Florid Descriptions & Dry Humor: Jesse Bullington on Style, Pace, & Spirit of Art

Jesse Bullington, the mad prophet of the North Florida woods, has done it again.  The Enterprise of Death, the follow-up to Bullington’s debut The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, has finally hit the shelves in all its lush, folkloric perversity. 

If you’re not familiar with Bullington’s work think… Jim Thompson egging a young Cormac McCarthy to write novels set in Renaissance Europe.  By the time you get the novels home from the bookshop, the pages are still wet with ink, sweat, and gore.

Below, Bulington and I catch up on such topics as style, pacing, and a Renaissance artist named Manuel Deutsch.

What’s the coolest thing about The Enterprise of Death?

Jesse Bullington:  For me, probably how my main character Awa turned out. I had a rough idea of this flawed, interesting character, but very early on in the writing process she took on a life of her own and ended up taking the text in some very unexpected directions. I like complicated, challenging characters, people we might not root for if we weren’t intimately acquainted with their inner workings, and so for me the coolest thing about this project was getting to know the cast, especially my protagonist.

For me, one of the coolest things is how it was written, the style.  What is “style” and how would you describe yours?

Jesse Bullington:  A rough hodgepodge of literary maneuverings and flourishes that I’ve stolen from my betters. I like pushing sentences to their limits rather than going for the minimalist approach, which is something I’ve heard both lauded and condemned by critics. As a fan of the Gothics and the Pulps alike, I love a good dose of florid descriptions, though in my case I try to use it in the service of dry narrative humor rather than as sincere translucent prose with a purplish tint.

What is the connections between style and pacing?  This book…  moves!

Jesse Bullington:  Flexibility. Having a flexible style is essential if you want to cover both the micro and the macro in a novel, the minute-by-minute, second-by-second details of a conversation, a series of thoughts, or a bloody fight sequence involving monsters and witchcraft, yet also the greater events that occupy weeks or months or years. This novel begins in 1492 and concludes in 1530, so a rigid adherence to a single style wouldn’t have worked for me—sometimes the focus has to zoom in and slow down, at other points it needs to pan out and speed up, or even elide over large periods of time.

It’s not as simple as frenetically jumping from super-exciting-fast-paced-adventure scene to super-exciting-fast-paced-adventure scene because even if all you’re trying to do is write a super-exciting-fast-paced-adventure novel then there’s still the fact that you need context for your super-exciting-fast-paced-adventure scenes or they won’t really be all that exciting, even if they are super and fast-paced and adventurous. That for me the more meditative issues of individual characters in particular and larger questions of friendship and forgiveness and religion and abuse in general were every bit as important as the super-exciting-fast-paced-adventure sequences meant that I had a lot of juggling to do to keep things moving, and so again we come back to the importance of being flexible with your style as you work.

Lastly, what is the deal with Manuel Deutsch anyway?

Jesse Bullington:  Manuel was a lesser known Renaissance artist whose take on the Death and the Maiden motif captured my imagination as I was planning the novel…which is, after all, my literary take on that same theme. I casually researched him after seeing the piece in question (which Orbit eventually used for the cover), not being previously acquainted with his work, and in finding what a fascinating life he had lived and seeing he could fit into the novel, I took him on as a side character. As often happens, he ended up playing a bigger part than I had anticipated, but at the same time I’ve tried to make him a real character instead of some romanticized Renaissance Man hero—he’s got flaws a plenty, which I think make him more interesting rather than detracting from his character.

Whether or not he was anything like how I’ve written him here is hard to say, as we know so little abut him compared to some of his contemporaries, but in researching his life I found scraps of plays and poetry he’d written, as well as the paintings and etchings I’d already come across, and I think art can give you something of an idea about the artist, especially when combined with the obvious life choices they made. Plus, improvisation and creative license is keeping with the spirit of art, so I hope Manuel might have approved of this version of himself, even if it is removed from reality by several degrees.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.

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