BY Ross Simonini in Interviews | 01 OCT 11
Featured in
Issue 142

A Writer Prepares

Jesse Ball is an author, poet, artist and lucid dreaming instructor based in Chicago. Ross Simonini talked to him about his new novel, The Curfew, ‘writing as a performance’, and the importance of both clarity and deception in story-telling

BY Ross Simonini in Interviews | 01 OCT 11

Jesse Ball is the author of three novels, an omnibus of various prose (novellas, fables), a book of drawings and several collections of poetry. With Samedi the Deafness (2007), his first published novel, Ball became known for his snaking, intuitive sense of narrative which is easy to follow but difficult to summarize. The prose is lucid and light, with the dreamy momentum of a mind in pursuit of answers where there are no answers to be found. It’s a style that is encouraged by his process: short, focused bursts of writing that Ball considers to be private ‘performances’ for which he is constantly in preparation. His work often expresses a fascination with nostalgic curiosities – the art of memory, parlour games, secret documents, pseudo-science – and evokes the satisfyingly vague paranoia of a good conspiracy theory. Ball’s stories often exist in a distinctly non-American mood, his characters duelling in 19th-century-esque villages or tiptoeing through dark, foggy alleyways – the sort of atmosphere Daniil Kharms and Bruno Schulz knew how to lay on thick. Ball teaches courses on lucid dreaming and writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His new novel, The Curfew, is published by Vintage. The following interview took place in a Brooklyn teahouse. Ross Simonini You wrote your most recent novel, The Curfew, in six days and have described the act of writing as a ‘performance’. Can you describe what you mean by this? 

Jesse Ball I think that there are two distinct way to go about creating something. One is to try to form each part individually and then fit it with other parts that are similar until you have a whole, enormous piece constructed perfectly. Then the order of creating it doesn’t matter so much as the time it took to make. It’s like making a clock. Some people perform that kind of operation. That has a connection to the idea of a book as something separate from people, as if it’s a made object, existing in its own space. But the way that I go about it, I’m trying to be as clear as I can. I want to take the least amount of time possible. I want to be deliberate. I don’t want to take any missteps. I want to have a genuine technique that allows the things that I say to be clearly said and I want to say them in the order in which they are meant to be said, to most clearly elucidate the idea. The reader should be able take the same path that I took. In this case, the book is less an object apart from myself or the reader, but just a brief moment of transmission. In that way, it tries to mimic a pianistic performance.

RS This couldn’t be achieved over extended periods of time?

JB The basic problem that I’ve found from writing over a long period of time is that the words change their meaning. The words can’t mean the same thing to you five years later. That creates a muddy haze. The writer can’t know exactly what the writer means. Of course, writing a book should change you, so the words should mean something different at the end – and if the reader is with you throughout the whole book, then they’ll also be potentially changed in that same way. But the imposition of a passage that was written many years before could easily make the whole thing unintelligible. However, as I have said elsewhere, such a conception might be an excuse for all sorts of nonsense, including inexcusably bad writing.

RS I think it has been, in the past.

JB So, one must keep the technique sharp, and that is done, I believe, through a rigorous reading practice. Writing requires a rigour on the part of the person who’s decided they’re going to do it. That person has to make it their life’s work to prepare for such a performance. If you’re used to being able to revise things and cut things out all the time, then your faculties for choosing what you write won’t be correct for the endeavour because you’ll be accustomed to putting things down you would want to take back. That will be a problem. A model for this is Japanese court poetry: a person was a poet because they could produce a poem. In mediaeval Japan, they would have poetry contests between, say, a courtesan and a warrior. Someone would make up a poem and then someone else would have to take up that theme and make another one.

RS On the spot?

JB On the spot. And in that case, you are a poet because, when it is necessary, you can produce a poem. You’re not a poet because you’ve written poems. Having written poems is a fine thing to have done but it says nothing about who you are at that moment. Similarly, because a person was an athlete and could run very fast doesn’t mean they can run fast at this moment. In this way, you should be able to engage with and produce a story when it is necessary.

The way through the doors, Jesse Ball, bookcover. All book covers courtesy: Vintage Books, New York.

RS How do you prepare for a particular book?

JB The preparation is about paying attention to what you love and to be able to see as clearly as possible. It’s a matter of your whole life’s regime, so it’s not taken up with a particular book in mind. If I have a concept for a particular form then I’ll have suspicions about the form and about whether the shape is large enough for a particular book. Sometimes it’s just an image. With Samedi the Deafness I was in bed and I saw an image of a man turning in the street and I knew what the book could be, I knew how I could make it happen. It was a matter of putting it down. I didn’t know every single particular but it was as though, at that moment, there were provided for me the rules that would allow me to extricate all the details when I was ready for them, when they were necessary.

RS The logic of the story.

JB Sometimes I’ll tailor my reading during a time when I’m working to add a dimension to the book. I read Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent [1907], which I’d read before, and which I just adore. I read that during Samedi … because I wanted that feeling, that thickness of prose to be a part of the book. My writing is thin and clear, like Richard Brautigan, but I wanted some of the weight of Conrad, so I just let it naturally filter in. What I love about Brautigan is that you can read a whole book of his in one sitting and understand everything. Such a clear mind. He could’ve been a great engineer.

