Through games, lies, and uncertain identities, Jesse Ball charts the give and take of competing realities. His writing feels architectural and theatrical, with narrative structures that could be drawn by an Etch A Sketch master: his stories are calculated, fractal, and held together by threads both vivid and tenuous. But his stories always come back to people. Ball’s colliding duplicities invariably exact their effects on human relationships.
Ball grew up on Long Island and was educated at Vassar and Columbia. While still in graduate school, at the age of twenty-four, he released his first book of poetry, March Book. Since then, he’s published widely, both poetry and prose, including three novels. His most recent, The Curfew, was nominated for this year’s Believer book award.
Stephan McCormick and Tom Dibblee got a chance to sit down with Ball in Chicago, where he teaches in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute.
You teach a class on lying. What does that class consist of?
We start off with a contest so I can see how skilled the students are at lying and discovering when others are lying. Then we have a series of exercises. One of the most successful is to insert a false memory into someone. You approach an old friend, and as you approach, you have your friend’s vanities in mind, particularly their vanities about some past state they had. Your friend might think, “Oh, well, I was eleven when I hit my growth spurt and I was really good at horses and I was going to be a jockey.” So that is their idea of themselves at that time. This is now someone who is thirty-five and obese. But when they were eleven they really felt they were nimble and agile and everything else.
Then you give this friend a memory that maybe you both have in common. Like maybe you went to a state fair. You say, “Oh, you remember that time we went to a state fair and there was that one game where you had to run along the poles that were a little ways off the ground? You got the best score of anyone.” Your friend would be very likely to agree that that happened, without remembering it at all, because it plays directly to their vanity. You can even go so far as to prompt them to supply you with details about it. Like you could say, “Do you remember that ribbon? What color was it? It was in your room for some years after? What color was that ribbon that you had?” They’ll be like, “Oh yeah it was blue, it was blue.” And you’re listening kind of horrified. But it would work probably on you or me. It works on everyone. Though some people have this almost antisocial fastidiousness when it comes to truth. I know some people who simply won’t agree to anything unless they specifically remember it. Those people are kind of immune. But I would say overall that plays them false more often than not, because you want to be able to participate in other people’s fictions.
Do your students come back and thank you for showing them how to become master manipulators?
I try to make it all in the service of the good. We have these lying contests at the beginning of the class and at the end. In the first class I taught, the same girl won both. Everyone continues to believe that she is not at all good at lying, but she is very good. She has a very honest face.
When you were eleven, what were you like?
I was very hyperactive. I was bad in school. I was always misbehaving. I was a very—I think—good, kind child to my family and friends. But I really didn’t like having to do anything that I was told, even tasks around the house, pointless tasks like sweeping up. “Oh, you have to go sweep outside.” Sweep? Why would you sweep outside? It didn’t make sense.
When did you start writing?
I wrote for a long time and didn’t show anything to anybody. Of course you do these things where you are writing as a kid. But I started writing poetry probably around ten or eleven and then continued through.
People probably first saw my writing in college. I think that’s a good thing. I think the fact that everything people do now is instantly put on websites or blogs for other people to read, I think it’s good to have a period where it’s just yours. Where you don’t share it with people. Once you become fixed in your identity as I-am-a-maker-of-this-sort-of-thing, it can be hard. It’s much easier to experiment if it’s all in secret.
What were you reading at eleven that prompted you to start writing poems?
My father really liked this poet Donald Hall, so I read a lot of Donald Hall. I read Robert Bly. I read a lot of old stuff, a lot of Robert Stevenson and things like Ivanhoe. Actually my dad gave me The Varieties of Religious Experience when I was about twelve. That’s really good. I like that a lot. So, many different things. And I never had a dog, but I read every book about a boy and his dog—White Fang, all animal books.
Were your parents literary?
My father worked in social services, getting people Medicaid. My mother was a librarian. But my father was extremely scholarly. He was a military history guy. So our entire house was full of books everywhere. That was the principle activity that would go on in the evenings; people would just read.
In the same room or in separate rooms?
Sometimes in the same room, sometimes in separate rooms. It would just be the thing you would do to pass the time.
