Q: Hello, Joseph. First of all, I would like to congratulate you for your last work The Plasma Terror. When you begin to write it? Why this novel?
Thanks, Martin. Why? Quite frankly, 9/11 was such a traumatic event in American consciousness that I couldn’t believe any American novelist would not write a novel about some aspect of the nation’s greatest tragedy. Why would you avoid that topic as a novelist? Last year, I saw a novelist call the people who wrote 9/11 novels “ambulance chasers.” I felt sorry for such a comment coming from a novelist—I felt like he was guilty of the same kind of thing America’s shrinking bourgeois class was guilty of—wishing only to trivialize the catastrophe and carry on with their lives merrily.
You also asked when I began it. Well, the truth is that I began it even before 9/11 happened. That summer, 2001, I had left banking and began to write a satirical novel about reality television—which was new to America, and which I hated. Then 9/11 happened, and it didn’t seem possible to be writing anything satirical and flip in the new climate. But about six weeks after 9/11, a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you just write 9/11 into it?” He thought it was a perfect fit; he thought the way 9/11 was covered was as a kind of horrific reality show.
I kept working on it for about five years. I basically finished the book in 2005, but re-released it in 2011, near the tenth anniversary of the event. Norman Mailer once said that it takes about 10 years for a nation to digest a catastrophic national event well enough to begin to engage it meaningfully, and I believe that’s generally true.
Q: Maybe the reader ignores this point, but you have published several poems in Yareah Magazine about Tarot. I can see some influences of exotic places in your writing, both in your novels and in your poems. I would like to know what’s your real intention. I mean, do you think of the potential reader or do you write only for yourself?
Yes, a good question, because the personal experience is such a recognizably postmodern way to create art—but is it too personal? In my Tarot poems, I am trying to do something along the line of what James Joyce did with Dublin in Ulysses or even Dante did with Florence especially in the Inferno. I am taking my own life and experiences and using this as a roadmap for navigating the Tarot. So, I don’t think I’m writing anymore for “myself” than Dante or Joyce did. I’m hoping that the result is artful enough that the reader who is completely unacquainted with my own life can still find value in the poems, and perchance even draw from one to navigate a mood or emotion in life—evoked by a particular Tarot card, which are all different evocations of emotions and conditions—in a meaningful way.
Q: I would like to ask you for something: don’t kick me to the next question, please (joking, of course). When I read some English or American writers I saw some oversight in the literary form, giving all the importance to the theme and forgetting the beauty of sentences and words. When I read you I don’t see it, and I could feel a very better relationship between the theme in the novel and the election of the words… and here is my double question: do you think they are ignoring the literary structure in modern literature? What are your literary intentions?
First, I want a marriage of style and substance—and I am insistent on this to a fetishistic degree. I’ll give an example that speaks to your broader question. Though I have presented novels to conventional commercial houses, I never did with my present novel, which is only online. The reason is that I believe it makes the most sense in an electronic format. Mostly this is because of 9/11 itself came to represent as our consciousness of it evolved through the past decade. I believe that 9/11 is probably for Americans the last event that they all experienced collectively through the lens of television. Now, when there are events that demand the attention of all of us, we have other devices contributing to our immediate experience of them.
So, Martin, to me it is not that American writers are deliberately ignoring literary structure, or not employing because of ignorance. It is that they live in a world that gives them a surplus of media applications in which to ply their trade—they are far ahead of (or behind!) continental Europe in the degree to which their lives are organized around media devices. Because of this saturation of textual experience, which comes not only in books and papers but on screens and even on their phones–they rarely worry about how something that genuinely speaks to the world will appear once framed by the archaic form of a nicely printed book. Books, in fact, to some Americans are already beginning to look like what an illuminated manuscript must have looked to people in the early sixteenth century. Yet the writers in these countries still venerate books, and it is in large part a financial equation for them. If we are having problems identifying consistent streams in American literature now, and problems identifying literary forms, it is because writers are too hopeful of the promise of crossing platforms and catching a marketing wave—too rewarded by formlessness—to pay much attention to what form or structure might really mean to-day in literature.
Q: What are your favorite authors and influences?
