Richard Owain Roberts continues his series of interviews in a conversation with novelist, Jordan Castro.
Jordan Castro’s debut novel, The Novelist (Soft Skull Press, 2022), follows an unnamed narrator over the course of a single morning as he attempts to write an autobiographical novel.
Jordan and I discussed topics including Jordan Castro, ‘writer types’, Gordon Lish, habit, faith, and chadded dispositions.
Richard Owain Roberts: The Novelist features a character, a controversial author called Jordan Castro, who the novel’s unnamed narrator obsesses over from a distance. In your conversation with Tao Lin for The Paris Review you discuss the differing thoughts and interpretations about this Jordan Castro; running joke, nightmarish vision, Joe Rogan-esque parody – all these seem possible, simultaneously or separately.
Did you wonder or care when writing, or now that the book is out, how readers might respond to the Jordan Castro character?
Jordan Castro: When I was writing it, I was a little worried, in a general way, about that character, in part because he wasn’t fully formed, but after editing it more I felt good about it. He serves various functions in the novel, you’re right, but in terms of potential readers, I guess he is a kind of provocation: for the illiterate “readers” who conflate narrators with authors, he distances me from the narrator; and for those who are not only illiterate but also ideologically possessed, he’s like “Listen, I understand your little game.”
ROR: The Novelist reads as having been superbly edited – and going back to re-read various segments it feels very lean – which is quite something given that most of the novel is the narrator ruminating on various topics and mundane processes. Having been an editor yourself how would you describe your ideology or approach to editing – both for your own work, and more widely for other writers?
JC: I write in bursts then spend most of my time editing. My first drafts are always terrible. When I edited New York Tyrant, I spent some time with the Gordon Lish lineage, who emphasize the sentence as the most important unit, so I’ve taken some ideas from them—like their word economy, and the idea that sentences should sound and look good, and build on one another consecutively. I like the Garielle Lutz essay, “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” even though I think it goes too far. I think a novel should contain ideas. A lot of literary ‘schools’ are basically just fetishes: there is only the sentence, or only the idea, or only the social context, and so on. I am not a fetishist. I want novels that work harmoniously, and take the order of things into account.
ROR: I’ve read that Garielle Lutz essay a few times over the years. I think the last occasion was when I was editing Hello Friend We Missed You. I agree the essay goes too far, although I feel knowingly and rightly so. With precision on sentences or word choice you can’t half ass it, you have to believe in it or why bother at all? Franzen has spoken about letting go of an obsession with style and precision, but he’s probably only able to do that having obsessed over it so much in the first place.
JC: I’ve never read Franzen, but people keep telling me I should… I don’t think most writers should be less obsessed with style though. I spent years obsessed with sentences, and I think it served me well.
ROR: I can see a Lish energy in The Novelist, for sure. Lish is a big influence personally – I worked at Borders and stole a copy of Beginners, which had just been released. To read the difference in Carver’s stories without Lish’s hand on them was a lesson for me – none were improved, and some were, amongst other things, shockingly diminished.
A friend sent me a tweet advocating for the return of the Gordon Lish model, kingmaker editor. This seems preferable. Editing New York Tyrant – which in that period put out so much great work – I guess you had sole editorial control?
JC: Yeah, I ran the website by myself. One of the reasons we’d say Tyrant was called Tyrant is because “Good art isn’t made by a democracy.” It’s true.
ROR: I agree. Speaking of Tyrant – I recently recorded an essay centring on Giancarlo for BBC Radio 4. Having worked with him, how do you see his legacy?
JC: In a time when diversity is the stated goal of almost every American publisher, and things have paradoxically never felt more homogenized, Tyrant legitimately did stand out. I loved Gian, and I miss him—he was my friend. In terms of his legacy, I guess time will tell. Catherine Foulkrod and Gian’s husband are doing a foundation in Gian’s name.
ROR: The character of Eric, a former friend of the narrator, struck me as an eerily familiar figure. It was amusing and relatable to see the novelist obsessing over him, and for that matter ‘writer types’ in general. The idea of a person as a ‘writer type’ seems very real to me. The ‘writer activist’ also.
