Books In Conversation
THE SKEWED WORLD OF THE BOOK: JOSH WEIL with Matt Bell
The Great Glass Sea
(Grove Atlantic, 2014)
Josh Weil is the author of the novel The Great Glass Sea and the novella collection The New Valley (Grove Atlantic, 2009). A New York Times Editors' Choice, The New Valley won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the New Writers Award from the Great Lakes Colleges Assocation, and a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation. Weil’s other fiction has appeared in Granta, Esquire, Agni, and One Story, and he has written non-fiction for the New York Times, the Sun, Oxford American, and Poets & Writers. In The Great Glass Sea, Weil builds a Russia that could have been from the Russia that was, reshaping the post-Soviet landscape with scientific advances that have divorced the novel’s characters from the land they once inhabited. The tension between this alternate Russia and the Russian folktales that infuse the narrative helps drive the fable-like story, but it’s the relationship between brothers Yarik and Dima that gives the novel its beating heart. The Great Glass Sea is an ambitious and accomplished debut novel, one that reshapes the world even as it reflects our own reality back to us, now more brightly lit than ever before.
Matt Bell (Rail): The Great Glass Sea takes place in an alternate-present Russia, where the titular sea of glass—called the Oranzheria—has been built over a large expanse of farmable land, then lit by space mirrors to create an unending source of daylight. Twin brothers Yarik and Dima work this enormous greenhouse in alternating shifts, and as the novel opens they each inhabit a different half of this perpetual day. There’s so much impressive worldbuilding in the novel, and it seems like the book can take very little for granted: The reader has to be introduced to the Oranzheria and the way that it’s changed the course of your Russia, but they also have to be led through the historical events that have led to this moment, events that at a certain point broke from whatever Russian history we might already know. Could you talk about your approach to worldbuilding for this novel? With it being necessary to convey so much setting and background, how did you determine the priority for what the reader needed to know first?
Josh Weil: You’re right, the world of this novel took more preparatory building than anything I’ve written before. It was one of the hardest parts—especially in the editing process—to get right. And yet, in the beginning, in the earlier drafts, I didn’t think of it as worldbuilding. I didn’t even know the term (maybe it was just off my radar; I hear it a lot lately). All that stuff—the space mirrors, the Oranzheria, the way that the Russia of this novel is skewed differently from the actual Russia of today—was, honestly, guided simply by storytelling: what the story needed at what point, what was necessary for the reader to know to empathize, to comprehend the complexities of a relationship, to be sucked into the story. A lot of that comes down to getting why a character is doing or feeling something in a given moment. For example, if one of the twins, Dima, is going to be driven by a desperation to keep the pressures of the world he lives in from ripping apart his bond with his brother, then we have to understand those pressures in order to go along with him. Since the world of this novel is pretty different from that of our own, there’s a lot to put in place in order to move the story forward in a way that will allow the reader to feel fully for the characters and, hopefully, empathize with the choices they make. That’s what guides me with worldbuilding. But balancing that with other narrative demands is where it gets complicated. A certain amount has to be done early on, but if too much is done right at the front then it can delay the narrative too much. Yet, if it’s dribbled out too far into the story, then we’re going to lose patience with it. Getting that balance right was tough. I worked on the first hundred or so pages more than any other part of the book, trying to figure out how much I could crank down on the worldbuilding, how much could be woven into later scenes, and, vitally, how I could make it do double-duty, bringing in elements of the world in ways that revealed character or ramped up the story so that it didn’t feel like worldbuilding. Every time I felt like the worldbuilding was starting to go on too long I’d try to bring it back to the heart of the book—the brothers—and their more personal story, to make sure that didn’t get swamped in the wider work. It’s like anything in building a narrative: you want to make sure the reader is asking the right questions at the right time, so you want to answer enough to keep the reader from focusing wholly on questions about the strangeness of the world, but also raise enough of those questions to make a reader wonder, cock his or her head, think, “What’s that about?” and, hopefully, read on to find out.
