I first encountered Travis Jeppesen’s work with the publication of his 2003 novel Victims; his later books include such notable works as The Suiciders and See You Again in Pyongyang. Travis has most recently outdone himself with his new novel Settlers Landing (Itna Press; November 28, 2023; HC $45; PB $34.99; 836 pages) – an epic narrative of wealthy colonizers exploiting the fictional island of Sagosia. This dark satire is a scathing depiction of American greed – along with everything from the CIA to a talking dog! – and represents a new level of invention and imagination from this innovative writer. It was a true pleasure to have this opportunity to discuss his writing with him.
Q&A with Travis Jeppesen
1) Since the publication of your first novel Victims in 2003, there has been a steady growth in your body of work, with more than five books of fiction, two poetry collections, three non-fiction titles, and a graphic novel. What are your techniques for managing all these different projects? How would you say working in various genres fuels your imagination and creativity?
I think fiction – and the novel in particular – is and always will be the ultimate art form for me, just in terms of what I perceive as its limitlessness, how you can go virtually anywhere in re-inventing the form each time you sit down with it. There’s a certain discipline you develop as a writer over time, where you’ve trained your mind to be constantly inventing new ideas and new storylines and new formats for conveying them – and hopefully, along with that, a certain resistance to cliche and formulae. Writing then becomes a way of being in the world, and you can apply that to any particular medium or genre or category you wish to take on – or even invent your own.
2) You lived abroad for many years and have a deep understanding of other cultures. In See You Again in Pyongyang, you wrote about your experiences in North Korea and your understanding of its post-colonial history. Your latest novel depicts settlers taking over an island and almost eradicating its indigenous population – with clear parallels to the atrocities of colonialism and imperialism in the founding of our country. How would you describe the role of your travels in creating the narrative and characterizations of Settlers Landing?
Yeah, that was definitely one of the points I tried to press home in See You Again in Pyongyang – the truth, uncomfortable for some, about the Korean peninsula’s post-coloniality, that there are historical reasons for why North Korea behaves the way it does, and the fact that the United States played an outsize role in the creation of North Korea, which of course would ironically go on to become one of its biggest enemies. I’m American, I still have an American passport and citizenship which I have no desire to give up, but the truth is I’ve now lived most of my life outside of the United States. I’ve lived an incredibly lucky existence, in that I don’t come from money and have never made much money but have figured out ways to travel on the cheap. Travel is my biggest addiction, and I do my best work, writing-wise, when I’m in some new locale where I’m struggling to find my footing – there’s just something extremely stimulating about it – really, if I didn’t have a husband and two cats, I would probably have most of my belongings in a storage container somewhere and just be a full-time nomad. Being rooted to one place has never been a great source of comfort to me – I rather get bored and restless if I stay in the same place for too long. At the same time, there are some places that I return to over and over again, that I have a great love for, and become a sort of home for me, in a spiritual sense, even when I’m not there – you know, Taiwan would certainly be one of those places – it’s where my husband’s from, where I’ve spent a lot of time – I probably love it more than any other place I’ve been. All this to say, I guess, that I don’t really travel in a frivolous or superficial way – I try to really get to know a place as well as I can, and part of that is recognizing that there are always going to be limits to that understanding – an awareness of my outsider status – which I also tried to convey in See You Again in Pyongyang. You know, what being a traveler teaches you is that you can never be a master of anything, you’re always a student of the world.
So one of the rules I set for myself while writing Settlers Landing is that it would only take place on different islands. All of them – with the prominent exemption of one, Madagascar – are places that I’ve been lucky enough to visit, spend time, gotten to know in-depth. Madagascar is the one place where I had to rely on outside research – watching a ton of documentaries and reading books and articles. I’m sad that I still haven’t had the chance to go there, but I hope to some day soon.
3) You invented “Sagosia” – a former pirate colony in the lost pseudo-tropical region known as the Brown Sea – for Settlers Landing. Did your travels expose you to cultures that inspired the creation of Sagosia? Did any other countries inform its topography?
My travels were central in helping me to invent this fictional island of Sagosia. Islands are often subject to colonization or else have complicated histories of sovereignty, because of their inherent geographic vulnerability – remember sea travel has, historically speaking, been the longest-running way of getting around the globe. So islands as diverse as Taiwan, Singapore, Cuba, Australia, Mauritius, the islands of French Polynesia – I spent a lot of time trying to get to know and understand these places in a deep and profound way, beyond all the tourist cliches – all of these places have really complicated and singular narratives of colonialism. That entailed spending time in a lot of dusty old museums where I’d occasionally be the only visitor, reading obscure books, getting to know the history, the geography, the politics, even the geology. The literature, as well, obviously. And then my research would go into specific tangents: like how these places have been impacted by piracy throughout the ages, since Sagosia is positioned in this fictional region I call the Pseudotropics, somewhere at the nexus between the East and the West – I’m playing here on most people’s ignorance of geography, but it would probably be somewhere in the Indian Ocean – and was initially settled by Creole pirates from the West and East Asian pirates from the South China Sea. Virtually every island in the world has had to deal with pirates at one time or another, and the literature on the history of pirates is immensely interesting.