JC: I think we have an overabundance of “writers.” In the U.S, there are over 200 creative writing MFA programs; a million books (across genres) get published each year, and only 2% sell 5,000 or more copies. So not only does everyone think of themselves as a writer, but there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people with credentials to “prove” it. There just aren’t that many good writers, and now there aren’t even any jobs in academia for them. So these people went to school, racked up a bunch of debt, had all of their vitality and curiosity beaten out of them with “theory” and replaced with snide arrogance, and now they’re in a worse position materially than they were before they started. It’s no wonder they become resentful and lash out. This is one way of thinking about the philistinism that has infected literary culture in America. There is no “principle” behind it besides resentment and rivalry.
ROR: Is it possible Eric will appear again – will we ever hear his side of the story?
JC: Like Kiekegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky before me, I think it’s impossible to overstate the importance of ressentiment. You can’t tell a true story about our world without it, and yet it’s totally absent from contemporary literature. Our literature is written from the perspective of ressentiment. It’s the animating force behind so much of what is happening. That being said, one can’t just accuse others and absolve oneself. So while Eric definitely characterises a certain idiocy, which can be found in abundance in any literary or artistic sphere, Eric is also the object of the narrator’s own ressentiment—the narrator himself is impotent, trying and failing to write, and so on.
I imagine some version of Eric will appear in all of my novels, in part because he is inside of me somewhere. I’m planning on having my third novel be broader in scope, with real characters and so on, and I think I’ll include “the Eric point of view” in that. Dostoevsky famously quipped that no one had ever written a better argument in favor of atheism than he did, even though he was a Christian. At some point I want to do the same with the ideology that’s come to dominate our culture. I am the new Dostoevsky.
ROR: The analysis of the narrator’s former classmate was supremely nice. I did something similar in Hello Friend We Missed You. I mean, obviously everyone does this, it’s not just writers, but the depth of analysis of Facebook photos or online presence must surely be something writers do more than most?
JC: Occasionally my friend Evan and I end up going on Facebook excursions together, and it was through plunging to the depths of former classmates’ pages that we first discerned a kind of violence beneath “vacation photos.” Certain people literally only post vacation photos, and it seems like they’re on vacation all the time. The reflections might seem “deeper,” rendered in a novel, than they actually are. Now I’m very happy for vacationers in general.
ROR: I’ve wrestled with it as being potentially a negative thing to engage in, mainly for time wasting reasons. Though it feels too good a tool for finding nuance or specificity to riff on to simply abandon entirely. Also, compared to say the writer-activists of Twitter, non-writers using Facebook in a totally un-curated way is probably more life-affirming and open hearted?
JC: My friend Amy, who is a gardener and doesn’t have Twitter, showed me this narcolepsy Facebook group she’s a part of, and it was full of the same kinds of psychotic pedantry that takes place on Twitter, only applied to narcolepsy. A classic one I remember was when someone with narcolepsy said she got it from the swine flu vaccine, and so she wasn’t sure if she should vaccinate her kids, and people were being so mean to her, calling her names, saying that getting narcolepsy is a small price to pay for not getting swine flu, that her post was “dangerous,” and so on, you can imagine. Amy also said the Guinea Pig Facebook groups have good arguments too but I haven’t checked them out yet. And when I lived in Maryland, I would go on jogs with my older neighbor, a janitor at a place that did something with steel, and he would tell me all the time that he needed to delete his Facebook because it made him too angry. So I don’t think it’s just a writer thing.
One downside of the internet is that it’s resulted in this levelling—we are becoming increasingly similar, all crammed together, abstracted by image and text. We live in this perverse, inverted reality in which we mistakenly believe that we can “make a change” by arguing endlessly with avatars, and we can treat our friends and family like shit as long as it is for “the greater good.” Imagine a bunch of identical bees swarming around a smashed carcass—that’s the internet.
ROR: For sure. ‘Crammed together’ is a good way of putting it. I don’t care what strangers think and have even less interest in trying to ‘change their minds’ about anything.
