Josh Barkan was awarded a literature fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has taught writing at Harvard, New York University, and Boston University and is the author of the short-story collection Before Hiroshima. His first novel Blind Speed was named a finalist for the 2009 Paterson Fiction Prize. He spent much of his childhood abroad, living in Kenya, Tanzania, France and India. After attending Yale University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, he spent a year teaching in Japan and received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His writing has appeared in Esquire and as a contributor to The Boston Book Review. He usually lives in New York City and Mexico City, but currently, he is the writer-in-residence at Into the Furnace in Braddock, Pennsylvania.
Into the Furnace is a new writer-in-residence program in Braddock, PA. The selected writer is housed in a two-room suite in the former St. Michael’s parochial school convent, which is located beside UnSmoke Art Space, across the street from the Edgar Thompson Works, and beside the community pizza oven. Into the Furnace offers an adventuresome, creative person, whose work and work ethic can benefit from the energy Braddock has to offer, up to nine months of creative work time at an urban residency.
Josh and Rachel met at the Red Oak Cafe in Pittsburgh to talk aboutBlind Speedand Josh’s experience as the first resident of Into the Furnace.
HMB: Blind Speed is about failure. Paul Berger is not only writing about failure, but he struggles with his own fear of failure as a musician, as an academic, as a husband, a son, a brother. Did you set out to write about failure or did this character find you?
Barkan: It’s funny how a story or a character can evolve. I tend to think of conflicts first. I didn’t set out to write a novel about failure. Although it is a significant theme in the novel, many other things come up. I had read an article about two brothers who were both Olympic wrestlers, which has nothing directly to do with the novel, but one of the brothers was number one, always, and the other brother was always number two. My main character, Paul is someone who is far less than number two in a lot of ways. But I got interested in that idea of sibling tension and the idea of someone that is kind of stuck perpetually in failure.
It is not that plot is not important in what I write, there is a lot of plot, but plot is just a device to move things along. This is a novel of ideas, and by that I mean I was inspired by writers like Saul Bellow where really what matters more is the mental process that the protagonist goes through. I always thought of Paul as an antihero, but he is definitely heroic in a way. Even though, professionally, he is a failure and has these two brothers who are doing so much better than he is, there is something about the honesty in what he sees as a character that makes him heroic.
Cheever used to write his stories never knowing how they would end, but John Irving always knows how they will end. I am much more like Cheever. I like to put the character in some kind of conflict and see what happens. As you are writing, you follow your characters. They do the things they are going to do and then you try to make sense of what they are doing.
HMB: Considering the book came out of this story of brother rivalry, I have to ask, do you have brothers?
Barkan: No, I have a sister who I am very close to. It just seemed to fit that Paul had these two brothers and that he could identify with one so much more than the other.
HMB: I want to quote a few passages from the book about writing and doubts:
First there are Paul’s doubts about the book he is failing to write: “Nothing was ever good enough; nothing ever expressed the complexity and insight of what he truly wanted to say.”
Later in the novel, the Author speaks directly to the reader saying about Blind Speed: “What I have as I write this novel are often doubts.” But he concludes that, “This is the first book that might come close to communicating honestly and directly what is in my heart.”
A friend tells Paul once he has lost his job and his wife has left him, “To transform yourself you must accept that you are your own antagonist.”
Writing, these passages seem to be saying, requires tremendous confidence. Would you agree with that? Are you your own antagonist? What does it take for your writing to feel honest and direct?
Barkan: Frank Conroy, who ran the program at Iowa for a long time, used to say that we don’t want fake emotion in fiction. I think a lot of students come in and want to learn how to write something but they don’t really have anything to say, yet, so they are constructing stories for the sake of constructing stories not because there is something burning in them. You can learn to write a pretty damn good story that way. But I think to get closer to what we call great literature it does have to be really something truly burning in you. In writing Blind Speed it felt more urgent to me to write about what I was writing about in the novel than some of the things I was writing about in short stories before, even though those stories had a lot of meaning to me.
Also I wanted to get at that humor. I hope the book is funny. When I was writing short stories I tended to think that for them to be good they had to be serious. Blind Speed is a serious novel, but it is also, I hope, very funny. I wasn’t censoring myself. I wasn’t writing what I thought I should be writing. I was really writing what I actually wanted to write. I have a friend who says you have to write what you want to read, and I wrote the book I felt I would want to read. In that way it felt very exciting to write that book.
