Author Joshua Gaylord On Dilettantism


JoshBook1WEbook's guest author series is back and featuring Joshua Gaylord, author of two novels, Hummingbirds and the forthcoming The Reapers Are the Angels. Josh graduated from Berkeley with a degree in English and a minor in creative writing. In 2000, he received his Master’s and Ph.D. in English at New York University, specializing in twentieth-century American and British literature. He teaches high school English in NYC.

Take it away, Josh!

Hummingbirds8 My first book, Hummingbirds, is a New York girls’ prep school novel.  My second, The Reapers Are the Angels (coming August 3, under the pen-name Alden Bell), is a post-apocalyptic southern gothic—with zombies. I have older manuscripts (which remain sitting in drawers, wisely unpublished) that include: an update of an eighteenth-century picaresque, a philosophical novel based upon the humors of the body, and, of course, a memoir about growing up as a child of divorce in California. 

I am sometimes asked what it’s like to shift gears so dramatically from book to book—which, I take it, is actually a beard for an unkinder question: Don’t you think you’d be a better writer if you stuck to one kind of book? The answer to that question is easy: Absolutely. After all, the more you do one thing, the better you become at it—right? On the other hand, since being a good writer is second on my list of literary priorities behind being a writer who enjoys writing, I will happily and proudly don the dunce cap marked D for dilettantism.

Reapers.F1 Part of the problem is that I’m very susceptible to suggestions of style. When I read an author who awes me with his or her craft, I find myself wanting to get inside it. It’s not enough for me to cover myself with Tom Drury as though it were a blanket, closing my eyes under the immense power of his prose; when I read something like Hunts in Dreams, I want to poke at it, I want to get behind the scenes, see how it works, imagine myself at the controls of it, steering that story myself, being the one who puts those words on the page. And so it’s not surprising that if I’m writing a book while I’m reading Tom Drury, the influence of Tom Drury can be felt on every page, throughout the plot, the style, the characters.  Hummingbirds is my Muriel Spark book. The Reapers Are the Angels is my Cormac McCarthy book.

Another part of the problem is that I may have taken too much to heart the lesson I learned from the powerhouses of the Western Literary Canon. Go ahead, go back and reread James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon—you’ll hear the message loud and clear: You can do whatever you want. It may not lead you to literary fame and fortune (always already a somewhat specious goal), but this is a lesson that, if followed, is sure to lead you to what Thoreau called a “success unexpected in common hours.” Do what you want, because readers and agents and editors and publishers are a vast and fickle group—and extremely difficult to please even when you set out to enslave yourself to their desires. Do what you want, because writing is like sex: You have to figure out how to please yourself before you can set out to please others. 

Ugh. That’s a shameless metaphor, and I apologize for it. Let me try to answer the original question more simply. What’s it like writing such different kinds of books? It’s thrilling, invigorating, terrifying—all the more gratifying precisely because you are not becoming a weary master of the craft.  You feel out of your depth, likely to go under at any moment—but if you manage to stay afloat, well, then, you feel like you’ve done something true and good.

Thanks for the insight, Josh! If this post put you in the mood to read stuff from all different kinds of genres, then rating some PageToFame pages is probably a good next move. If you're now in the mood to brave uncertain literary waters yourself, grab a pen/ keyboard and get to it!

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  1. Can you earn a living from writing Josh? Even if you don't have any degrees?

  2. Theoretically, one can earn a living from writing--I know it's been done. I can't, not yet. But here's the heartening part: the degrees don't make any difference.
    Actually, I don't mind not being able to earn a living from writing. The moment my ability to support myself becomes dependent upon selling a book is the moment when my nervousness while writing that book would become crippling.

  3. You are my hero.
    I've had ideas for novels over the past few years and it seems to me the only thing they have in common is a male lead.
    One is a post-apocalyptic set in Japan.
    Another is a Vampire novel. (I have been working on this character through role-plays and such since I was in sixth grade. Please don't think I fell into the Vampire craze.)
    Then a Eutopia Novel.
    Lastly, a philosophical one about being stuck between Nihilism and the need to be remembered.
    I've had other ideas and they've never been from one genre and that doesn't bother me.
    From what I understand, early in his career, Dean Koontz would write under pen names every time he switched genre. He had a pen name for every genre.
    I think what you do is bold and it has inspired me to continue down the road of "dilettantism", as you so aptly put it.

  4. Alessio--Good for you! Sounds like you're writing for all the right reasons--and you're enjoying it, which is vastly the most important thing. Keep fightin' the good fight!


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