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.
Trump’s greatest gift to the GOP may be the distraction he’s provided from other party meltdowns.
Even though 2016 appears to be the year of painful, public disqualification from higher office, you may be forgiven for not noticing the extraordinary implosion of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After all, the Trump surrogate and White House Transition chair has benefitted from his early endorsement of the Republican presidential nominee in unusual fashion: Christie’s power in the Grand Ole Party has decreased, rather than increased. The likelihood of a plum position in the Trump administration—Attorney General, perhaps, since Christie was spurned as the Republican running mate—is decidedly dim, what with the presently apocalyptic predictions about November 8th.
Instead, Trump’s gift to Christie has been shadow: the top Republican’s national meltdown has obscured that of the one-time rising Republican star and sitting New Jersey governor. But make no mistake—Christie’s is a fall of epic proportions, precipitated by an unfathomably petty revenge plot. The contrast of the two, the top-heavy-ness of the fallout compared to the insignificance of the initial transgression, would be comic, were it not so tragic. Remember that in November of 2012, Governor Christie had a 72 percent approval rating. Today, it stands at 21 percent.
Services like Tinder and Hinge are no longer shiny new toys, and some users are starting to find them more frustrating than fun.
“Apocalypse” seems like a bit much. I thought that last fall when Vanity Fair titled Nancy Jo Sales’s article on dating apps “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’” and I thought it again this month when Hinge, another dating app, advertised its relaunch with a site called “thedatingapocalypse.com,” borrowing the phrase from Sales’s article, which apparently caused the company shame and was partially responsible for their effort to become, as they put it, a “relationship app.”
Despite the difficulties of modern dating, if there is an imminent apocalypse, I believe it will be spurred by something else. I don’t believe technology has distracted us from real human connection. I don’t believe hookup culture has infected our brains and turned us into soulless sex-hungry swipe monsters. And yet. It doesn’t do to pretend that dating in the app era hasn’t changed.
Some researchers believe that the microbiome may play a role in regulating how people think and feel.
By now, the idea that gut bacteria affects a person’s health is not revolutionary. Many people know that these microbes influence digestion, allergies, and metabolism. The trend has become almost commonplace: New books appear regularly detailing precisely which diet will lead to optimum bacterial health.
But these microbes’ reach may extend much further, into the human brains. A growing group of researchers around the world are investigating how the microbiome, as this bacterial ecosystem is known, regulates how people think and feel. Scientists have found evidence that this assemblage—about a thousand different species of bacteria, trillions of cells that together weigh between one and three pounds—could play a crucial role in autism, anxiety, depression, and other disorders.
In the Republican nominee’s nostalgia-fueled campaign, older voters see their last chance to bring back the 1950s. But he could be starting to lose them, too.
PANAMA CITY, Florida—The crowd at the Donald Trump rally was a sea of gray and white. They hobbled on walkers and canes into the massive outdoor amphitheater, searching for a place to sit on the lawn.
They were old enough to remember a different America—an America that was great. A place of strength and confidence, where men were men and women were women, where people respected the flag and their elders and prayed to God. That was not the America they saw today.
"I am 72 years old and I have seen our country absolutely fall apart," Jim Smith, a gray-haired grandfather with an eagle on his T-shirt, told me. Smith retired to the beach after a career in the Army that took him all over the world; at one point, he worked for NATO running logistics in Bosnia. But today, he did not like what he saw all around him.
The president’s final appearance on the whimsical late-night show indulged in some humor, but for the most part it made a case for seriousness.
The Choice, Frontline’s quadrennial documentary about the two final candidates who have become the major-party presidential nominees, made a remarkable argument this cycle around. Donald Trump’s candidacy, the documentary suggested, may have arisen as a result of some jokes made by President Obama. During the height of Trump’s birther phase in 2011, Obama gave a speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, laying into Trump with joke after joke.
“It just kept going and going,” recalled Trump’s now-campaign staffer, Omarosa Manigault, “and he just kept hammering him. And I thought, ‘Oh, Barack Obama is starting something that I don’t know if he’ll be able to finish.’” Trump’s fellow adviser, Roger Stone, agreed: “I think that is the night that he resolves to run for president. I think that he is kind of motivated by it. ‘Maybe I’ll just run. Maybe I’ll show them all.’”
