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.
The Fox News host is under attack as never before because many Americans are now forced to take what he says seriously for the first time.
As Sean Hannity hyped a conspiracy theory about the murder of a Democratic National Committee staffer last week, touting it with the zeal of a true believer without citing evidence that justified that belief, the combative Fox News host declared himself under fire and in need of backup. Lashing out at what he called “Twitter snowflakes” and “the liberal effort to silence me,” he took particular umbrage at a campaign by the progressive group Media Matters for America to pressure his advertisers, an effort he called liberal fascism. “They hope to get me fired,” he wrote. “Rush, O'Reilly, Beck, Imus, & now me.”
He may succeed in rallying his fans. But Hannity’s angry claims elide the fact that the progressives at Media Matters have sought the scalps of conservatives like him for more than a decade. The Media Matters website has 3,488 items tagged “Hannity” dating back to 2006. Its latest push isn’t the reason his position is as precarious as it has ever been (nor did Media Matters stop Bill O’Reilly, who was sunk by multiple “falafel talk” allegations, or Rush Limbaugh, who is still on the air).
Angela Merkel has served formal notice that she will lead the German wandering away from the American alliance.
Seven years after the end of the Second World War, on the 10th of March 1952, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the newly established Federal Republic of Germany received an astounding note from the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union offered to withdraw the troops that then occupied eastern Germany and to end its rule over the occupied zone. Germany would be reunited under a constitution that allowed the country freedom to choose its own social system. Germany would even be allowed to rebuild its military, and all Germans except those convicted of war crimes would regain their political rights. In return, the Allied troops in western Germany would also be withdrawn—and reunited Germany would be forbidden to join the new NATO alliance.
A new study finds that people today who eat and exercise the same amount as people 20 years ago are still fatter.
There’s a meme aimed at Millennial catharsis called “Old Economy Steve.” It’s a series of pictures of a late-70s teenager, who presumably is now a middle-aged man, that mocks some of the messages Millennials say they hear from older generations—and shows why they’re deeply janky. Old Economy Steve graduates and gets a job right away. Old Economy Steve “worked his way through college” because tuition was $400. And so forth.
We can now add another one to that list: Old Economy Steve ate at McDonald’s almost every day, and he still somehow had a 32-inch waist.
A study published recently in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice found that it’s harder for adults today to maintain the same weight as those 20 to 30 years ago did, even at the same levels of food intake and exercise.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
The ashes filled a black plastic box about the size of a toaster. It weighed three and a half pounds. I put it in a canvas tote bag and packed it in my suitcase this past July for the transpacific flight to Manila. From there I would travel by car to a rural village. When I arrived, I would hand over all that was left of the woman who had spent 56 years as a slave in my family’s household.
American involvement in Panama suggests humbling lessons about the ability to change the course of history.
Old soldiers do die, it turns out, but there’s something incongruous about watching ruthless, formerly swashbuckling military dictators end their lives quietly as frail old men in hospital beds.
It happened to Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean strongman, who returned home and died under house arrest in 2006, at 91. Fidel Castro slowly faded from view, becoming even less coherent, before dying at home in November, as his brother slowly rolled back their revolution. And now Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian leader, has died at 83 following complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor. He had been imprisoned in his home country.
As Republicans in Congress try to fend off the flurry of scandals, they are haunted by a question: Is this as good as it’s going to get?
The speaker of the House strode to his lectern on a recent Thursday to confront another totally normal day on Capitol Hill: health care, tax reform, a president under investigation, rumblings of impeachment.
“Morning, everybody!” Paul Ryan chirped. “Busy week!”
It was indeed: Less than a day had passed since the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the presidential campaign; just a few hours since President Trump angrily tweeted that the investigation was “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”; and only minutes since the Russia-linked former national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had begun defying congressional subpoenas. A few days prior, the president had been accused of revealing sensitive intelligence information to the Russian foreign minister.
In his new book, Ben Sasse has identified the right project for America: rehabilitating a shared moral language.
In just two short years, Senator Ben Sasse has gone from Capitol Hill newbie to digital president puncher, tweeting about Donald Trump’s affairs and the Midwestern dumpster fires he found more appealing than 2016’s Oval Office contenders.
Yet, on his breaks from Twitter, Sasse managed to craft a serious new book, The Vanishing American Adult. It advances a thesis that’s at once out of place at this political moment and almost too on-the-nose for the Trump years: He believes Americans have lost their sense of personal integrity and discipline. For the country to deal with the troubles ahead—including automation, political disengagement, and the rise of nativist, huckster politicians, he says—people must recover their sense of virtue. The republic depends on it.
The condition has long been considered untreatable. Experts can spot it in a child as young as 3 or 4. But a new clinical approach offers hope.
This is a good day, Samantha tells me: 10 on a scale of 10. We’re sitting in a conference room at the San Marcos Treatment Center, just south of Austin, Texas, a space that has witnessed countless difficult conversations between troubled children, their worried parents, and clinical therapists. But today promises unalloyed joy. Samantha’s mother is visiting from Idaho, as she does every six weeks, which means lunch off campus and an excursion to Target. The girl needs supplies: new jeans, yoga pants, nail polish.
Listen to the audio version of this article:Download the Audm app for your iPhone to listen to more titles.
At 11, Samantha is just over 5 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashes a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (history), and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family—Samantha hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.”
With a new Trump biography and a six-part lecture series, Newt Gingrich is auditioning for his latest role—defining and interpreting Trumpism.
A few weeks after the 2016 election, Newt Gingrich appeared at the Heritage Foundation to deliver what had been billed as a speech on the “Principles of Trumpism.” Tellingly, he spent most of his time instead talking about the brilliance of Trump the Man—his epic debate performances, his social media cunning, his utter domination of every opponent that provokes him. “Donald Trump is the grizzly bear in The Revenant,” Gingrich gushed at one point. “If you get his attention, he will get awake … he will walk over, bite your face off, and sit on you.”
To the extent that he tried to articulate any “principles” then, they seemed largely to cohere around a collection of culture-war applause lines and campaign-trail talking points. Someone listening Gingrich’s speech in search of a definition could have been forgiven for assuming “Trumpism” aimed primarily to protect cashiers’ right to say “Merry Christmas,” and to shame NFL players who don’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. It was not, in other words a fully formed political ideology—at least not yet.
The White House launches its own terroristic campaign.
As inpreviousyears, I’m binge-reviewing the latest season of Netflix’s House of Cards, the TV show that helped popularize the idea of “binge watching” when it premiered in 2013. Don’t read farther than you’ve watched.
Episode 1 (Chapter 53)
Season Five of House of Cards brings a new team of showrunners and a new real-life president for Frank Underwood to be compared to. It also, for a moment, seemed to bring a new gimmick of Claire addressing the camera just as her husband does. “I’ve been meaning to talk with you,” she says in the very first seconds of this premiere. “It’s terrifying, isn’t it?”
Yes, Claire, it is—terrifying and intriguing. Alas, she was just filming a paranoia-promoting campaign ad masquerading as a PSA. But the thought of her getting a chance to make meta-monologues raises the question of how the show could refresh its formula five years in—rather than merely continue to chart new depths of evil for the Underwoods, as this hour ended up doing.