An Interview with Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball is a writer of fiction and poetry. He lives in Chicago.

Beginning as a poet, he published his first collection of verse, March Book, in 2004. His first novel, Samedi the Deafness, was published in 2007. The Curfew, The Way Through Doors, The Village on Horseback, and others have since followed.

Ball’s writing has appeared in The New Republic, Denver Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, and The Paris Review. He is a teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he once ran courses on lucid dreaming, and lying.

His writing is characterised by a kind of lyrical clarity. There is an old-fashioned formality to the prose, and a fairy-tale quality to his imagery, but the telling is crisp and urgent. Ball’s narratives forever teeter on the edge of becoming pure fable, but are held fast by their quiet emotional violence.

His latest book, Silence Once Begun, is the story of Oda Sotatsu, who confesses to a crime he didn’t commit and, once convicted, refuses to speak at all in his own defense or divulge any knowledge of its true perpetrator. The book unfolds as the investigation of an author, ‘Jesse Ball’, who relates the details of Oda’s story through interviews with his family and contemporaries.

This interview took place by phone between Melbourne and Chicago.

— James Robert Douglas

I. On Excellence in Communication

The Lifted Brow: I’m interest in learning a bit about your writing process. In other interviews you describe the writing time for your books as being quite short – a matter of one to three weeks, even.

Jesse Ball: I suppose there’s a certain sense in which you can write a book as though you’re assembling a clock, and you make all the different pieces and then you figure out how they fit together, and work on it a long time, and if a piece isn’t fitting together properly then you take it out, and you craft another piece – one that will fit in the hole. However this is not the way that I go about it.

PULL QUOTE: A book isn’t really a thing; a book is an idea about a thing, just as a theatrical play is an idea.

My sense is that a book isn’t really a thing; a book is an idea about a thing, just as a theatrical play is an idea. There’s just communication; there’s just thought. And these are modes that we can use to have expectations about what the communication will be like.

The main thought is that the real excellence is going to be not excellence in it being a book, and not excellence in it being a play, or whatever: just excellence in thought and in communication. And if we want to have excellence in thought, usually it’s a matter of precision.

Of course there is the question of how interesting and good the original thought was, but once you have an original thought—which is going to be passed on to the next person—then it’s a matter of how clear you can be in passing it on.

I actually think the nature of our life is that our minds are constantly changing, and the constellation of meanings that words have are shifting. So it seems to me—and I know that many people do it in other ways, and write remarkable books—that it’s necessary to write the book as quickly as possible, so that the whole matter hangs together as a single thought, with a single frame of reference and context.

TLB: In another interview I’ve read someone was asking you about films you’d enjoyed, and you mentioned Russian Ark. That really sparked an association with your process, for me, because I recall the director describing that film—which was done in one long, 96 minute shot—as filmmaking in one breath: a kind of continuous process, and when it has concluded it’s all laid out as it was, immediately.

JB: Yes, I love that film, very, very much, and I think that’s fairly accurate, in a way. Although, of course, it’s probably much easier in writing, because all you have to do is simply state a thing and it exists. But the massive acrobatics of compelling people to do your will in a film – that seems like a tall order.

TLB: So, is there an extensive period of mental preparation before you demarcate the period of time in which you will write the text?

JB: Well, there are things that you want to know beforehand that make it easier to not set a foot wrong. When I begin writing I start trying to set down the things I’m most sure of. And from there it’s just trying to only write things that I’m sure of, but they become predicated on the earlier things, and it grows till finally I’m saying things that I wouldn’t have said at the very beginning, because I wouldn’t have been sure of them at all. But once all the other things were said it’s an easier matter.

I think I’ve said this before, but it’s a bit like a pianistic performance, where the main thing is not whether there are long notes, it’s that there’s a through-line; there’s something that compels you to follow through the entire piece – or the book, as it were. I’ve always liked being able to read a book straight through, and having as much clarity as possible. So I strive for that.

