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Josh Weil and William Pierce: A Conversation
Josh and I were having lunch at a sandwich shop in Pike Place Market, Seattle—it was the end of February, and the two of us were on shore leave from the AWP Conference up the street—when I interrupted the conversation to say, “We should be recording this.” It’s not that either of us had said anything particularly striking. But the intimacy of twice having worked together on Josh’s fiction for AGNI, and having met in person periodically over the years, had set us up for something unusual. We knew the shape of each other’s thinking without being overly familiar with its contents.We were friends enough to ask each other pretty much anything, but not so close that the answers could be given in hints and nods. And so the idea of recording ourselves—and doing it without preparation, to see where our curiosities would lead.
Fast-forward to August, Josh on book tour for The Great Glass Sea. By luck, the tour included a stop at Newtonville Books, several T stops outside of Boston and just a short walk from my house. We met in the afternoon before walking down to the store, and, over beers on the side patio, talked again, about writing, editing, and a bit about geography too—as freely as we could with an old-fashioned tape recorder sitting between us.
Josh Weil: It’s nice to see your home. I was just thinking, the way the business is, you meet people on the road, you meet people in bookstores, but you don’t often get to see inside someone’s home, and it’s nice.
William Pierce: You remember our lunch in Seattle. A lot of what we talked about is stuff you’re probably not talking about that often. Somebody comes out with a new book, and everything ends up being about the book.
JW: Yeah, and it’s all repeated—you get the same questions in all the interviews.
WP: One thing we discussed in Seattle is this way you have of transferring your emotional ecology into stories that seem completely unrelated to your life. A lot of those stories are set in Russia or feel displaced in other ways, even in time. The Great Glass Sea is an example of that, I think.
JW: Yeah, absolutely. I find I’m almost unable to write about stuff that feels too close to my life. I don’t think it’s because I’m scared of that—I’m just not interested in it, you know? So I wind up—I remember when I was in Scotland, I was writing about Southeast Ohio. I went to Egypt on a Fulbright, and while I was there, doing research on the novel that was set there, and banging my head against the wall with that, I had the urge to write about other stuff. So I wound up writing about Virginia while I was living in this little town, Tunis. Foreigners weren’t supposed to live there at all. My friends would come out on the bus and be turned away by the Egyptian police, but I had gotten permission for various reasons. It was fairly poor, a lot of irrigated farming, and the city of Fayoom nearby, around Lake Qarun, was the center of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak was still in power, so—
WP: So the Muslim Brotherhood was banned at the time.
JW: It was banned at the time, considered a terrorist organization, anti-Western, and so Egypt was concerned about a Westerner going out there. Anyway, I was living there, wrapped in my gallibaya and my scarf and my little Muslim skullcap, and the khamsins were blowing, and I found myself writing about Virginia and the Civil War in the U.S. Somehow, I’m in this weird place as a writer—I’ve got to step out of my own life in order to take in, to be interested in, what I’m working on. Yet at the same time, I have to have enough familiarity with the place that I feel like I can accurately depict it. So it’s kind of a dilemma.
WP: I feel like when you step out so completely, those may be the times you’re writing about your life most directly. You particularly, I mean. In other words, there are two—broadly speaking there are two ways that you write: the one is displaced, and the other not at all displaced. Somebody who knows your life more intimately than I do may see that even those latter stories aren’t taken directly from your world in the United States, but still, they are set here and now.
JW: They’re pretty close—and the funny thing is, the short stories that AGNI published, both of those are closer to my life. With short stories, for whatever reason, I feel that there’s enough of a nugget of interest that I can grab onto. In “I Want You to Know That I Know That He Loved You,” I was essentially writing about my great-great uncle.
WP: The grandfather in the story was your great-great uncle?
JW: Yes. Born in Camillus, New York—all of it was exactly who that character is. And the apartment was my great-great uncle’s apartment. And then, in order to feel like I can really maybe just be brave enough—but also just detached enough that I can really dig at whatever feels most important in my own life—I have to have enough distance that I can feel like I’m not just writing memoir, that I’m not just putting my own shit out there, you know?
