An Interview with Wells Tower

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From the archives: Evelyn Spence talks with Wells Tower.

Does fiction begin with the story or the sentence? Pick up any Wells Tower story, and the first thing that jumps off the page is the language: It’s in turns dazzling, tight, comic, and dark. In “The Brown Coast,” a house is “broken out in pediments and lathework grenades and ornamental buboes.” The sun looks “slick and orange, like a canned peach.” An extramarital affair has “no joy in it, just a two-week spate of drab skirmishes in a basement apartment that smelled heavily of cat musk.” In “On the Show,” a man says, “I’d eat her whole damn child just to taste the thing he squeezed out of.” It’s dialogue that makes one laugh—bitterly. In Tower’s acclaimed debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, the Brooklyn writer seems, as one reviewer said, simply incapable of writing a boring description.

But language has to serve a story and its characters. And in Tower’s fiction, language serves a assembly of down-and-out men and women who face their uncomfortable problems—and inhabit their often-glum worlds—with striving and hopeless self-knowledge. The narrative arcs are traditional, yet the situations are anything but: a group of Vikings pillage a tiny island with brilliant grotesqueness, but come off as a bunch of ordinary guys. A cocky older brother eats turned moose meat to prove a point to his younger adult sibling. A retired optometrist bites his stepson on the leg. A short-tempered man drives his ex-wife’s boyfriend home from an ashram after he busts his ankle. Tower, 37, gets under the skin of insecure teenage girls and tottering old men, of the guilty and the clueless, the resentful and the deformed, in equal measure.

Tower’s voice has found a place in the sometimes-diametric worlds of both fiction and nonfiction: Harper’s, The Paris Review, GQ, The New Yorker, Outside, Washington Post, McSweeney’s and The Believer. And his real-life reporting experiences—as an operator of a pirate-ship ride with a traveling carnival, for instance—occasionally seep into his stories, often years later. All writers pull from some corner of their autobiography; Tower manages to blend meticulous observation and free-wheeling imagination into taut and small epics. Recently named a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library, he’s set to expand his reach into a first novel.The Brooklyn Review spoke with Wells Tower, who lives in Brooklyn and North Carolina, by phone.

What was your early life like and what made you want to write?
I had a true appetite for language and story from a pretty early age, and I always really liked words. My parents were big readers—my mother was a classicist and fed me a steady diet of Greek mythology. The first things I remember writing were a couple plays in first or second grade. I studied anthropology and sociology at Wesleyan University, and soon after graduating, I started figuring out ways to get a paycheck writing. I thought I big victory would be something like writing a bulletin for a paper towel corporation. A dream. I ended up getting a job at the University of North Carolina Urban Planning Department—and convinced my boss to write a monthly newsletter. I just wanted to do something that let me write sentences.

What about where you grew up? Did it influence your language?
It’s probable. I suppose I could give a canned answer and say that I grew up in the South, around lots of phenomenally good banjo-playing storytellers, but that’s not really true. My parents weren’t Southern. I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is a geographically diverse place. There may be a particular kind of story that people in the South tell—certain reportorial habits that Southerners have that they are particularly proud of. I kept my ear out for particularly striking, charming, funny expressions from a very young age. I remember listening very carefully to the way that people talk. And I’ve remained a big collector of conversations.

What was the first thing you ever published?
I wrote a column about comics in the high school newspaper. Did stuff for a lefty weekly in college. A ’zine with my bandmate Al that was somewhat literary—we’d review surgeries and car accidents, not records. My first big story was for the Washington Post—I pitched a story about being on a traveling carnival, and even though I didn’t have reporting experience, they took a chance on me. And some of those notes ended up, much later, in “On the Show.” But the first real fiction I published was in The Paris Review—while I was a student at Columbia. They found me in the slush pile.

