Mary Akers: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me today, David. I loved your story The Stars at Noon in this issue. It’s such an interesting point-of-view to write from–that of a dying nun. What was the inspiration behind this story?
David Jauss: I grew up surrounded by nuns. From first through eighth grade, I went to a Catholic school where all the classes were taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. My mother was good friends with several of the nuns, so I saw them frequently outside of school too. I always found them mysterious; I wondered what made them decide to become nuns and wear their black habits and white wimples. I tried to imagine what they were like when they were young girls, and I remember looking around the room at my female classmates and wondering if any of them would grow up to become a nun and, if so, why. For some reason, I didn’t find priests mysterious, and I didn’t wonder if any of my classmates would become one. Priests seemed pretty much like other men, but the nuns didn’t seem like any women I knew. So I was curious, and of course curiosity is what precedes every act of the imagination. I should also point out that two of the nuns who were my teachers died, so I was curious not only about what they thought and felt as young girls but what they thought and felt when they died.
MA: Fascinating. I find nuns mysterious, too. They’re generally more progressive than priests and more hands-on within the community of needy people, aren’t they? The front lines of the Catholic Church, so to speak.
Your collection Glossolalia blew me away. I read an ARC (advance reader copy) and loved it so much I had to buy my own copy. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever done that. The stories are New and Selected. I know you had many stories to choose from. Can you talk a little bit about what the selection process was like?
DJ: First things first: thank you to the nth power for your very kind words. They mean a lot coming from the author of Women Up on Blocks and Bones of an Inland Sea, two books I love and regularly recommend to my friends and students.
Selecting the stories for Glossolalia was both easy and impossible. The easy part was eliminating the dozen or so stories I’d published that just plain weren’t up to snuff. The impossible part was trying to choose which of the remaining thirty stories to include. I felt a bit like Styron’s Sophie, having to choose which of my children would die. Eventually I took the coward’s way out and sent all thirty stories—nearly 500 pages’ worth—to Press 53. Ultimately, I have to give credit to Christine Norris, my editor, for the selections. She sent me a list of seventeen stories—250 pages’ worth—that she thought would work well together, and if I remember right, I made only one substitution. But she and Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher, said they wanted to publish the rest of the stories too. So there’ll be a second New & Selected Stories coming out, probably sometime next year, and it’ll contain a few things there wasn’t room for in Glossolalia, including a novella, plus several new stories.
MA: Ooh, I can’t wait! I hope you do another advance book tour. That was a lot of fun.
I’m always interested in who other writers read, but I know it puts them in an awkward spot to name names since many of their friends are also writers. So instead, I’ll ask (and find your answer equally as interesting) who did you read when you were 11 or 12?
DJ: I read virtually every novel Jules Verne wrote; dozens of books from the Landmark series about American history; Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters; numerous Hardy Boys mysteries; Clair Bee’s Chip Hilton series of sports novels, especially those, like Fence Busters, that were about baseball; a slew of biographies of famous baseball players; and a Catholic propaganda novel called Knockout, in which a group of humble Catholic boys take on a group of over-confident Protestants and whoop them one by one in every major team sport and then, in the final chapter, the captain of the Catholic team takes on the captain of the Protestant team in a boxing match and—well, I think you can guess how that turns out.
MA: How fun! And that’s a great list. One of the reasons I ask the question is because Ray Bradbury has said that he believes those preteen years are the ones during which writers form their lasting obsessions, either in terms of pivotal events in their lives or books they read at that age. Would you agree? And if so, do you see influences from those years emerging in your own work?
DJ: He may be right about pivotal life events but I think he’s wrong about the influence of books read at that age. I would hate to think that our literary interests and aspirations are determined when we’re preteens. Mine definitely weren’t. I see little to no connection between what I read then and what I read and write now. I still love baseball and I’ve written one story about a baseball player, though it’s far from being anything like a Chip Hilton story. I have no interest in writing or reading science fiction or mysteries or sports novels and only minimal interest in historical fiction. And if I read Knockout today, I’d be pulling for those poor doomed Protestants who not only have inferior athletic abilities but are headed to hell for eating hot dogs on Friday.
Although I read a lot as a kid, it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I read any author who influenced me in any crucial way. I had a Current Events teacher then (this was 1967) who was rabidly anti-Communist and who argued that the only way to avoid WWIII was to rain atomic bombs on Russia immediately. I couldn’t stand the guy, so I went to the school library, asked the librarian if they had any books by Russians, and she led me to The Brothers Karamazov. I had no intention of reading it—I merely wanted to prop it up on my desk to irritate my teacher—but one day in study hall I started reading it and before I knew it I was living in a whole new world, one full of very different dangers than the kind I’d encountered in the Hardy Boys or Chip Hilton stories or Treasure Island. I finished that novel with my brain on fire and my DNA changed, and I began seeking out other writers of by-god Literature. Of them, two that I read incessantly in high school—Hemingway and Salinger—have been among my most enduring influences.
MA: You know, now that you say that, I think you’re right. Bradbury said it about events, not books read. I must have made that up to validate my early reading choices.