WP: You’ve mentioned that when you feel you’re getting closest, displacing is the only way your imagination can let itself go. When you’re writing short stories or novellas that are not displaced—talking about a great-great uncle doesn’t have the same tricky immediacy for you as taking on your relationship with your brother, for instance.
JW: I think that’s true, and I mean, I’ve written another short story, probably the closest to my life that I’ve written—it was published in Glimmer Train,and I actually regretted publishing it. It was great to have something in Glimmer Train, and I’m proud of the story, but it was so close to my life and to some personal stuff with my dad that it felt like something of a betrayal to put it out there, even though he’d read it already, of course. Somehow you feel like you’re using people in your fiction sometimes, and that doesn’t feel good. The further that I can get from my own life, the further the characters are from the people in my life—then I’m just using someone as inspiration for a character that is not that person, in a story that is not about that person. I think that distance is important for the quality of that writing, too. With my novel, the two brothers are not my brother and me. And because they’re not, I can look at the younger brother, who’s kind of taking my role, and it’s a better book, I think, if I allow that younger brother to be less sympathetic, if I can see the ways that the younger brother is problematic, which would be more difficult if that character was me, do you know what I mean?
WP: Sure, but do you feel that you’re able to do that partly by looking at your relationship with your brother from a different angle?
JW: Yeah. It forces you to, absolutely. In The Great Glass Sea, the entire story was told from the younger brother’s perspective in the first draft, and now it switches back and forth. I find that, although I feel aligned with Dima, the younger brother, a lot of readers find Yarik more sympathetic and find it easier to understand Yarik’s reasons. He’s the one who actually has pressures put on him by his younger brother. I think I couldn’t have gotten all of that without stepping outside my own life a little. I just did a reading yesterday in my hometown and my brother was there, and afterward everyone was milling around and he got asked a bunch of times, “So which brother are you?” And he had a really good response. He said he thought he was the germ of Yarik, and he had read an early draft where he felt that he and Yarik were more closely linked, but in the finished novel, five drafts later, Yarik feels like a totally different being. That’s a lot of what the process is about: finding how you can get away from your own life and fictionalize it. And then, as the fictional characters and their concerns become real, you’re just naturally going to be listening to them shape the story. In a way it’s necessary for good character development, I think, to step aside. But that’s just the way I do it—I mean, a lot of people don’t. What do you find with your writing?
WP: I was just thinking of a story that I wrote called “Compotes.” The inspiration was my parents’ relationship, or one aspect of it, and I worried I’d savaged them in it without wanting to. I guess the story was still raw enough for me—it wasn’t exactly their story, but recognizably similar—that I didn’t let the characters develop as independently as I should have. And, as you say, “should” not in order to avoid something, but the opposite: to get at something more three-dimensionally. I never showed it to them.
JW: I’ve written before with the hope that someone would recognize the story.
WP: That’s a twist. Why?
JW: It was my ex-wife. (both laughing) I was heartsick and busted up over our divorce, and I wrote this novel which is really kind of self-therapy. The book is too deeply flawed to ever be saved, but the story was about a couple who are dealing with the same kind of stuff that we’d dealt with. And although I made them different people and all of that, the trajectory of the novel was kind of, almost like proving to her, see, we could have dealt with it this way, we could have changed it this way, this is how I could have been. It was almost like I was offering up this proof of—if she had read it, she could see—
WP: But she didn’t read it.
JW: I don’t think she ever read it. Geez, you know, I don’t think so, which is kind of shocking, because I got back together with her after I’d written it. I know she read a short story—I took the thing and tried to turn it into a short story, and she read that—
WP: But didn’t recognize herself?
JW: I think she did. I think she did. And the truth is, we were back together, right?
WP: It worked!
JW: If it didn’t work, at least it seemed like it! I don’t know how that affected her. I don’t think she was offended by it. Where it’s been more troubling is things like—and it’s lucky my family’s been understanding—for a long time, I wrote about father-and-son relationships that were strained. And my dad, I remember, took me aside and said, “What’s going on? Do we need to talk about something?” And I had to explain to him—this is actually true—that my relationship with him is so strong that the drama, the pain of the fiction, was, for me, in imagining what would happen if that were gone, what it would feel like for that not to be there—and he understood that too, but you always run a risk. My grandmother read my first novella, and she was very concerned that I was considering suicide, because the character is considering suicide. So people are always tying it to you.
