You now live in Houston?
That’s true, I’ve been here for nine years. I came to Houston for a job, the reason most people move halfway across the country with a first grader and a five-week-old. I came here to teach at Rice. I had been teaching at LaSalle in Philadelphia for about a decade. I’m not teaching anymore, I’m technically a fellow—I resigned my tenure because they needed the space, so someone else could teach my classes. I’m very much a creature of the Northeast, but I’ve really grown attached to Houston. It’s a very relaxed city, every interaction is a pleasant one. If you grow up [around] New York City, well, boy is that a shock!
First of all, I attribute the fact that I could write my first two books, and now this trilogy, to what I call “the many moods of Justin.” I’m an ecumenical reader, grew up with all sorts of fiction, teach writing, went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so my tastes and interests are broad. It didn’t feel like a huge change to me, it felt more like a change on the business side, not the artistic and creative side. I was having just a great time coming up with this story.
It began as a dare from my 8-year-old daughter, to write a book about a girl who saves the world. I loved the story, it gave itself up to me very quickly. I wondered if my style would change, given the content, but I found out, to my relief, that you just write how you write. There were not two writers, one the genre guy and one the literary guy. It was just me, working in two shops.
Authors can sometimes have trouble switching genres, even if they can write in both well. The publishing industry likes to slot authors into a particular style or subject, and can often be resistant to the wish to write outside of the established route to success. How was your desire to switch genres received?
You’re absolutely right when you say that publishing is often perplexed when writers do this. That has always been true—think of Graham Greene. The decision that I made was that, when we sent the manuscript out to potential publishers, we sent it out under a pseudonym that we would not keep. My agent said, “This is a pseudonym, he’s not going to write it under a pseudonym, but he’s going to submit it under a pseudonym, so that you bring no preconceptions to the material.”
Can you tell us the pseudonym, or is it your secret identity?
No, it’s just a name I cobbled together as a kind of joke. Jordan Ainsley. Ainsely is my daughter’s middle name, referring to her role in this. The name Jordan is that of a character in my second book, a character externally silent but internally complex, a natural narrator. I chose it because it is a name that’s gender nonspecific, but not in a cagey way. I was really going for a true blind reading. All the publishers would have is the raw material and the word of an agent, saying, “You should read this, it’s a good book.”
Did anyone suspect who you might be?
Not as far as I’m aware. When it came down to the end, my agent said, If you want to be in the auction for this, we will tell you who the author is, but not until then. That probably wetted people’s curiosity. But I was interested in this experiment, both as a writer and a teacher of writing. The way our sense of who or what the author is shades our reading of the book. It was a fun strategy—it made me so happy.
You come away from an hour of reading Atonement feeling richer. You put some words back in the tank.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I have some habits that are distinctive to me because I rely on them. I’m a workmanlike writer. I show up every day and treat it like a job. The old rule that writing is like any other job, the first rule is that you must show up. I’m at the keyboard from 9 to 4 every day. That’s how I roll. When I’m at the keyboard is not when I’m inventing anything. My inventing time is all done under the influence of aerobic exercise. Basically, I do all my thinking while I run. That’s worked for me my entire writing life, with the added benefit that it keeps me in shape. I believe that creativity requires a form of auto-hypnosis in order to work. You need to put your mind in a state where the unconscious mind, where all the interesting connections are made, where metaphor is built, you have to be able to lift that dream state closer to your waking state. Otherwise, the book is just building an engine, not creating something interesting. My hypnotic trip is the highly oxygenated state of aerobic exercise.
Do you wind up mapping out your plot once you’re back from your jog?
I get back and I write down everything I thought of, usually sweating all over the paper. Sometimes I run with a little voice recorder. Now I do most of my running around the Rice campus, a few miles from my house, so I’ll drive there, park the car, run, and then when I’m back I write everything down in a notebook I keep in the car. I turn on the air conditioner right away, that’s the first thing you do if you live in Houston, and then I write down what I came up with. I also use a large whiteboard in my writing studio, the guest bedroom above the garage, to map things out without physical impedence. For me writing is like, if I couldn’t run I’d walk, if I couldn’t walk I’d crawl. It’s something I have to do.
Do you have any superstitions?
Superstitions, huh? Hmm. I guess this isn’t a superstition, but I always like to start the day by reading some good language. For instance, you’ll know this as a writer, there are times you feel like you’ve run out of words. When you just can’t think of a new way to describe an action or fill out a piece of dialogue, you just feel depleted. So I’ll just pick up a book by someone who writes really well. For instance, I recently went on an Ian McEwan binge. He’s someone who writes spectacular sentences, does a great job with the inner life, he choreographs scenes beautifully, no two sentences are the same, the diction is quite rich, and you come away from an hour of reading Atonement feeling richer. You put some words back in the tank. I don’t know if that qualifies as a superstition, but it’s something that I cling to and forget to do it at my peril.
