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Meet Perry Janes

Today we’d like to introduce you to Perry Janes.

Every artist has a unique story. Can you briefly walk us through yours?
I often feel as though my story has more than one beginning. If I’m zeroing in on an origin point, I would trace it back to my late adolescence studying poetry in Detroit, Michigan. I was blessed to have some incredibly rigorous mentors as a young artist. I’d been writing poetry and stories since middle school but, as one might expect, they were all pretty awful. My earliest teachers did me the courtesy of treating me like an adult, like a graduate student really, emphasizing the minutiae of craft and the importance of showing up every day to do the work. It was a very blue-collar approach to art-making, and that made a lifelong impact on me. I built a practice that emphasized consistency. I was never not writing. (If my partner were here, I think she’d tell you that’s still true today.)

While literature was my launching pad into life as an artist, I’d always harbored a love for cinema as well. Growing up, I was an absolute junkie for movies. I remember my parents used to hide my favorite VHS cassettes around the apartment, which I would then dig up to re-watch. Eventually, they got so good at hiding these tapes they lost them altogether. (I’m still not convinced they didn’t just throw them in the trash. Looking at you, mom and dad.) Years later, these interests led me to study film production and screenwriting at The University of Michigan. Initially, I felt uneasy about pursuing this career path. I wasn’t yet ready to wholesale commit to life as an artist. Earning dual degrees in Creative Writing and Screen Arts felt, well, risky. But my reticence changed when I realized how much work there was in the entertainment industry—and just how much I loved that work. This was during the golden era of Michigan’s film tax incentives. There was a lot of production coming in from Hollywood. I PA’d on my first movie set, wrote my first script, and—when I was 21—shot my short film ZUG on location in Detroit.

This is the time I often say my life took a left turn. In 2013, ZUG received a Student Academy Award from the AMPAS. I was flown to Los Angeles for five days, where I tapped into an entirely new community. I remember thinking: This feels like the window, and the window will close if you don’t… leap. So I threw my belongings in a car and moved west. No job, no place to live, long-distance from my partner for the first time in our relationship.

If I’m honest, the next few years were incredibly difficult. The truth is I wasn’t fully prepared to capitalize on the attention I’d garnered for the short. I had people interested in my work… but my work wasn’t at its best yet. I still had so much to learn. Instead, I spent the next three-plus years assisting high-powered writers/directors. These jobs functioned a bit like apprenticeships, a crash course in all things Hollywood, but they were also incredibly demanding.

I was told to keep paying my dues, to work my way up to a job in some writer’s room—but I came from outside the industry. I was skeptical of this idea that I could climb the ladder to a writing career. Beyond being skeptical, that wasn’t how I wanted to make my name. It was generating the work that mattered. I decided early on that these jobs were only useful to me if I took what I learned and applied it to my own craft.

So I put my head down. During five years in Los Angeles, I finished my first novel manuscript and my first pilot. I enrolled in the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, a low-residency program, where I earned my MFA in Poetry. It was an incredibly generative time, in part because I felt the pressure of the moment, and in part, because nothing sustains me quite like the work itself.

The business can be cynical, but the work is always optimistic. Eventually, all of this writing began to just… click. I found representation, carouseled my way through a number of “general meetings,” received institutional support from studios and journals, and sold my first project. I’m still starting out, but I consider myself wildly fortunate to have come this far.

Please tell us about your art.
Even though I move between different forms, I see all my work as being holistic. It all reflects the same obsessions, which I think of in two ways: content and form.

On the one hand, I’m very much a writer of place. A lot of my work is informed by my life growing up in Detroit’s metropolitan area. Detroit is a city deeply involved with storytelling because it’s a city that gets mythologized in so many people’s minds. It’s often spoken about as either “The Death of the American Dream” or “The Bastion of Industrial Rebirth,” which completely erases the more nuanced, human stories waiting to be told. There’s a palpable respect for the power of narrative there. It’s why the city has a “Storyteller in Chief.”

Detroit is also a city struggling to reckon with its own history. It’s a place full of ruptures that still live in the landscape. As a result of those ruptures, there’s a tremendous amount of communal ingenuity there, but there’s also a lot of exploitation. It’s a city that’s had to redefine the very definition of “home” in the face of structural inequity. That’s something that comes up in my writing a lot: how one builds, or finds, or defines “home” when that concept gets broken in some way. That breakage might be personal or political, but the solution always lies in the importance of community.

