Author can’t be limited by paper and ink

Jackson drew inspiration from one page in The New York Times. (Matthew Mance / Photo Assistant)

It’s not every day that books are referred to as “the obituaries of wood.” Then again, it’s not every day that Shelley Jackson visits the College.

Jackson, a writer of novels and short stories, was the first in this semester’s Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by ink and the College’s Writing Communities class.

Jackson read three unpublished short stories titled “Simon Says,” “Flat Daddy” and “The Cat’s Meow.”

What did a story about a boy who is half-robot, a girl with a replacement father made from a cut-out and a girl who owed $3.8 million in library dues have in common? All three of the pieces that Jackson read were made up of words taken from a single page of The New York Times.

When asked about this unusual writing process, Jackson said she liked the idea of a “cloud of the real news hovering above my story.”

It would take a particularly attentive listener, however, to catch the instances of news within Jackson’s stories — she proved skillful at manipulating everyday stories into tales of robot apartheid and cut-outs running for president of “The United States of Overly Friendly.”

These stories, however, were fairly conventional for Jackson. She is most well-known for her more off-the-wall and off-the-page projects, such as “Patchwork Girl,” a reimagining of the “Frankenstein” story written in hypertext, and “Skins,” possibly her most ambitious work to date. Described on her website as “a story published on the skin of 2,095 volunteers,” Jackson was inspired to do the project when she worked on a story about skin.

“It struck me that of course we already publish on skin, in a certain sense, in the form of tattoos, and also that in the history of writing, paper was originally made out of skin … so it was a really natural form, actually, but one that I thought hadn’t been exploited for literature before,” Jackson said in an interview. “But I thought, you can’t write a very long story in the form of a tattoo on skin. Who’s going to sit still for it? Who has that much body space?”

So, instead of writing the entire story on one person, Jackson decided to call for volunteers who would each tattoo one of the story’s words onto their bodies. Although she has “plenty of applicants,” Jackson has yet to complete the project and is still accepting applications.

It’s an unusual project, for sure, but what can readers expect from an author whose online bio states that she “has spent most of her life in used bookstores, smearing unidentified substances on the spines?”

In reality, Jackson said, she enjoyed reading fantasy and historical fiction novels growing up.

“Really, almost any book that was not about reality as it stood was interesting to me. Even though those books were narratively traditional, I feel like in some way they provided the basis for my interest now in much wilder forms, because it’s really the same drive to see the world transformed that motivates me.”

Click to see The Signal‘s interview with Jackson.