Interview with Ross Simonini

by Patrick Font

Photo by Justin N. Lane

An interview with Ross Simonini about his debut novel, The Book of Formation (Melville House), which is out now. 


First off, I just want to say that I’m a fan of The Book of Formation and the interviews you edit over at The Believer. In particular, I love the Gordon Lish interview from back in January 2009, and how Lish is interviewed in letter-form. Although you didn’t conduct that particular interview, this premise of genre mixing is evident in The Book of Formation in the sense that it’s told in both prose and interviews. In what ways did your work as an interviews editor and as someone who regularly conducts interviews influence this approach taken in your novel? What else influenced the novel’s form?

Conversation is the majority of language around us all the time. So it’s a little surprising to me that more people don’t write books in dialogue. I mean, that’s the language we know best. It’s not like we walk around narrating our lives, like novels. We talk and hear other people talking, and that’s the work that words are doing for us in our lives.

So, for me, writing this way felt like a non-form. The Novel (!) on the other hand — that feels like a form, and a formal one. I’m always trying to read past traditional third person narrative, to forget that it’s a story written by an author, with words that I don’t hear in my daily life. I can’t help but see the writing.

Now, as someone who conducts and edits interviews near-constantly, I’m sure reading dialogue feels more natural to me than it does to others. But I do think all of us have to suppress our spoken language when we write. Even our texts and emails, which perhaps get closer to the pace of speaking — even these are distinct from our oral language.

So the book itself is organized as a kind of macro-dialogue between these two kinds of language: talking (the interviews) and writing (the introductions between the interviews). I did that because I wanted the reader to really feel this disparity between them. I wanted to show that when we speak and when we write, we are two different people.

We reveal so much about who we are, and where we are in life through the words we use.

The effect of having the novel told in interviews and prose is cool because one way of looking at it is that readers experience the story with two voices. However, given that Masha’s personality continues to change, or “turn” as it’s called in the novel, readers experience the novel with multiple voices since Masha’s voice is drastically different from one iteration to the next — the first being erratic and surreal, the last being the most persuasive and grandiose. What difficulties did you face in creating these different voices for Masha? What effect were you attempting to communicate?

Every few years I read The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and I always admire that book’s ability to show human development through language. It starts with baby-talk storytelling, when Stephen is a boy, and ends with an academic vocabulary, when Stephen is maturing as an intellectual. The Harry Potter series did this as well.

I wanted to make a similar gesture here, using a person’s spoken language as a way of revealing the changes to their personality. We reveal so much about who we are, and where we are in life through the words we use.

For me, a big part of this development was through culture. Even when I was young, and half-aware of whatever was happening in the world — I still think these events had a major effect on me, how I saw people, how I defined “the world.” I didn’t follow anything, really, but even that half-understanding got my imagination pretty riled up. In the book, I magnified this experience of culturing by starting with someone who is uncultured — a kind of wild child — because I wanted to draw the arc of a person moving from a state of what you could call “nature” to full societal immersion. What does culture do to language?

I approached this through a few different paths, but one of them was a study of colloquial modifiers (kind of, really, pretty) and what I describe in the book as “pillow words” (um, uh, well, like). These are the sort of linguistic signifiers that are usually sidestepped in writing, but I think you can tell a lot about a person, where they’re from, and where they are at in life, by the placement of their “um.”

Actually, since tuning into that aspect of language, it’s changed how I hear people speak. It’s like hearing the negative space.

With the book, I wanted to tell an alternate history of self-identification in which the self was as fluid as it appears to be online.

I admire the world you created through this idea of “Personality Movement,” that one can alter their personality to take on a truer, ideal personality, which is both creepy and interesting. This might be a stretch, but in many ways PM echoes the notion in popular culture that one can alter their persona through social-media platforms given that one can portray or manipulate one’s public image. Were you conscious of this parallel as you wrote the novel, or was this social critique not something you were attempting to convey?

We are certainly in a moment of identity fluidity in our culture, and it’s something I think about daily. We’ve always used age, skin color, class, schooling, gender, sexuality, etc. to define the human being in society, but all of these categories are becoming insufficient to describe the contemporary person. And yeah, I think the ways we use online avatars is an expression of that desire to escape these categories.

There used to be a thing called the “soul” that was at the root of all these other superficial descriptors, but science is slowly tearing that away, and leaving us with nothing to replace it.To that end, it seems like the post-human movement will bring all sorts of non-corporeal ways of self-identification.

With the book, I wanted to tell an alternate history of self-identification in which the self was as fluid as it appears to be online. I realize that people might be a little repulsed by some of the ideas I talk about, but the general philosophy I’m exploring isn’t radically different from the world we’re already living in. I just wanted to open up some new possibilities.

In the beginning of the novel, the protagonist appears to become sick around the time he attempts to write a profile on Mayah Isle. This sickness progresses as he interviews Masha throughout the novel, yet, even as his health deteriorates and doctors are unable to diagnose him, he seems oblivious to the fact that these encounters with Masha may be correlated. Did you make this choice in order for the protagonist to become vulnerable to Masha’s rhetoric?

