On Writing A First Novel
An interview with Josh Weil, author of The Great Glass Sea
The 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize finalist talks with Christopher Messer about myth and fable, the novella form, and the influence of Russian culture and language. For more information on the First Novel Prize, please click here.
When did you start writing? What were the earliest stories you can remember making?
Oh man, I think the earliest thing was when I was probably around 12 years old. I say "thing" more than "story," although it had something like a story shape. I was just kind of imagining things on paper for a while. I remember I wrote something about these two brothers who were centaurs. It was usually accompanied by pictures. I'd just be drawing and then kind of thinking this stuff out in words as well.
I was really into cowboy stuff. I was reading a lot of autobiographies of trappers and broncobusters and I wrote a story about this cowboy named Buck who got in a knife fight. It wasn't his fault. Someone attacked him, but he killed the guy, and he ended up being chased by a posse and then hanged until he was dead from a cottonwood tree. And that was probably the first thing I wrote that had an actual arc to it and character development—that was a story.
When did you start thinking that this could be something you wanted to do more seriously?
That was probably my senior year in high school. I had written a little fictional scene for an assignment for an English class. My English teacher took me aside and said he what I wrote had promise, and I should just keep writing and see where it went. Being the somewhat cocky kid that I was before life stomped that out of me, I thought, "Well, geez, I'll just write a novel, then."
All my friends of course said, "You're not going to write a novel." And of course that made me want to write it all the more. So I wrote a novel-length thing my senior year in high school. It was a western and it was, I think, around 600 pages, and I just loved it. I'd start writing after I was done with my homework at midnight, and I didn't have an internal editor. I didn't have all the doubt that comes as you start to think about your own writing in the world and the way that people are going to read it and all of that.
So I just had a blast. I would bang out four pages in an hour, call it done, come back, and do the same thing the next day. It was such a joy and such an amazing experience to watch these characters come to life on the page and for me to get to know them. I think it was largely about that incredibly close bonding experience that a writer has with his characters. That felt unlike anything else. That really made me feel like it was something I wanted to do.
I don't know if at that point I thought, "Well, I could be a writer." But I knew it was something that I wanted to do in a serious way and make part of my life for a long time.
That's incredible. So basically, you wrote one short story and then wrote a 600-page novel.
Yeah, I think that's kind of true. I had written a couple of other things. I wrote a play, a one-act play that I directed. I can't remember whether that was before or after I started the novel. I was becoming interested in writing, and I had taken a class in Shakespeare. I think that's probably when I first started to pay real attention to character and story and structure. I was just kind of blown away by what I was reading, and so somewhere in the mix in those years, the mid and late years in high school, is really where I got bit.
You wrote a collection of three novellas, The New Valley, which was published by Grove. How did that come to be? And what was the process of publishing that like? It seems like a collection of novellas would be a hard sell.
Well, because it was novellas, they were written over a period of three or four years. And the first one that I wrote, I didn't even know what a novella was. I was working on a novel and struggling with short stories, and I got this idea for something that felt less strictly defined than that. And after revision, that became the first novella in that collection. I felt like I had touched something that was real and vital to who I was as a writer and to the way that I worked and the kind of story I could tell honestly, and that felt valuable to me. And I loved the novella form.
I wrote these novellas with an understanding that they were going to be very hard to publish and that it wasn't the most practical thing to be doing. When I wrote that first novella and brought it into workshop, everybody spent the whole workshop kind of talking about, "Well, okay, what do we do with this thing? Should this be expanded into a novel? Should it be cut down into a short story?"
Luckily, the workshop instructor was a brilliant writer, Mark Slouka, who became a good friend and a mentor of mine, and he took me aside after that first session and said, "Actually, it's what it should be. It's the right length. It's a novella. I'm sorry." So I found that I loved that form, and I didn't want it to die as just a single novella that I had written. So I wrote the other two novellas. I really didn't have confidence that book would be published, but I did have confidence in the pieces themselves.
At the time, I had an agent who I got for a novel that had been a novella originally. My thesis committee had suggested that I turn it into a novel. My agent went out with that, and it came very close to selling, but didn’t. Then my agent said, "Well, okay, what else do you have?" And I said, "Well, I’ve got these novellas." And the response was essentially, "What the hell am I going do with novellas?" And so we parted ways.
Were you nervous about that split? Or did you think that was a good decision?
I was nervous. I went to Bread Loaf that summer before I left that agent, though, and that gave me a lot of security and the feeling that, "Okay, I'm in the right game. I'm doing the right thing. Here I am with people who I respect, and they're embracing me and bringing me into their midst." I had people saying, "Hey, let me put you in touch with my agent," that kind of thing. Then luckily, I wound up with PJ Mark, who is my agent now, and my whole career is, in large part, thanks to him. He looked at the novel, and he liked it, but knew it had already been out to a lot of editors. Then he read the novellas and said, "This is what we're going to go out with." I kind of thought he was crazy, as I'm sure a lot of people did, but it sold in a week to Grove, and Elizabeth Schmidt was the editor, who also edited my novel. It's been pretty dreamy, honestly, from that point on.
And when did you start working on The Great Glass Sea? How did that process begin?
