The Rumpus Interview with Josh Weil

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I remember exactly where I was when I read the first pages of Josh Weil’s trio of novellas The New Valley: sitting in a lawn chair in my mother’s quiet backyard. I moved so little over the next couple of hours that the straps from the chair had dug into my skin and put my whole lower half to sleep. Soon after, I wrote a review for The Rumpus, in which I noted, “Weil’s keen observational eye brings the smallest details of the lives of these three men to light, and their acuity makes his other analyses gleam with truth.” With his brilliant new novel, The Great Glass Sea, Weil maintains this balance beautifully over 474 pages, sweeping the reader along with careful characterization and exuberant language.

The Great Glass Sea concerns twin brothers who are wedged apart by the Oranzheria, the huge greenhouse that they help build over their hometown of Petroplavilsk. In this version of modern-day Russia, the sun is harnessed and reflected by giant mirrors called the zerkala, casting an increasingly large portion of the town in round-the-clock daylight. Through his vivid descriptions, Weil creates an alternate reality as photo-realistic as the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains that loom over The New Valley. Yet the book has the heartbeat of a fable, and plays out in the rhythms of a story told for generations. The resultant feeling is that of being on someone’s knee while hearing this magnificent tale.

I read The Great Glass Sea on a trip to England, and so quickly that when the opportunity to interview Weil came along, I gladly re-read it. With a slight break for the birth of his son, we spoke about writing something so different from his first book, the role fear plays in writing, and the way his characters work.

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The Rumpus: What was the first inspiration for The Great Glass Sea? Where on the timeline with The New Valley did that happen?

Josh Weil: It’s so hard to trace first inspirations. For me, stories are often gestating for a long time and, even when they seem to come all of a sudden, they draw on things that have been circling my insides for a while. But there were some clear starts to what became this novel. There was the time I first heard about Russia’s experiments with mirrored satellites intended to carom sunlight down onto dark cities and rid those corners of the northern world of nighttime. I was in a cabin in Appalachia listening to the local NPR station and caught an interview with a professor at the local college: he’d written a book about the history of nighttime and mentioned, in passing, that the Russians had done this. And I thought: holy crap, that is crazy. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

This was in, I think, 2005, when I heard the story. I wrote a couple stories that included elements of that and realized that I was working on a collection that sprang from it so, at first, The Great Glass Sea was meant to be a short story in that collection—ha! I know, a short story! I began work on it in the spring of 2008. I have an entry scribbled in my notebook from the time: “Will he ever get quiet house with his brother again? Just the two of them side by side for a long day? No wives, no children?” But by ‘began work’ I mean that I wrote the opening paragraph—not all that different from the one that remains—and then thought, Oh my God, I can’t do this, all Russian characters and an alternate present, half-fable and half-real—and I put it away. That was also about when I sold The New Valley.

That fall, I went down to the cabin in Appalachia again and lived there for seven or eight months and it was there, in the spring of 2009, after struggling to start three other novels, that I just kind of gave in and returned to the thing that I hadn’t been able to shake: this story of the two Russian twins trying to hold on to their love for each other as the world—in this case rid of darkness by these space mirrors—tears them apart. An example of what I mean by stories drawing on stuff that had been circling my bloodstream for a while: my first serious attempt at a literary novel, a dozen years earlier, was about two brothers torn asunder. I wrote the first draft—thinking it was a story, then a novella, then, at last, accepting that it might be a novel—in a couple months and finished it just before The New Valley came out. Then spent the next five years rewriting it.

Rumpus: People told me when my book was coming out to get started on something new before the readings and such started because it would be too overwhelming to be faced with a blank page when it was all over. A draft in hand, though, seems
incredible to me. Especially because they are, at least in their short descriptors, very different. The New Valley is dirt-and-grit American realism. Were you concerned about writing a science-fiction novel in Russia either in terms of style or reception?

