“Over the desk, Flaubert eyes contract with justified skepticism.
But this is the second of two workplaces. I write longhand in the mornings, in a public space, usually a cafe or a hotel. I’ll write for two to four hours, rarely more. Then I do business stuff, and in the afternoon I transcribe the morning’s work, which is a process that involves some editing. In the evening I read the printout, and this is the second edit.
At least – that’s a good day.”
Joshua Cody received his bachelor’s degree in music composition from Northwestern University and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia University. He is a composer and filmmaker living in New York City.
(Above desk photo courtesy of James Godman)
About [sic]: Joshua Cody, a brilliant young composer, was about to receive his PhD when he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Facing a bone-marrow transplant and full radiation, he charts his struggle: the fury, the tendency to self-destruction, and the ruthless grasping for life and sensation; the encounter with a strange woman on Canal Street that leads to sex at his apartment; the detailed morphine fantasy complete with a bride called Valentina while, in reality, hospital staff are pinning him to his bed. Moving effortlessly between references to Don Giovanni and the Rolling Stones, Ezra Pound and Buffalo Bill, and facsimiles of his own diaries and hospital notebooks, [sic] is a mesmerizing, hallucinatory glimpse into a young man’s battle against disease and a celebration of art, language, music, and life.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
JOSHUA CODY: Preferably in a situation like this, right now: outside, at a cafe, writing in longhand, in the sun, in the morning. The afternoon is given to business. In the evening, I’ll transcribe the morning’s work. That stage forms the first edit. I borrowed this working method from Philip Glass. He got into the habit of writing in the morning and dealing with the practical side of life in the afternoon. He found that in sustaining the schedule, inspiration, or whatever you want to call it, naturally directed itself towards the time slot devoted to writing. So ideas would occur to him in the morning and not in the afternoon.
I try to write every day now – producing physical evidence of some type of response which probably indicates life, no?
FYD: What is your favorite sentimental object at your workspace and why?
JC: I don’t know if it’s visible in the photograph, but I stuck the cover letter to my first contract with Bloomsbury in London to the wall against which my desk is set. I stuck it there with Scotch tape. It’s there to remind me that I am, in a way, a writer: I must be, in a way; there’s the physical proof. It’s got my name on it. So surely, then, I have permission to at least try to write.
Then I taped a postcard of Flaubert to the left, so that it appears Flaubert’s regarding the whole thing with more than a flake of sel de mer.
FYD: What is your favorite work tool?
JC: Unlined artists’ sketchbooks and Pilot Precise V5 Rolling Ball pens.
FYD: How important was the editing of [sic] and how much did your original version change?
JC: Jill, my editor, called it a “clean” MS. There weren’t major revisions. The center of the book details a morphine delusion I had. I thought I was someone else, in a different place and point in time, with a different family, etc. It’s presented without warning, just as it was presented to me in real life. That section was the only major thing in the book that was debated. My agent didn’t think it worked at all, and Jill tended to agree with him, and my second editor, Alexandra, in London, went back and forth. At one point we threw it out, but I missed it too much. Then I tried to rewrite it letting the reader know from the start that it was a delusion, but this approach proved impossible. Finally I went back to the original version, cut it down by around half, and we went with it. Some people have told me that it’s their favorite part of the book. One never really knows.
FYD: What’s been the general response to your memoir from cancer survivors?
JC: Very positive and emotional, and I try to respond to as many letters and emails as I can. Survivors seem to have a considerably different reading experience with it, it’s true. For one thing, they never doubt the veracity, which some critics have, which is a little irritating.
FYD: How seriously do you take critics?
JC: Bryant Gumbel: “Are you all concerned about what the critics say?”
Paul McCartney: “No! He said. Lying through his teeth.”
(The Today Show, 1982)
FYD: Are you able to reread your memoir?
JC: There are parts of it that I can’t read, no. The lighter, playful passages I can read.
FYD: How out-of-body was it to reread your mother’s journal? She obviously filled in important facts during your hospital stay.
JC: First of all I realized that she’s an excellent writer. My father had been a little more flamboyant with regards to his love of literature. At first inserting excerpts from my mom’s journals was, as you say, a practical decision to sustain the chronology of events during periods when my treatment rendered me unable to record anything. But it turned out to have aesthetic value as well: the rhythm of the alterity between different registers (literally, different voices). But I put them in there without looking, in a way, because they were too painful to read.
FYD: In the hospital, you thought of a quote from Stravinsky: “I have never understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt every one.” Does this mean the art of listening is more meaningful than understanding?
