Josh Weil

Interviewed by John Charles Gilmore

The first thing I read by Josh Weil was a rather humble announcement he’d posted to an online political community—of which he was an active member—about his debut, The New Valley (Grove, 2009). I was interested in who the anonymous poster was, so I followed links from his profile to his personal website, where it became immediately clear that he was a serious writer and that this was a serious book. But it wasn’t until months later—when I ran across his short story “Salt Lake” at fivechapters.comthat I knew the writing he did, in addition to being serious, was good. I’d later read the three novellas that make up The New Valley, each of which feels to have been unearthed from some sacred cellar. Weil clearly maintained all the correct temperatures and just the right humidity. Cynical, fragmented, post-post-everything readers, please dig in: the most over-Facebooked of us is not too far gone to be sucked straight back to our story loving roots by The New Valley’s character-rich novellas, crafted sentences, and rustic words.

Weil was awarded a 2009 “5-under-35” award by the National Book Foundation, and The New Valley won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2010. For the fall of 2010 he was writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut. This interview took place over the course of several months, a couple of which Weil was a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony.

INTERVIEWER

Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” You’ve published a book of novellas. Do you follow any rules in writing the novella, and how different are those rules than those for writing a novel?

JOSH WEIL

Well, I suppose there are two reasons nobody knows what the rules are: First, the rules surely are different for each writer. Second, they seem to change with each piece of work—which is infuriating in some ways, but also what makes each foray into a fictional world different and exciting. So, with that caveat out there, I’ll have a whack at what the rules might be for me—and I think when I say rules I mean the things I hold myself to, that I try to keep in mind, with writing in general. I don’t think they’re specific to one form or another. I’ve written short stories, novellas, screenplays, plays and novels, and aside from some superficial things having to do with the basics of the form, my approach to writing them is pretty similar.

1. Always push past the easy choice, whether on the sentence-level or the structural level. There’s nothing I hate more—in other peoples’ writing, or in my own—than taking the easy choice. Because the easy choice is usually also the expected one. It feels generic, obvious, too recognizable. Whether it’s a word, or a metaphor, or a plot-twist, or a character trait, I always try to take what strikes me first and look hard at it to make sure it’s not striking me first just because it’s the easiest thing. If it is, I try to push deeper. If I’m describing something in a way that feels accurate, but not yet fresh, then I try to push the description one notch further into something that I haven’t heard before, something that feels unique to the moment, the situation, the story, and nothing else.

2. Let the characters go off script. When writing is going really well for me, when it’s happening the way I most love for it to happen and the way that I think makes for the best work, I don’t really feel like I’m making the characters do things. I feel like I’m a director, hovering above the set (though the set feels real, not staged), and the characters are actors, and we’re discovering a scene. I studied filmmaking and made some short films and directed some stuff for the stage and one of the most important pieces of advice I ever got was that the director’s job is to create a kind of corral defined by his or her vision of the story, but to let the actors (and cinematographer, and gaffer, and sound guy) have creative freedom within that corral. That’s when the great, collaborative, exciting work is done. That’s when actors surprise themselves and each other and the director. And If something they do steps outside the vision of the director, then he or she just nudges them back inside the corral. That’s how I feel about the best moments in writing: the characters are doing their thing, within my vision, and I have to hover over them and pay close attention to when I need to nudge them back inside the corral—or adjust the shape of the corral to work with some surprising thing they’ve done.

3. Everyone Always Wants Something. When I’m stuck with a scene, I often go back to this. In fiction, as in real life, everyone always wants something. The central question, even if it’s hiding beneath the surface, should always be “Why can’t he or she get it?”  What – or who – is standing in the way, and why?  And what does that denier want?

4. Find the Wound: A mentor of mine, Mark Slouka, used to look at a problem in a story and ask, “Where’s the wound?” Where is the character’s great hurt, the thing that haunts the character, the place of deepest pain, or regret, or shame?  That’s where the story lies. Find it, and open it up, and dig inside where it’s most raw. If you let your story come from that place, it will naturally hold together and contain a thematic power without the focus on theme that can be so deadening to a story.

