Missoula-based writer Josh Wagner, whose work includes novels like Deadwind Sea and Smashing Laptops and the graphic novel Fiction Clemens, just released Nothing in Mind, a collection of stories, poems, essays, alternative scripture and black-and-white photography. The book spans 10 years of adventure, the results of which are at once light as air and deadly serious. Wagner and I sat down over thousands of miles of tangled tubes and wires to talk about it.
Nothing In Mind begins with the epigram: "the eyes of fire/ the nostrils of air/ the mouth of water/ the beard of earth. –William Blake." Why did you choose that?
Josh Wagner: When I started patching this collection together a few years ago, I wanted to find some sort of unifying theme to help me narrow down content. I noticed that I could classify a lot of my shorter stuff by a guiding principle using the classical four elements. "Bleach Bone" is earth, "Autumn Chill" is fire and water, "Voice" is air, "Fell" is all four. My obsession with protoscience sealed the deal. The title even fit, because the fifth element—aether, not Milla Jovovich—is sometimes attributed to the void, the space between atoms or a kind of pure nothingness.
I know it's hard to explain your religion to us, but try. Do you believe in reincarnation? Is Nothing in Mind a religious text? I think it is.
JW: God is immanent in everything. From black holes to strawberries. The space between atoms. Even Ted Nugent, probably. We have to work extra hard to overcome our prejudices to find God in unlikely and terrifying places. Sometimes God appears as something we have to wrestle to the ground and overcome.
What I like about the reincarnation idea is its commitment to the proposition that everything is changing all the time. Do I think some persistent lump of spirit energy will find its way down the karma train to a new body when I die? Not really. If I'm lucky the people I love will make sure most of my molecules are fed to the trees.
With "Love Story," we take it at its word, then a bad thing happens and we wonder if the title is sarcastic, then there's hope again. Have you ever seen a horrible car wreck up close?
JW: Yes, twice. Once when I was a kid we stopped to help out with a nasty motorcycle wreck where the guy drove his bike off a cliff. Then years later I saw this guy speed into a telephone pole on the corner of Brooks and Mount. The steering wheel got wedged up into his sternum. When I got to the window, he was saying, "Ow, ow, ow," over and over, with no real emotion at all. It was very surreal.
I heard you're leaving Missoula. Where are you going and will you please come back?
JW: I'm going to spend a few months writing in Ireland. It's one of those magical things we think of doing after we retire. But I decided I have to do them now in case I don't make it that far.
It's come to my attention recently that one of the world's biggest problems is that most people hate themselves. Do you love yourself?
JW: I do. At times I've been a really shitty person and at times I've been a pretty good person. So far I'm averaging out happily above horrible. But reflecting on it always makes me feel like I should be making more mistakes. Whatever my parents did was solid, because I'm both content and ambitious at the same time. Blame them.
How do you want people to feel when they are done reading your book? I feel calm and nice.>
JW: That sounds just about right. I'd like them to have suffered and laughed a little along the way, but by the last page I hope they feel something like, "Okay. Life is confusing and messy, but maybe that's actually a good thing."
Josh Wagner hosts a book release and goodbye party at the Badlander Wed., Dec. 2, at 8 PM, with readings and music. Free.