I first met Ross Simonini, the writer, artist, and musician, in January 2006, at the Bennington Writing Seminars, a low-residency MFA program in Vermont. He was about my age, under 25, in a program with a median closer to 40. He always looked alert, an obvious thinker, and he had such a fluid, confident walk that it took me several days to realize that he wasn’t very tall. He also wore an adorable knitted hat and the same Sherpa-lined corduroy coat that I had recently cast off, and which he himself had bought second-hand. (The coat trick might have occurred later in our friendship, and there’s almost no way it was the exact same garment I had worn, but it’s the best fact I can offer to illustrate my instinctive connection to Ross.) Most importantly, he was extraordinarily easy to talk to.
We’ve been friends now for more than a decade, and we never seem to run out of things to say to one another—about books, art, places, other people, and various strategies for staying alive. Conversation is one of his many talents, one he’s cultivated professionally as interviews editor of The Believer, co-creator of The Organist podcast, and a freelance journalist and teacher. It is also one of the great artistic and intellectual projects of his life, crystallized in The Book of Formation (Melville House Books 2017), his genre-bending, genuinely haunting first novel, which takes the form of a series of interviews between the principal characters.
On November 14, 2017, I spoke to Ross at Powerhouse Books in Brooklyn, to celebrate the release of The Book of Formation. What follows is a recreated and edited transcript of that conversation.
KATHERINE HILL: As a journalist, you’re used to being the interviewer—the person asking the questions, unlike now. Can you tell us how that practice influenced the shape of this novel?
ROSS SIMONINI: As far as I can remember, I’ve always thought in dialogue. I continuously ask myself questions and, occasionally, I attempt to answer them. So the back-and-forth rhythm is natural for me. Same goes for conversation: I’m usually interrogator, shaping and steering the flow of the talk with little challenges to other person. That’s what keeps me engaged. If I talk too much, I start to feel a little unsettled. I suppose, in general, I’d like to be a better listener than a talker. I love that (spurious?) Hendrix quote: “Knowledge speaks. Wisdom listens.”
So for me, interviewing is just my basic way of being in the world. I started asking people questions for a job when I got out of school. It supplemented whatever other money I was making at the time, and allowed me to make contact with people I normally couldn’t talk to in any kind of meaningful, prolonged way. It felt like a way to keep learning. Like each interviewee was a temporary mentor.
Then, I started editing interviews at The Believer and reading interviews books, and got somewhat obsessed with the experience of reading dialogue. It was around that time that I started writing The Book of Formation, and so it made sense that the book just came out in binary form. I started thinking of it in the tradition of dialogue literature, especially Greek philosophy, rather than say “the novel,” which has become a pretty overwhelming category as this point.
The more I wrote this way, the more I felt like the form was an ideal expression of the writing experience. Every time I made a choice, I questioned myself: why did that need to happen? and then what? does that hold up? In a way, most fiction is just the answers to these questions, all polished and lined up in a clean narrative, but I wanted to include the whole, messy process.
KH: The interview is everywhere in our media culture, so much so that we might be tempted to dismiss it as another symptom of our addiction to surface-level hype. But the interview is not an inherently superficial form, is it?
RS: I’d say the interview is one of our culture’s best tools for accessing truth. Police interrogations, therapy transcripts, courtroom depositions, political debate—these are the ways we decide what is real and important and fair.
We use it to tune our beliefs. Like Catholic confession. Or the Scientology auditing session. Or the Zen koan dialogue, which is suppose to help a student reach enlightenment.
The interview is also a kind of rite of passage into most of the important moments of our lives. It’s how we get chosen for schools and jobs, and it’s basically how we choose our romantic partners, since most dates are essentially interrogations for compatibility.
But when you say the interview is superficial, you’re probably talking about the media, which is largely based in interviews with celebrities and policy makers and various notable people. But to me, the interview is one of the most direct ways of getting to know a person, and I think that’s why we like it. Even in the most rehearsed late night talk show interview, there’s still the possibility of intimacy.
Look at Oprah. She is not a superficial figure. I mean, she’s responsible for many people’s relationship to literature and spirituality and psychology, and she came to her (totally unprecedented) cultural power through interviewing. She’s affected more lives than most people.
But even on a broader level, if you define an interview as a series of prompts (not necessarily questions) and responses, then most of our conversations are dipping in and out of the form all day long. It’s how we get around. It’s how we make sense of the world.
KH: Let’s back up for a moment to talk more explicitly about the novel, which unfolds as a series of interviews between Masha Isle, adopted son of an Oprah-like figure named Mayah, and an unnamed journalist interviewer who’s struggling with his health. You didn’t just have to create these characters, you also had to create a coherent system of belief for them. How did you go about doing that?
RS: Systematic thinking is a pretty addictive thing for me. I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with systems of various kinds—belief, thought, food, movement. As a kid, I desperately tried to believe in religion. I was an adamant vegetarian for 20 years. I studied science in school and became obsessed with logical positivism. Now, I’m pretty much always reading philosophies that suggest some kind of simple resolution to the chaos of the world. But I’d like to get to the point where I don’t adopt ideologies anymore. I don’t think I have a good relationship with them.
