Jesse Ball photograph by Joe Lieske. Catherine Lacey photograph by Lauren Volo.
This past spring, novelists Jesse Ball and Catherine Lacey roamed the streets of New York City in an effort to devise strategies for interviewing each other. Perhaps inevitably, their banter yielded insight of the best kind, that which you arrive at without trying. Ball’s new novel, How to Set a Fire and Why, is out this summer from Pantheon. Catherine Lacey is the author of Nobody Is Ever Missing and recipient of a 2016 Whiting Award.
PART ONE—STRATEGIES FOR A NON-INTERVIEW
Catherine Lacey Someone has to transcribe the first two minutes of this tape; they just have to sit in silence for a while.
Jesse Ball That’s right.
CL I think that’s appropriate.
JB That’s their comeuppance.
CL So, it’s going.
JB But we have no strategy.
CL Did you come up with one yesterday?
JB I was thinking we could have a card table. Then there are a variety of signs that we could have. We would sit there and offer some kind of service.
CL That sounds good. At this point, we could still come up with that. We don’t have a card table, but we can definitely make a sign.
JB We need a card table.
CL We don’t have to have a card table.
JB Yes. So the first one would be—
CL What if we sit at one of those places where you can play chess or something?
JB No because—
CL Or what about in Union Square, where there are those little tables in public?
JB It’s just hard for someone to approach it if it’s a serious stone table, whereas if it’s—
CL What about the little, like, foldy ones?
JB Oh, well, we need a folding table.
CL That’s what I’m saying. They have them there.
CL Just, like, for the public, in those little public areas.
JB Well part of the placement of the card table is that it’s already in a neutral space, so it’s easier for the person to approach it, so it should be in a space where a table usually isn’t.
JB Just for a passerby. So the first strategy, I was thinking we would have a table and you would sit and I would sit and ideally we would have garb, like, normalized garb. So you would have something and I would have something that looks largely the same, maybe lab coats.
JB Or mumus. I don’t know.
CL All of this is probably attainable in the East Village.
JB And there’d be two signs for twenty-five cents each. On the one side, I would draw a monster for someone, and on the other side, next to me, you would tell someone about a monster. And if someone gives fifty cents, they could have both a monster drawn for them and be told about it.
CL What if no one comes? And why are we charging for it?
JB You charge because it makes the person feel more comfortable speaking to us. With that small transaction fee, they feel capable of ending the interaction at any time, whereas if they just walked up, it would be too nebulous. So the first one: “Draw You a Monster, Tell You About a Monster.” We could do it in the other order too. You could tell them about the monster, and then I’d have to draw the monster. That would be harder. We could even charge for numbers of legs or tails or traumatic events…. When you tell them about the monster, if it has had five traumatic events in its life, like, it costs seventy-five cents.
CL I don’t think I would be able to tell about it.
JB You could do it.
CL I don’t know if I would.
JB I think you could. In my imagination about what our experience of the table would be like, I thought that you could do it.
JB So the next one is just having a sign that says: “Devil’s Advocate.” This one costs a dollar. We sit there; someone comes up and they give us a proposition, and we take the other side. Whichever side they want, we take the other side. And then we will talk to them for a couple minutes, mock-arguing with them.
CL What if somebody came up and their problem forced us to advocate for something terrible?
JB Oh, that’s fine. It’s certainly not anything we believe in. We just fulfill whatever—I think we could do it.
CL I just think that we might be too convincing, and we’d end up making someone do something they never intended to do.
JB Oh, that’s a danger. It’s a definite danger. But it would only cost them a dollar. And anytime we wanted it to stop, we could just give them the dollar back and send them on their way. Or cut it in half. They could have half. We could have half. The next one is a sign that says: “Advance Warning of Your Death.” So it costs a quarter, and a person comes up, and then we just give them advance warning.
CL Of the fact that they’re going to die?
CL Okay. That seems like a good idea. That’s my favorite one so far.
JB So then the next one is—
CL I like the idea that we do identical things.