Rail: Did setting the book in an alternate-present Russia present any additional wrinkles to the task of writing outside your culture of origin? Does the responsibility to the culture you’re writing about morph as you’re rearranging the current circumstances in that culture?
Weil: I don’t know about added wrinkles; if anything, I think it smoothed things out a little. If I had set this story in present-day Russia and tried not only to make it an accurate portrayal of that country, but also attempted to capture the perspectives of Russian characters—essentially get inside the character of the country, inside the storied Russian soul—I would have failed.
First of all, of course, I wouldn’t have been telling the story I wanted to tell (which was born of both the Russian experiments with space mirrors in the ’90s and my personal relationship to Russia), but also I wouldn’t have been able to take the story places that I wanted to take it to explore some of the themes. The fact that I could create a world of unfettered capitalism—that took the tone of Moscow in the early ’90s as a starting point but then expanded that into an alternate present where Putin’s authoritarian rule hadn’t exerted some control—allowed me to wrestle with ideas of perpetual growth, the need for dissatisfaction in a capitalist system, nostalgia for socialism, etc., in a way that would have been complicated and constrained by the realities of Putin’s Russia today.
Secondly, if I hadn’t rearranged the circumstances of contemporary Russia I would have faced an expectation that I represent that country in some way. I strongly disagree with the concept that a writer of fiction has a responsibility to represent any culture in any way. When I wrote about Appalachia I wasn’t representing Southwestern Virginia; I was writing about particular characters (and very unusual ones) whose lives play out in a particular place. The specifics of place alter the way the world works around those characters, help create the circumstances that make the characters who they are, but my focus is always on the individual, not some representation of some community. I don’t believe any one person can truly speak for a community. And I think it’s downright dangerous for a writer to try. But that doesn’t mean the expectation—coming from readers, critics, even the communities themselves—isn’t there. It is. And is there more strongly when a writer makes a claim to utter realism.
I don’t with this book, and that is partly why. Any writer who sets his story in a different culture from his own needs to be sensitive to that culture, and sensitive to the fact that he or she is not going to get it totally right. So it helps to have some way of stepping back, of claiming some space within which to work creatively. Often that space is created by writing from the perspective of an outsider (for instance an American protagonist, though the story is set in a different culture). Sometimes it’s done by dipping back into history (there’s nobody alive now who lived in Russia in, say, 1600, so nobody’s going to step forward—except, perhaps, a few unsympathetic historians—to contest the details; a story set then is going to have more leeway for imagination). I chose to do it by tilting The Great Glass Sea away from hard-nosed realism. The fact that it’s so clearly an alternate Russia, and, even more so, one that is sprung from fables, gives me (I hope) that space. I’m careful to say, this isn’t Russian, this is a fable set in a Russia that is much like the one today but that, in fact, doesn’t exist.
Rail: You mention in the book’s acknowledgments that the path to writing this novel began when you were an exchange student in Soviet Union, and that you returned to Russia two decades later, presumably while actively working on The Great Glass Sea. What was your approach to research for this book, and how beholden did you feel to the realities of contemporary Russia, given that you were writing an alternate present?
Weil: Russia’s been buried inside me for as long as I can remember. Maybe because, on my mother’s side, my ancestors were all Russian Jews (my mother would put on folk song records, we’d dance around the living room to music from Eastern Europe). When I was 12 I started studying Russian language; Russian class and Russian club and the friends I made through it became one of the anchors in my life throughout my teenage years. Then, as you said, I lived in the Soviet Union for a bit as an exchange student. It was my first time abroad without my family. The world I witnessed was so deeply different from my own—and yet it felt familiar the way that, in the best fiction, we recognize aspects of ourselves we might not have known before, find corners of our own interiors revealed in the reflections of other lives, other stories. Something like that sticks with you, and my time in the Soviet Union stuck with me. Still, I’d only lived there for a little while. I wasn’t Russian. I’m not Russian. So, though I always imagined I’d set a story there, I never imagined it would be this: a big book that takes place entirely in Russia, told entirely through the eyes of Russian characters. I mean, when the idea for this novel came to me it frankly scared the crap out of me. I thought: Really? You’re going to do that? But one of the things I believe most strongly is that we, as writers, should always, on some level, be scared of what we’re writing. It should feel dangerous. This did. It also felt crazy and I didn’t feel ready for it, so I set it aside. But it wouldn’t let me go. And that’s another thing that I believe: when a story gets a hold of you, when it won’t let you not write it, then it’s probably the thing you oughta be writing.
