Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Interview with Jesse Ball

The Way Through Doors is a beautiful spiraling novel of story telling, folk tales, mystical pamphlets, and identities. It's hero, Selah Morse is a pamphleteer by vocation and a municipal inspector by profession who witnesses a young woman get hit by a car. She is miraculously unhurt except that she has lost her memory. He identifies himself as her boyfriend and spends the night telling her stories. Selah's stories double back on themselves. The Way Through Doors has the humor, wisdom, and warmth of our most comfortable stories while radically experimenting with the novel form and the fluid nature of storytelling. Jesse Ball is the author of Samedi the Deafness, which was shortlisted for the 2007 Believer Book Award. His first volume, March Book, appeared in 2004, followed by Vera and Linus, and Parables and Lies. His drawings were published in 2006 in Iceland in the volume Og svo kom nottin. He won the Plimpton Prize in 2008 for his novella, The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp and Carr. His verse appeared in The Best American Poetry 2006. He is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He will be reading at Porter Square Books on March 24 at 7 pm. Below is an interview with Jesse.

Storytelling is a central theme in The Way Through Doors and constantly shows up in literature in general. Why do you think storytelling is so compelling, that writers include and readers appreciate moments of storytelling in stories they are already reading?

The act of telling stories and the act of hearing them are processes and engagements by which we can understand our human situation. By that, I don't mean understand factually -- I mean intuitively.

Many of the early important novels were not straight ahead chronological narratives. Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and others, were digressive, spiraling stories that did everything but go from point A to point B. However, that is now the conventional way of telling a story. Do you think people are naturally attracted to linear narratives, that they learned to be comfortable with linear narratives from conventional novels, or that we have some other relationship with linear narratives?

The main issue, as I see it, isn't between linear and non-linear narrative. It's between two types of rendering: rendering a reality that is already the consensus, or rendering one that is more precise, more clear and more real because it is ambiguous.

What do you mean by rendering reality?

To create a world.

The Way Through Doors doesn't have page numbers, implying that how the words are physically arranged in a book is incidental to the story. What do you think the relationship is between the reader and the book as a physical artifact? What does the action of turning a page mean to a story and a storyteller?

The physical arrangement of the words is very important to me! It doesn't have page numbers simply because pages were not one of the constructive architectures. As storytelling is the heart of the matter, so the inception of speech, the paragraph, is the numbered unit.

What are constructive architectures?

The tools that are being used in making the tale -- in this case the paragraph was more important than the page.

In describing this book to customers, I'm going to have to use terms like "experimental" and "cutting edge." What do you think those terms mean to literature?

It is kind of you to say so, but I believe I am, on the contrary, extremely old fashioned.

What makes you "old fashioned?"

It matters to me that a thing be intended. I'm not very interested in culture or contemporary work.

Much of The Way Through Doors feels like a folk tale. First of all, it is an impressive feat to conjure the atmosphere of a story refined over hundreds of years of oral history. What do older forms of literature, especially those derived from oral traditions, like folk tales, legends, nursery rhymes, and hymns have to offer contemporary literature? What can we learn from them and what can we use from them in exploring new methods of expression in literature?

It is kind of you to say such things! I don't know about offering anything to contemporary literature -- I think it's a huge problem to talk at all in terms of contemporary literature. If that's involved in your writing process, it's almost a sure indication that your work will lack ambition. The work of today is a poorly fitted suit. It nearly always is. One must think only in terms of the great things of which one is fond, some of which may have been written by your contemporaries, but most of which will not. I think folk tales, legends, nursery rhymes, the oral tradition -- they all offer mechanisms that can help anyone who goes to them. Help them with what? Help to relearn how to think.

Your point about contemporary literature creates a complex chronology. Where does literature exist in time (if it does at all)? What happens to literature over time that turns it into a well-tailored suit?

Well, I think that a book is a good book when it is written and thereafter. I just don't think that there are enough good books written at a particular time to justify the fascination that exists around contemporary literature where it ends up being all that people read. There are more good books that have been written by dead people than by living ones. That's for sure.

Are there any writers you think of as "kindred spirits" in the literature you're writing?

Writers that I read to magnify what I know about myself: Rilke, Whitman, Proust, Kafka, McCarthy, Basho, Gogol, Chekhov,
Abe -- the list is endless, these are just a few. I shouldn't leave Walser off it. I adore him, too. And Merwin's Ballad of John Cable and Three Gentlemen. I love ferocity and intricate dwelling.

What are you reading now?

Boswell's Life of Johnson.

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