This was on Long Island?
So you stuck with poetry through high school and then you went to Vassar. Then when you got there you started to show your work?
I took classes where you showed your work. I went to Vassar actually because of one poet. In high school, I went to a lecture at this Irish House. It’s a little dwelling at NYU where they host Irish writers and do lectures on things Irish. I’m half Irish, and both my father and mother were each half Irish, although from a long ways back. I think we came to the colonies around 1650. So not recently from Ireland.
But at Irish House there was a lecture by Eamon Grennan, who was a poet at Vassar, and he gave this lecture on Kavanaugh. I really liked Kavanaugh and I wanted to hear this lecture and I loved it. So I thought he was great and I read a lot of his poetry and decided to go to Vassar to study with him.
Did many of the poems in March Book come out of your undergraduate experience?
No. The book that I wrote at Vassar was this book called Equations. And then I wrote, actually, a bunch of books after that, in between college and graduate school. I had a bunch of weird little jobs and wandered around, but writing was the main thing that I was doing.
I had a job at McDougal Littell, this textbook company in Boston. I had several different bosses and each one thought the other was the boss of me. So I could just sit there and write poetry all day. It was pretty great, but the over boss eventually caught me because I had printed out fifty copies of my manuscript and left them in the printer. She read one of the manuscripts and she called me into her office. At that point I was thinking about whether I should go to MFA or law school, to try to make some money or something. She told me I should go to MFA. She told me I could keep on writing and she wouldn’t care. But she gave me this extra work, which was to oversee the work that my bosses were doing. So that was pretty funny. It was like a promotion based upon writing poetry. It’s probably the only time that’s ever happened.
When did you switch to prose?
At Columbia, I met Richard Howard, who sort of immediately decided he was going to help me publish a book. So that book came out while I was in the MFA. I thought it was really going to change the condition of my life, which it doesn’t do.
You mean publishing a book?
Yeah, publishing a book of poetry, because it’s not very much money. The thing that gets you a position in academia is a book of poetry plus a lot of legwork of socializing and knowing people and doing things to amplify it. But a book of poetry alone doesn’t do that much.
I didn’t know anybody so that wasn’t going to help me very much. I thought my book would change the condition of my life and it didn’t. I had a girlfriend at the time who’d moved to France. She was teaching, so I went there and lived with her.
In France, I wrote this long fantasy novel. I thought this was a good way of making money. I had read a lot of fantasy as child, so I wrote some 650-page fantasy novel in about two months. It was hard. I have to say that’s one of the hardest books I’ve ever written, because everything had to be consistent. You have to come up with the languages, the cultures, the physics of the world, the histories of different nations and the perspectives of this person to that person or previous generation. With fiction, you just write it, but not this.
There are diagrams…
A lot of diagrams, yes. Eventually I will publish that book.
What’s it about?
The hero is lucky. His power is to be lucky. So all these other people have all these other wild things, but he’s just fortunate and just happens through stuff and manages to survive. There is a classic type of people who have this sort of luck power. It sometimes abandons them, and they get in trouble. So I wrote that in the winter, then into that summer and into that fall I wrote The Way Through Doors. After that, I wrote Samedi. I wrote The Way Through Doors in June and then I wrote Samedi in October, September, something like that.
Going from The Way Through Doors into Samedi, what were you trying to accomplish? What precedent did The Way Through Doors set for you?
There are different objectives that people have in writing a book. One is to contemporaneously create success for themselves. That means playing into cultural ideas and doing things that will cement the author’s status. But if your object is just to etch out your ideas in the best way possible, then what you want is a formal structure that will allow you to utilize all the resources that you have and apply them.
When I thought of the structure for The Way Through Doors, where the stories would sort of telescope out, one into the next into the next and the next, or I guess reverse telescope, it was clear immediately that wherever I wanted to take the story, whatever I wanted to do with it, it would be always possible for me to employ the idea, the resources I would have at any given time. So that book was immediately very easy to write, certainly easier than the fantasy novel.
By resources, you mean your preoccupations at the time?
