How Jesse Ball Wrote a Book in One Day

From a Wall Street Journal story by Cody Delistraty headlined “How Jesse Ball Wrote a Book in One Day”:

A few years ago, on a quiet Mississippi morning, Jesse Ball woke before sunrise, plugged a folding keyboard into his iPad and started writing. Within a day, he’d finished an entire book, the forthcoming Autoportrait.

“You’re just trying to catch a firefly in a glass,” says Ball, who at 44 has written or co-written more than 45 novels, novellas, monographs, scripts, nonfiction works and poetry and drawing collections, a number of which are upcoming or unpublished. He says he writes nearly all of his books in a matter of days, almost always in less than a week. “There are some people who have laborious, really long processes that lead to something wonderful—but, for me, if I’m going to make something reasonable and worthwhile, it will happen suddenly.”

Early in life, time was particularly of the essence for Ball. At 18, he was diagnosed with a heart condition. His valves leaked. A doctor told him he wouldn’t live past 30.

“It definitely created the condition for me to be in a hurry with writing,” he says. He published his first poetry collection, March Book, as a 25-year-old M.F.A. student at Columbia University. At 30, he won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, which identifies promising fiction writers and has been awarded to Emma Cline, Ottessa Moshfegh and Yiyun Li

Literature has a controversial history of speedily written books. Jack Kerouac wrote so hastily that he supposedly taped together blank pages so he wouldn’t have to stop to feed new ones to his typewriter. Of Kerouac’s style, Truman Capote commented something to the effect of, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” William Faulkner said he didn’t change a single word from his first draft of As I Lay Dying, which he said he wrote in six weeks while working the night shift at a power plant, and F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed to have written “The Camel’s Back,” a short story he sold to The Saturday Evening Post, in a day, “with the express purpose of buying a platinum and diamond wrist watch which cost six hundred dollars.”

Ball is not as well-known as these earlier speedy writers, or even many of the fellow prizewinners of his generation. He seems to prefer it that way. He lives alone, with an Airedale named Goose, in Chicago, where he’s on the faculty of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He teaches a fiction course in which his principal goal, he says, is to teach his students to “re-view the world.” This is done in part via assignments related to walking, dreaming and lying, one of which includes constructing and implanting a false memory in the mind of someone you know.

Hyper-attentiveness to the grind of daily reality is also how he discovers ideas for his own novels, he says, which have lately included Census (2018), a novelistic account inspired by taking care of his brother, Abram, who had Down syndrome, and The Divers’ Game (2019), a dystopian parable about a radically segregated society in which one class is permitted to kill a perceived inferior class as they desire.

Ball began writing to transform his grief. Born to middle-class parents in Port Jefferson, New York, Ball lost his father when he was 18. He died the night before he was set to have septuple bypass surgery. Ball’s brother, Abram, died shortly thereafter of pneumonia. Writing allowed Ball to turn an “especially painful, difficult [time] into something marvelous,” he says.

In its formal simplicity and honesty, Autoportrait, due out August 16, is perhaps the most intense literary catharsis Ball has ever put himself through. It’s a technical clone of the French author Édouard Levé’s 2005 book of the same name. Levé wrote his version when he was 39; so too Ball was 39 in 2017 when he wrote it over the course of a single day on John Grisham’s 70-acre estate in Oxford, Mississippi. (His then-partner, Catherine Lacey, a novelist, had a Grisham-funded fellowship.) Ball wrote Autoportrait’s roughly 31,000 words in an app called LaTeX on his iPad, taking breaks for lunch, an afternoon nap and a walk with Goose.

In both versions of Autoportrait, the authors lay out declarative sentences about their lives without order or narrative. Each book is a single-paragraph sea of non sequiturs. “It is an approach that does not raise one fact above another, but lets the facts stand together in a fruitless clump, like a life,” writes Ball in his introduction.

Sometimes the revelations are banal, as when Ball reveals, “I like to use jars as glasses. I am completely amazed whenever I obtain another jar (by using its contents).” Other times, he gets at his deepest existential fears: “The first time I ever thought about the Great Matter, the matter of life and death, was when I learned that the sun was eventually going to collapse. In that moment I felt a total certainty that almost everything I had ever been told was a lie.”

Ball says his love of narrative ambiguity (he hates a tidy ending) and absurdism has separated him from the realist vogue of mainstream literature. Though he maintains a cult following and his books are widely translated, he’s often characterized as “a writer’s writer,” as Kendall Storey, his editor at Catapult, which is publishing Autoportrait, calls him. But he sees no reason to change. “He has a real singular vision, not only about his work, but also in the way that he lives his life,” says Storey.

Ball’s stories—in Autoportrait and elsewhere—tend to expose the unkindness of people, particularly when they become a part of systems or institutions. “I have always despised people who join societies. In general, I feel that groups of any kind are for the weak,” he writes in Census. In Samedi the Deafness (2007), however, Ball offers a humble prescription for living a good life, in which we each do our simple best: “There’s only this: if everyone acts quietly, compassionately, things will go a little better than they would have otherwise.”

His favorite writers are other introverted poets and novelists who shun the spotlight, like Alice Oswald, who wrote a version of The Iliad that pays particular attention to the perspectives of the oft-unnamed dead soldiers, and the icy Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy, who writes often of humanity’s fundamental loneliness, as in Sweet Days of Discipline. (Oswald could not be reached for comment. Jaeggy would only comment if this article concerned swans, per a publicist.)

Samanta Schweblin, an Argentine novelist, is another of Ball’s favorites. Over email, she characterizes Ball’s writing as “sweet and cruel, delicate and strong, extremely poetic and contemporary. And there’s also something in his narrator’s rhythm that always works on me like a spell.”

Ball says there aren’t any tricks to quick writing: “It’s just paying attention, being deeply moved by the predicament of other living things, human and otherwise, and then wanting to participate in the long march of not just art but speech.”

Too many novels, Ball contends, take for granted that one kind of event follows another. In doing so, they imply that life is not random, that instead we can look backward and recognize a pattern or narrative. In real life, though, he says, there are no clean through lines.

“The speed of writing is an attempt to not have my originating ‘self’ that surrounds and creates the work shift too much,” says Ball. “In my composition, it’s quite necessary to have it be quick.”

Cody Delistraty is the culture editor at WSJ.Magazine, where he edits and writes stories on books, art, technology and compelling cultural trends across the Magazine, Style News and A-heds desks.

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