The first day of the Dhaka Lit Fest started with an unromantic drizzle. It must have had some effects on Jesse Ball and Catherine Lacey, two of Granta’s list of best young American novelists, who came for the first time to Bangladesh. Jesse Ball has written 17 books, including his bestsellers: Samedi the Deafness, The Way Through Doors, Silence Once Begun and A Cure for Suicide. Catherine Lacey is the author of The Answers and Nobody Is Ever Missing; she won a 2016 Whiting Award and has been translated into five languages. I saw them standing silently by the pond at Bangla Academy premises. A breeze stirred the leaves and sent ripples on the pond water. As I approached them, both smiled at me warmly. Jesse Ball is tall and he wore a black half-sleeve shirt, his hair trimmed short. There were a lot of tattoos on his hands, of mostly bees but also of other insects. Catherine Lacey had tattoos too on both hands -- a paperclip on the left and phases of moon on the right. She looked enthused with her hair bobbed shortly in layers. As I informed Ball that I would like to interview him, he agreed outright. Then I thought it would be great if I asked Catherine, too, to come along. When asked, she stood with arms akimbo and smiled once again and agreed to join us. It was wonderful to have found them for a joint interview.
Mir Arif: Ball, you write in the absurdist tradition, which was one of the popular literary and philosophical movements in the twentieth century led by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Why this predilection for absurdism?
Jesse Ball: I think it’s a logical response to modern time. You wake up in the morning and go out into the world and nothing makes any sense. And you see all these people who try to pretend that things make sense one way or the other. It’s so obvious: It’s all just absurd. So, when it’s your turn to write something, of course you’re going to write absurdly because you are pointing out that nothing makes sense.
MA: Catherine, your books deal with human relationship, such as love, marriage and separation. They are also about women pursuing their dreams in a tough world. Do you find yourself genre-specific while writing?
Catherine Lacey: Not really. A lot of female writers get sort of lumped together writing about female experience simply because they portray female characters. I don’t think that’s always very accurate. We can’t see a female character as a female character. There is still this fixed reaction to women writing or making anything about anything. But when I step back and look at my work, I don’t think I really write caring much about female experience. That’s not worth writing about and it’s not my concern.
MA: Ball, a lot of your novels are set in imaginary cities. In fact, you literally name cities after letters: X, Y, Z etc. What is the reason for this anonymity?
JB: Well, I think in the realistic tradition we say: I am going to write about something, or to be specific, let’s say: I am going to write a novel about Dhaka. You can’t write a novel about this city because no novel will specifically be about it. As soon as you try to write something about it, things change and become something else, and it isn’t the actual thing. So, if that’s true, if you actually can’t risk writing something that’s not true, maybe it’s better to create imaginary things. I mean that’s that.
MA: Catherine, we talk about writer’s block more than reader’s block. Have you ever gone through reader’s block?
CL: I often have reader’s block. A lot really.
MA: What do you do then?
CL: I tend to think about it and what will help me read. And if it is just for reading novel after novel, I switch to play or poetry or other texts. Ultimately, if I think I am supposed to read some texts or authors because they write sort of cultural badge, or for oh yes, I have read this and that, very talked-about author, I am not often in this game. Reading for reason other than the excitement in the text generally backfires.
MA: Ball, do you believe in a fixed time for writing?
JB: No, I don’t. I rarely write. Most of the time I just think.
MA: Your novel, Samedi the Deafness, was written in eight days. I was reading one of your interviews where you said that you didn’t edit it; it was published as it was when you had written it. Is this because you want your readers to go through the process and the truth you have been through while writing?
JB: Yes, that’s it. If the book is an attempt to demonstrate the philosophy of how you write it, in a sense you don’t want to try to make it polished and perfect because that presents a false and something else that’s not true, whereas you can just present who you actually are entirely to the readers. That’s a kind of honesty from an author’s perspective.
MA: Catherine, do you believe in the notion of a fixed time for writing?
CL: I am very different from Jesse in that. I write every morning because I don’t often know what I want to be working on. I just like having a ritual of writing. And I edit ferociously. I change lots of things.
MA: George Orwell wrote in an essay, “Writers write out of sheer egoism”. Ball, do you think it’s egoism or it’s a process through which writers connect themselves with the world?
JB: For me, it’s certainly not egotistical impulse to write. I am interested in demonstrating the internal world more than the external one. For as to read is the opposite, you read someone else. But in a sense our actions are egotistical actions, and we are trying escape the “I”. And we can also say there are more writers who are egotistical than others.
MA: Catherine, can you remember the first book you read in your childhood?
CL: The Bible.
JB: She is from the South.
CL: Yeah. I read too much Bible as a child. But I read a lot of other books, and mentioning one or a few would not be enough. They created a whole world for me in my childhood.
MA: Ball, which fictional literary character has made the most lasting impression on you in your childhood?
JB: Alice in Wonderland. That was terrific.
MA: Book festivals are enjoying a boom these days. Catherine, do you think they are important for writers to connect with different parts of the world?
CL: Yeah, absolutely. Any kind of festival is very important for writers. People are disposed to learn about each other and get to know things. I find them really resourceful.
MA: Ball, how do you get your inspiration for writing?
JB: The world is just inherently fascinating. Everything is fascinating. So, it doesn’t need to be so much on one thing you can write about. You can write about anything. I find everything very fascinating and inspiring. They are all equally fascinating.
MA: Catherine, how do you put your emotions into your writing?
CL: I don’t know how not to. I find it coming out spontaneously.
MA: Are you on Twitter? Do you tweet regularly?
CL: I have stopped using it. I don’t really use it.
JB: I post some drawings. I am not frequent there really.
MA: Ball, you once said you wanted to get rid of smart phones. Why?
JB: I think I am busy all the time. Smart phones make me even busier. It seems you get to use it to interact with the world but really it’s like a button that buzzes and you have to respond to that because someone is always calling you. So, I would rather not use it.