Jesse Ball is a writer. He is also a fighter and a photographer though, as you’ll learn below, he lacks faith in images. He has written three prior novels, all of which leave a lingering feeling that your heart contains not four chambers, but five, and that someone, unbeknownst to you, has inserted a false memory into that previously secret fifth atrium. His work stands stark amid the current landscape because he writes like absolutely no one else.
On January 28th his newest novel, Silence Once Begun, was released from Pantheon. Set in Kobo Abe’s Japan, Silence Once Begun is the story of Jesse Ball, a man whose wife has ceased to speak to him. In a search for an explanation of silence and those who have been gripped by its icy hands, Ball travels to meet the kin of Oda Sotatsu, a man who confessed to a crime he did not commit, and then spoke no more, even as his execution neared. Told primarily through letters and transcripts, Silence Once Begun is a testimony of the subjective nature of memory and the shortcomings of language. It illuminates that speech is an imperfect tool. One can use it to get at the real, create a reflection of truth, but ultimately truth cannot be acheived through speech, and memory is but a further distortion of an already poorly translated reality.
During the month of November, Ball and I discussed his latest novel and other wanderings over e-mail. Our conversation is below.
Rita Bullwinkel (Rail): You have talked before about how a book can come out of a single image. In regards to Samedi the Deafness, you said that image was of a man turning in a street. Did you have an image for Silence Once Begun?
Jesse Ball: I don’t remember very much of the time in which I wrote that book. It was a difficult period for me.
Rail: Why did you depart from the lyricism that dominates your previous novels?
Ball: I wanted to escape my good tricks, work without them. I had suddenly become infected with a plainness. I wanted only plainness.
Rail: Much of this novel is written in the form of transcripts. When composing the transcripts how did you get yourself into the speech patterns of the different characters? Did you decide ahead of time how you would differentiate the diction of each character?
Ball: It is a matter of affection for the characters, empathy with them. The truer my feelings can be, the simpler it is to create the document of these lives. In a sense, the characters are not Japanese, the place is not Japan. It is a Japan-like place, based on my love for Kobo Abe especially. The characters are the denizens of that place, a place which is not, cannot be Japan. Anyway, I doubt anyone can actually write about a real place. There are no real places.
Rail: One of my favorite parts of the book is when the narrator, Jesse Ball, rationally explains to Jito Joo his experience with silence and then recants his explanation—later writing Jito Joo a letter in which he retells his experience with silence in the form of a parable. This second telling in the form of the parable was tremendously powerful, I would venture objectively more powerful than the previous telling. What do you think gives this second telling its superior sway?
Ball: It benefits from and activates the first tale. The first tale is the first tale; the second is the second together with the first. When there is actual intention, felt meaning behind parable, it can be very strong.
Rail: You wrote your previous novels very quickly. The Way Through Doors you wrote in two weeks, The Curfew you wrote in six days. How long did it take you to write Silence Once Begun?
Ball: I wrote it quite rapidly also—a matter of days in August of 2011. Then, in Spring 2012, I added another section.
Rail: Silence Once Begun is dedicated to Kobo Abe and Shusaku Endo. What are your favorite works from these two authors?
Ball: Kobo Abe’s Box Man and Shusaku Endo’s short story, “Unzen.”
Rail: Have you traveled to Japan in the last two years?
Ball: I did before writing this—in 1997. Then, again, after writing this, I was there.
Rail: So you went back to Japan in 2012?
Rail: In the middle of the book there are 16 photographs. They come at a heightened time in the narrative, right after the reader learns the details of Oda Sotatsu’s execution. The last line before we see the images is, “This is the last room, a room like a gallows tree.” These words haunted me as I paused over each subsequent page. I loved the placement of these images and their order. Did you take these photographs?
Ball: Yes, I took those photographs in Japan in 2012. One of these photographs was taken by a friend who was present with me.
Rail: Which one of these photographs was not taken by you?
Ball: I won’t say.
