All Speech is Fraught: a roundup of Jesse Ball’s remarks on Census

Jesse Ball, Census

Jesse Ball, Census.
Granta Books. £14.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Jesse Ball is one of the most idiosyncratic writers at work today. He seemed to come from out of nowhere a decade ago, when he published his début novel Samedi the Deafness (2007), and since then he has released, on average, one or two books each year. What makes Ball especially interesting is that he doesn’t think of himself as a writer, and in fact he doesn’t spend much time writing at all.

Ball’s most recent novel is Census, which Daniel Davis Wood calls “enthralling” yet “strangely disappointing”, and Ball has given a select number of interviews to coincide with the novel’s publication. Here’s a quick roundup of some of those interviews, elsewhere on the web, with a focus on Ball’s comments about his intentions and his craft. Be sure to click the links to the full-length interviews, where you’ll find even more of Ball’s remarks on his writing process in general and the writing of Census in particular.

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Josie Mitchell at Granta: With a lot of the things I’ve read that you’ve written, there’s this — I think, actually, the childlike experience is something that’s quite common to your writing. There’s a sense in which this is a world that isn’t our world, it’s slightly different to our world, and in reading it, I’m not quite sure what the rules are. I’m wondering about how you create those worlds — whether you’re taking it from the ground up, or whether you’re taking rules out of our world?

I guess, I begin with a sensation or an impression of the real, and then I try to — as simply as possible — just explain it, in the clearest way, and it ends up being not clear, because all speech is just fraught, and even to say the simplest thing to someone else is impossible.

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Candace Williams at Electric Literature: I know that your brother Abram lived with Down’s Syndrome and I know that you wanted to find a way to talk about that in a work of fiction. Something I really respect about this book is that you’re writing about the problems and the joys in the lives of the father and son [who is a fictionalised version of Abram]. What were your biggest fears about writing the character of the son and how did you overcome those fears?

English caricatures people with disabilities implicitly. So I had to avoid almost any depiction in the book. It had to be only depiction in a negative space — the effect of the person and such. I was very taken with this idea and I felt that that I could do it. But in hindsight, I’m not exactly sure why I thought that I could do it. It seems like there are any number of ways that it could have failed — the son could have been too shallow or might not exist. So I’m kind of humbled by the fact that it did turn out well.

I think that this book waited a long time to appear. It’s my fifteenth book. It was something that hadn’t occurred to me to write before, or potentially it was something that I waited to wait to write until I felt I had a certain level of technical ability such that I could write it successfully. Part of that was the ambitiousness of having the main character of a book essentially not be present in the book. It was a self-dare to think that the book could hold up and hold together if I left the most important person in the book out of it.

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Kristin Iverson at Nylon: At what point did you know that this was a book you wanted to write, one centred around your brother — or, at least, the absence of him?

I think the time that elapsed between when I came up with the idea, that I should write about him, about the Down’s Syndrome character in the book, and the time that I actually wrote it, it might’ve been less than a month. So, it was short in terms of the idea, but I would say the main share of the work had been put in when I was a child. Because — what do they say? — the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts. You know? The time that I spent thinking about my brother and thinking about what my life with him would be like, it was just an enormous amount of time. He was in the hospital from when I was 12 until 21. And I was with him all the time. So, a lot of my childhood just really revolved around him. But the important part of the book really was coming up with the idea, this conception of the way the book could be executed, which was writing about him without having the character be centre stage. And so, I don’t think that it would’ve been possible to write the book without that. It would’ve been too defensive a task.

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A lot of people, whether it’s as readers or even in how they approach life, and maybe in both ways, get really scared when things aren’t perfectly explained to them. How do you approach that as a writer?

I have some rules that I try to follow in my life, and one of them is to try to be graceful in allowing myself to be misunderstood. Not just in an artistic sense but in all kinds of senses. You and someone else are walking to the same chair in the DMV and then you swerve away because you’re afraid they’re gonna think that you’re trying to steal their chair. You know, the constant miscommunication and misunderstandings that erupt in our modern life. So, to be graceful and allowing yourself to be misunderstood is one of the things that I try — and fail at. But, in my work, I find that it’s always been very difficult to say even the simplest thing and have it be understood. My agenda, the assumptions, and the basis of what I see when I look at the world are so inherently different from the consensus version in Hollywood and in the books that win the Pulitzer Prize. And the prevailing narrative, I think, is so misbegotten and mistaken that when I present just a very simple thesis, it’s hard for people to understand it because I want to throw out a lot of basic hierarchical dynamics that exist in modern life. I think that they’re unnecessary and that we shouldn’t start with them as assumptions. That’s one of the things that really drew me, within this book, as a mechanism to the depiction of the relationship to a person with Down’s Syndrome.

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Jill Owens at Powell’s: As you write in the intro, you set about making a book that was “hollow” — in terms of writing around the character of the son, to have him there in his effect. … How did you go about doing that?

For me, the process of writing is a matter of being surprised. I try to set up circumstances that are somehow programmatic, [meaning] I’ll have some sense at the beginning of the book that it will take place over a particular time period — it might be a week or a day, an hour, something like that.

Apart from something basic like that, I don’t really know very much about what’s going to happen in the book. But then when I sit down to write, the thing must be alive as I write it, which means that I have to be surprised each time I turn the page and begin the next one. If I wasn’t in this delighted, confused, wandering stance of the reader as the writer, I don’t think the book would be any good. The book’s not constructed there. It’s as if someone’s whispering it in my ear.

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Sarah Lawson at Pulse: [Your] fiction writing has always come in fits and starts…

I rarely write, usually once a year. In between, I wander about like a vagrant. … I like to know very little when I begin, the less the better. You are there with a blank page discovering things. You begin and write a little, and certain things are implied; and then you play with what was implied and more is implied, and you play with that. Soon enough, the book is done.

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Which probably means there won’t be long to wait before Ball’s next book is released to the world. His website — as idiosyncratic as the writer himself — lists a number of works composed but not yet published, possibly forthcoming. In the meantime, you can purchase Census directly from Granta Books or read an excerpt from the opening chapters of the novel.