Weil: Yes and no. At times it terrified me—though I was more scared about what it meant to write from the perspectives of characters who were Russian. That felt dangerous and difficult to me, though, in the end, they are people, individuals, first, of course. Style-wise, I wasn’t worried. I’d written other things that drifted towards magical realism and fables—quite a bit, actually. It’s funny how you write so much before you get published and then get known for just the small sliver of it that is the first published book. But I was comfortable in that place, mostly because I never thought of it as science fiction and still don’t. The style of it—more lyrical, more language-focused, musical, denser—was something I’d also been moving towards. I think the middle novella in my first book veers in that direction. So I was comfortable with that, too, but I did wonder whether I’d be disappointing a lot of readers who responded well to The New Valley.

I think I surprised the hell out of my editor. I think it would have been a safer move—and maybe a better one, who knows?—to write dirt-and-grit Appalachian novel. I’ve got one stirring in me. So I was worried about it as far as what it might do to the trajectory of my career, to what I’d built with my first book, but that kind of worry has no place in the actual writing of something; it’s exactly what needs to be shunted aside. So I think I was able to do that. Only after I had a draft and realized what I’d done did it hit me fully. And, at that point, it was too late: I’d fallen for the thing and thought it had enough promise that I wasn’t going to just back out, scared or no.

Rumpus: That’s such a great answer for new or developing writers to hear. I’m sure a lot of people expected—and hoped for, to be fair, because it’s a great book—The New Valley 2: Newer Valleys. But you mention fear a few times in both of these answers: do you think having that fear, or being able to detect it and run towards it, is a necessary part of your process? Is it fuel? I mean, you did write a collection of novellas, which wouldn’t seem to be the most promising road to travel.

Weil: My first writing mentor, the playwright Vincent Cardinal, with whom I studied at Ohio University when I was focused on film and theater and was leaning towards pursuing an MFA in playwriting, once told me something like this: If what you’re writing doesn’t scare you, you probably ought not be writing it. That—like so much that he taught me—is a touchstone for me. I take it to mean that the material, the meat of the story, better cut close, be scary in the sense of forcing you to look at something hard, to face some fear in yourself, if it’s going to be meaningful enough, and come from a place deep enough inside you as a writer, to be worth a reader investing in it beyond simply the plot.

I believe that so strongly, maybe more than I believe anything else about writing. In that sense it is a kind of fuel. But this distinction is important: the fear comes from the fact of having to face the depth and intensity of the subject matter, not from a fear of one’s ability to write it. Fear of my own weaknesses as a writer, or of the challenging nature of a project, is the opposite. It can be crippling (and has been, at times, for me). The dreaded writer’s block—which I never believed in until it hit me—is, for me, essentially about self-doubt. I need to bury that. Luckily, the fuel you talk about is, for me, often created by the act of burying it—that rush that I get from saying, “Okay, fuck it, here we go. I’m gonna do this thing. I can do this thing.” I sometimes find myself sitting back at the onset of an idea, pushing away from the desk, getting up to pace, whispering to myself in that quiet kinda scared voice, Holy shit, that is crazy. But the whisper is as much about keeping the excitement in check, holding that jolt of electricity close to my chest.

Rumpus: Did you read science fiction as a child, or do you read it now?

Weil: Nope. Not a drop. And still don’t. And am not really interested in it, despite feeling kind of bad about that, after Ursula Le Guin’s great National Book Awards speech this year. But, like I said, I really don’t think of The Great Glass Sea as science fiction, and I’ve been kind of surprised to see it pegged that way at times. It feels to me more akin to fable, even magic realism. I’m not concerned with the mechanics of the technology—the space mirrors, the giant greenhouse—beyond what makes them grounded enough for the reader to accept them and move into the story. A well-known and respected science fiction writer criticized the book for just this—a lack of embrace of the technology/mechanics—in a review of it, which would probably be fair of a science fiction novel, but I think missed the point with this book. I see the mirrors and greenhouse more like fabled beasts in the way they wreak their havoc on the world of the book. Or like the mysterious rules—poof! no nighttime!—of magic realism, which I did read and do and love.

