Introduction to James Lewelling by Bronwyn Mills


“I don’t plan. I only hope”
—James Lewelling

In Istanbul, I was part of a writing group that included British poet John Ash, several U.S. poets, including Mel Kenne and Jeffrey Kahrs, and poet and translator, Cliff Endres. Only two of us wrote prose. One afternoon, when the group was meeting at my place, in walked Jeff with a galumphing, tall fellow — well—galumphing behind him. We were introduced, we chatted; I remembered his wife, Lisa Isaakson, another poet. We had a mutual Turkish acquaintance — translator Önder Otçu — and, yes, they missed Istanbul, but were immersed in their teaching jobs in Abu Dhabi. That, I thought, was that.
Somehow, James and I kept in touch; and, when ferreting out prose writers I knew, his name came up. James is prolific; he has not one, but several, novels in progress. He shared one, he said, that needed drastic cutting; and, I dove in, eliminating this, that, slimming down. That, I feared, would be the end of a potential friendship. Nipped in the bud. But, no, James was actually pleased. He’s serious, I thought. At first, the piece that I edited struck me as infernally mundane — some bloke obsessing about losing his cell phone — but midway, as this device shone more and more light on James’ whacked out, peculiar protagonist, the piece began to work on me. I remembered Ivan Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man, who, coming out of 19th century Russia, was hardly obsessed with a cell phone, but who was absurdly obsessed with a young woman, Liza. James, have you ever read Diary of a Superfluous Man?, I wrote. Indeed he had. Ah, not just some grandstander. Not a car salesman of words. Literate — hallelujah!
James portrays himself modestly: “I don’t think I know anything more or observe more keenly what’s going on around me than anyone else.” Flashback: New York, moons ago, my theatre days, when someone remarked to a fellow thespian, “What makes you think that just because you are actors, that you feel any more profoundly than the old lady who cries because a taxi just ran over her dog on 6th Avenue?”
Thus, no poseur of sensitivity, James comments, “I write out of or from the human condition rather than about the human condition.” Once more, I think of that character in Turgenev’s novella, prototype for a profoundly alienated person who, reincarnated, frequently inhabits latter 20th to present 21st century fiction. Not that James himself comes off as alienated, though an exile of many years and a bit of an odd duck where he lives in the Emirates. “I don’t know anything about the human condition beyond that I cannot escape it.” But what does the human condition look like in exile and what does that mean to someone who is fortunate enough to have an art with which to express — what? oneself? one’s perspective on being human in the world?
James does not think of himself as an “expat writer,” someone, he believes, who exoticizes his surroundings. He resists specific place though his characters are clearly North American as he is. There are, however, advantages to living out of country:

…living outside the United States facilitates the kind of seclusion I think I would be naturally inclined to even if I were living in the US. Without making a choice to keep away from what is going on, I am allowed to be away from what is going on. I think this helps when approaching the blank page. I am not aware mostly of what other people are doing and thus don’t have to take it into consideration when I work. I don’t know if this is a good thing over all or not, but it does help to focus one’s concentration on whatever impulse is driving the work rather than wondering what kind of thing one is doing.

This segues nicely into James’ process; he begins with what, my former students would have called, perhaps rather inaccurately, “stream of consciousness”:

I have always found that if I write what I find myself actually thinking at any given moment, it’s pretty strange. And also that there is a lot of it. It’s that strange voice in my head that provides material. I get as much of that written down as I can before I start “writing.” This preliminary mining of thoughts can go on for some time, a couple of years usually. Somewhere along the line, it takes on direction. Then I start “writing,” which is to say finding a form in that material in the way a sculptor finds a form in a block of stone. Oddly the form takes all this information and assembles it to its own purposes.

Indeed, the writing is not about the author; and for me this is vital. Yes, like Arachne, like the common garden spider for that matter, we may spin our fictional web from what we have inside of us, nonetheless, from the accumulation of his experiences, James says: “Incidents become symbolic but not within the framework of my biography but in another alien framework that is being created by the fiction.” Art becomes master; and writer, vehicle: “I don’t plan. I only hope.” Then,

When the form becomes complete, I’m mostly done as far as conceptualization goes, except for fixing problems, shifting things around for pacing purposes, etc. I do that a lot. Ends get moved to the beginning and longer units get broken up and the parts interspersed among shorter units. That’s the compositional phase of writing. It’s very musical to me. I try to concentrate on rhythm and shifting emotional registers and melody. When that gets to the point that I can’t move anything or eliminate anything, I’m done.

We have chosen an excerpt from Lewelling’s Innocence, during which, in the quite mundane moments of life, the narrator receives news of a family tragedy. Like so many of us, how does one handle such news when at a distance? Character firmly established by the end of this brief excerpt, can we the readers speculate about a different reaction? A different personality and thus, quite a different story? Or, as the writer may or may not have intended, are we now firmly under his fiction’s control and must see the action out until the end?