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Local Author Profile: Josh Emmons

by Marc Schuster
Josh EmmonsJosh Emmons Prescription for a Superior Existence by Josh EmmonsPrescription for a Superior Existence by Josh EmmonsFew writers walk the line between the real and the fantastic quite like Josh Emmons.

His first novel, The Loss of Leon Meed (Scribner 2005), reads like a cross between the works of Philip K. Dick and Jonathan Franzen. His second novel, Prescription for a Superior Existence (Scribner 2008), has been described as “a wicked skewering of religious cults and a finely wrought testament to their power.” Fresh off a stint at Yaddo, the renowned artists’ community, Josh sat down with us to discuss writing, faith, and inventing one’s own religion.

Are you a morning writer or a night writer?
I’m very much a morning person. I get up pretty early and do four hours a day as a minimum, but no more than five. After that, I’m pretty dead. I have to write in the morning with caffeine and sugar. I also need to be in a fairly quiet place, but not too quiet. I do much better when I’m in a city.

The Loss of Leon Meed features an impressive cast of characters. How did you juggle them all?

I began with writing character sketches. I wrote about seventy different characters, many of whom were based on people I’d known growing up, and some of whom I just pulled out of nowhere. When I got to the end, I realized that there were so many relationships between them—that someone was the uncle or the grand-nephew of another character. There was a lot more connective tissue between the characters than I had initially planned for. I decided at a certain point that seventy characters was far too many, and given that there were these relationships, if I didn’t want the character sketches to die on the page, I should probably develop them. So I went back, and I cut a lot of the characters that were on their own or had never met any of the other characters. I just whittled the character palette down to about twelve. With that paired-down group of characters, I began furthering their stories, writing it all in segments and then eventually having them overlap more and more and creating a latticework by the end.

Your second novel, Prescription for a Superior Existence, is a first-person narrative. What’s the difference between writing a novel with a large cast of characters and one that’s essentially focused on one character?
With The Loss of Leon Meed, I really liked writing a big cast of characters. I loved adopting other voices and imagining personal histories. Even though it’s third person, a lot of it is free indirect discourse. I felt I was able to escape myself. I could not be me for three or four hours a day, which was a very nice furlough from myself. I loved it, and I tried to make the characters as different from me as possible. In contrast, Jack Smith in Prescription for a Superior Existence was a very easy character to write, for one, because his language is very similar to the language that I use when writing and thinking to myself. I didn’t have to invent a vernacular for him or do any of the ventriloquist stuff you need to do when you’re writing a character whose syntax and modes of expression are totally different from your own. Additionally, his voice seemed to lend itself better to the project of the book, which is all about conversion and unconversion, belief and then interruption of belief. He really vacillates back and forth throughout the book as the religion waxes and wanes in terms of being believable. To bring the reader through his stages of incredulity, it needed to be in first person.

Faith and religion are major themes in both of your novels. Why the fascination?

I was raised without any traditional or even nontraditional religion. Both of my parents had grown up in something called the Church of Christ, which is extremely conservative and right-wing. It’s very literalist about the Bible. My parents had a terrible time in it, and their own spiritual journeys got a little strange. My dad became a Buddhist, and my mom became a Catholic mystic. That was very much a part of their lives, but they decided not to do with us what had been done to them, so they didn’t force anything on us or expose us to any religion. With Prescription for a Superior Existence, especially, I decided that it would be interesting if I took someone who, like me, had no religious reason to do anything in life, no compelling reason to live small or rein in his desires, and see what would happen if he were thrown into an anti-desire religion. That’s when I put together this Buddhism/ Scientology/Christian Science religion, PASE. I liked putting that together. It’s fun to create your own religion, but I think it’s out of my system now.

So you won’t invent any more religions?

Probably not. I’m done with that for now.
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