Josh speaking about his book, image via Arcadia News’ Flickr
Joshua Isard is a novelist and educatore situated just outside of Philadelphia.
He has recently published a brilliant novel, called Conquistador of the Useless, about the life of a successful slacker. Not only is he a successful writer who’s pieces have been featured in a number of literary magazines, he’s also the developer and director of Arcadia University’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.
It is about time that we get to know this author and educator, so read on to find out a bit more about our Geek of the Week.
When did you first know that you wanted to write stories?
When I was thirteen I read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell and remember distinctly being shocked that a book could deal with such lofty topics, and make me feel so strongly about them. From there, I was pretty much hooked, though I did go through a phase of wanting to be a lawyer, and I’m very glad I avoided that. My wife is an attorney and we both agree that I would have been a terrible one.
You studied creative writing at University of Edinburgh and literature at University College London. How did your time in the UK change your writing?
It gave me more to write about. Oddly, I don’t write too much about my own experiences—they make it into my stories more as asides than as the main plot—but being abroad, there was something to spark a story almost every day, some unique side street or overhead conversation between people of shockingly different accents. I wish Evernote existed when I was over there.
And, really, all travel does this for me. I was in India a few years ago and got wildly ill, twice, which prompted one of my favorite short stories I’ve ever written. It is about a person getting sick there, but a woman, and ended up being almost totally detached from the details of my own experience (which we need not go into too deeply). Still, I never would have had the inspiration without being there.
Being out in the world gets my writing going, and spending two years abroad—I don’t have time to write it all.
Can you tell us a bit about Conquistador of the Useless?
Conquistador of the Useless is my debut novel. It’s about grunge kids reluctantly growing up as they reach their early thirties.
The very quick version of the plot: Nathan and Lisa move out of the city and into the suburbs where they find that their desire for a quiet life gets constantly interrupted. Nathan loans the teenage girl next door a copy of Cat’s Cradle and her parents are appalled. Lisa’s nesting instinct kicks in and she wants a baby. Nathan’s best friend tries to convince him it’s a good idea to climb Mt. Everest.
Shit starts happening, and the characters start realizing what matters most to them—which has little to do with their beloved grunge music, or climbing a mountain.
The funny thing about all this is that I wrote it while I lived in Philly, in Bella Vista, and then I moved to the suburbs right when it got picked up by the publisher. And my neighbor has a teenage daughter. And my wife and I just had our first daughter. Life imitates art… though I have never been to the Himalayas.
Now that you’ve written a novel and a number of short stories, do you find yourself preferring one format over the other?
I only prefer short stories because there is far less of the soul-crushing anxiety that comes with novel writing. When you write a novel, you basically do it alone, and if you’re anything like most writers I know then you spend as much time doubting yourself as you do writing.
But, really, I’ve always loved reading novels more than stories, and I always aspired to write one, so Conquistador is easily the project from which I feel most rewarded. I’m not looking forward to starting another novel, but I will, and later on I’ll be happy I did.
That is the paradox of writing.
You’re the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Arcadia University. What drew you into teaching?
I fell into teaching pretty much by accident. After grad school I applied to any job that might need someone with writing skills, which resulted in about a year of work in Sunoco’s HR department and a good amount of time freelancing. Then an old professor of mine took a shot on me and gave me a few classes, which I loved teaching. I decided to forge a career in it.
That process involved about six years of working part time at various universities to make a living before I got a full time job—with health insurance!—at Arcadia.
Almost anyone these days who teaches at a University has to love it. There’s no other reason to do it. It’s a hard life where you essentially compete with people you really like for the dwindling number of full time and tenure track jobs. And even when you get one, it’s not a lucrative profession. So the people who do it, they love it like I do.
Do you have any projects you’re currently working on? What’s next?
I am trying desperately to start new projects. I’ve had a perfect storm of reasons not to write over the past few months: editing Conquistador, figuring out how to market the novel, new baby, the first class of Arcadia’s MFA graduates, and a big application season.
These are all good things, but also good excuses not to write. And for most writers, anything is an excuse not to write. Folding laundry is an excuse not to write. We spend a lot of time fighting through those excuses to our keyboards. But, lately, my excuses have been a bit bigger in scope.
So there are a few short stories I’ve had in mind, and then a novel based on some of my family history—my grandmother is a holocaust survivor, and I’d love to tackle that story with the combination of dark humor and sensitivity that Vonnegut used when he wrote about the Dresden bombings in Slaughterhouse 5. But, honestly, that’s pretty daunting, so we’ll see what happens.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers and prospective students that might be looking to join your program at Arcadia?
You have to want to write. You can’t want to publish.
Let me explain the difference.
Anyone who applies to my program, or any other program, who talks about, in any way, wanting other people to read their work will be met with extreme skepticism. This includes sentiments like: “I want to publish a novel,” “I want my writing to have an effect on other people,” “I want to change the world.” Someone once applied and said he wanted his stories to get turned into Hollywood blockbusters.
And then there are those who want to write because they want to write. They have a drive inside them, which is difficult to articulate, that steers them toward writing. This is the only good reason to join an MFA program, to get better at writing, not to publish or change people’s lives.
And of course those people who just want to write also want to publish. But they don’t say it, they don’t have to. What else does one do with a story or poem once one’s finished it? And it’s the reality of writing that we all have to deal with the publishing industry. That’s fine. We talk about it a lot in the program and make sure our students are prepared.
But at the beginning, as motivation, if you think beyond the writing process, if you write not as an end in itself but as a means to get published or reach people, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. We look for the students for whom getting better at the craft is the real goal. We can teach students to navigate the publishing world, we can’t teach the right motivation for producing quality material.