On the other hand, I’m tremendously interested in how form shapes theme. This is where I really feel my training as a poet. In a poem, you might be deciding where to break the line to create half-meanings within the sentence, how to use rhyme and meter to create musicality, etcetera. Those decisions don’t just mold content—they become content by surfacing subtext in visceral ways.

In this respect, another obsession of mine is how to use form to work against certainty. I’m deeply suspicious of work that proclaims rather than asks questions. There’s a lot of categorization that happens in storytelling. This is a comedy, therefore it isn’t a tragedy. This is for one demographic, not another. The same is true in life. We’re encouraged to assert authorial control and perform our identities. “This is my story, and my story is one way.” I understand the appeal of that, but I also can’t help feeling that our tendency to categorize is really just a form of reduction. I think it’s truer to life to explore a simultaneity of experience. To say: “This story is confusing, and I’m not going to try and sort that confusion for you. I’m going to embody it.” What does it look like, for instance, to tell a story about childhood trauma while also making space for childhood wonder? To elevate humor in the middle of abject grief? To acknowledge the interplay that often exists between pleasure and pain, shame and excitement? I gravitate toward art that explores this simultaneity, that makes me confront it in myself.

Somewhere in there, my work takes shape. A lot of my writing is personal, and also presents as intentionally approachable. I’m very aware of the audience. I want to make work that speaks to the people I love, some of whom are artists, but many of whom are engineers or mechanics or mathematicians. For this reason, my work tries to invite the audience in with a clear premise or image or genre, to make them feel at home. That invitation serves a second, hidden purpose: it disarms the audience of their skeptical armor. Underneath what’s familiar or friendly, I’m using form to complicate the story, to trouble the audience’s certainty in what they’re receiving and ask difficult questions—of the characters, or of themselves.

Do you have any advice for other artists? Any lessons you wished you learned earlier?
I’m still learning, so anything I say here comes with a giant grain of salt.

For what it’s worth, the lessons I wish I’d internalized early on include…

1. Take your learning curve public. I used to harbor a fear not only of failing but of being seen to fail. I had colleagues telling me to be careful about my first impression, to keep the work close and wait for my moment. But doing that only made “the moment” feel more pressurized. It limited the relationships I was building. And the overwhelming truth is: we all fail. A lot of rejection is structural, not personal. That doesn’t mean it won’t sting. Allow space for disappointment, but trust your own resiliency. Be willing to fail in public, evolve, and keep it pushing. I really believe it’s the persistence to keep going, and the humility to continue learning, that wins the day.

2. Look side-to-side, not up-and-down. It’s tempting to hope for a hand up from the people you see as ahead of you. In my experience, though, it’s nearly always been my colleagues and friends who have advocated for me, who have read my work and given feedback when I most needed it, who have meaningfully expanded my network. I heard Barry Jenkins say something to this effect at IFP Film Week, so I can’t claim the wisdom as my own, but I do think we’re at our best when we ascend with people we love and support and work alongside as peers.

3. Reject scarcity theory. There’s room for us all. Build community-based on mutual admiration, not transactional worth or competitive instincts. Find people you love and respect. Celebrate them. And when you reach that next milestone: look around. Anyone who can’t authentically cheer your own achievements? Those may not be the people you want to work with.

4. Consume art prodigiously. For me, output correlates to input. I feel so grateful to be alive today, to have such access to so many inspiring voices. My love for the work never diminishes so long as I’m engaging with other’s visions.

5. Last but not least: don’t sacrifice your relationships to the myth that art requires suffering. Who started that idea? I’m convinced whoever it was did not have our best interests at heart.

How or where can people see your work? How can people support your work?
I’m still emerging, in the way the art world uses that term, which is one way of saying: I don’t have my first book for sale or show on the air. I’ve spent years learning, practicing, and creating a groundswell of work. I’m now at a point where I’m eager to push that work out into the world.

Which means there’s no better support than reading, watching, and sharing! I keep samples available on my website. Anyone interested in bringing me out for a reading, screening, or workshop can reach me via the contact page. I love that kind of work, performances and conversations that reduce the space between artist and audience. Also listed on my website is contact info for any editors, producers, or financiers interested in soliciting a submission.

This is probably to my disadvantage, but I will say: I’m a social media misanthrope. I’ve never had a Twitter. I recently deleted my Facebook. Those platforms have never felt natural to me. Rather than spend my energy on using them disingenuously, I avoid them. But I am on Instagram. For those interested in my weird reports from the field, I use my page there as optimistically and openly as I can.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Benjamin Dell
Tina Wu
Device Creative Collaborative
Imagine Impact
Motor Signal Reading Series

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