The Rumpus Book Club chats with author Jesse Ball about his new novel, Census (Ecco, March 2018), the inherent sinister nature of institutions, and creating imaginary authors.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Melissa Broder, Amy Fusselman, Nicole Chung, Idra Novey, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Jesse Ball! We’ll be discussing his newest novel, Census.
Eva Woods: Hi everybody! I’m early. I’m always early.
Jesse: Good evening.
Ann B.: Let’s talk about cormorants!
Marisa: Jesse, thank you so much for joining us this evening!
Jesse: Oh—no trouble!
Eva Woods: Hi Jesse!
Jesse: Hello, Eva.
Eva Woods: I have SO MANY questions, but I wanna start by saying that I really liked it.
Jesse: Oh, thank you.
Ann B.: Me, too. It’s one of my faves so far this year.
Marisa: I should probably kick this off by sharing that Jesse, you are one of my favorite living writers. I stumbled on Vera & Linus in SPD‘s Berkeley warehouse many, many years ago and have been avidly reading your work since.
Jesse: Vera & Linus! That is exciting and heartening to hear.
Eva Woods: This is the first book of yours I’ve read, and your style is really unusual and cool. I dig it. This is going to sound nerdy but can I ask why you went with a sans serif typeface?
Jesse: Eva, that wasn’t only my choice. I believe they made that decision in order to make the text feel more urgent. At least that would be my guess.
Marisa: Eva, nerdy questions are the best questions!
Ann B.: Where did the cormorant thread come from?
Jesse: The cormorant thread appeared of its own accord. I had almost nothing to do with it.
Jesse: Of course, I have always loved cormorants. But I am certainly not an expert on them.
Jesse: For Vera & Linus I got to do the entire design myself. American publishers don’t permit that, for the most part.
Eva Woods: That’s really interesting. I liked the design of this one, it felt somehow like a report or form, which I think fit the story well.
Jesse: Yes, I think they did a good job with the book. I especially like the cormorant on the spine.
Eva Woods: Can you tell us why you chose to keep the setting and purpose of the census and society so vague?
Jesse: The society I write about is simply our own society.
Jesse: But there are many things that are difficult to use, many nouns or descriptors. They are tangled up in conventional usage and corporate monies. In order to avoid that, I try to keep to the essence of things. The human interplay, rather than the interplay of possessions and material objects.
Eva Woods: It definitely worked to keep the focus on the relationships.
Marisa: Can you talk a little about the preface? I was curious about the decision to offer the readers context before we enter the story. I’m very used to being somewhat disoriented when starting a Jesse Ball novel, but here I was given something very real, very tangible to carry into the story with me.
Jesse: Marisa, with many of the books an unfortunate thing happens—which is that people completely ignore the social content in reviews. In order to avoid that, I tried to make clear some of what the book was about—I didn’t want the impact to be lost. It seems so easy for reviewers and readers to say, this is good, or this is bad, but not react with their lives and their bodies—not be changed by the meaning of the thing.
Jesse: So I wanted to make it un-ignorable.
Marisa: That is wonderful answer and reason. I agree, the impact might have unfortunately been lost for many readers and reviewers without the spelling out of your own real-life experience.
Ann B.: I loved how you incorporated the real photos of your brother into the fictional characters’ narrative. Was that an ignition point for the novel?
Jesse: No—it was something, a thought that came, as I proceeded. I knew I would do it the moment I described the photographs. It was important for them to have that double-appearance.
Ann B.: It made the novel that much more powerful.
Eva Woods: You wrote this very quickly, yeah? What’s that process like for you? A few of my favorite artists work in mad bursts, and I am fascinated.
Jesse: I just write the thing as plainly as I can from the beginning to the end as quickly as possible. I want it to be a real thing stated simply. So—no artifice, no complication. Or whatever complication appears is intrinsic to the matter.
Marisa: In A Cure for Suicide, there is a similar (and also entirely different) journey through a series of towns. Is there any connection between those two journeys for you, the writer?
Jesse: Marisa—the A Cure for Suicide trip to me is more internal, a part of the mental deformation of the character. I think this is rather different.
Jesse: In Cure, the man could even be deceived about the villages being different. Perhaps they aren’t.
Marisa: Very true. I did feel in Census that alongside the physical journey the father and son were taking, the father was taking an inner journey toward accepting death. Does that ring true?
Jesse: As happens for us as well. But his life is not long enough to contain his duty as caretaker.
Eva Woods: Some of the details in this book—the tattoos particularly—gave an ominous and almost sinister feeling to the census. What was the reasoning behind that?
Jesse: I think almost everything institutional is sinister.
Eva Woods: I agree!
Jesse: But—the idea that the government is marking and following you (as happens today) is disturbing. Though we become used to it.
