A conversation with author Dan Josefson about the evolution of his debut novel and its ringing endorsement from David Foster Wallace
That's Not a Feeling is the debut novel of Brooklyn-based writer Dan Josefson. It tells the story of Benjamin, a formerly suicidal student at a boarding school for troubled youths. The facility is a satirical microcosm of our larger society, and the title refers to the seven emotions that are permitted there. (Any feeling not on the list is rejected as nonexistent.) The novel has earned starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal, and they're certainly well deserved. That's Not a Feeling is a sharp, sophisticated read, and with one book to his name Josefson has already proven himself to be a master of form. None other than David Foster Wallace described the book as a "funny, mordant, and deeply intelligent debut."
The following interview took place by phone, where Josefson described his education, his narrative style, the ten-year path to publication, and that remarkable blurb on the front of his book.
You received your MFA from the University of Nevada. How did the program shape your approach to fiction?
The program in Las Vegas was pretty new when I started out there, which was exciting because it was somewhat unformed. And because it was fluid, I could make my way through it the way that I wanted to. One of the reasons I was excited about going out there is that I'd grown up on the east coast and gone to college in Massachusetts. I wanted to live somewhere out west and Vegas was really fascinating. It was growing fast and I got to see how the city works without getting my sleeve caught in the machine.
The professors out there were great. One of the fun things that worked out for me was that, in addition to the fiction professors I liked a lot -- Doug Unger, Richard Wiley -- in the art department Dave Hickey was teaching and was very cool about letting me sit in on his classes. My focus on art history and criticism affected the way I think about fiction; it's gives me a slightly different perspective than I might have had if I were an English major with a straight workshop-type program (though I've done quite a few of those too).
What was your workshop experience like?
The best compliment that I ever received (to an early version of one of the chapters for this book) is from a reader who said he forgot he was reading it for a workshop. That's nice to hear, but it also says something about how, ideally, what you're getting from workshops are just the honest reactions of good readers to what you've done. It's not so much about "I think you should do this differently." Rather, it's about the straightforward reactions. And one of the great things I took away from the workshop experience was the ability to determine the kind of things to keep and the kind of stuff to leave, which is really important. The value of an MFA generally is in working around people who are -- I'm talking about the professors -- spending their lives writing, and getting a sense of what it takes to do that and what role writing takes in their lives and how they go about making a career of that. That's important to think about if you're considering sticking with it long-term.
Describe your path as a writer.
There really isn't an arc that you can plot -- I don't have any collected juvenilia to look back on or anything. Writing has always been important to me, though I feel like I've taken a roundabout way to getting into it. In college, I majored in religion and philosophy, but that's also when I started getting more serious about writing. As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to study with some really amazing authors -- Jim Shepard and Louise Glück.
I don't know that writing was ever a decision, exactly; I don't really have the experience of steadily, gradually improving. For me it was I just wrote badly and badly and badly and then a switch kind of flipped and I figured out what I was doing and found something that felt right to me, something I was happy with and something that I could continue with at some point. I didn't go straight into an MFA program; I was casting around trying to find a couch that would let me do a bunch of writing, and that was a lot tougher than I anticipated it would be. I started teaching for a while at a boarding school, and that got under my skin and felt like an intriguing place to write about. There were all sorts of interesting contradictions and things going on, and that ended up being the basis for this novel.
How long did this book take to write?
Five or six years from starting it to getting it to a point when I could start sending it out. But it was such a long time that I was trying to sell it -- four years -- during that time I was also doing some revisions and changes. Occasionally some significant ones. So I don't know quite how to count it, but basically the focused stuff was five or six years.
What is the story behind that remarkable blurb from David Foster Wallace?
I'd been trying to sell the book for a while and didn't have any luck. Every little thing helps, so I thought I'd go back to some friends and see if I could get some blurbs and try again. Tom Bissell and Jim Shepard were both very generous and had read the book and given it blurbs. Tom was friends with Dave Wallace and asked him if he'd take a look. Incredibly, generously, not knowing me at all, he read the book and liked it. It was such a huge thing -- I am such a fan of David Foster Wallace's work.
