Sunday, July 6, 2014

Josh Weil

Josh Weil was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his debut collection, The New Valley. A National Book Award "Five Under Thirty-Five" author, he has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, Columbia University, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, and Sewanee. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Esquire, One Story, and Agni.

Weil's debut novel is The Great Glass Sea.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Weil's reply:
I’m reading some door stoppers these days. In particular, Anna Karenina. I’d never read it, and, since my novel is set in Russia, I figured I probably oughta crack the ol’ masterpiece open. And I’ve been happy to find the rest of the world’s not wrong: it is a masterpiece (of course). It’s also just hugely enjoyable, shot-through with such life, and simply humming with the complexities of human relationships. I’m loving it. Which isn’t as expected as it might seem. I’ve read a fair amount of classic Russian literature—Dead Souls, Crime and Punishment, Fathers and Sons…etc.—and I’m attracted to a lot about it, but I’m not someone who reveres the classics over contemporary fiction (I think the great writers today are doing work every bit as great as ones who came before) and I’ve often found myself losing patience with aspects of some of the classics that feel out-of-synch with what I love about reading my favorite literary writers today. I don’t feel that with Anna Karenina, though. It’s one of those classics that teaches me as I read it, that makes me recognize the debt we who are writing now do owe.

The other thick book I’m reading, I’m actually not reading—I’m listening to it on tape. The phrase ‘On tape’ dates me, I know, but that’s how I think of it. I did a 40 hour drive (to Colorado and back) and listened to Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country almost the entire way. It’s such a rich work of imagination. I’m a sucker for sinking into a landscape that comes alive around me and characters whose voices stick in mind, and this book has both. Plus Book 1, at least, is such a great example of how a rock-solid narrative backbone (a single question around which the story is wound) can free a writer up to in other ways. In this case the question of exactly how & why the main character is killed (set up right at the start) lets Matthiessen dip into a swirl of other aspects of the world, spend his time shaping relationships and painting place, without losing my attention. It’s masterfully done.

As is one of the bravest and best debuts I’ve seen in recent years—Mike Harvkey’s In the Course of Human Events. I read an early draft years ago, and was blown away. But I haven’t had the chance to read the published book until now. And now that I’m digging back into it I’m stuck by everything that I loved about it before—how it takes the reader into a world we’re reluctant to enter, and makes us want to stay there by bringing characters to life that we can’t help but fall for; how precise and hard-hitting the prose is—but I’m also seeing the way that weakness has been worked out of the story and it’s just such a ripping read now. By the time this post goes up, I’ll probably have moved on to something else—because that book’s gonna keep me up reading late till I’m done.

Burning the midnight oil, as they say. Which is an apt note for me close on, since the best non-fiction book I’ve read in a long time is one I just finished: Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Jane Brox. It’s one of those works of creative non-fiction where the writing is as marvelous as the subject. And the subject is so utterly fascinating—it illuminates all sorts of corners of our human history. Though I’m especially interested in it because it bears on my writing right now: The Great Glass Sea takes place in a world where darkness has been eliminated from life and the story collection I’m currently working on, The Age of Perpetual Light, is tied to the novel by that same thread.

It’s funny, I was just going to write that the book I’m most looking forward to reading next doesn’t have anything to do with my own work—but I realized the title makes it seem as if it does (I swear, I didn’t set that up): Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.
Visit Josh Weil's website.

--Marshal Zeringue