I recently realized that I had genuinely repaired a lifelong relationship simply by not interacting with the individual online – and the same is true from his perspective, I’m sure. Face to face as men we simply talked, got on with things, and felt happiness. The alternative approach being we could have continued treating each other like shit online and seen where that got us.
JC: Damn, good job. There are a couple people who I should probably do that with, but I’m still essentially unwilling. I hear you about “changing people’s minds” though. I want to become more loving, forgiving, charitable, humble, and for whatever “change” I may or may not affect to be an outgrowth of that spirit. None of that requires putting a fedora on and Changing Minds like some sort of wizard. People change their thoughts and opinions all the time – almost always for unprincipled reasons – but when their hearts change, that’s the good stuff.
ROR: I think it was during your appearance on Red Scare that you spoke about how prayer was something you initially tried, stuck at, and then gradually began to feel as something realer and profound. Not to take away from the specifically religious aspect of this experience, but this seems to speak also to the benefit of forming and maintaining good habits in general – I know from personal experience how persistent commitment to fitness, and being in nature, gradually, then profoundly, changed my mentality.
Has prayer and faith helped your creative process?
JC: Yeah man, lifting weights and praying literally changed my life. The combo has given me a kind of chadded disposition, whereas I used to be just totally neurotic. Prayer and faith have also helped me take more risks. There is this idea that the fear of God is some coercive tactic, that God is some psychopathic tyrant who wants people to fear him for no reason, but it’s actually the opposite: the fear of God—the fear of not aligning oneself with transcendent Goodness, Love, etc—protects against the fear of other people, which is way more corrosive and tyrannical, and has a way more tortured effect on people. We have to look up, and then around, if we want to make good art.
ROR: The narrator in The Novelist – a recovering addict – has his own habitual behaviours, and he seems aware that they’re mostly negative, specifically his fixation with the internet. And yet even with this self-awareness he continues to engage in them. I remember in the immediate period after giving up alcohol I replaced alcohol with the less damaging but still not positive action of drinking sugary drinks, before then gradually working to a point of introducing only positive habits.
JC: I did the same thing when I got sober. Real change is often gradual. As more of my own bullshit got chipped away, more bullshit got revealed over time, and is still getting revealed. In some basic sense, the internet is drug-like—it is designed to addict, creates a chemical response in the brain, can be a spiritual hindrance, and so on. But I think all addictive objects are basically “symbols” for a deeper spiritual malady, which can attach itself to different things, and take more or less extreme forms.
ROR: I hear you, working on self is a lifelong process – and that should be celebrated rather than resisted or ignored. I enjoyed the optimism, as I saw it, of the ending of The Novelist. Its open-ended nature links back to the prayer/consistency idea that essentially finding a better, more elevated way of living is one step at a time until one day you realize that you’re getting somewhere. Same goes for writing a novel, I feel.
JC: Totally. Simone de Beauvoir, writing about freedom in the novel, said that a novel’s success depends on the illusion of “characterological freedom”—the character or narrator must “seem free”—which, for her, was the result of the author not knowing beforehand what the character would do. The novel “reveals itself” to the author through the act of writing, in a way that can’t be planned beforehand, and that is better as a result. This is similar to a prayerful life. If I can orient myself away from my cramped will through prayer, then act, not trying to control outcomes, but rather taking small steps, then I can have faith that the outcome will be good. My own vision can be so stunted, and when I let life, or my writing, “unfold”—if I “participate” in it rather than try to control it in a fundamentally ideological way—I’m often surprised to see things come to fruition that I didn’t even think to want beforehand.
I like the idea in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that the meaning of life isn’t some big abstract thing, but rather it’s latent in each small decision in front of us. In Hebrews, a book in the bible commonly attributed to Paul, he defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This could also be a description of action. Action involves stepping forward into the unknown; it always operates on a kind of faith, even if it’s unarticulated. Without faith, one cannot act.
The Novelist by Jordan Castro is available via Soft Skull Press.
Richard Owain Roberts’ novel Hello Friend We Missed You is out now.
(Photo credit: Nicolette Polek)