WP: I have three funny stories about that. Very short ones. The first manuscript I wrote, I was a high school senior, and my parents read it, and in it, the main character is a boarding school student, as I was. His girlfriend comes to visit, as mine had, and they have sex, as I did not. And my mother wrote a four- or five-page handwritten note that she made my dad sign, saying, “We thought you were saving yourself for something meaningful” and “You’ve ruined your chance to have sex mean love.” It was horrible.
WP: So I wrote a letter back—Dear Dr. and Mrs. William S. Pierce, you know—and ripped into them, describing what fiction means, and saying, “I don’t need to tell you this, but I have not had sex. You’re simply wrong.” They had not read a lot of novels, so, you know, hadn’t dealt with this question before—the difference between the written thing and life. That was a weird one. And then my mom, of course it was tough to give her the next manuscript. But I did. And all she said—literally her only reaction to something I’d worked on for a few years—was, “I just don’t understand why you had to use the word tampon in a novel.”
JW: (laughing) Man.
WP: So the third one came along, my third finished manuscript, and beforehand I took my father aside and said, “Dad, I’ve got this manuscript ready and I want to give it to you and Mom, but I need you to help me because Mom is going to see herself in it. The mother is not her, but she’s going to see herself anyway.” And my dad—a doctor who’s not a big reader of novels—said, “I understand that anytime you write about a father, he’s going to look like me no matter what happens in the story, because how would you know intimately what any other father is like? I’m your model for that, even if you’re not thinking I am.”
WP: I thought it was such a knowing thing to say, and it calmed me down so much about—well, oddly, it’s opened me up to writing about him, to letting myself be inspired by my relationship with my dad, or his relationships with other people, the way he is.
JW: I haven’t had anything quite that—certainly not as funny as those earlier stories! But I feel a little freed up by where I went with such a potentially difficult thing in this story about brothers. And you know, my brother read the first draft, or tried to read the first draft, and I think skimmed through a lot of it, and really didn’t like it. It was the first thing of mine he really hadn’t liked. I don’t know—it might have to do with the book itself and the way it’s written, it might have to do with what it’s tapping into—but, at this point, I feel like we’ve come through this novel and it hasn’t hurt us, you know? And because it’s worked out well, I feel a little freer, that it will be okay if I do my job and explain it and have the chance to explain it. That said, there are some things that I won’t go near. Not many, but there are a few. Do you encounter that as an editor, with people’s work? Have you ever had to say to somebody, “This feels like it might be cutting close to home, do you want to actually put this out there?”
WP: Generally I feel writers should write what they need to write, and put it out there.
JW: Even if it will hurt somebody—or might hurt somebody.
WP: I’m not sure you can predict these things. I finished a novel manuscript called Mock Apple Pie and showed it to a few people, and one of my college roommates decided it was about him. He was very angry about it, but nowhere in my conscious mind was he part of the inspiration. People are going to be hurt by things that aren’t related to them. Now if I ever came to know, as an editor, that a piece might be dangerous for somebody, then of course I would say, wait a minute, we’ve got to change just enough to eliminate the danger. But if somebody’s going to be hurt because a truth from their lives has been written about, well, I mean—that’s the risk of living.
JW: Even though it’s a truth in the author’s eyes, which may not be their truth? It’s interesting. The reason I ask is that I wrote an essay—this is different because it wasn’t fiction, but—it was an essay clearly created out of my own understanding of a situation and so had elements that were imagined in it. A very, very personal essay.
WP: Were you clear about which parts were imagined and which parts were not?
JW: I thought so, but I don’t really know how clear it was—the essay purposefully blended some of that. But the editors were very concerned that I pull back any descriptions they thought might be unflattering, or things that might hurt people in any way. I wouldn’t have made the changes if I thought they really harmed the essay, but I do think they dulled the edges a little bit. It was interesting that the editors were so concerned about that. In a way I felt they were watching my back.