What writers would you say influenced the book? There certainly seems to be some DFW influence there, with a bit of Sean Ferrell and Paul Murray, perhaps.
I've heard those comparisons and they're certainly very flattering. The stuff that I read most tends not to be contemporary American literature, thought I do read a fair amount of that too. Some of the influences I can see are people like Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald. A lot of what I read is European stuff in translation -- for whatever reason, that's the subset of works that I feel most at home with. There are American writers I love, and I can see some of those influences in terms of pacing and humor and tone in this book. But I think that's a difficult question because those are things you're not consciously trying to mimic.
That's Not A Feeling has an interesting narrator in Benjamin, and a fascinating narrative style.
When I came up with the odd narrative technique of shifting between Howling Orchard stories and Benjamin's first person accounts, part of it was trying to see if I could get away with having the benefit of both perspectives working, but part of it was also the idea of a narrator who's self-effacing to a point that he forgets that he's present. The first couple of chapters that happens a little more. The effect was disruptive to some readers, but it was something that I was interested in playing with.
In terms of his character or voice or background, I was trying to get at how desperate he was to get this all down and by writing it kind of forget about it. And ultimately it's up to other people how much it works or how much it comes across. But I mentioned before how a lot of my ways of thinking about writing come from my ways of thinking about art. One of my favorite pieces of advice comes from Jasper Johns on how to make a painting. He said something to the effect of: Take an object, do something to it, and do something else to it. And doing "something else" can be tricky, but that was sort of the way I was thinking about the narrative technique.
There are literary antecedents to it -- Melville, Nick Carraway in Gatsby. What made it really click for me, oddly, was James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime, which was a book that I'd read multiple times. In my memory it was all in third person, so I was shocked to see in my fourth or fifth read that there's a first person narrator. The confusion -- and the shock of that confusion -- felt really interesting to me. It opened up my way of thinking and writing about this stuff.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel that I'd put aside while I was editing this novel. So going back, it's a strange thing -- it's a lot more of a mess than I remember it. But it's good to get back into it.
People labeled “smart” at a young age don’t deal well with being wrong. Life grows stagnant.
ASPEN, Colo.—At whatever agesmart people develop the idea that they are smart, they also tend to develop vulnerability around relinquishing that label. So the difference between telling a kid “You did a great job” and “You are smart” isn’t subtle. That is, at least, according to one growing movement in education and parenting that advocates for retirement of “the S word.”
The idea is that when we praise kids for being smart, those kids think: Oh good, I'm smart. And then later, when those kids mess up, which they will, they think: Oh no, I'm not smart after all. People will think I’m not smart after all. And that’s the worst. That’s a risk to avoid, they learn.“Smart” kids stand to become especially averse to making mistakes, which are critical to learning and succeeding.
The social network learns more about its users than they might realize.
Facebook, you may have noticed, turned into a rainbow-drenched spectacle following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.
By overlaying their profile photos with a rainbow filter, Facebook users began celebrating in a way we haven't seen since March 2013, when 3 million peoplechanged their profile images to a red equals sign—the logo of the Human Rights Campaign—as a way to support marriage equality. This time, Facebook provided a simple way to turn profile photos rainbow-colored. More than 1 million people changed their profile in the first few hours, according to the Facebook spokesperson William Nevius, and the number continues to grow.
“This is probably a Facebook experiment!” joked the MIT network scientist Cesar Hidalgo on Facebook yesterday. “This is one Facebook study I want to be included in!” wrote Stacy Blasiola, a communications Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, when she changed her profile.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
For centuries, experts have predicted that machines would make workers obsolete. That moment may finally be arriving. Could that be a good thing?
1. Youngstown, U.S.A.
The end of work is still just a futuristic concept for most of the United States, but it is something like a moment in history for Youngstown, Ohio, one its residents can cite with precision: September 19, 1977.
For much of the 20th century, Youngstown’s steel mills delivered such great prosperity that the city was a model of the American dream, boasting a median income and a homeownership rate that were among the nation’s highest. But as manufacturing shifted abroad after World War II, Youngstown steel suffered, and on that gray September afternoon in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube announced the shuttering of its Campbell Works mill. Within five years, the city lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in manufacturing wages. The effect was so severe that a term was coined to describe the fallout: regional depression.