I could go on, but those are a few of the things I hold to; they’re about as close to rules as I can get.

INTERVIEWER

The three novellas in The New Valley each feel quite different in tone and character. Is it fair to say these three stories are bound most tightly by their commonality in place, as the title of the book suggests?

JOSH WEIL

I’d say that place is the primary binding agent in the book. It’s certainly the only one I had in mind when I was writing the novellas. I did, at one point, contemplate a collection centered around lone men and their relationships with large animals—the tractor in “Stillman Wing” counting as an animal; at that point I had a different third novella, one that was set in the southwest, but once “Sarverville Remains” came along I dropped the large animals idea, thank god, and it became clear to me that the location, that unique side-stepped-out-of-time quality that you find in Appalachia, that very specific culture, was what had been driving the book all along. That said, there’s another commonality among the novellas that is, perhaps, even more important, though I wasn’t thinking of it when I wrote them: Each novella is about a man who is isolated in his life for reasons specific to each story and who has lost a loved one (again, the loved one and the nature of the loss are quite different with each story). These are stories about making it through that loss, coming out the other end, even if that’s not always a happy place to land. That link was pointed out to me in an early review and I think it strikes at the heart of what makes the book work better as a whole than any of the novellas could on their own.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think about collections in general, and the question of whether or not their parts need to hold together? Of course there are publication concerns, but what’s your take on this artistically?

JOSH WEIL

You know, my thinking on this has changed a bit over the past few years. Five or so years ago I probably would have said, Hell no, a collection shouldn’t have to be strung together in some way; it should be a writers best stories and the stories should be read as their own entities and the need to group them together was just a necessity of publishing. But I feel differently now. Two iconic collections played a role in my initial thinking, and in changing it: Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson, and The Collected Stories of John Cheever. I loved the Anderson stories…on their own. And I know that the book is lauded, in part, for the world it creates as a whole, but I found that after I had read half the stories, the second half—while just as good story by story— started to feel predictable to me; I started to know how these stories worked, to see them working even before they had finished, because they were so much of a kind…and that weakened them for me. I realized I would have loved some of the stories had I come to them on their own, while I didn’t love them in the collection because they felt too familiar grouped in with the rest. But then I read the Cheever. What is that thing, 800 pages or something?  And the stories are very much all of a certain world, a certain time, and the experience of sinking into the world and not coming out, of the world being built out of so many finely shaped stories gave me great pleasure, and deep satisfaction, almost the way a novel would (aha: there lies the rub, though—should a book of stories be trying to ape what a novel would do?). Maybe part of why that worked so well for me is that I feel the Anderson stories are so centered around individuals (though they make up the town), whereas Cheever always seems to be writing about a place and time, like he’s trying to get at a certain kind of person. Maybe that was the difference.

Regardless, I now think that what a story accomplishes on its own is very different from what a collection can accomplish, and both should be thought of as their own things. So a collection should be more than just a bunch of stories grouped randomly together. It should be shaped and constructed so that it has artistic merit of its own. I still have at least one big reservation, though: I don’t see why what links a collection together should be so limited. So often you see stories linked by place (and, yeah, that’s part of what links my novellas), or by a unified narrator, or by some thing that is so heavy handed that it starts to feel forced (which is why there’s resistance to it among writers, I think; we suspect the editor is really just wanting us to somehow turn it into a novel). I think that can make for a more boring collection. I love collections that feel far flung, that have stories that feel like there’s no way they should exist in the same world, let alone the same book, and yet there’s a subtle connection that makes them fit. A prime example would be my favorite story collection that I’ve read in the past few years: Like You’d Understand, Anyway, by Jim Shepard. Those stories are so wide ranging, so wildly different from each other in tone and voice and subject matter and setting—and yet the underlying link is that they’re all first-person (among some more subtle stuff), and the very fact that they are so wide ranging, and that works. That’s enough. And it’s interesting and engaging as hell because of it, without losing the sense of the book as a whole doing something of its own.

