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Sunday Sitdown: Writer-teacher Jesse Ball on finding a spark

Jesse Ball, novelist, teacher, poet, artist. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Now 37, Chicago author, professor and artist Jesse Ball is out with his sixth novel, “How to Set a Fire and Why,” in addition to his poetry collections and books of illustrations and prose. The Lincoln Park resident teaches writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ball spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Talia Beechick. An edited transcript follows.

Question: In “How to Set a Fire and Why,” readers see the story through the eyes of a teenage girl. What made you do that?

Pantheon, $24.95.
Pantheon, $24.95.

Answer: It was less about her specifically being a teenage girl and more about being a character I could fully inhabit with the experiences of my own life growing up in Long Island in the ’80s. I suppose I changed the perspective to a woman because the position of women in society is quite difficult. And yet, at the same time, a teenage girl is a riotous, rebellious, powerful substance, never to be underestimated. So I guess I tried to set up a kind of battle between this wonderful young woman and this enormity of obstacles trying to crush her. Then, it was just fun to write.

There are many things that make her at this perfect center point of all this grief and pain — and she can be brilliant and strong and proud despite all of it. It’s difficult, period, just being a human for everyone.

I think, to a certain degree, a certain stiffness is forced upon us — a defensive posture against the world — and so, to the degree that we can avoid that and be open and accepting of things, our lives can be full of light.

Q: Even though the main character, Lucia Stanton, makes a point of making predictions, it’s a fairly unpredictable book. Do you know where you’re going to end up when you start writing?

“Maybe, as I begin to write, I get a sense of what an ending might be.” | James Foster / Sun-Times
“Maybe, as I begin to write, I get a sense of what an ending might be.” | James Foster / Sun-Times

A: I never know. I have to be surprised. Otherwise, there’d be no reason to write it. I have to be delighted. Maybe I’ll write something like, “She went in to the room, and she saw the most horrible thing she’d ever seen” — and I don’t know what that’s going to be until I start to write the next sentence.

There’s a little bit of planning in terms of overall structure. Maybe, as I begin to write, I get a sense of what an ending might be so I have something to write towards. But I don’t plan it out.

Q: Do you hear much from readers? And does that affect your writing?

A: I think there’s a period after I finish writing a book when I would be really vulnerable to that. I show it to a friend or a lover, and they look at it, and then what they say about it would really hurt me in that first week or two.

Often, there’s a long time that passes between when a book is written and when it is published, and so I really feel quite different from the person who wrote the book — a previous version of myself. The criticism that comes is really criticism aimed at him, not at me, because I’m a different person now. That makes me more comfortable.

“There’s a British poet I love — her name is Alice Oswald.” | James Foster / Sun-Times
“There’s a British poet I love — her name is Alice Oswald.” | James Foster / Sun-Times

Q: Other writers — whose new books can you not wait to read?

A: There’s a British poet I love — her name is Alice Oswald. She’s definitely one of the best living writers. And then there’s [László] Krasznahorkai, who I like a lot. They’re very utilitarian, and they’re very generous — the things that they give you are complete gifts. They’re not holding anything back.

There have been trends in American literature — some of the postmodern literature — where it seems the author is attempting to keep authority over the book. To me, that’s just garbage. I think once you write a book and you put it out there, it’s a gift for people. They can use it as a doorstop, they can use it however they want to use it. If the gift of a book can be really well made, then anyone can feel it’s theirs to do with as they like.

Q: You published a book earlier this year about your teaching methods. Talk about your teaching style.

A: The classroom is just a room, and then a bunch of people come together to be changed by their confederacy in the room — they’re all in there together. Maybe the goal is they want to be better writers, better artists — they want to go in to the room and emerge better at something. Essentially, the class is about how to live more vividly and be a more complete person, with the idea that that will lead to better art.

“I suppose I changed the perspective to a woman because the position of women in society is quite difficult.” | James Foster / Sun-Times
“I suppose I changed the perspective to a woman because the position of women in society is quite difficult.” | James Foster / Sun-Times

A critiquing process in some of my classes is — let’s say you wrote a piece of fiction, and everyone has read it — you go to the front of the class on a kind of stage, and you have an advocate who goes up and sits next to you. The students sit around you as an audience, and you speak to the advocate beforehand about things you don’t want to talk about. Once it begins, you might read a little from the piece you wrote, and then everyone asks you all these difficult questions about the work that you did. And you just answer and talk about it. The questions are just about the content, the way you created it, the world that you live in.

Jesse Ball: “Essentially, the class is about how to live more vividly and be a more complete person.” | James Foster / Sun-Times
Jesse Ball: “Essentially, the class is about how to live more vividly and be a more complete person.” | James Foster / Sun-Times

Q: It sounds like you have two full-time jobs.

A: If the design of these classes goes well, then they themselves are revivifying for me. I go into them and come out with more. The students are often inspiring. So that helps, that each thing can be done for it’s own sake.

And then the writing . . . It doesn’t usually take me very long to write a novel, so I do that about once a year for a short period.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I like to bicycle around Chicago as my transportation. I also like to play games like chess and Go and backgammon. I like to travel a lot. I like to meet with friends and celebrate ridiculous small things that normally wouldn’t be celebrated, like coming home at the end of the day.

Jesse Ball: “I like to bicycle around Chicago as my transportation.” | James Foster / Sun-Times
Jesse Ball: “I like to bicycle around Chicago as my transportation.” | James Foster / Sun-Times