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Interview: March 3, 2022

Joel Agee, the son of acclaimed author James Agee, makes his fiction debut with THE STONE WORLD. This haunting novel depicts an American boy’s childhood in Mexico, ensconced in a world comprised of communist European exiles, local union activists, street children and avant-garde artists like Frida Kahlo. In this interview conducted by Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, Agee talks about his six-year-old protagonist, Peter Vogelsang, and how he imagined him; why it took nearly 15 years for the book to get published; and the importance of revising and rewriting to ensure that your work is truly “complete.”

Question: You have mentioned in an interview that you relied on “fragments of memory” to enable you to create six-year-old protagonist Peter Vogelsang. How much of Peter reflects your experiences as a boy living in Cuernavaca in the late 1940s? 

Joel Agee: Peter Vogelsang is a child looking forward to first grade when he learns that he will soon have to leave Mexico. I was eight when my family emigrated, and I had a two-year-old brother. We were no longer living in Cuernavaca, but in Mexico City, where I was enrolled in a public school.

I would not be able to write a memoir of my early childhood in Mexico, particularly at the age of six, for the simple reason that the scattered memories I have of that time don’t cohere as a narrative. Almost all the events in the book are imagined. I’m flattered that some readers find this hard to believe. It attests to my skill as a fictionist.

I never attacked ants with a magnifying glass, as Peter and his friends do. I did not have an epistolary romance with a girl my age. Our maid, Zita, was not engaged to a railroad worker who helped organize a strike. (There were, in fact, no railroad strikes in Mexico in the late 1940s.) I was not spanked for breaking my stepfather’s pen. Unlike Peter’s mother, my mother was not a member of a string quartet. Consequently, Sándor, the quartet’s first violinist and a charming amateur magician, doomed to fall victim to his native Hungary’s paranoid postwar regime, never existed. I was stung by a scorpion once, as Peter is, but I never experienced his hallucinatory adventure with anaphylactic shock.

The main contribution of memory to my book was that of a basic armature consisting of the setting and the schematic outlines of some of the major characters. The rest is fiction.

Q: You have identified a main theme of the book as “the wonder of being reminded what childhood is”… and also maintain that “We all outgrow our childhood, but we don’t leave it behind.” Is THE STONE WORLD in the end a celebration of a childhood that you no longer are able to fully recall?

JA: The first of those two statements was slightly longer: “The pleasure and the wonder of being reminded of what childhood is, from its own point of view.” I wrote that in answer to the question: “What do you hope readers will get out of your book?” I did not intend it to be understood as a theme of the novel.

“We all outgrow our childhood, but we don’t leave it behind” strikes me as a truism. Our childhood subsists within us as a stratum of consciousness underlying more recent accretions of knowledge and rationality, to put it in a very adult way.  

THE STONE WORLD doesn’t celebrate childhood. It’s an exploration. And the childhood in question is not my dimly remembered past, but the vividly imagined childhood of a boy named Peter Vogelsang. Naturally, in order to imagine him, I had to draw on my own experience, but not by way of memory in the usual sense of mental records of past events. What I call the stratum of childhood is memory of a different kind. It is a capacity for playful, curious, dreamlike, imaginative discovery that we all had before we learned to use our minds as instruments for the rational ordering of experience. I call it memory because for many or most adults, this unlearned, instinctive skill has been forgotten. Recovering it is, in a sense, an act of remembering, and what is remembered could be called the child’s mind, or the imaginative faculty. Artists, scientists, inventors and creative problem solvers of all kinds make use of it.

Q: It took you four years to write the book, and you say that nearly 20 agents and editors passed on it before you got the news that Melville House wanted to publish it. That adds up to 14 years of waiting. Do you consider yourself to be supernaturally patient? I’m not sure every writer could endure such an extended period of suspense. 

JA: The first four of those 14 years were spent writing the book. And of course you are right, there is a good deal of waiting involved in writing --- waiting for ideas, for solutions to problems of balance, for an elegant way to maintain narrative tension; waiting all together for the slow gestation of the work in progress. The thing takes time. But overall, I felt only blessed and privileged by the inevitable frustrations of creative work. Who was it that said, “the artist is a little god”? I couldn’t have wished for a more fulfilling, even exalting occupation.

Later, the experience of having the book turned down, over and over --- by people who assured me they had enjoyed, admired or loved it but could not imagine a commercially viable way to bring it to readers who would also appreciate it --- was certainly frustrating. I’m not supernaturally patient! I persevered because I didn’t want to give up, and because I never stopped believing in the book’s value. If I had been 30 years younger and this had been my first book, my confidence might have been crushed.

My 20-odd rejections don’t constitute anything close to a record. A Google search informs me that Robert Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE was rejected 121 times, and F. Scott Fitzgerald received 122 rejection slips before he sold a story.

Q: You maintain that a writer should never settle for feeling a work is “good enough,” but rather should constantly be dedicated to the mantra of revise/rewrite. Was there ever an earlier work you have published that, in retrospect, you wish you had taken additional time to revise/rewrite? 

JA: If you feel a calling for excellence, the injunction to revise and rewrite presents itself as a matter of course. Something wants to be brought to completion, and you don’t want “complete” to merely mean “done” in the most rudimentary sense of the word. The dictionary meaning of “complete” is: 1) having all necessary parts: not lacking anything. 2) not limited in any way, as in “They sat in complete silence.” 3) not requiring more work. Very basically, respect for your craft requires that you review what you’ve written and revise and correct where necessary. You wouldn’t trust a plumber who at some point in his labor packs his bags with the remark, “It’s good enough.” Of course, perfectionism can be a bane. You need to know where to stop. How? Something tells you.

When the German edition of my first book, TWELVE YEARS: An American Boyhood in East Germany, was reissued in 2008, I added several footnotes to correct significant matters of fact that I had gotten wrong in the first edition. For the rest, I left everything unchanged. I would not want to rewrite or revise any of my other published works. I consider them done, in the sense of “complete.”

Q: As you have said, imagination is required even in writing a memoir. Is there ever the danger of the author becoming the unreliable narrator of his or her own memoir? Or is the effort to remain entirely factual a fool’s errand?

JA: I think the effort to remain entirely factual in a memoir would be self-defeating. What we remember is almost always partly imagined. Therefore, all memoirists must be regarded, and should regard themselves, as unreliable narrators.

Q: Can you think of any literary work from your past reading that may have influenced your approach for THE STONE WORLD?

JA: I had no model for THE STONE WORLD when I began writing it in 2008. I had read stories and novels about young children that greatly impressed me --- the most notable one being Thomas Mann’s short story, “Disorder and Early Sorrow” --- but none that explored childhood from its own point of view, through a close third person perspective. That challenge excited me. If I had known of a predecessor, I probably would not have written the book.