The self-doubt. I don’t feel that anymore. I think you work through it. I am finally at the point–I just finished a memoir–where I don’t feel I need to write as much directly or indirectly about me. I don’t need to explore those inner doubts as much. That’s not where I was when I was writing Blind Speed. I wasn’t there, yet.
HMB: The Narrator in the novel often speaks directly to the reader. What do you feel that these metaficitonal asides do for the novel?
Barkan: There are four voices in the novel. There is the voice of the narrator as narrator, and by that I mean the narrative voice, and then there is the third person limited point of view of Paul, and then his various interior thoughts, and then there is that other voice, and I would call that the voice of the author that comes in at the beginning and ending of chapters. That’s me. The reason I put that in is because I see the novel as being about truth and lies. The metafictional aspect makes the reader aware that they are reading something that has been written. If you are going to write something that is very fantastical, if you acknowledge it up front then you can gain the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. If we know that we are reading a novel and the author’s voice is there, then we can kind of go anywhere. There is this license to acknowledge that what we are reading is just a construction. So, yes, the protagonist’s brother can be an astronaut with only one kidney who died in September 11.
When I was writing the book–not that it was intended solely as a political book, it wasn’t, but–that era, during the Bush Administration, was particularly full of lies coming out of the government. I felt that the novel needed to be published during the Bush administration. And the lies that were going on on Wall Street. I wanted to get into that space of what is real and what is fake, because I think it is totally rooted in our culture, in general. And when I wrote the novel I think it was harder for some people to appreciate some of that sarcasm that was coming out in the novel. Now, I think people get it, instantly.
HMB: Paul is an almost famous musician. What is your relationship with music? What do you listen to when you write?
Barkan: I grew up playing and studying violin; my dad always had lots of classical music in the house. But I grew up listening to everything because of where we lived around the world. I really listen genuinely to everything as long as it is well performed. I don’t listen to music, at all, when I write. I really need absolute quiet. Some people need beautiful scenery outside a window. I don’t need a beautiful anything. The ideal space for me to write is a place with a blank, white wall in front of me. I need something that lets me get into that dream world. Music for me doesn’t do it. Now, when I edit, I can be sitting happily in a café with music, it doesn’t matter.
HMB: How did you hear about the Into the Furnace writer’s residency? What made you want to apply?
Barkan: Because I was the first resident, there wasn’t an application. I found out about the residency when I went to the 75th reunion of the Iowa Writers Workshop in June. While I was there I saw Marc Nieson who teaches at Chatham and we talked about the residency. I had been living in Mexico City for two years and wanted to be back in the U.S. for a while. Marc asked me to send him my books, and after he read the books and Sherrie Flick read them, they asked me to come.
HMB: Have you done a writing residency before or is this your first? How do you structure your time? Do you feel that you are able to be more productive as a writer in residence than you are when you are teaching? Do you feel pressured to complete something?
Barkan: I am a morning writer. Ideally, when I have the kind of time I have now, I like to write from about 8 in the morning until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. If it is a good day, I might write from 8-4. It is great to have this time and to be able to sustain the energy from one day into the next.
When you are teaching it is definitely harder, I think; you just have to carve out a couple of hours every morning. I do think you have to write almost every day. We have to keep that marathon going. I do feel that writing a novel is completing a marathon.
I haven’t done a residency before. This is a great thing. I think it is fantastic they took the leap to get this going out in Braddock. It is an act of generosity, and it takes a lot of effort. It is a little risky. Sherrie Flick has a tremendous amount of energy and John Fetterman, who is the mayor of Braddock, has this great will to try new things.
HMB: You live in New York City and Mexico City. How does that work? Do you find one or the other city more conducive to writing?
Barkan: It depends on the project. The memoir I was writing was after I had gone through a divorce and I wanted to write a book of travel coming out of that experience. It is a really painful thing. Mexico is an amazing place to write in. It is so raw and full of energy. There are 18 million people living in Mexico City. It has that same energy going on as New York City. There is a great visual art scene there. And there is a kind of tension going on there with the violence. Not that people are necessarily only writing or painting about the violence, but that immediacy is something that comes out. I view all art as about putting out energy through a form of craft. So wherever you can be where there is a tremendous amount of energy that you can channel and put out into art is a great place to be working.