Josh Weil: Weil World

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Hometown: Leverts, Mass.
Books: The New Valley [Grove Press 2009]
For Fans Of: Cormac McCarthy, Anthony Doerr, Denis Johnson, Toni Morrison

Josh Weil starts his day with requirements:
1. Rise to write before it’s light out.
2. Write until tapped out.
3. Go for a hike or go for a run, then go back in.

He meets these whether in a cabin he built with his father in rural Virginia, in a writer’s colony in the Appalachian Mountains or in Baltimore’s urban areas. Still, he can’t write just any way, any time.

“I need a big chuck of time,” he explains. “I like to have many hours ahead of me, mainly because once I start rolling I don’t like to stop.”

Born in Roanoke, Va., then quickly uprooted to Malawi at age three, Weil’s earliest memories go back to southwest Africa. By fourth grade, his parents divorced, and he moved with his mother to Massachusetts to finish out childhood on the outskirts of Amherst.

Weil learns by being a Jack-of-all-trades.

“I loved writing early on, but I was a painter and did a lot of photography,” he says. “Film was a way to try and combine the narrative art with the visual. It wasn’t until after I graduated Ohio University and had my thesis film on the festival circuit that I turned my attention to writing a novel.”

The New Valley put Weil on the literary map. Its three linked novellas set in the hill country of West Virginia and Virginia earned critical acclaim and comparisons with masters like Annie Proulx and Bobbie Ann Mason. He’s currently the John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at Ole Miss, the newest rising star to be part of that university’s notable creative writing program.

Here’s Weil on Weil:

Paste: How fictionalized are your characters?
Weil: I pull some details from observations but I think of them as entirely fictionalized. By the time they’re feeling real, they’re entirely fictionalized.

Paste: Do you feel that gives you more freedom to just create?
Weil: Definitely. I’ve tried my hand a few times with personal essays. That is always uncomfortable. Dealing with characters that are real, writing non-fiction, gets frustrating. I think, “Man, it would be better this way … but dammit life didn’t go that way …”

Paste: When did it dawn on you that you’d be a writer? That this would be your career?
Weil: It still doesn’t necessarily feel like this is my career. It still feels like I’m trying to get it to be my career, although I think I knew I loved writing by the time I was in high school. I wrote my first book at around 16—a western with gunslinging, 300-plus pages.

Paste: You’re well-traveled. You lived in Africa as a child, lived in Russia with a host family when you were 14. You’re taking a trip late this summer to Mongolia. What’s in Mongolia?
Weil: I’ll tell you when I get back. There is something about Mongolia. I’ve always wanted to go there. The nomadic culture and the wide-open sweeping landscapes feel like something that would speak to me. It’s the least populated country on Earth, which also appeals to me.

Paste: Do you have innate themes that come to you?
Weil: In the past, I’ve tried to ignore or pretend I didn’t have themes I write about. That’s gotten harder as it has become clear that there are things I write about: isolation, what drives people away from society, what kind of people fit into a greater community and why. I tend to write from the idea of a great wound that exists in somebody, and the idea of grappling with that wound.

Paste: What’s on the horizon?
Weil: I’m working on the edits of the next novel [The Great Glass Sea, Grove/Atlantic winter 2013/2014]. After that is a collection of stories [The Age of Perpetual Light] linked to the novel. I’ve got a couple more stories to write in that collection. Those are next.