This was part of my interest in writing this book: how do we use these systems as tools but not as prisons? How can they help us without forcing us to do activities that go against our basic animal nature? Because, ultimately, if we live too closely within any system, it gets dangerous. I mean, you could probably trace back most of the horrific human activities to systematic thinking of some kind or another.
So to deal with this problem, I thought: what could be more subversive than creating a system myself? Build it, believe in it, and see it from the inside-out. Then, once I’d gone as far as I could go, I’d fully let it go. I’d reject it and see it as limited as any system. This way, I’d have to go through the whole spectrum of experiences with it. I’d demystify systems.
And the funny thing is, while I was writing, I realized that most systems begin as a kind of fictional invention anyway. You can read most books of philosophy and religion just like novels, as works of imagination. I mean, these systems are made, not found. They’re not written in our biology.
So this project was a good exercise. Plus, since it’s a book about self-transformation, it seemed right that I try to transform myself by writing it.
KH: I admit, I often found myself underlining and flagging revelatory passages in the novel, as though I were reading a philosophical or religious text. And some of those passages really do seem to capture a truth—that pain is a fact of life, that we put enormous amounts of energy into our personalities, et cetera. I was moved. But then I’d turn a few pages and Masha would say something about personal transformation that totally creeped me out.
RS: I love that response. Totally valid. I’d hate for someone to walk away feeling confident about the book’s position. I think of it more as a provocation than a message. I’d even say that uncertainty is, essentially, the subject of it. I can only hope a reader gets to hold both positions, to see both sides of the situation simultaneously. That’s what a true two-sided dialogue should be.
KH: That seems right to me. I was having it out with myself even as I read…So let’s talk a bit more about the idea of personality transformation that is at the heart of Mayah and Masha’s belief system. It circles around this elusive idea of “p,” which the interviewer identifies early on as “some kind of energy substance at the root of our identities.” This feels familiar, like qi in traditional Chinese culture. How do you understand “p”?
RS: The qi parallel works for me. So does prana. Or ATP [adenosine triphosphate]. Or the unified field. Or the monad. Or whatever fundamental underlying energy unit a system points to, whether it’s a religion or science or Pythagorean philosophy.
Humans love it when everything can be reduced to a single thing. An ineffable, immeasurable force. So I tried to access that basic desire we have, which seems to be timeless and global and at the root of most systems, and I used it as a foundation.
As for p, I told the reader everything I know about it.
KH: I love the way the narrator-interviewer begins as a detached skeptic, but soon finds himself taken in by Masha. He describes himself as being “lulled into a peculiar trance” after the first interview—another section I underlined because it echoed my experience of reading it. I think it had something to do with Masha’s language in that section, which seems to come from a folk tale. He talks about changing himself into a deer as a child, and he refers to his child self as a “tug.” As he grows up over the course of the novel, he sheds that folk language in favor of words from Mayah’s belief system. That ineffable thing is “p.” A personality transformation, or a makeover, is a “turn.” Why was it important to create new patterns of language for this character and this world?
RS: Language is just another system. It organizes the world using time, subject, object, gender, etc. And you can get trapped in it. If I don’t check myself, I start believing that words are reality.
And most systems have a their own specialized, proprietary way of communicating. Like jargon or dialect. They draw a line around a certain base of knowledge to establish insiders and outsiders.
For Masha, his language comes from the very small, sheltered world where he is raised. He knows few words, and many of them are what I describe in the book as “family language.” Or baby talk. It’s the special vocabulary you have with your family, which is also the first language we ever hear. Like Joyce’s “moocow” and “baby tuckoo.”
I remember when I figured out, one day at school, that some of the words my mom had been saying all my life weren’t actually words. I’d say them to other kids and they’d just stare at me, confused. It was a very disorienting experience. I wanted Masha to feel that, to be isolated from the world by his language.
But I like how you call it folk tale language. That also seems right to me, because I adopted some of the language and syntax in this book from the Miwoks, the American Indians who were living in the area where Masha was raised. I wanted the language to feel like it came from the earth around him, so that even words that seem like nonsense on the surface could be understood by the reader on some kind of a basal level.
Then, when Masha enters culture and has to assimilate, the cultural vocabulary takes over and the private language fades away. To a lesser degree, this happens for all of us. We smooth out our accents and confine our intimate language to our homes. We normalize. If we want to live in mass culture, we have to talk the talk.
KH: And of course the talk connects back to personality. Your book suggests, in a way, that personality begins with language, and the possibility of dialogue—or at least personality that is legible to others.
RS: I do think we make ourselves every day by communicating. But it doesn’t have to be through language. It could be through physicality or actions or whatever. It’s just that, when we stand in contrast with another person, we create our personality. Just a temporary one. Because every person we interact with—family, friends, doctors, strangers, waiters, telecommuters—each one of them asks us to redefine who we are, even if just a little bit. And we are the totality of all those selves. Like, right now, talking with you, I’m creating an impression of who I am, because of the questions you’re asking and because of how I’m responding. Also because of our existing friendship and the kind of situation we’re in right now, and the subjects we’re talking about. But for me, I know that as soon as our interview stops, this personality will be over and a new one will begin.