I started The Great Glass Sea thinking it was a short story and I scared myself a bit. I wrote a first paragraph that was all one sentence—a long first paragraph, and it was all about Russian characters in a fable world, and I thought, "What the hell am I doing?" and got terrified and put it aside. I tried to write other novels, all of which I think had merit, but I just wasn't in the right place to do them, or they weren't ready for me—or whatever it was. I just couldn't shake this Russia thing that I had started, so I thought, "Well, it's just a short story. I'll sit down and work on it," and then wrote the first scene. It was twelve pages or something and I thought, "Well, either this isn't a short story, or I'm doing this wrong." I kind of fooled myself into writing it because then I thought, "Well, it will just be another novella. I'll give it to my agent, he'll hate me, but I'll just write the thing as a novella." But I realized that it was a novel as it got its hooks deeper and deeper into me. By the time I knew it was a novel, I also knew I was going to finish it even though it had scared me to start it.
You mentioned being intimidated by the "Russia factor.” What did you know about Russia and how did you make yourself feel comfortable enough to write about what must be, at least in some regard, a foreign place to you?
Yes, in some regard, it is for sure. My mother's family came from Russia, but three or four generations back. So I have roots way back there, but I'm by no means Russian. When I was in seventh grade, I started taking Russian language in a serious way and studied it for six years. It was very much the dominant thing in my life throughout junior high and high school. I was part of the Russian Club, and I helped put on festivals to raise money for the club. I'd do Cossack dancing and sing songs and wear folk costumes and all that.
When I was 14, I went to the Soviet Union. It was the last year it existed, and I went there as an exchange student and lived with a host family in a city in the far north of Russia, in Karelia. The city's called Petrozavodsk, and it's what the city in my novel is based on. Everything in the novel is fictionalized, but it springs from the experiences I had there.
So in a very significant way the novel is rooted in all I fell in love with about Russia over the years--the language, the culture, my experience there during that year. By the time I wrote the novel Russia had become in some ways mythic for me. I embraced that. I felt the only way I could write about it was to not overly research it and not try to make this something that was supposed to be representative of some true Russia. I didn't feel I was equipped to do that or that it was my place to do that. By building a certain amount of distance in, by approaching the story through mythology and folklore and with some futuristic elements, it gave me a little bit of permission to write this book in which there is no American viewpoint. It's all Russian characters.
Were you worried about having this labeled as a sci-fi novel or a fantasy novel? Were you thinking about that while you were writing it?
I wasn't thinking about it at all while I was writing. I think it was The L.A. Times that put it in their books-of-the-summer list under science fiction. I was shocked. I never thought of it as a science fiction novel, and I still don't. In fact, I see those elements as more like fable than science fiction. Take, for example, the perpetual daylight or the largest greenhouse in the world that's constantly expanding and is the almost the size of one of the Great Lakes. To me, that felt almost like something out of a fable and it operated for me in the same way that beasts in fables might.
It relates more to the Russian fable where a beast called the Chudo-Yudo leaps out of the water and into the sky and swallows the sun. I always thought of it that way, something closer to magical realism in my mind than science fiction. But I also see why—as something that is set in an alternate present, an alternate reality—it gets labeled that way.
I have never read something that's been so sweet about brotherly love. It feels like, recently, brotherly love is not often a topic. What made you gravitate towards that as your focus?
Yeah, that's interesting. I mean I, first of all, I'm so glad that you felt that. I think that, for me, there is something very sweet about the brothers' relationship, and it comes from the relationship I have with my own brother. We're not twins, though in the book, they are twins. My brother is five years older and for much of my life, he was the most important person in my life, and for some of his life, I was the most important person in his.
We grew up very, very close—and are still very close, and that's been a very powerful force in my life. I wanted to write something that tried to grapple with just how big that felt to me, and in a way, that was tricky because not everyone relates to that fraternal relationship in the same way.
I wanted, first of all, to look at how strongly I feel about my brother through a lens that shined some light on it. As I wrote the characters became, in some ways, more and more extreme so that Dima, who is the protagonist of the book—or I think of him as the protagonist of the book—is pretty much obsessed with his brother, probably in an unhealthy way but also in a way that I think is very genuine and heartfelt for him.
I wanted to explore that, and for me, it was very rich terrain. I should say, too, that I've been writing about this stuff for a long time. My first serious attempt at a novel was about two brothers who were growing up together in Appalachia. The truth is I feel likeThe Great Glass Sea got at some of what I wanted to say, but I'll probably say it again and again—or try to say it again and again in different ways with other books.
Based on your experience writing and publishing this novel, what kind of advice would you like to give to a writer who is just starting out?
I think for someone working on a novel, one of the lessons I learned was just how much work it takes and how long it takes to get something out, especially if it is a long book. With a long book, there is just so much to wrestle with it and to get right, and it is impossible to get it right at first.
I would say, be prepared to go for the long haul, to go back into it and back into it and back into it. By the time I finished with the last draft on this book, I felt like I would vomit if I looked at it again. I was just so drained from the process. I think that probably not all novels are that way. I hope that my next one won't be, but chances are it will. I would just say, be prepared for that.
And because of that, the thing that did sustain me—and this, I think, is true of all writing really, even short stories, was that at the core I was writing something that mattered to me so much. It wasn't just the plot that excited me or an intellectual idea that piqued my interest, but something that was important to me very deep down.
I think that—for me, at least—that is a touchstone that's important to reach out to every time I start a project. I think, "Is this what I really should be writing?" I'd urge people to look at it that way.
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. His debut novel, The Great Glass Sea, was a finalist for 2014 The Center for Fiction Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.