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Original Essays

Writing Samedi the Deafness

by Jesse Ball
  1. Samedi the Deafness (Vintage Contemporaries)
    $8.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    "A stunning debut, this work is a dream-like spy novel set in an asylum for the curing of chronic liars. Like a tale by Lewis Carroll or a film by David Lynch, [it] teeters on the edge of unreality, plunges right in, and comes back again full circle." Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder
  2. March Book
    $12.75 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    March Book

    Jesse Ball

The first part takes place when I was living in France, in Montpellier, on a street in the old quarter, which is entirely cobbled and bricked. I mention the cobbling only because it made me feel more comfortable the entire time I lived there. We spent the afternoons in cafes, and on long aimless walks; mornings we passed lying in bed in the loft that sat high up under the roof. One morning I was lying in bed, thinking, and a vivid image appeared in my head.

The image was of a man standing in an autumn street. I could feel a slight chill in the air. The colors were very clear, as they are in autumn. He turned and I could see away past him up the street. Right then I had an incredible sensation: I saw the whole book — I saw it straight through in a fluttering of images. It's misleading and problematic, however, for me to speak of it only in terms of sight, because I'm not even sure it was a matter of sight at all. Certainly, it's easiest to speak of it that way. In any case, I felt or saw the book, and thereafter, I had only to write it down.

The second part, the writing down, took place a few weeks later, at a residency in a castle in Scotland. I had a little room and there were rules against talking to the other writers. I felt I could I have a great deal of unbroken time. I filled up the walls with the pages of the book as they came — the walls, then the ceiling. I covered the whole room. It took about three weeks to write, with much of the writing taking place at night. The first week I sat around thinking, carefully and delicately, in a way, trying very hard not to think of certain things while thinking of others. Then I sat down and wrote it from beginning to end. What you read when you read the book is the first draft.

The best way I can explain this thing of seeing the whole book at once is to relate it to dreaming. When you wake up, and a dream is fresh in your head, you might go out into the hall, see another person and describe the dream. Due to the exigencies of the situation, your dream adapts to the situation and becomes brief. It collapses to the size of the telling — adheres to the version you told. Later it is difficult to recall that it was originally more than that. However, if you had sat down and slowly, painstakingly, drawn out all the details of the dream on paper over the course of an hour, you would have found that the dream was far more complex. The dream, when one wakes, hovers in the mind in a cloud of connected images. The manner in which it is first approached is the manner in which it is made fast. When I saw this image of the man turning, I saw the book there in its cloud of myriad causalities and felt the shape of it, felt how it might be, how it was. Thus the sensation of writing it down was one of surprise and recognition, a process of unfolding.

But, of course, it took three weeks, and so to preserve the momentum of the story, it was necessary to surround myself with the book. The book wasn't there on the walls so I could rearrange it, or even particularly read it. Rather, watching the manuscript fill up the walls gave me a sense of a thing occurring. It gave me a terrific sense of agency, which in turn drove me to continue the process of writing down the next section, the shape of which, the shadow of which, I knew already.

So, the man turning became James Sim. For the various characters, I drew names from a cemetery near the castle. Most of the names were borne by people who died either in mining accidents or in WWI. I have always been drawn to cemeteries. A large cemetery was behind the house I lived in when I was growing up, and the map of that first town — the archetypal map on which all other maps are based — has a cemetery at the center. I don't think there's anything more comforting than being in a cemetery when no one knows you're there, and it's autumn, and people are waiting for you somewhere. I felt the names in this cemetery were a constellation of their own, and using them in my constellations would be a fruitful complication.

But in terms of complication — I should say that I don't ever try to make things complicated. I try to write my books as simply and clearly as possible. The feeling of impossible space indoors — enclosed space that verges on a sky — as in an aircraft hangar or a cathedral — that's the kind of clarity I would like.

So, my days were spent in printing, in taping up the pages, in writing, in going on long, aimless, circling walks. The castle was in a lovely glen and there were fine and beautiful places to walk to. One could always find, at midday, a soup and a sandwich in a pail outside one's door. Supper was had in common with the other writers at a sturdy room near the kitchens. I don't think I made it to breakfast even once the entire month. I spent a great deal of time writing letters, between fifty and a hundred letters, to my wife (now my wife), who I had only just met for the first time two months before in Iceland, and with whom I had been living in France. Receiving letters was an unimaginable joy.

As the shape of the book on paper began to assume the shape I felt when I first saw the image, the shape from the cloud of images began to dwindle. This was the most difficult part — attempting not to think too much about the parts that hadn't happened yet, because thinking about them could compress them into less than what they might become. I had to wait, and fixate on the part that was occurring, and lay it down, neatly and clearly, page after page, always expecting what was next, and always being surprised at precisely how it arrived.

This feeling of surprise is necessary for me in writing — otherwise, where would the pleasure be?

÷ ÷ ÷

Jesse Ball was born in Long Island. Educated at Vassar College and Columbia University, he has lived at times in Europe, and has worked as an editor, a croupier, a tutor, and a photographer. His first volume, March Book, appeared in 2004, followed by Vera and Linus. His drawings were published in 2006 in Iceland in the volume Og svo kom nottin. Work of his has appeared in many major domestic and international journals, and was included in Best American Poetry 2006. Jesse Ball was a Spy but has Retired to the Country, a website, showcases much work of writing and drawing. spacer

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