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Where Dreams Lie: Inside the strange compelling worlds of Jesse Ball

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By Tom Lynchjesseball_014

Growing up in Long Island with a father in social service and a librarian mother, Jesse Ball was a hyperactive kid. He was held back in kindergarten as a result—yet, because he showed signs of budding intelligence, he was also enrolled with the gifted students in advanced classes. At one point, he would bounce between special education and elevated study at the same time, one class right after the other. He also liked to draw, vivid doodles of grotesque demons, with such frequency he was sent to see a psychoanalyst. When he was 5, he mailed some drawings to the Queen of England. In response, her Lady in Waiting wrote, “The Queen has asked me to write to tell you she liked your drawing very much…”

Such a colorfully ironic childhood is that of fiction, it’s no wonder Ball grew up to be a writer, though the man himself contends that when he was young the first thing he wanted to be was a garbage man, because, as he puts it, “They get to ride in the back of the truck.” Second was writer.

The author, poet and artist—yes, he still draws—has already published an exceptional amount of work, not to mention the amount of work he’s completed that’s still awaiting publication. In 2004, Grove Press published his poetry collection “March Book,” to launch an already impressive, multi-faceted career, which includes other poetry collections, several published pieces in a variety of journals and magazines, an inclusion in the 2006 edition of the “Best American Poetry” series, illustrations to accompany a book of verse penned by his wife, a story titled “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp, and Carr,” which won him the Plimpton Prize last year, and two novels, 2007’s well-regarded debut, “Samedi the Deafness,” and his new novel, this month’s “The Way Through Doors,” out on Vintage Books.

He is 30 years old.

“I guess I always felt like I was in a hurry,” Ball says, sitting in the Alliance Bakery rec room, donning an orange hoodie. His face is covered with a scraggly, unkempt beard of sorts—when I found him, waiting for me to arrive outside, he was leaning against a bike rack staring cautiously onto Division Street. He looked like a guy who could create with spontaneity, to both an alarmingly brilliant and jealously annoying degree. “But it’s funny because the actual amount of work that’s been published is a very small fraction of the manuscripts that I have that are just waiting to be published. The thing that actually bothers me the most is that the work that I have published is not necessarily representative at all of the overall work I’m trying to do, and so, I’m waiting for more things to be published, when the more representative picture will emerge.”

His father was “sort of a historian,” Ball says, and he grew up surrounded by history books and classic literature. At a young age he took to books about dogs, despite never having the breed of pet himself. “The great tragedy of my life,” he quips. As a teen it became clear that writing was his calling.

“Being a writer is a good thing,” Ball says, “because you just get to be more of whatever you are to begin with, rather than having to become something else.”

He went to Vassar, where he started binding his own work and handing it out himself, and then Columbia University for his MFA. Since then, his writing has taken him around the globe—Ball’s spent extended time in France, Spain, Scotland (where he wrote “Samedi the Deafness,” while holed up in a castle) and Iceland, where he met his wife, the poet and author Thordis Bjornsdottir. He was eventually offered a teaching position at the School of the Art Institute, and he, his wife and his 9-year-old stepdaughter live in Wicker Park, just down the street from Alliance.

“A lot of good writing is motivated by guilt, being forced to write,” he says. He speaks with a cautious whisper, not in a rehearsed sort of way, but indicative of a person who chooses his words very carefully. “My disposition…I like to spend a lot of time alone, in little dens of various kinds, that gives itself to producing a lot of work. Being published is less important to me than making the work in the first place. When I started making manuscripts into books when I was in college, giving them to other people, that was a turning point for me. I was as much of a writer then as I was ever going to be.”

Ball’s fiction rests in a treacherous territory. “Samedi the Deafness,” his introduction, is essentially a novel about the nature of lying and features characters who spin falsehoods, inviting you, as a reader, to decipher truths from fabrications. Much of it is even set in an asylum for chronic liars. “The Way Through Doors,” which Ball actually wrote before “Samedi,” in the summer of 2005 while he was living in France, is about a municipal inspector who witnesses a young, beautiful woman get struck by a car, takes her to the hospital and poses as her boyfriend. She’s lost her memory—the doctor trusts her in the liar’s hands, and he’s instructed to keep her awake for an entire day. To pass the time and to, in a way, help her regain her memory, he tells her fantastic and lavish stories, in hopes she’ll attach to one of them.

But despite creating a dreamlike atmosphere that embraces the surreal with the aplomb of Kafka or, even more so, a kinder-hearted David Lynch (did I mention “The Way Through Doors” is line-numbered, as if it were “The Iliad”?), Ball’s elegant prose features a curious brand of humor, a well-intentioned ambition, a genuine hopefulness that’s somewhat veiled by the daring structure and presentation. He’s not messing with your head, he’s quick to point out. Part of the reason “The Way Through Doors” was held back from publication was to have the public get a look at “Samedi” first and develop a sort of trust in Ball.