INTERVIEWER

Did you return to the place in which the novellas in The New Valley occur—the jacket copy calls it “the hardscrabble hill country between West Virginia and Virginia”—while writing them?

JOSH WEIL

I return to that place—a remote mountain valley in the far southwest of Virginia and a cabin there that my father and brother and I built with the help of a local farmer when I was 19—more than any other place in my life. Though I wasn’t raised there (I was born nearby, but moved away when I was very young), it’s probably the closest thing to a home that, as an adult, I’ve been able to find. I’ve done all my best writing there. Part of that is because it allows me to step out of the entanglements of life when I’m interacting with the world and live much more simply: I follow the same routine, day after day, centered around rising while it’s still dark, writing till I’m tapped out, doing some physical work (fixing a fence, maybe; maybe splitting wood or brush-hogging the field), and hiking up to the ridge before sunset to clear my head for writing the next day. There are times when I don’t see another human for weeks. It allows me to burrow into the world of whatever I’m working on in a way that’s just not possible for me while pressed by the demands of daily life in our modern world. That, I guess, is largely why writers go to artist’s colonies (I’m at one right now), and that works pretty well—though it’s still not the same as the utter isolation and focus I can find when working at the cabin. So, that’s part of it. But the other part is just as important: I’m moved by that part of the world, that piece of America. I have been since I first started writing seriously. When I was in college I spent two years working on a photo essay on the rural poor at the western edge of Appalachia (my school was in the poorest county in Ohio, in the southeast part of the state that borders West Virginia) and I was invited into people’s homes, ate suppers with them, went out back to see their pet bears, was chased off of yards at gunpoint, was given a glimpse of a life that most people don’t know still goes on in America. From then on out it informed my writing. My interest in the people I met grew into a respect and, eventually, into a feeling of kinship. Down at the cabin you can hire a man to build you a house and never sign a contract, just shake on it. Show me another place in America where that happens. The person I’m probably closest to down there is an 87 year old man named Russell. I bring him asparagus from the garden when I visit; he takes out the Ball jar of moonshine and some Canada Dry to cut it. I like to listen to his tales. And I feel a sense of allegiance to him, to that place. Which, I suppose, is why I go back to stories set there, and why I feel the need to be there when I write them. My friends make fun of me for that—that I go running off to the cabin as if I can’t write a story set there while sitting in New York—but it’s just how it is. It’s not the writing that I can’t do; it’s the thinking about the writing that happens each evening when I’m going up through the mountain laurel stand to the top of the ridge, or while I’m driving the winding roads to get some potatoes or apples from the closest gas station: the kinds of ideas that come to me then are simply different from the ones that would come to me while jogging in Central Park or something. So, back I go. And did to write each of those novellas.

INTERVIEWER

Is the designation “Novella” bestowed to a piece of writing at the finish line due to length, or is a novella built differently from page one?

JOSH WEIL

Well, it can probably happen either way. Though I do think that, in the end, it’s less about length than about the bones of the thing, about scope, about how much it’s trying to accomplish and how it goes about it. And that’s usually set down from the start—but not always. In fact, the novel that I’m working on right now started out as a short story. That’s what it was in my mind when I just sat down and started writing. Then I got to the end of the first scene and it was ten pages long and felt like it was just starting to set up what I wanted to do and I thought, Uh oh, another damn novella. But I could feel, even from that first touch, that what I was beginning to wrestle with was going to take me more than twenty or thirty pages. It’s just a gut feeling: you know it. Or you try it as a short story and it fails and then you find it out. Or you try it as a novel and it fails (much more painful; I’ve done that, too) and you find it out that way. In this case, I started mapping the thing out—putting together the scenes I imagined, started to see the shape of the thing—and it felt like it could be a novella, so I said, To hell with it, and shot for that. The only problem was by the time I was halfway through I started to sense that there were gaps missing, whole elements that had become important but were coming in too late, weren’t supported, histories that had to be set up, and again I thought, Uh oh. This time it was because I started to see the thing as a novel. So—To hell with it—I reworked my outline (I always write with an outline, and always keep it flexible, and always am hesitant to admit it because I know I’ll get pilloried in MFA programs) and wrote the thing through and, what do you know, it was a novel. It doesn’t end there, though. That was the rough draft and the first solid draft. After that, I realized that it was sitting halfway between the two—had the scope of a novel, but the size of the plot, of the events, were hunkering around novella range. And I had to make a decision: pare the thing back, hope to cut it down to a place where it could work as a small quiet story about a small quiet man and hope it sat that novella/novel edge well enough to be worth it. Or blow the thing open and go for big. Which is what I’m doing.

