How Hollywood threw Shane Jones into the spotlight

Director Spike Jonze’s interest in surreal debut novel Light Boxes is a career boost.

February is persecuting the town. It has been snowing for 300 days, children are disappearing and all forms of flight are banned. The downtrodden residents are on the verge of revolt – but can they succeed? We might be less than halfway through 2010 but already it looks like the gong for the year’s most original literary premise has been taken: by Light Boxes, the debut novel from American writer Shane Jones.

“February is the writer of the story. He is a month, a season, but he’s also a person, he’s the writer of the book,” Jones, speaking from his home in Albany, upstate New York, explains in clipped, East Coast tones. He admits to finding the inevitable “what’s your book about?” questions difficult – although when your debut clocks in at around 20,000 words, features multiple voices, one-word chapters, and a malevolent season hellbent on destruction that transforms into a blocked novelist, distilling it all down into a Cliffs Notes summary paragraph is always going to prove tricky.

Aged just 30, Jones has a relaxed, amiable manner – his languid speech peppered with “cools” and “weirds” – but behind the Light Boxes’s quirky exterior lie dark, foreboding themes. The book is streaked through with melancholia, sadness and loss: a reflection, in part, of the author’s own struggles with depression. “Historically I’d get my most depressed in February,” he says. “March is a terrible month too, but February is the worst. It’s often the time when I feel lowest, when the depression is worst.”

Although not identified directly in the book, Jones admits that Light Boxes is set in his native New England. The most northeasterly region of the US is often depicted as the home of Liberal America. It played a prominent role in the movement to abolish slavery, is staunchly Democratic, and even boasts the only democratic socialist ever elected to the US Congress but, in Jones’s rendering, February has turned his homeland into a humourless, totalitarian state.

Bordered by Canada and the Atlantic, New England is renowned for its long, sub-zero winters, and its harsh, rugged landscape is evoked throughout Light Boxes. “I lived in Buffalo [in New York state] for four years and the running joke was the weather,” Jones explains. “It was so cold and dark. And by far the coldest and the darkest month was February – just when you thought that winter was finally ending it came back at you. That feeling has never really left me.”

Written in pithy, image-rich sentences, there is a frenetic, absorbing immediacy to Light Boxes. A published poet, Jones possesses a commendable economy of words, sketching characters in silhouette, most notably Thaddeus Lowe, the heroic balloonist-cum-insurrectionist in whose voice significant portions of the book are written. Thaddeus Lowe, the author clarifies, was an ingenious Civil War-era inventor from New Hampshire and friend of Abraham Lincoln’s that Jones first came across while working in a secondhand bookstore. “There was a biography of him where I worked. Lowe was credited with forging the navy and air surveillance. During the Civil War he did reconnaissance in the South for the North – Mark Twain said he was the most shot-at man during the war. That image of him in his balloon always stuck with me. So I just placed him straight into the story.”

On paper Jones fits easily into the same stock categories as most contemporary American literary successes – young, East Coast-educated, major publishing house backing – but appearances can be deceptive. He read English at the State University of New York in Buffalo, not Harvard or Yale, and even then he didn’t exactly shine. “I was a terrible student,” the author freely admits. “I almost failed college completely. I had to move back in with my parents and take Latin at SUNY Albany just to finish my degree.”

It was while living in his folks’ basement, along with his new wife Melanie, that Jones started writing Light Boxes. Although his poetry and short stories had been published in various online magazines and small-run fanzines, the writer says he was “amazed” when Publishing Genius, an independent press based in Baltimore, decided, in early 2009, to print 500 copies of his novel. Less than four months later, director Spike Jonze had bought up the film rights, catapulting his (almost) namesake into the eye of a stormy bidding war.

“It just goes to show that you don’t need to write the Da Vinci Code to be picked up,” Jones says of the experience. Penguin imprint Hamish Hamilton, Jones’s new publishers, are certainly not treating his debut like a generic Dan Brown novel; at barely six inches in height and filled with lists, illustrations and unorthodox typesetting, Light Boxes is one of the smallest, most unusual looking offerings on this, or any, summer’s bookshelves.

“I just hope it doesn’t get lost on the shelf, between the pages of a Thomas Pynchon novel,” he laughs. Jones ranks the author of Gravity’s Rainbow high in his list of literary inspirations – alongside Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut and David Foster Wallace – but reserves special praise for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose magical realist influences permeate through Light Boxes.

“One Hundred Years Of Solitude was a book that really changed the way I write. I’m a middle-class white guy who had a fairly easy upbringing. I really wanted to write like [Charles] Bukowski but his life was so different to mine. I was 20 years old and writing about bar-room brawls and f***ing girls, stuff I wasn’t doing. But when I read One Hundred Years Of Solitude it made me feel OK to be a bit fantastical, a bit whimsical, a bit quirky.”

Garrulous yet self-deprecating, in person Jones is a world away from the likes of Bukowski and Burroughs. During the course of our two-hour conversation he, slightly sheepishly, admits that it is his first phone interview – he even researched The Herald on Wikipedia the previous night in preparation.

But while Jones would “love to come and visit Scotland”, that all depends on getting time off from his day job. Remarkably the writer still works 9-to-5 as an administrator for the New York State Senate, which is based in Albany. So far his colleagues have been puzzled by his literary endeavours: “People at work don’t get the book at all. They are all conservative, crew cuts, slacks. They are almost Attila the Hun conservative, and they think that I’m the most bizarre person ever.”

Jones has been tempted by the allure of writing for a living but admits to worrying about “what I’d do with myself” and, even more, what his parents’ response to any sudden career change would be. “My family are not artistic people. My father worked in the police department and my mother did secretary work. If I decided to just be a writer they would be completely terrified. They would think that I’m screwing up my life.”

Whether Shane Jones remains an administrator in upstate New York or becomes a full-time novelist also depends on his ability to keep producing stories – and premises – like Light Boxes once the Spike Jonze-induced hype has faded into the ether. “For me right now it’s all about what do I have to do to get another book published? Will Hamish Hamilton be interested in another novel? I hope they will be but right now I don’t know anything for certain. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”

Appeared in The Sunday Herald, June 7