No Flies, No Folly
by Josh Weil
Issue #143 • November 30, 2010•Buy Now!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
One by one the windows come alight. From up the hill, I watch: the Hartzlers’ old stone house so dark, so still, it might be the new-turned soil of a garden bed—huge, square, black—and in it the orange lamplight blooming. Bloom, bloom, bloom. Mrs. Hartzler lighting the wicks. There: I can see her shape. It goes window to window, a bee drifting. Till it reaches the first floor, again, and goes straight to—where else?—the kitchen. My stomach moans. I suck in my gut, tug the rucksack’s belt more tight. On my shoulders I shrug the straps a little higher. Down I start toward the farm. I was not always a peddler. I was once, too, a lighter of lamps. Street lamps. In the city of Providence. I was once a seller of lemons in Baltimore. I was a greenhorn seeing from the deck of a ship for the first time the lights of New York. I was a beggar. I was a deserter. Once upon a time I absconded from the Army of the Tsar. Once upon a time, I was a soldier. A draftee. I was a Russian, a Jew. A brother. A son.
Josh Weil is the author of The New Valley (Grove, 2009), a New York Times Editors’ Choice that won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters; a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation; the GLCA New Writers Award; and was shortlisted for the Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. Weil’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Granta, Agni, Glimmer Train, Narrative, and American Short Fiction; he has written non-fiction for The New York Times, Granta Online, Oxford American and Poets & Writers. Since earning his MFA from Columbia University, he has received the Dana Award in Portfolio, and fellowships from the Gilman School, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the Writer’s Center, and the Fulbright Foundation. Currently writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House, this spring Weil will be the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Bowling Green State University.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
JW: From my great grandfather. No joke. Not because he sat me on his knee and told me a story (I never knew him), but because he actually lived a life that sparked the first inklings for “No Flies, No Folly.” The story is completely fictionalized—Shimel isn’t my great grandfather, of course—but he was a Jewish-Russian immigrant who deserted from the Tsar’s army and traveled across Europe and found himself a peddler in the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside around Reading, PA. He went on to be a successful businessman, but I was always gripped by the part of his life before his success: What must it have been like to have left his family forever? What must it have been like to be a wander among a wholly different tribe? And what drove him, what kept him going? I wanted to wrestle with that.
It was only later, after I’d written the story, that I found out that my great grandfather—this Lower East Side immigrant Jew—had actually had a first wife, a Pennsylvania Dutch woman. How wild. If I remember correctly, she died young and it was only then that he married his second wife—a good Jewish woman, this time, and my great grandmother.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
JW: It’s a very romantic story (at least I hope it is), and I knew I wanted to embrace that, not dismiss it with irony. So finding that balance—a full embrace of the romantic moment while finding a way into it that kept it charged and complex and unsentimental (again, that’s my hope) was a fun challenge to tackle.
HT: Was it difficult to write in a different time period? And how did that affect Shimel’s voice?
JW: You know, I didn’t find the time-period difficult. Maybe that’s because, honestly, I’m kind of unfit for our time period; sometimes I think I’m meant to live in a different one—certainly my inclinations lead me away from much of the whirl and clang of contemporary life. Or maybe it’s because the moment—that time when America was bursting into the 20th century—fit the story so naturally, and so Shimel’s concerns, his drive for progress, were organically tied to the time period. His voice was just his voice. When a voice comes to you, it’s just there; it’s what it is. Or maybe I shouldn’t reveal that. I hear it; it speaks; I put it down. The tricky part is figuring out how to make it alive on the page. I spent a lot of time finding a way to communicate his natural dialect and inflections (how I heard him) without making the narration too voicey, too dialect-heavy. My agent, PJ Mark, was terrific about helping me find that place (as he is about everything). We went through it line by line and sussed out how much I could pull back and still keep it feeling like Shimel.
HT: Why did you choose to bring these two cultures, Russian Jew, isolated Amish, together?
JW: Easy answer? My great grandfather, and his story, did it for me.
Better answer? I was drawn to his story, and to these two cultures, because of my own concerns, what I wanted to wrestle with: the way that America was built on the backs of men and women who fled hidebound lives in their homelands for lives of change and furious progress in their new home—and the ruthless drive that demands. Somehow, the immigrant story set against the Amish culture—one struggling to restrain that concept of progress—just opened up the possibilities for me.
HT: Can you talk a little about the use of light in your story? What made you land on this as a device or symbol for the piece?
JW: Really, this had more to do with the collection that this story will (hopefully) be part of than the story itself. The collection is all about humankind’s attempt to diminish the darkness in the world, both metaphorically and literally, and I knew that I wanted to write something set in a time when rural America was seeing the electrification of its towns for the first time. That just dovetailed with my great great grandfather’s story. And once I held those two things up together, the use of light took on its own life. Isn’t that when you know something’s right? That it’s working? When you look at the core elements of your story and hold them close and something new springs up between them, as if birthed more by them than by anything you’ve done.
HT: What do you think is next for these characters? Will Esther return to her family?
JW: Oh, she’s got to. She will. And it will break her heart, and break Shimel’s. And she’ll go on living her unchanging life, having another baby, growing old on the farm, and hide her heartbreak from everyone but herself. And Shimel will hide his even from himself, bury it deep, and plow forward towards success. He’ll be a rich man by his death. And he’ll die without ever seeing Esther again. Damn, I need a whiskey. What did you have to go and ask me that question for?
HT: Why did you choose to title the story “No Flies, No Folly”?
JW: It was going to be called “Burns All Night” (which was—at one point—the slogan written on the side of Shimel’s wagon) but a buddy of mine said, “Er, that sounds kind of like a slogan for some kind of hemorrhoid cream.” Killed that. But “No Flies, No Folly” winds up being central to the story, in that it’s biblical, it ties him to his lost family, and, most importantly, it’s about how one act of foolishness can wreck the whole of something—in this case the way that Shimel and Esther’s affair unravels the whole of their lives.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
JW: Well, the first draft came pretty quickly—four or five days, maybe? But that’s how it is with anything decent that I ever write. If the first draft drags, the piece is going to suck. It’s just how I work. If it flies, then I know it’s got a chance. But what makes it real, what gets it from possibility to actuality is the revising—and that always takes me a bit longer. Then, if I’m lucky, I get to work with an editor on it, and they hone it even more, and take its shaky legs and make them firm. With this, I was lucky. When Hannah Tinti told me that, for space reasons, we had to trim out about a quarter of the story, I had a moment of pause: I was happy with the story as it was, and if I had been working with almost any other editor, I probably would have balked. But I knew I could trust Hannah, that, of all editors, she would find a way to make it work, and maybe work even better. And I (and she) was right.
HT: What are you working on now?
JW: A novel. A crazy long Russian novel. A crazy long Russian novel that springs from Russian folk tales and is set in an alternative present way up near the Finnish border and is about all Russian characters and feels, um, crazy. But in a good way. I swear. In a good exciting happily unhinged way. But if I say anything else about it, here, I’m probably going to start to think it feels crazy in a bad, scary, sadly deluded way—so I’ll stop.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
JW: A mentor of mine, Mark Slouka, used to tell me, “Find the wound.” Find the place in your character where she’s been most hurt, the part of her world that has caused her the most trouble, trauma, pain—then dig your fingers inside it and open it up. That’s where the story lies.
What vicious people we writers are! Sometimes I find myself talking to my characters, apologizing to them for the pain I’m about to cause.