In this series, Shane Jones looks at the diet of some of our favorite writers. In this installment he talks to Jesse Ball, whose most recent book is Silence Once Begun.
THE DIET OF JESSE BALL:
Plain yogurt with honey and a few raw almonds
Pain au chocolat
+ cappuccino, cortado, macchiato or black coffee
A piece or two of 80%+ chocolate—my favorites domori, madecasse & other fancy brands. Domori 100% is best of all, but hard to find in USA.
+ cortado, macchiato, etc
Raw fish + avocado + rice + ginger
Jabanero + ginger + leek + carrot + tahini + spinach + tomato + garlic + potato + celery, etcetera, soup with some sort of fancy bread and hummus
Chili (special recipe) involving ghost peppers and chocolate and honey and whatever interesting meat (veal, bison, venison) I can find
Fancy whiskey or cognac or fine imperial russian stout
Another piece of 80-100% chocolate
THE BELIEVER: I like how the majority of your diet is small meals, or meals that aren’t too heavy, especially the first half of your day. Is this a conscious decision in regards to how you feel in general? (I’m always surprised by people who eat a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, etc, that can really weigh you down). Do you write during the “light” meals or the later, heavier, dinners?
JESSE BALL: I seldom write—usually once per year. This is a diet from a non-writing period.
Last summer in Berlin, when I wrote the novel, A Cure For Suicide, I ate chocolate chip cookies sporadically—as the cafe that I was writing at had delicious warm cookies available. In the evenings I ate ramen or kebab.
If I am to be somewhere for five hours, it behooves me to purchase something—and once I have had 3 coffees, it is better that I order something else. And when the smell of cookies is in the air…
BLVR: Wait, you only write once per year? Can you elaborate on this process? Of course I’d also like to talk more about chocolate chip cookies. There’s a bakery a few blocks from where I’m writing this now, called Crisan (they refer to themselves as an “edible art gallery”) that makes the best chocolate chip cookies. I bought three yesterday.
JB: When I am going to write a novel, then I sit down for a week or two and do that and nothing else. The rest of the year I spend wandering around learning about things, playing games like chess or go, reading, walking, etcetera.
How long do those cookies last? Can you send one in the mail?
BLVR: The cookies wouldn’t last, I don’t think. You have to get them fresh when they are a bit under-cooked in the middle and like a “crust” around the edges. I could try though. Maybe we could trade— I’ll send you a box of the cookies, you send me a container of your “special recipe” chili?
JB: To ship chili—is it possible!? Perhaps with dry ice?
BLVR: Seems like a total disaster. I can just see the UPS driver’s hands covered in chili, whispering, “What the fuck?” But I will send you the cookies. Send me your address after we’re finished here.
So writing for this short amount of time and “fasting” the rest of the year is really interesting to me. I know before you’ve referred to writing as a “performance” but I’m more curious about the not writing, the letting it grow inside you, the hunger it must create.
JB: Well, the purpose writing serves for me is two-fold. One, to entertain me. Two, to resynthesize my understanding of what I believe. As the year turns, what I actually believe moves farther and farther from what I think I believe until—I write another text and discover the truth of the matter, and am surprised, always surprised.
Of course, it isn’t something as simple as: I once thought the postman was good, now I think he’s evil. It is more along the lines of—the sensation I want to express when relating the visual impression of a power line set against my memory of being three (itself set within an onward cascading impression of experience). That would be the object that is invisibly shifting—and the moment of writing is the opportunity to see that it has changed.
BLVR: Have you ever fasted? There’s a section in Silence Once Begun where Oda Sotatsu, while imprisoned, stops eating that kind of takes his not speaking to a new, physical level.
JB: Certainly. It is unpleasant, but interesting. Of course, fasting in my comfortable house is quite different from political fasting. They cannot be compared.
BLVR: How long did you fast for?
JB: I will speak about it with you—but not for the record. I really don’t want to conflate my own fasting and Sotatsu’s.
BLVR: What’s the best ramen I can buy at a grocery store?
JB: Oh—you could perhaps buy the noodles there, if they have an international section, but I would definitely recommend that you make the broth from scratch and buy the pork belly at a butcher or choose to put dumplings or spicy ground meat, both options at some good ramen places. I haven’t made ramen at home myself yet—I just go to tasty places in whatever city I am in. My favorite is one in Berlin called Cocolo. In Chicago, I like Ramen Misoya.
BLVR: This new novel takes place in Japan but did you write it in Berlin? I guess I don’t associate Berlin with ramen, or Chicago for that matter. Japan I imagine fish and massive bowls of steaming broth.
JB: Yes, I was in Berlin doing some work with Poyais Group. When that was through, I had time to write a book. Cocolo is no joke. That is some very good ramen—world class.
BLVR: I’ve never had good ramen. I feel like I’m missing out.
How does your diet change when you are writing a novel, if at all, during these intense bursts? Some writers don’t think about it while others are very conscious of what they put in their bodies because it connects and influences them mentally.
JB: I am simply less disciplined. I am perpetually delighted, and so I am prepared to give myself little rewards. More chocolate, mostly.
BLVR: Is there anything you wouldn’t eat?
JB: I like foxes and so I have always been ashamed to think I wouldn’t like to eat raw chicken. I suppose, in fairness to myself, in a barnyard setting the chicken would be living and warm with its own life and blood and might taste delicious, though there is the matter of the feathers. Certainly—cold raw chicken seems difficult to swallow.
BLVR: Do you ever drink alcohol and write?
JB: It doesn’t make very much difference for me. Certainly not positively and possibly not negatively. I mean, I don’t have three martinis in a row while working. Nothing like that. But, I will certainly have some whiskey or a fine stout of some kind. That said, if I am going to write for several hours in the night, I probably wouldn’t drink more than a glass—just in terms of trying to stay awake as long as possible.
BLVR: What’s the longest you’ve ever written? I recently read in an interview with William Vollmann that he sometimes works for sixteen hours a day on a book. And David Foster Wallace had these insane spurts where he could write up to twenty thousand words a day. I imagine food really becomes a non-thought when you’re working at that level, like, the food is just something you put inside you to stop the hunger so your mind can concentrate on the work.
JB: As for the math of it—I don’t know, it has always seemed to me that people overestimate the hours they put in. A decent typist types at 60-70 wpm. That means you do 600 words in ten minutes. 3,600 words in an hour. 36,000 in ten hours. If we halve that—and say you type half the time and think the other half, we’re at DFW’s number in only ten hours. When people say they write for hours every day, it is mysterious to me. I believe they simply want workaday credit so people don’t believe them to be scurrilous louses.
The main thing, anyway, is to have an idea that needs to be written down. Then it is a simple matter—write it down as clearly as possible.
Illustrations by Jesse Ball.
Shane Jones lives in Albany, New York.