II. On Long and Short Thoughts

TLB: I like this idea that your books are digestible in one setting. They’re short-ish novels, and the language is plain, and there’s not really any obstacles to the reader comprehending them, as there are in certain other kinds of books. You have short sections, and a lot of plain space on the page, which make the text kind of airy to read through. I suppose that another technique to help the reader get through the book kind of frictionlessly.

JB: Well I want it to be the case that even if a person reads quickly—or even maybe too quickly—that a fine thing will still happen for them, that the book will still be exciting in a sense, or that there will be a sufficiency of things, even on a shallow reading. And that if a person chooses to come back and read lovingly and closely, the book will reward that, also. But it has to be a good story as well. I don’t want to be writing things that are not a good story to begin with.

TLB: From what I understand, once your manuscripts have been written in this quick process, your publisher will sometimes request that you add another section or expand on something. How does this work?

JB: Well generally I don’t like to change anything. The things that are there should stay there, because if you remove them, it just obfuscates and confuses the reader as to the original state of the thought. I also like the novella form, probably most of all, for my own works. I like them to be shorter rather than longer. But the market is such that people want longer.

The publishers want to sell longer books in order to meet their press points, and if they’re going to charge fifteen dollars—or twenty-five dollars or whatever—then the book should be three-hundred pages, rather than two-hundred pages or a hundred-and-fifty pages. So some of it is that there’s a concern that the book will not be long enough. Silence was quite short. Really, it was just a novella. But when I added some sections it became longer.

PULL QUOTE: The substance of a work cannot be equated with its length.

What is a long thought, or what is a short thought? How much space does it take to say a long thought, rather than a short thought? Many short thoughts are expressed over the course of hundreds and hundreds of pages, and many long thoughts can be expressed in a handful of words. So, the substance of a work cannot be equated with its length. However it’s a monetary situation, where people want to pay money and get a certain number of pages. So what can you do?

TLB: Do you mind if I ask which sections were added in Silence Once Begun?

JB: I can’t really remember exactly. I added some to the Jito Joo section, maybe more personal thoughts. Maybe the little tale that Kakuzo tells, the parable – that might have been later.

TLB: So it was additions to certain sections. I was wondering if it was a whole discreet section of the book that was plugged in.

JB: I have done that as well. The book that is next after this one, which is called A Cure for Suicide; there were some matters that the publisher wanted addressed, and so rather than altering things all through the text, I simply added sections at the end.

It’s a difficulty for me, because—as I said before—the person who writes this final section is not the same person who wrote the previous sections, and so there’s a dissonance that blooms out, and I think that’s problematic. It can even be a dire situation, where it could ruin things. But, I think so far it has not.

III. On Permission

TLB: I also understand that there are several unpublished manuscripts that you have on hold, anticipating a proper time for release. What kind of thought process goes in to deciding when a text should or should not pass out into the world and be published?

JB: Well, because I write pretty quickly, the manuscripts have tended over time to pile up. I wouldn’t say that it is me deciding that this one will go or that one will go; it’s usually that a particular one will seem more marketable than another.

So, for instance, I have a manuscript that I like a lot called The Lesson, which is about an old woman who is a chess master and her husband dies and then she starts to give chess lessons to a young boy, a chess prodigy of about four or five. She’s a little mad, and she believes that this boy might be some sort of reincarnation of her husband. But as the boy enters the age where a person begins to remember—around age five—this aspect of the reincarnation begins to dim, and things are very bleak and sad for for the old woman. So it’s a very dark work. I like this one, as much as any of the others, but my agent at the time thought that it was better to go forward with one of the other ones.

A publisher will happily put out, like, a new Kafka book—or Walser, or Bernhard, or something that is a bit difficult in some way, but rewarding—if it’s in translation, or coming from a long dead person. But I cannot get them to necessarily agree to put out a work that is problematic in the same way. So it’s six of one, half dozen of the other: I can just wait on manuscripts until the time when people will be only too glad to publish them, I hope, at some time in the future.

