I Didn’t Break the Lamp: Interview with Jacob Budenz

Photo by Clare Welsh

Today’s interview is with Jacob Budenz, a new addition to the Mad Scientist Journal family!

DV: Tell us a bit about yourself!

Jacob Budenz: In addition to being a writer, I’m a multi-disciplinary performer (singer, piano player, actor, performance artist, director, composer—basically everything but dance, which I’m pretty lousy at). I also work as a “freelance educator,” which feels a little bit sexier than saying “adjunct professor.” During grad school, I made my living as a street Tarot reader, and I still pick up gigs doing readings from time to time.

DV: What inspired you to write “Seen” for I Didn’t Break the Lamp?

JB: You know, the first paragraph, which was of course way longer and even more meandering in earlier drafts, was originally a journal entry between my first and second semesters of grad school. I was cranking out way more writing in shorter spans of time than I was used to, and I think I was worried I’d lost my “mojo,” so to speak. The first paragraph was sort of a “look around you, idiot” letter to myself. I’d decorated my bedroom with all manner of wacky curiosities, from pink skull busts to paintings of demons to these tiny jewel-shaped string lights that looked sort of like tiny glowing fairies. So at the time, the opening paragraph was just a reminder to myself that I only needed to look a little harder to see there was magic everywhere. A few weeks later, I was thinking about that little passage, and I thought, but what if someone had squinted at the floorboards and suddenly realized the world was full of these little fairies? Then, of course, the story emerged and evolved into what became kind of a love letter to modern queer loneliness. So what started as a pep talk to myself about inspiration became the inspiration for my next piece. I actually wrote the piece a couple years ago, spent way too much time revising it, saw your call for submissions, and thought, “Wow, that seems like the perfect home for this weird little tale!”

DV: Your characters in your story seem so natural and realistic. Are they based on specific people you know, or an amalgam of traits?

JB: Thanks! Definitely an amalgam of traits. I spent my early adult life in Baltimore, where there’s a really thriving art scene and tons of wonderful artists. And then there are the Mitches of the world, usually recent art school grads in my experience, who can be so unaware of how snobby they sound that it’s actually kind of endearing. I definitely dated a Mitch or two in my early twenties, though of course the Mitch in the story is kind of a cartoon of a bunch of different people. As far as Ron goes, I’m not really sure where he came from; I don’t really know anybody who’s that negative all the time. I think he came from an amalgamation of fears of mine; at the time, in particular, I was pretty severely injured and couldn’t exercise at any capacity, so I was probably the most out of shape I’d ever been. So Ron’s relationship with gay dating as being not “hairy” enough to be this, not skinny enough to be that, emerged from my thoughts on what it means to slip outside of certain categories or expectations of the gay male gaze. While I have a partner and a perfectly fulfilling social life (unlike my protagonist), I’ve definitely been in places of really dark, desperate loneliness like he has, and so I was imagining how I’d be if my body issues spiraled out of control, and if I was alone, and if I didn’t feel like I had anything in common with the people around me. So I wouldn’t say there’s “a lot of me in Ron” or anything (I certainly do not walk through the world with that level of harsh, persistent snark), but I really did my best to inhabit that kind of headspace when I was writing this.

DV: What is the coolest part of being a writer?

JB: That’s a great question! People don’t ask this enough. It’s always stuff like, “What’s the hardest thing about being a writer.” I’d say, for me, I have a blast coming up with really absurd concepts (or pulling stuff from my extremely vivid dreams) and finding the connections between issues I really care about. I joke that I’m “re-mythologizing” the queer other, as opposed to demythologizing, which means even if I’m grounding queer characters in sincere, real world issues, I’m putting them in these larger-than-life situations and writing new myths and allegories to illustrate our lived experiences. Another cool thing, which I’m sure any writer will tell you, is having the excuse to build extremely niche, specialized knowledge. I’m sure I’m on some kind of watch list. My search history features punctuation-free questions like “what happens to the body when a child is murdered outside of their home state” or, most recently, “Does your blood smell any different if you’re pregnant?”

DV: If you had an imaginary friend growing up, what was their name, and what were they like?

JB: I guess that depends on your definition of “imaginary” and “friend.” I was raised as a born-again Christian and sent to Baptist school from 4th-12th grade, so I talked to God a lot? Congruently—and this is the kicker—I’ve sort of always been a witch at the same time. When I was a kid I had a tree I talked to all the time by the courts where my mom played tennis. I collected stones and crystals and talked to them, and to animals, and to the stars, all that. I imagined they responded sometimes, but mostly they were just good listeners. You might say the Christian God and I haven’t been friends for quite some time, but we had a good run and I hope it’s no hard feelings on either side. I’m still an out-and-out witch though, far more than before, so I guess depending on your perspective I have plenty of, well, principalities I talk to that the average person might think of as imaginary.

DV: What’s on the horizon for you?

JB: I’ve got another piece coming out in an anthology through Lycan Valley Press; it’s about a gay medieval scholar who gets trapped in a cafe bathroom with a sentient interstellar octopus, in case you were wondering. I’m also beginning the daunting process of compiling materials to query agents and get my novel published. I’ll withhold the details on that, for now, though. Since I graduated from my MFA program in December, I’ve been focusing mostly on performance. In the spring, I was hired to compose and music direct for this adaptation of the The Tempest through the lens of climate change and colonialism, cast as the lead in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, and brought on to work on a comedic show about feminist performance art with one of my favorite artists, Chris Ferrera, which we just closed and will tour in the fall. In July, I’m having a comeback show with my psychedelic witchpop band, Moth Broth, which was on hiatus while I was in grad school, and now we’re working on finishing our debut album. So I think the second half of this year I’ll focus mostly on music, publishing my novel, and reclaiming my writing habit, which I’ve taken a wee bit of a vacation from in the past six months!

 

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