Jesse: *sends his location*
Eva Woods: I’m wondering why the decision to include something that is so sinister, and to highlight that in those details, was important to this story.
Jesse: I don’t know that it was important. Many things in fiction are arbitrary and simply make the space within which the actual thing can occur.
Jesse: In this case the census provides an opportunity for a comparison between a materialistic possessive culture and worldview and the worldview of the boy—nonmaterialistic, nongrasping.
Ann B.: What do you imagine your “appropriate burden” to be? I was fascinated by that premise.
Jesse: Ann—I think about that a lot. It is a protean thing. But it has to do with one’s responsibilities to those around him/her. Or at least it might or can. Perhaps it need not.
Marisa: Can we talk a little about writing process? You are very prolific, and write in different genres. Does process vary between genres? Do you write by hand, typewriter, computer? Favorite spaces to write?
Eva Woods: If he wrote this in a week on a typewriter, Marisa, I am going to give up all hope of ever thinking I’m productive lol!
Jesse: When writing fiction, I do type. The last couple books (which have yet to appear) were written on my telephone with a detached keyboard. I like to find places where I can be in public and work, but they must be places where I don’t know who I am. They cannot really be some sort of stomping ground.
Jesse: Therefore as I go about my general behavior, I take note of places that look this way—a place that look like I might sit there not knowing who I am. That’s where I go when I need to make a book.
Jesse: Lately I have been using LaTeX.
Marisa: You live in Chicago, correct?
Jesse: Mostly. This year I am in Mississippi
Eva Woods: Is that practical, just so you’re not bothered, or is it important for your headspace as well?
Jesse: Eva, what is it that is practical? The decision of where to work?
Eva Woods: Yes, exactly. sorry!
Jesse: Well, it is very practical. Because if I tried to write somewhere, some place where I know who I am, then the thing I write would be something I already know. I go somewhere to find a person I don’t know in order to write something I do not know or cannot yet know.
Jesse: But of course it might not be practical for others!
Eva Woods: That makes total sense.
Jesse: The main thing is to make a book that somehow conveys the momentary philosophy that I happen to feel, being the person who is sitting there.
Ann B.: Back to the cormorants. What was your research process like with the birds and Mutter?
Jesse: There was no research. It is all just imaginary for the most part.
Ann B.: Ah, even better!
Marisa: I didn’t even look up whether Mutter is real. Is Mutter a real writer?
Jesse: No, not real.
Jesse: Or—real now…
Marisa: Real now, indeed.
Jesse: When I was in college, I would always invent books to quote in order to write my papers. That habit dies hard.
Eva Woods: AMAZING. Did you ever get called out for the book invention?
Jesse: No, not caught.
Eva Woods: I love that so much.
Jesse: I felt like it was stupid that you couldn’t say what you thought of Fitzgerald or whoever. You had to find someone to quote in your own defense…
Marisa: Was the creation process around this book any different because you started with a hollowed out space for the existence of your brother, who was very real and very part of your real life?
Jesse: It was different because it was very serious for me to not fail. Usually I wouldn’t feel that pressure. But it was easier too—easier because the world would leap up into my eye in an instant.
Jesse: On the basis of it mattering so much to me.
Eva Woods: How much of the son’s personality was pulled from your experiences with your brother and how much was from whole cloth?
Jesse: It is a portrait of my brother—but of course my mother for instance might remember him a little differently.
Marisa: Do you feel you succeeded? (In whatever way you define success as it pertains to novels and to the import of your brother’s life.)
Jesse: Oh—I hope so. In any case it doesn’t matter anymore to him. But perhaps to other people like him. And, too—the effort is to decrease the general savagery of human behavior.
Eva Woods: Who are the authors that inspire you? I’d imagine when your writing is so stylized it might be hard to find work to look to.
Marisa: Do you have a favorite poet?
Jesse: My favorite poet (living) is Alice Oswald. Dead, it is a matter of Rilke, Tsetaeva, Whitman…
Jesse: Of course Kafka and Walser, Gogol, etc.—absurdists
Eva Woods: I will check out Oswald!
Jesse: I like Barthelme but sometimes I find him cruel, unlike Kafka who is never pointlessly cruel.
Eva Woods: Have you read Hotel Theory by Wayne Koestenbaum? He seems like he might be up your alley.
Jesse: No—I’ll have to check it out.
Marisa: Do you draw any inspiration from music?
Jesse: Some of my friends are pianists. I love classical piano, especially solo. I love bebop and delta blues.
Eva Woods: I’m a huge fan of writing to music so I’m really interested in this answer!
Ann B.: I’m sort of disappointed that you didn’t make up an author in your responses.
Jesse: Old English and Irish folk music were very popular in my family (60s folk revival).
Eva Woods: LOL Ann.
Jesse: Ha—good point, I should have done that.