The question is at the center of the Greek crisis.
In 1961, the economist Robert Mundell published a paper laying out, per the title, “A Theory of Optimum Currency Areas.” In it, he inquired about the appropriate geographic extent of a shared unit of money. Was it the world? A country? Part of a country? A border-spanning region of, say, the western parts of the United States and Canada, with a separate currency circulating in the eastern parts of the two countries?
“It might seem at first that the question is purely academic,” he wrote, “since it hardly seems within the realm of political feasibility that national currencies would ever be abandoned in favor of any other arrangement.” But it was worth considering anyway, in part because “certain parts of the world are undergoing processes of economic integration and disintegration,” and an idea of what an “optimum currency area” would look like could help “clarify the meaning of these experiments.”
Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz are suggesting there might be ways for states and cities to nullify the justices’ ruling. They’re wrong.
The Supreme Court’s decision last week did make gay marriage legal around the nation. Unfortunately for social conservatives, it did not, however, make nullification legal around the nation.
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The untold story of the improbable campaign that finally tipped the U.S. Supreme Court.
On May 18, 1970, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell walked into a courthouse in Minneapolis, paid $10, and applied for a marriage license. The county clerk, Gerald Nelson, refused to give it to them. Obviously, he told them, marriage was for people of the opposite sex; it was silly to think otherwise.
Baker, a law student, didn’t agree. He and McConnell, a librarian, had met at a Halloween party in Oklahoma in 1966, shortly after Baker was pushed out of the Air Force for his sexuality. From the beginning, the men were committed to one another. In 1967, Baker proposed that they move in together. McConnell replied that he wanted to get married—really, legally married. The idea struck even Baker as odd at first, but he promised to find a way and decided to go to law school to figure it out.
As he prepares for a presidential run, the governor’s labor legacy deserves inspection. Are his state’s “hardworking taxpayers” any better off?
This past February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington, D.C., Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rolled up his sleeves, clipped on a lavalier microphone, and without the aid of a teleprompter gave the speech of his life. He emerged from that early GOP cattle call as a front-runner for his party’s nomination for president. Numerous polls this spring placed him several points ahead of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment, in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those same polls showed him with an even more substantial lead over movement conservative favorites such as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee. In late April, the Koch brothers hinted that Walker would be the likely recipient of the nearly $900 million they plan to spend on the 2016 election cycle.
Was the Concorde a triumph of modern engineering, a metaphor for misplaced 20th-century values, or both?
The box sat untouched in his bottom desk drawer. For weeks we discussed opening it, and one January morning he was ready. I set the box on his white bedsheets and removed the stack of passports, which could have belonged to a family with dual citizenship. But all nine—from 1956 to a valid update issued in 2014—belong to my 89-year-old grandfather.
Lying in bed, he unfolded a stamp-covered page like an accordion and held it open above his chest. “Oh my,” he kept repeating. He paused, and pointed.
London. March 22, 1976. My then-50-year-old grandfather, Raymond Pearlson, the inventor ofSyncrolift, was traveling the world selling his shiplift system. Concorde had launched commercially that January. He knew exactly what this stamp represented: Washington Dulles to London Heathrow in 3.5 hours—the first of at least 150 supersonic flights he took on the legendary aircraft.
The power in the president’s eulogy for Clementa Pinckney came not from his singing, but from the silence that preceded it.
Coverage of the memorial service held for Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston last week focused largely on the surprising moment when the leader of the free world broke into song. That song, of course, was “Amazing Grace” and the president sang it distinctly in the style of the black church.
For all the attention Obama’s unexpected performance received, though, it’s worth taking another look at the “Amazing Grace” clip, this time watching for the silence. His singing seems to be a release of the collective tension that had been building for a week after the Emanuel A.M.E. shooting. But the preceding pause seems to hold its hearers captive. Though he is frequently interrupted with cheers and amens throughout his eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, the pause he takes 35 minutes into the speech is easily the longest break from the text before him.