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A Conversation with Ron Jacobs

Drugs, Guns and Politics

by KATHLEEN BROWN

Ron Jacobs’ newest novel All the Sinners Saints is being published April 15, 2013 by Fomite Press.  Fomite will also republish the two previous novels in the series, Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale, as part of an unboxed set. Here, Kathleen and Ron discuss his work.

Kathleen: Where does the inspiration for your fiction come from?

Ron: My fiction comes from real life.  I’ve watched a lot of shit go down in the past 40-45 years and participated in my share.  Although the plot of each novel is fiction, the fact is that it could have happened. Sinners front for web

K: How much are events in your fiction based on true events (like the struggle over People’s Park), and how much is invented?  Is there conflict over situating invented characters and events over a strongly historical moment?

R: I try to keep true to the historical reality of the times my novels are located in.  So, for example, there really were a few battles over Berkeley’s People’s Park; there really were leftist/anarchist groups intent on armed struggle operating in the United States; racism really was rampant in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC and Baltimore.  (In fact, racism still is pretty rampant, come to think of it.)  I invent many of the situations my characters find themselves in, but try to keep the broader moment of time historically accurate.  As for placing invented characters into a historical moment—I find this approach actually easier than trying to portray actual people.  After all, researching and writing about actual people and trying to personalize them by providing motive and depth to the character is considerably harder than inventing characters and then creating motive and characteristics from my head.

K: And, related, in comparison to The Way the Wind Blew, a historical account of the Weather Underground, how do you approach your fiction?  Do you center it around one historical event that you research deeply?  Perhaps you could talk about process.

R: My fiction develops slowly.  My first novel, Short-Order Frame Up, gelled in my mind for years.  I knew there was a story to tell but I couldn’t put my mind around how to tell it.  Then, the idea of making it a crime novel came up.  From there, I was able to create a structure that enabled me to tell the story in the novel.  All three of my novels are historically located around events I was aware of as a participant or very interested observer.  As for research, I have always been a person who collects and stores information, not in a compulsive way but just because I can.  On top of that, I try to recall emotions and other less-concrete aspects of the time I want to write about.  Then, I start writing.  All three of my novels developed over a period of a couple years.  After gelling in my mind, then writing down notes and ideas I will sit down and kick out a draft in a week or two.  Then I let it sit for a month before I re-visit it.

K: In All the Sinners Saints, we see character Porgy Johnson as a young man, cutting his teeth in antiwar and antiracist activism in Germany as a GI.  In Short-Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale, our protagonist is Peter Somers, who crosses paths with Porgy, as Porgy flees murder charges in California.  Why did you decide to have a crew of characters whose lives intersect, and whose stories overlap?

R: I don’t know if it was as much a conscious decision as it was a desire to develop the characters more.  After I wrote Short Order Frame Up and introduced Peter, the story I told there was tugging at me to expand on it.  The best way to do that that I could come up with was by developing the characters and move them around in time.  Porgy came to me while I was trying to come up with a new situation for Peter in the book which became The Co-Conspirator’s Tale.  As for All the Sinners Saints, it turned out to be a prequel.  Overlapping and intersecting wasn’t intentional as much as it was accidental–kind of like many people’s lives turn out.

K: Peter Somers, your protagonist in Short-Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale, is an affable guy, concerned with the wellbeing of his friends and loved ones, but also nomadic and rootless- able to pick up at any time and move on.  He seems interested in, yet distanced from, explicitly revolutionary politics.  Where do characters such as Peter come from?

R: Most of my characters are reminiscent of people I have known (or still know).  Usually, each character is a combination of various traits from different friends, acquaintances and even enemies I have made over the years.  There’s bit of me in Peter… Then again, some of them are made up out of almost thin air.

K: One of Hemingway’s constant companions in his fiction was alcohol.  Readers can almost count the passing of time by his protagonists’ alcohol consumption.  I was reminded of this while reading your work.  Your protagonists and characters are often imbibing in legal and illegal palliative substances.  Why is this such a large part of the daily experiences of your characters?  What does it say about that time in American and German history?

