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.
A mix of patriotic balladeers and apolitical acts will take the stage on Thursday and Friday.
It is not true, as a lot of commentary would have it, that Donald Trump’s inauguration will feature “no stars.” Some of the entertainers who have signed on to play have, in fact, built their success on entertaining millions of people. But it is true that what’s considered “the A-list” will be conspicuously absent, as will be acts from other lists: The B-Street Band, a Bruce Springsteen tribute group, backed out from an unofficial inaugural party after outcry; Broadway singer Jennifer Holliday reneged from the main concert event.
The mix of entertainers lined up for Thursday’s “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” on the National Mall and Friday’s swearing-in ceremony represents a hodgepodge of ideology and expediency. In a savvy MTV essay about Trump’s national-anthem singer Jackie Evancho, Doreen St. Félix argued that booking the 16-year-old America’s Got Talent runner up was “a matter of scavenging, and then gilding over the spoils”—a description that could apply across the lineup given the many headlines about Trump’s team getting turned down by celebrities then saying that not having famous people is a good thing. But in its relative lack of glitz, and in its coalition of performers well familiar to state-fair stages, this week’s bill may inadvertently achieve the stated inaugural goal of projecting an image not of Trump but of the people who elected him.
Why Nixon's former lawyer John Dean worries Trump could be one of the most corrupt presidents ever—and get away with it
Sometime early last fall, John Dean says he began having nightmares about a Trump presidency. He would wake in the middle of the night, agitated and alarmed, struggling to calm his nerves. “I’m not somebody who remembers the details of dreams,” he told me in a recent phone call from his home in Los Angeles. “I just know that they were so bad that I’d force myself awake and out of bed just to get away from them.”
Few people are more intimately acquainted than Dean with the consequences of an American presidency gone awry. As White House counsel under President Richard Nixon from 1970 to 1973, he was a key figure in the Watergate saga—participating in, and then helping to expose, the most iconic political scandal in modern U.S. history. In the decades since then, Dean has parlayed that resume line into something of a franchise, penning several books and countless columns on the theme of presidential abuses of power.
The president-elect’s lawyers have explained why they don’t think he’ll violate the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause—but their arguments fall apart under closer scrutiny.
Last week, President-elect Donald Trump’s lawyers issued a brief, largely unnoticed memo defending Trump’s plan to “separate” himself from his businesses. We believe that memo arbitrarily limits itself to a small portion of the conflicts it purports to address, and even there, presents claims that depart from precedent and common sense. Trump can convince a lot of people of a lot of things—but neither he nor his lawyers can explain away the ethics train wreck that will soon crash into the Oval Office.
It’sbeenwidelyacknowledgedthat, when Trump swears the Oath of Office, he will stand in violation of the Constitution’s foreign-emoluments clause. The emoluments clause forbids any “Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States]” from accepting any “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State” (unless Congress explicitly consents).
When it comes to basic policy questions such as the minimum wage, introductory economics can be more misleading than it is helpful.
In a rich, post-industrial society, where most people walk around with supercomputers in their pockets and a person can have virtually anything delivered to his or her doorstep overnight, it seems wrong that people who work should have to live in poverty. Yet in America, there are more than ten million members of the working poor: people in the workforce whose household income is below the poverty line. Looking around, it isn’t hard to understand why. The two most common occupations in the United States are retail salesperson and cashier. Eight million people have one of those two jobs, which typically pay about $9–$10 per hour. It’s hard to make ends meet on such meager wages. A few years ago, McDonald’s was embarrassed by the revelation that its internal help line was recommending that even a full-time restaurant employee apply for various forms of public assistance.
The Russian leader tries to claim the role of senior partner in relationship with the U.S.
You have to feel bad for the Moldovan president. The newly elected Igor Dodon had traveled to Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin for the first Russian-Moldovan bilateral meeting in nine years. Yet here he was, standing side by side with Putin, his hero and model for emulation, at a regal-looking press conference and some reporter has to go and ask about the prostitutes.
