Jay Fox represents one of the first of his millennial generation to publish a major work of fiction. His novel THE WALLS was released in November 2011 and was immediately noticed by the New York Daily News. At 28, he is leading the way for a new generation of talented young writers at the beginning of their literary journey. THIRSTY was fortunate to catch up with Jay at his home in Brooklyn, the setting for his book, to discuss the major literary influences in his writing and in his life.
STAY THIRSTY: You have commented often that William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon and J. D. Salinger were your major influences as a writer. What was it about Faulkner that appealed to you?
Jay Fox (credit: Ashley Sears)
JAY FOX: The first book of his I read was The Sound and the Fury, and I didn't fully understand why I enjoyed it so much. It really is one of the more interesting novels out of that time period, especially the parts concerning Quentin Compson at Harvard. It wasn't until I started reading Absalom, Absalom!, however, that I realized what really spoke to me—it's Faulkner's rhythm. And it was funny how I came upon this epiphany. I had just finished reading a particularly long passage, and looked up and saw that I was sitting across from a Hasidic man who was nodding along with scripture. I thought to myself, "I've been doing the exact same thing, only with Faulkner." He has that poetic rhythm that is more important to the flow of the language than the grammar. He has this totally unique rhythm, this sense of drive to his language that just propels you to keep reading, even if what you're reading are these gargantuan sentences with myriad parenthetical clauses that would leave anyone absolutely lost if it weren't for his ability to keep you nodding along. I feel like a lot of people have had this kind of Faulkner moment where suddenly they completely understand his writing whereas three pages beforehand they were completely lost. I would say that this, more than any other aspect of Faulkner, has made him one of my absolute favorite writers.
STAY THIRSTY: Thomas Pynchon's dense, long novels and his concentration on ideas based on philosophy, theology and sociology have nevertheless been received well by the critics and the public alike. That acclaim combined with his overarching reclusiveness and his intense obsession for privacy has created an almost cult-like following for his work. What about Pynchon, his writing, his ideas and his lifestyle captured your attention?
JAY FOX: I came across Pynchon by reading a Village Voice article on Against the Day. I hadn't had the opportunity to read him in college because all of my classes were based in the basic humanities, philosophy or history. Consequently, I didn't find out about writers like Pynchon, David Foster Wallace or Don DeLillo until after college. Regardless, I went to the bookstore the day after reading the article in search of some Pynchon, and that's where I found Gravity's Rainbow. It was incredibly difficult at first—way more difficult than Faulkner, though far less of a burden than something like Ulysses, which is the only book I've given up on in the past ten years. That's a book that requires a guide. But Gravity's Rainbow struck a note with me because it was so incredibly dense. It was like an entire world with hundreds of characters, intertwining plotlines, references and settings. Ortega y Gasset said something along these lines when it came to the novel—that the novelist carries the furnishings of an entire world on his shoulders. Pynchon really made me realize that. Furthermore, he made me realize that, consequently, there should be dead-ends and completely random events that seem like tangents in order to reveal to the reader that the novel is really conveying several messages—there's plotline, of course, and there's also a lot of seemingly extraneous elements to the story that make it more complete. In other words, there are larger meta-points that are being made. In the case of Gravity's Rainbow, the main one is showing how the Freudian death drive relates to Western art, particularly German art, and to capitalism. There are other points being made, too, and you can only understand them if you include all of the plotlines, not just the one featuring Mexico and Rocketman and the Schwartzcommandos. You need all of those one hundred characters.
This is a familiar device in postmodern literature, but I had never seen it done so well—until I picked up Against the Day. So, I guess to answer your question, Pynchon captivated me because he and I seem to share a similar political philosophy, one which became a bit more clear to me after finishing Against the Day. Furthermore, he really has a knack for packing incredibly arcane details into his novels, which is something that I also do, though, I admit, he is far better at it than I. All in all, I think he is without question the best writer living today. As to his life, I don't really know much about him personally. I guess on a certain level I would like to meet him, and maybe his reclusive nature was part of the inspiration behind the Coprolalia character in The Walls.
STAY THIRSTY: J. D. Salinger led a more mercurial life than did Faulkner or Pynchon. His revolving door relationships with women and his litigious nature exemplified a more contentious personality. And yet, he too, was very media shy, not giving an interview in the last 30 years of his life. What attracted you to Salinger's work?
JAY FOX: Salinger, with the exception of Vonnegut, was the first "real" writer I read on my own. And believe it or not, it wasn't Catcher in the Rye! It was Nine Stories. In early high school a teacher recommended him to me, and, as I was a self-proclaimed rebel, I bought Nine Stories instead of Catcher in the Rye. Regardless, what really hit me was his ability to write dialogue. I still consider him to be one of the best dialogue writers in American literature. There is a certain flow in the way people communicate that very few writers can accurately transcribe. This is something I think about a lot, especially as I go back and edit. If two characters are speaking to one another, and you remove the "said Bob" and "said Tom", and suddenly have no idea which of the two characters is speaking, then you need to make some serious edits. As I've said before, each person has a unique way of speaking. They even have a unique way of laughing and of sneezing, too. Beyond that, Salinger was also a very astute observer of simple human interactions, someone who never needed to write more than a few lines to convey an incredibly complex dynamic between two or even three characters. The dialogue then flowed naturally from the dynamic between the two characters. This kind of understanding of humanity is one of the elements that a great fiction writer really needs to possess.