In this case, that meant I also had to face the issue of research. Though, really, with most things I’ve written I’ve faced that question: for the novellas in my first book I had to learn a hell of a lot about, say, tractor repair or raising beef cattle. I had to get far enough along into imagining the story to know what I needed to know, and then I had to research enough to feel that I had a solid grasp of the world in which the story would be set, could pull from that world the things upon which certain scenes would turn. Once I understood enough, I stopped researching and wrote (leaving many blank spaces that I’d go back and fill in later). Although the world of this book was more drastically unfamiliar, the process was similar. Except that by the time I started I’d learned a vital lesson: too much research can swamp a story, stifle creativity, and bury the life in a novel. That happened to me with another novel, one that I tried (and failed) to write before this, one for which I’d done a tremendous amount of research, and one that, in the end, I found I couldn’t write because I was trying to write to the research instead of using the research in service of the story. Some writers thrive on digging into research as they’re writing, some on doing extensive research before they start in on the process of creation, but I know that, for me, I have to be careful to do just enough to feel that I’m grounded in the world of the story—and then let the story loose before I go any further.
So for The Great Glass Sea I relied almost entirely on my own memories from my time in Russia as a teenager and the learning I’d done in high school. That was important for the reason I just mentioned, but for another reason, too, particular to this book: memory feels like a fable to me. The Russia of my childhood was still magical to me, and I didn’t want to dilute, or even correct, that. So I wrote the first draft without doing much research at all. This is something else that I believe: If I feel beholden to anything as a writer it’s always first and foremost the story itself, the world of the book, whether I’m writing about rural Appalachia or the far north of Russia. That’s why I’m writing fiction and not non-fiction. The whole thing is a pack of lies, right? Still for a lie to be effective, people have to buy into it. That’s the baseline. And that’s part of why I went back to Russia before writing the second draft. The other thing is this: I felt a responsibility to figure out just what Russia was speaking to me about, what made it the only place that I could set this story, to understand the country well enough to make it truly integral to the book. When I went back, I did find that. And I found so much that I didn’t expect, so much that had changed (of course) about the place. That was vital to what the book became. The second draft (which added, oh, 400 pages, wholly new characters, and entire plot-lines) was an amalgamation of the Russia of my memory and the country that I came across when I went back; the tension between those things became central to what I wanted to say, what the story would, in the end, be about.
Rail: I’ve had a similar experience with the second drafts of both my novels, including the hundreds of new pages, to the point that both books doubled in the second draft, then got cut in half during later drafts. It’s not very efficient, but so far it’s been necessary. I also found that the second draft has been the place where the best work got done, in part by literally retyping both books from scratch.
Weil: My God, Matt, that’s terrifying. Typing them over from scratch! That would make me want to lie down and shut my eyes and beg the creator—or just a big asteroid—for death.
Rail: I’m not saying it hasn’t ever made me beg for similar ends. Figuring out how to make that turn from the first draft to the second was one of the bigger challenges I’d faced, in part because I’d never had to rewrite something so big before. I don’t want to suggest that the novella has been practice for the novel, because obviously they’re their own thing, but you’ve written the three novellas in The New Valley plus at least another novella that appeared later in American Short Fiction, which seems to be a lot more novella-length work than most writers your age have done.
