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Meet the WritersImage of Joel Turnipseed
Joel Turnipseed
Good to Know
In our interveiw, Turnipseed shared some interesting facts about himself with us:

"I love my wife more than anyone or anything in the world -- she really does hang the stars out for me every night; I worked as a technical writer and software developer for six-and-a-half years, including founding my own company in 2000 and selling it in 2002, just as I was wrapping up the final text on Baghdad Express. I don't believe in hell, but being the Chief Technology Officer of a distressed software company going through a painful M&A transaction while simultaneously writing the penultimate and ultimate drafts of a first book came close to the descriptions found in, say, Dante or Milton."

"My hobbies are trout fishing, Go, woodworking, and stamp collecting -- so, yes, with the exception of the DVD, dentistry, and the Internet, I would be perfectly happy in the 19th century."

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In the winter of 2003, Joel Turnipseed took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. I was already struggling with philosophy as a career -- turning in dialogues and stories instead of analytical papers -- and so when I read Augie, I was not only dazzled by the prose, and laughed my ass off (an eagle on his shoulder while he's taking a piss!), but thought, "Hey, a pretty fruitful career could be spent writing about the interaction between people's lives and their struggle with (sometimes against) their ideas."

What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

  • Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence -- An absolute masterpiece of self-loathing and descriptive prose; the chapter in which he lays out the theoretical history of guerilla warfare while narrating a long-fevered seclusion in a winter tent is a tour de force. Also: The meta-narrative cartoons!

  • Walden by Henry Thoreau -- Henry was a world-class crank and a writer of quiet beauty and exquisite precision -- the American book, and also my personal bible. Now, if only we could have gotten the guy to laugh, especially at himself.

  • The Dreamsongs by John Berryman -- I walked across the bridge from which Berryman leapt for years, always pausing for the briefest of moments to mark the X. These are beautiful songs for broken selves, a broken world.

  • A Humument by Tom Philips -- Hmmm...19th-century romance novel, an art studio, and twenty-odd years -- I know, I'll paint over the banal parts and reveal an incredibly funny exploration of self and art lying within the old book. Bravo!

  • Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. A near perfection -- and one that rings painfully true to my days growing up in early-80s Duluth, trying not to let Mr. Waterhouse know I was drunk in 8th grade natural science.

  • The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Who hasn't looked across that bay? But to do so with such grace, humor, and depth -- this is the most perfect book of the 20th century. Bonus: He's a Minnesotan, too.

  • The Quiet American by Graham Greene -- Quite possibly the second most-perfect book of the 20th Century. Mordant humour, quick philosophical apercus, great dialogue, and a plot that revels in character without losing it's page-turning pace.

  • Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell -- The greatest of the great New Yorker writers. Worth the price of admission for the pieces on Greenich Village's Joe Gould.

  • Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov -- Along with Fitzgerald's Crack-Up, our great 20th century memoir. I was forced to read it once for a course, but now reach for it once a year just to relish the suggestiveness of his prose, the suppleness of his thought.

  • Statistical Abstract of the United States, USGPO -- Because I couldn't prune the list further and it's a lead-pipe cinch for knocking you off your toilet seat with delirious and unexpected detail about American life, and, in a tie, SCOTT Stamp Catalog, vols. 1-6, Scott Publishing Company -- because I've collected stamps since I was in second grade and you just never know what you can spin from a little knowledge of an obscure German postal service like Thurn and Taxis.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

  • Seven Pillars of Wisdom by David Lean -- Because of it's beauty and scope, that crazy Ravel rip-off score that nevertheless enchants, and Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif and the rest of the all-star cast.

  • The Big Lebowski by the Coen Brothers -- Tragicomedy done perfectly, and tragicomedy is my personal religion.

