February 2009

Blake Butler


An Interview with Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball’s second novel, The Way Through Doors, comes out February 10, 2009 from Vintage Contemporaries. A series of stories incased one inside the other in the mind of Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler… Ball’s second novel is an absolutely mind-busting collage of compulsive images, riddles, and dream brain.

At the tail end of ‘08, after having read his latest and been firmly socked in the gut by it in, the most pleasurable of ways, I e-mailed with Jesse about the circumstances of the creation of the book, the function of alinear and or disjunctive storytelling, as well as his notoriously fast writing methods and practices.


I hadn't realized when I was reading your new The Way Through Doors that it was actually written before Samedi the Deafness, though Samedi came out first. You mentioned that your agent had had trouble placing The Way Through Doors first and then when Samedi got accepted your editor at Vintage asked to see the other and eventually took it on also. I was kind of surprised when you mentioned this, but then it began to make sense, as Doors seems a much freer and insanely structured book even than the puzzle box that is Samedi. I am interested in the difference in processes of your writing these two novels, and perhaps the time between them, or the way your intentions changed, if at all?

I wrote The Way Through Doors in June/July of 2005 when I was in the south of France. I wrote Samedi the Deafness in September/October of 2005 in Scotland. The writing of The Way Through Doors took 2-3 weeks. I had, however, thought through what some of the various storylines would be. So, the 2-3 weeks consisted of putting it down on paper. The important thing for me about the structure of a book is that it should permit me the room to surprise myself as I write. Certainly, the structure of TWTD allows that. As for intentions, I don't know that I had particular intentions that would differentiate my purpose in Samedi from that in TWTD. I try to realize in a space of text the specific ambiguities that I feel -- not randomly chosen ones, but specific ones. This, I think, is the greatest clarity we can hope for.

It says in your press sheet for the new book that you will sit in silence for several weeks before you begin a new book. I have also read in other places about the short span Samedi was written in while you were holed up overseas, utilizing long stretches of writing in which you would hang the manuscript around the room, immersing yourself in the text. Would you talk a little about the process of immersion during creation, as it applies to you, and the benefits of writing a book in a short period versus books that are toiled over for years and years?

I have periods when I do not write, and periods when I write. During the non-writing, or gathering periods, I do write in a journal. Those are observations, drawings, evidence of fascination, peculiar details that have come to light, etc. The journals are not tools towards verse-writing or novel-writing. They are useful in and of themselves and are their own end. When I enter a period of writing, I have a project before me, and I set everything else aside. I view it as a performance, the way a pianist would, and the discipline is a similar one. I believe that rigorous readings, observation, sharp thought -- these are preparations for the creation of a work. If one is sloppy there, then the work will not be what one desires. In my works, I try to conjure up a state of affairs -- a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind. I don't believe one could write such a book over a long period of time, as the associations of the writer to his/her words shift, and wouldn't be consistent. The writer would refer to particular concepts, thoughts, objects, at the beginning of the book, but by the book's end, he/she wouldn't mean the same thing when he/she spoke of them. I try to avoid this trap. As for the benefit of hanging a manuscript about the room, for me it is not a matter of examining the manuscript there on the wall, so much as it is a matter of being confronted with the physical evidence of my process. It gives me a sense of the undertaking and sends me forward.

I don't want to talk too specifically about the structure of The Way Through Doors, as the magic of it for me was in the unfolding of the story, but essentially it consists partially of a series of stories embedded in one another that in various ways enmesh, sort of like Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler.... At one point early on in the text, a character receives a note that contains, in part, the message: "Is there such a thing as useless obfuscation? I don't think so." This meant a lot to me, as it seems there is a big emphasis especially in larger market fiction and in other methods of entertainment to have obfuscation be explained or serve a "higher" purpose than existing for itself. You often hear the question, "What is human here?" Though I have always thought that being human is such a sprawling and bizarre task, and that most things in human life are not explained, are not "leading up" except in the way they eventually compile. We're not even talking about language poetry or symbolic writing here really, such as "aslidfalsdhfowe oaihdofi" or "organ splat the vermin oven." They are palpable, if fantastical, string of semi-resolving occurrence. How then, as you are constructing, say, a book where the tallest building in the world is mostly underground, as there is in The Way Through Doors, do you parse in your own mind the melding of the fantastical with "what is human"? More so, how does the "obfuscation" lead to the way you go about piecing the narrative together in your mind and on the page? (This is a really long question, I apologize, it is something I feel strongly about.)

