I reached out to Jesse Ball, a writing instructor I had while studying at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, (where he teaches writing and various other classes with themes relevant to writing, like dreams and lying), to ask him to do an interview discussing The Velveteen Rabbit. He said yes. Jesse is a self-defined: “sometimes writer of books” (…and I’ll add, actual author of books, including Linus and Vera, A Village on Horseback, and Census; these are my favorite titles.).
When I was in school, Jesse taught writer’s workshop. What I learned most from Jesse was how to explore. For example, one homework assignment given was to take a walk without being in control–called a “derive”. Such exercises cultivated an attitude of inquisitiveness: to learn to see the same thing from different angles, and sometimes from the inside. Jesse also introduced me to what he named the Asking Method as an approach to workshop, which is based on the Quaker tradition. Here is what Jesse wrote about that method in his class notes:
ASKING is a method of investigation into creative work. It is derived from a Quaker method of solving problems…The main effect of the Asking is not in how it changes the story on a given day, not in the dynamic of the room, or what is expressed, but in the new understanding that occurs in the mind of the writer as he/she attempts to answer the questions posed.
In practicality, the Asking involves the writer (whose work is being discussed) sitting on a chair that is propped on a table, while another person sits on a chair next to the writer. This second person next to the writer is called the Advocate. Both people are sitting on chairs on tables that tower over the other students in the room. The Advocate’s role is to monitor the questions and comments of the other writers/students, and to allow for appropriate pauses and silences for the writer whose work is being discussed to respond in whatever way is appropriate to her/ him. In this way, a line of inquiry and a trajectory of discussion is brought forth that allows the writer to explore his/ her work more deeply. This method opened up my own work by creating constructs of discussion and thinking around/about writing.
This interview allows for investigation and play around the idea of reality. It is not a “question and answer” session. If you enjoy the interview, read one of Jesse’s books, or at the very least, read The Velveteen Rabbit.
HP: For those who don’t know you, haven’t read what you’ve written, how would you introduce yourself?
JB: Introductions are best avoided. A shabby one: I sometimes write books.
HP: What I like about this book is its telling of what’s real. I don’t know that the book answers that, which is another thing I like about it–but more that it begins to ask a question about it. I know in Census, I think it was that one–that you say that knowing something is centered around the right questions. What are you thoughts on the story of the Velveteen Rabbit and its discussion of “real”? What questions do you think the story asks?
JB: It seems to me the book is about two things: sentiment (deep sentiment) and imagination. Instead of considering the matter from the boy’s perspective (perhaps like Calvin & Hobbes), it takes the inanimate, the referent, the object of meaning & uses it as the center of meaning. Of course, it’s quite comfortable to us, this dislocation, because in society we are constantly both meaning makers & also the object of others’ meaning.
HP: Something that confuses me is that the rabbit turns “real” at the end of the story, but the skin horse does not. I think it flirts with the idea of different kinds of real. What are your thoughts?
JB: Possibly—although it is more likely that the inconsistency is the result of the author electing to hew to sentiment, and to a gentle result. If it were me writing the book, it would be enough for the rabbit to have become real the first time. The second arrival into the real is to me less comprehensible. It’s harder to know what it means. I suppose we could say in the mind of the boy (from which most/all meaning in the story is dislocated) the imagination that grasped the bunny & made it real is reencountered by the boy in the final encounter in the yard where the boy thinks of another bunny as being like his velveteen rabbit. This gives a rationale for the fairy scene.
HP: I know you’ve created many characters of your own. What makes a character real for you? Are there a couple that stay with you more than others? Do you think the ones that are more real have experienced more “suffering” than the others?
JB: I think less of full characters than of glimpses. Books offer glimpses of mind—and therefore can make life richer for others. Among these glimpses there are some that are deeper or richer than others. Sometimes it is by chance. I very much like The Guess Artist from The Way Through Doors. But he is not as deep a character, say, as Jito Joo, from Silence Once Begun, another of my favorites.
HP: I also wonder about the other toys in this story of the Velveteen Rabbit. It seems that the toys with hard edges and gadgets can’t be real, simply bc they can’t be held. I wonder about whether it’s possible for something that can’t be held or squeezed to become real. What do you think of that? Is softness a prerequisite for real?