“You haven’t yet commented on the report that, allegedly, we or in Russia have been collecting kompromat on Donald Trump, including during his visit to Moscow, as if he were having fun with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel,” said the reporter with the pro-Kremlin LifeNews. “Is that true? Have you seen these files, these videos, these tapes?”
A history of the first African American White House—and of what came next
In the waning days of President Barack Obama’s administration, he and his wife, Michelle, hosted a farewell party, the full import of which no one could then grasp. It was late October, Friday the 21st, and the president had spent many of the previous weeks, as he would spend the two subsequent weeks, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. Things were looking up. Polls in the crucial states of Virginia and Pennsylvania showed Clinton with solid advantages. The formidable GOP strongholds of Georgia and Texas were said to be under threat. The moment seemed to buoy Obama. He had been light on his feet in these last few weeks, cracking jokes at the expense of Republican opponents and laughing off hecklers. At a rally in Orlando on October 28, he greeted a student who would be introducing him by dancing toward her and then noting that the song playing over the loudspeakers—the Gap Band’s “Outstanding”—was older than she was.
Some Democrats, most notably Representative John Lewis, have labeled Donald Trump with the same epithet applied to his two immediate predecessors.
When was the last time America had a “legitimate” president?
You’d have to go back a ways to find a unanimous choice. Certainly not Donald Trump. Representative John Lewis, the civil-rights icon, has sparked a fury by saying, “I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president.” Had Hillary Clinton won, she would not have fit the bill, either: Trump said repeatedly during the campaign that she should not have been allowed to run. Certainly not Barack Obama. Many opponents—none of them more prominent than Trump, yet again—argued, falsely and preposterously, that he was not even eligible to stand for the presidency because he had not been born in the United States. And certainly not George W. Bush, whom many Democrats viewed as illegitimate for several reasons: his popular-vote loss; questions over the final count in Florida; the fact that the Supreme Court effectively decided the election on a party-line vote.
Surprise remarks by the president-elect, which depart from decades of U.S. policy, sent American currency into a tumble.
On Wednesday morning, currencies in emerging markets across Asia started to rise: The Chinese yuan and the Thai bhat hit two-month highs, while Taiwan’s dollar reached a three-month peak, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, the value of the U.S. dollar had dropped 1.3 percent on Tuesday, to its lowest point in a month.
Those searching for an explanation didn’t have to look very hard. Over the weekend, President-elect Donald Trump delivered some remarks to The Wall Street Journal that took many by surprise. In response to a question about trade with China, Trump declared that the U.S. dollar is “too strong.” He added, “Our companies can’t compete with [China] now because our currency is too strong. And it’s killing us.”
Expanded school choice is a continuation of forced self-determination.
In recent weeks, pundits and scholars have bemoaned the privatization of public education that is likely to occur if Betsy DeVos is confirmed as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education. Democracy Now!, for instance, billed DeVos as “Public (School) Enemy No. 1.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement described her as “the most ideological, anti-public education nominee put forward since President Carter created a Cabinet-level Department of Education.” At her confirmation hearing Tuesday evening, Democratic senators grilled her about her track record promoting private control of public education and demanded, to little avail, that she would commit to keeping public-school dollars in public schools.
How America’s best and brightest once again steered the country to failure
They were the best and the brightest. But, most of all, they believed they were right. Although the scale of disaster was considerably different, the same that was said of those who oversaw foreign policy under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson could be said of the Obama administration.
These were academics, intellectuals, and technocrats who were not only very smart; they took pride in being practical, grounded in reality, and wedded to facts. After the supposed anti-intellectualism and ideological rigidity of the George W. Bush administration, many of us welcomed the prospect of a president who was cerebral and professorial. Even those sympathetic to President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy instincts, however, will agree that it didn’t quite go as planned.