Ideas of Light and Dark: An Interview with Josh Weil

by Brandon Dudley & Josh Weil

Josh Weil’s first novel, The Great Glass Sea, is a complex vision of an alternate Russia, one in which darkness has been banished by light-reflecting satellites, where the seasons never change under the massive greenhouses that encase the countryside, and where art, leisure and nature have fallen victim to the trappings of progress.

The novel, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, shortlisted for the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and winner of the Grub Street National Book Prize, is the story of Dima and Yarik, twin brothers with an uncommonly close bond. As children, they cling to each other as they learn to navigate the harsh world around them. As adults, though, the pressures and responsibilities of life begin to pull them apart—Yarik becomes the face of the new economic regime and Dima the face of the opposition.

The emotional heart of the novel is the brothers’ effort to maintain their bond as they adjust to their new places in the world; they must learn how to continue to love each other even as they change. Weil’s skillful and imaginative rendering of the brothers’ struggle is as clear and reflective as the mirrors that light the countryside—in them we can see ourselves grasping, trying to hold tight the ones we love as we grow and change. Like Dima and Yarik, we too must continually adapt, continually re-orient ourselves as we make our way into these brave new worlds.

The Great Glass Sea gives the reader a path to follow, though, a perpetual light to beat back the darkness of the world. In Dima and Yarik, the novel reminds us that the best we can do, all we’ve ever truly had the power to do, is love unconditionally.

BRANDON DUDLEY. At one point in the novel, Dima, one of the two brothers, asks “Why thesewords? Why this story?” I’m curious about what your answer would be to those questions. What was it that compelled you to write this story?

JOSH WEIL. I think this is the best opening interview question I’ve ever been asked because it’s exactly what a writer should ask him or herself at the start, before embarking on a novel because a novel will eat up all that writer’s creative energy—hell, all her energy, period—for years. This one certainly did consume all of mine. But I wrote it for the only reason that anyone should write a novel, I think: I had to. I couldn’t get away from it. I tried. Five or six years ago, when I wrote the first few paragraphs (fairly close to what’s there now) I realized what I was getting into—a fable-inspired novel set in an alternate Russia and told solely through the perspective of Russian characters—and got scared. I set it aside, tried to write two other novels, failed. And wound up, in a moment of desperation, having spent half a year struggling with other stories, coming back to the one that hadn’t ever quite left my mind, the one I couldn’t shake. Why was it buried so deep in me? Well, some of it is my relationship to Russia, my history with that place, and some of it the way the characters, over all that time, had begun to take life in the far reaches of my imagination, almost despite myself—but, at heart, it was the brothers. I’m extremely close with my brother, and grew up with him the most important person in my world, and for a while we were that for each other. Then life changed, as it will, and we had to figure out how to change with it. It was so important to me not to lose the bond I have with my brother, to find a way to adapt—and it was to him, too. So a story about brothers who are facing the same issue, but intensified by pressures far beyond anything my brother and I faced, was tapping into a concern at my core.

DUDLEY. The idea of Russia launching light-reflecting space mirrors appeared in your short story “Mirza,” published in Narrative back in 2007. That story is very different than The Great Glass Sea, but what was it about the space mirror idea that drew you back and made you want to make it the centerpiece of a novel?

WEIL. You’re absolutely right: that was the first place that I wrote about the space mirrors. But I found myself returning to the idea—first in another short story, The First Bad Thing (published a couple years later in American Short Fiction), then in a wider-ranging way in a number of stories and novellas all of which deal, broadly, with the idea of light and dark and the attempt to diminish one with the other. It was simply such fertile territory, both for metaphor and for mise-en-scene, for description and interesting ways to crack the worlds of my characters and force dramatic tension upon them. So I wound up working on a story collection (which is nearly, finally, done) and The Great Glass Sea was, originally, going to be a story in that collection. Then, as I got deeper into it, I thought it would be a novella. Of course, it wound up a novel, and not a short one. And there’s a third book now, also tied to this same theme, that’s a novella collection. So I guess the space mirrors sparked a larger interest in illumination and darkness that has wound up becoming what will eventually be a sort of trilogy.

DUDLEY. I once heard the Irish writer Mike McCormack speak about recurring themes in a writer’s work, which he described as a gravity in the writer’s pen that repeatedly leads them in certain directions. What gravity do you think is in your pen; what themes do you feel you keep coming back to in your work?

WEIL. That’s a wonderful way to put it—the gravity in a writer’s pen. As different as my two books seem on the surface, I do think there’s a lot that links them, and it’s exactly that gravity. I seem to be drawn to write about characters who don’t fit into the worlds in which they find themselves living. I keep coming back to the loss of loved ones, the struggle to either keep that loss at bay or salve the wound that it can cause.

DUDLEY. You said in another interview that this book was inspired in part by your love for your brother, and the book is dedicated to him. At many points in the novel, the story of the two brothers has the feel of a fable, a form which typically has a lesson to teach the reader. Does the novel have any special lessons for your brother? Is there anything you’re hoping the readers, especially readers with brothers, will come away from the story having learned?

