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An Interview With Jesse Ball
Jesse Ball has written two novels, The Way Through Doors and Samedi the Deafness, and a collection of poetry, March Book. Ball also wrote Vera & Linus, a collection of short prose, in collaboration with his wife, Thordis Bjornsdottir. Winner of the 2008 Plimpton Prize, Ball teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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Interviewer: While prose poems and flash fiction bring poetry and fiction together on the small scale, your work is bringing them together on the large scale—blurring the boundaries between epic poetry and the novel. Samedi the Deafness uses certain conventions from poetry that I’ve never seen used in a novel before: some section titles operate as the first line of that section; other sections in the novel use line breaks. And instead of having numbered pages, The Way Through Doors has numbered paragraphs, much like how poems often have numbered lines.
Ball: I suppose I tend to think of good writing as being an attempt to convey thought—and that means that all weapons with a substantial effect may be employed. One doesn’t want one’s tools to be too visible, however—the effect is the thing. Poetry is somewhat neglected these days, as an addendum to an ordinary life. Its practical uses are not seen. But much of the literary genius of mankind is to be found in poetry! I was lucky enough to have a kind and savvy agent in Billy Kingsland and a very generous and brave editor in Jenny Jackson, which has permitted me to publish the books in the way that I have.
Interviewer: How did the narrative in Samedi the Deafness develop? Did you have Margaret Selm and her verisylum in mind from the beginning, or were they invented as you went along?
Ball: It came all at once, the whole book. I saw an image of a man turning around, standing in an autumn road. As he turned I could see an expanse there beyond him and I felt very clearly how the book would be. Of course, I was not in a position to write it at that time, so I waited about a month, careful not to think about it, until I reached the Scottish castle where I set it down.
Interviewer: Had you gone to Scotland solely for the purpose of working on Samedi the Deafness?
Ball: I had gotten a residency in a Scottish castle. The castle was called Hawthornden, and was owned by Drue Heinz (of Heinz ketchup).
Interviewer: Samedi the Deafness opens with an excerpt from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and certain sections of your novels have a fairy-tale feel: the wooden bird with the father’s bone at its heart, the kingdom of foxes, the man gambling with the devil for a skin of water.
Ball: The curiosity that I have in general, is, at closest glance, a pursuing after fables, parables, fairy tales. It is the same curiosity whether I am looking at a bumblebee, an attic, a pasture, or a crowd.
Interviewer: Vera & Linus has that curiosity too. How did that project get started?
Ball: Thordis and I were living together at that time, had just started living together, and this was our experience of that situation. We were in Montpellier in the south of France.
Interviewer: Were you trading stories back and forth? Or did you each compile your own collection of tales about Vera and Linus, and then put them together at the end?
Ball: I didn’t speak Icelandic completely at the time, so I only got to read hers at the end, when we translated them together. She, however, saw mine as I composed them.
We hoped that the book could be read as the work of a single author, and in that I think we were successful. That’s why the numbering scheme is so complex: we wanted you to have the freedom to read the work as though one person had written it, and yet at the same time we wanted a reader to be able, at a moment’s notice, to tell who had done what.
Interviewer: It does read that way—the tales fit together so seamlessly that it’s almost unbelievable you weren’t able to read hers until the book was finished. How did you go about collaborating on the translations?
Ball: She would translate them into English, then we would go over the Icelandic, and then I would consider if anything was being lost, and in what ways those things could be regained. There were times, though, when I left the occasional improbable or awkward phrase, because the product created was delightful or significant in English.
Interviewer: Is Rovnin from Samedi the Deafness based on an actual game?
Ball: Completely invented. I would like to play it, of course, but the matter of creating (in the world) a game of that stature is completely beyond the powers of any one person. All the great games—chess, go, shoji—have come about through the ingenuity of generations.
Interviewer: Like fairy tales.
Ball: Great games are characterized by how simple they are, and yet how endless.
In a sense, Rovnin is a daydream about a serious game that I wished had once been made, that then would have been, through centuries, refined, and that now might be available to play.
Interviewer: What games do you play, in the absence of Rovnin?
Ball: I love chess best. I like to play blitz.
Interviewer: Does your chess game influence your writing habits at all?