Perhaps this question is best answered simply by the fact of the book being the way it is, than by anything I could say. However -- in direct response, I am always puzzled by the certainty that people seem to have about the march of progress. People are sure that they are smarter today, have better things, spend their hours in more meaningful pursuits, etc, than those people who labored in distant centuries. Similarly, there is a certainty that it is better to be intelligent, strong, attractive, etc. The problem with these certainties is that they aren't certain at all! I don't believe writing is better now than it was 2,000 years ago. Neither do I believe people are happier, or live fuller lives. Probably, being lucky is the best thing -- but even that is in doubt, as luck itself is simply the pendulum swaying to one or the other extreme. Is it better to be shallowly happy a lot of the time, or deeply sad with occasional firestorms of delight and joy? The point of all this is that: if we aren't even certain about what to aim for, then what is the use in one form of order over another? Instead of trying to come to some conclusion about what the objectives of progress are, society drives headlong towards objectives with unknown application. Consider this: nobody has even been able to dream up a utopia that sounds very good at all to anyone.

Therefore, how can we say one thing is more significant than another? The day that you're just now finishing: which part of it was "the point"? Of course, we do have our time in which we are born and die, and we play games during that time, which seem to involve suffering and some reward. Being conscious of a panoply of objects as they flutter past -- where some things are concealed and others are clear, maybe that's it. Could it be that emotion is the whole thing -- the whole point? A small play of emotions in the skull?

As for useless obfuscation, it is certainly easy to write about a circumstance and people it with incongruous elements, and then neatly stitch them up to make them understandable, and therefore, able to be dismissed. It's more difficult to leave their incongruity to linger, and to make it so that it reflects the actual incongruities of thought and experience. These simply can't be explained. People try to, and sometimes seem to, but they're just using tricks. So, obfuscation is merely three dimensionality as it exists -- or four dimensionality, if you like. Things are always in front of other things, sometimes purposefully, sometimes not. There's a scene in some film where a guy enters a mock up of a store and has to immediately shut his eyes and name everything that he can see. I love that. Why should I in my writing make one thing have more meaning than another if that meaning isn't present? I don't know if this answers your question.

You teach classes on lying and dreaming at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I know several of your students have been appearing a lot online and in print recently, including Jac Jemc, C. Robin Madigan, Heather Palmer, and others, all of whom I can see at least some of your influence in. Could you give a small reading list of texts you have taught in your classes, or maybe a brief discussion of a method or exercise in either lying or dreaming you use in class?

