A World in Details: An Interview with Josh Weil




Alex Espinoza interviews Josh Weil

A World in Details: An Interview with Josh Weil

August 2nd, 2014 reset - +

IN 2009, Grove Atlantic published Josh Weil’s The New Valley, a collection of three novellas set in the rural hill country between Virginia and West Virginia. The New Valley was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction as well as the New Writers Award from the GLCA. Weil was named a “5 Under 35” author by the National Book Foundation. Of The New Valley, Tim O’Brien wrote, “There is a magic and gentle beauty in this book that makes me remember why I had always wanted to be a writer.”

This summer, Grove published Weil’s second book, The Great Glass Sea, a novel set in an alternate Russia. In a landscape that is at once dark and shadowy as it is blanched and exposed, Weil deftly brings to light the secret longings and fears of two brothers caught in a web of familial obligations, lies, and political intrigue.

As children, twins Yarik and Dima are inseparable, living on their uncle’s collective farm in the Russian countryside after the death of their father. By day, they toil in the fields, and at night, they lose themselves in their uncle’s fables and stories. Years later, they have both found work on the massive Oranzheria — the world’s largest greenhouse. It is an immense sea of glass lit up by space mirrors so strong the fictional city of Petroplavilsk is bathed in perpetual daylight. The brothers have made different choices personally. Yarik is married with children while Dima still lives at home with their mother, but it’s not until their professional lives diverge that their relationship becomes strained. Yarik begins a dizzying ascent within the ranks of Oranzheria’s duplicitous bureaucratic infrastructure, while Dima quits his job and takes up with a group of anarchists. Finding themselves at odds with one another, the brothers are forced to make choices that threaten to destroy the bond that once sustained them.

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ALEX ESPINOZA: Geography features prominently in both your books. The novellas in The New Valley all take place in “the hardscrabble hill country between West Virginia and Virginia.” In The Great Glass Sea, Russia serves as the setting. It seems that people oftentimes hold preconceived notions and ideas about specific locations, both nationally and internationally. How do you as a novelist complicate the geographies your characters inhabit? 

JOSH WEIL: You’re right, geography (and simply a sense of place) is vital to me when I write. I wind up using that as my way into a scene, a moment; if I can visualize it, place myself in it, then I can start to make it feel real enough to myself to let the characters work naturally within it. So it’s maybe a bit odd that I tend to write about places that aren’t lifted directly from my own life. I’m not very interested in writing about a guy who lives on a walking trail outside a tourist city in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevadas, a guy who drives a Prius and goes jogging and lives a life that I find kind of uninteresting. Do I want to push my life in more interesting ways? Yes, always. Do I succeed? Rarely. But one of the things that does get me living closer to something that I’d like to write about is that it’s vital to me to be on the ground in a place when I’m writing about it. Or to at least have fully experienced the specifics of that world — that geography — before I can put the pen down and call it done. For The New Valley that meant that I spent a lot of time living in a remote cabin in the middle of Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, about as close to the land as you can get these days. I made that my home because I wanted to write stuff that was set there. I was drawn to it (because I’d been born there and, as an adult, grown into myself while holed up there), so I knew I had to spend the kind of time with the place that would allow me to know the details of that world. It’s tremendously helpful to be able to go for a walk in the evening and see something — the way a wild turkey roosts in a tree; the way crows attack a floating hawk — and let that drive the writing, become a part of it. So, first, I’d say, it’s important to really put yourself in the place, observe it carefully, record it, try to get the details down. Obviously, that was harder to do with The Great Glass Sea, since it’s set in Russia. But I did do it. After I wrote the first draft, I went to Russia for research. By research I mostly mean just being there, witnessing life there, trying to soak it up. It helped that I’d written enough of the book to have a sense of what I needed to observe most closely. But a lot of it is letting yourself, as a writer, be surprised by what jumps out at you that you didn’t expect. And that brings me to the other thing that I think is important in complicating geographies: just like with any detail — like most anything in writing — I believe it’s vital to push beyond one’s first impulse. When creating a world that means that the first detail that comes to mind, the first bit of description, is often too easy, too expected. I put it aside and try to push myself to remember, or imagine, some detail, some aspect of the physical world, that wouldn’t come to me right away. And then when that comes, I put that aside, and do it again — and hope that, by the time I get to the detail I finally use, it’s far from the expected, the first impulse, and so is fresh.

You wrote an essay about your experiences as a foreign exchange student in Russia when you were 14 and your more recent trip back when you tried reconnecting with your memories of that place even as it had changed. How much of The Great Glass Sea, if at all, is an authorial attempt to recapture or contain a specific memory of a specific Russia that no longer exists?