By the way, I really love that your introduction to by-god Literature came about as a way to spite a professor you despised. That’s brilliant.
You write and publish across all genres. I’m so impressed and awed by your list of publications. What haven’t you done? Or maybe I should ask: Is there something you’ve always wanted to do that you haven’t done YET?
DJ: Oh, there’s a lot I haven’t done—I’ve never written a novel or a memoir or a play—but there’s not really anything I wanted to do that I haven’t done. All I really want to do is write better stories, poems, and essays. I’ve never felt any desire to write a novel and, to be honest, I don’t even enjoy reading novels all that much. Even the novels I most love strike me as full of inessential details, characters, and events, not to mention long dreary bouts of exposition. I like the idea of trying to convey the world in a grain of sand, not an entire beach. And I think it’s much more possible to achieve something akin to perfection in a poem or story than it is in a novel. Novels seemed doomed by their very length to fail. As Randall Jarrell said, “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” And I couldn’t possibly write a memoir—I have a very poor memory, and nothing too exciting or interesting has happened to me. And although I tried my hand at playwriting once when I was an undergrad, I’m too much of a control freak to want to write a play or screenplay and turn it over to a director and actors who’d bring it to a very different life than the one I imagined. So, for better or worse, I’ve found the genres that fit my temperament and aesthetic goals.
MA: A control freak, eh? I wonder if all short story writers have a bit of the control freak in them. It is such a deliciously containable form. I liken a novel to a great sprawling mural and a short story to a closely observed, meticulous sketch.
Margaret Atwood has said that a book is a form of brain transfer, that art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. Do you agree?
DJ: I do believe that art takes two brains to be fully realized, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the experiencer’s brain often prevents the work of art from being fully realized—and, alas, the creator’s brain often does too. But let’s assume a writer creates a successful story, one that supplies all the essential information a reader would need to understand it and feel the emotions the author wants him to feel. If the reader fails to notice key facts of a story, invents her own details, imposes his own experience and opinions on it, or extrapolates wildly from some detail to a conclusion that’s not supported by the text, I think the brain transfer is partial at best. An example: I once had a student complain that a character named Brian in a classmate’s story couldn’t possibly lift an oak table by himself because he was “scrawny and weak.” In fact, the character was described as a longtime weightlifter; the reader had failed to notice that fact and imagined the character to be like a particular Brian he knew, someone who was scrawny and weak. He was reading a story, yes, but not the one the author wrote.
One more example: after reading a poem about a woman walking down a hallway of closed doors in search of a quiet, peaceful room where she can be alone, one student said he thought the poem was about driving through Texas and trying to get a good station on the radio. The poet’s reference to turning a doorknob had led him to think of turning radio knobs. And, not surprisingly, he had not too recently driven through Texas and had trouble finding a good station to listen to. So yes, art needs two brains to be fully realized, but it needs two well-trained and attentive brains. The reader has to be as well trained in the discipline of reading as the writer is in the discipline of writing. And he has to resist the temptation to treat the work as a Rorschach blot about which any opinion or response is as legitimate as any other.
MA: This is so fascinating! (And a little discouraging, I must admit.) So…we bring our own experiences to the table when reading–or experiencing any art form–but apparently sometimes we bring TOO MUCH of our own experience and it leads to a gross misinterpretation of the work. How very interesting. (Why had this angle never occurred to me?) I feel like this concept also begs a couple of (rhetorical?) questions. How much of that misinterpretation is okay? Is valid, even? Where is the line? As artists, we have to accept that no one is ever going to get all of our references, but how much can we expect them to get without feeling cranky that they didn’t get it? Your answer makes a good case for the argument that we should write the books we want to read.
And finally, because we are a themed journal and I never get tired of hearing people answer this question, “What does ‘recovery’ mean to you?”
DJ: I think “recovery” is just a synonym for “life.” Some people may be recovering alcoholics, but all of us are recovering human beings. I think life is largely a matter of recovering from what we’ve witnessed or experienced, of finding a way to go on after life gives us a kick in the teeth. And for writers, “recovery” could just as well be a synonym for “writing” too. Writing is a way to recover (or at least try to recover) from the wounds life has given us. And, I’d argue, recovery from the past is possible only through recovery of the past: we have to go back and relive in a way the traumas we’ve endured, finding this time a way to reimagine and revise the past in such a way that we can deal with it. Whether we write in an overtly autobiographical way or not (and I don’t), we’re dealing with our personal wounds and trying to put them into a context that heals them. To return to “The Stars at Noon” for a moment: when I was in first grade, my teacher, Sister Aloysius, got sick and had to go to the hospital. The other nuns told us all to pray that she get well, and we did so, daily and fervently, because we all loved her. But she died. It was the first time in my life that someone I knew died, and just as important, it was also the first time I realized that praying didn’t necessarily get you what you want. I didn’t understand why I wrote “The Stars at Noon” until well after I’d finished it, but now it’s clear to me that I wrote it to do two things at once: grant my childhood prayer that Sister Aloysius live and make the fact that she died more tolerable by imagining that she wanted to die.
MA: Oh, my. Beautiful Thank you, David. It’s been a real pleasure.