  • Kieslowski's The Decalogue -- Ten short films on ten short commandments that make for tremendous personal and spiritual drama.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I moved from Duluth to Minneapolis in 1982, a really great year to be 14 and into anything not mainstream, and so I grew up on Punk (The Clash, The Sex Pistols) and Post-Punk (The Replacements, Husker Du, New Order, The Smiths); after the first time I went crazy, I weaned myself from that on Baroque (Oh, Bach!) and Classical (Mozart, Beethoven -- the obvious), then got into Impressionist (Debussy) and Modernist (Prokofiev, Ives, Antheil's crazed Ballet Mechanique) composers, as well as Jazz (especially Miles Davis and Bill Evans), then went crazy again and came back to Punk, picking up the really great sounds of Trip-Hop (Morcheeba, Massive Attack) along the way. If I'm writing, I'm usually not listening to anything -- not even space-ship music like Stereolab or the weirder Bill Evans stuff.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    Old School by Tobias Wolff. A bunch of dorky -- but very smart, very motivated -- guys trying on new selves and new heroes as they approach adulthood on the eve of America's great cultural meltdown. What could be better?

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    The two-page ones, better known as "cards" that contain cash and gift certificates. I spend five grand a year, at least, on books and DVDs -- better to assume that I've already got it and resign yourself to arming me for the next binge.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    Sadly, no rituals. The closest thing to writing ritual for me is playing Gran Turismo on my Playstation2. There's nothing quite like going for a thirty-minute drive, yet being able to pause and walk over to the desk in my library and start writing about whatever I thought about on, say, the streets of Tokyo. But I also keep a separate desk in the guest bedroom, where I self-consciously absented bookshelves, television, and Internet connection for when I need to be working at my monk-ish best.

    What are you working on now?
    A Great American Novel about a family of engineers and entrepreneurs that's rocked by an insider trading scandal -- but who the hell knows where that could take me? More promisingly, a non-fiction book about the Oriental game of Go, which I played a lot of in college and which I am now studying quite seriously with a professional Go player. In the summer of 2003, I even started writing a bi-weekly column for the American Go Association Journal. How fun is that?

    Many writers in the Discover program are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
    I dropped out of college in 1993 to start writing Baghdad Express, coming back only to take creative writing seminars as a special student in the M.F.A. program. The book was excerpted in GQ in 1997, but I still couldn't find an agent. It got published to much acclaim in 2003 -- so I guess you could say I'm an over-decade success.

    I would say the closest thing I have to an inspirational anecdote would be from the time I was a Working Scholar (a.k.a., "waiter") at Bread Loaf in 1996: Here I was, completely pretentious, but deeply yearning, young college drop-out writer surrounded by Iowa M.F.A.s and Johns Hopkins Ph.D.s -- well, after they workshopped (worked over?) the chapters of my nascent Gulf War memoir, I went out to the woods by myself and cried. Later that afternoon, in front of our entire workshop, crusty old William Kittredge signed his memoir, A Hole in the Sky, while reading his inscription aloud, "To Joel Turnipseed, who will produce important work someday -- this I'd bet on." One of the greatest pleasures in my life was placing a photocopy of that page in my presentation copy to Bill.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
    My pal Joseph Clark, author of the short story collection, Jungle Wedding. Because when he finally does get off his ass and write the novel that's in him, he's going to blow us all away. Hear that, pal? Get back to work. I can't leave out Christian Bauman, author of the really great war novel The Ice Beneath You, about a kid who fights in Somalia and must come home to a country that is indifferent at best -- his book came out in late 2002, just as the war and its attendant hype were building, then got flooded by Jarhead and Baghdad Express.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Work really hard, so hard you feel like you're going to die. Then doubt, deeply, so deeply you wonder why the hell you're even doing this. Then step back and realize that this is a path taken by almost every artist worth a damn since Homer, and give your ego a little break by acknowledging your talents. Then dive back into the volcano and give ‘em hell. Also -- never be afraid to trust others: they can, and will, help you if you've earned it. So earn it.

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  • About the Writer
    *Joel Turnipseed Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *Baghdad Express: A Gulf War Memoir, 2003