Oh, I think the initial impulse was very much about that: my time in Russia was really eye-opening for me and came at a moment in my life (when I was 14) when I was forming who I was; it was a big part of that. And, at times during the writing of the book my wish to explore that certainly influenced my approach to the world of the novel — the things that would resonate with me, that would draw up a certain excitement or yearning in me that would fit the moment I was writing about — but, once I was really into the story it was that — the story, of course — that guided me much more than any attempt to recapture a certain memory of my own. It’s a pleasure to be able to put my own memories into the story where they work, and so to preserve them more surely than I could in my own mind. But they’re really just a spark that starts me on the story — not what the story is ultimately about. That said, it’s very possible that the wish to revisit those memories is part of what leads me to a story in the first place.

Bilingual writers face many challenges. I know from my own experiences that using Spanish words and phrases (whether to italicize or not or whether to translate a word or not) pose difficulties and present potential impediments for our readers. Many Russian words and phrases are peppered throughout The Great Glass Sea. Can you talk a little about your approach to incorporating foreign words into your prose? How do you make such stylistic choices? Why was it important for you to use Russian? 

At heart, I think that, for me, the use of Russian is all about establishing the world of the book, bringing the reader into a place that feels different from his or her own life, that feels like the place where this story could unfold, and, in doing so, lends that place a certain authenticity. Part of that is just the sound of the words. When we step into a different culture, a land where the language is not our own, that aural experience of hearing things called by sounds different from what we are used to is so much of what makes us feel lifted out of our life back home. That’s vital to this book, I think. And then, of course, since I’m writing characters who are Russian it’s important that we think of them as Russian — and not just Americans transplanted into a Russian environment. Again, language helps with that. The brothers call each other “bratets,” not “brud.” The younger calls the older “bratan”; the older calls the younger, “bratishka.” It was important to me that I use enough Russian so that it becomes something expected by the reader, that it becomes something organic to the novel, the way that, hopefully, the industrial city beside the huge lake just feels like where the story is set. The story is set within the sound of the language, just as much. Yet it was important to me to take it that far, and then stop. I pulled out a lot of Russian in later drafts, paring it back to a point where I could accomplish that but yet, I hope, not to trip the reader up. I didn’t want the reader focusing on the Russian; I didn’t want to shine a spotlight on the language. I wanted it to simply be an integral part of the world of the story, no more something to stumble over than a description of place. You notice a great description, but it makes the scene come more alive; it doesn’t take your attention away from what’s going on. That’s how I thought about Russian language, too. 

The Great Glass Sea focuses on the relationship between twin brothers who, as they mature, find themselves drifting further and further apart. But there’s so much more in this book: intrigue, political machinations, familial ties, and obligations. And it is all set in a dystopian future, in a city bathed in perpetual light. A recent round up of upcoming summer reads by the Los Angeles Times placed the novel in the science fiction and fantasy category. This book really defies genre labels, though. Do you find these distinctions have artistic significance and relevance or are they simply matters of marketing? 

I think they’re entirely matters of marketing. And, honestly, I think the Los Angeles Times got this book wrong with that. I never thought of it as science fiction. This is a novel set in a world that interests me mostly because (as you indicate) of the relationships between the characters. The alternate-present elements (anything that could be seen as sci-fi) are simply in service of the character concerns. I never wrote towards those elements; I used them because they helped to push the story in directions that would challenge the characters. That said, there are thoughtful readers who like science fiction who seem to gravitate towards this book, and to appreciate the sci-fi element for the right reasons. There was a review in Fantasy Literature online recently that I think really nailed it. It called the sci-fi elements a “springboard for the story,” a “starting point” for a “character study.” And I think that’s about right.

As I previously mentioned, your first book was a collection of novellas, and The Great Glass Sea is a novel. How do you understand the distinction between the two forms? Where does the short story fit in?

There’s so much to say about this — far too much to go into here (unless we want to print this thing as a novella itself). I do think there are very real distinctions between the forms. A novella has to be more focused, have a greater consistency of intensity. It also can’t be quite as complicated, narratively, can’t contain as many arcs. The novel gives a writer more freedom to dip into backstory, to spend time making the world of the book, to follow more threads — but it also has to be worth that. When I’m writing something I always am asking: does it need to be this thing? If it’s a novella, does it need to be one? Or could it be a story? If it’s a novel, is it worth 300 or 400 or 500 pages? More than that, are those pages necessary to make it felt, make it work? A story feels like such a different animal to me from both. (I think the novella is a little closer to the novel than it is to a story — and probably closest of all to a play or screenplay.) I love the short story form, but I come more naturally to longer forms. I think it’s largely a matter of wanting to live with the characters, wanting to roll around in the fictional world, to taste it and bask in it and be part of it for a while. The best novels, I think, make you feel as if you’ve lived in another skin, or in another place, or another time — another world — by the time you’re done. It’s awfully hard for a short story to do that.

Do you have plans to return to the novella form anytime soon? 