Ball: In chess I like attacks with lots of sacrifices. I like gambit lines, especially the Evans Gambit, but unfortunately I’m not often afforded the chance to play it. That’s an old-fashioned opening, from the nineteenth century, but it is still surprisingly good. I suppose that would be the crossover between chess and writing: a love of old things.
Interviewer: What other old things do you have a fondness for?
Ball: Whiskey, winter, carvings of almost any kind.
Interviewer: What’s your go-to piece in chess, after the queen? Are you a rook player, a bishop, or a knight?
Ball: Pawns are the soul of chess. But it is difficult not to be fond of the knight.
Interviewer: Are there other old stories you have a fondness for, aside from fables and fairy tales?
Ball: I like old things in general. Old histories (Herodotus, Plutarch), old tales (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), old compendiums (Prose Edda, the Exeter Book’s riddles).
Interviewer: Was it this love of old things that prompted you to name the characters in Samedi the Deafness after the dead buried in a Scottish cemetery?
Ball: In some way.
I have always been fond of cemeteries, and spent a great deal of time in them, especially as a child.
Interviewer: Any cemeteries in particular, when you were younger?
Interviewer: During the time you’ve spent in cemeteries, have you ever happened upon a spirit or a ghost?
Ball: I shouldn’t say.
Interviewer: You seem to have been channeling Kafka’s spirit while writing Samedi the Deafness, particularly the Kafka of The Castle and The Trial.
Ball: Oh, I am a great admirer of his. The Castle is one of my very favorite books and his diaries are a constant companion. I would like very much to one day imagine him pleased by something I had written. When I read Kafka, I sometimes laugh out loud. This makes for some wondering glances on subways and such.
Interviewer: Are there any lines of Kafka’s in particular that you like to carry with you?
Ball: Here is a passage that is much beloved in my heart: “A little boy had a cat that was all he had inherited from his father and through it became Lord Mayor of London. What shall I become through my animal, my inheritance? Where does the huge city lie?”
Interviewer: While Samedi the Deafness is Kafkaesque, The Way Through Doors seems inspired more by the work of Murakami. Both you and Murakami are interested in the idea of a metropolis’ subterranean world: in The Way Through Doors it’s a subterranean Manhattan, whereas Murakami explores a subterranean Tokyo in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. And like Toru in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Selah’s quest eventually takes him wielding a bat into a surreal inn/hotel.
Ball: I like Murakami, but my work is probably more like Kobo Abe’s.
Interviewer: I’ve heard you teach courses on lying at SAIC. What sort of exercises do you have your students do, as students of the art of deception?
Ball: Oh, the exercises are many and intricate. One mustn’t say too much about them, of course. Suffice it to say, they are practical exercises, dealing with conditions of truth and untruth in the relations between the student and his/her friends, relations and acquaintances.
Interviewer: Do you see lietelling and storytelling as similar pursuits? Is telling a successful lie at all like telling a successful story?
Ball: Won’t say.
Interviewer: In Samedi the Deafness you write, “Liars are very rooted in identity. Their passion for identity might even be said to be greater than that of honest folk. An honest man is content with his identity, content with the facts of the world. A liar goes past the world’s facts and the world’s state and says, I am not as has been seen; what I have done is not what I have been seen to have done. They replace what has been seen with what they have supposed, with what they have hoped for, with divergent accounts of greater or lesser fabulousness.” Is that how you see your role as a storyteller?
Ball: One of the finest things a good book can provide is a new set of thought shapes, a glimpse at how that writer takes the objects of the world and combines them or holds them separately. That matter, of divisions, joinings, conflations (sometimes useful), hierarchies, really can help us to see better, to deal more sharply or more generously with the confusions and ransackings of our day-to-day existence. And that’s not even taking into account the basic pleasure of story, or of the time spent reading, or of the kinship discovered therein.
Interviewer: In The Way Through Doors, the municipal inspector says, “I was thinking… about writing a book in which whenever a character lies, his or her dialogue is in italics. You would think at first that that might simplify things, but I bet in the end, it would only really complicate them.” Had that originally been your vision for Samedi the Deafness, your novel about liars? To write a novel in which all of the lies would be in italics?
