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.
Emma Perrier was deceived by an older man on the internet—a hoax that turned into an unbelievable love story.
Emma Perrier spent the summer of 2015 mending a broken heart, after a recent breakup. By September, the restaurant manager had grown tired of watching The Notebook alone in her apartment in Twickenham, a leafy suburb southwest of London, and decided it was time to get back out there. Despite the horror stories she’d heard about online dating, Emma, 33, downloaded a matchmaking app called Zoosk. The second “o” in the Zoosk logo looks like a diamond engagement ring, which suggested that its 38 million members were seeking more than the one-night stands offered by apps like Tinder.
She snapped the three selfies the app required to “verify her identity.” Emma, who is from a volcanic city near the French Alps, not far from the source of Perrier mineral water, is petite, and brunette. She found it difficult to meet men, especially as she avoided pubs and nightclubs, and worked such long hours at a coffee shop in the city’s financial district that she met only stockbrokers, who were mostly looking for cappuccinos, not love.
In western Germany, populations of flying insects have fallen by around 80 percent in the last three decades.
The bottles were getting emptier: That was the first sign that something awful was happening.
Since 1989, scientists from the Entomological Society Krefeld had been collecting insects in the nature reserves and protected areas of western Germany. They set up malaise traps—large tents that funnel any incoming insect upward through a cone of fabric and into a bottle of alcohol. These traps are used by entomologists to collect specimens of local insects, for research or education. “But over the years, [the Krefeld team] realized that the bottles were getting emptier and emptier,” says Caspar Hallmann, from Radboud University.
By analyzing the Krefeld data—1,503 traps, and 27 years of work—Hallmann and his colleagues have shown that most of the flying insects in this part of Germany are flying no more. Between 1989 and 2016, the average weight of insects that were caught between May and October fell by an astonishing 77 percent. Over the same period, the weight of insects caught in the height of summer, when these creatures should be at their buzziest, fell by 82 percent.
Two centuries ago, America pioneered a way of thinking that puts human well-being in economic terms.
Money and markets have been around for thousands of years. Yet as central as currency has been to so many civilizations, people in societies as different as ancient Greece, imperial China, medieval Europe, and colonial America did not measure residents’ well-being in terms of monetary earnings or economic output.
In the mid-19th century, the United States—and to a lesser extent other industrializing nations such as England and Germany—departed from this historical pattern. It was then that American businesspeople and policymakers started to measure progress in dollar amounts, tabulating social welfare based on people’s capacity to generate income. This fundamental shift, in time, transformed the way Americans appraised not only investments and businesses but also their communities, their environment, and even themselves.
By making it harder to punish official misconduct, the justices risk damage to America's republican institutions.
For a few days earlier this month, it looked like the years-long corruption probe targeting New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez would fall apart seven weeks into his trial. At issue was the prosecution’s “stream of benefits” theory, which argues that the steady flow of donations and gifts from a wealthy Florida doctor to the Democratic senator—and the flow of favors from the senator to the doctor—amounted to quid pro quo corruption.
During a hearing last week, Judge William Walls seemed to signal that argument was dead on arrival by citing a recent Supreme Court ruling that has vexed public-corruption investigators across the country. “I frankly don’t think McDonnell will allow that,” Walls told prosecutors, referring to the decision in McDonnell v. United States that fundamentally changed the standard for bribery.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
A 27-year-old mayor is implementing a $1 million experiment in guaranteed income for residents of a poor city just outside the Bay Area.
The latest experiment in a universal basic income will be coming to Stockton, California, in the next year.
With $1 million in funding from the tech industry–affiliated Economic-Security Project, the Stockton Economic-Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) will be the country’s first municipal pilot program. As currently envisioned, some number of people in Stockton will receive $500 per month. That’s not enough to cover all their expenses, but it could help people with rising housing costs, paying student loans, or simply saving for life’s inevitable problems.
Last year, Stockton rents rose more than 10 percent, putting the city’s rental price growth among the top 10 in the nation. This is quite a surprise in what Time called “America’s most miserable city” just three years ago. The average rent remains a modest-by-Bay-standards $1,051, but Stockton has a per-capita income of just $23,046, more than $6,000 less than the U.S. median and a full $8,500 less than the California median. If you made the per-capita income of the city, average rent alone would eat 55 percent of your income.
Facebook and Google's push to personalize the news is the latest seismic shift in tech giants’ influence on the information landscape.
It took a terrorist attack for Google to enter the news business.
On September 11, 2001, after hijackers crashed two commercial jets into the World Trade Center as well as a third plane into the Pentagon and another into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, internet users turned to the search engine for information. Again and again, they typed in terms like “New York Twin Towers,” but found nothing about what had happened that morning. Google’s web crawlers hadn’t indexed “Twin Towers” since the month before, which meant every result that Google returned was, given the context, totally and painfully irrelevant.
Google quickly set up a special page for “News and information about attacks in U.S.” with links to the websites of about four dozen newspapers and news networks, along with links to relief funds, resources, and phone numbers for airlines and hospitals. A link to this makeshift news page stayed there for weeks, just below the search bar on Google’s minimalist homepage. Within a year, Google had incorporated a news filter into its search algorithm so that timely headlines appeared atop a list of search results for relevant keywords.
A series of damaging stories about the president's methods of consoling grieving Gold Star families represent the president’s latest entirely self-inflicted wound.
The question to President Trump on Monday sounded relatively innocuous: “Why haven’t we heard anything from you so far about the soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?” It’s certainly not the kind of question that seemed likely to set off several days of heated controversy.
But the hubbub that has ensued, centering on Trump’s response to the deaths of four soldiers in Niger and, more broadly, the way he deals with grieving military families, is yet another example of how this president inflicts crises on himself. This pattern has happened several times since Trump entered office, with the tussle over the size of his crowd on Inauguration Day and his claim that Barack Obama “wiretapped him.” In each case, Trump’s bluster and his seeming obsession with Obama have led him to commit serious unforced errors.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keeps a Most Wanted list for flu viruses. The agency evaluates every potentially dangerous strain, and gives them two scores out of 10—one reflecting how likely they are to trigger a pandemic, and another that measures how bad that pandemic would be. At the top of the list, with scores of 6.5 for emergence and 7.5 for impact, is H7N9.
Influenza viruses come in many flavors—H5N1, H1N1, H3N2, and so on. The H and N refer to two proteins on their surface, and the numbers refer to the versions of those proteins that a particular virus carries. H1N1 was responsible for both the catastrophic pandemic of 1918 that killed millions of people, and the most recent (and much milder) one from 2009. H5N1 is the bird-flu subtype that has been worrying scientists for almost two decades. But H7N9? Until recently, it had flown under the radar.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.