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Issue 8

An Interview with Jesse Ball

 · Nonfiction

By Daniel Huppman

Jesse Ball is a poet, a novelist, and a teacher. His fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, was released in 2014 by Pantheon. In 2008, he won the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review for his short story “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr.” He currently teaches in the M.F.A. program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he runs creative writing workshops as well as courses on lying and lucid dreaming.

Jesse Ball is not a “tricky guy,” and he is not “up to something,” as some may claim. He is quiet, yes, almost meditative, and he does not like to repeat himself or be misunderstood. While this leads to what could be interpreted as a slippery persona, it is not, in truth, that difficult to understand what he is about, as long as you are willing to put in the work of understanding. For example, when he gave a vague answer to one of the questions below, I almost always found that it was in response to a question that he had once answered elsewhere. To this professor of lying, if the truth is out there already, it is up to the interviewer to go out and find it.

Ball has a very specific way of working, which is quickly, and in one direction. (He has said that he wrote Silence Once Begun in eight days.) Editing or revising is unimportant, and inaccuracies are not deleted; instead, they combine to form a new, unique truth. In Jesse Ball’s world, to be “totally incorrect” is not a major issue. In that spirit, this interview, which was conducted briskly, is presented intact — correct or otherwise.

During your recent visit to Temple University, you said about one M.F.A. student’s story-in-progress that it might be helpful to think of it as a diorama that has to be viewed through the correct angle. I was hoping you could elaborate on your ideas about point of view.

Oh, dear me — no! I’m sure the advice was not good and certainly should not be repeated.

Well, again, during your visit, you talked about jobs and about finding a place to work that allows you to produce the most writing possible. I was hoping you could share the best job you ever had as a writer, before you started to get paid to be a writer.

Two of my friends did a live-in scientific study. It paid them a great deal of money, and there haven’t been ill effects, at least not yet. That would have been my favorite job.

Were you the subject of said study? I’m hoping you were compensated as well.

Oh, no — each one had to separately live in a sort of box. I was not given that opportunity.

I also wonder if there was a moment where you became comfortable calling yourself a “writer.” Did it have to do with finishing work, getting published, winning awards, or accumulating degrees? Or did you always know and have that confidence?

Being a writer is unimportant. Much more important to have something specific to say.

How, if at all, would you say your career as an educator has influenced your work as a writer? I couldn’t imagine that they are easy worlds to balance.

I don’t think it influences the writing. Rather, the writing and teaching are influenced by the direct experience of living.

When I was exploring your website, I came across a link to the Poyais Group, where I saw an awful lot of bees. I also happened to notice the swarm of tattooed bees climbing your left arm. I wanted to ask about the connection between and the significance of those things. Do you think that there is a connection between visual art and the written word?

Probably none — other than expectation.

Are you referring to the expectation that the reader/viewer has?

Yes — when you think you are about to read a poem, you may believe certain things will happen when you do so, and other things when you are done. A short story might bring with it a different set of expectations, just as a film does, or a painting.

From what I know about your writing process — that you write efficiently, to say the least — and from meeting you in person, I got the impression that you value precision. Would you say that is something that is practiced?

It is natural to me, at least — this is the way I am. Whether it is a fundamentally useful way of being, who can say? I should think it is not. For me, I have been very lucky. That is at least as important as everything else combined.

When discussing your book Silence Once Begun, one student said that the setting was overall inconsequential. Some disagreed, but the point was made that the novel could basically have been told in any land, real or imagined. I wonder if you might like to react to that possibly misguided assumption about place.

I’m sure it makes a lot of difference for some. I tend to think that story is universal. Plot, though, is conditional according to context.

So you’re saying that to you, as far as the elements of fiction are concerned, setting serves as a context through which plot can be viewed, and overall, plot is the most important thing in telling a story? Or am I interpreting that wrong?

That is totally incorrect.

Understood. Speaking of place, I would love for you to elaborate on your impression of Philadelphia.

I was only there long enough to notice it when it was gone. I shall eventually return, perhaps. Some Philly pride: I, and two of the cabdrivers I met, agree — we are rooting for Hopkins in his upcoming bout with the dangerous Kovalev.

I didn’t take you for a fan of boxing. Do you practice any fighting disciplines yourself?

Badly. I do some things, but very badly.


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