A Literary Legend
With the upcoming release of Down the Plymouth Road, we have graciously been given a little bonus to provide a more thorough background on the prodigious writing career of its author, Mr. Stanley Jenkins. Conducted by editor of Eclectia Magazine, Tom Dooley, we get a sneak peek inside Jenkins' process of writing Down the Plymouth Road and the ideas he expressed with it.
Stanley Jenkins first appeared in Eclectica Magazine in the spring of 1997. It was his first time being published on the Internet, which was the case for many authors at that time, the web as a venue for serious literature being a relatively new idea. We had only been online for seven months ourselves, and when we read Stanley’s submissions—three wildly different yet distinctly voiced pieces that somehow evoked Kerouac, Blake, and the Bible—we knew we’d stumbled upon yet another miraculous find. We didn’t know that over 20 years later, Eclectica would still be online, Stanley Jenkins would be our most prolific author, and his work would finally be getting the attention it deserves from the larger literary community, with his second book coming out this summer. We agreed to take this occasion as an excuse to talk about the new book and its predecessor and some of the many themes and ideas Stanley uniquely explores in his writing.
Tom Dooley: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Down the Plymouth Road. This is your second book, and it strikes me as both a continuation of and a departure from your first, A City on a Hill. Can you talk a little about that idea? To the degree that Road is a continuation of Hill—or a departure for that matter—how much of that was intentional, how much was something you were aware of as it happened, and how much have you discovered as you’ve reread and revised the pieces? Stanley Jenkins: “Continuation and departure” is actually spot on. In fact, the last chapter of Hill is actually the first chapter of Road. I used the same piece for both.
A City on a Hill was a loose collection of writings pretty much starting from the mid-‘90s, with a couple from the late ‘80s, and continuing up to the point of publication in 2013 by a small publishing house, Outpost19. In hindsight, it’s pretty clear to me now that I was trying to make sense of an America I could no longer recognize. The sheer hard turn to the right, starting in the Reagan years, seemed to be an acceleration of the actual decoupling of history and myth. There was little daylight between dreams and lies. Our national myths seemed to have lost their roots in truth and reality (if they’d ever had any). I was writing about an identity crisis both personal and national.
By the end of the collection, after 9/11, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, the financial crisis in ’08, the mainstreaming of racism during the Obama years, etc., I had pretty much exhausted all of my own masks and was thrust back onto my faith. Up until this point, I had never really written about my faith outside of a church context, in spite of having been a Presbyterian Minister and Pastor for the last 30 years. These two worlds, literary and church, had been kept rigidly compartmentalized. I suddenly found myself writing explicitly in literary terms—for me, anyway—about God. So, I started writing Down the Plymouth Road, looking for a new America in my soul.
TD: Hmm. “Exhausted all of my own masks.” What do you mean by that phrase, exactly? Are you talking about an exasperation, an unwillingness to pretend things are at all okay, a desire to either leave all conversations or start shouting at people? Or are you talking about the kind of masks Tina Williamson wrote an article about on Huff Post: as things we wear over our true selves, that affect not just how others see us but how we view the world?
SJ: Specifically, literary masks. Hill was in many ways a kind of ventriloquist act. I was trying on different characters and throwing my voice. With these masks I could say things that I couldn’t normally—especially in my role as Pastor. It was incredibly liberating. The Pastoral role—people’s expectations of you—can become very restrictive. You can easily fall into the trap of being reduced to the role, and expressing only part of who you are as a full human being.
In any case, I was born at the tail end of the Boomer generation, young enough to absorb much of the idealism of the 60s, as well as the the gut-punch of its aftermath. I was born two months before JFK was killed, and I was six when we landed on the moon, eleven when Nixon resigned, and about 16 when I first heard The Sex Pistol’s Nevermind the Bollocks. Like so many white, middle-class people of my generation, the first to grow up taking TV for granted, I was the product of both the glamor and triumphalism of the American Dream, seen in color, and the self-evident truth that it was a lie. Hill allowed me to explore that dualism, and the characters were the “masks” that allowed me to do it. By the time of the writing of Road, as I mentioned, I had no more masks left. I was naked and exhausted. What remained for me was God, or more particularly, writing about God—that which remains (for me) after the dream and the lie. Which in the end, I suppose, is what I have always been writing about.