WP: Well, I was sort of defaulting to thinking about fiction, and I think in fiction you have the freedom to say—always—it’s fiction. For me that’s true even if the main character’s name is Josh Weil.
JW: That makes sense. And in fiction, I feel like if I’m going to write a story that springs from something I’ve heard, or people I know, or relationships I have, in the end, if it’s going to be worthwhile for me to write it and for readers to read it, it will reveal me in a way that is more peeled open than any of the relationships I’m writing about, and I think that’s the most important thing. If that’s anchoring it, then that’s where people’s attention will go and not on something I’m revealing about somebody else. I’m thinking about writing a novel based on the life of a hill woman who lived on the land that my father bought where we built a cabin in Virginia. She lived a really hard life, lived for a long time by herself, raising her kids up on this ridge, slaughtering her own hogs, very remote and difficult life, and there’s a particular part of it that I can’t seem to shake as the kernel for a story—if I write it, it’ll be based very much on this one particular thing that happened in her life—but I think that even with a story like that, where I’m very much taking a real person’s dilemma and a real person’s life and using it as a springboard for something to write about, by the time I actually wrote it, whatever the pains and the difficulties and the interior of the character would wind up being would, again, reveal more about me in the end. Do you know what I mean? Even when I take a story that’s not my own at all.
WP: In fiction you wouldn’t be able to animate those characters and their feelings and their pains and passions and so on, unless you’d made them all yours in some way, and the reason you’ve chosen the story is that it speaks to different parts of your pysche.
WP: I think in nonfiction, if you’re really trying to tell the story, if the narrative goes all the way outside of you, it’s more like journalism. And in personal essay, you will have told us in some way what the fractures are in you that make that story speak to you so deeply. I guess there’s the thing, to go back to the editing question. If this were a piece of nonfiction that didn’t do all of those things, that was just an exposé account of somebody else’s life, then I can say—for the kind of editing I do, and the kind of choosing I do—we wouldn’t want it. The account would have to feel personal, a subject chosen by the writer’s deepest predilections, interests, maybe fears. And by then you’ve taken out the gratuitous element.
JW: And that’s the key point. That it’s not gratuitous if it’s working.
WP: And if it’s gratuitous, we don’t have to worry about whether somebody’s transgressing—we won’t be publishing it.
JW: Yeah. Just thinking about fiction again—where my mind always goes—
WP: Well, mine too.
JW: I do wonder sometimes. I feel a little—not guilty, but the fact that I veer so strongly away from writing about a guy who’s in his late thirties and just got married and is living in Northern California in a little town—there are a lot of writers who could write about that kind of thing. And for me, I have such an aversion to it, and I worry sometimes that I’m relying on story, and on an adventure story, essentially—which for me is the adventure of going outside of myself—in a way that is a crutch. I mean, my life is probably as interesting as anybody else’s when it comes down to it. That’s maybe not true—
WP: More interesting than many.
JW: Interesting enough that some writer good enough could make something of it. And I guess what I’m getting at is that it feels like I step so far away from myself when I’m writing, often—largely because when I was a kid, I was interested in cowboy stories and, you know, adventure tales and all that, and that still is in me, I’m looking for that element in there, but there’s something that feels like—if I’m a good enough writer, I ought to be able to look at a life that doesn’t feel exciting plot-wise or setting-wise, and still be able to make it work as a book.
WP: But the thing I led with is precisely that when you do that thing of choosing story, there’s often a sense, at least in my reading of your work, that you’re choosing displacement because you’re going after things so emotionally close that you need to let that story be there as—
JW: As a buffer.
WP: Yes, as a buffer. And you’re able to write the other way also. Your stuff is sometimes, in that other half of it, very quiet and very personal, maybe not in the sense of your deepest emotional roil, but in the sense of that quiet ability for the grandson and the grandfather to be together. A little line of dialogue can affect pages and pages and pages of “action”— action in quotes, because not a lot happens. To me, the ability to do both is very powerful. So, what I wanted to ask, you talked about being in Scotland and writing about Southeast Ohio.
