Louis B. Jones is the author of three New York Times Notable Books: Ordinary Money, Particles and Luck, and California’s Over. He’s been a regular reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and has contributed to various high profile magazines and publications. His new novel, Radiance, is inspired by the idea that none of us truly understand our experiences in life. The story is set in LA and follows Mark Perdue, a good scientific man, who learns that life defies scientific analysis and  that a little uncertainty might just be the key to happiness.
Why did you write Radiance?
I always start with a problem I don’t fully understand. In the case of this particular short novel, the insoluble problems I set out to solve (or at least maybe rake into some clearer shape) were several. The scientist I portray is in despair. But his despair is of the most ordinary kind. Only garden-variety everyday problems beset him—a daughter’s restless new impatience with home and hearth, the disappointing imperfection of his own career, a remoteness in his beloved wife, their failure to get pregnant again, a sense of his own encroaching incompetence, at a certain point in life. These kinds of problems aren’t very plotty—they don’t involve gunshots, buried family secrets, forbidden lusts, espionage, car chases—but they do seem worth addressing because they’re the actual hurdles in life we all overcome—or fail to overcome, as some of us do seem to lack integrity or gumption or a reason for trying, and “check out” in various ways, quick or slow.
A scientist’s crisis of faith, in particular, seemed respectable. Especially an eminent physicist. I think of physicists as the bonafide mystics of our modern era, investigators of the (essentially divine) reality that surrounds us, folks who never outgrew being innocently startled by the simple fact of existence. So this guy’s crisis of faith seemed worth caring about.
How did you first go about getting published?
This particular book Radiance had a lucky welcome. I’d had three novels published already. So this time there was an editor, a really great editor whose books I’d always admired, who was eager to take a risk on a new novel of mine, even in the very choppy waters of present-day publishing.
But in the case of my first published book, I think I broke through just by hanging in there long enough. You have to be crazy to be in this business. You literally have to dispense with certain rational cause-result expectations. “Getting published,” when it happens, will be simply an accidental by-product of the work you’ve always been doing. Back in the 90s, that first breakthrough manuscript of mine was passed, by a friend, to an agent I’d never heard of, but who happened to have an open spot on her desk. She is still my agent.
What do you hope for people to take away from the novel . . . in addition to a good read?
To serve up a good read is, of course, a novelist’s professional obligation. But readers will have discerned, a good read is often a confection of tried-and-true old gimmicks. Most of the really wonderful books I’ve known in my life have been peculiar—the books that have made my life deeper and more loving, more worth living—they’ve not been in the “good read” category. The books that are your true friends risk being difficult, intractable, awkward, even “boring,” complicated. (Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, Eliot, Woolf, Melville. Etc., etc., etc.) In my own writing (and I hope my fellow writers will sympathize if I say this), I’ve always tried to aim high. So that’s the kind of writer I’ve ended up as. My novels are supposed to be high-protein treats, not the eclairs that many good reads are. I really believe the thing has to have integrity, from beginning to end, integrity down to its molecules. So I hope I’m not doing otherwise. But carry away? I shy from specific themes or morals. As for what my readers might carry away from any of my books, I guess I most hope that they might go off loving the world more, and their own lives more. Empathy is the special gift of the narrative arts. Radiance has things to say about father-daughter relationships, male fidelity (and male infidelity), religious faith, even cosmology and the Big Bang. There’s plenty to carry away, from a book.
What is your favorite part about being a writer? The greatest challenge?
The first thing that comes to mind is coffee. Work for me always starts way before dawn at a very cold workbench in a trailer in the woods, and my whole metabolism loves the orchestral little clang of my computer’s “hello” fanfare, and the first sip of the darkest roast. I’m metabolically doomed, as a practitioner of this daily graphomania. Maybe much later in the writing day, if I’m lucky, I’ll get the thrill of the little snap, the snap where my language has replicated Creation, where I’ve licensed a feeling. That’s a thrill which is higher than, and additional to, the first sip of coffee.
The greatest challenge in the writing life … surely it’s a writer’s chronic, deluded expectation of “justice” in the book biz. The expectation that merit be rewarded and mediocrity punished, though punished only by indifference. Such impatience, of course, results from a forgetfulness of “the tao,” so to speak. I only get unhappy with my fate in the hours when I’m not at my workbench cobbling together an imaginary world more true than this one. Which is where I ought to be. Being a little bit blessedly crazy does come in as a crucial help, in this life.
How do you approach the blank page?
These days it’s a screen. The cursor blinks in the upper-left-hand corner inserting “nothing” into “nothing.” I think I banish nothingness by, first, spraying something up there—anything—a blot later to be forgotten and swept aside in the flood. Your task in writing is, say, to have nightmare about a dragon. Well, maybe you’ll have to dream, first, about the little harmless teapot that stands for the dragon. Then later, if you keep at it, you can dispense with the teapot and face the dragon.
What is your process for writing a novel?
Writing a novel is a complete irrational mess. It’s all first drafts and false starts. I have to begin with these teapots because I live mostly, day-to-day, in complete blissful unconsciousness of the dragons roundabout.
In what ways is writing a novel different from writing reviews and articles? What are the similarities?
I do less and less of writing reviews and articles, as I think I’m not very skilled at it. Reviews and articles, when they’re good, consist mostly of the fine analytic passages I, in the end, cut out of my fiction.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
Nothing important, really. All you pick up over time is a few details. You already know the important things. They were the things you always knew. Your job is to recover what you knew from the start, things you left back in the grass somewhere. They are your gift. This is not supposed to be a mystification, or an evasion of the question. Any specific know-how you pick up, regarding such stuff as the navigation of the book business, how to get the right agent, what authors to read and imitate, whether to apply to MFA programs, style choices, what to include in a cover letter—all such stuff will vary from epoch to epoch, and from writer to writer. Your only fundamental job is to love something, and love it so much that you must bring it to the world, in the form of words.
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  1. […] Louis B. Jones, Radiance, is the author of three New York Times Notable Books: Ordinary Money, Particles and Luck, and California’s Over. He’s been a regular reviewer for the New York Times Book Review and has contributed to various high profile magazines and publications. […]


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