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Listening to the Voices in His Head: The Millions Interviews Jim Gauer

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Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives, an experimental novel set in Los Angeles, Ciudad Juárez, and Guanajuato, received a starred review from Kirkus, which praised the book for its “verbal and postmodern high jinks.” Originally published in 2016, a new edition, with an afterword by Chris Via, publishes in February.

The Millions caught up with poet and mathematician Gauer to discuss his novel, its enduring appeal, his writing process, literary influences, and much more.

The Millions: Your novel has also been featured in starred reviews, radio shows, and various platforms online, and is immensely popular on social media. To what do you attribute its long-lasting connection with readers?

Jim Gauer: Boy, that’s a tough one, a bit like asking a father to explain why his child has so many friends. Am I allowed to say it’s a great novel, and that anyone who loves it is an exceptional human being? No, I suppose not. Seriously, while I think the book is a lot of fun to read and may have what the novelist Joseph McElroy called “an indelible richness,” the truth is that the book is so different from most contemporary novels that those who enjoy it tend to be loyal to the book. Among other things, the book uses long, intricate sentences, long paragraphs, and an extravagant lexicon, none of which would endear it to corporate publishers, but I think there’s a kind of hunger for novels that aim high, and if they fail, at least fail spectacularly. It’s not the sort of book that anyone could feel indifferent about, so readers who believe in the book seem to be tenacious in their belief. In any case, however I explain it, I’m truly grateful for the book’s loyal readers, as without them, the book would have vanished without a trace.  

TM: Novel Explosives is over 700 pages long – certainly a feat for busy readers and those searching for space on their bookshelves. What would you share with readers about your book who might be daunted by the manuscript length? Can you tell us a bit about your writing process for spinning this many-paged tale?

JG: Indeed, the book is far too long, though it does have a thriller-like intensity and a good deal of narrative propulsive force, and I don’t think it’s quite so long as the page-count would indicate. As for process, the book began when I had just finished another novel, currently in a drawer, and woke up the next morning with a voice and a first sentence in my head. I wrote the first hundred pages or so in one long blast, during which I discovered two more voices. I then spent the next seven years of seven-day weeks following those voices wherever they led, and where they led turned out to be Novel Explosives.

TM: One of the most intriguing and unique elements of your novel is the fact that it’s a three-stranded narrative. When you’re writing, how do you best keep track of timelines, character arcs, etc. to make sure the narratives converge at all the right moments?

 JG: I of course had an outline that took up the entire side of a three-by-five index card, but then I only referred to it a few thousand times. One of the reasons I didn’t take a day off in seven years of writing was that I had the structure of the entire book in my head, and I was afraid that if I took a day off, the book would fall apart or simply vanish. Part of this may have been my training as a mathematician, but I didn’t want to know too much about the writing up ahead, as I wanted the writing to feel as surprising to me as it hopefully feels to the reader. The index card was used to keep the timeline straight, and to make sure that all the narrative ingenuity didn’t turn into sheer incompetence.

TM: What was the inspiration behind setting the story in this particular year (2009) in this particular region of Mexico (Guanajuato)?

JG: For some reason, that voice I woke up with on the first morning was a character preparing to tell the story of how he came to live in Guanajuato, Mexico. He finds that all of his knowledge is intact, but since he has no idea who he is or how came to live in Guanajuato in the first place, he isn’t exactly prepared to tell the story of how he came to live there. In essence, the voice selected the place, as Guanajuato was little more than a word to me, and I’d never been anywhere near there. The book, in retrospect, seems a matter of “presiding over accidents,” as Orson Welles put it. One of the accidents is that the character, Alvaro, was positioned part way up a hill in a small hotel overlooking the Plaza de la Paz, in a very precise location that might easily have been a glue factory. When it came time to visit Guanajuato, my wife and I walked to the Plaza de la Paz, went up the hill to the street that Alvaro lives on, and discovered that his building was not only a small hotel, but that the hotel was called El Meson de las Poetas, The Inn of the Poets. If I had any doubts about completing the writing, the name of the hotel seemed so improbable to me that I knew I would have to finish the book.

TM: There’s been a lot of comparison of your style to that of Thomas Pynchon or even David Foster Wallace. Who do you count among your literary and visionary inspirations, and why?

JG: At bottom, the book is a kind of absurdist quest, so it may have been Cervantes presiding over many of the accidents. The tradition the book is written in includes Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, William Gass, William Gaddis, Pynchon, and the greatest unread novelist of the late 20th century, Alexander Theroux. Out of some sort of anticipatory anxiety of influence, I didn’t read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest until the book was finished, but he certainly would have been an inspiration had I read the book beforehand. While I can’t possibly compare my writing to any of these great writers, they’re all masters of the sentence, and Novel Explosives at least aspires to the same sort of mastery of the sentence.

TM: You’re a self-described “mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist venture capitalist.” How do these multi-faceted perspectives contribute to your voice as an author, and to this particular plot? 

JG: One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Walter Bagehot. “The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.” Would Gaddis have been able to write J R if he hadn’t been forced to work in PR and learn about the business and legal worlds? As a poet, I too was forced to work for a living, and much of what I know, beyond novels, math, and philosophy, was the result of having to work for a living.

TM: What’s next for you in terms of writing?

JG: My first rule is don’t write unless you have to. My second rule is to wait until you wake up one morning with a voice in your head, and then follow the voice wherever it leads.
This piece was sponsored by Zerogram Press.

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