INTERVIEW: The Geography of Josh Weil

In today’s jmww interview, Meghan Kenny caught up with Josh Weil, author of THE NEW VALLEY (Grove, 2009), as he was on his way out of Baltimore–he recently completed a stint as the Tickner Fellow at the Gilman School–and on his way to Russia, where he will continue work on a novel.

If his ambitions for this summer sound gigantic, consider what he was already accomplished. THE NEW VALLEY is a New York Times Editors Choice and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters; the New Writers Award from the GLCA; and a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation. Weil’s fiction has been published in Granta, American Short Fiction, Narrative, and Glimmer Train, among others; he has written non-fiction for The New York Times, Oxford American, Granta Online, and Poets & Writers. Since earning his MFA from Columbia University, he has received the Dana Award in Portfolio as well as fellowships from the Gilman School, the Writer’s Center, the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and the Fulbright Foundation. He currently divides his time between New York City and a cabin in rural Virginia.

Meghan Kenny: How was your year in Baltimore and at Gilman as the Tickner Fellow? How did you find the literary landscape in town?

Josh Weil: You know, I wasn’t sure I’d like Baltimore when I first got here, but I made a friend who knew the city really well and she led me around it on our bikes–-stopping to for cheap beers at awesome pubs with free pool tables; zipping around the parks; jouncing over cobbled streets–-and I fell for the place pretty fast. Including the literary scene, which is small but lively. The 510 Reading Series (hosted by Michael Kimball and Jen Michalski) is flat-out great, and the fact that anyone and everyone can go next door and hang out afterwards, shooting the breeze–and that they do–is so Baltimore, and so not New York; I love it. Last Sunday, Last Rites (hosted by Pat King and Nik Korpon) is a good one, too, with a different, even more low-key feel. And it’s held right around from my favorite place to get pho in the city. Yeah, I’m sad to be leaving Bawlmer, now. One year is too short.

But the Gilman gig is a one year gig, alas. That took me no time to get used to that; it’s an awesome job, with people who care about writing and care about the Tickner fellow as a writer, and at a place that opened my eyes to the wonders of private schooling. I’d never seen that, but those teachers are amazing, and the students are gems. What a pleasure to get to spend a year helping brilliant and beautiful-souled high school seniors find their way towards the people they’re going to become.

MK: Everyone’s asked you, Why Novellas? What is it about the novella length that works for you? Did you choose it or did it choose you (or I should say did your characters and their stories choose it)? Or are these all one and the same?

JW: The form definitely chose me. I didn’t know what the hell a novella was–-not really; I hadn’t really thought about it–when I wrote “Ridge Weather,” the first novella in [THE NEW VALLEY]. I just got hit by the idea of this man, Osby, and his isolation in the world, and that came together with an image that had been haunting me for a while and I started writing the thing. I outline everything I write, so I knew it would be long, but I didn’t give it much thought until it was done and sat at 80 pages and nobody knew what to do with it. Nobody knows what to do with novellas, though I hope–and think–that’s changing. Because sometimes a story is just meant to be a novella. I’m a strong believer in the story taking as long as it needs to take to be told well. And in not trying to squeeze it into a smaller space just because some magazine out there has decided that anything over 5,000 words is too long. Who wants to think of fiction that way?

MK: You’ve had wonderful success with your book of novellas, THE NEW VALLEY. National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35, The Great Lakes Colleges Association 2010 New Writers Award in Fiction, The Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction, an Editor’s Choice in the New York Times Sunday Book Review in June 2009, excellent reviews, and tons of readings. Did you see this coming? What surprised you most this year since your book came out?

JW: I’ve been lucky, no question. There are books every bit as good that, for various reasons, come out and don’t get noticed and go away again, and are lost to us. I’m not sure why that is; I don’t think anyone knows for sure, which is why publicists are always scrambling to try to do whatever they can. It often feels like a scattershot approach to me: you take as small a gauge as you can and as powerful a gun and spray the world with birdshot and hope something falls out of the sky. But, that said, I do also believe that if you do that, if you try everything you can, and you really throw yourself into it, and the work is good enough, then it’ll get noticed. Maybe I’m just hopeful because the whole thing has been pretty good to me.