WEIL. Well, inspired by and dedicated to is so very different from being about. The book is redolent of fables, but it’s not quite a fable. The book springs from my love for my brother, but it’s not about him. I never thought of it, and still don’t, as something from which he might learn anything. I hope that he might read passages and recognize some of the emotions in them. I trust that he will read others and recognize them as stepping far away from our actual relationship. More than anything, I hope that he gets swept up in the story, in the characters, the book itself, a world of its own. That’s what I wish for anyone, whether they have a sibling or not. But I do think that a reader who has a sibling—or really anyone who has a loving relationship that has had to grow over time—might bring a particular emotional rawness to parts of the story. And it’s that that I’d hope to touch. A lesson? If there’s one in there, at least one meant for siblings, it’s probably simply a defense of the special nature of a sibling relationship, a reminder that it can be as strong, in its way—and, perhaps, as rewarding and as worthy of attention—as any other kind of love. As far as a larger lesson meant for a more general reader (the kind of thing that might be present in a fable), the closest I can think of is a call to pay attention to the pressures of contemporary capitalism, to some of the ways that it skews our focus in life. Again, not a simple lesson (because it’s not a fable) but a muddy mucking around in an idea that I hope will cause the reader to think harder and longer about it after the book is closed.

DUDLEY. There are many dualities in the novel, but two that stood out to me were art vs. science, and quality of life vs. social progress. In the novel there was a great deal of friction between the separate sides, and I wondered if maybe you could comment on what you hoped to illustrate with those conflicts.

WEIL. It’s more how those conflicts speak to me, what they created, dramatically, for the story. Personally, I find that much of where modern life pushes us—the constant intrusion of work in the form of email and the internet, the ceaseless plugging-in, the fetishization of productivity, the ever expanding world of gadgets and gizmos that become, with each year, newly ‘necessary’—directs my life in a way that is less fulfilling and peaceful than when I pare down to a more simple way of living. The happiest I’ve ever been is writing day after day alone in a cabin eating rice and beans or cans of soup, unplugged from most of the world, talking by phone to the few people I truly love, living a fairly hermetic life far removed from the usual bustle. So that concern speaks to me. But what makes it central to the story—what makes it part of the story, instead of just a thematic overlay (which I wouldn’t want to dominate a novel)—is that the pressures that come with modern life are the very things that split the brothers apart. If one of them (Dima) doesn’t push against those pressures, there’s no story. So it’s less illustrating something than using a concern I have to create the underpinnings of the dramatic tension in the novel.

DUDLEY. The novel is set in Russia, where you spent time as a teenager. What took you to Russia back then, and how do you feel that influenced your writing this novel all these years later?

WEIL. I studied Russian language and culture, intensively, from age twelve to eighteen, all throughout middle school and high school. And when I was fourteen I went to the Soviet Union (the last year before it crumbled) as an exchange student, living with a host family in small city in the country’s far north. That’s an age when you’re just figuring out who you are, when you’re growing into who you will be, and the experience was hugely important to me. The world I saw there was so different from the one back home and, when I got home, it didn’t leave me; it lodged inside me. By the time I wrote the novel, so much time had gone by that my memories were nearly fables themselves. And it was from that place—a place of memory and imagination—that the story came.

DUDLEY. You traveled to Russia again while writing the novel. How had Russia changed in the time since you’d last been there?

WEIL. Oh, tremendously. It was more changed than any place I’ve ever been to before or since. Where there once were tea-rooms there were Starbucks-style coffee shops in Moscow. A city that had once seemed so gray and serious and head-down-dogged now seemed, in many ways, gilded, and bright, and almost bubbly, frivolous and light as champagne, and almost drunk on itself. Where once there were no advertisements at all, now there were banners and billboards everywhere. In St. Petersburg, even the canals seemed less beautiful to me—maybe in part because of my own romanticization of the first time I’d seen them in my youth, but also because the painted plaster of the walls lining them was outshone now by gaudy bright banners advertising all sorts of goods and sales. The visual world, in other words, was very different. And the pressures on peoples lives were very different: people spoke to me of having more, and being able to choose more, but also of having less of a safety net, of feeling like they had to constantly scramble just to make ends meet, of no longer having time for family and friends, that kind of thing. But some things were very much the same—the Russianness of the people, of course, things like the dramatic and dark sensibility, the small ways of doing things that make a culture a culture (the way people make tea, or treat each other when lining up at a ticket window). I think in many ways the Russians still hadn’t shaken ways of relating to the world that were deeply ingrained by 70 years of the communist state. And, although some of those things made traveling and talking with stranger difficult (there is, I found, an unwillingness to help a stranger that, I think, comes from the need to keep your nose out of other people’s business in Soviet times), I found most of that deeply reassuring—that the place was still a very different world from the one I knew back home in America.

DUDLEY. What sort of research was involved in writing about the scientific elements of the novel? Did you feel like you had to be absolutely faithful to the science behind the space mirrors and the glass sea, or did you feel like you were able to tweak the science in service of the story?