RS But as a writer, you don’t always look for clarity. Sometimes you deceive your readers with narrative tricks.

JB There is deception, and that is a part of a good tale. However, I never trick readers without purpose. It would be silly to do so, as it diminishes the effect of the actually crucial sleight, when it does come, whenever it does come.

All drawings courtesy: the artist.

RS What is the purpose of this kind of deceptive sleight?

JB I would say there are many purposes. A book has the potential to be simultaneously: a feeling of having lived through an era, a method for living day by day, an involved flight through physical dangers, or a recollection of any of the above. Deception is one of the many tools that allows the writer to handle the order in which realizations arrive. This can permit an element to be entered into the account prior to its visible arrival.

RS Deception as a means to clarity and coherence?

JB Clearness is the most important quality of writing but it’s the most overlooked. People think being complicated or ambitious is the most important part of writing, but the mind is so raw and complicated itself that being clearer will always create a greater depth of complexity. It never leads to reductiveness. I was just reading one of my now favourite books, which is Julius Caesar’s account of the conquest of Gaul, and he’s so clear. I love his writing. He must have been quite a fellow. He was praised by other Romans at the time for having a style that was so plain and perfect and inimitable.

RS What do you think the shifting of forms and styles does to a reader’s experience of narrative? Is Italo Calvino tricking the reader when he consciously changes the entire nature of a book for chapter to chapter?

JB Well, I wouldn’t say people read uniform narratives straight on anyway – since the mind careens here and there, back and forth from what we know, to what we thought we knew, to what we hope for, to what we hoped would happen but didn’t and now, suddenly, here we are, and then we’re off again! It is all imaginary! I love Italo Calvino – most of all for the delightful spirit that informs his work. He doesn’t give in to the pressure of cynicism.

RS While it’s true that people may not read in a perfectly linear way, there is a sense of linearity inherent in writing a book, especially a novel with a distinct beginning and an end. If people read in chaotic ways, why adhere to certain aspects of linearity at all? Why not abandon linearity for a slathering of collaged words? Where is the line?

JB Oh, I try to hold to a distinct line. If I tell stories that are incomprehensible then I might as well just mutter them to myself. As to the purpose of holding to a line or fracturing something into bits – well, I suppose the nature of the tale would determine how the plot should be orchestrated.

RS How does memory play into the reading of fiction? How is a reader’s memory of what has happened in the narrative something that you as a writer address or manipulate?

JB One assumes that when one does one’s job it is natural for the reader to remember the details properly. A person doesn’t usually forget things that make sense to them and follow through with consequences. I believe that most good works are not spent after a single reading. They can mostly merit rereading, and rereading and rereading. I have certain books that I like to read again each year, in order to remind myself of who I am.

RS Your writing is often timeless and placeless. Why do you avoid these specifics? What can be created in their absence that can’t happen in their presence?

JB It is a matter of avoiding words that have been pounded into submission by money. Many adjectives have this trouble, many good nouns, and even (sadly) place names. Certain people spend a lot of money to have a word mean what they mean by it. Rather than fight with these people, I just use other words, and then their money doesn’t earn them purchase in my worlds.

RS How so? How does money control proper names of towns and individuals or time periods?

JB Because money pays for these words to be splashed across billboards in 100-foot letters, to spout from the idiotic lips of celebrities, and from those locales, to emerge again from the mouths, pens and keyboards of millions of deluded souls, whose principal interaction with these words has been a regimented one obtained through money by a corporate decision.

RS How do feel about the process of editing?

JB I don’t personally like editing. But not liking it is not enough; you have to be able to do the work that makes editing unnecessary. Most people don’t want to do it. If something needs to be edited then it needs to be edited.

RS You have taught lucid dreaming to writers and I wonder if your process of writing a book in such discrete periods of time is a method for connecting to the subconscious without discursive thinking, a form of automatic writing?

JB I don’t just let something flow out. I choose carefully. There are some passages where I get to a point where what is about to come is more than I know personally. If I enforced my will it would become less than it could be. Dreams, in general, confront us directly with the meanderings of our minds. Lucid dreaming gives me courage. There is always a world of endless textures and brilliances to escape to, if things go badly hereabouts and lucid dreaming allows one to take existence in general a bit more lightly. The Tibetan dream yogis felt lucid dreaming could help one to see that one is deceived in all lives, in dream life, in real life. Do not be deceived. Jesse Ball was a court stenographer in Irkutsk for 25 years before publishing his magnum opus, the 3,500 page novel Hatters, about a cat that impersonates a hatter and comes into a great fortune. That book has never been translated into English, but many of his lesser books have.

Jesse Ball was a court stenographer in Irkutsk for 25 years before publishing his magnus opus, the 3500 page novel Hatters, about a cat that impersonates a hatter and comes into a great fortune. That book has never been translated into English, but many of his lesser books have. 

Ross Simonini is a writer, artist and musician living between New York and Northern California, USA.