I certainly didn’t see this coming. You know, your expectations–-and your wishes, your hopes–-change. When I signed with my first agent that felt like the best thing in the world; I didn’t even really consider that she might not sell the novel she was going out with. Being with a top agent in New York: that felt like enough right there. Then after my new agent (I switched to another: PJ Mark, who I’m with now, and who is absolutely awesome) sold The New Valley to Grove, I was just thrilled at the idea of being published by such a great house, and with such a legendary editor (Elisabeth Schmitz), just at the idea of my book being out there. I told myself I didn’t care if it sold any copies, if it didn’t get any big reviews; I just didn’t want it to get panned all around by critics. That was it. That was my threshold for happiness. Then the first reviews started coming out and they were good and that threshold changed. You end up thinking, oh, wouldn’t it be incredible if it got a New York Times review. And then that happens an you think, Maybe it might be long-listed for some award? And then it wins something and…well, it just goes on like that. But every step of the way, it’s been wonderful. It’s like you get little jolts of happiness with each new thing that happens. None of it’s expected, and, in the beginning, it’s not even hoped for, you know?

So, it all surprised me, in a way. Though what’s been both surprising to me and most gratifying is the way that my neighbors down in rural Virginia, where the book is set, have taken to it, and supported me with it. It feels like, on some level, they’re proud of me. And that’s one of the best things that has come from this whole experience.

MK: There’s a real loneliness in your male protagonists. They seem to have resigned themselves to their solitude and to having lost or being on the verge of losing someone important. What is it about these men and their quiet aloneness in the world that made you want to write about them and explore their lives?

Well, you know, I think we’re all shaped by one or two big moments in our lives. They don’t even have to make sense as big moments, but, for whatever reason, they hit us at a time when our clay is wet and we get bent by them. For me, that was my divorce. I was young and hadn’t been married long, so it shouldn’t have affected me so strongly, perhaps, but it was combined with my living in a new city and being on my own outside of college for the first time, really, in my life, and my career hitting the wall of reality, and hitting it hard, all at the same time. So, for all those reasons, that period was deeply formative for me. I went down to the cabin in Virginia and lived by myself for a while. And learned to live by myself. And found I liked it; it fit me–whether because I had been molded by it, or because I had always been that shape, I don’t know. But the more I wrestled with my penchant for a hermit’s life, the more I wanted to wrestle with characters who were, in one way or another, wrestling with it as well.

MK: You write protagonists who have such different lives from your own. Is this conscious on your part when you begin writing your characters, to make them different than you, i.e. not a single white male, thirties, well educated, city dweller, world traveler, on the verge of famous author . . . .? I write a lot of stories from a male point of view, and for me it’s liberating to get away from me, even though the characters all have a part of my psyche in them.

JW: Liberating is a good word for it. I find it absolutely vital, for me. I’m just not interested in the trappings of my own life. That’s not to say that great writers don’t write about characters and worlds that are essentially the same as their own. It just doesn’t work for me. I don’t get excited by it. I feel like I might as well write a personal essay. But, that said, the core of character has to be deeply familiar to me. As writers, we are, of course, in some sense always writing about ourselves. We’re just burying those aspects of ourselves inside the hearts of other people. And it’s the burying part–the meat and bones and breath and different air they move through–that makes writing fiction exciting to me. The heart part is what makes me want to write an idea in the first place.

MK: Your stories are heavy on exposition, something many creative writing teachers are wary of–they point the young writer to scene, scene, scene! Dramatic action! Upfront conflict and tension! Your novellas are slower, quieter, introspective, yet your writing is full of movement, atmosphere and emotion, and a tension and conflict resides in the internal and external world of your protagonist. Do you feel your stylistic choice is/was based on who you grew up reading and admiring, or something your own mentors nurtured and encouraged in college and graduate school? Or is this just the mysterious Josh Weil Way?

