Sunday, February 21, 2010
Josh Gaylord, is the author of the debut novel, "HUMMINGBIRDS" and lives with his wife, author Megan Abbott in New York City. His next novel,"THE REAPERS ARE THE ANGELS" will be out in August under the pseudonym Alden Bell.
I met Josh for the first time this summer at Square Books in Oxford,Ms. for Megan's book signing of "Bury Me Deep". I found Josh to be a very intelligent and gracious, and I was thrilled several months later to hear that "Hummingbirds" was going to be published. I know Josh will be a writer to keep an eye on in the future and I thank him for this opportunity to interview him at this point in his career. So, with no further adieu, I give you Mr. Josh Gaylord.
1) You just recently published your debut novel, Hummingbirds. Did having a wife who was a writer make it easier or harder to get published?
During those years that she was published and I wasn’t (five, by the way—five long years), I always hoped that her being a writer would help me in some way. It didn’t. In fact, it just made me more psychologically brittle. It’s one thing to be rejected by some anonymous agent. It’s another thing to be rejected by your wife’s agent.
2) How do you go from Hummingbirds to a zombie novel?
I don’t think I’m a writer who has a particular style. It’s true, I do have certain preoccupations (an affinity for grand gestures, epic reveries, people getting along when they should be fighting), but stylistically and thematically I’m all over the place. I like the idea of starting every book from scratch—coming up not just with character and plot but also genre and style. I suppose it’s a little dilettantish, but I also find myself influenced by so many varied kinds of books (from Muriel Spark to Cormac McCarthy, from Carson McCullers to Neal Stephenson) it’s not surprising that those vastly different influences show up in my writing. The zombie novel is the result of years of watching George Romero movies and wanting to get my hands into that rich mythology. Actually, the zombie novel has as its main character a fifteen-year-old girl named Temple. So perhaps it’s not such a departure from the girls’ prep school novel after all. Except instead of spending her time painting her fingernails and listening to lectures about Ernest Hemingway, Temple slaughters the undead with a Gurkha knife and tries hard not to get eaten.
3) I assume you’re still teaching. Do you look for there to be a time you can give that up and write full time? Or would you even want that?
I love teaching. Love it. Ever since I was in high school, I wanted to be two things: a writer and a teacher. I feel like now I’ve managed to do both, and I’m going to hold on to both as long as I can. I am taking on fewer responsibilities at school, it’s true—but I still teach full time, and I would never want to quit teaching altogether. I think it would be very difficult for me to write full time, and I don’t know how other writers do it. All that time alone, stuck in your own head. It seems like it would be hard not to lose perspective in a situation like that. I like it that I have some place to be five days a week.
4) How much of Hummingbirds can be directly related to your experiences as a teacher?
None of the plot points are autobiographical at all. Not even a little. And the characters may be composites, of course, but they are not based upon any real people at all. Mostly, the book is derived from a certain old-fashioned, more cartoonish version of girls’ prep schools. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was just as much an influence on Hummingbirds as my own experience. On the other hand, all the atmospheric stuff about high school life is definitely related to both my ten years as a teacher and also my lifetime as a student. And the central conflict in the book, the rivalry between two male teachers for the students’ affection—that’s something that was actually born out of my experience. When I first started teaching, I was completely envious of this other teacher who always managed to evoke undying loyalty and adoration from his students. But he was so dynamic that I understood where that adoration came from. I was torn. I didn’t know whether to destroy him or to be his best friend. As it happens, I split the difference: I’ve become his friend, but that doesn’t keep me from trying to destroy him every now and then.
5) Have your students read your book, and, if so, what were their reactions to it? Also, did your school administration have a reaction to it?
The administration, of course, trembled a little at the idea of a teacher publishing a book containing illicit relations between a teacher and student. But because the book is a fiction rather than some kind of scandalous expose, they were more supportive than not. Many of my students have read it. They’ve said they enjoyed it—but, really, what else can they say? I’m their teacher.
6) Can you tell us the name of the school you teach at and give us a little insight to it and how long you’ve been there?
This is my tenth year teaching at the Ramaz Upper School on the upper east side of Manhattan. It’s a modern orthodox Jewish prep school—which means that it’s a co-ed school, but that the boys have to wear kippahs, the girls can’t wear pants, and everybody prays twice a day. The student population tends to be very nice, very wealthy (for the most part), and very studious. It’s certainly not the trenches of high school teaching as you frequently hear about it. I feel lucky to have landed there among these students who work so hard and say “thank you” at the end of every class. “Thank you,” can you imagine? Of course, teaching English is always easier than teaching other subjects—because it’s everybody’s favorite, isn’t it? Or, at least, there’s no other class that invites and explores such high drama.
7) Can you tell us about the zombie novel: the title and when can we expect it to come out?
