Picnicking on Thin Ice: An Interview with Josh Emmons
By Eric FarwellMarch 10, 2017
While Emmons works to complete his third novel, Dzanc Books is set to release his first short story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, in April. Originally published in small-press outlets like ZYZZYVA, Ecotone, West Branch, Black Clock, and FiveChapters, these stories offer compelling portraits of lonely, troubled people surviving on their wits and the kindness of strangers. At once stark and nuanced, serious and playful, the fictions in A Moral Tale further cement Emmons’s reputation as a wry chronicler of West Coast lifestyles. As a child of Northern California and a current denizen of Southern California (Emmons teaches Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside), the author is well positioned to portray the flaws and foibles of his home state.
ERIC FARWELL: Many of your protagonists struggle with self-understanding. Is this because you think most people are deluded about themselves?
JOSH EMMONS: Yes! Kind of. We’re always getting ourselves — or our desires, which are identity in action — wrong. We go to the wrong school, take the wrong job, buy the wrong clothes, vote for the wrong candidate, marry the wrong person, worship at the wrong altar, look through the wrong end of the telescope. And because it sucks to have done the wrong thing, we tell ourselves we got it right in spite of sometimes-overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This should stop as we get older and learn from our mistakes, but it only slows down — if we’re lucky. Lots of characters in A Moral Tale are stuck on an idea of themselves they don’t want to give up because the cost would be too high. They think they’re fine after a breakup. They think they’re still young and nimble. They think they’re not an egg. If the book has a through line, and it doesn’t, it’s that we have to keep revising our understanding of ourselves forever, and that this is okay.
Could you discuss the value of place in your work? The Loss of Leon Meed, for example, has a strong feel for the particular strains of depression and suffocation that abound in small towns. Is setting really important to you, or is it just a way to place interesting limitations on your characters?
I didn’t think much about place growing up in a small town. My world was the world. After I moved away, though, I saw what made Eureka, California, typical and also what made it peculiar, and this gave shape to Leon Meed’s characters. In some ways, I don’t think setting is important — the human condition is the human condition, for better and worse — yet it affects everything. Syrian armed conflicts lead to mass migration, the Rust Belt’s shrinking economy leads to President Trump, climate change leads to a sick planet. In A Moral Tale, setting works in various ways on its characters, because the stories take place all over: in a biblical jungle, an unidentified village, a seaside East Coast mansion, teched-out San Francisco, sprawling Los Angeles, a Parisian suburb, a medieval kingdom, a fracking town in Pennsylvania, post-apocalyptic New Orleans. Depending on where they are, characters worry about predation or pandemics or business culture or sex with someone they shouldn’t have sex with. In a reversal from my childhood, I think about place all the time now and, having moved 15 or 20 times as an adult, don’t share Faulkner’s impulse to explore the world through a “little postage stamp of native soil.”
The new collection is very different in terms of its style. The Loss of Leon Meed was a sprawling work, but the stories in A Moral Tale seem sharper and more focused. Is this just an effect of the concision of the short story form, or should the collection be taken as a hint of a new direction in your writing?
New direction! After the wild-spending jag of Leon Meed, I got more frugal in A Moral Tale. Which sounds bad but isn’t. There was a kind of manic energy in Leon Meed that came from my being young and drunk on high-voltage writers like Saul Bellow, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie — plus their godfather, Nabokov — which made me go after comedy with a serious bent, or seriousness with a comic bent. I wrote the stories in A Moral Tale as I got older and sobered up a bit. Aging alone might have done it, since you become a tougher editor on your work over time, but I also went through big personal changes: becoming a father, getting divorced, settling in Los Angeles, and deciding life wasn’t so bittersweet. A Moral Tale still has a sense of humor, but it’s more nuanced and thoughtful and, I hope, powerful than in my earlier work.
Getting older and divorced were humbling experiences. My parents split up when I was a kid, and that prepared me — maybe over-prepared me — for the idea that romantic love was provisional. When I got married, though, I had to tell myself otherwise. Denial’s powerful, pervasive, protean. I lived in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina and no one talked about what would happen when the levees broke. Here in Los Angeles in early 2017, the only people actively worried about a hugely destructive earthquake, which is inevitable, are visitors. We’re all picnicking on thin ice. Personal tragedies brought me into my fiction more, in that some things were no longer theoretical: health crises and the end of love and displacement have moved from my head into my bloodstream. But my characters and I have been notches on a Möbius strip from the beginning. The notches are just a bit closer together now.
Religious belief plays a big part in your work. I’m interested in what value faith holds for you, since your writing really dials into the role wonder and astonishment play in life, but it doesn’t necessarily convey any sense of settled destiny or religiosity.