Now, all of this is a kind of indirect way of answering your question. Yeah, at the end, I look at the thing and I say, Well, hell, it’s got to get over 50,000 words to be even remotely in novel range. And if it’s under, Whelp, it’s pretty much a novella. But that’s not what makes it one. What makes it one is that the story didn’t need to be a novel, or a short story didn’t need to be a novella. It’s the need of the story—from the get-go (the story, itself, kind of knows, I think, right from the start what it needs to be and I’m just trying to see it right)—that dictates it. In this case, the thing needed to be let loose and run the distance. Or at least I hope so. ‘Cause that’s how I’m seeing it now.

INTERVIEWER

There have been complaints in the literary world that MFAs result in a particular sort of story, that the extensive workshop routine functions as a focus-group, pulling writers’ work to a smoothed-over center. The New Valley feels raw and gutsy; the final novella, “Sarverville Remains,” is full of plot, complicated, and reads like a mystery. If I didn’t know you had an MFA from Columbia, I might suspect you didn’t have an MFA. What do you think of the MFA degree, its influence on your writing, and its influence on contemporary literature?

JOSH WEIL

I’m glad to hear that the novellas seemed un-MFA-ish, because I do think there’s an inherent danger in workshop. Part of that danger is that the workshops are composed not just of a bunch of writers, but a bunch of writers whose tastes are wildly different. So you’ve got people who aren’t natural readers for your work helping to guide how you write it. That’s where the smoothed-over center comes in. But I’m not really a critic of MFA programs. I found mine really helpful. Part of that is simply because I wasn’t an English major in college; I hadn’t read many classics (and still haven’t); I wasn’t even really aware of what was going on in contemporary literature. I just liked stories. I liked telling them. I had found a few writers whose language and vision excited me—Annie Proulx, Ron Hansen—but I was pretty much writing blind. Which isn’t a bad way to write, sometimes, and I think isn’t a bad way to start out. But during my years in the MFA program my eyes were opened to so much different stuff. I was challenged in ways I never would have been holed up in a room on my own. I was exposed to a whole lot that excited me and got me juiced up. There’s danger in that, too: I spent at least 2-3 years after the program working my way back to my own natural voice, finding who I was as a writer again—which I had known before the MFA. Of course, when I found it I had changed as a writer and was somehow myself and also a new self; I think that’s a good thing, but it’s a hard place to get to, and the danger of never getting back to that solid grounding of onesself as a writer is a real danger of MFA programs.

Here’s the other reason I think the MFA program was good for me (and would be good for most writers, though, of course, not all): while the workshops were full of people who weren’t ideal readers for me, in each one I did find a few who were. By the time I was out of the program I had a core group of readers (and good friends) without whom I’d be lost. They are completely vital to my work. I’m not good at seeing what’s wrong with something right after I write it; they’re my outside eyes. And so when I finish a story now and give it to 3 or 4 people and get their criticism it’s my own mini-workshop, really. But the only people in it are the people who I’ve chosen, and that’s the difference. That, I think, is what MFA students should be aiming for: finding that personal workshop group and holding on to that long after they’re out of school.