JB: I would say that these days even objects online can arouse the imagination the way physical objects once did. I am old, so I prefer the good feeling of a stone in my hand, but the imagination is resourceful. Some young people may feel a similar delight in an online avatar or somesuch thing. We ourselves make concrete through emotion the inconcrete—for instance replaying in our heads a thousand times some single look in a person’s eyes that passed in a second decades’ ago.
HP: Do you think the “real” rabbits at the end were ever stuffed animals too?
JB: Maybe they will become stuffed if they are unlucky.
HP: I find some similarities between this book and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I suppose the toy room is a kind of Wonderland. I think the rabbit is lost in it. I wonder if Alice is growing real in the book.
JB: To me Alice is part of the faculty of mind, but she herself less the imaginative element than the inquisitive.
HP: Do you think Alice would like the rabbit? Or would she like the skin horse? What do you think Alice would say about being real?
JB: She would say, Real things can’t know they are real. Otherwise they would be more real than their reality.
HP: I think Alice and the rabbit might have been real the whole time and only not known it. Maybe Alice’s Wonderland and the rabbit’s boy were only ways for them to see their realness. What do you think?
JB: Such tales last in culture for centuries because they help people to construct the meaning-making mechanism of their lives. That is, the virtue of the books, to one who reads them deeply, is that everything becomes more vivid.
HP: The story’s climax, for me, is around this line “Of what use is it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this? And a tear, a real tear, trickled down his little shabby velvet nose and fell to the ground.” Do you have a line from the story that hits you?
JB: I like his pathetic cry there that you mention—but also when the boy & nurse rescue the rabbit from the yard carrying a candle. Once I hid from some people in a game & they finished the game without telling me & I kept on hiding for forty five minutes. I would have liked to have someone come to find me with a candle.
HP: I know these are animals. Many of your characters are humans. Do you ever think of writing a book with animals as main characters? What animal would you choose as your main character and why?
JB: Animals are relatable. But the people in books aren’t exactly human.
HP: Can you talk about A Village on Horseback. I like it a great deal. How did it come about?
JB: I love such agglomerations. American publishers don’t like to do them. But I managed to convince Milkweed. It was very lucky. I am trying to convince someone to do the next such book (it is complete).
HP: I’m reading Artist of Life by Bruce Lee. He has this line that talks about being real. I thought of it immediately in reference to the Velveteen Rabbit: “The meaning of life is that it is to be lived, and it is not to be traded and conceptualized and squeezed into patterns of systems. We realize manipulation and control are not the ultimate joy of life–to become real, to learn to take a stand, to develop one’s center, to support our total personality, to release to spontaneity–yes, yes, yes.” What is interesting to me as I think of this, is that the rabbit seemed to need the boy to become real. He could not do it himself. He needed to be “loved into”, or squeezed into himself, which I don’t think is the same kind of squeezing that Lee is talking about. I think the rabbit might have needed to understand his own center by way of boy. How do you see Lee’s definition of real in reference to the story? What part does the boy in the story play in making the rabbit real?
JB: Lee’s version of real seems to me very Buddhist. Anyway, I find life more in perception than in action.
HP: Before I forget, your Twitter account features a bunch of characters (animals?) on napkins. What world do those characters live in? Do they know about each other? Who doesn’t know about another one? Who are all the characters? Do you ever write stories with them? Are there any recurring ones?
JB: Many recurring. No stories. They do know each other. They exist as a Dramatis Personae at the start of a stageplay which will never be performed.
HP: In your opinion, who could/ should/ would you like me to consider interviewing?
JB: Same interview (about “the real” & the velveteen rabbit) but with Tarn Adams (legendary game designer).
Heather Palmer has written The Diamond of Adversity, Complements of Us, Charlie’s Train, and Mere Tragedies, and has published in numerous journals and magazines. She lives in the New York City area and teaches second and third grade.
Jesse Ball is the prizewinning author of numerous volumes of fiction and poetry. His work is a part of the tradition of Borges, Abe, Kafka, Walser, Kristof, Erpenbeck, Bernhard, Gogol and Schulz. He was born in 1978 in New York. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.