Thursday, October 25, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Jay Wexler

When I phoned my father -- a corporate lawyer for over thirty years -- and told him that I'd been asked to blurb a book on constitutional law, he was pretty sure that something had gone very, very wrong in the world. Maybe it had. Jay Wexler was the author of said book -- The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of its Most Curious Provisions.
It remains the only book on law that I've ever read, cover to cover, and it's weird and wonderful and very, very funny. The perfect book to give your favorite wise-ass know-it-all, which, in my case, is probably my father.

So Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, now has a debut collection of stories out -- The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, and Other Stories -- and he's here to talk fiction, law, [laughter], puppets, love, eagle feathers, Bo Derek, and Moby Dick


Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise. 

I’ve been obsessed by bald eagles and eagle feathers for at least two years now.  I’m a law professor, and my fields include law and religion, environmental law, and American Indian law.  Native Americans believe eagles are sacred creatures, and many use eagles and their feathers in their religious ceremonies.  But possessing even so much as a single feather is illegal under federal law.  That law also allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to grant permits to members of federally recognized tribes to possess feathers and other eagle parts, but the way that FWS has gone about implementing this has primarily been to establish a bizarre agency called the National Eagle Repository outside Denver which collects dead eagles from all over the country and then distributes them to American Indians who apply for them.  The agency has also granted a couple of permits for tribes to run aviaries for injured eagles where the molted feathers can be collected and distributed.  I’ve visited the Repository and written about it, and I just came back from the aviary run by the Iowa tribe in Oklahoma.  For about 18 months I was trying to convince publishers to give me a contract to write a book about the history of the bald eagle as a contested symbol in the United States, but to no avail.  Instead, the eagle story will be one part of the book I’m working on now about what happens when religious practice and environmentalism collide.  It should be published sometime this century by Beacon Press.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I wish I knew how to answer this.  All I can do is relate my own story, which involves marrying someone who couldn’t give two shits about what I write.  Karen did read my first book, and her major reaction to it was that the size of the book was kind of weird.  She hasn’t read either of my other two books, and the notion that she would ever read any of my scholarly articles is laughable (not sure I can blame her for that).  She’ll tell you that if she showed too much interest in my writing, it would give me a big head, and my ego would explode out of our house, and she might be right.  Luckily we have other things in common.  Both of us hate cell phones, for instance, and we’ve never had one. 

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?
I’m an only child, so I grew up muttering to myself and talking to my extensive collection of puppets.  I would write puppet shows and put them on for friends.  Many of the puppet shows were spoofs on movies, like “Zero,” which was a spoof on Bo Derek’s “10” and starred Discombobulated Duck (a duck puppet that got permanently squished in the suitcase my father brought it home from vacation in) as a particularly ugly woman.  My parents got divorced when I was twelve, and I think they felt pretty guilty about it, so they let me do pretty much whatever I wanted, which explains why my mother let me put on a show called “Friday the 13th,” which involved lots of squirting ketchup on the walls and blowing up fireworks inside the house.  I think I was a character myself in one of the shows and I think I may have pretended to have sex with one of the puppets on the stage.  It might have been Munchie the mouse.  I’m not proud of this.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I read primarily fiction.  This past summer I took Moby Dick with me on a three week vacation.  It took me six weeks to finish it.  I’m not sure I’d recommend it as vacation reading.  I don’t read as much non-fiction, but here are two very cool books that I like a lot and that people might have missed: Jason Fagone’s Horsemen of the Esophagus, about the world of competitive eating, and Robert Sullivan’s A Whale Hunt, about the Makah Tribe’s quest to hunt and kill a whale as a way of revivifying their traditional culture.  The book is fascinating and hilarious, and Sullivan carries on this side conversation in the footnotes about his reading of Moby Dick while he was researching the book.  This was why I decided to read Moby Dick.  

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life? 

Yes, but it wasn’t always easy.  For the first seven years or so of being a professor, I would write these crazy stories and humor pieces and scripts on the side to keep me sane while the rest of the time I was writing a bunch of bloated, footnote-infested academic articles so I could get tenure.  It’s the crazy stories and humor pieces and one of the scripts (and also the associated paintings of angry fruit, etc.) that I put together in the Ed Tuttle book.  Once I got tenure, I found I could more easily reconcile my professional interests in constitutional law and the Supreme Court and religion, etc., with my story telling and humor side.  My first two books were the result.  I still want to write a novel, probably about the Tuttle character, but I can’t get myself to sit down and start it.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

The easiest thing I ever wrote was the thing I’m best known for, which is the joke study of Supreme Court oral argument humor that I published in 2005 and that was then featured on the front page of the New York Times.  I was talking about an oral argument transcript in class and I noticed that it said at one point, “[laughter]”.  I thought that was hilarious.  Then I realized that the court reporter had just recently started identifying the speaking justices by name, so it had become possible for the first time to go through the transcripts and figure out which justice got the most laughs during the term.  I did the research and wrote up the study in three hours, and still, seven years later, the justices sometimes mention it in their speeches.  On the other hand, the piece of writing that was the hardest to write was a 100 page academic article entitled “Preparing for the Clothed Public Square: Teaching About Religion, Civic Education, and the Constitution,” which was published in the William and Mary Law Review and was never read by anybody.

Jay Wexler is a professor of law at Boston University, a former law clerk to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the author of three books, Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battleground of the Church/State Wars, The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of its Most Curious Provisions, and the recently released book of fiction, The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, and Other Stories.  His stories, reviews, humor pieces, and essays have appeared in places like Barrelhouse, the Boston Globe, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Mental Floss, Monkeybicycle, Opium, Salon, and Spy.  This is his website