What do you like to snack on while writing or reading Atonement?
Not a thing.
Really? You abstain?
Coffee in the morning, decaf in the afternoon, water after that.
That sounds awfully healthy…
Does it? Yeah, I guess. If I started snacking while writing I’d probably end up weighing 5,000 pounds…
Since your new series is along these lines, could you recommend a post-apocalyptic novel to your readers that influenced you?
Sure. The one that, for me, is the granddaddy of them all was published in the ’40s, and is called Earth Abides, by George Stewart. It’s still in print, I reread it this summer, and despite its dated sexual and racial politics, it still holds up. As a Cold War baby, I was naturally attracted to the cathartic effect of reading about the end of the world. I was born a few weeks before the Cuban missile crisis, you know? I pretty much thought I was going to die in a nuclear detonation before I was 15. People really did then. People are frightened now, but of different things, less specific. My generation grew up thinking that they would specifically die from a nuclear blast, with a 20-minute warning.
Earth Abides is a book about a pathogen that sweeps through humanity, and the human race makes its rather stately and dignified exit from the stage. It’s a quiet novel and very observant of changes in the natural world, with humanity having left the stage, and how a new society would evolve. The guy who wrote it was a Berkeley English professor who never wrote another word of what we’d call science fiction.
That’s usually the book that I’d tell people to read, because everyone knows the other big guns in the genre. Everyone knows The Stand [by Stephen King], but this is one that people tend not to know as much, and should.
What are some short stories that you particularly admire?
I think every writer tries his or her hand at short stories before they tackle a novel. That makes sense logistically, though I’d say that writing a great story, at least for me, is more difficult than writing a halfway decent novel. It’s the most exacting taskmaster. A well-written story is a perfect jewel, a perfect morsel, with no room for error. When it’s perfect it’s, well, perfect. There are some like that…There are of course stories that galvanized me. When I was first exploring the idea of writing imaginative literature, a friend who was far more sophisticated and urbane than I was, gave me a copy of the stories of John Cheever. That’s where it all started for me. The first story I read in that book was called “Reunion.” It’s only about three or four pages long, but it’s a story of 45 minutes that transpire between a teenage son and his boorish, alcoholic dad, who is attempting to feed him in New York, while he’s changing trains. It’s a masterpiece in the pure sense: everything in that story is related to everything else in that story. When I read it, the top of my head flew off, and I knew I was looking at something that I wanted to do, but that I’d never be able to do as well and was doomed to try.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
Everybody’s got theirs, but which one is the funniest? The funniest stories, I think, always come early in our careers, when the crowds are not quite so thick. For my first novel, Mary and O’Neil, I did the miniest of mini-tours. One event was at a Barnes & Noble in Bryn Mawr, Pa. I was teaching in Philadelphia at the time, and had been for close to 10 years, but it was only the second event I’d done in the city. I go to the event and three people show up. But there’s a stack of books about a mile high, which only adds to the sense of defeated expectations. The three people are all my students. First thing I asked was if everyone was 21, so we can just go get a beer, because I feel so ridiculous. But the students said, “No, no, you’re going to read to us.” So I said, “OK, but the offer of a beer still stands after.” So I read, and it was altogether pleasant for what it was. As I approached the end of the reading, this fourth person showed up, sort of lingering at the back, but listening. When I finished the event, my students and I were chatting and the manager of the store asked me to sign some stock, so I signed some stock. But then this fourth person, a woman I did not actually know, came up to me. I said, “Hello, it’s nice to see you, would you like me to sign a book for you?” She said, “No, actually my reading group meets here on Tuesday nights, so…are you done?”
Yeah. And the only thing you can say, under those circumstances, when asked if you are done is “Yes.” Every writer I know has got a story like that, and that’s mine.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
Oh, man, don’t think I haven’t thought about that, everybody does. “He was a nice guy and he worked hard.”
Tell us something about yourself that is unknown and perhaps surprising.
Unknown and perhaps surprising? One must be careful with those sorts of things. It’d have to be actually interesting, too, huh?
Whatever you got.
I’m a pretty open guy, that’s the problem. Here’s the answer: I’m almost impossible to embarrass. That’s why I don’t have many things that are unknown. Sometime in my 40s I just lost the embarrassment reflex, so I’m more likely to give people too much information. If someone asks how I’m doing today, I’ll tell them exactly how I’m doing.
Every week, we interview writers about their daily routine and where they keep their desk.
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