JC: Stravinsky’s talking about different forms of aesthetic truth. If I were to take apart his statement, I would interpret it as something like – “because I have felt every bar of music I’ve ever heard, I have understood it on its own terms, the terms of a particular artistic medium, and these terms are vastly different from, if not incomparable with, those of other modes of discourse.” So he’s arguing that there are, in fact, different modes of discourse which are as valid as, and even rival, the arena of the spoken/written word to which we are tempted to cede priority when considering the idea of “understanding.” Literature as a medium is very confusing to me because I was brought up studying music and the plastic arts. Literature uses words, which are the same tools we use for basic low level communication – saying hello, yelling at someone – and the next level – analytic reasoning, like figuring out what insurance plan to buy, or determining interpersonal compatibilities, or orchestrating corporate takeovers or whatever. So literature is a strange art form in that it is an art – i.e. a method to come to terms with the dynamic range of sensed experience – that utilizes, or even overpowers and redirects, a set of elements of the social world whose overwhelmingly primary function is completely at odds with art’s purpose.
For a real music afficionado most films are terribly distracting.
This is the opposite of music, whose grammar was developed over centuries for the sole purpose of achieving art’s aims; there’s no incongruity. So as a composer who tried to write a book, these were pretty major preoccupations, and that’s why the narrative voice jumps around so much, and why there are reproduced images in it, and the whole thing about whether Picasso was “smart,” and so on.
FYD: You drew up a list of songs from Stravinsky to Simon and Garfunkel to The Notorious B.I.G. Undoubtedly, you were on painkillers, and perhaps more in tune with your head?
JC: I’ve always got music in my head except when I’m listening to music or watching a movie. That was the case in the hospital, too. I just realized I’ve got Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in my head right now. I don’t know why.
FYD: I think of the scene in Philadelphia where Andrea Chénier is blaring–Maria Callas is singing “La Mamma Morta.” You produced and directed a trailer for your book. How did you conceive the montages and the accompanying music?
JC: Radiation and chemo and steroids created an avascular necrosis in the top of my right femur so I had to have my hip replaced, and when I was recovering from that in the hospital we grabbed a Canon 7D and shot a few little scenes. We used natural light, and the camera’s so small nobody knew what we were doing. My mom picked up one of those doctor Halloween costumes at Ricky’s, and we gave that to my friend Stu. Every time a nurse came in, he’d whip the thing off, so as not to confuse anyone. It was fun. It’s an early song by Messiaen, who was the teacher of two of my own teachers (Boulez and Murail). I was originally going to cut the film to a piece of music I wrote, but it was way too manic, and didn’t work at all.
FYD: On the film score front, what are a few of your favorites? You’ve mentioned Vertigo. It seems John Williams gets flack for his scores (some believe he borrows too heavily from Bernard Herrmann). Any thoughts?
JC: Vertigo is the best one, but Herrmann’s got a lot of others, like the fandango for North by Northwest and the reduced string orchestra for black and white Psycho. The solo zither that accompanies (and comments upon) The Third Man is of course justifiably famous. Neil Young employed a similar strategy for Jarmusch’s Dead Man, as did Ravi Shankar for Satyajit Ray. Delerue’s score for Godard’s Contempt is good. Most film scores don’t reach these heights. John Williams does, but snobs don’t like to say so. The degree of synchronization between music and motion in The Empire Strikes Back is a great achievement. (Williams owes little to Herrmann, though. Herrmann was inspired by the Germans; he takes cues from Wagner and Mahler. Williams borrows from Korngold and Holst, among others.)
If we’re talking film music, we’d have to talk about “found” music in Scorsese, Tarantino, Godard, and Kubrick above all. For a real music afficionado most films are terribly distracting. One time Boulez told me that this was why he couldn’t really watch movies. Even people as gifted as Greenaway or Terrence Malick don’t really know how to use music.
It’s there to remind me that I am, in a way, a writer: I must be, in a way; there’s the physical proof. It’s got my name on it.
FYD: You’re already working on your next novel; can you give us an inkling?
JC: The new novel is a love story, told in three parts, partially set against the 1994 financial crisis caused by deregulation of derivatives practices that led to the collapse of Barings. It’s also about religion. And Kate Moss, oddly.
FYD: How are you feeling today and what do you make certain to do each day knowing you are alive?
JC: I’m in sort of a grouchy mood. But I’m fine. How are you? I try to write every day now – producing physical evidence of some type of response which probably indicates life, no?