The emerging writer on the ideal reader, Abraham Lincoln as shaman, how poetry and fiction go together, and the greatness of a mongoose.
Jesse Ball is kind of a tricky guy. Talking to him, you feel like he’s up to something, solving a puzzle you didn’t even know was there. His work is fueled equally by Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and things that are wholly his own invention. When he’s not practicing martial arts—he does something akin to boxing—or hanging out with his family, or writing, he’s reading.
Grove Press published Ball’s first book, a collection of poems called March Book, in 2004 while Ball was still finishing his MFA at Columbia University. In terms of subject matter and technique, the poems aren’t too different from the novels Ball would write a few years later—a mixture of surreal and realistic imagery and characters, exaggeration and humor used to drive home deeply earnest emotions, a sense of timelessness derived from folktales, Kafka, and other sources. March Book sold well (for a book of poems) but perhaps because he was young, and perhaps because “promotion” for books of poetry is more like spreading rumors than selling anything, and because those rumors tend to spread through the tightly-knit community of poets of which, at the time, Ball was not a part, his debut didn’t do much for his writerly reputation.
But Ball is also the kind of writer who writes all the time. His muse never seems to go on vacation, so within a couple of years—spent largely in Europe—Ball had written his first novel, The Way Through Doors, though it was his second to be published. Next he wrote Samedi the Deafness, published by Vintage in 2007. It’s the account of seven days in the life of James Sim, who finds himself enmeshed in a shadowy terrorist organization based in an asylum for liars. As Sim explores the asylum, where he is held prisoner, he finds that while he is desperate for information, he’d be a fool to trust anything that any of the chronic liars—especially the alluring Grieve—tell him, and he also finds that maybe that’s okay.
Lying, or at least some form of making up the truth, is central to Ball’s sense of literature. His new book and second novel to be published, The Way Through Doors, is the story of someone who compulsively makes up stories. Selah Morse is a municipal inspector, a city functionary whose badge gives him either complete or absolutely no power, depending on the situation. When he witnesses a beautiful girl get hit by a car on his rounds, he takes her to the hospital, claims, for convenience sake, to be her boyfriend, and takes her home when she is released with amnesia into his care. Her doctors say she must be kept awake for eighteen hours, and so to keep her awake and perhaps to help remind her of who she might be, Selah begins spinning a kind of endless tale—what’s called a “frame tale,” as Ball says below—in which one story gives way to another and another in a cascade of absolutely mesmerizing concentric narratives. It’s a deeply entertaining and moving book, a love story set in a wild imagination.
Since beginning to publish fiction, things have gone well for Ball. His novels were both reviewed enthusiastically, and in 2008, he won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for his story “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp and Carr.” He scored a job teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago and now lives nearby with his wife and sometime collaborator Thordis Bjornsdottir (the pair wrote a hilarious and haunting book of stories about a violent pair of kids, called Vera and Linus). Milkweed Editions is slated to publish his next book of poems, and he’s got a heap of fiction in the hopper. He and I met in graduate school, and have become friends; we got together to talk about his writing, reading, and the way some people talk about books.
—Craig Morgan Teicher for Guernica
Guernica: Your writing is poised somewhere between very old—the timeless territory of fables and folktales—and the very new, hip, disjunctive, tricky fiction that is popular today. Some might even call it experimental at times, though I don’t think you’d call yourself an experimental writer.
One of the most frustrating things is when a perfectly intelligent person who you know can read a poem will just toss their hands in the air and say, “Oh yeah, I don’t really understand poetry.”
Jesse Ball: Well, I’ve always been very old fashioned, and I think when people respond to when people say something’s experimental, it’s usually before they’ve read it. Once they read it, they say, “oh, yeah, I’m comfortable with this, it’s a good story.” I don’t consider myself an experimental writer, though some of the things I do are kind of drastic in one way or another. I always try to be strategic and economical, and that’s expressed drastically. However, the actual heart of it is a fondness for delight, surprise, and story. The main thing for me is an older tradition of storytelling, not writing in a way that relies on a consensus of what’s real, but paying attention to the actual story itself, and to how we live, how we relate to one another. There are many techniques by which to tell a story that can’t be used in realistic novels, but which work perfectly well and have been used for thousands of years. One of those is the frame tale, which is a great way of creating expectation and tension within a story and allowing you to move between different resources and create something that can operate on different levels.
Guernica: You’re both a fiction writer and a poet. It seems to me that a fiction writer has to have lots of, as you say, fondness, the real desire, to sit in the rooms they’re writing about and look around and say, “oh this is there, that’s there, that’s there,” whereas a poet really loves the words more than the things they refer to, the way that a comic book artist loves icons. If a comic artist wants to draw a bookshelf, rather than carefully rendering each detail of the bookshelf, he or she will just draw the rectangle for the bookshelf, outline one or two books, then make some wavy lines to show the rest. A poet is like that with words. Your fiction partakes of both strategies: fidelity to the real world and unrealistic icons. How do the practices of poetry and fiction go together for you?
Jesse Ball: I think the main difference is in the expectations the reader comes into a piece of writing with. As the author, you’re working with a different understanding for each genre of how the readers can read things, how much attention they’re going to pay, what they believe they’re going to receive from the writing. I think poems are instructions or clues to methods of thought, and narratives—meaning fiction—give you more; it comes from a different angle. Poetry is a fixation on an object, and fictional narratives are a succession of objects being named and then placed next to one another. I love D.H. Lawrence. He’s really good at both. A lot of people make a choice of some kind between the two. There are things that are alluring about writing fiction that aren’t the case for poetry. You just get so much attention for it, and also the people who read fiction get excited and don’t plead a lack of understanding. One of the most frustrating things is when a perfectly intelligent person who you know can read a poem will just toss their hands in the air and say, “Oh yeah, I don’t really understand poetry.” With fiction that doesn’t happen.