Rail: What kind of camera do you use?
Ball: I used to use a Pentax manual camera—but it became too expensive. Now, I just use a telephone.
Rail: What camera were the photographs in Silence Once Begun taken on?
Ball: A telephone.
Rail: Is it true you were once a photographer in India?
Ball: It is true that I went to India to do photography, and did photography there. To be a photographer, perhaps is something else. I am not there yet. It could be that you need to have a faith in images, and I don’t have it.
Rail: You are an avid athlete. You practice Chinese boxing, Judo, and Jiu-Jitsu. What connection do you see between great athletic feats and the feat of writing?
Ball: I am not especially good at Jiu-Jitsu—but I would like to be. My Jiu-Jitsu is a very small and weakly serviceable Jiu-Jitsu. I can use it on little people, children mostly, or confused old men. As for the connection of feats—athletic and writing, I’d say: undertaking serious works where self-correction and rigor plays a part, each gives on to each, each buttresses each. Generally, doing difficult things makes it easier to do other difficult things, in the long term.
Rail: What are your favorite sports to watch?
Ball: I believe chess is a sport, and I adore following it. Also, go (baduk), which is equally strenuous. People have been hospitalized, people have died following matches and tournaments. I watch MMA often, and boxing sometimes. For me—when will power is the main determinant, sport is delightful. Team sports don’t really interest me. I don’t want to feel I am part of anything. I don’t like that feeling.
Rail: Have you ever gotten into a physical competition with another writer?
Ball: Well, writers end up knowing and associating with other writers, whether they like it or not. I had a bit of a scuffle, a fight with another writer, once, as a young man. Also, I did some physical tests against several Icelandic writers in Reykjavik during one of those long Scandinavian nights. We had a chess tournament, then an arm wrestling tourney, then a peculiar sort of slapping battle. I remember enjoying it.
Rail: In an interview with the Believer in 2011 you expressed the desire to swim the English Channel. As I am sure you are aware, to swim the channel one requires a boat escort. The competitors get to bring one person of their choosing along in the boat that is responsible for their feedings every few hours. Have you gotten any closer to this goal? Who do you intend to select as your feeder? If you were to swim the channel next week, who is the one person you would want to row along side of you and put protein heavy goop in your mouth every few miles?
Ball: I have not gotten closer, but I still hope to perform this thing. I believe doing the Alcatraz swim might be a good first step. Time passes so quickly!
Rail: You lived in Brooklyn for a period of time. When you lived in Brooklyn, where did you live? What did you write? We are the Brooklyn Rail after all…
Ball: I have lived all over New York. In 2000, I moved there. I lived in the East Village, 2nd Avenue and 10th Street, then near the Bedford L in Brooklyn, right by McCarren park, then down by the Myrtle/Willoughby stop on the G, by Marcy playground. Then, I lived up at 110th in Manhattan, at the very top of Central Park, then over at 125th, right near the Cotton Club. Then, down in Carroll Gardens. I wrote many things during that time—but mostly poetry. I began as a poet, of course. So, a book called The Holding Company, March Book, a long poem called Sdvig, a verse volume, Picnic in Ten Years’ Time, the short prose collection Parables and Lies, some preliminary work on Asa Meer, a book called, Though I am Hated By All Birds, and other things, I’m sure I can’t remember now.
Rail: Are you working on any new projects?
Ball: I wrote a new one called A Cure for Suicide this summer. Last month, I constructed two radio plays, which may appear on The Organist.
Jesse Ball writes novels and poems in English. He will read at 7pm on Tuesday, February 4th at McNally Jackson (52 Prince Street, NY, NY 10012).Rita Bullwinkel
Rita Bullwinkel is the author of the story collection Belly Up, which won the 2018 Believer Book Award and garnered a 2022 Whiting Award. Her novel, Headshot, is forthcoming from Viking. She is an Editor at Large for McSweeney’s and a Contributing Editor for NOON.