In February, just after my new novel Because came out, Jamie Iredell (editor of Atticus Review) asked me if I’d like to be the featured fiction writer for the end of March.
“We can run anything you want,” he said in an email. “It could be a novel excerpt, stories, nonfiction about the craft of fiction–pretty much anything.”
I read that, sighed, and microwaved a burrito. A couple hours later I wrote back.
“So, I just went to the gym and was running and trying to think of something awesome to do for this feature and that got me thinking about your essay about running and eating just 1200 calories a day because I had a burrito for lunch instead of the yogurt and granola I had planned to have (I’ve dropped almost 40 pounds since August and trying to keep it up) and so I stayed on the treadmill an extra 200 calories to try and make up for the burrito and, for some reason, that got me thinking about the piece you read in Crown Heights, the “every sentence in the book with the word ‘love’ in it” piece and I thought, ‘Hey, that was amazing, maybe I could do something like that.’”
He wrote back, “That sounds awesome man. This email you just sent is kinda awesome too. I don’t know: maybe think about incorporating parts of it?”
I thought about coming up with some other way to introduce the reasoning behind these excerpts below. But, as with most things, the truth usually makes for a good story.
So here are some Iredellian excerpts from the novel Because. It’s been really fun to read how the book works with extracting certain words, and only those, and seeing what kind of new surface they create. I hope you enjoy them.
In This Issue:
Every sentence from the novel Because containing the word “love” and its derivations.
Every sentence containing the word “magnolia” and its derivations.
Every sentence containing the word “god” and its derivations.
Every sentence containing the word “tree” and its derivations.
Then we exchanged some words, because talking to Jamie is just the best.
Jamie: The book is called a “novel,” but the details are so strikingly personal, they don’t feel like they could be anything but real, and this really seems to come across in your readings, when you tell your audience that you want to tell them about your grandfather, for example. Is this a book of fiction, nonfiction, some combination thereof?
Joseph: It’s definitely fiction. Yes, the speaker shares my name and a lot of the personal details come from my own childhood, but in the writing of it I happily changed personal details (e.g. the number of cousins I have, the chronology of events, etcetera) if I thought it made for a better story. Certain scenes never happened, but maybe the places in which they happened were real places, and the people real people. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have a hard time imagining that they could have happened, which maybe makes the book and performances of it seem more real, believable. Some of the “I want to tell you about my grandfather” scenes in the reading above are entirely fabricated. But my grandfather was real. I can imagine them. Performing them is sort of a super-intense imagining. And in a way I think imagining something happening, if you imagine it often enough, or hard enough, it becomes as much a memory as true memory. At which point it might as well have really happened.
Jamie: During AWP I had this nonfiction panel and we started talking about the nature of truth, and how, in many ways nonfiction is just a construct—a label for marketing value only, pretty much. What do you think of that?
Joseph: I definitely think that in terms of reader expectations, how a book is “labeled” or marketed does a great deal to influence how it’s read. I can’t believe I’m citing it, but remember that whole James Frey A Million Little Pieces thing from a few years back? As I remember it, the story was that the book was rejected as a novel, but then it became a bestseller as a memoir. Then so many readers were upset when it turned out the story wasn’t “true.” Oprah called him a liar! (We should all be so lucky). But who cares, right? I like to think how a text, really, only exists when it’s being read. Text necessitates a reader. Like a tree falling in the woods, someone has to be there to hear it.
So, to the reader, even crazy magic/fantasy/sci-fi stuff is “true” when it’s being read, when it’s happening in your head. Harry Potter, for example, seems so real to so many people. That’s the magic of fiction, right? I can’t believe I’m citing this, too, but there’s a line at the end of the Harry Potter series in which Harry has “died” and asks Dumbledore something like, “Is this real? Or is it all just happening inside my head?” And Dumbledore says back, “Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry. But why should that mean it isn’t real?” I love that. It’s like Rowling wrote seven books just to make that line work.
So, all that said, I guess I titled Because as a novel because it’s the most innocuous of terms. I think it leads the reader the least, while still giving bookstores the genre they need for shelving purposes.
Jamie: Among the many things that impressed me about this book was how you straddle the line between sentiment and sentimentality. You come awful close to sentimentality, but—for me at least—you never cross the line. You had to have been aware of this as you were writing. How did you know where to pull back and where to get as close as possible?
Joseph: I’m relieved to hear you say that I never crossed that line. Because yes, I was very conscious of it, and scared of how the sentimentality would be received. But I think we all have sentimental thoughts all the time, especially about family, and so it seemed like the book would be incomplete without sentiment. My hope was that I could get the most overtly sentimental sentences to work if I combatted them with sentences that were not at all sentimental, or acknowledging of the sentiment. I know there’s a section where the speaker is referencing love for his wife, and says something like, “I want us to be US forever, never parting,” which is perhaps the most sappy and sentimental thing you could say. But it’s followed immediately by “I want you know I mean this completely and sentimentally, but unabashedly and honestly and without shame.” Somehow I feel like that latter sentence makes it all okay. I want to caveat the whole book with that sentence, basically, because I think there’s something anti-sentimental about the acknowledgement of being sentimental. As if sentimentality is just sincerity if you’re aware of it. As if sincerity can counteract sentiment. Which, for me at least, it can. I don’t mind sentimentality if it feels true. I pushed it as far as I could until it didn’t feel true.
Jamie: So then, to structure a book that is made up almost entirely of desire without obvious physical impediments to said desire—how would you describe the “plot” of Because?
Joseph: Well, I think there is an inherent tension created just in the repetition of the “I want” throughout the whole book, because that desire-arc isn’t resolved until the last page when the “I want” falls away. But these wants can be resolved as the book moves forward, at least partly, which (I hope) drives the narrative/plot. The first line, “I want my grandfather to come back to life,” is resolved with the fact that it’s followed not long after by “I want to tell you about my grandfather, how he hammered nails with his fists, how he…” So he comes back to life in the later desire, and smaller beats like that resolve with little “stories” that get told within the form (eg, “I want to tell you about the time…I want to tell you about my friend Jenns, who…”) But the real “story” of the book is just that of a speaker trying to resolve his desires by exhausting his desires. Maybe if we “want” enough, and are honest enough about what we want out of life, perhaps we will want less. Perhaps desire can resolve itself. Does that make sense?
Jamie: So maybe there’s a kind of Buddhism underlying the book?
Joseph: On March 15th he wrote via email: “This question is AMAZING.
RUNINGG ON A TREADMILL ROGHT NOW SO TYPING BAD BUT THINJUNG ABOUT SIDDHARTHA.”
On March 17th he wrote via email: “I’m on the bus back from a reading in DC last night and Roy Kesey and Amber sparks and I were trying to answer the last question. I can’t edit In word from my phone, so if you can drop this in, perfect. How about this:
I’m on the bus back from a reading in DC last night where I enlisted Roy Kesey and Amber Sparks to help answer this, because it hadn’t occurred to me to think of the book in that sense, but it makes sense, and so it’s hard to answer intelligently. Then this morning Amber suggested on Facebook that the best answer may be: “Yes, you are totally right.” And I think that works, because a book is whatever it is only to the reader. Like meditation, or dreams, or eating.
So, yes, absolutely.”
Photo By: sarowen