Thirty-year-old songwriter and lounge player Henry Schiller has something wrong with his balls. There has been this ache, this pebble, this something-not-so-great, lurking there between his legs. Henry has ignored the pain until he can stand it no longer. And so, the weekend his younger—and more talented—girlfriend graduates from college, Henry finds out he has testicular cancer. Not wanting to distract her from the celebrations at hand, Henry takes on the burden of illness alone. As any anxiety driven, self-possessed, New Yorker will do, he resets his heroisms. Through Henry’s complicated dealings with the push and pull of the male mind under pressure, we see New York anew. Inner-laced with satirical “Ode to New York” lyrics that Henry writes stream-of-conscious, in a fevered state, Henry struggles with employment, love, alcohol consumption, and sometimes just walking, in a very human story of what happens after one gets diagnosed with a major illness and the world doesn’t end.
In Julian Tepper’s first novel Balls, we learn about having them—and having them removed.
The Rumpus: The website for Balls features a diagram for testicular self-examination. What was the impetus behind writing Balls? I am hoping it was not a healthcare crisis.
Julian Tepper: Fortunately, I’ve been spared from all of the most awful maladies. That said, I always think I’m about to contract any one of them. Typical, perhaps, but I really can’t [help] myself. Choosing testicular cancer had everything to do with its generous entry point into discussing the subject of manhood and male identity. You could say that in testicles, I had found a subject in which I could go on at length about the things which were then on my mind.
Tepper: Yes, I read many testimonials and found that nearly everyone seemed to suffer shame over his illness. In the course of making a novel, there are certain moments in the writing that turn the lights on for the writer and propel you. By all means, tapping into Henry’s shame was one of those things. Once I, you could say, discovered his shame, the writing came to life for me.
Rumpus: I know you’ve had a career in songwriting—you co-wrote the hit song “Don’t You Evah” for the band Spoon. Are you trained in the musical arts?
Tepper: As far as music, my father is a musician, and songwriter, and I was strumming a guitar and playing piano while still in diapers. I was given the usual sentence of six years of piano lessons (which I would later regret quitting). In my home, however, you had instruments everywhere, and you picked them up constantly because they were just there within your reach. Though I still like to write a song, and am grateful for the time I spent making music and proud of the recordings, ultimately the itinerant lifestyle of the musician is unsuitable to almost all of humankind, myself included.
Rumpus: I’m sure that music helped inform your protagonist, a pianist and songwriter. One of the things I most enjoyed while reading Balls was the way you interlaced the satirical lyrics that streamed forth from Henry. Were these easy to create?
Tepper: The songs were definitely the mostly freely written parts of the book. They came quickly, without resistance—which is really what you want in writing a song. Of course, you can write a song in a year. But hopefully it happened in under ten minutes.
Admittedly, I often make up songs in my head whose lyrics are somewhat nonsensical but half-based in whatever problem I might have in front of me. Like, Gotta take out the garbage. Or, Traffic’s bad, should take another street. And that’s what Henry Schiller is doing on a far more emotionally painful level. It turns out, as I’ve learned from many people who’ve read Balls, this is a fairly common habit among us.
Rumpus: In addition to being a songwriter, Henry is a lounge singer and plays “jazz standards three nights a week at the Beekman Hotel.” In the book you mention Count Basie and Duke Ellington among Henry’s heroes. Why make him a jazz singer, instead of a different kind of musician? Is there something to do with jazz’s obsolescence and Henry’s diagnosis?
Tepper: There’s something about the lounge jazz pianist which I’ve always admired greatly, and envied. I see these guys play, say while having a drink at the Carlyle, and I wish I could do it, could play the way they play and where they play. Even if they’d rather be playing Carnegie Hall, I just think it’s great, these small and quiet dark rooms with the audience seated in such close proximity—and the music, which is so good. To make Henry a jazz pianist in a lounge was simply, for me, a chance to play out that fantasy.
Rumpus: There is tension between Henry and his wunderkind girlfriend, a twenty-one-year-old violinist. Henry is jealous of the attention Paula is receiving and the promise of a career ahead. Is this is a standard conflict among artists?
