Feels like the first time 

Missoula writer Josh Wagner on bringing his debut novel to term

You dream about it. I dream about it. Probably the only people in Missoula who don’t dream about it are the ones who have already done it: published their first novel.

Author Josh Wagner is the newest member of the first-novel club, Missoula chapter. To the further despondency, perhaps, of the literary wastrels still staring dolefully at blank computer screens, thumbing through sheaves of aborted starts scribbled in coffee shops and on the backs of cocktail napkins, or simply insisting to themselves that there’s a book inside them, they just know it, Wagner’s came pouring out all at once, in one malarial three-week swoop of all-nighters.

In Bombay. Now how’s that for nascent author mythology?

“I was not expecting the book to happen,” says Wagner, 28. “I didn’t go there to write—I just went there to travel around. About three weeks through, the story idea just kind of hit me like lightning. I stayed up late.

“I was overwhelmed by India,” he continues. “When I finished the last page, I almost felt I was in a trance state, like the words were just coming out and I didn’t even know what they were meaning.”

And even once the creative magma had cooled and hardened, he says, he still didn’t know: The first draft of The Adventures of the Imagination of Periphery Stowe, Wagner recalls, was completely incomprehensible.

“No one would have been able to understand it,” he says. “I didn’t understand it. It took another three years for me to polish it to the point where I was happy with it. I actually kept going right up until a month before it went to print.”

Periphery Stowe is a novel of abstraction as much as action, and even its author concedes that the Byzantine plot is hard to explain in brief because it goes off in so many different directions. Wagner finds it easier to crystallize the book’s theme: “The human obsession with living forever.” From his first sentence—“Under the gown of an inkblot sky as round and purple as one eye to the other…”—to his last, Wagner sustains an acrobatic level of metaphorical brinkmanship and clever wordplay that falls somewhere between James Joyce and Douglas Adams.

Even the nomenclature—characters have names like Riggs Bombay and Prova Rogue—will remind many of Adams’ bestselling Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But while he admits to devouring the Hitchhiker books in high school, Wagner gently disputes any debt owed to Zaphod Beeblebrox or Adams’ terminally whimsical brand of science fiction in his writing. For one thing, he’s far less scientific.

“Adams was more into physics,” Wagner says. “He had more of a materialistic, atheistic, scientific attitude, whereas I think I’m more into psychology. I love physics, but psychology and personality are way more important to me. I’m not even into sci-fi or fantasy that much. I’m in love with Dostoevsky—he’s my hero.”

If anyone mistakes Periphery for science fiction, Wagner says, that’s probably India talking: “It’s a pretty fantastic place.”

Although Wagner feels his book turned out better for the intensive revisions he made after returning from India, he also admits the revision process put the lie to a cherished belief about writing.

“I’d always grown up with the Jack Kerouac idea of getting a novel down in one draft and there you go. I not only learned that that’s kind of bullshit, but that I’m not as able to get involved in a book if I do that. Through the revision process, I found that I was able to really get into the book and make it a project with more of a personal relationship to me, rather than just something out of the blue.”

He was fortunate to have an indulgent publisher. Periphery Stowe, published last month by BAM Publications, was the small California company’s first project. The process of arriving at BAM, Wagner says, is a story in itself: Wagner had met and struck up a friendship with the publisher—a celebrity of sorts, he says, because of a popular consumer advocacy website he founded in the mid ’90s—and kept in touch.

“Having a lot of philosophy and writing in common,” Wagner recalls, “we just kind of clicked. He’d call every week just to talk about stuff. That went on for about a year and a half until, finally, he decided to start a publishing company—mostly with the intention of reprinting his own book, which he’s probably not going to do for a couple of years now. He said, ‘Let me see your manuscript.’”

It was sweet relief, Wagner admits, from the disheartening barrage of rejection letters he’d been receiving.

“I didn’t send any manuscripts out,” Wagner explains, “just query letters. And I got all sorts of rejections. I’d get kind of frustrated after awhile and stop sending things out, and get distracted by some other music or writing project, and when I’d come back I’d just be ready for more rejection letters. I think I got probably 40 or 50. After awhile I just decided to give up.”

Wagner describes himself as “an on-and-off person.” During the writing stage, he says, he wouldn’t stop until he was exhausted, and it was the same way during the three-year revision process.

“Anytime a new scene developed,” he recalls, “where I wasn’t just correcting small stuff, I couldn’t stop. Nothing could get in the way. I had to finish the scene. And then, after that, three weeks would go by and I wouldn’t even think about the book. I tried to do the whole write-every-day thing, but I haven’t been able to stick to that. I’m not very disciplined in one area.”

Wagner shares a house with four roommates, one of whom has been his best friend since sixth grade. The house, to hear Wagner describe it, is one big evolving synergistic collaboration, with everybody always getting their music-and-writing chocolate all over everybody’s art-and-filmmaking peanut butter. Wagner and his housemates have been in bands together, made movies together, recorded albums together. To a sometimes indifferent reception, admittedly, at least among people who don’t live in the same house: After a few years gathering dust at a local record shop, he notes, the last copy of Doc Schwop’s Snake-Oil Sideshow finally went home with a customer who plucked it from the free bin.

His housemates, says Wagner, are confidants as well as collaborators. They’re usually the first to see what he’s written—once he’s ready to show it. While still working on Periphery Stowe, Wagner built a story for a children’s book around some random illustrations he found in one of their sketchbooks while the artist was out of town. They plan to give the book, Drink Sunrise, away in e-book form later this year.

And that’s not the extent of it yet: Wagner is already working on his next novel, Broomsprinting, set in “a town that doesn’t exist,” but is somewhat paradoxically located on the site of the first atomic testing in New Mexico. That’s about two years from completion, says Wagner, and he’s taking his time. Right now, there’s also the film adaptation of Periphery Stowe to think about—another in-house collaboration with his roommates, one of whom is an animator. That ball should be rolling by next summer, Wagner hopes.

“The publisher’s excited about it,” he says. “But he’s going to drum up the money first.”

The Adventures of the Imagination of Periphery Stowe is available at Muse Comics, The Book Exchange, Fact & Fiction and Shakespeare & Co. Author Josh Wagner will host an open mic at Shakespeare & Co. this Tuesday, June 8.

smetanka@missoulanews.com

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