YellowDog: How about this?
Eva Woods: I have to run but it has been wonderful talking to you! Thanks for your time Jesse, and for the wonderful book.
YellowDog: No more Jesse… just a yellow dog.
YellowDog: Thank you, Eva, for reading!
Marisa: What kind of dog are you?
YellowDog: A hyena, actually.
Marisa: That’s intense. I’ve never chatted with a hyena before.
YellowDog: I was on a plane earlier today, and a man was on it who had very strong headphones on. He was laughing and I think he couldn’t hear how loud.
YellowDog: The whole flight—just laughing and laughing.
YellowDog: Everyone would look at him, but he wouldn’t meet any eyes.
Ann B.: They’re wily, hyenas.
YellowDog: They can work together, too.
Ann B.: And they can count, I read somewhere.
Marisa: I wonder what was making him laugh so. Perhaps it was the hyena sitting on his plane?
YellowDog: It is always good to assume if someone is laughing—they are laughing at you. At least that’s what I think.
Marisa: YellowDog, do you have any knowledge you can share about the books the author Jesse Ball mentioned he might be working on that aren’t out in the world yet?
YellowDog: He hides them in a little hole out back the house. I can go root around and look.
YellowDog: *goes away*
YellowDog: *comes back*
Ann B.: Best author chat ever.
Marisa: YellowDog, what did you find?
YellowDog: The one at the top of the hole is called “Divers’ Game.”
YellowDog: It looks like it’s about a very violent society that pretends it isn’t violent at all.
Ann B.: How does it smell?
YellowDog: It smells like licorice left in a hole.
YellowDog: It is licorice!
Marisa: I hate licorice, but also very violent societies, so I am intrigued.
YellowDog: There are a bunch of others I am tempted to try to publish all at once—in some kind of omnibus or compendium. But we shall see.
Marisa: Do you choose the publishers you work with carefully, as a writer with a strong sense of a book’s aesthetics?
YellowDog: I was lucky to be supported for a long time by Vintage and Pantheon. Now I have a good champion in Ecco. It truly is a fortunate thing.
YellowDog: There’s one called “The Children VI” that starts with all adults perishing at once (everyone over twelve). The protagonists make their way out of the city they live. The world at that point is of course just children.
Marisa: Why make age twelve the cut-off?
YellowDog: People can survive pretty well on their own if they are twelve or older.
YellowDog: As for the beauty of books, I really like Pushkin Press, Archipelago, and Melville House (the novellas).
Marisa: I love holding books like that in my hands. Small presses do create wonderful objects.
YellowDog: I have always wanted to publish a rubber bound book—like a little English-Spanish dictionary (those are often rubber bound). Something yellow.
Ann B.: You have yellow on the mind, clearly.
YellowDog: *covers head with paws*
Marisa: I once had a small collection (probably a chapbook) of someone’s poetry that was rubber bound. I loved that book. (Also found in SPD’s glorious warehouse.)
YellowDog: SPD is pretty great.
Marisa: Any giant room of books is pretty great, if you ask me.
YellowDog: Hear, hear!
Marisa: Especially rooms so giant, you can’t look for one specific thing. That way, you never know what you might find and will likely find something you’d never have found if you could look for just one thing.
YellowDog: Wandering the stacks of a library, for instance… I rarely organize my books—I like to be confused by where things are.
Marisa: My OCD doesn’t allow for that in my own home, but in someone else’s giant stacks of books, it’s wonderful.
YellowDog: Although I like in High Fidelity when he is organizing his records chronologically (according to when he got them).
Marisa: A writer recently mentioned on Twitter (I’m forgetting who it was…) that they organize their books by color.
YellowDog: I often remove the dust covers so that wouldn’t work well for me.
Ann B.: I was just going to say that. FLOTUS made a Xmas tree that way. It was absurd.
Marisa: My three-year-old is a dust cover remover. He finds the idea of a dust cover very problematic.
YellowDog: Because you know DUST is the enemy? Not sure when that was decided.
Marisa: He tells me he wants to “see the real book.” And I’m of the opinion my three-year-old is usually smarter than grown-ups about these matters.
YellowDog: I would agree.
Marisa: Is there a question about writing that you wish people would ask you, instead of all the questions that are usually asked?
YellowDog: I often (especially in live interviews or on stage) bend questions to be something more interesting. So I find my way to the things that can be said.
YellowDog: I am at a Starbucks near the airport in Memphis and they are kicking me out of the section in order to clean it, so I am afraid I must bid you adieu!
YellowDog: My thanks!
Marisa: Many thanks you, YellowDog, and also to Jesse Ball!
YellowDog: !! until next time!
Marisa: Thank you to Ann and Eva for joining us! Everyone have a lovely (and laughter-filled) evening!
Author photograph © James Foster.