I use a lot of LaBerge in my dreaming class. His techniques are simple and perfectly effective. If you follow them thoroughly, you will learn to lucid dream. His book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, is sufficient for all your lucid-dreaming needs. My favorite, however, is a nineteenth century book: Dreams and How to Guide Them, by Hervey De Saint-Denys, which LaBerge led me to. I don't know if that one is in print. The lying class had a book of readings that I compiled. It's quite thick. If you like, I can probably manage to get it to you somehow. The meat of the lying class was a series of exercises that I would devise in order to magnify and focus the practical powers of deception of the class members. These operations were not always appreciated by the families/spouses/loved-ones of the class-members. One such involved the imposition of a false memory. The idea is this: you select an individual with whom you have a long acquaintance. On a particular day, you sit with this person and speak for a while. When you have acquired a looseness to your verbal manner, you begin to recall, in camaraderie, a story from the distant past that involves both you and the person in question (X). You choose the story with great care. It should substantiate some belief that X has about himself, something he wants to be true but that perhaps isn't quite true. For instance, if X fancies himself to have been crazy during his high school years, and likes to recall that about himself, you can easily tell X a story about those high school years involving X's craziness (always a complimentary story), and get X to agree that it happened. The whole thing must be done casually. What you are trying to get out of X is not just his agreement that the fictional events occurred (that's quite easy). Rather, you want X to add to the story once you've begun it, and laugh gladly in memory of old times, etc. Then, X will be telling you the end of a false story you created, and he will actually be thinking that it's true! You'd be surprised how well this works, and how easily. Part of the mechanism for this is the attempt that any community makes to come to a consensus about past events, and the compromise that is inevitable in such a consensus. This mechanism of consensus and compromise, with vanity added to it, gives you the ability to impose false memories on trusting individuals.

Obviously you've gotten references to David Lynch quite a bit (Tom McCarthy's Lynch reference in the blurb on the back of Samedi was what originally got me to buy the book, without knowing anything else.) You also get Hitchcock rather widely, and you are also a photographer. How much are you influenced by these or other filmmakers? How does the concept of framing or filmic motion affect the way you will write a scene?

Film is probably the most consistent vocabulary that exists at the moment, if we are speaking of character and plot. Too few have read the same books to be able to use the situations from those books in order to prove arguments that they might like to make to one another in the course of conversation. Instead, they use situations and characters from films and television. So, whether I do that or not, it is important for me to be conscious of the understandings I provoke. I love David Lynch's work. However, there is a certain randomness to it, an intention-less-ness that bothers me. My favorite filmmakers, like Tarkovsky, can do the sudden amplification of shivering weirdness while also creating something profound. Andrei Rublev, or Stalker: these are films that use the chaos of objects, feelings and characters to create something unexplainable. However, with these two films the thing that is unexplainable is a particular thing. With Lynch I sometimes feel it is a randomly arrived at thing. That said, I am always eager to watch and rewatch Lynch's work, and I adore Mulholland Drive to no end. Watching films is one of the great luxuries of our times -- and it is a luxury that I would not be without. I have even been known to rent three movies and watch them in a row. Some films that I admire: Les Enfantes Du Paradis; Le Cercle Rouge; The Thirty-Nine Steps; High Noon; Paris, Texas; Rebellion: Receive the Wife; The Shooting Party; The Duellists; Day of Wrath. I also love the work that's being done in film right now. Recent ones: Russian Ark; In the Bedroom; Goodbye, Dragon Inn; Curse of the Golden Flower.

I have also read that you have a whole trove of books you've written over the years that are as yet unpublished, each kind of waiting their turn. How much would you say you write when you are in the mode of writing? How much time each year, on average? Obviously, these are relative numbers, but I am interested in the process of output and perhaps how many projects you immerse yourself in at a time, how they bleed a bit into one another, etc?

There are a number of volumes awaiting their turn. As the years have passed, I have become better at compressing the writing process into smaller and smaller portions of time. Plainface, a novel that will eventually come out, is composed of novellas that tell the continuing adventures of a boy named Plainface, and each of those novellas was written rapidly, some even in a single day. It all goes back to what I was saying about a pianistic performance. One attempts to maintain a thread through an atmosphere that one constructs around the thread even as one weaves the thread through it. The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr, I wrote in one sitting. The same is true of Pieter Emily, another novella. I wrote a book of poems in December of 2007 called The Skin Feat. That's a part of an omnibus called The Village on Horseback which Milkweed will publish in 2011. That book of poems was written over the course of a couple weeks. In terms of all these works, quantity, though, is not my aim. I simply want to realize the thought as well as I can, and be surprised in the process. To be engaged in a life of making -- that's the pursuit.