The zombie novel is called The Reapers Are the Angels. It’s being published in paperback original by Holt in August of this year. It won’t actually be under my own name, but will carry the pseudonym Alden Bell. The reason for this is that we’re concerned that the readership for a girls’ school novel may be very different from the readership for a violent, post-apocalyptic, southern gothic zombie novel: so, even though the pen name will be “open,” we want to make it clear that the books are very different.
8) How did your first book signing go? Was it enjoyable, or was their a lot of anxiety?
Since I spend much of my life speaking in front of audiences (and there’s no tougher audience than one composed of high school students), I wasn’t terribly nervous about it. Instead, it really felt like the culmination of many years of effort—like I had accomplished something that I hadn’t been entirely convinced I ever really would. I remember getting the first finished copy of the book in my hands. I just kept pointing at my name at the cover—showing it to everyone I knew, saying, “Look, that’s me! That’s me!” Throughout the entire process, I think I reverted to a distinctly childish kind of fantasy wish fulfillment. But I don’t mind that: I’d rather have that wide-eyed appreciation than the anxious misery of a lot of writers I know who only ever think about publishing in terms of advances and marketing and sales figures.
9) Was writing your first novel easier or harder than you expected, and were you satisfied with the final outcome?
Actually, I wrote my first novel years ago. Hummingbirds was my tenth or eleventh. I have them all stowed away in the proverbial drawer—each distinctly unpublishable in its own way. At a certain point, I had made a conscious decision not to worry so much about publishing and just write what intrigued me, even if I couldn’t get it published. (Thus, a rewrite of an eighteenth-century picaresque novel, a long philosophical novel whose sections are organized by the humors of the body, etc.) Hummingbirds was the first one I wrote that actually seemed like it had a wider appeal, so that’s why I made the effort to get it published. And I have to say that I am rather proud of it. Stylistically it’s not the typical first book: it’s long, it’s got a shifting, vaguely omniscient third person narrative perspective, it’s about teenage girls but not the kind on Gossip Girl. It had a lot going against it as a first novel—but I had a huge amount of support from my editor at Harper Collins, and I’m thrilled that this is my first offering.
10) Do you write short stories or any poetry as well?
I wrote poetry in junior high school, when I was fascinated by scansion. I could do a mean anapestic tetrameter. And every now and then I’ll write a short story, but not very frequently. I’ve always favored the long form—both in reading and writing. I think I like a piece of literature that you have to endure. For me, there’s a value in going on a journey with many stages. It makes the destination all the more satisfying.
11) Any aspirations to write a crime/mystery novel at some point?
I’ll leave that up to Megan. She always tells me that a good crime novel has to constantly be upping the stakes, has to be constantly advancing the plot. But I tend to prefer the slow-burn and the anti-climax. I like a plot that stumbles over itself the entire way through the novel, and then, at the climax, just when you think it’s going to jump into the air, it falls over flat on its face; and then, at the very end, it gets up, wipes itself off and smiles. That’s my kind of plot. I think I would be a terrible writer of crime or mystery.
12) All right we gotta ask. Where did you and Megan first meet? Where was your first date, and was it love at first sight?
Megan and I started graduate school at NYU in the same year. We were both student workers in the English Department, and we met on orientation day. I remember she said something about William Faulkner when everyone was introducing themselves and sharing their favorite writers. So I went up to her afterward, and my opening line was: “So you like Faulkner, huh?” It’s the kind of pick-up line that only works with very particular women. Of course, I immediately adored her, wee and ferocious as she was, but it took me a year to convince her to go out with me. All of our friends thought it was a bad idea—but I knew. I told them, “If I can get her to go out with me, I’ll end up marrying her.”
13) A stiff drink or a cup of coffee to relax?
Neither. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee. Mostly I drink Welch’s Grape Soda. But to relax, I like to go to fast food restaurants and read a book while I’m eating. I find the white noise comforting—and a fast food restaurants are the one place where I’m never worried about whether I’m classy enough to be there.
14) Could you see you and Megan writing something together some day?
Not unless it was part of some fiendish plot that ends in our own double murder. We’re both impossibly obstinate when it comes to our own writing. We have very clear ideas about what we like and what we don’t. Plus, everything I write is written for Megan’s final approval. It would be hard for me to see her as a collaborator rather than as the ultimate perfect reader.
15) Who do you enjoy reading, and what are some of your favorite authors and books?
I don’t read as much contemporary literature as I should. Most of my writing is inspired by writers long dead. I think William Faulkner is at the top of any list I could make, just above James Joyce. Those are writers who make it seem like anything is possible in literature—writers who have the gall not to put a reader’s comfort and ease as their top priority. And they were not ashamed to feel like they were doing something important. I admire that tremendously. In terms of more recent writers, I have been reading a lot of southern gothic fiction: Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin, Daniel Woodrell, William Gay. I guess I like them because they’re all acolytes of Faulkner in their own way. But another side of me sometimes likes to dip into more genre-oriented stuff: the cyberpunk of William Gibson and Richard K. Morgan, the graphic novels of Chris Ware and Charles Burns.