One more thing about this, because I haven’t addressed the novellas in The New Valley directly: I wrote the first one, “Ridge Weather”, after my first semester at Columbia and I wrote it as kind of a “fuck you” to the program. Everyone (more the students than the teachers, actually) was all about experimental work and non-narrative stuff and running away from plot and getting edgy with voice and I had been trying to write that way, and trying to go about it in a way that wasn’t natural to me (see my earlier comment about my use of outlines, because I tried desperately not to use them so as to avoid the sneers of other students who talked of “deadened” work), and then I went down to the cabin in Virginia over winter break and just said “fuck it” and put all that away and wrote the story that I wanted to write, the way I wanted to write it, and felt, honestly, like I was getting back to who I was as a writer before the program. So, there’s that. That turned out to be the first novella in the first book I published. And when I got back to Columbia after writing it, I workshopped it. It probably would have been ruined if it wasn’t for the professor heading the workshop—Mark Slouka, again—who stopped people from trying to turn it into a short story or a novel and told me, “Nope, it’s what it’s meant to be. It’s a novella. I’m sorry.”  By the time I wrote the other two I was out of school and actively trying to get back to the core of who I was as a writer. “Sarverville Remains” was so important to me for that. The thing was driven by such a complex plot, such a weaving of event, that it made my head hurt to try to keep track of it all. But it felt right. It felt good, writing that. I wrote the sucker in a burst in a few weeks and I felt like I had gotten back to something true about myself.

If a writer can get there—get pushed beyond her own ideas of what writing can be, get forced out of her comfort zone by an MFA program, and then find her way back to what made that zone comfortable from the start (but now with a deeper and more complex understanding of it)—well, I think the MFA program’s influence on contemporary writing could be a good one.

INTERVIEWER

If you’re comfortable doing so, could you discuss your experience of diving into this panicked publishing world with your trio of novellas?

JOSH WEIL

Well, the fact that I am plenty comfortable discussing the experience is testament to how good an experience it’s been for me. I’ve been lucky that way. I’m constantly aware of how easily it could have gone another way if all the elements hadn’t just fallen into place so well. The first piece in all that (leaving aside the writing of the things) was my agent. PJ is amazing and kind and responsive and on top of things and all the things you’d want an agent to be, but most of all, I trust him. I trust his taste and his take on my work and his hopes for my work. A lot of that trust comes from the fact that going out with the novellas as my first book was his idea. I had gone to him with a bunch of stuff he read and liked, but he liked “Sarverville Remains” best. I’d given it to him as a short novel (it was a bit longer, back then). We talked about it and I mentioned that I’d written it as part of a novella collection. I was kind of scared to even utter those words: novella collection. But he took the other two novellas, read them over the weekend, and came back the next week saying, “This is what we’re going out with.”  I think most agents would have laughed at that. Or certainly laughed at me if I’d said, “Hey, I’m an unknown writer guy with three quiet novellas about rural Appalachian men.” They’d have thought I was nuts (frankly, my first agent probably would have thought that; she wouldn’t seriously consider the novellas). Hell, I thought PJ was a little nuts. But the fact that he saw in my work what I think I saw in it, that he felt out the work that I felt most strongly about and had the guts to go out with it—that made me trust him tremendously. And it didn’t hurt that he sold it so quickly and to such a great press and an editor I knew I’d love from our first meeting. Elisabeth Schmitz is magical and brilliant and beautiful, both as an editor and simply as a person. And she got my work; we got each other. That relationship was terrific from the get go. A lot of that is being with a great but not huge press (my agent had been with a great but not huge agency) and an editor who was part of that press in a very solid way. I didn’t have to worry about my editor leaving or getting fired in the middle of working with me (a horror story I’ve heard too often), and I didn’t have to worry about publicity getting behind the book, because Grove is small enough that I knew all the folks personally (I really like my publicists; how many writers can say that?), and they know their own catalogue so well. Morgan Entricant, who heads up Grove, is involved with each book, so it felt like I was supported from the top down. And that kind of tightness allows Grove to take risks—as they did with me. They publish novellas—they put out a great collection by Michael Knight called The Holiday Season; and also, of course, Jim Harrison’s brilliant books, many of which are novella collections. They do things like letting me illustrate my own work (as I did for the middle novella in The New Valley). They put together a beautiful book, I think, so I was even lucky on that end.

