A Building of His Own Design 

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Jesse Ball is the author of several volumes of poetry and two novels: Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, published earlier this year. He and The L exchanged a series of emails..

The L: The Way Through Doors has a very intricate structure. Besides the main stream of plot, there are various side stories that bob to the surface, then submerge themselves again. How did you write the novel? Did you write separate stories then arrange them, or did the stories invite themselves into the novel as you wrote?

Jesse Ball:I knew the outlines of the stories beforehand — that is, the outline mainly of the two larger narratives: that of the gambler and then the Russian scenes. The rest unfolded as it came.

The L:The chapter-less, page numberless form of The Way Through Doors reminded me of Robert Creeley's philosophy as told by Charles Olson: "Form is never more than an extension of content." Although Olson referred to poetry, do you think that this applies to TWTD? How so?

JB: I think that's a sound thought, although there is the reverse process also sometimes of the action of life turning something false into something genuine over the course of time, in that sense, form determining content, eventually, after a while. Smiling until one is happy.

I appreciate that you brought this point up, however, as it is precisely expediency that determined the form of TWTD. I don't do things without a purpose. The wildness of the book isn't some ornamental construction. Rather, it is a clear and simple way of illustrating the operative idea.

The L: I found the novel to read as sets of parentheses opened up with each introduction of a new story. When the gambler and his wife were introduced, that opened up a parenthesis that wasn't closed until the end when his wife was brought up again, for instance. How is this served by the “wildness” of the book?

JB: It is that, but those are also elements of the reconstruction that Selah is attempting. The wildness of the book is a matter of following the line of passion and surprise.

The L: I found it difficult to put down TWTD. The frame-within-a-frame stories captivated my attention and I felt pulled into a King Shahryar/Sheherazade relationship. Do you think of the reader when you begin to write a story?

JB: Well, I think of the reader enough to not abandon him/her. The main thing, I think, is that if I am surprised and delighted when I am writing the book, I believe the same feelings will be felt by the reader. A good thing clearly stated goes quite far without help.

The L: I've read that you hardly do any rewriting. How does your process of writing stand up against the editing practice?

JB: Well, I think it is a mistake to understand it that my process involves little revision: I believe the revision takes place ahead of time as part of a rigorous reading practice. In boxing, they say that fights are won and lost in the training camp, before you even get into the ring. The same is true of writing.

The L: In terms of "rigorous reading", would you say that writing is an extension of your reading? I'm curious about what you read during these stages of preparation. Do you stick mainly to fiction or do you branch out into other texts?

JB: I read everything, fiction, poetry, memoir, history, strategy, science, biography, methodology. Neither writing nor reading is in direct service to the other. Rather, the whole is being alive and that we may do things, such fine things as these.

The L: You write in both poetry and prose. Do you ever have a hard time classifying something you've written?

JB: Such classifications are very arbitrary, obviously. It is necessary to operate within them for the time being, but I believe that readers of my fiction will be surprised and happy to discover that those things of which they are fond in my novels are also present in my poetry. And, of course, vice-versa.

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The L: TWTD was written in France and your previous novel, Samedi the Deafness, was written in Scotland. Could you have written those novels anywhere else?

JB: Nowhere else and at no other time. My understanding, on this day in 2009, is quite far gone from that which I knew in June of 2005. That's another reason I think it can be a mistake to return to a book years later to alter it — one isn't remotely the same person.

The L: It sounds like you have an awareness of the flux of life that carries over to the way art is made, but do you think that your imagination would have been piqued in the same way if you had been writing in, say, Omaha, Nebraska?

The L: Difficult to say. If I went there now to live in a building of my own design, I'm sure I could be both happy and productive. Is it nice there? How is the food?

The L: In TWTD, parts of the novel take place in Coney Island and near the Manhattan Bridge. Why did you choose New York as a location for the novel when you were living in Europe?

JB: I am very fond of New York and I know it well. I feel I am always either moving towards or moving away from New York.

The L: The movement of the stories and the transitions between them rely on the choreography of the storytelling and the strategic placement of facts about Selah in the beginning of the novel. The reader learns that Selah makes pamphlets, that he works for the Seventh Ministry, and that he is given new suits for work. Later, when he walks onto the stage as "the pamphleteer," "the municipal inspector," or "A young man in a blue-gray suit", the reader recognizes him. There is little interiority: the reader watches the novel as it's happening. This strikes me as a cinematic style of storytelling — do you take any tips from filmmakers?

JB: I must, I must! I watch so many films and adore them. I couldn't continue in my designs without their teachings too.

The L: I wasn’t familiar with the name Selah, and when I researched its origins, I found that it was a difficult to translate word from the Hebrew language. Is there significance behind his name? How did you choose the other characters’ names?

JB: I have always adored that name. It was the name of a sea captain who made his home in the nineteenth century in the harbor where I was later born.

The L: The Way Through Doors begins when, several months into his job as a municipal inspector, Selah witnesses a girl struck by a car. He brings her to the hospital where the staff discovers she has no identification. Selah tells the staff that he is her boyfriend and that her name is Mora Klein. The doctor instructs him to keep her awake and construct a book detailing her memories. When he brings her to his apartment, which is also where he makes his pamphlets, he essentially re-tells the novel up until he found her, then he launches into the bulk of the novel. Does Mora’s character function as the reader placed inside the novel?

JB: An interesting and apt question, but I refuse to answer it.


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