If you’re thinking about the dovetails and how wonderful dovetails are in tables, if that occurs to you while you’re writing a paragraph where the characters are inside a submarine, all of a sudden you can have them do something that allows them to be in a factory where someone is doing dovetails. If you want to write about dovetails, you can do that; one conversation leads into the next. You’re not bounded by anything.
A strict narrative is necessary in a book only insomuch as it makes the reader comfortable, knowing where they are in relation to the author, and feeling they can receive what’s given. If you can create a different structure and then bend all your efforts to having everything be legible and understandable and as clear as possible, I think you can continue to work with your ideas and be successful. I think the principle burden that a writer should have is to convey their thoughts as clearly as possible to the audience. And to be a storyteller. To tell a story.
The Curfew is much sadder than your first two novels. The sadness is almost unbearable, but I think it’s also what gives the book its beauty. Where did that heightened level of emotion come from?
(Pause) I guess it’s hard to say in particular why that book rather than others was more sad.
My father passed away when I was young. My brother was quadriplegic and he passed away. So I was very sad as a young man. And angry. Angry and sad. So I think some of that has certainly never left.
But then, also I had this little family… I had my wife and daughter. So I think the feeling of the ephemeral nature of life, how the child is one particular person one week and then they get a little older and now they’ve changed completely, some of that is definitely there. And also when you love someone deeply you realize that there’re all these sides to them that you can’t know, that are hidden from you. That is beautiful but it can also be sad. Although it allows you to try and find those sides in their actions or in other things.
In March Book, you wrote, “The only books we know are the ones that we wrote ourselves, and even those don’t always help.”
That speaks to this feeling that I have always had in literature.
Probably because my father was very scholarly and set me up to admire mostly older literature, I prefer mostly the work of dead people. I like very rigorous, difficult work. And so there’s a sense of being alone in a strict and difficult endeavor where nobody else in your time is trying help you, or understands.
In some ways I feel like it continues to happen. It’s not always the case, but many times I’ll meet someone who likes something I wrote, and the reason that they like it has nothing to do with anything that I thought the book contained. But that’s what you have to do. Books have to be a gift. You have to give them away. You no longer possess it, it’s now out in the world, and people can do with it what they will. I think that’s very important. Even great poets like Paul Celan can be very protective of their meanings in such a way that their work is never fully given to people to do with what they will.
If you think of Tolkien, I think some of these people who’re just completely obsessed with the Tolkien books, they possess The Lord of the Rings more than he did. It’s their whole life. For him his whole life is the study of languages and Old English and Norse and all these other things. He created this fiction, but that’s not it. It’s much more the person who has read it 500 times. You have to be able to just give things away.
I think it’s a very sad affair for someone to sit around re-reading their own books. I can’t imagine that. Even memorizing, it’s interesting and a beautiful feat when people memorize all their work and they can recite it. But at the same time, you have to wonder if there wasn’t something better they could have memorized.
You’ve said before that you want your ideal reader to read your work as rapidly as possible, in one sitting, or at least quickly. Do you also want your readers to re-read your books?
I really believe in re-reading books. I have a number of books that I re-read every year or every few years. Sometimes a period of time will elapse and I say, “Oh, I need this book. This is the book I need to re-read now.” I think there’s a strange practice that has crept into reading where people seem to believe that they can read a book once and then they’ve done it.
I don’t know if it’s part of the march of technology that people live in now, where things that have been done can just be abandoned, but I think that you read a book a first time to get one thing and then read it another time to get another thing and another time to get another thing. I think that’s fine. But specifically, in terms of your question: I definitely want the process of reading the book to be as seamless and clear as possible. I read very rapidly, so I always come out from that point of view. My father read very slowly and he would never forget anything. He would be able just to talk about what was in page thirty-four of this book or whatever, and I’m not that way. I always forget everything; I can never remember anything at all. So I read rapidly and often.
What books do you re-read?
(Laughs) I can’t say that. Much too personal.
One is Leaves of Grass, the 1855 version. Maybe another would be Duino Elegies. Another would be Zbigniew Herbert’s Barbarian In The Garden. I really like Dune by Frank Herbert. One of my favorites is Bachelard, all of his: The Flame of the Candle, The Poetics of Space. But I like nonfiction, fiction, all kinds of things.
