I met Josh Weil at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference last summer, when he was still finishing edits on his collection of novellas, The New Valley. The book was published by Grove this year, and when I read it, it took my breath away–the writing is stunning, and the final novella in the book is an absolute masterpiece. It’s rare when a writer is as wonderful in person as they are on the page, and when I finished the book I told him I had a feeling it was going to win something big. Sure enough, last month he received the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award. If you’re looking for a gift this holiday season, go buy his book. He’s the real thing.
He was kind enough to answer a few questions about novellas, his writing process, book publicity, and the value of writer’s conferences:
Why were you drawn to novellas? How does the process of writing them differ from short stories and novels?
I never intended to write novellas, at least not at first. The first one I ever wrote as “Ridge Weather”, which opens The New Valley. I was simply struck by an idea, an image, and sat down to write towards it and when I was done I had an 80 page story. But I found that that shape to a piece, what can be done in that length, just worked for me; it’s just the way my mind thinks about some stories. It just bends towards longer story arcs – novels included – more than short stories, but I like the focus and intensity of a short story, and so, for me the novella manages to bring both of those together. I suspect that my background in film and playwriting has something to do with that, too. There’s a fullness and yet a compactness to a play or a feature film that I think is analogous to what you find in a novella: you can get about the same amount done, tell similar kinds of stories. But, mainly, I think it’s the ability to sit with a character, to get to know him or her, to fall in love with the world of the story and linger with it a bit, that draws me to the form. To drive a story through with focus, and yet be able to feel the fullness of the world around it, is a pretty wonderful thing for me as a writer.
As far as the process of actually writing novellas goes, it is different from short stories and novels for me — though perhaps not as much as it should be! I wind up writing a kind of first draft in outline or summary form with pretty much everything, though with short stories that outline can be short enough it fits in my head, so I don’t necessarily map them out. And I end up writing around a moment, around an idea or image. With novellas and novels I’m writing towards and idea or an image. And what separates those two, is just how complex the story that will get me there needs to be. I’d also say that there are just so many more pitfalls in the writing of a novel, because there is just so much more space to make mistakes, that, for me, the process of working on a novel involves much more recalibrating and reworking and blowing up the tracks and building new ones and blowing them up a little further down the way.
I found the voice of the narrator of “Sarverville Remains” particularly striking and beautiful. Did the voice come pouring out, or did you struggle at all to make it sound authentic?
I don’t know what it says about me that the voice in Sarverville Remains – Geoffrey Sarver’s voice – was the part of that novella that came to me first, and most naturally. I like to think it says this: first person, once the voice arrives, often so dictates the manner in which the story will be told that it makes the telling of it less complicated. Not that the choices aren’t complex ones – I think Sarverville is probably the most complex, plot-wise, of the three – but that there are simply fewer choices. The narrator’s nature makes a lot of them for me. So, once I hear that voice, and once I’m essentially embodying that character, the problem with consistency is less the character’s point of view than the minute details of dialect – when Geoffrey would say ‘writ’ versus ‘wrote’, for instance.
For that, I did a lot of research. I’d go to a diner called The Bread Basket or a local bar in a town in the valley and sit there and write down what people would say and how they’d say it. I remember hearing a man who had the tick “As they say”, which I gave Geoffrey. And there were some loggers I met, these burly bearded guys, who used “what” for “that” – something that’s common in the oldest hill communities here. But, more than anything, it was just the collected bits from occasional small conversations with neighbors: a slightly slow man who hunts squirrel on the mountain, an 86 year old man who I visit now and again to sit in his kitchen and chat over a quart-jar of moonshine – that kind of thing. After talking with them, I’d go home and scrawl out what I could remember on my pocket notebooks.
What is your writing and revision process like?
Infuriatingly, the way into a story – whether a short story, novella, or novel – varies for me every time, no matter how many tricks I try to get my head in the right place: a writing mug, a writing shirt, earplugs, an inalterable morning routine. But the fact that the struggle is at the start – and then crumbles away – is pretty consistent. So I view it like this: It’s as if there’s a brick wall in front of me, and in that brick wall is one loose brick. And I stand there, hitting my head against each and every brick, looking for it (admittedly, it’d be easier if I could use a hammer, or even my fist, but it doesn’t work that way). Sometimes I never find it. And I have to give up and come back another time, perhaps another year, to try again. Sometimes I find the brick on the first smack of the forehead. But, almost always, when I do hit the right one, the brick falls out and the wall around it crumbles and I can step through and start walking. And, at that point, I want to be able to walk onward, without stopping, till I’m done. If real life intrudes and makes me walk away from the path I’m on, I get upset. I get downright ornery. Because when I come back, I the woods might have regrown over the path and I’ll lose it and come up against another wall and have to go through the entire process again. But if I can keep writing, keep walking, then I can usually bang through an entire first draft fairly quickly. That’s the part of writing that I love most: when I can feel the world being formed, the characters doing things I hadn’t known they would do, saying things to each other that make me guffaw or suck in a breath. Then there’s the rewriting. Honestly? If I’ve truly knocked out the right brick and found the right path through then the rewriting is pretty minimal. And that’s usually my best work. Some things that are dear to me, though – some stories I’ve written; even a novel – required a lot of rewriting. Years of it, in some cases. And I think I manage to get them to a place where they’re good. But they always lack a little something: maybe the magic dust that falls on them from that tumbling magic brick. I don’t know. But I do know that, for me (and I stress for me), the novel, or story, or novella, is not made in the rewrite, as it is for some writers. For me it’s either there – the guts of it are there, the heart of it, the true and inimitable stuff – in the first draft, or it’s not going to be there.