In the 1970s, a new wave of post-Watergate liberals stopped fighting monopoly power. The result is an increasingly dangerous political system.
It was January 1975, and the Watergate Babies had arrived in Washington looking for blood. The Watergate Babies—as the recently elected Democratic congressmen were known—were young, idealistic liberals who had been swept into office on a promise to clean up government, end the war in Vietnam, and rid the nation’s capital of the kind of corruption and dirty politics the Nixon White House had wrought. Richard Nixon himself had resigned just a few months earlier in August. But the Watergate Babies didn’t just campaign against Nixon; they took on the Democratic establishment, too. Newly elected Representative George Miller of California, then just 29 years old, announced, “We came here to take the Bastille.”
The rise of Donald Trump has left the speaker of the House, and the Republican Party, in an almost impossible situation.
What happens to the Republican Party after November 8, particularly if Donald Trump loses? One clue comes from a recent Bloomberg Poll: When asked which leader better represents their view what the Republican Party should stand for, 51 percent of likely voters who lean Republican or identify as Republican picked Trump, while 33 percent picked House Speaker Paul Ryan (15 percent said they weren’t sure.)
Paul Ryan: The highest ranking Republican elected official, the former vice presidential standard bearer, perhaps the leading elected policy intellectual in the GOP, who is now being attacked regularly by the party’s current presidential standard bearer; who has Breitbart.com calling him a secret supporter of Hillary Clinton, and Sean Hannity calling him a “saboteur” who needs to be replaced; who has both conservative Freedom Caucus members and other discontented Trump-supporting colleagues ripping him and threatening to vote against him when the vote for Speaker occurs on the House floor on January 3 next. The Paul Ryan, who has struggled manfully to walk the fine line between Trump supporters and Trump himself, getting distance from Trump without renouncing him, and who has tried even harder to turn the focus to the policy plans of his House party.
“As a rule Hitler comparisons are not about fairness. They have a political purpose.”
In September, a New York Times review of a new biography of Adolf Hitler was shared so widely that the 1,000-page book shot up Amazon’s bestseller list. But many people weren’t sharing the article because of what they’d learned about Hitler. The chatter was about the man never mentioned, lurking just between the lines.
The Times book critic, Michiko Kakutani, listed several factors that had helped Hitler rise from a ridiculed rabble-rouser to a nightmarish dictator. She noted that the German leader was an eccentric but compelling speaker who whipped up massive crowds at theatrical rallies, that he was endlessly untruthful and compounded his lies via the latest technologies, that he was an egomaniac who trumpeted slogans about how he alone could make Germany great again and restore law and order, that he exploited economic troubles and popular frustration with political gridlock, that he viewed the world in Darwinian terms and had a thoroughly dark vision of the state of his country, that his opponents and reluctant allies repeatedly downplayed the danger of his demagoguery.
Just why was Tom Hanks dancing in a black-and-orange suit on Saturday Night Live so funny?
This weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Live offered a mini masterpiece: a gloriously silly Halloween-themed piece revolving around a “Haunted Elevator” ride and its unusual star attraction. Beck Bennett and Kate McKinnon played a couple looking for spooky thrills who instead found something far more bewildering: a pumpkin-suited man who would randomly appear alongside two cheerful skeletons and perform a dance routine. “Who are you?” asked a frustrated Bennett after the man (played by Tom Hanks) appeared for the second time. “I’m David Pumpkins!” came the reply.
McKinnon followed up: “Yeah, and David Pumpkins is … ?”
An analysis of voting trends in key swing states hints that voter allegiances will be starker and more influential than ever.
What are the tipping points in the states likely to decide the 2016 presidential election?
Bellwether counties in swing states show that the demographic gulf between the Democrats’ more urban coalition and the Republicans’ base of rural and blue collar whites is poised to grow ever larger in 2016.
To pinpoint the factors that could decide the places at the fulcrum of the struggle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, The Atlantic, working with Polidata, an election analytics firm, examined voting trends in several key swing states to explore how their vote has shifted in recent elections.
In Ohio, Florida and Colorado, the analysis compared the county-by-county vote in 2004, the last time a GOP presidential nominee carried the state, with the results during President Obama’s victories in those states in 2012; in North Carolina, it compared the results between 2008, when Obama won the state, and 2012 when Mitt Romney took it.