JB The next one doesn’t cost anything. It’s a beautiful lie about your life, said sincerely while looking you in the eye. So, the person supplies this. We talk to them for a little bit, and they come up with the thing. We work it out together, on a piece of paper, the thing that they want said. And then you or I would compose ourselves, stand, look them in the eye, and say the thing completely sincerely.
CL What do you think an example would be?
JB ”Despite all of your awful behavior, you will be reunited with the child you lost.”
JB But you’d have to say it with passion.
CL Yeah. Okay.
JB And then the person has to go away. You’ve got to be clear, as soon as we’re done saying the thing, you have to get the fuck out of there. They can’t stick around the table.
CL Because then the lie would be disrupted almost immediately.
JB That’s right; the lie has been said. So then the next one would be—this one is good, it just says: “Receive Your Instructions.” And so, they would give us a quarter, and we come up with—maybe we even have written a whole bunch of instructions—maybe we’ve typed them onto little squares of paper. And you just hand the person instructions, like “Go to 77th Street and sit on the ground until someone asks you to move.” The next one is—
CL I like that one, too. It’s my second favorite.
PART TWO—JESSE ASKS A VAGUE QUESTION
JB What prompted you to write a book in the first place?
CL That’s such a vague question, one we both get asked a lot, and we’ve both answered it in so many contradictory ways. And I don’t know how to answer it to you.
JB So how about this way: if there’s some pressure of any kind in your life—like, if life could be construed as some pressuring thing that surrounds you—what specific pressure is alleviated by writing a book?
CL Maybe it’s reorganizing whatever the pressure was. I was trying to write this book of essays about Mississippi and religion, but the act of doing it made me realize I didn’t need to do it. So writing my first novel was a form of procrastination, but it also came out of a total bewilderment—I felt like my level of bewilderment had been steadily increasing and it had completely topped out. I could not be more bewildered. I couldn’t do anything.
JB And then the novel came. So that’s certainly how it is for me. I stumble through days with some kind of mounting confusion from the moment I last have written a book. Maybe right after writing a book, there’s a bit of clarity, but immediately the fog rolls in, and then I’m stumbling through confusion until a depression sets in, and I almost cannot get out of bed, and then I write the next book, and I feel good again.
JB And then I continue in that way. So it’s, like, not so much a book as it is a rope ladder to climb back out of the well.
CL One of the first things I said to you—I think my exact words might have been, “I’ve heard about your methods, and I find them suspicious.” (laughter) Because you write a whole book in a few days. I know you’ve explained this to me, but I still find it so perplexing. I’ve read those books, and I think they’re beautiful, and they didn’t need more days, but how could you walk away at that point? Because when I hit the nerve of a story—whether it’s a short story or a novel—I fall in love with it. I’m enamored. It would be like meeting the most perfect person and spending six days with them and saying, “Bye. That’s all I can do, six days.”
JB I think it is like that. Because you decipher this voice and there are things that the voice can say, and you have an empathy for the voice and for all the ways the voice has felt and can feel and will feel. And then you’re striding along with this strong walker through the hills and things are just of their own accord appearing. Then at some point the exhaustion sets in. The legs can no longer carry you forward. And the person is just walking into the distance and is gone.
CL Do you wonder what would happen if you worked through that?
JB I think it’s just there’s a sufficiency to what can be told in one tongue. For me, that’s the size of the thoughts I think. I try to say the least possible.
CL You’ve told me that we change so quickly, that’s why you want to write a book all from one place. People, especially writers and creative people, or those who are awake in any way—we’re changing constantly, constantly reseeing the world and finding new ways to be in it. So when you spend years and years on a book, the problem is inevitably that parts of it stop feeling true. Maybe they’re well-written, and they work in some way, but you just feel so distant from them.
JB Yeah, I want there to be an internal consistency within the book and what is meant by the words.
CL Your way of working has remained really consistent. Do you think that will ever change?