There are so many ways in which fate fell on the right side of the book for me. Novellas could have been a curse and the book could have been ignored and set aside because of the form. Instead, I think there was interest in it precisely because it was a different form: it helped separate me from the pack of (often terrific) collections that come out each season. But The New Valley was also in some ways more substantial than many collections (the book is about 350 pages and the final novella is about 150), so it carried with it some of the weight of a novel debut. Again, I was lucky in all that. You write the best work you can, and you try to find the best people you can to work with once it’s done, and then you do what you can to nudge fate in the right direction—but so much of it is just dumb luck.

INTERVIEWER

What is it like to be reflecting now on what you wrote so long ago—through interviews like this, or readings or panels?

JOSH WEIL

It’s a little strange, a little nerve-wracking—but also comforting, sometimes. There’s a part of me that thinks back to who I was when I wrote the first novella in the collection (I wrote “Ridge Weather” damn near a decade ago) and wonders what it means that I was doing work back then, before I had even been through my MFA program, that people like as much, or more (egad!), than work I’m doing now. That’s kind of frightening. It’s also a bit nerve wracking to be confronted constantly with how well the work in the book has been received (though that’s a good, thing, of course), since what I’m working on now is so completely different; it can add a certain amount of pressure. I recently was fortunate enough to be at a residency where there was a wonderful poet who read my book while we were both there; she kept on singing the book’s praises to me…which was really kind of her, and should have made me feel more confident about myself as a writer, but instead I kept going back to work on what I’m writing now and holding it up alongside The New Valley and comparing the two. Not a good idea. I mean, I hope that what I’m working on now is every bit as good, or better, but mostly I know it’s different, and trying to force it into competition with the novellas never helps. So, sometimes it feels like I’m having to step back into who I was a few years ago when I do readings, like I’m trying to find my way back to that writer for an evening. When I think of it as I should, that can be a good, comforting thing. Because who I was then and what I was writing then is done—and it’s been given the nod of approval, I guess. So I can dip back to that and feel confident and comfortable for a bit. Then I push back into the world of what I’m working on now and what my expectations are for myself and my work now, and it’s much more tenuous. And more energized and exciting. All in all, being able to shift between those two worlds is probably helpful, so long as I don’t get bogged down in trying to emulate my old self, so long as I keep myself aware of the split between then and now. Luckily, the writing kind of does that for you: what I’m working on now wouldn’t work written as what I worked on then. So, as usual, the work lets you know what it needs, and pushes you to it, and thank god for that.

INTERVIEWER

You said you use a flexible outline. What does that entail?