R: The characters in this series all either exist in or came from a time period and culture where the use of marijuana, LSD and other drugs was permitted, if not expected.  Add to that the fact that many of them lived most of their lives on the street and the use of those mood modifiers and alcohol becomes an even greater part of their lives.  For some, smoking weed or whatever is a way to anesthetize themselves.  For others, partaking is a recreational activity.  This question brings up something radicals of the period confronted constantly.  Were drugs revolutionary or counterrevolutionary?  I think they served both purposes, depending on one’s class and cultural background.  There is a good exchange between the New York Panther 21 (a group of Panthers charged with a conspiracy to blow up buildings in New York City in 1971.  The Panthers all got off, and the charges were a sham.  However, it helped exacerbate tensions within the Party and lead to the disintegration of that organization) and the Weather Underground over the role of drugs.  For the Panthers, who had primarily grown up in urban ghettoes where the use of drugs was seen, rightly so, as a tool of the oppressor, there was very little that was revolutionary about them.  To Weather, who were primarily from middle-class backgrounds, it was drugs that had helped them develop the ability to question their beliefs about the US and its policies.  My experience with drugs (mostly pot, alcohol and LSD) and the experience of my friends prove both were right.

K: You mentioned that Short Order Frame Up is a crime novel.  In what ways does it conform to the traditional crime genre?

R: There are no other works I can think of that inspired any of my novels.  Writers, yes, but individual works no.  As for writers, I would say that my inspiration comes from writers like David Peace, James Ellroy, George Pelecanos, and Dashiell Hammett.  I see Short Order Frame Up as a crime novel primarily because it involves a crime and a search for the person or persons who committed the crime.  In the course of events, a web of criminality becomes apparent.  I think this dynamic is also present in the other two novels of the series.

K: An important factor in your work is the role of the CIA, FBI, and undercover agents that infiltrated the Left as provocateurs and spies, in order to disrupt and destroy revolutionary groups and arrest leftist individuals.  Readers follow your characters as they escape from agents, alter their identities, or even flee the U.S. or Germany to protect their freedom.  Could you talk about the role of the cops in infiltrating the Left in general?  What are the lessons for today’s activists, facing more surveillance than ever existed in the 60s?

R: Be careful, man.  If something or someone seems fishy, go with your instincts and avoid them.  Outing someone as an agent, snitch or provocateur is a risky thing, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe everyone is who they say they are.  If one is working in the open and is not planning anything illegal, then the worst that will happen is the infiltrator will tell the cops about legal plans.  If groups are thinking about doing something else, then they should be careful about who knows.  It’s a different world today, what with the intense surveillance and the open antagonism of the police, Homeland Security and other agencies to the Bill of Rights.  Always make sure you know a trustworthy lawyer.

K: Could you explain more about which revolutionary groups existed in the late 60s, and what their platforms were?  As in The Co-Conspirator’s Tale, you mention the NPLF (New Peoples Liberation Front).  Did this group exist?  Is it inspired by an actual group at the time?

R: The NPLF did not exist.  However, there was a group called the New World Liberation Front that did exist in the same time period as the novel.  They were supporters of the Symbionese Liberation Front (SLA) and had a couple houses in Berkeley.  The platform of this group, like that of the SLA, was a bit jumbled but was primarily concerned with fighting systemic racism and the cops.  They did very little support work and operated mostly underground.  Consequently, when they got arrested, very few people notice or cared outside of the extreme left of the time.  There is good reason to believe that the SLA (and perhaps the NWLF) were set up by police provocateurs, much like the so-called “terror gangs” occasionally arrested in the United States since 9-11.

K: Considering that many smaller revolutionary groups engaged in what is now considered terrorist activity (blowing up police vehicles, for example in Co-Conspirator’s Tale), it seems hard to imagine such actions being politically feasible.  In what ways was the political climate different then versus now?  Maybe you could discuss some of the physical struggles that went on at that time, and the brutality of the police.

R: The revolutionary left was much bigger in the United States and around the world.  The anger at the imperialists and their local agents was peaking.  In addition, the mass movement of protests and other such actions was perceived to have failed.  The war in Vietnam raged on.  Racism was blatant and brutal.  Sexism and heterosexism was being challenged in ways never seen before.  People thought they could help move the revolution forward because they believed it was near.  This was true around the world.  Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, everywhere.  The capitalist system seemed to be reeling.  It was, but it was simultaneously taking notes so that it could defeat the revolutionary upsurge and come back much stronger.  Unfortunately it succeeded.

K: Lastly, what lessons do your novels have for today’s readers and activists?

R: I’m not sure about lessons.  I do hope they are good reads and help people to understand a little better what it was like on the streets in the times they are set in…that people really thought about politics and such and believed they mattered.

Kathleen Brown is an English Language Arts educator and social justice activist.  She helped lead in the formation and development of the Campus Antiwar Network against the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.  Other causes include immigrant rights and educational justice.  She currently teaches in Costa Rica. 

This interview appeared in a slightly different form in Red Wedge Magazine.