The Wild Mandrake: An Interview With Jason Jobin

JASON JOBIN completed an MFA in writing at the University of Victoria. His nonfiction has been longlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize, been published in Cleaver Magazine, Pithead Chapel, and The Sun Magazine. His stories have won a National Magazine Award and were featured in the 2018 and 2019 Writers Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize anthology. He was a finalist for American Short Fiction’s Halifax Ranch Prize in 2019 and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize in 2020. Previously, he’s won The Malahat Review’s Jack Hodgins Founders’ and Far Horizons awards for fiction. He lives and writes in Victoria. His debut memoir, The Wild Mandrake, will be out with Dundurn Press in fall 2023.

Hannah Macready: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Jason. You’ve been an EVENT contributor on multiple occasions. Most recently, your short story “Over Kawaguchi” appeared in EVENT 49/2. In 2019, your short story  “They Would Pour Us into Boxes” (from EVENT 47/2) was longlisted for the Journey Prize. You also have a new essay coming out in EVENT later this year. Now, your debut memoir, The Wild Mandrake, is coming out with Dundurn Press in fall 2023. How do writing fiction and non-fiction differ for you? If at all.

Jason Jobin: For me, they don’t differ very much, though this might be a sacrilegious perspective. That’s not to say that my non-fiction is all fictitious–it really isn’t, I promise–but more that I don’t approach non-fiction journalistically or with the idea of spending long periods doing research. I’m a terrible researcher. Perhaps it’s more just the difference between what I consider memoir and other kinds of non-fiction. Memoir to me is just a story that actually happened, but it’s still only a story, only my version of events, and I tend to approach all stories the same way, ie. with caution. 

HM: “The Wild Mandrake” has a unique format and flow. Can you tell us a little bit about the book, and what readers can expect?

JJ: The book is structured around the three times I had cancer.  The progression of the three sections is chronological, but within the sections, the chronology is broken and fragmented. I chose to write the book in vignettes or short essays, so most things are only one or two or three pages, though there are some longer essays where I was, like, “Okay, let’s really get into the suffering for an extended period of time.” Fragmentation in the form seemed to work well in how it mirrored the discontinuity of those periods in my life. I guess these really traumatizing experiences needed to come out in small bites, for the most part. 

HM: It’s a very personal piece of writing, which I imagine can be cathartic as well as difficult to produce. What drew you to writing this memoir?

JJ: This was something I’d thought about for several years, but hadn’t felt ready to do. Some things, you know, you just don’t want to be near them ever again, and that was kind of how I felt about cancer. It was like, deep down I knew I would at some point have to write the book, but actually reliving these memories was going to be rough. Maybe it’s too soon. I don’t know. Bad things that happen to us can sometimes take decades to process–I’ve heard this somewhere, some study–and so part of me wonders if all this needed to stew a bit longer, but another part wanted it out there and no longer only inside me. Almost as if other people reading it and taking it in will lower the specificity or personalness of all this terrible stuff and it will no longer be just mine

the wild mandrake by jason jobin book cover

HM: I would imagine that writing personal memoir also forces you to look at yourself with fresh eyes. Did you find it difficult to write about yourself so objectively?

JJ: Well, I don’t think any memoir accesses real objectivity. All writers want to paint a picture of themselves toward some end. I doubt even knowing and acknowledging that impulse can stop it from happening–there is an inexorable force to ego, after all. You can think of yourself in circles trying to extract favoritism from a memoir and end up back where you started. If anything, I’d say I’m erring, with this book, on the side of making myself look bad and/or crazy. Or maybe that is, again, a protective delusion. I’ll say this, then: this memoir is as true as I am capable of making it right now.

HM: In a previous interview with L’amour Lisik for The Malahat Review, you talk about the “sneaky and duplicitous” work of revising. Did the personal nature of this work change the revision process for you at all?

JJ: Oh for sure it did. I really had to think about the order of events and how I might be characterizing other people in my life. I’ve made a very concerted effort to consume no one other than myself on the altar of this book, though I know that kind of drama and snarkiness probably helps something sell, and even then I may not have succeeded. I’ve tried to leave other people out of it, mostly, when I can, when they deserve it. I guess that could create the sense in the book of self-centeredness or something, but that’s more an effort towards fairness than anything else. Writers always get the last word and it’s hard to resist our more base impulses when given an opportunity to air grievances, but I have tried. 

HM: An essay you wrote published in The Sun in 2021, lays out a unique irony in your writing career. After studying and teaching at the University of Victoria, you end up back there as a dishwasher–making almost the same amount of money as you did as an adjunct professor. I think many emerging writers see published writers, and certainly professors, as having “made it.” But your piece brings a more realistic tone to the state of writing as a profession. Do you have any advice for emerging writers looking to write professionally?

JJ: I’m sure not everyone is as naive as I was and perhaps still am, but yeah, it’s going to be difficult if your goal is to get an MFA and a major book deal and film rights and then waltz into a tenured teaching position at a university. I mean, obviously, this is on one level an absurd fantasy, but social media will feed you this kind of narrative and make it seem more proximal than it is or could ever be. So on one level, yes, try to be realistic. But it does happen sometimes, or parts of it do, though not at the time or in the order you might want.  But still go for things, still do what you love. There are other ways to live and do this, even if most of them involve having another job or not having much money, and both of those things can be fine if you are fine with them. 

HM: Thanks again for taking the time, Jason. To close things off, what’s one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to write their first novel?

JJ: Write a few novels first. But yeah, other than that, have a good plot. The plot doesn’t need to be complex to be good if the characters are good, if the attention is paid. 

Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.