"I Needed to at Least Try to Depict the Spider at the Center of the Web": A Q&A with Dan Josefson

Dear Reader,

Last week’s New York Times review of Dan Josefson’s debut, That’s Not A Feeling, echoed many of the comments made by the Discover selection committee readers while we deliberated the Fall 2012 list weeks and weeks ago:

“Josefson’s deft, tempered prose style, however, supplies a measure of traction. It’s unornamented but never flat or blunted, so that the characters, not the sentences, heat the pages….Boarding-school novels are invariably allegorical, and That’s Not a Feeling is no different; the absurdity of Roaring Orchards is the absurdity of life, compressed onto several rural acres.” — Jonathan Miles

Dan recently took the time to talk to Discover Great New Writers about his debut novel and also rave about the books he’s been reading lately.

I was wondering if you could say a little about the name of the book. Where does the title come from?

“That’s not a feeling” is something the faculty members occasionally say to the students, as a way of trying to get them to be more direct about their emotions. So, for example, a kid’s saying, “”I feel like killing someone,” might elicit that response. Like lots of the rules and ideas at the school, it makes some sense in an abstract way, but in practice it’s insulting and a bit ridiculous. At one point, there’s a poster on a wall listing the seven accepted feelings, which is supposed to be helpful. I guess it’s kind of a strange title, but it’s kind of a strange book too, or at least I hope it is.

What made you want to write about a place like Roaring Orchards, a boarding school for troubled kids?

It’s tough to say. I like novels with settings that are discrete and that have a particular feel, so a novel set on the campus of an odd school like this one appealed to me. When my editor had the idea of including a map in the beginning of the book I was thrilled, because the limits and the look of the grounds felt so central. Settings like that can lend a story tension, I think—there’s a sense that the characters can move through the space in any number of ways, but slowly the available options get used up, and something else has to happen. I think an institution like this school also encourages a kind of intensity in the characters, or various kinds of intensities, and I wanted to see if I could capture that.

Why do you think that is? Where does that intensity come from?

 

Maybe from the impression that there’s a limited amount of care and attention to go around. So everyone’s fighting to get their share—either physically fighting or using the resources of their personalities. I once worked at a school that had similarities to Roaring Orchards and that was something I noticed. Even the students who had a tendency to withdraw, withdrew intensely.

What you’re saying makes me think of Aubrey, the headmaster of Roaring Orchards. He has a great deal of power over the other characters.

 

I really resisted writing his parts, his dialogue especially. I’m still not entirely sure why. Part of it was that for the book to make sense, he had to be pretty intelligent, at least enough to argue circles around the other characters. And even with all the time in the world, I wasn’t confident I could do that plausibly. Also, the whole school, and therefore the book, is to some degree a reflection of him; he created it and runs it and so on. I worried that if I got him wrong, it would undermine the structure of the thing. But ultimately I realized I should risk it, that I needed to at least try to depict the spider at the center of the web.

Who have you discovered lately?

I loved Barley Patch, by Gerald Murnane. I hadn’t read anything he’d written before, but since finding that novel I’ve been hunting down everything of his I can get my hands on. Four Novels, a collection of, well, four short novels by Marguerite Duras, was another recent obsession. And this might be cheating, since it’s more of a rediscovery, but I recently reread Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story, and was floored by it again.

Cheers, Miwa


Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.