4) The author Haruki Murakami associates creating with running long-distance and has compared the writing of a book to manual labor. Did you have any personal routine that fed your dedication and commitment while writing Settlers Landing? How long did it take you to complete the manuscript?
I’m fairly disciplined, in that I try to write every day, unless circumstances prevent it. I did start working on this eleven or twelve years ago, then I had to put it aside because there were some other projects that came up that felt more appropriate to complete at the time. After See You Again in Pyongyang came out, I knew I wanted to go back to fiction, and this one in particular – it never really left my mind, there was something about the general conceit that was too irresistible. Then I got on a roll and was just kind of living alongside the characters for many years. Material circumstances certainly helped on the last stretch – I got a professorship in Shanghai, it was very well paid and the first year, they didn’t make me teach at all. So that enabled me to live in that world full-time.
5) Settlers Landing amplifies all the toxic traits of our society and offers vivid caricatures of political personalities. Which characters would you say were the most difficult to define under the scope of satire?
One of the rules I made for myself is that all of the main characters should be terrible people. The exception wound up being the “quasi-natives,” what the indigenous islanders are called in the universe of the novel. That ended up being unplanned, accidental, but it makes sense and provided a needed counter-part. So it quickly became apparent that the only way to do this – without it turning into an exercise in torture porn, on the one hand, or rote propaganda, on the other – would be through humor. Of course the last few years when I was completing the novel coincided with the Trump presidency, as well as the increasingly toxic Xi Jinping in China where I was living and working; then, at the very end, Putin’s attack on Ukraine. All examples of horrific power-hungry tyrants ruining the world, and everyone who has a conscience was thrust into the darkest deepest trenches of despair – when our lives weren’t being put directly in danger. I experienced these dark moments like everyone else, though I came to find that I could deal with them much better when I could learn to laugh at them, to make fun of them. Laughter is not only therapeutic, it can also be a powerful weapon. Certainly these men fear much more being humiliated as the butt of a joke than they do all these people going on Twitter and whining about how much they despise them. You could see this in how angry Trump got, before he was president, when Obama took the piss out of him at that White House correspondents’ dinner; or in China, when Xi Jinping banned Winnie the Pooh, after all these memes went viral that pointed out how much the two look alike.
6) Do you see your billionaire protagonist Mrdok as expressing qualities that are rooted in the American psyche?
Certainly. Greed isn’t a trait exclusive to Americans, though I would say our culture has a habit of not just normalizing it, but shamelessly endorsing it. Whenever I’m back in the States, I watch a lot of trash TV, much of which implicitly or explicitly promotes this ideology: Shark Tank, American Greed. In some sense, living outside of the US and experiencing other cultures enables you to see aspects of American life that you wouldn’t otherwise when you spend your entire life here. There are hyper-capitalistic features of daily life here that have become so normalized that you just take them for granted – whereas those same things are banned, illegal nearly everywhere else in the world. Everything feels very scammy here, price-gouging abounds. I’ll give you an example. I’ve been back in the US for a month now. When I first got here, I wanted to rent a car, so I went online, clicked on a link, found a car: $20 a day. Great deal! By the time I clicked through and go to the final check-out page, that $20 a day had suddenly become $65 a day, with all the additional fees tacked on – and that didn’t even include insurance! Okay, well in Europe, in Taiwan, in most civilized, democratic countries – that practice is illegal. If you advertise something costing a specific price, it has to cost exactly that amount – you’re not allowed to tack on hidden fees. Whereas here, a country that prides itself as being a great beacon of democracy and honesty, it’s somehow perfectly acceptable. I guess part of the “freedom” that Americans so love to claim as their exclusive domain is the freedom to rip off, cheat, and extort their fellow Americans – particularly those who come from a lower social class. Mrdok is very American, in this regard.
7) In 2014 you read the entire text of your novel The Suiciders in a single day at museums and art institutes. The Whitney Museum of American Art, where you read, called it “an endurance performance that reflects Jeppesen’s commitment to taking writing into contexts that intersect visual art and performance.” For many years a New York art gallery would hold annual marathon readings of Gertrude Stein’s 900-page book The Making of Americans. Have you considered doing something similar with your epic fiction Settlers Landing – perhaps with various readers narrating the book?
I haven’t thought of that for this particular book. I think with The Suiciders, it made sense, because that book didn’t excerpt very well, and because the entire thing is so performative as a text as it is. The Making of Americans is more similar in that regard to The Suiciders, in that it doesn’t really have a plot or a narrative, at least in the conventional sense – both books have more in common with poetry than fiction. Whereas Settlers Landing is more intricately plotted – with The Suiciders reading, it was really designed as something one could wander in and out of, whereas with Settlers Landing, you kind of need to go through the entire thing to understand what’s going on and how all the various parts connect. So I guess that’s the reason why they choose to do those kinds of marathon readings with Stein’s book, rather than a long novel by, say, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. Not that I’m comparing Settlers Landing to any of these!