JB To me, the production of the works is not the important part of the process. Writing a book effects some cleaning of the slate, where I realize for a moment who I am again by dint of stepping outside of my body into a voice as completely as I can. Then, when I go back into my body, I realize who I am, and I can live for a while as that person. So it’s more that I want the time where I’m just alive, and then the books are a byproduct of the process and maybe the least important part, ultimately. So then I wouldn’t necessarily change the method because if changing the method were to create a different kind of book, that’s less important than just being able to walk by a plot of earth and look at it and feel that it’s a plot of earth, happily.
CL I hadn’t really thought very much about anybody else’s method for making a book. I thought everybody did it the same way, slowly and over years, in the messy way that I do it. The way you work—I thought it was absurd, and I thought it was a lie. And when I found out that Lauren Groff writes out many drafts longhand and then throws them all away—well, I don’t want to steal either one of those methods or even try them—but there’s something about each of them that’s worth considering.
PART THREE—I HATE YOUR BOOK
JB If someone comes up to you at a party and tells you how much they loved your book—
CL Well, that’s the only thing people tell you in public.
CL No one yet has come up to me to say, “I hate your book.”
JB I had a guy come up to me and say, “I think you’re a really good writer; I just think you’re wrong about a lot of things. But I enjoy the books.” (laughter)
JB And he was an intelligent person and good to speak with and kind of funny.
CL What did he think you were wrong about?
CL What things?
JB I think there’s a sort of atheist, existentialist, absurdist, ambiguous position in the books. And I think his position is more one of maybe free will and agency and some Manichean battle of good and evil. But I love having people object to me—if you respect someone, the best thing you can do is to tell them what you actually think, you know? If you don’t, it’s often because you don’t respect their ability to deal with what you have to say.
CL Or you’re seeking their approval so much, you don’t even realize you have objections. Speaking of objections… why don’t you read any contemporary authors?
JB I will read them; I just have to have them recommended to me. I don’t want to bother reading bad things, and there are so many piles of wonderful books—
CL But how do you know what’s wonderful from the past? I mean, how do you know that any book is wonderful without reading it?
JB I have a test. I’ll go into a bookstore and if I see a book and it looks okay, I’ll pick it up, and I’ll open it randomly to three places. And if the sentences are not disappointing in any spot, then I’ll buy it. I do do that.
CL When we first met at the Young Lions thing I said that people had been recommending your books to me for a long time, but I hadn’t read them yet. And I think you said, “I don’t read anything contemporary.” And I thought it was—
JB Oh, I didn’t mean it that way. If that’s indeed what I said, which—
CL We were in a room full of people, which I know you hate.
JB But I think what I meant—I would have meant that it’s fine for you to not have read my stuff.
CL That’s the way I took it. Living in New York, every fucking person I know has written a book, and I’ll never read them all. It felt really freeing to hear somebody excuse themselves from the whole thing. But later I thought about it, and it’s not fair because you’re informing your work with Old-World views, too, old ways of seeing, and old systems of privilege.
JB Well, but you have to dispute them. You always have to dispute everything you read, though, even those old things—certainly most of all those old things. But everything needs to be disputed, so I think—
CL But there’s the absence of all the perspectives you don’t get—
JB There’s something pernicious about work that is from your specific time because of all of the prejudices that are invisible at this moment. You don’t know how to detect or get around them, whereas if you look at old things, often the prejudices are grandly manifest, and you can’t avoid noticing them. I think we’re most blind to the worst things in our own time, you know. But, I mean, of course I read things that come fervently recommended.
CL I didn’t read much contemporary work until after grad school. I didn’t read many contemporary books in college because I didn’t have any, and growing up it was just classics, Shakespeare, and the Bible. For a while it was like I didn’t even know new books were being written.
PART FOUR—YOU CAN BURN THEM
CL I haven’t looked at any of your poems, at all.
JB You probably wouldn’t like them.
CL I probably wouldn’t. (laughter) I don’t like much poetry. I don’t. And I tend to like the stuff that probably poets would be like, Pffh, you know? Things that are more—
JB —like prose poetry. Do you like prose poetry?
CL Yeah, prose poetry, I do—it’s rare that I am into something that’s not—
JB You like funny poetry. That’s the kind you like, right?