They ebb and flow with time. I read Proust very early, and he was an early influence, but mostly a sexual one. He was talking about queens, lesbian men, sexual duplicity, and blends of male and female in ways that certainly anticipated the astounding academic work of Judith Butler. From Proust to Lawrence Durrell was a logical step for me: especially in the Alexandria Quartet, a kind of “wine press of love” as Durrell would have it, there were hot adjectives laid next to cold nouns, and that kind of writing blends well with the sexuality of the Quartet (which is not erotic at all, but conversely demonstrates how our sexual moments are alternately sublime and tawdry, and can oscillate rapidly between the two) appeals to me. Also, authors I respect include Gore Vidal and V.S. Pritchett, and finally M.F.K. Fisher; the books of all of these are never very far away from my nightstand. I use the biographies of these authors, especially Durrell’s, to help steer my own life.
Q: You worked as a journalist… I don’t know if you know it but… well… I must confess I’ve studied Journalism at the University… What are the differences between the journalism and the literature? Have your books got any influence of the journalism?
There is not much crossover. You are probably aware that Hemingway said that journalism could be good for a writer if he got out of it in time—and that is one of the few true things that Hemingway said. But I will say that I esteem myself more like the grand French feuilleton authors, more like Sartre, say than like any American journalist. I am always, even when publishing in journals, careful to call myself a writer rather than a journalist. That said, I had some journalism experience in college too, including a class from the great Fred Friendly. For journals, I have never written straight news, but always opinion journalism or news analysis or cultural criticism. I am careful not to join organizations—I am nobody’s shill or hired gun. As far as influence, the only thing I ever do that marries literature and journalism is to tell people I meet in journalism to read my books!
Q: Another question about journalism. What do you think about New Journalism and Tom Wolfe?
I thought they were a breath of fresh American air. You know, I am old enough that I read them when New Journalism was new. American journalism has always maintained a false front about being “objective”—that is, uncolored by any bias. It was always true that this “objectivity” in American journalism was merely the subjective judgment of fifty-something white American males. New Journalism did away with the rules of objectivity, and something emerged in America that was more along European lines: in Europe, of course, you presume a bias of the periodicals you read even before you read them. This is far more honest. There are still people in America who rant about objectivity but usually these are the most disenfranchised.
I loved The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test especially. But I also loved Hunter S. Thompson’s political book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, which is one of the best books about a political campaign ever to appear in American politics. That is not to say it is the most accurate. But it is one of the most savage ever writen, and at that point in American history, savagery was the whole point. We need far more books like that, and far fewer academic books on Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Q: Tell me… what do you think it is your best quality as a writer?
My patience. It’s amazing, how I haven’t killed any editors yet.
Q: How do you build the structure of the novel? Do you have a solid previous plot or do you let your characters grow?
My characters grow to extreme degrees. I don’t understand who a character is at the beginning of the novel, only at the end. In one extreme example, I have a particular novel that I was working on for twenty-five years (!). Only in year twenty-four did I finally realize that a certain main character in it was not a man, but a woman. By this point, of course, to change the sex of the character meant changing nearly every sentence, changing what had been done over the previous twenty-four years, changing every pronoun, changing every interaction. But there it was: Jack was actually Lauren. How could I have missed it all those years? Idiot! That plot had been the same since year one—but it was the character I didn’t have right, and that was why it took so long to write. It’s my favorite work. By the way, and this is really a coincidence, the editor I promised to deliver it to—he had a sex change while I was making my own changes to the character! So there was something very mysterious taking place there. And that’s ultimately what I have to say about novels and plotting and characters: we are always really in the presence of mystery when we consider these.
Q: Do you have any projects for the future? What’s your next book?
My next book is a schizo work par excellence. It is an interanimation of Dante’s Divina Commedia involving a protagonist whose mother dies. Two days after her death, he walks on a bridge that is being seismically rehabilitated, and which has holes all through it from the construction work. Each hole is like a bolgia of the Inferno. Then after he crosses this bridge, he will enter a period of purgation that lasts five years, and finally end up in his own paradise, a backyard garden. I should be finished by September, when it will be time to publish another book. But I have two other books completed too, and am also working on yet another. I am always working, as there is always a future.
More in Yareah: http://yareah.com/?p=468
See also: http://street-hassle.blogspot.com.es/