WEIL. Oh, the science was always in service of the story. Everything is in service of the story. And the story springs from the characters’ wounds and needs. Which is why I never thought of the novel as science fiction—and still am surprised when other people (mistaken, I think) do. Still, like any research (the same as that which I did into tractor repair or the raising of beef cattle for my first book) it’s important to get it right enough that the believability of the world isn’t broken for the reader. Right enough that even a reader smarter about this stuff than I am won’t be taken out of the spell of the book by some slip-up that I make. That’s the most important concern. And then, of course, there’s the way that research can open up new ideas for the story, reveal new channels—which is fun (though dangerous, since it can lead a writer astray). I got to those places, and to that level of accuracy with the science, through some reading—I was lucky enough to be teaching at different universities and so had access to their libraries—but mostly through asking questions of people who really know their fields. It’s amazing how generous people are with their expertise, and their time. There’s a pretty hefty list of botanists and biologists and physicists and whatnot in the acknowledgements.

DUDLEY. At one point in the novel, you write “And no matter how good you make a lie, if it’s not how the world works people won’t believe it.” When I read that line it reminded me of Karen Russell’s essay “Engineering Impossible Architectures,” where she writes: “No matter how foreign or strange your imaginary world may initially appear, if your characters move through it in ways that feel “realistic”—if your characters’ speech and behavior and moods and terrors ring true to what we know about their personalities and basic human nature—then your readers are far more likely to accept the place on its own terms.”

The world you created was very complex, very fantastic, but very believable at the same time. I wondered, now that you’ve written a novel centered around building an “impossible architecture,” if you had any advice for other writers trying to pull off that feat?

WEIL. I think Karen Russell’s advice is spot on and the most important to keep in mind when writing worlds far from your own. I might add this: push beyond your first impulse. When having to imagine whole cloth we tend to step back into generalities or the expected when, really, it’s an opportunity for us to create specifics that are even less expected. So look hard at first impulses in description or the action a character takes, or anything, really and see if there’s a hint of a place more surprising, a way in that’s even more specific to this strange world. I’d also say be fearless: if you ground what you make up in the kind of thing that Russell is talking about then, most of the time, you’ll get away with it. So don’t be afraid to push into territory that feels unsafe. And finally: specifics, specifics, specifics. If your reader can truly see, taste, feel, the world you’re writing, he or she will believe in it.

DUDLEY. Not only did you write the novel, but you actually drew the images on the endpapers and the banners at the beginning of each chapter. They’re all very cleverly drawn, and one fun experience reading the book was seeing how the images echoed the events of each chapter. What was the process like for you creating those images? Was there a lot of trial and error and revision or did the images come to you easily?

WEIL. Mostly it was a joy to be able to bring another side of myself to the novel and to be able to experience the creation of the book in another way— a way that, I hope, adds another dimension of pleasure and interest to the reader’s experience. But it was also a lot of work. I didn’t want to do the drawings until we had a final edit (because I needed to know what elements in each chapter would make their way into the illustrations) so I was working on a pretty tight deadline once I started the artwork. That meant I pretty much did nothing but draw, ten hours a day, for about six weeks. It was an intense time. And I was trying to incorporate some of another artist’s style into my work—Ivan Bilibin’s, whose illustrations, for me, are inseparable from Russian fables—so that meant referring to his work, as well. I’d sketch the drawings first (often this took the longest time—coming up with rough ideas and seeing what would work), then do a detailed drawing, then ink it in. Because I’m not a professional (and so didn’t know some of the tricks of the trade) this was the tensest part, because any slip-up with the ink would mean I had start all over again.

DUDLEY. Though this is your first published novel, you have written others that were not published. What did you learn from those experiences that helped you with this novel?

WEIL. There were some lessons—make sure the concerns of the story are complex and deep enough that the require a novel (and couldn’t be addressed in a shorter form); don’t be afraid of dramatic scenes, of action driving story; get the sentences as tight as possible, then tighten again, and again, and again; make the big, painful revisions, even when going back in makes you want to puke from exhaustion—but, honestly, I just matured as a writer and a person. I read more stuff. I got to a point where what I had to say warranted the space (I hope) and was matched by an ability with craft that made the saying of it worth reading (again, I hope). It’s that confluence that’s hard to find, to wait for, to push for: in my earlier writing I think that I was writing well enough, craft-wise, to write a good book. But I wasn’t, well, wise enough to match that ability with maturity. Or I was making mistakes that were too big to fix in later drafts. I still make them, of course. I made mistakes with this book. And always will, I’m sure. But you hope to get to a point where the mistakes don’t swamp what’s working, and where what’s working is closer and closer to the heart of what matters.

DUDLEY. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received, or, alternately, what’s the best advice you feel you can give writers just starting out?

WEIL. Write what you have to write, what you can’t get away from writing, what you feel so strongly about that you want to grapple with it even though it scares you. If what you’re writing doesn’t scare you a little—because it comes close to you, or pushes you, or touches a particularly fragile place…etc.—then you probably shouldn’t be writing it.

BRANDON DUDLEY is a second-year fiction candidate in the Sierra Nevada College MFA program. He is a former journalist and currently teaches high school English in Maine, where he lives with his wife and two sons.