CL Dark humor, yeah. If you say so, yeah, I guess I like a prose poem. But I’ve lost my taste for almost everything.
JB See, that’s what reading contemporary things does, though. If you read contemporary poetry, it’s going to make you tired of poetry. But if you just read—if you only read great poems, then you’re transfixed by their utility, their direct utility toward experience. Let’s say someone steals your cat, and swings it by its tail, and bludgeons it against the street, and you’re trying to know how you can feel as a person and continue your life in the aftermath of that. Somehow a poem is the thing that you need when that happens to your cat. What will help move you forward from that moment is to read someone else’s vivid passion about a similar moment that happened, a similar cat bludgeoning. There’s no smaller dose of that that you can have than a poem.
CL Yeah, there actually is some poetry that I really, really love, and it mainly is contemporary. Mysteriously I love John Berryman too; I don’t know why.
JB But some of that is just that you’ve had so much experience with Berryman that you’ve come close to those poems, and then they surround you. So that’s the work—sometimes you have to put in work to get to a poet.
JB And then you have them. So potentially you could put in that work with other poets.
CL That’s true, I just haven’t felt the urge to. And I feel like the urge is really important, you know?
CL But I also feel like—
JB For instance you could do that with one of my books. (laughter)
CL Maybe I will.
CL I shouldn’t?
JB You shouldn’t. You can burn them.
CL You have enough books that I don’t have to read the poems. But say this happens to your cat, and you need a poem… There are certain situations we get into in 2016 that are very different from what they were in, you know, 1750.
JB I don’t think that’s true.
CL Well, pretty much everything that could happen to you in 1750 still happens now, but I think that there’s more.
JB I disagree completely. I think the human experience is just universal. And it’s always been impossible to understand, and it continues to be so. I don’t believe in progress.
CL The experience of being a woman 200 years ago, and the experience of being a woman now—there’s a very different set of challenges and questions that we have now that we didn’t have then.
JB That’s definitely true.
CL And I respond now to work that is complicated in that way, you know? I can’t read Jane Eyre and really get excited about it, even though there’s a lot that’s still basically true in that book. I don’t know why that’s the example that came to mind, but I don’t want to read any stories like that anymore. It all feels very alien to what’s happening now.
JB A great sadness about the history of literature is that there are all these books absent from it—books that were not written because women, minorities, all kinds of people were silenced, and either they wrote a book and it was not the book that they could have written because they were silenced and they had to write something else, or they just were not allowed to write a book.
CL Or it didn’t survive.
JB Of course, this is the greatest grief: those are the books that we want to have.
And to the degree that people now can somehow supply some of them, of course, those are wonderful books to read. I would never argue with you about that.
JB To a certain degree, there are books that are about culture or a person’s predicament in culture or society, and then there are books that are just about the basic unfamiliarity of existence, how we’re all just guests in this enormous house, and we can’t even find a door to go into another room. And so those books, in some ways, can be unsexual; they can be not male, not female, just a person cast adrift, you know? I do think that in really great books, a person can move beyond being any kind of person into just being an amalgamate of everything they’ve ever seen.
CL Can you say that last part again?
JB The job as an author is to demonstrate plainly in your text the voice of all people you have seen, all places you have seen, all things you have seen, giving each one a fair and even chance to speak through your tongue.
CL The pressure of that makes me want to read some contemporary stuff. Not to disregard everything else, but to remain tapped into the fact that a greater diversity of voices are coming out now.
PART FIVE—THAT’S WHY I CAME UP WITH IT
JB I love walking so much because you walk from place to place, and it’s enough of doing something that you feel you’re engaged, but actually you’re not doing anything and your mind can just churn.
CL Yeah, when I read your Notes on My Dunce Cap, I was excited to read all the walking assignments. I’ve done this in my workshops, sending the students out on a walk. When I was a cater waiter or something, some old man—who knows who he was—he said, “You should walk more than you write.” Which I liked. Which is true.
JB Best piece of unsolicited advice.
CL We walked a lot aimlessly today, too. What do you feel like your limitations are as a writer?
