped through the volume and stopped on a passage where I found a sentence that, verbatim, matches one of my own in Chapter One. So that’s why I really liked that line! I didn’t write it, I subconsciously lifted it from a twenty-year-old memory. And I kept it.

If you could collaborate with any person, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?

I sometimes daydream about collaborating with Mackenzie Crook. When I found his television series Detectorists, I felt immediately validated for the way I am writing. Early on, in drafting Mars Violet Evenings, I’d been feeling a bit out of accord with some popular trends in literature. In fact, when I first approached Authoright, I told them, with some degree of trepidation, that my book was going to be “quirky.”

Though I felt some affinity with past writers like Aldous Huxley, G. K. Chesterton, and E. F. Benson, I needed to see that some other living writer was accurately capturing an unexplored corner of the real world with situations and characters that are simultaneously absurd and believable. Crook understands that verité does not exclude absurdity. Naturalism and silliness are not mutually exclusive.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

I’ve begun work on a collection of short stories by me and my late father. I recently found a folder of short stories that he had written in the early to mid nineteen-fifties. Reading the yellowed, type-written pages, I was fascinated that my father and I share some stylistic similarities in our writing. It appears that none of these stories was ever published.

Aside from Mars Violet Evenings, I have four unpublished short prose works and I’ll include these in the project with a half-dozen of my dad’s stories. I’ve also begun two short stories specifically for this collection—one which is yet just notes and the other is only kicking around in my head, but they are fully formed otherwise (I think). There may be a collaborative piece, too, working from some sketches that I presume were for his writing class.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to going forward?

There are so many good new books. Unfortunately, life here in the US is very stressful at the moment and I’ve been finding it hard to relax and enjoy much reading. But recently I was given tickets to attend an inspiring talk by Neil Gaiman. I enjoyed the diversity of readers in attendance and the works he read that night proved to be accessible to a wide audience. I’m on the lookout for other writers like Gaiman who have a unique voice but can write for everyone.

A writer like Gaiman draws the reader through the words on the page the way an artist guides the eye through the composition of a painting. In my own reading, I’m less interested in books that grant readers the characters and plots they ask for and more interested in writers who create characters and plots that readers will find themselves drawn to.

Huge thanks to Brian for answering these questions: it’s really exciting learning more about your work and I’m excited to seeing your future releases!