I read that when you’re writing the book, you’ll have your manuscripts on the wall or in front of you.
I guess I started doing that after college. It’s not that I’m editing the book on the wall or walking around or even necessarily reading it as it’s there on the wall. But it gives you a sense of the urgency about the enterprise. It turns the room into a laboratory where important things are going on. The pressure of the world always pushes back on a person who’s trying to do anything serious, and I can’t speak for what the ancient world was like, but our modern world tends to say you’re trivial, you’re insignificant, other things are more important than you. And that’s the opposite of the energy a writer needs to create things.
But if you’re surrounded by the humble majesty of the work that you are doing by putting it on the wall or hanging it on the clothes lines across the room or laying it out across the floor, whatever it is, it repels that diminutive ascription that’s laid on you, and allows you to just continue to make it. It’s a wonderful feeling to write a page and put it up, and write another page and put it up.
Do you do that with your poems?
Yes, I do that with my poems also.
What’s your writing routine like when you’re working on book?
Well, during that time, I mostly just write.
Yeah. I’ll go on walks and stuff in between. I try not to talk to other people or interact, because you want the space in your head to just go. The thing that’s useful about it is there are no other things interposing.
I will read. I will pick books to read that I feel fit the enterprise. Actually, somebody once said this to me, they asked me about Samedi and Conrad, and I had been reading The Secret Agent on purpose while I was writing Samedi.
So, Conrad during Samedi. What about The Way Through Doors and The Curfew?
This doesn’t make too much sense, but I was reading Proust during The Way Through Doors…
And The Curfew?
The Curfew I wrote really rapidly. I don’t think I did much reading during that time. That was just about six days.
In The Curfew, white space plays an important part. Was that a decision you made at the beginning of the manuscript, or something that happened on day four, or something that happened during the editorial process?
I think it comes out of my writer’s lineage being that of poetry. But I am not afraid of white space. I feel comfortable with it and I think everyone feels comfortable with it when reading. But I think when they get into discussions with other people, it’s a thing to say, to ban it, “Oh, I don’t know what this white space is.” You know, sometimes you have an aunt and she’ll just say things. It doesn’t matter if they’re true or not true. It’s like things occur to her that can be said, so she says them. I think white space is like that, even though I think everybody likes it.
Michael Ondaatje, he just throws poetry in the middle of things and he gets away with it. Everybody’s like, “Oh, this is so great!” If you somehow manage to earn the right in the popular mind to do that, then it becomes this tremendous strength and everybody is like, “Oh it’s so great! There’s just this poetry there!” Yet if somebody else does it, they get put into the stocks and ripped.
Part of it is also that people, if they feel the context for a verse, are very comfortable with it. But if they feel that they’re beholden to a purpose of discovering why the verse is there, that’s too much work and it’s confusing.
So the way that it’s done is very important. In The Curfew I have all those epitaphs on the graves, which I won’t say are poems, but they’re certainly poetic. And yet those are fine. I haven’t had any objections to those, because the context is created for them.
In the poem “A Speech” from March Book, your speaker says “The failure of modernity is the failure of the machine to act morally. It never intended to. But we were deceived by its sober efficiency.” Then in the book’s final poem, your speaker calls himself a machinist who builds theaters.
Pardon me if I’m reading too much into the voice of that final poem as being something that Jesse Ball as a writer is saying about his own work, but does that mean you’re creating deceptive machines? Is that, perhaps, your ultimate goal?
The last poem in that book is to me much more important than the rest of the book. That was the principle thing I was focused on, writing that. I wrote it before the others and the publishers didn’t want to publish it. They didn’t like it. But I wouldn’t allow the book to come out without that being a part of it, because I thought it was the most important part.
I think it does anticipate many of the themes and ideas that are everywhere else in the work that I’ve done since then. So I’m glad that I insisted, despite the fact that I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
But I think that the first line you mention would be a speech by a person standing in an empty room, speaking to rows of statues in seats. There’s a theatrical guise to that initial speech. But when I, in the final poem, say “machinist,” I would say it’s meant much more sincerely. The first instance of the word isn’t entirely sincere.