And let's not forget that he wrote "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." With the exception of "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber", that may be one of the most amazing short stories of the 20th century. I actually had a moment with this girl on the train a few years ago—I take the subway a lot; can you tell? Anyway, I had just finished an article or a chapter or something (I forget what I was reading), and I looked up to see this girl reading Nine Stories. She looked like she was about thirty pages in. Suddenly, she just looked up straight at me with this look of absolute shock, and I smiled and said to her, "You just finished Bananafish, didn't you?" She nodded. She eventually regained her ability to speak, and even told me that she had read it before, but had I guess forgotten how abruptly it ends. We didn't get to talk about it that much, though, because the train was pulling into my stop. Kind of unfortunate.
STAY THIRSTY: Despite Faulkner being awarded the Nobel Prize and winning two Pulitzer Prizes he was generally neglected by the public until after his death. It has been suggested that Pynchon will likely receive the Nobel Prize one day - of course there is doubt as to whether he will appear to pick it up. And Salinger has been said to have created an entirely new genre of literature with his seminal The Catcher in the Rye but shunned the attention the book caused. How do you view the craft of writing as it relates to living in contemporary times? Must a novelist be withdrawn to be great?
JAY FOX: I think great novelists need to be comfortable in their own heads and in their own skins, if that makes any sense. Writing requires the ability to be cerebral enough to analyze what's going around you, but you have to actually live in the present in order to fully appreciate it and to engage it. It's a bit of a tightrope walk or—to use one of the words from The Walls that I get a lot of questions about—an act of funambulism. However, there is the question of how you should speak to your audience, not via your work, but in person. That, to me, is very difficult. I don't know why, and I think that's what drove the three writers you mentioned into seclusion. I have a pretty easy time writing, but I always feel incredibly didactic and pretentious when I speak about what I'm trying to actually say, especially since literature isn't taken as seriously by the general public as it once was, and a lot of the references and ideas expressed in the book are esoteric.
However, the problem with writing in contemporary times is less about finding subject matter or unique things to say, and more about the fact that I don't even know what venue really caters to the literary public. Perhaps it's because the role of the intellectual has been usurped by the pundit, who, more often than most people would care to admit, is nothing more than a stooge thrown onto a stage to sloganeer for a party, a corporation or a conjunction of the two—just look at the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. It's essentially the conservative wing of the GOP's brain trust writing in an echo chamber.
Then again, when it comes to being a bit of a recluse, there is the simple matter of time. It takes a lot of time to construct the skeleton of a good book in your head, a lot of time to fill it in with muscle and flesh, and a lot of time to make all of the cosmetic changes that will make it really beautiful. It requires a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, and, most importantly, a lot of writing. When I'm really in the mood to work on a novel, I don't really care to see people because I'm essentially constructing an entire universe in my head and on the page.
STAY THIRSTY: How does your debut novel, THE WALLS, evidence the influences of Faulkner, Pynchon and Salinger?
JAY FOX: I think there's a lot of evidence that I owe a huge debt to Faulkner. That comes through in the very long passages that start to crop up later in the novel when the narrator really begins to examine his own past. This is an easy answer, I know, but that's probably what Faulkner is most famous for—writing massive, stream of consciousness sentences. There are also a lot of Faulkner words that come up, too—effluvium, afflatus, shibboleth. I know they're Faulkner words because, as I read, I like to underline every word that I don't know, write the page number on which it appears on the title page of the book, and then look up the word when I get home. This is how I built my vocabulary. You should see the cover page of Infinite Jest—it looks like a list of codes. Erasmus's In Praise of Folly was another one with a lot of arcane words and references.
I think a lot of the writing style, when it doesn't borrow from the Faulkner school, reads a bit like Pynchon. I also owe a lot to Pynchon in terms of creating a plot structure, and I think people will realize that—provided, of course, they're familiar with Pynchon's work. It goes back to that concept of furnishing a separate world, which is perhaps why writing a novel is far more difficult than most people assume, and why a lot of younger writers have to take several shots at it. There's a lot of space that needs to be accounted for, and you have to think a bit like a chess player in the sense that you have to create a world in which your characters are ostensibly free to do a variety of things, but must do one. Perhaps that's what defines a good character—one who must do x because he or she cannot do otherwise. In other words, Pynchon taught me that you have to create a three dimensional world, and that, for those who want a linear plot, a lot of the material in the novel will appear superfluous.
As to Salinger, I think that people will see his influence in the immense amount of dialogue, though they may not think of Salinger as they read it. They may think of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or some other show based on a lot of banter, especially in the case of the dynamic between Aberdeen and Tomas.
I also think people may pick up on a few other writers to whom I'm definitely indebted: Jose Saramago, David Foster Wallace, and, more for his philosophy than his novels, Jean Paul Sartre.
STAY THIRSTY: For the young, aspiring writers in your generation, are there any hallmarks or milestones you suggest they embrace?
JAY FOX: I'm not entirely sure. I mean, one of the things that young writers tend to not do is write. This sounds silly, I know, but it's the truth. You can't be a good writer if you're not constantly writing, and you certainly aren't going to be a successful one if you don't spend years working on your voice and sense of rhythm. I guess the first few milestones any young writer should be concerned with are based on the act of writing. These are things like completing a short story that's around or over five thousand words. It's surprising just how much work needs to go into telling a good story of this length.
I would also suggest that young writers go out and explore the world and read as much as they possibly can. A good writer really needs to be comfortable in the world if they're ever going to successfully write about it, and that requires a lot of time and focus. You can't learn about the everyday minutiae with which ordinary people deal if you're not paying attention to the world. In other words, put the phone down and take the headphones off. Not only will you gain insight from your observations, you'll also find that it's one of the best ways to pick up material. I guess those are my two tips to young writers—write as often as you possibly can, and always engage the world. Then, once you've finished your first manuscript, learn not to be offended by the fact that no one cares about your writing, and that you're probably going to spend the first eight years of your career being completely ignored. It's unfortunate, but it's experiences like this that build character.