Guernica: No, people never say that about fiction. It must have been a kind of a strange feeling, having first published March Book, a collection of poetry, to suddenly be somewhat more recognized when you published your first novel, Samedi the Deafness. A few famous writers, like Jonathan Franzen, came to your book party, and even Gawker showed up. Gawker certainly doesn’t cover poets’ book parties.
I like when people approach books as though they were about to set out on a picnic or adventure. I like people to read alone and get caught up in it.
Jesse Ball: Yeah, it is pretty silly. I wrote that book of poems and then nothing happened at all. I was happy to have written it, and I wanted people to read it, but it didn’t help me to get a job or anything; nothing came of it. The novel, on the other hand, was this huge sort of fanfare. And it’s funny because the novels have the same sort of material, the same sort of ideas as the poems, and I almost could have chosen which one to do; poetry is what I was starting with. If I was calculating, I certainly would have done it the other way around. But starting out with poetry is one of the best ways to become a really good and dutiful reader. I even say to people and students that if I had my choice for them between reading and writing, between 100 percent of one and zero of the other, in order to become a good writer, I would say they should do zero writing and all reading. Rather than all writing and no reading, which is what some people do.
One of the things that always dismays me is the degree to which people dismiss certain older classics because they don’t realize that each reader of a book obtains something different from it. It’s not like everyone sees the same things in a particular book. If you’re Samuel Beckett, whatever you read is going to come off in a particular way. I mean, if Samuel Beckett has just read The Canterbury Tales, you’re really going to want to hear what he has to say.
Guernica: So, who would be your ideal reader?
Jesse Ball: There was an answer that somebody gives, some writer: their ideal reader was themselves at the age of fifteen in a provincial library finding the book on a dusty shelf. For me, I think I like it when people approach books as though they were about to set out on some picnic or adventure. I like people to read alone, all by themselves, and get caught up in it. I like for them to read it as rapidly as possible, possibly in one sitting, but I understand if that’s not the case, but quickly. It used to be that the novella was wonderful because it would be read in one sitting, but now I don’t know that many people who read that many pages at once.
Guernica: Also, novellas have recently gotten the same bad rap as poetry, where people hear about one and say, “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t really understand novellas,” like they’re hearing the word novella and they think they’re hearing “sestina” and they just don’t know. But you say you want people to be able to read your books as rapidly as possible?
Jesse Ball: I meant that just in terms of finishing it in one go. If it took twelve hours, that would be fine. I mean, as long as they have their lunch.
Guernica: Something I find especially interesting about The Way Through Doors is it doesn’t have any breaks or chapters in it—it’s just a parade of one thing after the next thing and the next thing. The process of reading The Way Through Doors is very much a continuous one. I’m wondering if the process of writing it was similar. Were you strategizing and plotting all of those little stories, or did they arise spontaneously out of one another?
Jesse Ball: I had come up with some of them beforehand—the one about the Russians, an earlier version of which was told to me by a woman maybe in the nineteen nineties. So I had that and I had something vague in my head about the ugliest woman in Russia and the empress. The thing about this kind of book is that it actually can be easy to write because with so many stories and kinds of stories, there are so many resources that exist for writers as they’re writing; it’s sort of like driving a car with a hundred gears and fifteen wheels pointing in every direction—overwhelming but enabling too. Like a mongoose—one of the great things about a mongoose is that it can run the same speed when making a full right turn; it doesn’t slow down. That’s kind of how I felt, having so many resources. A lot of times you get tired when you’re writing something because you’re not sure what you want to do but you know the thing you have to do. You’re not prepared to do that, so for a while you skip ahead and then come back. But with this, it was just easy to flow around every obstacle, and yet nonetheless eventually address all obstacles.
Guernica: Can you tell me about Lincoln’s Folly, the meadow and house deep beneath New York, which one gets to by walking down an immense staircase in the tallest building in the world, most of which is deceptively underground. It seems to me that’s the deepest place in the story, literally and figuratively.
I do think that there is a hope to superimpose on the actual weakness of the world.
Jesse Ball: You know, that’s the part of the book that surprised me. Literally from sentence to sentence I didn’t know what was about to be written—it just poured off, you know. Part of that section came out of something I read about Lincoln’s dreams. Apparently Lincoln would have these magnificent, foreboding, powerful, charismatic dreams during the Civil War that he used to get his wherewithal, and so I had this concept of Lincoln as some kind of shaman. He was a wrestler, he was pretty badass guy. But he was also a good dreamer.
Guernica: I have always loved the kind of compassion your writing displays for the strangest things about people, a real compassion for the importance of fantasy as a part of everyday life. There’s a way that this book makes a kind of hiding place for children that works, a place to house, if you’ll permit the cliché, one’s inner child, like the little lookout spot in Samedi the Deafness and Lincoln’s Folly. There is a deep kind of compassion that leads you to invent these sorts of places. And I think it goes back to what you said earlier about having the habit of reading: that there are always more places to go to, and always more maps to superimpose upon the actual world. I think Toni Morrison said that she wanted to write the books that she wanted to read, and I feel that impulse pretty strongly, in your work too. I think you’re trying to make the kind of book the kind of person you are would feel good in.
Jesse Ball: I think that’s really right on. I do think that there is a hope to superimpose on the actual weakness of the world, without diminishing the actual weakness, to nonetheless map it and find all the comfortable spots, the narrow spaces and the mysteries.
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