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.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
One black woman tries to reconcile her faith with the institution’s history of discrimination.
It’s been six years since I became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Each year has been a lesson in faith and doubt, stretching and engaging what it means to be black, a woman, and Mormon. The decision to join on my own was not an easy one. As the child of a Protestant mother and a father who converted to Islam in his teens, I was doing something unheard of in my family by becoming a Mormon. And as a black woman, I had a heightened awareness of what it means to potentially be the only black person in any given congregation in the United States.
As a child, I watched as preachers in my congregation espoused their deepest beliefs about God. They spoke to the horrors faced by black people in the United States in their dealings in life and death. There was intense power in their sermons, one that was complemented by the soft presence of a “Black Jesus,” a savior who understood the plight of African Americans in word and form. He represented the long tradition of resistance within the black church to white-supremacist theology: Racialized violence in the United States was often supported by white Christians who recognized whiteness as good and blackness as evil. Within the walls of my congregation, blackness was not discounted, but embraced in all its various forms from the pulpit to the pews. Islam also informed my faith; I witnessed the immense devotion in my father’s prayers and the care with which he kept his Koran. These two traditions of my childhood shared a reverence for and recognition of a version of God who is not racist.
Every year, hundreds of people attend the Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot, cultivating a love for assault weapons in an era of mass violence.
It was Saturday at the 16th-annual Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot and Trade Show, and I had my thumbs on the trigger of a Browning M1919, prepared to unleash hellacious destruction on an unsuspecting refrigerator.
The Oklahoma Full Auto Shoot is one of several “machine-gun shoots” around the country. For two days in June, hundreds of people traveled to Wyandotte, Oklahoma, for the opportunity to fire nearly every species of automatic weapon from the past century. There were UZIs and M16s, Barrett .50-caliber rifles, WWII-era belt-fed Brownings, and even a Minigun—a giant, chair-mounted cylindrical device powered by a car battery. As of 10 a.m., all 84 firing positions were trained downrange onto a hill stocked with junked cars and dead kitchen appliances, waiting for the starting signal.
How men and women digest differently, diet changes our skin, and gluten remains mysterious: A forward-thinking gastroenterologist on eating one's way to "gutbliss"
Robynne Chutkan, MD, is an integrative gastroenterologist and founder of the Digestive Center for Women, just outside of Washington, D.C. She trained at Columbia University and is on faculty at Georgetown, but her approach to practicing medicine and understanding disease is more holistic than many specialists with academic backgrounds. She has also appeared on The Dr. Oz Show (of which I’ve been openly skeptical in the past, because of Oz’s tendency to divorce his recommendations from evidence).
Officials say they face a public-health emergency, and believe a batch of the opioid may be tainted with an elephant tranquilizer.
NEWS BRIEF Cincinnati is facing a public-health emergency, as an estimated 174 people overdosed on heroin in the last six days.
Police in the Ohio city are trying to find the source of the heroin batch. Tim Ingram, the Hamilton County health commissioner, told reporters Friday the number of hospital visits this week have been “unprecedented.”
Officials are pointing to a potential cause of the overdoses, as the Associated Press reports:
Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black said authorities suspect carfentanil, a drug used to sedate elephants and other large animals, may be mixed in with heroin and causing the overdoses. The drug is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which is suspected in spates of overdoses in several states.
Last month, carfentanil was discovered in the Cincinnati area's heroin stream, but many hospitals don't have the equipment to test blood for the previously uncommon animal opioid.
In 2004, people in the U.K. consumed more alcohol than ever before. How did they get there?
I first met alcohol in the late 1980s. It was the morning after one of my parents’ parties. My sister and I, aged 9 or 10, were up alone. We trawled the lounge for abandoned cans. I remember being methodical: Pick one up, give it a shake to see if there’s anything inside, and if there is, drink! I can still taste the stale, warm metallic tang of Heineken (lager; 5 percent alcohol by volume) on my tongue. Just mind the ones with cigarette butts in them.
Other times we’d sneak a sip of Dad’s Rémy Martin VSOP (cognac; 40 percent) when he wasn’t looking, even though we didn’t like the taste. It came in a heavy glass bottle that he kept in the sideboard. He’d pour himself a glass at night, the ice cubes clinking as he walked to his small office to make phone calls. On special occasions—family birthdays, Christmas lunch—we even got to drink legitimately: usually half a glass of Asti Spumanti (sparkling wine; around 7.5 percent), served in the best glasses.
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
A 160,000-mile quest to visit all 59 of the country's natural treasures
Mark Burns spent five years visiting all 59 of the United States' national parks. Captured in stirring black and white images, his landscape photography project was completed just in time for the National Park Service's centennial celebration. “It's a time to reflect on the rich history of our national parks,” Burns said of his 160,000-mile journey, “but it's also a time to plan wisely for the next 100 years.” Glacier Bay's wild coastline, Death Valley's parched terrain, and Yellowstone's surging geysers are all pictured in searing detail. One image from each park is currently being exhibited at the Houston Museum of Natural Science until September 5th. A selection can be found below.
We can all agree that Millennials are the worst. But what is a Millennial? A fight between The New York Times and Slate inspired us to try and figure that out.
We can all agree that Millennials are the worst. But what is a Millennial? A fight between The New York Times and Slate inspired us to try and figure that out.
After the Times ran a column giving employers tips on how to deal with Millennials (for example, they need regular naps) (I didn't read the article; that's from my experience), Slate's Amanda Hess pointed out that the examples the Times used to demonstrate their points weren't actually Millennials. Some of the people quoted in the article were as old as 37, which was considered elderly only 5,000 short years ago.
The age of employees of The Wire, the humble website you are currently reading, varies widely, meaning that we too have in the past wondered where the boundaries for the various generations were drawn. Is a 37-year-old who gets text-message condolences from her friends a Millennial by virtue of her behavior? Or is she some other generation, because she was born super long ago? (Sorry, 37-year-old Rebecca Soffer who is a friend of a friend of mine and who I met once! You're not actually that old!) Since The Wire is committed to Broadening Human Understanding™, I decided to find out where generational boundaries are drawn.