JW: When I was in Scotland for a year, yes.
WP: And Southeast Ohio is also a place where you’ve lived, right?
JW: I went to school there, and I did a lot of photography, actually, which is what got me out into these little roads and these very poor communities out on the edge of Appalachia. Athens County, where Ohio University is, was the poorest county in all of Ohio. You stepped outside of the university town and it was just a totally different world. I was very interested in that, and so, after college I went to Scotland with my not-yet wife, and had this kind of amazingly romantic—to my mind; I think she kind of hated it—but this amazingly romantic, wonderful existence. First I was working for room and board on this 700-year-old fortified farmhouse with a dovecote and an Irish wolfhound who would climb up on the table during dinner. I would scrape down the owner’s fishing boat and paint it and stuff like that—and I just loved it. And then we lived in a little cottage in a village that had maybe seven or eight families and that was it. I loved all of it. It was very stirring, and I was very much experiencing the country and the countryside. I’d go for jogs every day, and I’d go down to the pub, and my girlfriend at the time, she was waiting tables at this local restaurant. So I was very present in it, but at the same time I was just completely wrapped up in this fictional world of Southeast Ohio where I’d spent—and this was the key for me—I’d spent a lot of time there not yet writing about it, but experiencing it. I feel like I need to do that before I can write about something, and yet it’s very hard for me to write about a place when I’m actually there.
WP: I think that’s true for a lot of writers.
JW: Yeah, I suppose that’s true.
WP: They wouldn’t be writing about Nevada City now. They’d be writing about Scotland.
JW: Yeah, yeah, I guess that’s true. And I wind up writing about Russia. But my next book is going be set around Nevada City. I’m going to try it. I’m going to try and push myself because, you know, there’s something too about not being present in the world that you’re living in by always going away to a different fictional world.
WP: Or just texting people all the time.
JW: I guess the other thing is, there are ways, other than geography, that you shift the story away from yourself.
WP: When you go to Egypt and write about Virginia, or go to Scotland and write about Southeast Ohio, you really are writing about your world again—you’re displacing yourself, therefore you don’t have to displace your fiction. But it sounds like you’re not—like if you write this possible novel set in Virginia, it won’t be your family’s story you’re telling. It won’t be you at nineteen making a cabin with your brother and your dad.
JW: Some other writer would write a novel about that—or a story at least, about that experience. The first trip my girlfriend and I took before she became my wife was to the cabin. The plumbing had just been finished, so you could take a crap in there, and it had running spring water and a mattress on the floor, and it was freezing and it was the middle of winter, and we holed up there and had a very romantic weekend and drove through floods to get there—all this kind of stuff.
WP: As I Lay Dying—
JW: Yeah, a much more boring version of it. I just can’t do it, but another writer would, would pick that stuff up.
WP: But if you did, then you’d be another writer.
JW: I would be another writer.
WP: So. Can’t wish that on ourselves
JW: No. Well, some days.
WP: But that curiosity, I think that’s what pushes us to do something different the next time. Or, what we perceive to be different, and what everybody else will think is us being ourselves all over again.
JW: That’s probably true. I find that I—you know, there’s a lot of surprise about my second book being so different from the first. John Freeman said something in his review about it being one of the most surprising second novels. But at the same time, I feel like, as different as those books are—and maybe it gets to what you’re talking about—the fact that they’re so different allows me to doggedly pursue the same core interests in both of them. The first book is all about isolated lonely men who don’t really fit into their societies, all of them dealing with the loss of a loved one. The second book is about an isolated lonely guy who doesn’t really fit into society, who’s in the process of losing a loved one. It just happens to be his brother in the second book. But the core concerns are similar. And so in some ways, writing something that feels very different is the only way I feel like I can keep hammering at those concerns—I’m not necessarily trying to, but I know I’m going to. And if I’d written a novel that was set in Appalachia that was dealing with the same concerns that the novellas did, I think it would have felt a little bit old already—even if maybe just to me. I’ll go back and write something set there once I’m older and my concerns maybe have shifted a little bit.
WP: Or your way of looking at those concerns.