The irony, of course, is that what I discovered in writing, especially in writing about God, is you don’t really lose your masks, you just find other masks more appropriate to the task. I don’t have much faith in some sort of absolute authenticity or purity. We are finite, contingent beings. All expression is mediated, which isn’t to say that some forms of expression aren’t more honest, kind, or sincere than others, but it is to say that we really are contingent. We depend upon one another to speak and to be heard. Reading and writing—all of the Arts—are always communal on some level. Saying “I had no more masks,” I suppose, is really just another way of saying I had reached a level of vulnerability and needed to discover new, more appropriate masks to express what I needed to say, other masks so I could be in deeper communion with myself, others, and God.
TD: Thanks for elaborating on that. One of the many things I appreciate about reading your work, but even more so about being able to discuss it with you, is how glad I am when I ask you what you mean about something. Speaking of meaning, on the most caveman, simplistic level, the title “A City on a Hill” implies a destination, while “Down the Plymouth Road” implies a journey. Armchair psychology tells us over and over that the latter is more important than the former. Road seems to agree, repeatedly exhorting the protagonist to just “keep walking.” Your thoughts?
SJ: I don’t really have anything to add. You nailed it.
TD: The title has some other obvious and maybe less obvious connotations, though. How did you come up with it?
SJ: I had gone to high school in Plymouth, Michigan, outside of Ann Arbor, where there was an actual Plymouth Road. It amused me to conflate that bit of personal history with the Pilgrims and Plymouth Plantation, which the Pilgrims, themselves, or at least the Puritans, quoting Scripture, explicitly referred to as “a city on a hill.”
TD: So, the “Plymouth Road” doesn’t just work on an allegorical and a literary and a historical level, but it’s also literally where you grew up? That’s a lot of levels. But then, you always seem to be thinking, writing, and I would argue, living on multiple levels. When you talk about “looking for a new America in (your) soul,” I take it you mean this spiritually but also intellectually. Given your vocation as a minister, I suppose the idea of a “soul” to go looking for is a little less abstract to you than it would be to a lay person, and yet you also seem very much aware of and invested in understanding America not just through a Biblical lens, but through historical and pop cultural ones as well.
SJ: Well, it’s not so much looking for my soul, as much as looking for America in my soul, the city on a hill, that ideal that I still believe in, beyond the constant betrayal of the dream. The distinction is important, I think. The soul in my faith tradition is associated with “the image of God” in all humanity. It is the common ground where, as some medieval Christian mystics imagined it, the abyss of the individual meets the abyss of the Divine. By the time of the writing of Road, I was ready—or perhaps just had no other choice—to accept the correspondence of the inner and the outer. I’m sorry, if this is starting to sound a little airy-fairy! But it’s kind of the nature of the beast.
Let me be frank. I think the soul of America is sick, cut off from its source. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about an exclusively Christian source. Our culture, once again, has become cut off from its source in Being-Itself. Trump with his lies and “fake news”—as well, as the rise of hate crimes and mainstreaming of racism, bigotry, hatred, and xenophobia—is symptomatic of this sickness. “Looking for America in my soul,” is another way of saying that if we are going to save our country, then our souls need to be healed as well, in whatever tradition or manner that presents itself for us. For me, it is Christianity. There are other faith traditions, of course, and forms of spirituality which do not require a belief in God. And if “spirituality” as a word has too much baggage, then call it what you will. Essentially, for me, it comes down to learning to be compassionate (which turns out to be exponentially more difficult than it sounds).
TD: I suspect I’ve kinda taken us down a side road. Diversions are hard to avoid, though, given all the things we could talk about in this book, and given the way the book itself, while it’s certainly going somewhere, isn’t afraid to take a few detours. You were explaining the context within which Road came to be written…
SJ: Sure—back to the story. In the midst of completing what would become the final chapter of my first book and the first chapter of this new book, we moved from NYC, where we had lived for 15 years, to Central New Jersey. It turned out to be a horrible move. It was a bad fit with the new church, and within two years we’d moved on. We ended up in Lansing, Michigan—about an hour or so west of Plymouth. It seemed fortuitous. Coming full-circle.
That’s when I started writing new installments of Road. It started with Series Two. These new installments became increasingly personal and disclosing—confessional—as I began grappling with the aftermath of a series of deaths in the family.
The Deaths. There were a lot of them. Though never explicitly addressed in the writing until the end, this is a death-haunted book, the death of loved ones, parishioners, the death of the old self, the death of cherished illusions. It’s a book that recounts a spiritual transformation, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in the midst of all that death.
This all became increasingly clear to me as I continued writing, and the editing and arranging of pieces proceeded accordingly.
TD: I’d like to come back to “The Deaths” in a bit—it’s a topic with more than a little finality to it, so maybe it would be fitting if we delved into it at the end of this conversation. On the topic of editing and arranging, though, when we were talking about do