16) What were your favorite books you read as a kid?
As a young child, my favorite book was The Phantom Tollbooth. I had a precociously logical mind, and I liked the way everything in that alternative world made sense. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, which has always felt disappointingly random to me, The Phantom Tollbooth feels like a precision allegory—as though every episode and character has a distinct reason for being there. I was also a big fan of a series of books called Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. The premise was that these three young boys solved crimes with the help of their famous friend Mr. Hitchcock. I particularly liked these because the leader of the triad, Jupiter Jones, was immensely logical and liked to invent things. I think I was very fond of reason as a child, for some reason. From these YA books, I leapt straight into Stephen King, which I read through most of my adolescence.
17) Where did you grow up, and did you always want to be a writer?
I grew up in Anaheim Hills, California, just about fifteen minutes from Disneyland. Yes, for some reason I always wanted to be a writer. I was never much of an oral storyteller—I never liked that kind of performative attention. But I loved reading books from the time I was very young, and I always dreamed of producing them myself. I liked the idea of leading people through a maze (or a funhouse, to use John Barth’s metaphor) of my own creating.
18) Are you a music or film buff, and can you share some of your favorites of both genres?
In terms of movies, I love everything from the long and momentous (Antonioni, Paul Thomas Anderson) to the indulgent and crowd-pleasing (George Romero, anything with a high corpse count and/or full frontal nudity). I think my favorite movie of all time must be Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders. Though I am also a huge fan of Wes Anderson’s movies. I have a fierce loyalty to him, and I’ll commit to liking everything he does no matter what. In terms of music, I was raised with a tremendous appreciation of prog rock legends like Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Pink Floyd—anything that offers extremely long songs with a healthy dose of orchestral movement and pretension. More recently, I’ve been discovering some great new bands. My favorite bands at the moment are Okkervil River and Wolf Parade (or, in fact, any band that Spencer Krug happens to be in—the man is a maestro).
19) Who has most influenced you as a writer or a teacher?
I owe my career as a teacher and a writer to two people, both teachers I had in high school: Carol Mooney, who taught me how beautiful literature was in the ninth grade, and Richard McCoun, who made me understand the cult of personality of teaching in my senior year. Without them, I would have been a corporate lawyer or something wretched like that.
20) Zombies and vampires, in what lies our fascination with them today?
I think all monsters are fascinating because they represent expressions of the Freudian id that most of us feel so bitterly obligated to keep in check. Monsters are doing things that we would like to be doing but can’t because of some arbitrary distinction that separates right from wrong. Vampires are all about unchecked sexual desire (thus the seductiveness of them). Werewolves are all about animalistic freedom (not having to go to work, earn a living, come home to your family, fulfill your obligations). Zombies are about absolute indulgence and sloth—not that we secretly want to be dead, but zombies are all stomach, all craving, and they do whatever it takes to eat what they want to eat. Being on a diet at the moment, I can tell you that that sounds pretty good to me.
21) I assume your a fan of sci-fi or horror novels (yes, I know what assume stands for) so correct me if I’m wrong, but if so whose work in those areas attracts you or might have influenced your writing?
Actually, I haven’t read that many sci-fi or horror novels since I left Stephen King behind in high school. Every now and then I’ll read a good one, though. Right now I’m reading Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones. And I very much liked House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. And, as I mentioned above, every now and then I’ll dip into cyberpunk. But I’m not a connoisseur of either genre. That’s why my own zombie novel is less of a zombie novel per se and more of a southern gothic novel.
22) Are you a sports fan? If so who are your teams?
The only thing I know about sports is what I can figure out about the game of football from watching Friday Night Lights. I’m the classic unathletic geek and you would find me watching the Food Network rather than ESPN every time.
23) The person you would most like to meet?
Related to the question about music above. I would love to meet both Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade) and Will Sheff (Okkervil River). I have a kind of fanboy admiration of both of them and the music they make. I have often thought of writing to them, but I’m quite sure they couldn’t care less about some doofusy school teacher from New York.
24) Favorite cities to visit?
I love going back to LA and rediscovering the place that I was too young to appreciate when I was growing up in its suburbs. But I think one of my favorite places to visit is Oxford, Mississippi. Yes, Faulkner’s hometown, but every time I go I discover something amazing about humanity. The people there are just incredible. Not to mention the food. The best chicken and dumplings I ever had.
25) What was your worst job?
I worked in public relations for about seven months. It was soul crushing. Probably because I had very little interest in what I was doing. I just couldn’t muster enthusiasm about figuring out ways to market breakfast cereal to various demographics. It all seemed like a big joke that no one was laughing at.
Final Question: If you could trade places with anyone for one day, who would it be?
I would love to be Miley Cyrus for a day. It seems like she’s having a good time. And a day would be good. I don’t think I could handle much more than that.
Posted by Rod Norman at 5:10 PM