I’m surprised by how large a role faith plays in my work, because I’ve never belonged to a religious tradition and don’t expect to join one. My core is unshakably materialist. And yet I’m fascinated by others’ belief. None of the explanations I know of for faith — the “God hole” or misfiring pineal glands or culture or insanity or truth — feel adequate when considering the scope and range of faith’s influence: all the art, civilization, devotion, renunciation, peace, war, damnation, salvation, clarity, madness. It’s astonishing, to use your word. And yet (again) I’ve felt intense vibrations — resonances or reverence — which might’ve translated into faith in God or the supernatural if I’d been built differently. At a concert recently, for example, I heard a woman cover Leonard Cohen/Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot,” a breathless, incantatory, ecstatic performance as transporting as the original version. Like being on drugs or sexually aroused, the feeling didn’t last, but still. Still! Here I am months later, thinking about it. And it’s likely that the books I read and art I love and hikes I take and music I listen to — and my communions with friends and family and strangers — are substitutes for the religion I don’t have. And it often seems like faith is more complex and interesting and morally palatable than greed or revenge or many of the other motivations we give fictional characters. Not that “morally palatable” matters in literature. So the name of my new book couldn’t be stranger to me. Maybe I’m the obverse of William Blake’s take on Milton, that he’s “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
The idea of escape seems important to so many of your characters. Does escape interest you as a theme because you’ve moved around so much, or do you feel your experiences have given you a better vantage on our deep desire for transit?
Another nesting doll: We want to escape while wanting to belong while wanting to escape, ad infinitum. John Casey named a book I’ve never read “The Half-life of Happiness.” In other words, I was never more excited than when I got my first job after college, and I never felt more trapped than when I thought I’d have it for the rest of my life.
You said you’ve never been religious, but your work is preoccupied with abstract, semi-spiritual concerns. It seems obvious that Scientology served as the inspiration for the cult in Prescription for a Superior Existence. I was hoping you could talk about your protagonist in that novel, Jack Smith. At times, it seems like you’re using him to critique easy fixes for unhappiness, while at other times you seem to want to explore the genuine seductions of religious faith.
In some ways, Jack Smith was a trial balloon for A Moral Tale, a study of self-abnegation in situ. Before writing Prescription, I’d been thinking about how the two religions I knew best, Christianity and Buddhism, discredited and condemned desire — it was either sinful or a distraction — and how benign, even vital, I considered it — it led to ecstatic states and a better understanding of oneself and others — and how I needed to figure out which attitude was truer. And how the division between those with religion and those without it wasn’t actually clear-cut, because so many religious people lived for desire. I grew up, after all, in the era of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Ted Haggard, high-profile religious leaders exposed as tireless sex and drug addicts. And so many libertines hit such intense lows — I myself joined Narcotics Anonymous at age 18 in a fit of deeply regretting my id-happy, Dionysian adolescence, which made me wonder what would happen if a pleasure-loving skeptic, Jack Smith, flipped into an ascetic believer. Would faith provide more lasting happiness than drugs, sex, alcohol, and work, his secular dependencies? Or would it just swap one false consciousness for another? Was lasting happiness even possible? And could faith be manufactured, or did it have to arise organically? And might there be something luminous and numinous in the universe that didn’t emanate from God or man, but that was essential to both?
I’m curious about what you were reading while working on Leon Meed. The book was published in 2005, during a period when it was not uncommon for debut novelists to focus either on family narratives or on the foibles of white liberalism. Since the novel is so pastoral and multi-voiced, I wanted to know what (if any) other work informed your decision to write a more classically novelistic story.
I wanted Leon Meed to be the love child of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Don DeLillo’s Underworld — huge, world-conjuring and -conquering novels that largely eschew plot in order to explore their many characters’ heads. Some have said they explore too many heads, but not me. No, not me. I loved their polyphonic verses and choruses and soliloquies, loved how wide they cast their nets in order to capture the varieties of human experience. I was moved to emulation. Plus, around the time I started writing Leon Meed, in my late 20s, I’d gotten sick of my own ideas and impressions and sensitivities and shortcomings — I’d had them for so long — and so writing in other voices as other people became a great escape from over-familiar thoughts, a way to be other people for a while. This always happens when you write fiction, but having 10 or 12 main characters in Leon Meed let me take it to the limit. To answer your question, I didn’t think to write about my family or white liberal guilt, probably because my family’s pretty well behaved and my white liberal guilt simmers but never boils over — not enough to work with in either case.
Could you say a bit about the literary influences that inform the stories in A Moral Tale?
A Moral Tale is an odd book that doesn’t overtly owe much to any particular writer. Outside of the ones I’m always thinking about — all of the aforementioned, plus Kafka, Proust, and Kundera — the only two whose influence I was aware of while working on the book were Thucydides and Elmore Leonard. I couldn’t have written “Humphrey Dempsey” without The Peloponnesian War, which contains the most remarkably nuanced political rhetoric I’ve ever seen, and the tight, epigrammatic style of “A Moral Tale” and “Haley” owes a lot to the dozens of Leonard novels I’ve read/worshipped. My hope is that A Moral Tale is something almost-new under the sun.
Final question. Since you’ve moved around so much, do you feel as if location influences your work? More specifically, do you think it’s possible that the new collection — and the current work you’re developing — will take on certain qualities that might be viewed as LA-centric?
My first two books were set in California and the next two are set all over the place, so I’m not sure how much of a “California” writer I’ll be in the future. I’m relatively new to Los Angeles and don’t think I’ll ever fully understand it — it’s massive, indescribably big — and would like to set more stories here for that reason. In the end, fiction is all about finding out.
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