Julian Tepper's whimsically titled debut novel, Balls, tells the story of Henry Schiller, a 30-year-old songwriter and lounge-player, who is in love with a younger and more musically talented woman, a careerist with a wandering eye. Henry's woes only worsen when he discovers he has testicular cancer. I spoke with the native New Yorker about his influences, research, and a particularly prescriptive urologist.
What were your literary and/or real life inspirations for the book?
At the time I was reading and rereading Bellow's Herzog. I wanted to be deeply influenced by that brilliant novel, and so I didn't put it down. Also a good deal of Dostoyevsky, and Kafka. When it comes to influences, I see myself as being of the Woody Allen school. Which is to say, as in Allen's films, an artist shouldn't feel shame but proudly advertise his influences. Let his audience know that it's these very influences -- the love of those artists -- which encouraged him to make art his life in the first place.
You've never had testicular cancer. Why did you decide to write about it?
When I began writing this book, I found I was able to discuss all the issues of manhood that were deeply concerning me at the time: career/monetary, romantic/sexual, human mortality/reproductive. As a subject, it was very generous that way.
What kind of research did you do for the novel?
I did a good amount of reading up on testicular cancer, starting with Lance Armstrong's personal account, moving through a lot of medical literature and then testimonials written by those who have been afflicted. Eventually, when I was finished with a draft, and I asked a doctor-friend if he could put me in touch with a urologist who specialized in TC. I wanted him to check the medical facts of my work. My friend gave me the number of a doctor, with whom I had a very long and encouraging conversation over the phone. This doctor asked me to leave my manuscript in his lobby, give him a month to read it over, after which he would contact me and tell me his thoughts. Well, a month passed, and I got a message from him stating that my novel was "in trouble." It was an awful moment. What did he mean by trouble? Had I somehow gotten all the medical facts wrong? I called up the doctor, and he said he didn't want to discuss the matter over the phone. He would leave my manuscript in his lobby. I was supposed to look over his notes, then call him up to discuss. On the way over to the doctor's building, I was sick. Then the doorman hands me an envelope with my book inside. I tear it open, and find one of the strangest things I've ever seen: the doctor had corrected the entire manuscript. Literally rewritten half the book, in red marker, to the tune of what I'm guessing was about thirty hours of work. The medical facts are fine. But apparently my sentences needed his help. I'm thrilled to own his corrected version of my novel. It's something I cherish.
You co-founded an arts club, The Oracle Club, where there is workspace for writers. What legacy do you idealize for yourself?
Only that people read my work, and find the experience a meaningful one.
The book is very much a portrait of New York City. Do you self-identify as a New York writer? Will you continue to explore the subject of the city?
I grew up on 94th Street, on the East Side, and I'm always at my freest when I set my work in New York. It's just the place I know best and, as it were, love most. My experience of creating literary settings outside of New York are similar to how I feel when I leave the city: a little grouchy, looking forward to returning.