I’ve known Josiah for many years now – which seems impossible. We worked together at the place he describes here – Cecil – and his poetry (and now his fiction) have always impressed me. He once gave me really sound advice when he told me I might be placing my emphasis on the wrong thing if I was worried about making money as a writer. I’m honored to get to share a bit of his wisdom with you here today.
Senlin Ascends is the first book in my Books of Babel series. It’s an adventure story about a provincial headmaster, Thomas Senlin, who is searching for his lost wife in the Tower of Babel. The Tower is like a layer cake of tourist traps and city-states. Senlin’s search for his wife carries him through Dickensian slums, Victorian playhouses, ballrooms, and pirate coves. Along the way, he discovers that his own arrogance and insecurity are hampering his search, so he is forced to change his ways. The story is pretty eclectic; it’s sort of a combination of Alice in Wonderland, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Kafka’s The Trial.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I think I started writing before I could read. That’s a slight exaggeration, but as a kid, I was a ponderous reader and a manic writer. By the time I was twelve, I was writing every day, often for hours. I wrote a 250,000 word fantasy novel, which was very educational and is entirely unreadable. When I did read, I generally stuck to the fantasy/sci-fi genre. My first influences were Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, Pratchett, Asimov, and Bradbury. I was nearly out of high school before I discovered there were other sections in the bookstore.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I write sporadically all day, most days. I don’t have a routine; I have an obsession. Which is great when the work is going well and humiliating when it’s not. Writing for me is like exercise. When I don’t do it, I feel lethargic, depressed, and worthless. So, I write to stay healthy. Instead of fixating over the small disappointment that life delivers with maddening regularity, I obsess over plot points, fragments of dialogue, and entertaining similes. And I’m happier for it.
4. Who are you reading now?
This is probably going to sound pretentious, but I’m reading Cervantes. I’m thirty-five years old, have a master’s degree in literature, and I had never read Don Quixote before. I started reading it out of professional guilt, but I have to say, I’m in love. It’s funny and bawdy, tragic and poignant. It’s unblinking in its explication of aging, self-delusion, idealism, and friendship. It’s just the best stinking book ever. It makes me feel grateful and undeserving all at once.
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
All right, ok, I can do this. Three books. Only three. Here we go: Moby Dick (Melville) because it reinvented the adventure story and taught me that whales are fish. Nausea (Sartre) because it gave me some hope that I wasn’t crazy or spiraling towards infinite loneliness. And Invitation to a Beheading (Nabokov) because one man’s absurdism is another man’s satire.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
Poorly. I balance it poorly. I guess it would be more accurate to say I work at it in fits and starts. I find promotional work mortifying, so I handle it like a kid who’s forced to eat his peas. I get it down as fast as I can and then drown it in milk. I am lucky to live in this faceless age of online interactions; if I had to rely on handshakes and small talk to move my book, not even my own mother would own a copy. The only reason I’ve had any success is that bloggers and independent reviewers have been generous with their time and audiences.
7.What is a typical day like for you?
I have a 120 mile daily commute. So, I listen to a lot of books on tape. I work at a little rural college called Cecil, where I teach and tutor and sit at a desk like a shy gargoyle. I usually watch Netflix while I cook dinner for my wife, and then she paints while I write, or we watch a movie if we’re tired. We play in a rock band together on the weekends. I think my sixteen-year-old self would be impressed to know that I’m married to a pretty girl, writing adventure books, and singing in a band. I wish I could travel back through time to tell him to quit worrying about his hair. Man, he had great hair.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
I hate to pull a Virginia Woolf here, but I would love a room of my own. We live in a tiny apartment, so I have to do most of my writing on the couch, or on the kitchen counter, or in bed. I can actually do all three at once. It’s that small. (It’s not that small.) I would like my room to have one of those little suitcase record players in it. A window would be nice. And plants, and a little threadbare oriental rug, and walls of bookshelves, and an electric kettle, and a little heater for under the desk. You know, I hadn’t realized I had thought about this so much. Now I am sad.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
When I was seventeen, I wrote a couple of teleplays with a friend and a pitch for a sitcom. The show was set in a high school and starred two social pariahs who, surprisingly enough, closely resembled my friend and me. We sent it to the BBC, and a few weeks later received a typed, full-sheet response from the desk of an honest-to-God producer. The body of the letter was a single sentence: “We here at the BBC feel that you should live a little more and write about it less.” I set fire to the letter, and then, because I was standing in my bedroom in my parents’ house, I stamped it out. I taped the scorched, still legible, missive to my bedroom wall, where it stayed for years, serving as a reminder that I should write as hard and as long as I could and also try talking to girls.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
You have to figure out how to get most of your validation and encouragement from the work itself rather than its reception. I’ve seen a lot of promising, talented writers get so discouraged by workshop feedback and cruel editors that they threw in the towel. Don’t show your work until you are sure of it because then you won’t care as much what people say about it. If you need help developing your writing, your story, your style, read a book. Read three.
Though Senlin Ascends is his first published novel, Josiah Bancroft’s poetry has appeared in dozens of magazines and journals, such as: the Cimarron Review, the Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, the Pinch, Natural Bridge, Rattle, Passages North, Slice Magazine, The American Literary Review, Third Coast, and Bomb Magazine: Word Choice. He resides with his wife in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Updates on upcoming installments in the Books of Babel series can be found on the Senlin Ascends Facebook page.