TLB: I’m glad you mentioned that publishing and marketing issue. In a review of one of your books—I forget the phrase exactly—the reviewer wrote something like “Jesse Ball has an enviable position as an experimental writer in the marketplace”. Reading that, I stopped to wonder what the experience of being a publishable author is for you. Like, whether you find the market conditions sustainable for the kind of work you do.

JB: Well, I noticed many years ago that certain authors get more permission than others to write things the way that they want to. Michael Ondaatje was an example that came to my mind, because he can write weird books that are quite – the mode in which he does them is sort of strange, and people are only too glad to sign on and read them, and buy his books in great drifts of book piles. He never lost any commercial credit, despite writing in a peculiar fashion.

Part of that, I guess, is The English Patient was so big. But also in the way he made people feel comfortable about the fact that whatever flourishes he does in the text is on their behalf. It isn’t some kind of little intellectual emblem that you’re going to have to lug: he just switches partway through a page to a poem and you receive what you can from it and continue on your way. So if the writer can give this degree of comfort to the reader, then everything else will take care of itself.

Jesse Ball. Photograph by Joe Lieske.

IV. On the Telling

TLB: I’ve been thinking about the way you construct narration in your prose. You often have this close third person perspective, on a set of central characters, and then – well, I’m thinking specifically of a moment in The Early Death of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr. It’s quite an unexpected moment, where the character Carr has just given a letter to one of his friends, and he goes and gets caught up in a parade, and a group of dancers entwined to make the shape of an elephant pass by. Suddenly the narrator is relating to the reader something directly about these dancers—and how they are the best of these dancers there ever were—in a way that is quite distinct from the rest of the narrational style of the previous portions of the story. Previously the reader has not been addressed so directly, and suddenly we realize that this narrator is a person or figure with ideas that are separate from those of the central characters.

JB: I re-read that story once, and I also wondered who in fact this narrator is, when I was reading it. It seems to me there’s a modulation of the forcefulness of the felt personality of the narrator in literature in general, and sometimes it’s witting, and sometimes it’s unwitting. One of my favorite writers in this regard is Robert Walser – the way the expression, the narrative expression, can overwhelm you.

I think in a way it’s possible for the voice of the narrator to arrive at that point because events have gotten so bad that it’s forced the speaker inward. It seems to me when I look at works that I have done where that happens—when the narrator is permitted a little more leeway—that it’s usually a function of something that has happened in the text. This happens in The Great Gatsby, as well. The narrator of the prose becomes almost Biblical in tone, or sweeping, in a few places.

PULL QUOTE: The characters don’t actually exist, and the thought didn’t truly happen that way, but the telling: that does happen.

I think it’s because ultimately the characters of the story, and the actors here—the depiction of this character being in this place, that character in that place, these being the events that happened—is fundamentally much less interesting than the entire envelope of thought that can be told. Because the characters don’t actually exist, and the thought didn’t truly happen that way, but the telling: that does happen. There’s this lulling siren song of the story, but then there are all these other possible things; these other thought shoots that can intercede. Some of them can just crack open in the story, and they pour out of the narrative voice.

TLB: How did you begin as a writer?

JB: Well, I started writing poetry in high school, and I went to a university where this one poet was at, whom I wanted to study with, and I wrote books of poetry while I was there, and then afterwards I had difficulty getting them published.

Eventually I went to graduate school, and one of my professors helped me to bring out a book of poetry with Grove Press, and so my first book was poetry. But of course I loved prose as well, and I found that the world of poetry was a very specific one—very political—and I thought I would ultimately receive a better hearing, and a wider hearing, by simply writing prose.

So I think much of the formal conceits of the books—the way they are spaced on the page, or the nature of the way things fall out—is a matter of deciding not to have the prose be leaden, but to have it be poetic, in a way. I think Silence is one of the first books where—apart from the Jito Joo section—I tried to really clamp down on lyricism and keep it out. Because most of the books are rather lyrical I would say.

TLB: I keep throwing ideas from previous interviews at you, but I have another one. I’ve read you suggest that you feel your stories are old-fashioned in the responsibilities you take to telling them – with this degree of clarity, and narrative ease for the reader. Is that a quality you think is not much in currency anymore in other literature?

