Russell Reece
Writer

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JOSH WEIL Ė UP AND COMING!

                                                                       - Russ Reece

 

Josh Weil is the author of The New Valley (Grove, 2009), a New York Times Editors Choice that won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters; a ď5 Under 35Ē Award from the National Book Foundation; the New Writers Award from the GLCA; and was shortlisted for the Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. Josh's short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Granta, One Story, American Short Fiction, Narrative, and Glimmer Train. He has written non-fiction for The New York Times, Granta Online, Oxford American and Poets & Writers.  Since earning his MFA from Columbia University , he has received the Dana Award in Portfolio and fellowships from the Gilman School , the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writersí Conferences, the Writerís Center and the Fulbright Foundation. Josh is currently the writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House; this spring he will be the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University . He was a fiction judge in the 2010 Delaware Division of Arts artist grants.

 I met Josh in 2009 at the Sewanee Writersí Conference. He had received a fellowship that year and participated in my two-week workshop with Tony Early and Alice McDermott.  

 

RR:  When I contacted you, I found it interesting that you were at an artist colony working on your next book. Is this a standard part of your creative process or was this something new for you? Can you tell us a little about that?

 JW:   I think when you called I was at McDowell. That was the second artist colony Iíve done. I went to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts right after my first book was published and did some writing there. This year I was at McDowell for six weeks and then back to the Virginia Center for the Arts for two weeks so a total of eight weeks overall. Actually, my favorite place to write is the family cabin in Virginia . It is where I do my best writing, but thereís no social life and it is not always available to me. Artist colonies give you a chance to step aside from life and get away. They provide everything so it gives you a chance to just work. This summer I wrote almost 450 pages, sometimes working 12 hours a day.

 RR:  What other kinds of artists were there?

 JW:  All kinds: sculptors, photographers, architects, composers, etc., which is great. Itís inspiring to be around people who do great work and I found it creatively helpful to see the kind of things they do. But that cuts two ways for me. Writing is such a solitary process. I like to believe Iím the only person in the world when Iím doing it. But overall itís really worth it. I canít recommend it enough.

RR:  At Sewanee you were a strong advocate of the novella form. Your book, The New Valley, is a triptych of novellas that share a common geographical setting. What draws you to that literary form and should we expect to see more of the same in forthcoming books?

JW:  I hope so. You never know if I will get one published, but I like to write them. I actually have a new novella coming out in American Short Fiction in their 50th edition this winter, so that will be out there. Iím working on a novel now and it is such a huge, sprawling, complicated thing. For me a novella is small enough to let me get my head around the story while Iím working on it. There is an un-jumbled cleanness to it. That doesnít mean it isnít complex in the way it is structured, just pared down. Actually, I like the longer work, Iím not naturally a short form writer, but there is something about the cleanness of the story line in a novella and the size which allows me to get in the world and charge through the story and not back out of it. Iím not cobbling together a lot of complex threads like I am with a novel. Although I enjoy that, the novella fits the way I write. Once I break a story open it allows me to move very quickly in a way that feels more organic, more natural and less planned.

RR:  What writers have inspired you and how has that been reflected in your work?

JW:  Oh boy. Lots of writers. I would say the first literary writers I loved were Hemingway and Steinbeck. Both of them affected my work dramatically before I was even doing work, how I started thinking about stuff. Steinbeck, in the sweep of the stories he tells and maybe the tone of the work. With Hemingway there is a refusal to lead the reader too much that I love, although there is a mistaken idea that he is stripped down and not very descriptive. I think he is extremely descriptive and provides such fine detail. Also his characters, there is always an interesting moral complexity. So those two for sure. And then I read Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett, who wrote thrillers and stuff. I read a lot of westerns but the first time things came together for me with contemporary writers was when I read Ron Hansenís Desperadoes and Annie Proulx. They affected me tremendously. I think they are two of the best writers working today. But I am inspired by so many. Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, W.G. Sebald, lots of others. Jim Harrison for the novella form. Jim Shephard, my favorite short story writer today, has really inspired my recent work. Also, I am lucky to have friends who are coming out with books that I think are among the best things out there, books that I find inspiring. So lots of writers have had an impact on me.

RR:  You mentioned Jim Harrison, who is one of my favorite authors. He blurbed The New Valley. Most of his books have similar settings, themes and characters. Will future Josh Weil books continue to have that ď New Valley Ē feel and a focus on the Stillman and Osby type characters?

JW:  Good question. It depends on how you define the ď New Valley Ē feel. I can definitely guarantee that the book I am working on now is very different. But the novel I hope to write after this one will be set back in that area. So I hope to keep returning to it. 

RR:  Do you have a sense for how your book was received in the Virginias ?