JOSH WEIL

It’s pretty specific, and it’s probably anathema to how many writers work, and it’s just the only way I can, so I’ve tried to make my peace with it. I usually spend a long time thinking through an idea, just jotting down notes in my notebook whenever something comes to me, and then, at some point, it’s time to sit down and write the thing. I go through my notebook, collect my thoughts, then start to piece them together in a document. The way my mind works, that means working towards some image, some scene that grabbed me, that feels like the point of the thing, the place that the story is trying to get to. So I build an outline around that, scenes that get me to whatever image/scene has grabbed me (I almost always write towards something, instead of from something). I print it out. For a novel or a novella, it’s long and pretty detailed, scene-by-scene. The criticism of that approach is that it stifles creative discovery, but, for me, it’s the opposite. First of all, I consider my thoughts, my scene-by-scene discoveries in putting together the outline to be almost as creative as a rough draft. Just because the structure of a story is coming together in outline form doesn’t mean it’s not coming out of an organic place, a place of discovery; I get as thrilled with them—with the broad idea of a scene that comes—as I do with a line of dialogue with which a character surprises me. And that’s the key: having that scaffolding in place, that basic idea of where the story is going and what each scene loosely needs to accomplish frees me up from worrying about that, and allows me to just exist in the moment when I’m writing, to let the characters do what they’re going to do—within the confines of what I already know the story needs. As I mentioned earlier, I think of it as if I’m a director working with actors who know the thrust of a script, but are still improvising the specific lines, the how of it. Maybe they know that by the end of the scene X needs to tell Y she’s leaving him, but how they get from the moment when Y walks through the door with a set of golf clubs he just bought at a yard sale to her leaving is the improv work. Again, my job is just to create the corral within which the collaboration and improvisation can happen. Of course, sometimes you need to let the horses out of the corral to run loose. Sometimes they bust the hell out without your meaning to let them. And then you have to sit back and ask, “Why did they do that?” and “Well, now what would it mean for the story if I let them tear off over there?” And that’s what I mean by keeping it flexible. Every day that I write I end up scribbling notes on my printed-out outline, notes about changes that what I’ve written has wrought in what’s to come. Every now and then I have to retype the thing and print out a fresh copy. By the end what I have bears resemblance to what I outlined, but it has grown and changed in big ways, too. I think that’s vital; that’s what keeps it creative and fluid. An example: I’m deep into a draft of the novel I’m working on, and a character just did something I didn’t know he’d do. That action not only changed the scene (I decided to let the horses run on this one), but it caused a kind of epiphany for me: I went for a run and thought through the implications of that action, both forward and backwards in the story, and it opened up a lot for me; I got so excited about the possibilities that I sat down as soon as I got home, and, still sweating so much the paper was wet as I wrote on it and the ink blurred, I outlined those changes into the old outline, stringing it right through. And I knew it was right because it just slotted right into what was there like it was made to fit. I believe in those moments as much as anything in writing. And I think that, at least for me, getting to them is equally about having an outline to know how they fit inside it, and keeping it flexible enough to fit them in.

INTERVIEWER

Did your father’s expertise as a soil scientist influence you as a writer or otherwise?

JOSH WEIL

Oh, yeah: my dad has influenced me deeply in a million ways, but his job definitely is one of them. First of all, it led me to many of the experiences I had in life as a kid. We lived in Malawi for a couple years when I was very young and then I went back to visit him in Tanzania for a few months when I was 18; and every other summer we’d take long, 5-6 week car trips around the U.S., basically going from research station to research station, fields to fields, soil profile to soil profile. I never lived on a farm, but I was around farmers a lot. I grew comfortable with that life, and the trappings of it, and grew to love it largely through my father and his work. So there’s that, and then there’s what my dad calls “tractor questions.” Because I write about rural worlds often, I turn to him for advice about specific questions or ideas. I’ll call him out of the blue, wondering about what might cause a certain crop to look this way or that way, some specific way that a dairy farmer might work with his cows…etc. When I was working on “Stillman Wing,” there were a lot of questions about tractors. So now he’ll answer the phone with, “Another tractor question?”  And, more often than not, he’s right.

INTERVIEWER

During this interview you’ve spent time at McDowell. What is it you are working on now?

JOSH WEIL

Yeah, I was really lucky this summer to have eight solid weeks of writing time—most at MacDowell and some at VCCA (both of which are wonderful in different ways)—and I was buried in this new novel, so much so that I pretty much shunted aside most of the rest of my life. Which is kind of what I think a writer needs to do to do good work—or at least what I seem to need to do. But, ah, the question of what that work is and if it’s good. As far as what it is, well, I’m still not really comfortable talking about it too much. Mainly because it feels so different for me, and it feels either really ballsy and gutsy (on good days) or absolutely insane (on bad ones). But I will say this: it’s different from anything else I’ve written, and it’s a novel, and it’s set in Russia, and it is vaguely fable-like, and I think I better leave it at that. Because the second part of that question—whether it’s any good or not—I have to keep my own feelings on that clutched close to my chest, eyes closed and lips shut, and, as much as I can, keep the outside world very far away. Shunting it aside again. That right there seems a pretty good encapsulation of the writer’s life—or at least this one’s. So here’s to it, eyes clenched tight and lips shut (ha: how long is this interview!?) and arms holding hard to the hope of good work.

Read Tottenville’s list of 20 Classic Novellas.

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