Tepper: Well sure, I think, in artists and all people, jealousy is natural. To varying degrees, you want what others have, and can’t or do not have yourself. But writing a book set in New York City, one which is also in a sense about being a man in the city, I don’t think there was a chance I could have made it and omitted this subject.
Rumpus: Towards the end of the book there is a scene at an airport where Henry acts wild and uncontrollable. Without giving away the plot, what do you think that was about? Do you think it had anything to do with his cancer, fear, and trauma?
Tepper: It’s hard to say exactly what things are about. The way I write is by writing and writing a lot, throwing a lot away, and keeping those things which bring into focus characters, story, etc., which appeal or make sense to me in some important way. So I don’t know what things are meant to say or be about. I suppose, however, in this scene in JFK, it looks like I was thinking then about aggression, and how closely it lives to the surface of men.
Rumpus: Sometimes artists find themselves making the bold pronouncement they are retiring. Last year, you found yourself wound up in the middle of the Philip Roth retirement, the man having told you that writing was a terrible profession, then suddenly retiring only a month later. One thing I specifically loved in the piece you wrote about the Roth encounter was how writing is the cure for the ideal day. You posed the question in your essay: what would Roth do when bored? Has that ever been answered?
Tepper: That’s a funny question. What would Roth do if bored? And if you’re Roth now, accustomed to being so powerfully engaged in the act of thinking and writing—an act which is so effective at making time vanish—what do you do, at say, 11 am, when you’ve probably already been up for five hours and have so much of the day still ahead of you? I’m not saying that this is a problem for him. Obviously I don’t know, because I don’t know Roth. But if it is a problem, he should survey the people of Los Angeles, California. It’s unbelievable—those people don’t work and seem to really enjoy their lives.
Rumpus: Do people in LA not work? Or are they just coffee-ing and hiking in-between auditions? Please elaborate on that.
Tepper: The latter!
Rumpus: I too love that aspect of writing. The way the day slides by. How the screen or page can captivate you for hours and suddenly it is night and cocktail hour. Where is your favorite place to write?
Tepper: My girlfriend and I own and run an arts club downstairs under our home, called the Oracle Club. There’s a library there where I work in the very early morning, before the city is awake.
Rumpus: From reading your articles, meeting Philip Roth was a big deal for you. He was a hero. Was there anything in that exchange that you came away with that you haven’t spoken to yet?
Tepper: Well, it’s been a pleasure to see how many people have reacted strongly to the piece. The moment itself hit me hard. And you write and you don’t really know what people will care about. So, for me, that’s there’s been this clear, direct line between the experience, the act of writing about it, and the reception—I feel real gratitude that I was at the right place at the right time, opening my big mouth to that great author.
Rumpus: I once had Mary Gaitskill as a teacher and the only novel she assigned was The Human Stain. Do you have a favorite of Roth’s?
Tepper: My favorite Roth novel…it’s difficult to say. Probably Sabbath’s Theater. But reading a book, above all other things, I want to be delivered from my head elsewhere. And Roth is that rare author, one of maybe six or seven, who can do that for me so consistently. Really, you put any of his books in my hand, whether I rank it #1 or #25, or even if I’ve read it ten times before, and I’m there, in his world, out of mine. That’s a huge thing, and something I’m grateful to him for.
Rumpus: Have you heard anything more from Roth?
Tepper: I have not heard anything from Roth, no. But I did worry that maybe I’d upset him by writing about the incident. David Remnick frequents the very same establishment where I encountered Roth (yeah, forget your MFAs—this deli is the place), and I asked him if he thought Roth cared about any of this. He told me not to worry about it. Remnick tells you not to worry, you figure he’s probably right, Don’t worry. Of course, Roth has caused plenty of controversy on very large scales. I doubt this even registered on the meter.
Rumpus: What are you currently working on?
Tepper: Currently just finishing my second novel, entitled Ark. A family saga, a dark comedy set in contemporary New York; it’s like Dynasty with Jews.