Jesse Ball doesn’t simply write novels—he creates worlds. Not in the sense of those 600-page “world-building” science fiction tomes, where every building and every weirdo creature is extensively described. But in each of Ball’s novels and stories—and with almost a dozen books in print and with others stashed unpublished in his Chicago home, you’d think it’s not just him behind these books but perhaps an entire construction crew—he meticulously creates a new place, with its own rules, its own reality and its own mysteries to delve into.
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In his latest, The Curfew, a man and his deaf daughter must navigate through a world of chaos. From the surface, everything looks very controlled. There is the titular curfew all citizens must obey, secret police monitor conversations, access to information is tightly controlled and rebellion is absolutely forbidden. Yet the citizenry has responded with violence, and the undercover police are vulnerable to bursts of murderous rage. And in that chaos, the father has to leave behind his daughter to search for what happened to her mother, his wife.
I talked to Jesse Ball about his latest creation, why writers should live joyous lives and the class he teaches on lying.
What struck me about The Curfew was how much you kept quiet about in the book—how this world came to be, what exactly it looks like...There's a lot going on off the page. Is there a rigorous editing process you go through, or do you know going in what's going to be included and what's only going to be hinted at?
I try to keep a sense both of the immediate and of the overall. If I can keep in mind what things look like from faraway, then I can avoid missteps. It isn't a matter of planning, but of care in the moment of making. As for editing—I do not like to engage in it. I feel the reader should take the path I took through the book, in order to retain the same sense of continuous mutual arrival.
You teach unusual topics at the Art Institute of Chicago: lying, lucid dreaming, etc. How does the research for and teaching of these classes influence your writing?
It is rather the other way around—my writing tends to influence what I teach. Or, more precisely, whatever it is that makes my writing be what is, that same thing also influences my teaching. The true aspiration shouldn't be to be a writer—but to simply be a clearheaded person who isn't deluded or deceived, who naturally penetrates illusions and lives a joyous life.
So then the obvious follow-up question would be, how does lying make your writing what it is, besides the obvious correlation between fiction and lying? And then, do you think fiction is a form of lying?
Oh, I don't lie very often at all! It's a habit I broke long ago. Some of my characters will lie, though. Hopefully, not too much. Regarding untruth in fiction, well, things may be true or untrue, or both, or sometimes one and sometimes another—a writer had to deal with the world that he finds, both internally and externally. If one can do it honestly, whether using falsehood as a tool or not, one may well have succeeded.
You've said before you have a lot of unpublished novels that you've already written. Do you have favorites you'd like to see published sooner than others? Other manuscripts you'd rather keep hidden?
Well, Plainface, the first part of which was published as a sort of novella in the Paris Review, has a full version with many adventures. I would love to see that one out. I am very fond of that character. The others, I suppose, will eventually find their day to emerge. It takes such a long time for books to be published! I think it will be easier for people to understand my work once more of the books have appeared. At the moment, the picture is limited. The publication of The Curfew and, in July, The Village on Horseback with Milkweed, will certainly help with that. TVOHB is an omnibus containing six volumes: two books of poetry, two of short prose and two novellas.
I read in an interview that you don't want your books to be considered "trickery." I would probably use the word "playful." Why don't you like the word trickery, and what is the line between the two, do you think?
Well, the matter is this—one wants to write cleanly and freshly without resort to limp approximations. One wants the reader to be astonished by the sudden appearance of things he/she knows, has always known, but couldn't express. One wants to show the interconnectedness of the world, in all its resplendent wildness. Yet readers are dulled in their expectations of what is possible by the rigamarole of daily life. So, some deception may help to wake them up, to make them allow themselves to be at one's disposal. At that point, one must have something true and serious to say, even if it is joyous and absurd.