JW:   Yeah, I do have some sense of that. It was something I was concerned about. The first reading I ever did was in a small general store near the cabin, called Sinking Creek General Store. I went down there and met with Junior, the proprietor, who we know and then read to a handful of people. They seemed happy with what I read and were supportive of me. They sent the book around to their friends. I read in Blacksburg and some of my neighbors came out to the reading, probably the first literary reading many of them had been to. Mostly they were supportive and kind about it. It meant a lot to me, as much as any other feedback Iíve had on the book. I did get a couple people Ė no one whom I knew Ė but who seemed to be a little miffed. The only thing I can say to that is I wasnít trying to do a representation of the people there. It was a fictional world inspired by the country down there.

RR:  I found the tractor illustrations in the story ďStillman WingĒ clever and haunting. I didnít know that you had done the artwork until recently. Great job, and how did you ever come up with the idea of altering the schematics of the old Deutz tractor?

JW:  It was a funny story, actually. When I was doing my research I ended up looking through these old catalogs and manuals from the Ď20s and Ď30s that I found online. They reminded me of the charts that hang in a doctorís office and for some reason I liked them. I thought it helped communicate the blending of the machine and the human part. I wanted to use images from the manuals but the lawyers at Grove got nervous about it because the manuals were so old it would be impossible to find out who did the drawings and photographs. I had done some drawing in the past and thought, why not? Iíll give it a shot. They were happy with my work and I think it made the book seem a little more mine, which adds to it as well.

RR:  Youíve enjoyed some success as an author. As you look back over your climb through the ranks, what worked well for you, and conversely are there things that you wish you had done differently?

JW:  Boy. itís hard for me to take it apart sometimes. The biggest break was Granta published a piece of mine in 2007. They took it in 2006 and that was like climbing into the big leagues for me. I guess with that I would say I did it the traditional way, sending out things and getting published in small journals and working my way up to better journals. And of course along with that is doing better work. I really believe if you are doing work that is good enough, if you keep pushing it, things will eventually fall into place. It was really a process of writing better stories and getting them out there. Two important things, though. I wrote these novellas never expecting them to be published. They were what I really loved. I think that it is important to write what you love and I did them really for myself. They became The New Valley. The other thing Iím really glad about is this: My first agent took me on for a novel Iíd written. I think it was a good novel but not a great one. She wasnít able to sell it. And itís that that Iím grateful for.  Because, though it was tough to get that close with a good agent and a good house and not have it go, in the end it was the best thing for my career. The New Valley was much better work, and Iím so happy that was the book that launched me.

RR:  How important have critique groups and workshops been in your development as a writer?

JW:  I think they have been quite important. Workshops maybe less, although workshops have helped me improve individual stories and there have been a few big lessons Iíve gotten from workshops. Occasionally someone will say something that will really strike me. I had a workshop leader, Mark Sloker, who said one of those old chestnuts, a great piece of advice which now largely drives my work. He would always ask, ďWhereís the wound in the character? Whereís the big hurt?Ē And thatís where you want to put your finger, and the story drives from there. I had never thought of it like that before. It has really changed the way I look at stories. There were a few moments like that that have been important.

Critique groups or other writers who I exchange work with are immeasurably vital to me. There are a few writers who I know their work and I know how they read my work and we have been exchanging stuff for a while.  Virtually everything that I write goes to a few of my close readers and other writers who I respect a lot. Iíd be in bad shape without them. I have a hard time stepping back from my work with clear eyes. So thatís really important to me.

RR:  I think thatís tough for everybody. I know it is tough for me.

JW:  I find there are two kinds of writers. There are those who hate everything as soon as theyíve done it and they can immediately look at things with a critical eye. Thereís the other kind of writer, which I am. I frankly love something when Iím working on it. If I donít love it I canít continue it. When Iím done Iím still usually in love with it and it is hard for me to see whatís really there.

RR:  When we were at the Sewanee conference I was frankly overwhelmed with the extensive nature of the program. Fourteen consecutive days, morning, noon and night filled with workshops, craft lectures, readings, agent interviews, performances, etc. I tried to do everything but finally found I had to pick and choose. Iíve experienced this to some degree even in a few weekend conferences. I know you have been to Sewanee and Bread Loaf and I suspect other conferences. Do you have any suggestions for our members who regularly attend conferences on how to get the most from that experience?

JW:  I love both Sewanee and Bread Loaf. Iíve been to them twice and theyíve both played very important roles in my life. For one thing Iíd say, donít try to write at all. Go to as many readings and craft lectures as possible. The most important things Iíve gotten from both conferences were writer friends I can share work with. Even as inspiring as the craft lectures and workshops have been, itís the contacts that are important. I donít mean schmoozing or social things but people whose work you like and that you hit it off with as to how you see things. Iíve come out of both those conferences having met great people.

RR:  One last question, Josh. Those of us who have read and enjoyed The New Valley are looking forward to your next book. When can we expect to see it in the bookstores and can you give us a peek under the covers?

JW:   Iím working on a story collection and a novel and they are kind of linked. Right now I canít say when the novel will be finished. Itís not under contract so I donít know if it will even be published, but these days Iím feeling good about it. I donít want to say too much but it is set in Northern Russia and deals with issues of capitalism and socialism and is really a love story between two brothers.

 

Visit Joshís website: www.joshweil.com.

 

 

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Page last updated  03/06/2011