“This one’s structure is more strange or difficult,” he says. “As it turns out, I think it’s easy to read, or clear, but if you go into it having read ‘Samedi’ already, [you] would be prepared to give me the authority to say all the weird stuff that he’s doing, that it’ll make sense eventually. ‘I trust him, because in the other book, things worked out.’ And then they go through this one and go through the whole thing and it works out and they’re happy. Because I’m not messing around with anyone, yet that’s not necessarily clear in the first fifteen pages or something.”

Just don’t call it experimental. That’s not a tag many writers are anxious to adopt, seeing as it would surely cut their work off from a large readership that’s uninterested in that sort of challenge. Life is hard enough, after all.

“The object is not at all to be experimental or wild or new. I’m not interested in any of that,” Ball says. “I just want to be telling stories in a very stark way, where all the objects and characters are weighted perfectly and given justice within the narrative.”

Regardless, a running theme presents itself—his characters deceive, all with separate intentions, some good, some bad, some indifferent. Ball’s fascination with lying started at a young age—at one point he even crafted his own guidebook for the art of deception—and the first class he taught at SAIC was a course, you guessed it, on lying. His students’ classwork required deceiving loved ones and co-workers. “They were grateful when it was over,” he laughs. “My courses always interfere with people’s lives.” Other classes he’s taught have focused on lucid dreaming and creating false identities. He insists, however, that he doesn’t allow himself to lie very much at all.

“It’s sort of the unacknowledged excellence of human beings,” he says of the nature of lying. “The ability to deceive, or act as though we’re deceiving, when in fact we’re communicating because the deception is understood by both parties. And there’s a million different ways of combining those different things. But then there’s this moral code, where dishonesty is bad and honesty is good, and it’s obviously more complicated than that.”

And as far as that translates to his work, he says, “My intentions are good. If a person decides to try and remember everything [in the book], to keep track, they will be rewarded. I’m not messing around with anyone.”

Good liars must possess exceptional memories for many reasons, most notably to keep their fabrications in order and to remember what they’ve told who and in what context. Ball asks the same of his readers, to remember what information has been presented, and in what way, and, probably most importantly, by what character.

“I’m even more fascinated with memory,” Ball says. “I think, being human, it’s difficult not to be fascinated with memory. One of my favorite books is ‘Remembrance of Things Past.’ It had a huge influence on me, and actually, people think this is funny, I think it’s an economical book. It’s gigantic and sweeping, with sentences that can go on for pages, but in order to attain what he attains, which is a very clear depiction of memory, you can’t really do it in less space. He’s being economical. Like, if you want to build a road from here to China, there’s not a way to make it be a short road. It can be very economical, and done in the shortest time with the smallest amount of materials, but it’s not going to be short.”

Ball writes very quickly—he finished both of his published novels in separate three-week periods—and does very little revision at the end. Considering the subject matter and the highly stylized nature of his characters, it’s a wonder even he can keep it all straight, let alone write from beginning to end with rapid speed and have the pieces come together as they do.

“Mainly it’s just the first draft,” he says of “The Way Through Doors.” “I can’t emphasize enough, or any more, how I think that if someone goes over something over and over, then there are just so many different intersecting lines and crossing lines of thought from all the times they’ve done things with different intentions. If you go through it once with the same intention, it’s easier for the reader to follow though.”

Sort of like creating a path for the reader. “What I want is to [write] the whole thing properly the first time through; that’s the way it’s gonna be clearest for someone else,” he says. “The path that I flow through it, imagining it, when it’s done, it’s unbroken, so when the person comes who’s gonna read it, they can follow the same way through. So I like to write from beginning to end basically without stopping.”

Ball’s body of work may not necessarily indicate his actual disposition, but even from just one sitting with him, he appears to be a nice, gentle guy. He’s received a heaping amount of praise early on in a career that’s apparently going to generate a staggering amount of work—he says he has four more novels already written, plus a large book of poems.

“I think I have a good attitude about the whole thing,” he says. “Ideally I would like to be in a cabin somewhere with my wife and stepdaughter. I don’t like to be around people very much. Ultimately the thing I was surprised about in terms of writing is how ninety-five percent of the pleasure that comes from being a writer is in the process itself.”

Yet he’s adamant that he’ll be more comfortable, that the great picture of what he’s trying to accomplish, once more of his work gets out to the public. With so much material already in the can, the patience it must take, internally, must be excruciating.

“The patience is the hardest part,” he says. “In the end, it’s enforced by necessity. Whatever a person might want, nonetheless, they still have to wait.”

Jesse Ball discusses “The Way Through Doors” February 26 at Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln, (773)293-2665, at 7pm.

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