What am I talking about? Reading “Conquistador of the Useless.”
Drawing on references from Hollywood to the philosopher Heraclitus, Joshua Isard crafts a compulsive ascent from wry to revelatory. This book is not only beguiling, it’s a must read.
“Nathan Wavelsky moves into the burbs with his wife and two cats. Life is sweet. He’s a successful slacker. He doesn’t want to rock the boat.
But the boat starts to rock anyway. He gives a copy of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to a teenage girl next door. Her parents are righteously appalled. His wife’s hormones start to tango and now she wants a baby. Worse, his best friend wants him to climb Mount Everest. Nathan likes to hike, but climbing in the Himalayas? He could die, for God’s sake. He just wants to be left alone. But no chance.
Shit begins to happen.”
I had the pleasure of corresponding with Professor Isard via email and I thought I would let some masters of the art of fiction be my guide (thank you to the http://www.theparisreview.org/) in our brief Q & A:
Vickie: John Cheever said “that falsehood is a critical element” in writing a novel and “the telling of lies is a sort of sleight of hand that displays our deepest feelings about life.” The dance between imagination and reality in the novel is tricky — how do you anchor your fiction in truth? When I was reading your novel I was particularly struck by the immersive “been there” quality of the attempt to climb Everest. Tell me about that?
Joshua: A lot of people, some of whom I’d known for years, took Conquistador as pretty much an autobiography. It isn’t. And while hearing someone tell me that is a bit frustrating as a writer (it implies that they think I can’t create vivid enough characters or plot points), it’s also a huge compliment. It means I did a good enough job creating falsehoods in the story that readers believed it was real.
The Everest scenes are a good example of this. Lots of people have asked me if all that really happened to me, how much of my own Everest experience I used for those chapters. And the answer is none. I’ve never been to Mt. Everest, never climbed a big mountain. I’ve never been to Nepal, though I have been to India, which helped with some of the descriptions of Kathmandu.
I researched the hell out of Everest. I’ve always loved mountaineering books (there’s one piece of truth from my life that made it into Nathan, the main character), so I had a good idea of what a mountain climbing narrative could be like. And of course all that reading was an inspiration for the plot arc. But I also read mountain climbing blogs, Everest websites, news feeds to keep up with every detail of each climbing season as I wrote the novel.
So I put in all this effort to write a compelling story about a place I’ve never been, and then people think I just recounted my own experiences. Again, that yields such a paradoxical feeling—at once it seems to dismiss all my hard work, but then is exactly the result a writer wants from the hard work.
However, there’s still plenty of elements in the story that are true to my life. My wife and I really have traveled a lot, including Japan, Scotland, and Italy. I’m really that in to grunge rock, and hold on to the 90s a bit too much. We really have two cats with literary names.–I like including truth in my own fiction when it’s the smaller details. But the bigger elements, the plot arcs and characterizations, those work out best for me when they’re totally creations. Then those bigger elements can develop in the writing process, but I still have the details, these nuggets of truth to keep me from writing anything too outlandish. My cousin said it best after she read the book: “I got to play ‘find all the bits in Josh’s life that are real.'” That, to me, seems like the right way to phrase things.
Vickie: Writing is a famously solitary occupation. A few months ago I was talking to a very young writer’s group and one of the questions they asked me was, “How do I get people to stop bugging me while I’m writing?” Tobias Wolff related that every working writing day John Cheever would go down to his apartment house basement and set up a card table by a blasting furnace and set to typing. Mr. Wolff has a quiet space in the Stanford Library in the stacks (“All I need is a window to not write.”) that keeps him focused. Where do you do most of your work?
Joshua: This is such a great question, because it’s changed so dramatically since I wrote Conquistador. I used to go to this great cafe in Bella Vista, my neighborhood in Philadelphia, for like three hours a day. I had plenty of time to procrastinate on the internet, have a cup of tea, get a refill, wait for the refill to get to the right temperature, shift around in my chair until I was comfortable, and then eventually start writing. I’m pretty efficient when I get started, but it took me ages to do that.
Now I have a kid, live in the suburbs, eat dinner at 6:00 instead of 8:00, and my job’s gotten a bit more intense.
I’m still a cafe person, but now if I grab even 45 minutes to run to my nearest Starbucks, I procrastinate far less—writing time is a precious commodity in my current life—and when I do, there’s just no way to make up for it.
What I’ve learned during this change, is that it’s not the atmosphere of the cafe, or coffee, or even the kind of music I listen to while I write. It’s routine. It’s doing the same thing in the same place every time that allows me to get work done. Whether it’s an hour of reading sports news, or three minutes reading about the new iPhone followed by a moment of self loathing for having wasted three precious minutes. Whether it’s an indie cafe in a quaint part of Philly, or just another Starbucks in a strip center off the highway. As long as it’s a routine, I work well.
Vickie: Something else I noticed about your novel was the stealthy build from the hero’s slacker perspective to something approaching enlightenment. Graham Green said, “Let’s put it this way. I write about situations that are common, universal might be more correct, in which my characters are involved and from which only faith can redeem them, though often the actual manner of the redemption is not immediately clear.” In your novel there’s philosophy to be found in a Pixies recording and a hike up a mountain, are you saying something about redemption?
Joshua: I don’t think redemption is the right word. Redemption means that the character has done something wrong, and I don’t think Nathan has transgressed. He’s self-centered, sure, and a little arrogant, but not in a way that affects other people. When he fires people at work, it’s not his decision to do so. When his neighbors think he’s done something inappropriate, they’re wrong about that.
Nathan might not always make the wisest decisions, but I don’t think he needs redemption, really.
I’d say, instead, that the story deals with nobility, in the way Hemingway used the word. Papa said: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”
In the book, Nathan is both the protagonist and antagonist. It’s about him struggling against his youth in order to attain a level of maturity, but without becoming a wholly different person.
And, let’s be honest, a part of that struggle is for him to stop feeling superior to others, which he definitely does.
Personal development is by no means a new theme in literature, but I do think the kind of struggle Nathan goes through with himself is particular to people my age (people born within a few years of 1980). We tend to mature later, hang on to our youth a few years too long, and then have pretty big confrontations with what really ought to be, by that point, our “former selves.”