J S Khan
by Ari Moskowitz, former Fiction Editor
Summoning the Daemon
Every year, the editors of Fourteen Hills choose an outstanding short story published in one of that year’s issues. This year, we are honored to award the Bambi Holmes Award in Fiction to J S Khan for his short story, “You are Being Hijacked,” which appeared in Issue 18.1.
Fourteen Hills: How were you inspired to write "You are Being Hijacked?"
J S Khan: Well, there is the actual criminal who called himself "Dan Cooper" (and was later renamed "D.B. Cooper" by the media) who hijacked a passenger flight from Oregon to Seattle in the early 70s, but
I never heard of the man or his eccentric stunt until last year-- either because I am uncultured or because I was not born until the 80s. Either way, when I did finally hear the story about Cooper's mysterious skyjacking, I found it as remarkable as anyone else. I was mostly interested in the idea of how many people were obsessed with whom he could be, what his motives were, and of course if he lived or died when he parachuted into the storm. [. . .] in researching the actual FBI case, I discovered more people have either confessed to being Cooper or have been turned in as Cooper than any other suspect in the Bureau's history. So I wanted to take the problem of identity and inscrutable motive-- which I see as the central problem D.B. Cooper poses as folkloric character-- and frame it in a so-called "realistic image" before skewing that image around itself. To do this, I tried to create as many jump cuts as possible in a single scene, and tried to merge facts with grotesques in ways I hoped were fun and/or startling for a reader.
FH: What writers or artists would you cite as influences?
Khan: Honestly, there are far too many to enumerate, but Hieronymus Bosch, Julian of Norwich, Emerson, Melville, Kafka, Borges, Charles Mingus, and Steve Ditko were all very important to me at one time or another. I consider vast portions of the Old Testament to be early masterpieces of surrealism, like the nightmares of our ancestors. James Joyce wrote at least a couple remarkable novels I am sure everyone has heard of.
FH: What do you set out to achieve in your fiction?
Khan: Sonic texture is really important, how a phrase sounds, whether just lyrically perfect or utterly weird, but I really just like playing with form. Seeing how far you can push something, or how you can take ideas like plot and character and turn them inside out, or use them to do something the reader doesn't expect but nonetheless finds his or herself suddenly grooving to. In the short story, I prefer what the late, great Donald Bartheleme called "the whacky mode."
FH: Describe your writing process.
Khan: Either early in the mornings or late, late at night. There is coffee, there is old-school hip-hop or jazz in which I bathe my brainwaves, and last but not least a benediction to the gods. Then, after one has appeased the most dangerous of deities, one flips one's lucky dimes and summons the Daemon.
FH: What are you currently working on?
Khan: I am in the process of revising a novel I finished earlier this summer set (mostly) in sixteenth-century Italy. On the surface, the novel is about this enigmatic polymath who is busy influencing all these well-known Renaissance masters while getting into all sorts of trouble-- both romantically and otherwise-- but who also always seems to escape persecution by the skin of his teeth. At the same time, the novel employs an editorial frame to create a counterpoint to the central narrative, and so on a deeper level the novel is about the problem of artistic translation both culturally and linguistically; translation as creation and creation as translation, and the ever-changing face of history, which is always propaganda, really.
FH: How would you kill and cook your spirit animal?
Khan: Such an angelic beast could not be killed by any other weapon than my own hands, lest the sacrifice be seen as impure. In the wilderness of my darkest desires and deepest fears, I capture my spirit animal in my arms as Menelaus did Proteus, choking it slowly with a soft lover's squeeze around its ribcage. Then, after it breathes no more, I slice away the scraps and use the pelt as a coat. I lather the choicest portions of meat in the finest of oils and cook the celestial creature on the slowest of burns, but only so as to suffuse the altar-room with its essence and breath in as much of its pneuma as possible.
FH: Create your own literary death-match, with results.
Khan: Very exciting question. Gertrude Stein versus Ezra Pound, with Ernest Hemingway as referee. The first few rounds Pound delivers a flurry of attacks all to Stein's face in the hope of an easy knockout, but Stein's gloves absorb the petulant blows without effort. Swaggering forward with her Furies on-call, Stein whams Pound in the stomach and sends him reeling into Papa Hemingway, who also falls down.