JB So many. I love when things are incongruous, and I favor incongruous things over homogeneous ones, or things that are consistent and fit with prevailing narratives. I’m overly lyrical. I think I favor—
CL Do you fight any of these impulses?
JB Oh, all the time. The books would just be a collection of my shortcomings if I wasn’t constantly battling them. The word some is one of my overused words. And I always want to just add it in, because I always want to make things less… I want to mediate everything and make everything conditional. So instead of, you know, “a dog,” it’s “some dog.”
CL ”Some guy is walking down the street.”
JB That’s my biggest failing. How about you? What’s your biggest… what are the failings of your style?
CL Oy, that’s a hard question.
JB You just asked me. (laughter)
CL I know, I know. That’s why I came up with it.
CL I had this perfectly white paper coffee cup, and I wanted to take some notes for the interview, so I took notes on the cup, and one of them was that we could pass each other notes during a boring lecture. Because I thought of one of the boring talks that we were listening to in Australia, and you were writing on your hand, telling me things, and that was more interesting. And I thought that if we could find, somewhere in New York, a lecture that lasted three hours on a topic that we didn’t care about, then we could just conduct the entire interview in handwriting while avoiding something else.
JB We would have to find the most boring possible lecture. Maybe it could be about the degradation of the nationwide system of water pipes. Boring. But on the other hand, that causes sinkholes. I’m thinking of those photographs of collapsed roads with the noses of cars sticking out.
JB So actually that wouldn’t be boring.
CL No, it wouldn’t be. We’d need something more boring than that.
PART SEVEN—WHY WOULD YOU MAKE ME THE NIHILIST?
JB What things in your house have you sold when you needed money?
CL Oh, everything in my house. Everything I’ve ever owned I’ve probably sold. When I left New Orleans, I just got rid of everything I had and put up an ad on Craigslist just saying, like, “Come to my house and take everything.” Then in New York, I’ve been constantly, not so much anymore, but for most of the time that I’ve been here I’ve been constantly selling things on Craigslist and buying things on Craigslist. I’ve probably bought or sold almost every piece of furniture I’ve ever had on Craigslist.
JB I moved out of a house once, and I had a yard sale. I was selling ninety percent of what I owned. I put up a sign outside; it said, “Tell me what you’ll pay, and I’ll say yes.” And so the people would come in, and see what was there—an expensive djembe, or a beautiful set of pétanque boules, or a hand-tooled bag—and be really confused. And some of them actually left, they didn’t know how to deal with it, you know? But there were also some people who would come in and be sort of opportunistic, and they would grab something immediately—a stereo or some such thing—and offer me a dollar.
CL Did you take it?
JB And then I would say yes, and I would take the dollar, and then they would leave and keep looking back at me in confusion, their faces would be twisted into some little, like, squirrely distention. Two of my friends were there—this guy Phil and this guy Boris—and so the three of us would sit there and look at the people very calmly as they did this. It was funny. This one guy, he took this very beautiful satchel for a giant or something, a magnificent large leather bag—and he paid me, I don’t know, twenty dollars for it, when he could have taken it for nothing. It was fine, but then the next day he came back because he decided that he wanted to pay me more. And he slipped an envelope under the door with one hundred dollars, because he didn’t feel right about it.
CL That’s incredible. People are uncomfortable with being given too good of a deal.
CL Oh, I had one more idea for the interview that I really liked. Maybe next time. We act like we are reporters, investigating life in general, and ask people on the street different questions.
JB So, transcendentalist reporters, or existentialist reporters?
CL Yeah. And maybe we could be competing. We’d each try to convince the random person to take our side.
JB You could be the nihilist, and I could be some positivist.
CL Why would you make me the nihilist?
JB I’ll be the nihilist. (laughter)
CL What does that make me?
JB I mean, you can choose. Would you like to be a pheasant? What’s the opposite of a nihilist?
CL I’ll be the vegetarian.
JB A pheasant.
CL I think that was the end of my interview ideas.
JB Is it time to say goodbye?
CL Yeah, I guess so.
JB Well, goodbye everyone.