Quite Novel — Novelist Josh Weil visits Albion

On Nov. 11, novelist Josh Weil, winner of the New Writer’s Award from the GLCA, visited Albion as part of the English Department’s fall reading series. Weil’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals as well as The New York Times. Before he gave a reading from his debut work, The New Valley, a collection of novellas, he sat down with The Pleiad for a quick conversation.

You said in an interview with Oxford Magazine that, had you not landed a book deal or an agent by the time you were 30, you would go back to school to study landscape architecture-do you see any connection between that and writing?

I think that there were maybe more connections than I really was conscious of, but the main thing was I missed the visual side of myself. I started painting in high school and then went to film largely because I didn’t want to give up the visual side of things, and I was a photographer’s assistant for a long time. Landscape architecture, too, has a kind of visual element to it that was important to me. The idea of getting to learn my plants really well and doing a lot of work dealing with the natural world was also appealing to me. And that is also something that affects my writing a lot—the geography of the place is really important to my writing.

How does place influence your writing?

I guess I find myself drawn to stories that come out of experiences or troubles that I’ve had, or wounds that I’ve observed in people. So the nature of those things is going to be different depending on where I am. And I also find that I get tapped out with a certain area. After writing these three novellas, I found that I was tapped out of Appalachia—I think that’s why I ended up writing about Russia for my next novel.

The New Valley has garnered a lot of attention for being a debut work that is a collection of novellas. How do you decide between writing a novella, or a novel or a short story?

I really do believe that the story tells you. I can’t imagine any of these novellas being told as a short story, I don’t think they would work. They also don’t have enough to them to warrant 300 pages. It’s hard to say it any more clearly than that, except that I can say a novella does something different than a short story or novel—it allows you to exist with characters longer than a short story would. It allows you to explore their background and the geography of where they are. It allows the pace to unfold at a more novel-like pace.  So if those things are important to the story, then it leads you to that direction. But at the same time, if many narrative threads and the complexity of narrative threads are not important to the story, then that also leads you in the direction of a novella.

What’s your outlook on the future of novellas?

I’m hopeful for a couple reasons. One, there are still some of the grand old masters that are publishing novellas, usually as a collection of three. Jim Harrison just had a collection come out a year ago. So you still see it happening very occasionally. There are a couple of very small independent presses that handle novellas, so that’s an interesting trend. We’re talking 400, 500 copies, but it’s happening. And also the electronic format is making it more possible, whereas before part of the limitation was wanting short stories that were quite short because there was the cost of the number pages you were going to print them on. But now with electronic format there are novellas being done a little more frequently.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

I would say don’t go into another career too quickly. Make sure you’re with someone who’s willing to support your crazy lifestyle. And lastly, write what you absolutely have to write—don’t think about what you think is publishable, what you think is practical. Write what you need to write.

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