Now that said, I think that a good-hearted falseness can play a part in bringing people to what your ideas are, and what is best for them to hear in order to understand what you are trying to bring across. So deceptive mechanisms are definitely a part of the machinery.
Are you ever conscious of trying to recreate cinematic effects in your work?
I absolutely adore cinema, and I think actually many of the possibilities of cinema have sort of been forgotten. I’m not saying across the board, there are good people working on good things all the time, but for instance The Passion of Joan of Arc or Day of Wrath, a lot of early films are magnificent in the way that they use the camera. A lot of silent films did great powerful things with absurd close-ups. Just think of the Buster Keaton films, the joy of the action. It’s just so joyful and you rarely, rarely see that nowadays.
So I’m influenced by that era more than others, although my favorite director by far is Tarkovsky. I love him. Another guy I love is Victor Erice; I was just showing in my class his Spirit of the Beehive, which is an absolutely marvelous film. I’m showing Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, which I love too.
I think the thing that’s wonderful about cinema is perhaps, because sight is so natural to us, it allows the creator of the film to pull people helplessly into his or her vision in a way that’s harder in books.
Each of your novels makes use of deprivation, whether it’s deafness in Samedi, amnesia in The Way Through Doors, or muteness in The Curfew. Do you use deprivation to pull people into your vision?
I like deprivation because, as part a logical rhetoric, one of the key techniques is exclusion to focus on particular things in a vacuum, in order to demonstrate extremes, in order to make points. So these are plot elements that permit you to make points more clearly than would otherwise be possible.
What do you think of Lars von Trier?
What I like about him over, say, David Lynch is I feel… I love Mulholland Drive for instance, and I really like the performance in Inland Empire of… what’s her name? The main actress? Laura Dern. She gives a fantastic performance, but I feel like David Lynch is maybe surrounded by a court of admirers. He leaves too much to chance, and I think I like intentionality. I like for a person to want a specific effect and achieve that effect. That is what I mean by being clear in communication and doing everything you can to be as transparent as possible.
Sometimes I think that David Lynch feels the pulse of the unconscious in a way that allows him to have—remember that guy in Mulholland Drive behind the diner who sticks his head out?—you will never forget that in your life. It’s just impossible. Once you see that, it’s there in your psyche. So he can do things like that, but I would like for him to be a little more intentional.
So that is the thing that I like about Lars von Trier. He’s very intentional in what he does, manifestly bent on a particular object. That said, I think that he has a desire to hurt the audience, which is, at the very least, impolite. He is like the child that you are trying to help on the street and he stabs you. He wants to hurt you a little bit. When he does something that is absolutely magnificent, what he does to hurt you is worthwhile. But sometimes he appears to just be hurting you because that is what he does.
Like in Antichrist, you see a guy’s erection get smashed, and he cuts a labia off, and he runs away from her into the woods bleeding with a bear trap on his leg. The first scene is basically a gratuitous penis shot and then the little boy who falls out the window.
I was working at a religious camp in junior high school. I’m not religious, but I was working at this religious camp and I had to tell a bible story. I was a counselor, and I didn’t like that I had to do that of course. I haven’t read the entire bible, not like George Bush, who’s supposedly read it every year, but I’d read enough. So I was asked to read a bible story and I went through and I found this one where the chieftain of this Jewish tribe has this beautiful daughter and then the chieftain of another tribe falls in love with the daughter and steals her away. But he likes her so much that he wants to have her by her own choice; he wants to have her the right way.
So he returns her and asks what he can do to win her properly. Her father says that, if the chieftain’s whole tribe would be circumcised as grown men, he can have her. So this guy makes the decision on behalf of all his warriors, which I can imagine was not a popular decision, and they all get circumcised. Then, when they are writhing around in pain from being circumcised, the Jewish tribe stabs them to death. So this was the bible story I read to all these little children.
How did that go over?
Not well. That was my Lars von Trier moment.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.
Stephan McCormick lives in Los Angeles.