Do you do your best work at the cabin in VA, at colonies, or in NYC–or is there no difference?
Oh, without question I do my best work at the cabin. But it’s not so much the cabin, as just being isolated and in my own head and free of distractions. Colonies are OK for that – in fact, the one that I’ve done worked pretty well for me – but I think it’s hard to have a writing space for just a couple weeks and then have to uproot and go somewhere else. NYC is terrible for me, as far as writing: I can’t think of anywhere in the world where there are more distractions, from friends to street noise. But I’ve just moved to Baltimore, and actually have my own apartment for one whole year, and I’m determined to break my reliance on remote isolation for writing: that’s not a very sustainable way to go through life.
You arranged your own tour–what have you learned about promoting a first book? Do you have any advice for new (or seasoned) writers about promoting their books?
Well, I was lucky to be working with a terrific publicity team at Grove – so they did a lot of the lifting in arranging the tour, and most of the work in gaining exposure. But I was involved in all parts of it. And it was a fairly extensive tour (still is: I’m reading in Texas, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Tennessee in the coming couple months), so I did learn a lot. Advice? Arrange a reading with a literary journal or some other organization, if possible: Narrative was kind enough to host me at City Lights in San Francisco and the turnout was terrific, the crowd receptive, the whole experience grand. I did a similar event with American Short Fiction in September. I’d also say definitely do some of the smaller towns a little more off the typical reading track. My favorite part of the book tour was Mississippi: Square Books, Turnrow, and Lemuria – across the state and down through the Delta. The turnout wasn’t huge, but the booksellers were some of the most wonderful hosts I’ve come across, and the community there was so eager and receptive and insightful, and the way they hand sell your book afterwards is priceless. You don’t get that in a lot of big city places. Finally, I’d say if you have any personal connection – or even just an in of any sort, or an excuse to claim one – invite local press to your readings yourself. Even if your publicist is on it. A personal note from the author – just a few, polite sentences – can’t hurt, I think. And might help. It’s something I didn’t do, and I think I lost out on some opportunities because of it. From now on, each time I read at a book store I’m planning on asking the bookseller who I should contact in local media, and write a note myself.
What are your favorite novellas of all time?
The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway would have to be up there. As would Of Mice and Men by Steinbeck. Also Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And I consider Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx a novella, so I’d put that up there on that mantle, too. Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor. Carson McCuller’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison. Enchanted Night by Stephen Millhauser. I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch. And they’ll sneak up on me later, while I’ve got my back turned, brushing my teeth, perhaps, and whap me in the back of the head. Great: now you’ve set me up for a bruised forehead, toothpaste on my nose, and nightmares of an army of slim books marching on me en mass with their spines cracking and their corners curled in fury and the air filled with a wrathy rustling of their pages.
Why do you think publishers are reluctant to publish novellas?
They’re reluctant, I think, because a lot of readers don’t know what novellas are, and so publishers are afraid they’ll be scared off by something different. Which means publishers would have to educate people, to a certain extent, as well as just try to raise awareness about the book. But I think that’s pretty short-sighted. Sure, readers might be hesitant to pay hardcover prices for a 100 page book, but, with the emergence of paper back originals as a legitimate alternative, that’s not really a problem. There’s no reason that I can see that a paperback original rough-cut, beautifully produced 100 page couldn’t be sold for ten bucks – and blow the competition ($26 hardcovers or $15 paperback original novels) out of the water. Especially in these downturn times. So, in the end, it’s just a conservatism in the industry, and a lack of daring and original thinking. For instance, the best place to sell novellas might not be in a bookstore, or might be by subscription – who knows? The literary magazine One Story is an interesting model. They do a double-thick issue (essentially a novella) once a year. What if there was a publisher who produced beautifully novellas six times a year and every two months you got one – and you paid a total of sixty bucks for that? Or what if they were sold in airports, or train stations, where they’d be ideal for the length of a traveler’s journey? Once someone takes the risk with those kinds of ideas, I think it could take off. I certainly hope it might. And I’d love to hear publishers’ ideas about why that couldn’t be done, if it couldn’t. I’d just love to see that conversation happening.
This summer, you attended both Sewanee and Bread Loaf as a fellow–what do you think is the value of these conferences?
They’ve both been hugely important to me. I went to Bread Loaf as a scholar a couple years ago and it was life changing. That’s not an exaggeration. I met people who are still some of my closest friends and most valued readers, and was exposed to so much new writing – poetry, which I never read, and always wish I did; and non-fiction; and plays- and lectures; and, of course, amazing, amazing fiction – and I received a jolt of energy and purpose about my writing that I haven’t experienced anywhere since – except for Bread Loaf and Sewanee this past summer when I returned as a fellow to each. People often think of conferences as places where they will improve their writing through workshop and, though that’s important, for me the actual stories I workshopped were the least important part of the experience. The lectures – especially at Bread Loaf – are eye opening, and the camaraderie that forms is uplifting, and the sense of energy and enthusiasm about doing this crazy thing we all love – writing – that is packed away for the coming year is just invaluable.
Here’s a photo from when Josh came through Austin on his book tour–here we are at the Trailer Park Eatery in South Austin with Dalia Azim, an incredible local author. (I highly recommend Torchy’s Tacos, and the deep fried chocolate chip cookies…)