JW: Or my way of looking at it. Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s part of it. I think the next thing I write is going to be—I tend to write in reaction to what I’ve written before, ’cause you spend a hell of a long time on something. I spent five years on this novel, and I’m done with what I was doing on that book, the interest in the musicality and complexity of language, the density of the prose, the quiet unpacking of the narrative, and I want to do something very different. So the next thing—if it is what I think it’s going to be—it will probably be in first person without a whole lot of lyricism, a kind of an action-driven thing, something of a Western, something very different.
WP: Back to adventure.
JW: Yeah! Back to adventure! I want to write an adventure book, you know?
WP: But I can’t imagine you writing a book that didn’t have emotional concerns at the core.
JW: Oh, absolutely. But I’m a really strong believer that you can still have a whole lot of action.
JW: As long as it’s anchored in that emotional concern.
WP: There was a period in American fiction when that was less accepted. I think there was a shying away—literary came to mean restrained, even in how much happened.
JW: When was that? What are you thinking of?
WP: Henry James is an example of the sort of high literary mode in America that dominated for a long time and maybe he in some ways created it. But afterward there was a sense that sitting around waiting for something to happen in your life—the beast in the jungle—just sitting around waiting might be enough to fuel any story. It is enough to fuel a lot of great James stories, because, of course, there’s the sense that life is being lived and missed at the same time, and he manages to make that intellectually—and in some ways emotionally—gripping. But not all writers live that way, think that way—most don’t. And god knows, a lot of readers don’t want that. They want something that they can identify more with what’s happening around them than what’s happening in them. Or a combination of the two. Whereas with late James, it’s all what’s happening inside.
JW: Yes, and there is a certain amount of pressure that gets placed on the writer when you take away the easy “out” of action. Action is—it’s a gripping thing, and so I do think that in some ways, that idea is earned—that serious literary fiction is not going to take that easier route of action.
WP: Sure, but then there’s the earned thing that, at its best, goes one step further, which says what you already hinted at, that emotions do lead to actions—and when a very serious, major action grows out of emotions the reader understands—
JW: That’s what makes literary fiction hard. That really is what makes it hard, is getting action to feel emotionally earned. And that’s why genre fiction—I’m not saying that it’s easy to write, but it often doesn’t have the same pressures upon it of having to earn the emotional weight behind the action.
WP: I keep going back to a Zadie Smith essay that I cannot find but I’m convinced was in The New York Review of Books. Literary fiction has often been defined as character-based. But she—rightly, I think—argues that plenty of literary fiction doesn’t have characters in the usual sense, and the only thing that ties all literary fiction together is that it’s about the lens through which the world is seen. It’s sensibility-based. If that’s true, then the question of action or no action is immaterial, the question of how characters are handled is immaterial. You can imagine a page-turning thriller so steeped in a particular sensibility that it feels distinctly literary to all of us. And you can imagine—I mean, we’ve all read books that have no action, not even characters in the usual sense. I’m thinking of Magdalena Tulli’s “Dreams and Stones,” a powerful literary novel, Polish, and there are no characters in it, unless the city of Warsaw is a character.
JW: But you know it’s her writing it?
WP: There’s a way of looking embedded in those books. You know it’s Tulli writing.
JW: Yeah, and I think that’s—I haven’t read the essay by Zadie Smith, but it sounds like she’s talking about voice, which is not easily defined.
WP: I think voice is one of those words that means too much and too little at the same time. It needs to be unpacked.
JW: I think what I’m saying is, for me, rather than defining literary fiction as being driven by character, what I always come back to—and this is probably true of anything rising to the level of art as opposed to just craft—a lot of what distinguishes it is that it feels like this piece could not have been done by anyone but the person who did it, right? So it’s the fingerprint of the artist. When I’m in a museum and I see something by John Singer Sargent, who’s probably my favorite painter, I know it’s a Sargent because of his brushstrokes. Nobody else can paint the way he does. And I feel the same about literature. Look at Cormac McCarthy and No Country for Old Men, which in some ways is an action-based thriller. You know it’s McCarthy writing it, and that’s what makes it great. It has his worldview, his way of describing that worldview, the oral quality of his voice. And by voice, I guess I mean the way that he delivers that worldview.