Rumpus: Right. It’s funny—we have these definitions of genres but merely by defining them, they get narrow, and then over time, they get narrower and narrower. People take science fiction to mean spaceships and aliens, but I mean science fiction in terms of there is science at the heart of this fiction, but I wondered how you grappled with the expectations of having a label like that applied to this book. People have also described it, for some reason, as dystopian. In these instances, I think of a smoke-filled room and some shady figures discussing marketing. I know it’s most likely a brightly lit room with wonderful people trying their best to sell books. The magic realism is beautiful; it falls heavier on the realism side, but those moments where the more fable-like aspects cast their spell are just wonderful. How did you manage to find a balance between those two things?

Weil: Yeah, I kind of winced at the dystopian description. Somehow it seemed to get wrapped up with a bunch of books that were described that way. Not necessarily a bad thing: maybe there was just something in the air. But, like all labels, that felt to me like it shrank the scope of the book. I suspect most writers whose works get labeled as any kind of genre feel that way. I really think so much of it is just looking for a shorthand way to reach readers. I do it myself, talking about a novel I’m thinking of as a “thriller” to indicate the importance of plot, when it’s probably not going to be anything like what most people would call a thriller. But the problem is you can reach the wrong readers that way.

I know you found that to be the case with your novel—the thriller and mystery labels with which The Kept was tagged—and it definitely was with mine. With The Great Glass Sea, the worst reader reviews—I know I shouldn’t read them; I keep telling myself with the next book I’m gonna peel away from all that—were always from science fiction fans, which makes sense. Occasionally, a science fiction fan would read it and recognize it for what it is and really love it, and that crossover, realizing that you’ve written something that, just because it speaks to someone in a genuine way, pushes beyond expectations—that’s very gratifying.

As far as the magic realism, you’re right, it’s faint, but I think it bubbles along beneath the surface and occasionally bursts into view. For me it was important to give the book a sense of operating in a way that existed somewhere between fable and reality, and so the sense that something strange and magical could be glimpsed at the corners of the world was vital. As to when those glimpses come, it was mostly just a matter of feeling the moment. Usually they’re attached to a moment of heightened drama or a point when the character is feeling something so strong that I want to attach something of the outside world to his or her interiority. I guess I often do it through imagery, something that is possible in the world of the book, but when you step back from it and really think about it, sets a scene unlike something we’re every really likely to see outside of the book. I’d think of the climactic scene, for instance, when the sky is, essentially, being cleaned in streaks by thousands of men who then move as en-mass like a huge cloud above the brothers. In the world of the book, it’s grounded in reality. It’s actually happening. But I hope the image itself simultaneously feels very far from the world we know.

Rumpus: Can you describe the relationship with your characters and work? By that I mean the relationship between characters and the labors they perform, endure, desire. It’s a really strong current running through most of your writing.

Weil: In general, I find a character’s work is both a way into the life of that character and into the world of whatever I’m writing. Our work is so much of what we do with our days, and so the details of our lives often come from that. Since I’m a writer, I shape my life around the need to do that. When I’m teaching, that shapes my days. When I was waiting tables in a quaint French restaurant in NYC’s West Village, riding the subway home at one in the morning with ziplock bags full of leftovers, my life was pretty different from when I was working as a farmhand in rural Massachusetts, hoeing between tobacco plants and washing summer squash. My hopes and fears might have been similar, but the way that they came out through my interactions with the world was very different. So I look for that when shaping a story: how can the character’s core concerns be seen through his or her interaction with the world. Work gives specificity to those interactions, so it winds up both revealing character and shaping the world of the story.

Of course, in The Great Glass Sea, work is more than that: it’s integral to the themes of the book. It is, in some ways, the big split that comes between the brothers. And because it is important to the plot itself, the characters different relationships to work place them at odds, dramatically. The contrast between Yarik’s view of work and Dima’s is at the heart of their unraveling. And the way that Bazarov, the book’s antagonist, comes between them, is by exploiting that difference, by drawing Yarik’s ideas of work closer to his own. He is the antagonist in large part because, of all the characters, his relationship with the idea of labor is the farthest from Dima’s. So for their worlds to come into contact is for them to come into conflict.