Illness is the mind eraser. Any ideas you may have, any systems of faith or morality you live by — these can be torn down by suffering. When you feel truly awful, you simply want to feel better. You’ll do anything. You start believing, stop believing, kill someone, whatever. This is why religions praise martyrs who are able to hold faith through great pain, and why countries praise POWs who don’t relent to torture: because it’s a rare, near-impossible feat. These people, the ones who stick with their systems in the face of physical peril, these are what we call people of integrity.

But I don’t feel the same way. As I see it, if my principles are ruining my body, then perhaps my principles are wrong.

Principles are human creations, like a phone or a computer. The body and pain, are the stuff of nature. I am increasingly on the side of nature.

So, to me, illness and pain seem like nature telling me to question my current set of assumptions about the world. In general, if I’m ill, it means I’m probably working against the natural state of my body in some way. The body is not a system, regardless of what science says.

Sickness has forced me to reconsider fixed ways of living and to let go of old, calcified ideas. It’s transformative.

I’m always trying to read past traditional third person narrative, to forget that it’s a story written by an author, with words that I don’t hear in my daily life.

At some point in the novel something inside of me clicked and I began reading it through a cinematic lens — maybe because in some ways it reminded me of The Master. Would you ever allow the novel to be adapted into a movie? If so, who would you want to direct the movie version of your novel? Who would do the cinematography?

I’m certainly a lover of film, but I often find adaptations to be problematic. They’re too direct. They don’t adapt enough. They mimic.

My hope is that a director will truly adapt the book. Engage with it. Change it. The book may be cinematic, especially since its form resembles a screenplay, but it’s not cinema. It’s just words. So I’d rather someone just take the text as a starting point and create an utterly new piece of art inspired by it.

Of course, I’d love to see Paul Thomas Anderson (The Master) adapt it. He has made some wonderful films from adapted novels. I’d love to see Lynch destroy my book and rebuild it with his own perspective. Or Jonathan Glazer, who made Under the Skin, which is equally brilliant but radically different from the original novel. Or Jordan Peele, who’d bring the right humor to it. Or Sofia Coppola, who would understand the ideas around childhood and celebrity like no one else (see: Somewhere).

And that’s just the living directors. If death were not an obstacle: Tarktovsky, Kubrick, Wilder.

As for Cinematographers, I’d ask Adam Newport Berra. He has a wonderful eye and I’ve worked with him on some of my band’s music videos.

Walter Murch would be my sound editor.

In addition to writing and editing, you also make music and visual art, and executively produce The Organist. At what point in your life did you start earning a living making art? What advice do you have for aspiring artists who want to make a career out of their art, especially for those who dabble in multiple art forms?

I haven’t held many non-art jobs. I’m not suited for them. I don’t respect authority or hierarchy and I won’t allow a job to control where I put my body all day long.

And yeah, I don’t focus on a single discipline. That’s not my way. I’m a generalist, not a specialist, which, unfortunately, seems to be the popular mode of working these days. Personally, I think segregation of disciplines is silly. It’s all done for the sake of business and schooling, but it seems antithetical to human experience. I mean, everyone I know enjoys multiple art forms — food, music, film, fashion, reading — so why should it be unusual to work in multiple art forms? For me, specialization sounds like a prison. My primary interest is invention, not the acquisition of skills, and the best way for me to invent is to abandon any limitations around medium or genre or lineage and just work.

Of course, I realize most people don’t feel this way. But this is why being an artist, for me, is as much about the lifestyle as it is about the work. I often have to look to history for models for my mode of being. Recently, I’ve been thinking about the Taoist monks, who considered painting, writing, performing music and developing their internal self as a single practice.

As for money, it’s often an afterthought. I worked at a bookstore from high school up through my early 20s, mostly because I wanted to be surrounded by books. Other than that, I’ve lived off of freelance writing, magazine editing, touring as a musician, licensing music, teaching, selling art, and most recently, producing radio.

I do see all of these as forms of art, some more documentary-in-nature than others, some easier, some lucrative, some painful. Overall, I’m happy with the freedom and variation these jobs have afforded me. I’ve mostly been able to do what I want, which is one of the few definitions of happiness I know.

My advice for aspirational types: Only be an artist if you have to, if you’re cursed to do it, if you can’t be happy without it. Move toward pleasure. Be bored by fear. Get comfortable with instability. Cool your ambitions. Drink more water.

ROSS SIMONINI is a writer, artist, and musician living in Northern California. He is the interviews editor for the Believer and executive producer of The Organist. He contributes to The New York Times, Art in America, McSweeney’s, Interview, and frieze magazine. He teaches a seminar on oral literature at Columbia University. 

PATRICK FONT is a writer and musician from Houston, Texas, and attends the University of Arkansas MFA Program in Creative Writing & Translation. He is the interviews editor of The Arkansas International, and has contributed interviews to Arcadia. His writing has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.