Weil: I’m sure my agent loves that about me. (Actually he’s amazingly unfazed by my insistence on writing novellas—or my handing him a 600-page first novel manuscript to try to sell).
Rail: Did working at the novella scale help prepare you for novel-writing?
Weil: Not really. I’ve always been a long-form guy. I wrote my first novel-length thing when I was 17, then a second one a year later. My first attempt at a serious literary novel was 1,300 pages. I was 22. I didn’t write my first real short story until after that, and even then I didn’t start to really focus on the short form until I was in grad school, when I also started writing novellas. In a way, then, it was the opposite: writing novellas helped me grasp what it was that made a short story work, how to focus more tightly than was my inclination, helped me hone my short form craft to the point where I now feel I’ve got work worthy of a collection (I’m closing in on a book of stories that Grove’s set to publish before too long).
But, mostly, I do think that the novella is it’s own thing. You’re right, I’ve written a lot more of them than most writers have—at this point, seven of them, including one that I tried to turn into a novel (and still might), and three that will form a second collection once I’ve got them whipped into shape (they’re still a ways off). I just love the length, the demands, the pressures, and the freedoms of the form. Maybe that’s because I wrote a lot of screenplays and plays in college—I grew into a writer as much through study of theater and film as of literature—and I think novellas are the most analogous form of prose. Whatever it is, it just works for me. In fact, that 1,300 page novel was really a slew of different novellas intertwined into a whole; I just didn’t know it. Knowing it now, having cut my teeth on the novella, helped me in my novel writing mostly in that it’s allowed me to think about what makes a story worth three or four or five hundred pages, what kinds of stories demand that, and it allowed me to think about the way that scenes work when they have room to breathe, the way that past and present can be played with when you have the space that’s not there in a short story, the ways in which spandrels and secondary story arcs can support and enlarge the main story’s thrust—all of which I think is important to the way novels work.
The thing that really helped me finally write a novel that did work, though (at least I hope this one does), was writing other novels. Those first three that I mentioned, which I don’t even really count (I was too young; they were more me finding my feet than really going anywhere), and then two more after that; one which I wrote in graduate school, another that I wrote after. Of those, I hope I might still be able to make one work. But, in essence, they all went into the writing of this novel, as much, or more, than any of the novellas did.
Rail: What were the challenges of the second draft of The Great Glass Sea, and how did you overcome them?
Weil: It was a huge challenge going from the first draft to the second. From what you said earlier I suspect that you and I might write pretty differently. For me, the first draft is usually the heart of the book; its where I think I do my most vital writing and, if it’s not alive and working in the big ways by the time I’m done, I rarely make it to a second draft. Usually, then, the second draft doesn’t alter the overarching shape of the thing too substantially; it’s about filling holes, fixing problems, re-seeing stuff that’s not working, but all in the service of letting the fresh and newborn first draft reach its potential. Sometimes that takes many, many drafts. It’s very laborious and difficult and extremely important work—don’t get me wrong—but it’s usually not what I consider the heart of thing.
This book was different. The first draft was just as important as always for me—I just came to understand that in order for it to do what it wanted, to be what it truly could, I’d have to do a much more extensive second draft than I had before. That’s because I had, believe it or not, first conceived of this as a short story. I quickly realized it was longer than that, but wrote most of the first draft thinking it would be a novella. Then it clocked in at about 200 pages and I had to decide whether the story wanted compression or to be blown open. And, though the idea terrified me, my gut told me it was worth a bigger book. Mostly that’s because the journey the characters took through the course of the first draft didn’t work without more support being built beneath them. I had, essentially, written the full arc of character development that a novel makes possible, but I’d left out a lot of the plot that would move the characters towards their transformation. So the second draft was largely about unearthing that plot. Bazarov didn’t exist in the first draft. Nor did Vika, or the Leisurists, or Dima’s recitation of Pushkin’s poem, or all that unravels now from that. The other big shift also had to do with supporting the place at which the brothers arrive at the end. I realized that if I was going to get there and make it fully felt, I needed both brothers’ perspectives. Initially there was just Dima’s. Now, much of the book is told through Yarik’s eyes. All that work was done in the second draft. And then there was the third, the fourth, the fifth … etc.