Rumpus: Bazarov is kind of like the zerkala in that when he enters the novel, there’s a new kind of electricity present that wasn’t before. Especially in those first few scenes—when he moos at the brothers and when Yarik goes to visit him—he feels unhinged in a way other characters aren’t—rules don’t apply to him. I felt like you had a lot of fun writing him.

Weil: Oh, man, he was a blast to write. In the first, much shorter draft of the book, he didn’t exist at all. And there was this clear hole in the story. The brothers were going through their arc of separation, but the forces pulling them apart were more abstract. He became the embodiment of that, what Susan Neville calls “The Iago” in a great craft essay: the thing that finds its way into the happiness of the world and starts to crack it open.

Rumpus: Petroplavilsk and the Oranzheria are so vividly drawn and this world shapes the story. How did you go about creating it and what went into that process?

Weil: I’m glad those places come alive on the page. It’s something that happens so powerfully in your novel, too, with its own physical world, of course, and something that I love so much in fiction—perhaps too much. We all have our weaknesses, our crutches, and that’s mine: I need to feel fully immersed in a place, to sink into it and see it vividly, in order to start working within it in scene, action, character—all that. So I often start with description. Sometimes that means that there’s a lot I have to pull out in later drafts, but it grounds me and allows me to then feel like I’ve created the set and now I can let the actors loose upon it, which is when I feel the greatest wonder in writing.

With this novel it was no different, but, in some ways, a little harder. In The New Valley, I not only knew the physical world of the book, but I was living in it while I wrote those novellas. This meant that when I stomped out through the snow in the cattle pasture and saw, say, crows attacking a hawk, that could work its way into what I was writing. It was largely about observing the world around me and letting what I saw spark my imagination. There was, of course, some serious research involved—for instance, for that book, learning a lot about tractor repair—but mostly I was taking the place I was in, and experiencing it fully, and then letting that work itself on the page.

The Great Glass Sea was different. I had been to Russia, when it was the Soviet Union, when I was fourteen, but that’s a long time ago and memories from that time in life are about as reliable as fables. So I was writing a world that sprang from a world as much made of my memory—deeply influenced by my imagination—as what was really there. And because I wanted the book to feel like a fable, to work in a way that wasn’t the hard-nosed realism you mentioned earlier, I wanted to write from that place. So I purposely didn’t do a lot of research for the first draft. I wrote from my imaginings based on what I’d experienced. And I wrote it in Virginia, in a cabin, not in northern Russia. I think that pushed my imagination in a way that breathed a kind of creative life into the book—at least I hope so. That’s how it felt. Still, I did go back Russia on a research trip in 2010 before writing the second draft. What I saw there influenced the novel tremendously. I added 400 pages.

I took notebooks full of notes and, in the end, I think the setting of the novel is essential the Russia of my mind and memory grounded and brought to life by the specifics of Russia as it is today. Petroplavilsk is an imagined city—but it’s based upon Petrozavodsk, the capital of Karelia. It’s where I lived as an exchange student and it’s where I went back to when I returned to Russia, staying there for a couple weeks in the home of the high school teacher who had led the Soviet end of the exchange. I changed some names—rivers, for instance, and the lake, which is Lake Otseva in the book, but based on Onega—but left some the same particular buildings, streets, squares, et cetera. I took loads of photos and I’d pour over them for details when I was writing the book back home. Though I’d also rely on photos from my time there in 1991—purposely trying to create a place that’s a bit hard to pin down in time. Of course, The Oranzheria is entirely made up. I’d never seen anything like it. Nothing like it exists, and there was something hugely freeing in that, something about its being born of pure imagination that allowed it to feel almost mystical, poetic, fable-like, et cetera. Or at least I’ve been told that by readers. I’ve also been told, a little surprisingly, that the Oranzheria is one of the most vivid, memorable, fully seen images in the book. There’s probably a lesson in that.

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Author photograph © Jilan Carroll Glorfield.


James Scott is the author of the bestselling novel, The Kept, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award. His short fiction can be found in journals such as One Story and Ploughshares, and his non-fiction has been published by the New York Times, Boston Magazine, Oprah.com, and other venues. Currently, Scott lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and dog. More from this author →