JB: Well, I think when I say it’s old fashioned it’s not that it doesn’t exist. I’m sure there must be many people writing this way. It’s just that it isn’t something new. I think that anything that could be deemed to be experimental about work that I do is actually just old, and has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

Most of my reading is pre-1930, I would say. So I read mostly older things, just because time is short in life, and if you only read old books you generally can skip reading bad ones. Of course, if someone gives me a recommendation of a book they adore, I’ll read it. I don’t have any prejudices. I just don’t want to waste time with a book that is not worthy. I also tend to like long, complicated sentences, so some older books will have more of those.

V. On the Reality of Responsibility

TLB: I wanted to ask a little bit about some of the thematic content of your stories. Particularly this idea that crops up in Silence Once Begun of an individual suddenly being made culpable in some way, or having an apparatus of justice brought against them, without them expecting it. This is a notion that I see appearing in some of your other stories, like The Early Death of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr. In some interviews I’ve heard people ask you whether this is a political idea: that there’s this unjust force of justice that can materialize over people’s heads. I’m wondering maybe whether this is a more existential issue for you.

JB: I think I could be seen to be of more than one mind about this. In one sense I would with no hesitation say that it really is just an existential matter. It’s hard to come up with any way of confirming the reality of responsibility that one living thing can require of another. It seems that we’re just fluttering through bleak endless space, and it’s hard to say that anything ought to happen: that this person ought to do this, or that person ought to do that.

But at the same time there are these elaborate political and legal constructions, and these ethical systems that people will live by and use to advantage, or with charitable purpose – and to play with them is sort of an interesting, delightful thing, as well. But ultimately I would say the pressure of responsibility is simply an existential predicament.

TLB: I was thinking—maybe because I read them both so recently—that there’s a kind of transition from The Early Deaths of Lubeck… to Silence Once Begun. In Lubeck, the character Carr undergoes an ethical crisis. The Judge is giving him letters to pass on to his three friends—calling them each out for a duel—and there’s the issue of whether he ought to be participating in this process, since these letters are, in effect, portending the doom of his friends. In Silence, Oda Sotatsu also finds himself in a position where he can speak or act in order to avoid complicity with injustice, but he chooses silence, and non-action as his course. Is this an ethical dilemma that you’re responding to in your work?

PULL QUOTE: We are not the costume that we happen to be wearing.

JB: Ultimately, it is always contradictory that we are not the costume that we happen to be wearing. This is true when you are visiting with one friend, and then there’s a call on your phone—someone else you know—and you go outside to answer it. When you’re visiting with the one friend, you are all of the conversations and thoughts and expressions that your life has had in direct conjunction with that one person. But then when the phone rings you become the person who has had all these experiences with this other one. It’s natural for us to be constantly shifting costumes. And then, in the shift of costumes, sometimes there is a palpable alteration of responsibility – of what is necessary, or what can be done, or what needs to be done.

I think probably there’s a bit of play with that, especially in the situation for Carr. He’s not even on his own side when he’s delivering these messages: he’s abrogated his entire self to being a messenger, and then delivering the messages to everyone, himself included. With Oda, I would say, it’s potentially that the role that he assumes is something that seems preferable to him than the farce of being a regular human being.

TLB: Do you think it matters whether Oda assumes that role in good or bad faith? We never get a sense of his own mental state in relation to this responsibility he finds himself in. It’s not clear whether he’s doing it because he’s a dysfunctional person, or whether it’s because this is an ethical position he’s taken in regards to his responsibility. Does that ultimately matter?

JB: Well, I’m sure that there are several positions that are true. In one he’s dealing in bad faith, in another in good faith. I think he was sort of pushed along down the stairs by many sets of hands, and even the judgment about what is what is certainly biased, depending upon where you’re looking at it from, or who would say so, or who would not. I mean, no one is on his side. And this is often true where the spectacle overwhelms everything.