Rail: And now each chapter title is ornamented by a drawing that you did yourself, which you’ve been sharing one by one online as the book comes closer to publication as a sort of teaser.
Weil: I know! A teaser! Oh, what an age we live in. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by what it means today to be a writer.
Rail: The opening chapter begins with Yarik and Dima out in a rowboat on a lake, farther from shore than ever before, remembering the tale of the Chudo-Yudo, a creature out of Russian folklore. I’m curious when the drawings became a part of the project: Were you creating them alongside the book, or was it something that came after? In other words, was the art part of the project generative or was it part of the finishing work?
Weil: So much of this book sprang from Russian folklore and it always felt vital to me that the story be sheened with a sense of fable. So, from the start, I was trying to find ways to help the reader feel that without hitting them too hard over the head with it. I’ve always been enchanted by the work of Ivan Bilibin, a Russian illustrator who worked around the turn of the 20th century. His illustrations of folktales are iconic; in many ways they are the world of Russian fairy tales, now. And so I realized that, if I could somehow impart the feeling of his illustrations, it might be the most powerful tool I had to prepare the reader, set him or her in the feeling I wanted for the book. Still, I didn’t start drawing until the final draft was done (I had to know just what was going to be behind each illustration). Once I did I draw—no joke—for about six weeks straight. It was as grueling as it was invigorating and it drained me and I loved it. I’m not nearly the artist that Bilibin was—I never thought I could come close to matching his work—and so I didn’t try to ape his style so much as imagine how the master would have approached each chapter and then channel the feeling of his illustrations into my own.
Rail: It’s interesting how you mention that the illustrations “are the world of Russian fairy tales now,” because I thought I didn’t know Bilibin’s work, but upon Googling him it was immediately obvious that of course I did. Which particular Russian folktales had a special influence on you?
Weil: Though many fables no doubt worked their way into my imagination, I don’t know that I’d say any particular one had an overall influence on me (I think the depictions in Bilibin’s illustrations were as powerfully formative for me as the actual stories), though, of course, the feeling of those folktales—woods where a witch might whiz by in a mortar, wielding a pestle; where huts moved on their own feet; the yearning contained in a couple who would pretend a snowball was their baby; the belief in miracles that allowed that snowball to turn to flesh and breathe; the lives of peasants so sharply captured in the description of a mentally slow son sleeping around the stove so long he was wholly buried in ash; the brutality of Baba Yaga cutting off hands, of townspeople tying her by her hair to a horse’s tail until her body was torn from her head—the feeling of all that went into the world of the novel. And, of course, a number of fables influenced the particulars of The Great Glass Sea: the story of the Chudo-Yudo swallowing the sun, the birds of prey that turn into princes and back into birds, the role of Ivan the Fool in so many of the folktales.
Rail: How do you translate the qualities of the folktale—which don’t trade in realism, among other things—to the more grounded and psychologically rounded world of The Great Glass Sea?
Weil: I think through selection. I chose to use some aspects of the folktales—the importance of bonds between characters, the use of allegory and symbols, the way that the story unrolls from a set of circumstances that is established, almost entirely, right at the start—but not others: no neat moral wrap-up at the end, no magic loopholes that let the plot off the hook, no breaking of the rule of cause-and-effect that makes what characters do feel real. But I think you alluded to the most important way I tried to translate the qualities of the folktale into this novel: through the psychology of the characters. Dima, in particular. His character is formed by his childhood, which was defined by folktales, and his view of the world is trapped in that. He is utterly unpractical, unrealistic in his expectations and needs. His psychology is as skewed from reality as fables are from the real world. And yet he lives in a world where others don’t operate that way. Much of the narrative tension comes from that. And that’s largely what makes me love him, what makes his story, for me at least, tragic.