Monday, December 7, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Jay Wexler

It's my great pleasure to introduce Jay Wexler -- humorist, novelist, non-fiction writer, lawyer, law professor, hedgehog pet-owner. 

Let the questions begin!

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I wouldn’t say that there was a singular moment of inspiration for Tuttle in the Balance, but as with most of fiction that I’ve written, I had a scene in my head that came to me fairly early in writing the book that I was really excited about and eager to get to in the story.  So in that sense, it was a piece of inspiration that drove me to write the first half of the book, just so I could write that scene.  I remember writing the scene in a McDonald’s in Singapore (they had really cheap and decent coffee) while I was researching something else, and once the scene was written I felt like dancing.  And then soon after that I got another inspired scene in my head that got me through most of the second half.  It’s interesting to me that both of those key scenes took place in the courtroom of the Supreme Court during oral argument—I think that a big part of the overall inspiration for writing the book was to depict a Supreme Court that looks in many ways like the real one but that occasionally turns into something a little different. 

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I’m not religious at all, but religion is very important to my work.  I was raised Jewish and went to Hebrew School for years until I had my Bar Mitzvah, at which point I was out of there.  I had basically a Philip Rothian relationship to Hebrew School, which is to say that I felt every second of it as a nightmare.  I wrote a story about it once.  In high school I announced to my freshman English class that I was an atheist, although after I broke my collarbone playing dodgeball that very afternoon, I did give my position some reconsideration for about a month.  In college, as an East Asian Studies major, I became interested in Buddhism and Taoism, and I wrote my senior thesis on the Chuang Tzu, which is the collected writings of the second most famous Taoist after Lao Tzu.  I found the stuff fascinating, and as a result I went to graduate school in religious studies.  I only lasted a year, but when I got to law school I did a lot of writing about religion and the First Amendment, which is one of the subjects I now teach.  I’ve published one book about law and religion, have one more coming out in March, and am supposed to be writing another one that will come out in 2018.  Religion is an important part of Tuttle also—the main character gets really into the Chuang Tzu, and when his Catholic colleague insists on writing about his religious faith in a controversial opinion about pornography, Tuttle wonders what the law might look like if he were to approach it from a Taoist angle.  Hint: it would be odd.

What’s your take on touring? 

I’ve never published a book with a publisher that was able to send me on any kind of a tour, but I love doing reading events, so I set them up myself whenever I can.  To me, the readings might be the best part of publishing a book—you get to meet people who want to read your book and make jokes about yourself in front of them—what could be better?  I’m still so excited when someone wants me to sign his or her book—I usually draw them a piece of fruit saying something unexpected.  Plus, whenever the venue lets me, I bring a bottle of Jameson and some plastic cups, because my motto is that “nobody should ever have to bring a flask to one of my readings.”  I’ll be on a mini-tour in the northeast for Tuttle for a week or so in early December with some special guests and cool sponsors.  I’m very excited about it.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

My pep talks for writers starting out or feeling down take the form of pointing out how terrible a writer I was not so long ago.  When I’m doing a reading, I will often read from my first, unpublished novel, entitled “Arrivederci, Loser,” which might be the worst piece of shit ever penned.  It’s a novel only in the sense that it is 200 pages of words all put together in one file.  The main character is a walking, talking, three-foot high blueberry muffin who suddenly shows up in the apartment of two slacker twenty-somethings named Zatwig and Mumford.  They all end up going underwater to fight a war against some scallops.  The title was taken from a piece of hate mail that my wife got from a friend of hers after we had been going out for about a month back in the fall of 1992.  Anyway, I figure that if the person who wrote that thing could end up a published writer, anybody can. 

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Not long ago I was “teaching” a workshop about writing humor, and since I have no idea how to teach writing at all (I thought about just teaching them environmental law, but it didn’t seem like what they’d signed up for), I thought hard for a week or so about what advice I might give the aspiring humor writer.  I came up with a top-ten list, and probably the most important one is to “mine your pain and humiliation.”  Not particularly innovative, I realize, but worth reminding people about.  So much of my writing draws on mortifying moments from my past.  Indeed I just wrote a sex scene which draws from one of those moments.  Which leads me into another one of my tips for aspiring humorists—“write about sex, yes, but make it bad sex, because good sex isn’t funny.”

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I had all sorts of jobs before I went to law school.  I was a paper boy for the Boston Globe when I was twelve. Later in high school I was a bank teller--probably the worst bank teller in the history of Boston’s North Shore.  Once I cashed a guy’s pay stub instead of his check.  I would have cashed anything—a McDonald’s Gift Certificate, a paper bag, a baseball card.  In college I worked as a librarian’s assistant, a telemarketer (okay, only for one day), a stockboy at the local gourmet grocery store.  A couple of the wicked Boston-y guys who worked at the store called me “College Boy” or even just “College.”  One time one of them who worked the butcher counter held up a ham hock and said, “hey College Boy, what kind of meat is this?” and I said “umm, ham hock?” and he said “I don’t belieeeeeve it, he gohhhtt it.”  I almost took a job as a door-to-door meat seller, but it was totally on commission so I turned it down.  I taught English in Taiwan for a year, worked as a legal assistant at a dicey American law firm in a town called Xiamen, in mainland China (I had to go to the airport to get my stipend, sent by the Hong Kong office with random strangers flying the Hong Kong-Xiamen route), and spent a summer temping in Chicago.  I worked for a week in one of the last smoking offices in the city.  Banning smoking inside of office buildings was a good idea.  None of these jobs helped shape me as a writer.

Jay Wexler is a law professor at Boston University. 
He is the author of four books, including Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars and The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of its Most Curious Provisions. 
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