ON THE COUCH ... Josh WEIL
A LANDSCAPE OF HUMANITY
JOSH WEIL is the author of The New Valley (Grove/Atlantic, June 2009), a collection of three novellas, and has been a regular contributor to The New York Times. He was born in 1976 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of rural Virginia. His short fiction has been published in Granta, StoryQuarterly, New England Review and Narrative, among other journals and magazines. Since earning his MFA from Columbia University, he has received a Fulbright Grant, scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and a fellowship to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He currently divides his time between New York City and a cabin in southwestern Virginia, where he is working on a novel.
ERIC FORBES spoke to JOSH WEIL over a series of emails in early 2009:
Tell me something about yourself.
I think my best thoughts on writing while hiking to the top of an Appalachian ridge, among the wild rhododendrons, and with the wind howling. And I write them down with earplugs in and wool socks on and a thick white diner mug that my brother gave me.
When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I started to write long before I decided I wanted to be a writer. It was just a need I had: to grapple with the stories in my head. I use that term loosely—stories. One of the earliest ones that I remember writing was a western about a man named Buck who killed another man in a knife fight (it wasn’t his fault; he hadn’t meant to!) and was hunted down by a posse and hanged from a cottonwood tree. I was around 10 years old, but even then, I got caught up in the twists of this character’s life, found myself feeling deeply for someone who was, well, made up. That hooked me. When I was a senior in high school I wrote a novel. I use that term even more loosely than I did ‘story’ above. It was an epic western and it was full of disaster and death and men galloping over the desert plains, but, now that I think of it, it was also pretty full of the themes that would become the ones that drive my writing now. But even after that, I still didn’t think, I want to be a writer. I had always seen myself primarily as a visual artist. Filmmaking seemed the obvious way to bring the two together—the visual instinct and the narrative one—and for a while that was what I studied. But in the year directly after college, I found myself writing a novel again, this time an attempt at a literary novel. For a year, I lived more in the world of that book than in the real world. And when it was done, I knew, no matter how flawed that first serious novel was, that this writing thing was what I wanted to do.
Was it difficult getting your stories published in literary magazines? Was it also difficult getting your first book, The New Valley, published? Did you experience difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher for your first collection of novellas?
I think for all but a very rare few—those writers for whom astonishing luck and breathtaking talent and maturity beyond their years all come together at once; having all those things at different times in life won’t do it—it’s difficult getting stories published. For the rest of us, it’s just about writing the best stories we can, and doggedly pushing ourselves to make them better, and asking editors to keep looking at our work. I published my first story on an online journal when it was a finalist for a competition, and then moved slowly up through better journals, over years, until one day Granta took a story of mine. It took a while, but the thing is, a few years earlier, my stories wouldn’t have been good enough. So, I guess the system pretty much works. If you have real talent and you keep pushing yourself, you will eventually have truly good work, and if you keep pushing beyond that to get it published, someone will eventually recognise it. It ain’t easy—it’s hell, in many ways. But, in the end, the good stuff outs.
Getting my first book published was different. That was a combination of having the right work and the right agent for it. My first agent went out with a novel of mine that came infuriatingly close to selling, but never did. That was a very tough, depressing experience. But, now that The New Valley is coming out, I’m so glad that the previous novel didn’t sell. These novellas feel like the right thing for my first book. They feel like my best work; they feel like me, like who I am as a writer. And my new agent—PJ Mark of McCormick & Williams in New York, who is a gem of a man, as well as the best agent I could hope to have—saw that. He was the one who suggested we go out with a collection of novellas. My jaw hit the floor. Novellas? Nobody sells novellas. Nobody even reads novellas. Nevertheless, the book was sold to Grove/Atlantic in about a week. Grove, especially my editor there, Elisabeth Schmitz, have been amazing to work with. I still love that earlier novel, the one that never got sold, and I’ll go back to it someday, but I know that the novellas are better than that novel is right now. Like I said, the best stuff will out.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary influences? Who are some of your favourite American authors? Why?
I know some authors who seem to have read really fine, sophisticated literary fiction and nonfiction from, well, about as soon as they could read. I’m not one of them. I grew up on great tales, great stories with exciting characters, but, for the most part, not great literary works. I plowed through thrillers by Frederick Forsyth (I read The Day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War many times; I guess I had a thing for titles that referred to canines) and Leon Uris’s historical epics. I read western stuff, mostly nonfiction; I remember an autobiography by a late 19th-century cowboy that really affected me, and a diary by a trapper in the northwest during the same era, but by the time I was in high school that led me, almost without my being aware of it, to some great stories that were also deeply literary in quality. Ron Hansen’s Desperadoes was eye-opening to me—a gunslinging western tale told in beautiful, breathtaking prose, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is, of course, written by a master, but it’s also a hell of a yarn. Suddenly the earlier stuff by less literary writers just seemed so much thinner to me. I dove into writers whom I still love, and who were my first substantial influences: John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and some contemporary stuff like E. Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs and Other Stories.