WP: Smith talks in this missing essay about the warp in the lens the world is seen through—or the warp in the window, the glass, whatever.
JW: I need to read that essay.
WP: But the reason I would distinguish the warp in the lens from “voice” is that if you, in your next book, write in the first person and not lyrically, this thing we’re talking about will still be there, and the voice will be different.
JW: That’s why voice is such a fuzzy term. You’re right—the character’s voice, the narrator’s voice, is going to be different. But the authorial voice is going to be the same. The authorial sensitivity to the world, or sense of how to portray the world.
WP: With voice, I think of timbre, I think of things that diction would affect. Cormac McCarthy’s a great example, because Blood Meridian and The Road—I think that it’s hard to argue that the voice of those two books is the same.Somebody who’s found his voice and sticks to a style the way James did would never stray that far, have that kind of range. Those are two voices adopted for two different books—and beautifully. Has he found a voice in each one? Sure, he’s found a voice that works for him, that he can sustain—
JW: But it feels like him in both instances, even though they’ve modulated in different directions.
WP: Right. But to me, the common element in those books runs deeper than voice, which feels like a more superficial and textural term to me. It’s a sensibility. It reaches down into how the writer looks at the world.
JW: It’s how the writer works. I mean works as a person internally. So that—I hate to talk about my own crap, but it’s easiest for me to do—if I look at Sarverville Remains, the voice in that novella is so different than in the first novella [in the collection The New Valley]. And yet, my way of approaching character, my way of handling a beat in the scene . . . When there’s a moment I want the reader to linger on, where do I go as a writer? What do I describe, what do I naturally land upon as a way of marking that beat? That’s my voice as a writer coming through. I think that that kind of thing, when I see it in other writing, it’s what I think makes good fiction good fiction.
WP: In other words, the writer has found a way to carry across that essence.
JW: Yeah. I get very excited, I think, oh well look here, look at the way this pause is constructed in the scene. That’s different than the way I would create a pause in the scene. Look at the detail that’s observed, the kind of detail, and the way that detail is used within the moment. It’s gonna be different than how another writer would have done that. And it’s that that I mean by voice. In a lot of genre fiction it feels like there’s not room for that, like it’s just rolling forward without that quality, and that’s what for me feels worthwhile in any art.
WP: Talk about the place where you live. Your compound in Nevada City.
JW: The sad thing is, we’re moving. About 200 feet to the east, not very far. Right now we live in two little cabins. When I moved out there, Jen, my wife, she was living in a cabin that was less than 200 square feet, with her daughter. They slept on two sides of a loft, and it was just the one room. This was part of what made me fall in love with her. I went out there and you know there’s sheepskins all over the loft and she had this antique claw-foot bathtub outside with bamboo around it and you sit out there under the stars and you listen to the creek in this tiny little place and I just absolutely loved it. But there was no way I could join them in that cabin, with her daughter and all, so we paid rent up-front, and our landlord built a second cabin that doesn’t have any plumbing and is probably twenty railroad-tie steps down the hill. A tiny bedroom just big enough for our bed and a woodstove, and two doors that open up onto the creek sound, and my little office is down there too.
WP: I was gonna say: a desk, a table.
JW: It’s a separate room, about five feet wide, just a little tiny room but it’s been amazing to have that, and now I need to find a new writing spot because when we move, it’s all gonna be one space. I’ll get a trailer or something.
WP: Could you rent a room in town?
JW: I don’t think that would work for me—I need it to be within walking distance of where I live so I can just wander down—
WP: So it doesn’t feel like a big effort.
JW: Yeah. Doesn’t feel like a big effort, and yet feels removed enough. I’ll get some little crappy 1970s trailer and sit in there.
Josh Weil is the author of the novel The Great Glass Sea (Grove Press, 2014) and the novella collection The New Valley (Grove, 2009), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a “5 under 35” award from the National Book Foundation.
William Pierce is senior editor of AGNI. His work has appeared in Granta, Ecotone, Little Star, Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, and elsewhere.