Jason Weiss is the author of several books including a new novel, Faces by the Wayside, just out from Six Gallery Press. He is currently working on a wild novel featuring the state of New Jersey, and also an oral history of the recently revived avant-garde record label from the 1960s, You Never Heard Such Sounds in Your Life: The ESP-Disk’ Story.
David Hoenigman: After years of writing nonfiction, as well as editing and translating, why did you decide to write a work of fiction this time?
Jason Weiss: I started as a poet, from at least high school years, but began writing fiction at least by college. I’ve written other novels, but these refuse to get off the shelf–either I didn’t finish them enough or publishers simply weren’t interested, or both. And fiction is what I spend the majority of my writing time on, been that way for many years. But I also never really subscribed to any assumptions about what fiction was supposed to be, or how one was supposed to write in the U.S., or what a fiction writer’s career was supposed to look like. So, as recompense for such apostasy, as it were, I have lived a sort of shadow existence as a writer. Most people who know I write have seen very little from me, a few published articles now and then, other odds and ends. In this regard, my “first” novel now, which as in many other people’s cases as well simply means my first published novel, Faces by the Wayside, fits my operative profile. The real protagonist is a traveling soul, a being who barely exists, who has no objective three-dimensional substance, thus rather elusive. Also, the way it has been published has been very elusive, to say the least–a small press that has mostly done print on demand with some small press distribution, but which can barely get that together at all! Therefore, my book exists, but barely, in the margin of the margins. But I didn’t exactly answer your question, did I?
DH: So how did you go from young poet/aspiring novelist to writing nonfiction? Where have you been along the way?
JW: As far as my past, and writing nonfiction books, there too I think there has been a lot of eluding the normal parameters or definitions of self and work. I’m bi-coastal, my family moved from the Jersey shore to Berkeley, California, when I was in my second year of high school. So, I did most of my high school and undergraduate studies at Berkeley, then spent a year in L.A. where I studied screenwriting mostly, after which I went off to Europe just to try it out, for what I thought might be a year. Turned into a decade (the 1980s), nearly all of it in Paris. Most of that time I thought I’d stay there for the rest of my life, but eventually I began to think maybe I really should be back in my native culture, for better or worse, since I am a writer writing in English and nothing forces me to stay abroad. During that change of thought I met my wife, a New Yorker visiting Paris with some past experience there, and then I moved to New York, where I had never lived and have never left since. So, my first book, Writing at Risk Interviews in Paris with Uncommon Writers (Iowa, 1991), came out of one of my activities in Paris, literary interviews. At a certain point, I thought I had a book and maybe it should be packaged up and available, but no one saw the point of a mere collection–even though in my introduction I emphasized the fact that (nearly) all the writers were foreign-born–until Iowa said yes. Every book I’ve done has had a similar unpredictable trajectory: what I thought would be an easier sell kept going round and round until a single editor somewhere finally said yes. Maybe some day I’ll get two editors both interested in the same project, but I’m not holding my breath. Anyway, I can talk about the other books too if you’re interested, but this much I can say: each time I thought that that particular book should exist, and that I might be the only one to make it happen, until I couldn’t avoid the temptation any longer.
DH: So then, how did you end up doing your other books?