Ball: I think it is a better idea in theory than practice.
Interviewer: How did you develop your own lying skills? Did you have a teacher or mentor in the art of deception, or are you self-taught?
Ball: Oh, I never lie. It’s dishonest.
Interviewer: Was that a lie?
Interviewer: I’ve heard you’re also a skilled lucid dreamer. What did you think of Inception?
Ball: I enjoyed the film. I love nearly all spectacles, no matter their ultimate triviality or poverty of spirit. So, not only Inception, but also action movies, thrillers, etc. I love them all.
One thing about Inception bothered me to no end, though, and that was the silly decision to have the action of the dreamer’s mind’s expelling intruders be manifested as a bunch of soldiers with guns attacking. How weak and sorry! The result is that, if you came into the movie halfway through, you couldn’t tell it apart from any other action movie. If the substance of the mind’s rejection had been more ingenious, the movie would have been far better, and probably would have cost less to make.
Interviewer: What’s your dream recall average? How many nights a week, say, do you remember one of your dreams?
Ball: It’s a matter of concentration, and what discipline a person is working on at that time. If I am in a period where I am concentrating on something else, I might remember dreams only every other night, or once every few nights. If I alter my habits to concentrate on dreaming, then I will remember dreams every night, and lucid dream nearly every night.
Interviewer: Lucid dreaming means that while dreaming, you become aware that you’re dreaming, at which point you’re able to take control of the narrative of your dream: its plot, its setting, which characters appear and which don’t. I’ve read that the amount of control a lucid dreamer can have over their dream varies, however. How much control do you have, when you lucid dream? Are you able to reassemble the reality of your dream however you see fit? Or does your unconcious mind still have some control over the direction your dreams take?
Ball: The starting point of a lucid dream is always in a non-lucid dream, so in that sense, the unconscious mind has already created the frame. That the dreamer can manipulate nearly everything from there might be true. I tend to fly a lot, or skip at tremendous speed through whatever world was already present. I know that one method of what you might call “frame creation” is to come up with a scenario, or an image of a scenario, and then fixate on it repeatedly until it appears in a dream. One has then but to be become lucid, and be in one’s created scenario, I suppose. I haven’t done this myself. As I said, I like to skip around.
Interviewer: So do you see lucid dreaming a form of writing, or storytelling, then? Albeit an unpublishable one—a story limited to your own consciousness, a story you can’t share?
Ball: I think it is more circumscribed, more defended than that. It is very private, and sometimes involves only images or only feelings, images and feelings that may never be verbalized or articulated, relationless, drifting entities.
Interviewer: Have your experiences lucid dreaming influenced your writing at all?
Ball: Not directly. Only in the sense that a focus on dreaming will change a person’s relationship to his/her life by strengthening the seriousness which that life, as an attempt at meaning and hope, is able to bestow upon itself. This is the seriousness which allows one to freely waste time with small things, think less of important people, etc. One never masters it, probably never can—at least I haven’t. However, it helps to turn about and turn about again.
Interviewer: The French dream scholar Hervey de Saint-Denys suggests that keeping a dream journal will improve one’s chances of lucid dreaming. Is that how you developed your own dreaming skills?
Ball: Having intentionality is the most important thing, and the dream journal accomplishes that. It shifts the hierarchy of daily things to place more importance on each night’s dreams, and in that way, the mind pays more attention.
Interviewer: I know that you like to draw. Do you plan on ever working with the comics medium, or with the graphic novel?
Ball: Oh no, my drawings, the ones I like, are too random for that. I’ll leave someone else to connect them to my thoughts.
Interviewer: You do seem interested in communicating some sort of narrative in your drawings. In your “Every Last One Must Be Caught,” for example. What’s the narrative in that drawing, as you see it? What’s going on there?
Ball: “How many cats equal one dog?”
“Two cats, and the sight of an octopus in the distance, equals one medium-sized German shepherd.”
“But if that’s true, then wouldn’t you say three dogs, say, hunting hounds, in an old painting, equal one mummy of an Egyptian cat?”
“No, no, no. All hunting hounds, all dogs that have ever been painted equal one mummy of an Egyptian cat.”
This interview originally appeared in Nashville Review in 2010