Of course, my literary influences have grown, both in number and in variety. Now I’m deeply affected by Anton Chekhov’s subtlety and surety and cleanness; the onrush of time and hypnotising sweep of the worlds in William Faulkner’s work; W.G. Sebald brings me to that, too, like no other recent writer; I am in awe of Russell Bank’s bravery and the boldness of his themes; the precision and wondrous dexterity of Vladimir Nabokov and Annie Proulx as pure wordsmiths challenge and inspire me; Toni Morrison, too, and Cormac McCarthy, in very different ways, seem to bring it all together in worlds so rich they stop my breath and in prose so beautiful it feels like something I drink and eat and absorb as much as read. There are others, too, of course—Raymond Carver, John Cheever, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor—and some playwrights as well: Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, Athol Fugard, among others. Filmmakers, too, played a large role in the development of my voice and sensibility, and still deeply influence me: from Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, Bob Rafelson, Lynne Ramsay, Andrei Tarkovsky to the Czech filmmaker Jana Sevcikova. And on and on ...
What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre, and why?
I read mostly fiction, though I often love the nonfiction I do read (some of George Orwell, for instance; and I think I admire Hemingway’s nonfiction even more than his fiction). In fact, I just started a memoir called The End of the World As We Know It: Scenes from a Life by Robert Goolrick and it’s reminding me of just how powerful and moving good nonfiction can be. But the biggest chunk of my time is taken up with reading contemporary literary fiction. There’s just so much great stuff out there to learn from. Both stories and novels. And novellas! I recently read Jim Harrison’s novella collection, Julip, which was great—and which prompted me to read his novel, Returning to Earth, which just floored me. It was so beautiful.
Could you tell me a bit about your first collection of novellas?
The New Valley is a triptych of novellas, of course—three of them: in “Ridge Weather,” the first is the story of a soft-spoken middle-aged beef farmer struggling to hold himself together and find a sense of purpose after his father’s suicide; the middle novella, “Stillman Wing,” is about an ageing single father who, desperate to protect his reckless daughter from the dangers he sees everywhere in her world, destroys the most important aspects of his own; and the last one, “Sarverville Remains,” is a first-person apology by a mildly retarded man who has an affair with an older, married woman, told in the form of a letter to her husband. They’re stories of men struggling against grief, solitude, and obsession, but they’re also, to an even greater extent, about the beauty in life that pervades even in the deepest darknesses. Part of that is contained in the world in which they’re set: a valley in Virginia based on a rural mountain community that’s become a large part of my life.
Who or what do you read if or when you take a break from writing?
A break from writing? What’s that? No, seriously, it depends on how long a break it is. If it’s something I’m reading in the evening while I’m in the middle of a story or a longer work (I’m writing a novel right now), then I can’t read something that is either too close to what I’m working on subject-wise, or written in a voice that is so strong I know it will creep into my own. So I read either nonfiction or stuff that’s very different from what I’m working on, but still inspiring because it’s just so damn good. Which means I often save the writers who I feel the most kinship with, or who affect me most strongly, for when I’m in between projects. I want to read more poetry. I say that every year. Hell, I tell myself that every week.
Do you have a favourite short story or short-story collection?
A favourite short story? Or a collection? I can’t say I do. I will say that I finished Jim Shepard’s Like You’d Understand, Anyway a while ago and it made me shiver with pleasure, exhale in wonder, and howl with envy. Most recently, I read Paul Yoon’s début collection, Once the Shore; I felt like I could feel my heart enlarge every time I finished one of the stories—they are that gorgeous.
Do you think short stories are gaining more popularity?
It does seem that way to me. But I don’t really know. I’d say that with novellas, yes, there definitely seems to be something of a revival. I think the novella is a form that fits this time, that fulfills a certain need right now.
Publishers find story collections a hard sell. Do you think it is harder to publish story collections than novels? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people read more of such collections?
Yeah, it’s definitely harder to publish story collections. Why? Because fewer people want to read them. It’s really that simple. So your question about urging people to read more story collections is really spot on. What can we do? I think a lot of it is using the short form of the story to its advantage. How can it serve a need that the novel can’t? The podcasts from The New Yorker or Selected Shorts on National Public Radio are good examples of this. People want something they can listen to while, say, doing the dishes, but something that they can fit into half an hour or so. Audio of short stories serves that need. So we should be asking ourselves where else can the brevity of the form be an advantage? I’d love to see airline companies publishing short stories in their magazines, or collections sold in airport bookstores. I’d think if something like One Story could be published and sold for a few bucks at, say, railway stations, or subway station magazine kiosks, places where commuters could pick it up and read it instead of their morning slog through the paper, that could really help. Digital delivery is promising, too—like what Tom Jenks and the crew over at Narrative magazine are doing.