Oh, man, they’re heavy on exposition? Really? Crap. That’s so funny: I never think of my writing that way. If anything I think of it as too cinematic. I’m always wary of going into character’s thoughts and dwelling there…but I guess sometimes the stories force me into it. I really do feel that way. I even think of stories in terms of scenes; I talk about them that way. When I’m outlining a piece, I do it scene by scene. But this is a good question, because it forces me to try to explore the quiet aspect of my work (at least in The New Valley). There is a kind of inspection of the soul, but I don’t think it’s really introspection; the characters aren’t that way. It’s more that what they do and how they do it is geared towards revealing something about who they are and how they work, as opposed to revealing something about how the plot is going to unfold. But it’s still revelation through action, through scene. And the plot is still important; it’s just not necessarily the end-goal. The end-goal is an understanding of a person at that person’s core, and the plot is the way we get there. But the two are inextricably linked, of course; I don’t even really think of them as separate.

As far as influences that might have led me this way, man, I don’t know. I read mostly thrillers growing up–spy thrillers, historical thrillers, westerns…etc–-so it wasn’t that that led me here. Or maybe it was: the core difference for me, once I found literary fiction, between that and genre fiction was always the focus on the human interior–-that that drove the story more than any wholly external plot–and so maybe I feel like if I get too far from that I’m writing the genre fiction of my youth. That said, my biggest influences for a long time were filmmakers and playwrights. And so my approach to interiority is done through what we observe more than what the characters think, if that makes sense.

MK: So, you’re heading to Russia this summer. What’s your project and do you always travel to research for your writing? What are you hoping to find? How does being in a place that you’re writing about affect how and what you write about it?

JW: The project is a novel I’m working on, a thing set in Russia. But it’s kind of a fable, in some ways, so I don’t feel I have to go there (I lived there as an exchange student a long time ago). I don’t think you have to have been to a place to write about it, but I think if you haven’t you’d better be writing something other than hard realism. And since my stuff naturally gravitates towards realism in some way or another, I do think being in a place, getting a sense for the details of the way the world works there, is pretty important. So, I’m going. I’m hoping to find a few things: First, the sensory details that make a story feel of a certain part of the word. Second, things about being there–the reality of what life is like there–that will make me rethink the story, that will kick it out of the place I expected it to go. And the good thing about traveling for research is you’re almost guaranteed to find both of those.

MK: You’re also headed to MacDowell Colony for the first time this summer. What are your expectations and aspirations for your six week stay at this beautiful, historic colony?

JW: Work. Work, work, work. Finish another draft of this novel. And come in after a day of work that’s drained me almost to gone and sit down at a dinner table with other artists and writers and be rejuvenated by that. That’s what I’m hoping for.

MK: You get to your cabin in Virginia, or to MacDowell, or to New York City. There’s writing to be done. What gets you writing and keeps you going?

JW: The stories get me writing–the other ones that I have in a notebook full of ideas: I want to get to them, and do them well, and bring them to life, before I die. And if I’m going to get near most of them, I’m going to have to get cracking.

What keeps me going? The story I’m working on right then. The fact that something I wrote the day before feels good enough I can’t let it die. That if I don’t write something today that matches it, I may was well be killing it. And I owe my characters, the story itself, more than that.

Meghan Kenny teaches fiction for Gotham Writers’ Workshop and at Towson University. She held the 2008-2009 Tickner Writing Fellowship at Gilman. Most recently her stories have appeared in Hobart, Pleiades, The Florida Review, and The Kenyon Review. She lives in Baltimore.

One response to “INTERVIEW: The Geography of Josh Weil

  1. i saw mr. weil read in bmore. couldn’t meet a nicer guy, and writer to boot, if i tried.

    his book is really good. really good. really good. really good.


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