Q&A: Novelist Josh Weil

I tend to stay away from books with rugged, hardscrabble rural protagonists who have problematic relationships with women. These days, in the post-Larry Brown era, far too many wannabe Southern writers tell tales of farmers mourning their lost loves with a bottle of whiskey.

Josh Weil's first book, 2009's The New Valley, seems, on the surface, to fit the stereotype—three somewhat linked novellas about men on their own in a rural Appalachian landscape dotted with cows, tractors, and beer. But to dismiss Weil as just another cliché is to miss out on a damn fine book.

Weil's protagonists are really alone—so alone it hurts. Touches of a modern Southern Gothic pop up now and again, which is probably why Weil has been compared to Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy. But his novellas aren't about violence, they're about striving for connection, even if it's only with a cow. And while Weil grew up in Virginia, Africa, and Massachusetts, and went school in the Midwest and Manhattan, he shows an understanding and love of southwestern Virginia that's more than just cultural tourism.

Weil has won a bevy of awards for his work, the latest of which was being named the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. He will be in town reading, possibly from The New Valley, or possibly from his new work—he wasn't sure—on Monday.

So let's talk about your first book, The New Valley.

I'm half-sick of talking about it. But it's so old, I haven't talked about it in a while, so I half-love talking about it.

Your characters are so alone. It's so different from most first works of fiction.

Are you asking if I'm as much of a loser as my characters?

No, no! It's just that so many first novels are coming-of-age stories, and most writers in their 20s and early 30s aren't writing about old men who live alone.

I do spend a lot of time on my own, and that was a time in my life when I was especially isolated. … Although the plot was interesting to me and the story was interesting to me, I'd come out of this playwriting and screenwriting background in school, and the characters became what I really wanted to spend time with. If they were loners, I could dig more deeply in. Also, the truth is I'm not a very hip guy. I mean, I lived in New York and I had lots of buddies, but I was never in tune with what was going on in popular culture.

The female characters in The New Valley seem kind of, well—

Oh god.

How should I phrase this? Um, I really liked your book, by the way. I just felt that the women were kind of—that they were peripheral, I guess. But not really in that stereotypical macho writer way. And I was wondering why you did that.

Part of it was just where I was as a writer. I was already stretching and challenging myself, and having a female protagonist was beyond me at the time. The stories I'm writing now—most of them have women protagonists. … But I don't think the female characters are peripheral. I think they're absolutely essential to each story, they're just not right on stage.

So what are you writing now?

I'm working on three things: a novel, a series of novellas, and a story collection. The novel is basically finished. It's called The Great Glass Sea, and it's set in an alternative present in northern Russia. It's about two brothers torn apart by the pressures of runaway capitalism. … I'm halfway done with the other two books. … The thing that links them all together is that they all deal with humankind's attempt, both metaphorically and actually, to increase the amount of light in the world. The novel takes place in a world without darkness.

You went through an MFA program. Is that a path you would recommend to young aspiring writers?

I think it's a really hard question, but I think it's worth it. … I guess the question is not whether it's worth it, but whether the commitment is worth it to whoever's making the choice.

So what is it about the novella for you? It's kind of an underutilized form.

Yeah, I've been called an ambassador for the novella. What I love about it, I guess, is that it really works for me. It allows for a focus to the story and an intensity to the story like a short story but leaves enough room for a relationship with the characters.

What question do you never get asked that you wish people would ask?

I wish people would ask more nuts-and-bolts crafts questions, like, ‘How do you go about developing a story arc?' It amazes me that students never ask those types of questions.