Josh Weston’s piece “The Balloon” appears in Midwestern Gothic‘s Summer 2018 issue, out now.
What is your connection to the Midwest, and how has the region influenced your writing?
I grew up in apple country, the village of Kent City, MI, and I still live nearby in Grand Rapids. My voices are West Michigan voices. My metaphors, images, and stories tend to be autobiographical, quotidian, Midwestern by default. That also seems really Midwestern: To take the maxum write what you know to heart in the most pragmatic way possible. I hope I don’t “represent where I’m from” in a way that’s exploitative, but it is true that the more I embrace the where-I’m-from-ness in whatever it is I’m working on, the more interesting I tend to find it. I was joking around with some coworkers at the bookstore I used to work at once and my friend Quinn told me my Kent City was showing. He meant I was being crude, trashy. I like crude and trashy, also workaday and blindered-by-ignorance-and-economic-desperation. But then I’d better.
What do you think is the most compelling aspect of the Midwest?
“The Midwest” carries exclusively negative connotations. The Midwest is a flyover place, provincial at best, and at worst utterly god-forsaken. “Heartland,” “salt of the earth,” “Pure Michigan.” Only dupes and politicians and Ford Truck commercials use this kind of language to describe the Midwest. We know what they mean. We don’t not have love for the place we live. We just also know they’re trying to sell us something that isn’t there, or if it is, is only to the extent that it isn’t packaged and sold. There’s a pervasive embarrassed anxiety among Midwesterners, even among the upwardly mobile and those who aren’t afraid to say they love where they live — which is almost everyone I know — that they live in a cultural backwater. I pick up on it almost every time someone tells me the story of how they came to live here in Grand Rapids, or the story of why it is they still live in Kent City. And they’re talking to me. One of them. (Well, I did “make it out” of Kent City, but it’s not as if it’s THAT hard to chose to live twenty miles to the south (though in my heart I think it really, really is), and it’s not as if Kent City’s a bad place to live.) I hear it when I tell my own story too. To live here is a failure. We know that that’s bullshit and a totally unhealthy way of looking at ourselves and our neighbors and the world. And yet.
How do your experiences or memories of specific places — such as where you grew up, or a place you’ve visited and can’t get out of your head — play a role in your writing?
I write narratively and autobiographically pretty much all the time. I like it when something that happened seems to burble up out of my subconscious and present itself as able to fit a given need. I like it because it feels easy. I don’t have to invent anything, just describe. It’s fun. Using autobiographical things, messing with them — that’s fun. The parts I have the most fun with are always the parts my friends who read my stuff respond to. When it works the autobiographical seems to energize the writing somehow. Although when that’s the pattern the temptation is to write multi-volume hyper-autobiographical fiction a la Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Discuss your writing process — inspirations, ideal environments, how you deal with writer’s block.
I’m a stay-at-home dad. Which is great. I hate jobs. Plus it allows me to have a more realistically stick-to-able writing routine than I could have when I had to spend however many hours a day drilling holes, or selling vegetables, or shelving books, or carrying drywall. My son is in school full time but my daughter’s still just half day. I write in the morning, after we drop my son off. I get my coffee and go into my office or into the three seasons room if the weather is okay. Ideally, my daughter doesn’t come try to interact with me too much. I write a lot when everyone’s asleep, too, but I have a harder time using that time intentionally because I’m tired and lazy. At night I tend to work on new, more poem-like things — when, that is, the NBA Finals aren’t on and I’m not binge-watching Jessica Jones.
I had writer’s block until about a month after I turned thirty-one. If my own case is anything to go on, writer’s block is caused by not being conscious of the degree to which you’re trying to pander to an imagined audience’s expectations, which is both caused by and leads to toxic self-consciousness. I still do it, but I do what I want the rest of the time.
How can you tell when a piece of writing is finished?
I don’t think I can very well yet. I want to share, share, share right away like some gossipy, stoned town crier. Luckily though, sharing or submitting something doesn’t mean I’ll stop working on it if it keeps nagging me. The moment I got the email that “The Balloon” had been accepted, for example, I opened the document and destroyed it. I’d worked on that for a year. Maybe something is finished when I spend over ten minutes clicking undo. Sometimes it’s probably helpful to be pragmatic, to realize that (to quote Mark Kozelek quoting Tupac) “We don’t have the motherfucking luxury to spend this much motherfucking time on this one motherfucking song.” Sometimes a thing isn’t as good as it could be, or as it ought to be, but it’s good enough for what it can reasonably be expected to achieve. I’ve gotten to that point with some poems and short stories, anyway. Though it’s also true that I have a flash fiction piece I spent over a year on before I realized I would never be able to get it to work until it became the first scene in a novel I have yet to start drafting.
Who is your favorite writer (fiction writer or poet) and what draws you to their work?
Though I’ve only read volumes one and two of My Struggle, and though I read them a year apart and haven’t even tried to articulate why I find them so moving, lately I can’t stop thinking about Karl Ove Knausgaard. It’d be easier to talk about Anne Carson or Marilynne Robinson, or David Mitchell, or J.M. Coetzee. Okay, but now that I look at these names (and consider the others I could name) here’s what they have in common: They’re the authors I feel like I know. Not in a biographical sense. And not in the sense that I’ve read them more than I’ve read other authors, necessarily, or that I’ve read them with any particular rigor. What I mean is: When I read these writers it feels like I’m picking up on who they are, like my brain is uploading the complex patterns that constitute their respective consciousnesses, as encoded in and by their works. So it’s as if my own consciousness gets augmented by what feels like the very high fidelity presence of theirs. I get them. They get me. I don’t know. I’ve sobbed reading Knausgaard with cosmic gratitude beaming from my heart because I felt, in that moment of seeing or understanding Knausgaard, profoundly seen and understood myself. How is he able to create the conditions for that kind of exchange when he (infamously) writes almost exclusively about his own (mere, privileged, thoroughly unremarkable) life? It’s a good question. I think he’s following his instincts as hard as he can.
What’s next for you?
Finishing the first draft of my half-Knausgaardian first novel.
Where can we find more information about you?
If you google me the first several things you’ll encounter will be about Josh Weston the deceased porn star. I’m interested in his life and plan to write about him someday, so I think he’s worth reading about. His mom’s obituary for him alone is worth the five seconds it takes to find on Wikipedia. I don’t have a website or anything. I’m on Facebook. My current profile pic is of a human skeleton half-covered by a boulder that came hurtling from the earth as a piece of pyroclast near Pompeii Italy in A.D. 79. The skeleton was someone who’d survived the initial eruption and was trying to make his way to safety on a bum leg when behind him he heard a low whooshing. It could change by the time you read this, but feel free to friend me. It’s 7/10ths pictures of my kids, 1/5th horrible news, and 1/5th literary things. On Twitter I’m @rewordlander.