Absolutely. In fact, I’m working on one right now. It’ll be part of a collection of three — I’ve written all three, at this point, though two are rough and need a lot of work still. I doubt I’ll ever leave the form entirely; it feels so right to me when I work in it. But it is hard to justify writing novellas, especially when I write fairly long ones. There’s always that voice in my head that says if I just extended this part, or fleshed out that one, or let another narrative arc extend itself, it would be a novel and, well, it would sell. Which, of course, isn’t a way to go about writing anything.

Your first book came out in 2009. What changes in the writing world have you encountered between the publication of The New Valley and The Great Glass Sea?

I think there’s even more pressure on authors to promote their own work now. Facebook is more important. Twitter wasn’t something I even thought about then. (I still can’t bring myself to do it.) And, of course, there’s just greater uncertainty, the sense that nobody knows if there’ll be a paperback because there may not be paperbacks a year from now. It might all be ebooks. But I’m lucky to be with a publishing house that feels somehow a little outside of all that. In many ways (good ways) Grove feels like it’s still operating in an older and better time. And because they take risks, take on tough books, truly try to publish art as well as stuff that will simply sell, they inhabit a corner of publishing that feels like it’s changed a little less. Even though they’re doing all the stuff a modern publisher has to do. They just feel like they know themselves, like it’s a house with history and it’s not going to toss that aside. So I’ve been lucky: I’ve published both books with them and the truth is it hasn’t felt all that different one time from the next. 

Everything about this book is gorgeous — the cover, the inlays, and the prose itself — and I know that you drew the illustrations that open each chapter. How did this idea come about? In what ways do you hope these unique touches will lend themselves to the experience of holding and reading this book that, say, an electronic version might not be able to capture?

I knew from very early on that I’d want illustrations to accompany the book. The novel is rooted in Russian fables and I wanted it to feel like a fable — not actually be a fable (much of the book is grounded in realism), but to incorporate elements and, more than anything else, resonate with the sensibilities contained in folklore. And, since I’m an American writing about Russia and Russian characters, it was vital to me that I make clear, right from the start, that this wasn’t meant to be some revelation of the Russian soul, or some accurate representation of Russia today (I’m not equipped, or arrogant enough, to try to do that); it’s a fabled Russia that springs as much from my childhood memories of the place as from my research there more recently. Because Russian fables are inextricably linked, for me, to Ivan Bilibin’s illustrations from the turn of the 20th century, somehow channeling his artwork felt to me like the most immediate and yet subtle way of setting the reader in the right mindset for the book. So, inspired by Bilibin, I tried to bring something of his sensibility to my own drawings. All in all they took me a couple months of pretty constant work. There were times when it felt a little crazy, but now, when I hold the finished book, I’m so glad that I did them — and that Grove (again, a brave, unconventional press) agreed to use them. Grove worked with me every step of the way with this book, including endpapers, going for rough-cut pages, bouncing ideas for fonts back and forth with me. It’s largely because of them that the book is so beautiful. It’s exactly what I wanted, what I envisioned, and I think that they shared in that vision, in part, because it simply fits the book. There’s a feeling of nostalgia for another time throughout much of the novel, and a shunning of the constant consumption that’s characterized by cheap goods meant to be quickly replaced, so making a book that feels like the kind of cherished object that books once were (and I hope still are to some) just seemed right.

Were there any specific books or authors that inspired you as you wrote The Great Glass Sea?

There are a number of writers who write with an ear to musicality, to precision of language without sacrificing a certain lushness, an attention to rhythm and to the richness of description that have inspired me for a long time and influenced me as a writer — especially in the direction that this book took me: Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Christine Schutt, Ron Hansen, Annie Proulx, just to name a few. And some Russian writers were important, too, particularly Turgenev. Pushkin’s epic poem, Ruslan and Ludmila, plays a big role in The Great Glass Sea. But I tend not to read fiction while I’m writing it, so the biggest influences on this were nonfiction books: At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch, Why Work?: Arguments for a Leisure Society, edited by Vernon Richards, and The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure by Juliet B. Schor (again, just to name a few). They influenced my thinking about the themes of the book at the time that I was drafting it, so their mark is definitely on the pages. 

Can you tell us a little bit about what you are working on now?

I’m wrapping up a collection of stories, The Age of Perpetual Light, that’s actually linked to the novel. (The novel was originally conceived as one of the stories in the collection.) I wrote one of the stories in it about 10 years ago and I’ve been working on the collection ever since — so it feels pretty good to start to see it come together at last. I’m excited about it. Especially as a sister book to The Great Glass Sea. It’s yet another way that I’m getting to do something a little different, a little unexpected, with my fiction. And, whenever I think about that, I’m struck by gratitude to have been given that chance.

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Alex Espinoza is the author of the novel Still Water Saints. His latest book is The Five Acts of Diego Léon.

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