JW: In the 1990s, having married and soon to have my first child (and later a second), I decided to do something I thought I would never do: go to graduate school. For a crazy moment there, I thought I was being practical for once by working toward a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, so that I could eventually teach (having figured out pretty quickly that I certainly did not want to end up in a position where I could only teach creative writing, quel horreur!, which is what an MFA could get me). So, through the ’90s, I took the classes, did the writing as well as some teaching, and on the side tried to work on a semi-autobiographical Paris novel, the closest I came to ever writing about myself–which I thought I finished but that remains on those shelves. I also translated a couple of literary books in that time, but the academic pursuit reminded me of why I had always avoided it in the past, I didn’t take to the institutional format, nor the trendiness of certain academic approaches and themes, nor again the rank careerism that seemed to make a mockery of why someone might like to read & write & even teach. So, I finished the doctorate, but by then personal finances had improved enough that I wasn’t desperate to have a teaching job, so I stopped looking. Besides, my dissertation was a subject that I took up from the start simply because I was interested in it, a big rich subject that I wanted to know more about and had never found a single book that really treated enough of it, that is, the abundant history and deep relationship of Latin American writers and Paris. So, doing that, I had no use for literary theory and I wrote it more for a general readership, and as more of a literary history–in other words, what I wanted, and not how a dissertation was supposed to be. All this to say, I treated it like another book project–and in fact, I had told myself from the start of my graduate work that if I got nothing more out of it than a book at the end, then I was satisfied. And I did. Granted, though I had a good publisher, they screwed up completely on promoting it, and somehow did not manage to send it to hardly any journals in a prompt manner so that it might get reviewed. That one was The Lights of Home: A Century of Latin American Writers in Paris (Routledge, 2002). But meanwhile, in the late ’90s or thereabouts, I came up with another book idea that I thought should exist, because I had known him and appreciated him and had noticed that most of his work was by then out of print, and that was to edit an anthology of Brion Gysin’s writings, Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (Wesleyan, 2001). I knew him in Paris, and used to visit him, and wrote several newspaper articles on him–Gysin was a painter and writer and much else, had a lot of ideas that influenced many people, including his old friend William Burroughs. So that book came out, I had thought it was something I could do quickly and easily and in the margins, as it were, but of course it took more time and work than that. And a few years later, I edited another book, Steve Lacy: Conversations (Duke, 2006), since I had also known Lacy in Paris, and wrote about him, and visited him often, we mostly talked about books, but I had been a fan of Lacy’s music since I was a teenager. When I learned he was ill with cancer, in 2003, the next day I thought that book should exist, a book of conversations with the composer, since he was so articulate and had given many interviews. So, I gathered up many from throughout his career, including a few of my own, and translated half of them from French, and that book too eventually became a reality.
But this novel, see, Faces by the Wayside, is a whole other story… and it goes way back. I first had the idea the last year I was living in Paris, in 1988, possibly or partly while watching a performance by Pina Bausch’s troupe (maybe my first time), and it revolved around the idea of how we all go about through life sometimes wondering how it would be to live other people’s lives. So, between then and my first months in New York, in early 1989, I wrote half of a first draft and sort of ran aground, not knowing how to write it. I had written an outline of several pages, and wrote the chapters in third person, but still… so I put it aside. Then, after I finished my Paris novel, for better or worse, and the dissertation book (which had included more material that just the dissertation), at one point I kept thinking about that old idea and decided to pick it up again, and tried it in first person, as an old friend of mine had suggested. I guess that must have helped, though it still was more difficult and complicated than I had anticipated, but I was determined, and now it is what it is. That same friend said, when he read it, that it would probably be a tough sell but that I should definitely get it published wherever I could. And so, it’s been about four years now that I’ve finished it, and it’s only come out now…
DH: Judging from your Internet presence you seem to want to keep a low profile.
JW: About the Internet, that’s not really intentional. I just never want to take the time to set up a website of some kind, and never think I can quite afford to pay someone else to do it. I’ve inched my way toward the idea, and I began to digitize some old interviews I was fond of, only I just haven’t advanced too far, many distractions. For a few years I’ve thought to put together a book of articles and interviews from the past 25-plus years, on music and literature and the arts, even had a title, Itineraries of a Hummingbird. But publishers don’t want that sort of a book unless you already have a name, a bit of fame, which I don’t. So I may yet put that up as a website one of these days, through blogspot or wordpress or whatever, which could then include other writing too.
But as a writer, I have always appreciated the position of anonymity. In an ideal world, I would be able to write my books and stories, get them published when I deemed them ready, and not have to go out and mingle and parade myself around like a show pony. I have no jealousy of ‘successful’ writers, I don’t wish I had written someone else’s books either, only I wouldn’t mind having reached a point already where I could get my books published and some people might appreciate them. Every time I go to a literary reading or function, which is not often even living in NY, I am reminded how much I dislike making the scene, as it were–mingling, networking, self-promotion leave me cold, I’d rather be home doing nothing or something. For me, writing has always been more like sending a message in a bottle, which can also mean that years might pass before any of those bottles is ever found. Another thing: I have never behaved, it seems, according to the various modes by which an American writer is supposed to behave. I am not much better read, if at all, in American fiction than in fiction of Latin America or Europe–this is surely a matter of taste, as well as too much familiarity with the American way of thinking and dreaming in its standard forms, as I have little interest, for instance, in that vast literary terrain of American suburban life. That is, I lived it enough in my early upbringing, why should I have to write about it (at least in the ways most American fiction treats that realm, in a fairly straight realism as the foundation)? Moreover, for reasons far greater than mere contrariness (which is not an unworthy reason in itself), I have also never felt comfortable with the rank careerism of being a writer–precisely what has been taught and refined in hundreds of MFA programs across the land (and of course spread well beyond American borders), another form of corporate training that I have steered around surely at my peril.
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.