Saturday, July 10, 2010

Josh Weil Gets Cracking

The stories get me writing–the other ones that I have in a notebook full of ideas: I want to get to them, and do them well, and bring them to life, before I die.  And if I’m going to get near most of them, I’m going to have to get cracking.  What keeps me going?  The story I’m working on right then.  The fact that something I wrote the day before feels good enough I can’t let it die.  That if I don’t write something today that matches it, I may as well be killing it.  And I owe my characters, the story itself, more than that.
      --Josh Weil in an interview at JMWW

Josh Weil is the exceptionally-talented author of the exceptionally-beautiful The New Valley, a triad of exceptionally-poignant novellas.  Now that I've used up my daily quota of the word "exceptional," I can only say that you must, YOU MUST read this book before all others on your to-read list.  You will thank me later.

The New Valley is populated with unforgettable characters from what the jacket copy calls "the hardscrabble hill country between West Virginia and Virginia."  The novellas are filtered to us through three lonely men who live on the outskirts of the fringe of society: a middle-aged farmer who has just lost his father and must pick up the pieces of his life and the family business; a health-nut who desperately wants to save (and control) the life of his obese daughter; and a mildly-retarded man (he refers to himself as "diminished") who gets involved with an unhappy wife, a decision that sets the narrator, the woman, and the woman's husband on a collision course toward violence.  Of the three, I liked the center story ("Stillman Wing") the least...which is to say I really liked it, as opposed to loving it in that turning-cartwheels way I felt reading the other two stories.

Weil's characters are lonely and alienated from those around them--which is pretty lonely when you consider we're talking about rural Virginia here.  In the first novella, "Ridge Weather," Osby Caudill, flounders through life in the wake of his father's death.  Abandoned hay bales frighten him, flirty convenience-store clerks fluster him, and he's perplexed by how best to raise his father's cattle.  Osby wishes "there was some way other than talking to say things.  It was like he wasn't even meant to be a person.  He would have been better off an animal, comunicate by raising the hairs on his head or putting off some kind of smell."

Here's another passage which illustrates Weil's attention to detail--a flashback to when Osby's mother died:
His father hadn't let anyone help them take the body to the funeral home.  They had wrapped her in the sheets and carried her downstairs, his father holding her under her arms, Osby clutching her cold ankles.  She had smelled like old cabbage.  Her body sagged, heavy as wet sand.  His thin twelve-year-old forearms strained and he struggled to keep his fingers locked around her legs.  Halfway down the stairs, he dropped her.  Her heels thwacked the hard wood step, and he had thought how much that would hurt if she was alive.
The third novella, "Sarverville Remains," might just be a modern-day masterpiece--the writing is tight, complex and original.  The story is told by Geoffrey Sarver, the "diminished" thirty-year-old who finds himself falling for Linda Podawalski, a small-town femme fatale.  "Sarverville Remains" is a series of letters Geoffrey writes to Linda's husband who is serving time in jail after catching Geoffrey with his wife and then savagely beating him.  From the very first paragraph when we encounter Geoffrey's distinct voice, we know we're entering a story unlike most others:
I want to say right here what I am sorry.  I am sorry for where you is at and how you got there and I am sorry for calling you to the scene of the crime, as they say, and for the crime, and for if I hurt you something what's took too long to heal.  Most off I am sorry about your wife.
"Sarverville Remains" demands that the reader's eyes slow down and patiently absorb Geoffrey's simple-yet-complicated style.  It's as if William Faulkner's Benjy was narrating a film noir set in hillbilly country.  I found myself in that odd position of wanting to read the entire story in one fell swoop while constantly applying the brakes so I'd slow down and savor Geoffrey's voice.  In the end, I spent nearly a week on "Sarverville Remains"--that's how good it is.

I'm very impressed by Weil's talent for getting so deep inside his characters that everything else falls away.  While I wouldn't call his stories plot-less, there is less going on here action-wise than your average novel.  But that doesn't matter because the writing is so rich with detail and deliberately-paced syntax that you find yourself immersed in the people on the page.

In another interview--this time with The New York Times' Paper Cuts blog--Weil talks about his writing process and it's a good indicator of why The New Valley works so well.  It's also identical to the way I work in my basement--or would work if I was "lucky enough to have a month or two or six to yank loose from the rest of my life":
      When I think of my writing life, I think of life at the cabin in Virginia where I wrote all of the novellas in The New Valley.  It’s where I do the bulk of my work, and if I’m lucky enough to have a month or two or six to yank loose from the rest of my life, this is how a day there goes by:  I wake while it’s still dark, reach for a flashlight (I don’t like to turn the lights on), climb down the ladder from the attic, put a slice of toast in the toaster, put the coffee on, put a kettle of hot water on, too.  I watch the burner’s blue flame.  I stretch.  The toaster pops.  Out on the porch, the breeze blows up the valley.  I watch the view beginning to take shape in the first blue light of dawn.  Then I finish my toast and go inside and put my earplugs in, and pour coffee into the thick, white diner mug my brother gave me long ago.  I sit at the small side table I use as a desk.  I get to work.
      If work goes well, I’ll write for six or seven hours straight.

      Maybe I’ll get up to have a second slice of toast, maybe to stoke the wood stove, maybe to pace on the stone path between the apple tree and the grape arbor, maybe just to lie down on the floor beneath my wool blanket and shut my eyes.  If it doesn’t go well, I get up a lot more often, and nap a lot longer, and pace a lot faster, and talk to myself more loudly and with more hand gestures while I do it, and probably look increasingly like a half-crazed madman.  Either way, by early afternoon I’m tapped out.  I make what I call breakfast, deal with real life for a while — anything from splitting wood to sending emails — before the late afternoon when I head up the mountain.  I hike fast, and think on whatever I’m writing, and by the time I’ve reached the ridge top I’ve most likely figured it out.  Then I run down, strip, shower, sit back at the desk and try to get down a little of what I’d discovered.

      Of course, that’s the writing life when the writing life is good.

      The tough part comes at times like now:  I’ve just moved to an apartment in Baltimore where my upstairs neighbor’s TV wakes me, its babble leaking through the floor; my desk is surrounded by half-unpacked boxes; I spend more time mulling over the class I’m teaching than the book I’m writing; I spend more weekends driving to bookstore readings than reading books.

      How one manages to bring together both — a focus on the work without withdrawing entirely from the demands of daily life — is something I’m still struggling to figure out.

No comments:

Post a Comment