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Other Worlds

A. Jarrell Hayes turns his torment into speculative fiction

Photo: Ben Cricchi, License: N/A

Ben Cricchi


A dog steps on a land mine in Druid Hill Park and is blown to bits. The mayor gives a speech. It is a national security issue. Martial law is declared. There is a curfew, and a woman goes out to buy a bottle of liquor before it sets in. But all her neighbors are saying things like, “Fuck a curfew. The cops ain’t coming to the damn ’hood, son. Many times we call them and they ain’t do shit? Now some cracker’s dog gets blown to bits and they wanna tell us to get inside?”

Then, like a Greek chorus, these neighbors are simultaneously proven right and wrong when an act of ordinary urban violence shatters the day.

This is the plot of “Dogs in the City,” the first story in A. Jarrell Hayes’ new collection, Popular Television. It is a powerful indictment of the misplaced concerns of a segregated city and one of Hayes’ strongest works.

Though he is only 30, Hayes has amassed a tremendous body of self-published work: four novels (his fifth will come out in Dec. 2012), two previous short-story collections, and eight books of poetry. The quality of such a vast oeuvre varies, unsurprisingly, but buried amidst the countless pages, a diligent reader can find some spectacular tales.

Hayes says that when he was a child, he used to write “choose-your-own-adventure” books. “When other kids had a lemonade stand, I had a book stand,” he says in a local coffee shop. “It seemed really easy. Whatever choice you made, the character would die.”

Hayes says he quickly found himself at odds with the world. “I wasn’t manageable,” he says of the severe anger issues that eventually led him to be diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which, he says, “is like having schizophrenia and bipolar disorder together.”

He was eventually committed to a mental facility. During his second year there, he began to take his treatment—involving therapy and meditation—seriously. “Finally I got some understanding about what was going on,” he says. “Knowing what it is, the symptoms, what triggers it. Before that, I thought everyone was like this. The information was power.”

Hayes returned to the outside world and entered high school, where he began using writing as a way to deal with his disease. “When I got mad, I’d write a story with a character based on somebody and kill him off inside the book,” he says. “But I never showed those to anyone or published them.”

When he noticed that none of the fantasy or speculative fiction books he was devouring had inner-city black characters, he began his first book, Crowning of the Good King.

“I just went home and wrote after school until it was finished,” he says. And the writing not only saved him “from a life of violence,” as he puts it, but it helped him transform an impediment into a virtue: the strange thoughts that had once beset him now had an appropriate outlet.

The book was a fantasy story about a young man who finds himself thrust into a war with the Dark Lord after a surprise attack on the Six Lands. He wrote it just as technology was making it easier to self-publish, and so, in an updated version of his childhood book stands, Hayes published Crowning of the Good King and followed it up with a sequel.

This happy graphomania continued undiminished as he added volume after volume of poetry and fantasy to his collection. He also wrote a speculative thriller, Detecting Magic with Dick Hunter, about an unfortunately named detective caught between battling supernatural forces of pleasant and evil Jinns, or spirits.

The novel, half-Philip K. Dick and half X-Files, fuses the language of hard-boiled writers like Raymond Chandler with more mysterious elements of his previous work, forging Hayes’ most powerful voice, which is also evident in Popular Television’s most successful stories “Dogs in the City,” and “The Recruiter.” In the latter story, a voodoo doctor repossesses the souls of debtors for a bank, which then forces them into slave labor to pay off their mortgages.

“I’ve been moving away from straight fantasy into more speculative fiction, where something could happen or is just a little bit off from what we expect,” Hayes says, twirling a stray strand of his long ?uestlove-like afro. “Researching the story and looking in the Constitution, I was scared to find that slavery isn’t illegal as long as it is a punishment for a crime—like prison labor—or payment for a debt. So I thought, what if companies had the ability to suspend people’s lives until they could work off their debts?”

Aside from the recurring mention of the main character’s twirling of his mustache—a distracting narrative tick—the story is absorbing, an exemplary mixture of the probable and the improbable. But Hayes doesn’t always fare quite so well when he tries his hand at strict realism. Both “Four Women,” about the love lives of women who work in a nail parlor, and “Man Up,” a story about sexual abuse among members of a high school basketball team, deploy realistic dialogue and a strong sense of observation and pacing, but lack the urgency and passion of the more speculative stories. Other more realist stories, such as “This Christmas,” abandon all sense of pacing and create brief, somewhat tortured melodramas.

When asked how he manages such a large output without an editor, Hayes says that he will hire one occasionally for a large novel, but mostly, he edits the stories himself.

“I’m not one of those writers who self-published as a way to get another publisher,” he says. “I love the editorial control and the control of the covers. I’m a do-it-yourself type. It is important to me to have a reasonable price for readers.” He only charges $5 for his books, and estimates he sold about 150 copies of his best seller, a poetry collection called Just Another Angry Black Man.

Hayes also earns income as a freelance editor for small presses. He plans to take the skills he has learned by editing and self-publishing to begin a house that will publish other writers as well as his own ever-increasing output. “I’ll begin with an anthology and a magazine and find writers that I’d like to work with that way,” he says.

But the main thing seems to be to keep writing. He is currently publishing a poem a day on his 30th Year Poetry blog (ajhayes.com). A recent entry, “Slave to Time,” laments a world with “no time for profound thoughts/ and fleeting language.” But this is not a problem Hayes often faces.

“I get up at 6 A.M. every day—7 A.M. on the weekends—but then it is like Phineas and Ferb,” he says referring to the children’s television program. “I wake up each day and I’m like, What am I going to do today?

He always writes his daily poem first, but after that he often meditates or goes for a walk before coming back to write, revise, or edit. Quite engaged in the literary community, Hayes spends many evenings at poetry readings at Cyclops Books on North Avenue or watching movies or television.

“All of the stories in the new collection were based on television in some way,” he says. “The way they are paced and structured.”

Ever looking forward to the next work, Hayes is considering a novel of linked short stories that imagines what the world would be like if Occupy Wall Street were successful. But as his 30th Year Poetry project suggests, Hayes has also reached a point where he is beginning to look backward at his life and his body of work, and he has begun revising his first two books, the Good King series, while finishing the trilogy’s final volume.

“My writing is so much better than it was back then,” he says, acknowledging the lessons subsequent projects have taught him. “I just felt like I had to go back to them.”

For more information visit ajhayes.com

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