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“What is remarkable about these stories, in addition to the strange stairs they tread, is the sheer unabashed reluctance on Row’s part to let his characters sit comfortably within an ethnicity or a class or a type. In this Row shows, truly, his creative flexibility—not content to inherent a world and then set about describing it, he makes of it something new and unexpected. In this, he shows that he is the rarest of writers.” —David Treuer
“Jess Row is concerned with human stories, with tragedy on the scale of individual lives; while these stories resonate far beyond the characters themselves, the stories’ aim seems to be to illuminate the complicated nature of particular human experience. These are psychologically astute portraits of men and women whose outward circumstances often reflect inward states of loss or grief. They are also deeply compelling narratives. This is work of the highest quality, on par with that of the best contemporary writers.” —Julie Orringer
“The promise of discovery made in Nobody Ever Gets Lost is fulfilled whenever Jess Row’s characters dare to cross the many boundaries that must be crossed if the heart is to be found. In painterly, richly detailed, worldly fictions, Row reminds us of the moral rigor needed to overcome loss and the fact of the world’s swift indifference to suffering on any scale.” —Christine Schutt
A Q&A with the author on Nobody Ever Gets Lost
When did you start writing Nobody Ever Gets Lost?
I started writing the title story, in fact, in September of 2002, just after my wife and I moved to New York from Michigan. Which is just when the story takes place—exactly a year after September 11th. I think I wanted to capture the quality of life in the city at that moment, which was in one way just as it has always been—the kind of ordinary frenetic daily life of the city—and in another way still completely shaken and traumatized.
Although most of these stories seem directly related to September 11th, some of them reference the event only in oblique ways, and at least one (“The World in Flames”) not at all. What would you say is the collection’s common thread?
When I started writing this book I knew I wanted to write about religious violence and terror, not specifically about one event. I’ve always been drawn to writing about people with strong moral or political commitments, probably because I grew up around many such people and am one myself. September 11th, however, tipped me over into wanting to write about the most extreme, and in a sense self-canceling level of commitment, the commitment to killing innocent people in the name of an abstraction, political, religious, or otherwise. Which is why, in most of the stories, September 11th connects to some other event, movement, or concern. I tried not to let it exist in isolation.
Do you see any connections between this collection and your first, The Train to Lo Wu?
Absolutely, though it might not seem that way at first. The Train to Lo Wu is about a city, Hong Kong, and a specific moment or space in time, the period immediately after the handover of Hong Kong from British rule back to China, in the late 1990s. It’s a book filled with questions about whether people from different backgrounds can truly coexist and interrelate in a meaningful way. In a sense, it’s a book with a somewhat optimistic, post-Cold War view of globalism. It comes out of an experience of a world at peace (momentarily, as it turned out). Nobody Ever Gets Lost, which I began writing essentially the moment I stopped writing The Train to Lo Wu, reflects a much darker view of the same world, and the same questions. The question of coexistence—you might say the question of whether the dream of a cosmopolitan, multi-racial, polylingual world is possible at all.
How did you go about getting these stories published individually, before they came together as a collection?
I always tell my students that submitting stories to magazines and journals is a matter of keeping your work in a perpetual cycle—if a story is rejected, send it out to a different venue the same day. And try not to feel too devastated by any one particular rejection. In my case, I always have one or two stories on submission somewhere. Cultivating relationships with editors is important, but so is finding new places to publish.
What is your favorite place to publish?
That’s a very tricky question to answer, and I don’t have one, but perhaps I can give a special mention to Threepenny Review. Wendy Lesser, the editor, published one of the stories in The Train to Lo Wu, and then later was the first person to publish my book reviews and essays. The story from Nobody Ever Gets Lost I published with her, “Sheep May Safely Graze,” won a PEN/O. Henry Award and a Pushcart Prize, and I was thrilled to share that honor with her. And she’s publishing a new story of mine, “The Dispatcher,” this spring, which is part of my collection in progress, Storyknife. I really owe her a great deal.
Say more about that collection, and anything else you’re working on.
I’ve been working on Storyknife on and off for the last three or four years. It grows out of my increasing interest in metafiction, which at one time I hated: I thought it was sterile, self-referential, and too much like a game. All that changed when I read John Barth’s short story “Lost in the Funhouse,” one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever encountered, and also John Berger’s G., which is simultaneously a great novel with characters and setting and so on, and a deconstruction of the whole idea of the Anglo-European novel and the culture it came from. G. is so outrageous because it tries to be honest about the political and cultural presuppositions that make fiction work, and that’s the kind of metafiction I want to write. It’s just fiction that turns on itself and asks obnoxious and offensive questions—not technical questions so much as moral questions. Anyone interested can read one of these new stories, “Take the Child,” online at Boston Review.
But my main focus right now is a new novel, The Immigrant, which is under contract to Riverhead Books. I won’t say much about it other than what was announced with the sale: it’s about a person who undergoes racial reassignment surgery, who feels that he is of one race but trapped in a body of another race. Much more than that and I’m afraid I’ll let the genie out of the bottle.
One impression a reader might have on reading The Train to Lo Wuand Nobody Ever Gets Lostback to back is that your work has become somewhat more emotionally raw. Did the process of writing the second book feel that way?
Definitely, at times. September 11th, as an event, punctured the American psyche, and certainly punctured my psyche. The Train to Lo Wu is very much a book about people feeling out of place, disocciated, invisible, but also somewhat cushioned—there isn’t a great deal of physical violence there, or even emotional violence. Nobody has a good deal of both. I gave a reading of my story “Lives of the Saints” (the final story in the book) a few years ago at Ramapo College, and one of the students in the audience asked about the amount of raw pain and violence in the story—which ends with the protagonist nailing her artist lover to a plywood cross—and I realized that the best analogy I could make was to the hardcore music I grew up listening to, particularly bands from the Washington, DC, scene of the 1980s and early 1990s. The best of that music was loud, discordant, angry, political, but also very beautifully and carefully formed and controlled. In a sense, that’s the aesthetic standard I was holding myself to, without knowing it.