Josh Wardrip’s debut novel combines style and substance

THIS IS THE WAY: Asheville-based author Josh Wardrip's debut novel achieves its ominous tone in part through short, powerful chapters and a lack of punctuation. Author photo by Wardrip

A native of western Kentucky, Asheville-based author and freelance editor Josh Wardrip wrote what he calls “some embarrassing short stories” as a teenager, emulating the genre fare that he read. Back then, he didn’t take the craft seriously or think of writing as a career path.

“I came to literature late,” Wardrip says. “I wasn’t a precocious oddball reading [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky at 12. But when I did discover it, early in college [at the University of Kentucky], it was like I’d tumbled into a hidden world, and each new book was like a revelation.”

The limitations of his pre-internet, small-town upbringing likewise proved crucial to Wardrip’s development. The books that interested him often weren’t readily accessible, which made obtaining them all the more exhilarating.

“So once that took hold, I knew that literature and trying to make it would be part of my life, even if I wasn’t sure I had any special facility for writing,” he says. “I also realized that the things that most interested me seemed esoteric to most other people.”

Wardrip’s literary ambition has resulted in short stories published in Chicago Quarterly Review (“The Noisome”) and American Letters & Commentary (“Furthermore”). More recently, the author celebrated the release of his debut novel, Forum, which came out March 15 — the culmination of a multiyear process that establishes him as a force in the local fiction scene.

Style profile

Wardrip began writing Forum in 2014, finished the first draft in 2015 and revised for the next four years, followed by nearly a year of submitting to presses.

“Much of the work was done out in the world — in cafés, libraries, bars — so if I had been working during COVID, the process would’ve been rather different,” he says. “I prefer to work in varied settings, which bring different effects on mood and attention, among other things. It’s a way of constantly refreshing your perspective.”

Such creative thinking is evident throughout the novel’s narration by an unnamed character who plans and commits an act of mass-casualty violence. Wardrip notes that the content is informed by the social climate and movements of the last decade, especially class disparity and the acute sense of this social issue, as well as the problem of policing. The result is akin to spending a few hours inside the mind of a modern-day Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) or Alex (A Clockwork Orange).

“The perennial difficulty of making art is that it should be of its time but not constrained by or reducible to it,” Wardrip says. “I don’t think I set out to just reflect or comment on any contemporary particularity — that’s really the worst kind of art — but it’s also clear that recent history provided an accelerant of sorts.”

The first draft of Forum consisted of three long paragraphs. Its eventual final form of short, powerful chapters emerged after more than a dozen drafts.

“One problem was that the original structure didn’t work; it read more like three linked stories than a novel, and the pace was off. Another issue was that I wanted voice to be the foreground and story the background,” Wardrip says. “Making the text more fragmentary addressed both problems. The narrative, maybe paradoxically, became more integrated, unified by voice, motif, tone and so on, rather than linear sequence. Correspondingly, attention is diverted from what happens next to what the narrator says.”

Chop shop

An absence of punctuation likewise proves key to the novel’s rhythm and tone. Wardrip says early drafts were conventionally punctuated, but during the revision process, he gradually pulled back, albeit with some reservations.

It wasn’t until he read W.S. Merwin’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poetry, The Shadow of Sirius — which contains no punctuation — that he gained the confidence to fully proceed with this approach.

“Forgoing punctuation in poetry is different than in prose, but I was taken with the pure, uncluttered elegance of the lines [and] the way they float unobstructed on the page. So, I took out all the punctuation, which inevitably necessitated further stylistic recalibrations,” he says. “I do think that visual aesthetics are a component of literary style, even in prose, and the spaces in Forum are perhaps as important as the choice and ordering of words.”

Modernists such as Samuel Beckett (who has one unpunctuated novel, How It Is) and James Joyce (whose Penelope episode in Ulysses features only a couple of periods and a lone comma in its 24,000 words) provided further inspiration, as did Gertrude Stein, who purportedly said, “Punctuation is necessary only for the feeble-minded.”

Wardrip also kept a quote by Joan Didion on hand while writing and editing: “This whole question of how you work out the narrative is very mysterious. It’s a good deal more arbitrary than most people who don’t do it would ever believe.” Her advice proved pivotal in helping Wardrip learn to trust intuition over any prescribed ideas about narrative.

“I also had to muster the confidence to allow for accident,” he says. “Forum is a product of both chance and deliberate organization. I think of the way jazz can allow for degrees of freedom within fixed boundaries. Forum essentially follows a traditional three-part structure, loosely analogous to the constraints of, say, tempo, key and time signature. Provided all parts adhere to the established framework, there is room for the free play of elements.”

Home sweet home

After living in Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, the author relocated to Asheville in March 2020, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. In turn, he’s had limited engagement with the local literary community thus far but has been keeping tabs on the area arts community, particularly local bookstores and their plentiful virtual events with an array of writers.

“Naturally, I’m also attracted to the region’s literary and artistic heritage,” he says. “Fifteen minutes from my house, there’s [Black Mountain College,] one of the historical epicenters of the American avant-garde. And of course there’s [Thomas] Wolfe and [Carl] Sandburg and [F. Scott] Fitzgerald and all the other authors with ties to the area. It’s not a bad place to be a writer.”

Pursuing his craft, however, has lately taken a backseat to gearing up for the release of Forum, which has Wardrip feeling “anxiety, impostor syndrome — the whole lot,” but also a sense “of emerging from a long darkness, and the elation of having attained a seemingly out-of-reach goal.” With “published novelist” now on his resumé, he can turn his attention to the next project: a short story collection of mostly previously published pieces with a couple of new ones also in the mix, which he expects to devote his attention to later this year.

WHAT: Josh Wardrip book launch
WHERE: Facebook Live,
WHEN: Saturday, March 26, 6-9 p.m. Free


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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2 thoughts on “Josh Wardrip’s debut novel combines style and substance

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      “an unnamed character who plans and commits an act of mass-casualty violence.”

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