Tractors and David Bowie: an Interview w/ Josh Weil
November 10, 2010
The New Valley is a collection of three novellas (Ridge Weather, Stillman Wing, and Sarverille Remains) set in the hills of Virginia and West Virginia. The main characters of the novellas are like three different kinds of rock but they're carved out of the same mountain. Check it out.
Tractors are a major currency in Stillman Wing and you wield tractor jargon like a pro. What kind of research went into that?
The truth is, I've never stripped down a tractor in my life. I've never even tuned one up. I don't know a whole lot about them. But that's part of what I love about writing: you get to throw yourself into a world you don't know, dig into it as deeply as you can, and hopefully, shift a little yourself in the process. So, once I knew how important tractors (and the Deutz in particular) were going to be, I went about educating myself in a few ways: 1. I went to a shop where they repair and refurbish antique tractors and the guys there were so great; they let me hang around and watch them do their stuff and took me around and showed me the ropes. Also, there's actually an online forum for antique tractor enthusiasts. Those guys were really helpful, too. 2. Then there was the book: How to Restore your Farm Tractor by Robert Pripps. This thing was my bible. It takes you step by step through the entire process, though with a Farmall and a Ford, so I had to do my best to extrapolate what it would look like with a Deutz. I know I screwed up a few places, but I think I got most of it right. 3. Finally, there's my Dad. He's no pro, really, with this stuff, but he works around farm machinery a lot, and works with farmers a lot, and so I'd call him up all the time with questions -- so much that he started answering the phone with "another tractor question?". Now it's a joke between us.
In Sarverville Remains, the main character Geoff makes a Bowie reference, what is Geoff's favorite era of Bowie?
You know what's funny? I don't even listen to Bowie. I don't really know Bowie. But my first girlfriend, back in college, was a Bowie fan and she used to listen to the man non-stop. Somehow his music has become irrevocably associated, in my mind, with those wild and slightly loose-cannon college years, and it was just that vibe -- that feel -- that must have thrown the song into my mind right then.
I read (or misread) that you did the tractor diagrams in Stillman Wing, do you have a background in illustration? Did you model any of the diagrams off of old owner manuals?
I did do the drawings in Stillman Wing. I'm so glad you picked that up.The publisher left that info off the hardcover. But, yeah, I loved doing them. I used to think I'd be a painter, studied it a bit, then took off in a different direction. So it was great to be able to get my hands back in that visual world a bit, again. I did model them off old owner manuals and brochures. I remember seeing the cross sections in those things and thinking that they looked like the posters in doctor's offices -- and the idea just kind of sprang from that. I was so happy Grove liked the drawings. It made a book close to my heart feel like it was even a little more part of me.
Josh Weil is currently the writer-in-residence at the James Merrill House. He made a play list for The New Valley here and you can find links to more of his work here.