A New Novel About Teenage Rebellion Is Summer’s Fieriest Read

Jesse Ball’s "How To Set A Fire And Why" follows a troubled young girl to detention and a secret arson club.

Lucia, the cocky, troubled protagonist of Jesse Ball’s newest novel, may not like going to class, but she does enjoy browsing the shelves of her school’s library, clearing her mind, scanning almost meditatively for something that catches her eye.

“The idea is -- you don’t know what you’re interested in,” she says. “That’s why it’s possible to be surprised. So, instead of looking for things in particular, you look for what you didn’t know you liked, and then when you find it, you know that you liked it, and then you’re a broader person than you were before.”

It’s the sort of heartening teenage quirk that you might find in a young adult story: Misunderstood goth girl meets studious yet privately edgy boy. Predictably, they fall into a tumultuous first love.

That sort of story matters for budding readers, of course, but it’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from Ball, who’s more interested in undoing conventions than upholding them. Like Lucia, Ball seems to survey an array of topics before honing in on a single angle -- he’s set books in Long Island, Japan and one ambiguous dystopian suburb. 

Ostensibly broad and varied, his work is all connected by themes of loss and silence. In Silence Once Begun, a man convicted of a series of murders takes a vow of silence -- seemingly to avoid saying anything to further implicate himself, but also to avoid using language that serves a manipulative purpose. In the 2015 National Book Award nominee A Cure for Suicide, a man’s memory is cleared after a traumatic event, forcing him to re-learn the words for everyday objects. And, in How to Set a Fire and Why, his latest effort, Lucia scribbles her thoughts and predictions in a journal rather than speaking with her classmates.

For someone so interested in silence, making a career of stringing together words may not seem like a natural choice. But for Ball, who wrote poetry before he set out to write fiction, spare speech and writing, plumb with pauses and silence, can be powerful in its efficiency. “Words well-meant are important,” he told The Huffington Post in an interview. “But the rest of them we can ignore, I think.”

We spoke with Ball about quick reads, small books, and how to write about a gender other than his own:

As with your last book, the protagonist in How to Set a Fire and Why is regaining her footing after experiencing deep loss. Why does the theme of loss interest you?

It’s logical to address things in life, and loss is maybe one of the more important things to think about and prepare yourself for, and one of the things that requires the most of a person. Maybe loss is the thing that characterizes us.

Another theme that seems to recur between your books is silence. Lucia, like the hero of Silence Once Begun, seems to think speech can be vacant or insufficient. Why does this idea appeal to you?

We live in this age where I would say you’re shouted at all the time by all these advertisements and devices and not even only when you’re being shouted at by them, but even implicitly as you imagine [yourself]. You imagine you would be walking down the street, and you imagine there would be advertisements. So even when you’re alone, you’re constantly being accosted by words. And many of them are words that are facetiously or maliciously meant, manipulative words. I think you end up having a feeling that words are really important, but in truth, words well-meant are important, but the rest of them we can ignore, I think. And it’s freeing to ignore them when they are manipulative or cruel. You get to choose the life you want to live, you just have to accept the consequences of making that choice.

And how do you reconcile valuing silence with your role as a writer?

If [my novels] were more like other novels, they would probably be four times as long, but because they’re full of silence, and full of things that are actively unsaid, that makes them much, much shorter. Which is nice for the reader. You can read them more quickly.

Maybe loss is the thing that characterizes us. Jesse Ball

Right -- you’ve said in interviews that you write quickly, too. Why is that?

It’s because I think we constantly change. You are who you are maybe for a matter of days, and then you have some new ideas and you almost become a new person. You have a new experience. I think the complex of words that we use, what they mean both alone and relative to other words, is constantly shifting as we learn.

So, if you want to be as clear as possible, the best thing you can do is limit a text to being what a single version of yourself means. You want to be unafraid of being or unafraid of being not stupid or silly. You just trumpet some idea you have, and of course there will be people who dislike it. But that’s OK. Just simply say your piece. And that doesn’t take very long, if you just say your piece. If takes a week to write a book if you just say a bunch of things that you think are true, and you’re not trying to manipulate people with it, so it doesn’t really need to be adjusted too much. You’re just saying something, just like you would say something to a garbage can or to a water main, you know?

So, would you consider your writing automatic writing?  

No, I don’t think so. Some of these things like automatic writing or stream-of-consciousness, there’s this inherent sloppiness to that. Or an attempt to get past that to the unconscious, which is not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is you have very specific intentional thoughts that you want to say, and so you just say them one after another, quietly.

Sure -- I think Lucia would agree. What did you do to get into the mindset of a teen girl narrator?

Well, my experience growing up in Long Island is something that I probably would like to get away from more, but it’s still present in me, so I just tapped into my memories of what it was like to be a teenager.

As for the fact that she’s a girl: One of the magical things about life is that you walk around and you can empathize with everybody; you can empathize with old people, with young people, with women, with men. There are people in every part of this kaleidoscope of gender. We’re just human beings. For any specific person, their gender is the least important thing about them. What’s more important is their ideas or their hopes. I guess I just didn’t worry about it.

For any specific person, their gender is the least important thing about them. What’s more important is their ideas or their hopes. Jesse Ball

Both this book and A Cure for Suicide have lines, scenes and entire pages that are repeated. What is it about repetition that interests you as a stylist?

Well, things are always different the second time, right? And I think it’s just a playful, technical thing. One of the burdens of being a writer right now is that you have to compete with so many other kinds of media. So it’s important to write in a way that is clear and startling, so that the reader will continue to read. So little clear and technical matters like the employment of repetition just help to make the book seamless.

Sure. It’s like a hook. Would you say you draw this technique from poetry?

Yeah, I mean, probably, most of my ideas about writing come from poetry, but also from film. At the heart of it there’s just good thinking. Thinking precedes poetry or fiction.

I want to ask about the design choices made in the book. The margins feel small, even claustrophobic. Did you have a say in that?

I always want the books to be as small as possible. I think the place for a book is in a pocket, or shoved in the back of your pants. You walk along or ride your bike to a park or something and you read. I think the smaller the better. If that book could be even smaller, I would be even happier. There’s some consensus about how it’s difficult to sell really small books or have people take them quite as seriously as large books.

Did your background as a poet influence your interest in aesthetically meaningful text?

I think even never having written any poetry, I would just be a novelist who wants things to be aesthetically meaningful. I don’t really believe in being entertained. I try to avoid that in my life. To me, entertainment means not actually being engaged by something. Like, having that thing sort of turn you off. Whereas I want to be changed by the things that I do and see and feel. I like difficult things.

But you mentioned earlier that you want your books to be easy for readers to engage with, or quick reads.

That’s true. I think it should be clear, but there should be a reckoning when the reader considers what is actually written, and realize that what was written is in contravention with many things that they have agreed with or are complicit in. And that’s when the reckoning has to occur, because we can’t believe both things.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.



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