“History writes the best stories.” What do you think of this statement?
I guess I don’t think too much of it. I’d say history provides fascinating events, and the human imagination takes them and makes them into great tales, and a writer’s individual talent and unique point of view makes them into great literature. By the time they get there, of course, the actual history is probably just one influence of many.
“Good books don’t answer questions, but they give us questions to enjoy for a long time.” What do you think of this quote?
I think a lot more of this quote. I’d only add that they change what we think the questions are. They change the questions we ask from that point on.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels? Which form do you prefer working on?
A novel takes so much stamina and long-term immersion, but that immersion also allows me to lose myself in the work in a way that’s just not quite possible with a short story. A long work takes a great deal of flexibility in how the story changes from conception to completion and the very difficult task of being able to see, with clear eyes, the full arc of a story over 300 pages or so. Short stories feel to me like they explode outward from an idea, an image, whatever sparks them. And then it’s a matter of packing that moment, and what unravels from it, with as much meaning and depth and power (or whatever the author’s after) in that one lung-burning sprint. I like both, honestly. I used to feel much more comfortable with longer forms, but I’m beginning to feel equally comfortable with short ones. It took me seven or eight years of working on stories to get to that point. And the same amount of time to hone my writing abilities to a point where I could begin to make the work that came out of my comfort with the long form, well, worth it.
But your question leaves out the novella! Honestly, that’s the form in which I feel most at home, most challenged, and most excited. I think a novella allows the kind of freedom with experimentation that a short story allows, and yet lets the reader (and the writer) live with a character and fully inhabit a world the way a novel does, which leads to the chance for emotional involvement that I find rare in stories when compared to novels. In fact, I feel like it can be even greater in a novella, because it’s fully possible to read a 100-page work in one sitting (say, a day at the beach, or a long plane ride) in a way that’s rare with a novel. The effect of that—a novel-like immersion and a story-like compactness of experience—can, at its best, be very powerful.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
About contests: Not really. I think they might be necessary to keep literary journals afloat and to help already successful literary writers remain engaged (and a little more financially sound) as judges, but I think that serious writers will write their best work regardless of whether they might win a prize, or not. I’d rather have my work in a great magazine, just to have it in that magazine’s pages, than win a chunk of cash in a competition, and I think most serious writers would feel the same way. That said, competitions give writers the boost they need to bring their work attention from those good magazines and journals, so they definitely have value. I’m just saying I don’t think they’re imperative.
Writing courses are another matter. I think writing workshops, especially, serve a very real and very important purpose. In graduate school and at workshops in which I’ve participated since then, I’ve been challenged to expand my idea of individual stories and of writing in general, and that’s hugely valuable. I’ve honed my own ideas by having to explain them to others, and sharpened my thinking about writing. I’ve met the people who became my most trusted readers—and there are few things more important to a writer’s work than that.
What do you think of the suggestion that writing short stories is training ground for novelists?
I think the training is simply writing—a lot of it. Whether that’s stories or a first novel (perhaps a failed one, or two, or three) or plays or even screenplays or poetry, it’s all good. And necessary. I really think it’s the time spent wrestling with the craft that matters, not the particular form in which the wrestling is done. Story is story, voice is voice, vision is vision, be it in a short story or a novel. I think it’s as likely that someone could write their first great work in the form of a novel as in the form of a short story. But I think it’s pretty damn unlikely that someone will write either one truly well without wrestling with their writing for a good many years first.
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction?
The “in your opinion” part of this question is the most important part, but, having said that, I’d lay out this list: the voice and vision are unique to the author so that it’s clear nobody else could have written the work in quite the same way; the language might be straightforward or complex, but it’s never lazy; there are elements in the story and, even more importantly, in the way it’s told, that surprise me; and, of course, the basics—the characters grab me, the story moves me, the world of the work lingers long after I’ve finished reading it.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well, a few things, actually, but mainly a large and sprawling beast of a novel set in North and Central Africa in the 1870s. Sometimes, for my own sanity, I need to shake myself loose of that, which is what I’m doing right now by working on (and here my agent is going to shiver) another novella.
ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. He has always been obsessed with the relationship between literature and life, and the role it plays in society. He has edited many books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. He is the co-editor of Urban Odysseys: KL Stories (MPH Group Publishing, 2009).