What are your writing habits like?
I really try to be at my desk by about nine in the morning, and I work until three or four o’clock. Much more than that and it becomes counterproductive. I’ve come up with all sorts of Internet repression methods in my life: I don’t have high-speed wireless. I use an old word processor, I write longhand, I have a typewriter. To me, the Web is truly lethal to fiction. Plus, I don’t really believe in the whole self-promotion thing. For one thing, I’m kind of allergic to it. Particularly with fiction. It’s simply in opposition to the work. And I’m not going to bully people into reading it. Or even make the case that they should read it. It’s just stuff that I wrote, which I can leave up to everybody else to be interested in. The work itself should be more of an organic process. And I’m not going to try hard to sell people.

There seems to be a disconnect between the process of writing fiction and then the process of promoting it.
That’s very true. And even the book tour part of it, the literary festivals, any of the public part of putting out a book—

Even this.
Even this! The thing that’s very strange about it is you suddenly go from being a solitary person who makes work to being a spokesperson for a product. I spent about a year just doing the public routine for Everything Ravaged, and that was strange. I found it, psychologically, pretty difficult. I was in the groove of trying to write, and being taken away from that—going from writing to telling people what a writer-person does—was odd. It really becomes this other thing. It stopped being the stories I put obsessive effort into—and became a congealed item that was subject to public perception.

What happens when you write a story?
I view Everything Ravaged as a solid apprenticeship in short fiction. I was trying a bunch of different ways to skin the cat with that book. The short story is a great laboratory for trying different narrative approaches. It wasn’t as if I was setting out to write in a certain mode. Usually I was looking back and fretting over the deficiencies in the stories I’d already written. Trying at least to write new ones, that didn’t suck, in different ways. So that at least if the story sucked, it would suck differently. [Laughs.] There are some stories that were trying to be very tidy—like “The Brown Coast,” which was the first story that I ever wrote. In the first draft, the sentence craft wasn’t particularly elegant—I was trying for a self-consciously Southern vernacular. Others, like “On the Show,” was me trying to succeed with very careful, even twee, language. There are others that are sort of memoir tricks—like, okay, I’m just going to write a really emotionally naked story with no elaborate language and no jokes. Take “Leopard.” But I can’t talk about what happens when I write a story without taking about how much they were all revised.

So…
To me, you don’t know if you have a story until you’ve written it. And it takes me months. And then, when I have the first possibly publishable draft, it still is a process of trying to trick myself into believing in my characters and places. And then the main purpose is going back, after the story is out there, and thinking about what is really going on here. What is the emotional core that the story is dancing around? What’s a way to get at that core in a more meaningful way?

Do you tend to write a lot, and then throw a lot away?
I think I’m uptight enough about language that I don’t write really careless drafts with terribly painful prose. That’s because usually, when I’m writing, it’s not the characters I believe in first. It’s the language. The technique winds up being the strength that keeps the whole thing going. I start with terrifically indulgent sentences, and then the characters start to emerge. When I write the first draft, it’s hard to know what to get excited about, because it’s hard to get excited about a void. It’s a matter of bringing something out of a muffled little object, something that’s bigger than I imagined. Also, it’s a matter, in the later drafts, of being suspicious of that impulse to keep in the indulgent language—you can’t just write a story where you’re playing with words. You need ideas. The language has to be in service to some bigger problem. Otherwise, it’s masturbatory.

Where do your stories come from?
“The Brown Coast” came to me as a fully-formed anecdote from a friend of mine who is a bartender, and then I tricked it out. “On the Show” was taken from my experience as a carnie. Some of my stories began in things that I did when I was younger—you know the young girl, Marie, in “Down the Valley,” who put her mouth over the gearshift? I used to do that. It’s so weird. And I was thinking, I wonder what would be the most awkward situation in which a father could see his child sucking a gearshift. Probably it would be in the company of his ex-wife’s holier-than-thou boyfriend. And in the title story, there is the whole “blood eagle” description, which a friend of mine told me about. [“Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there for a second, then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings.”] We thought it was such an overly fastidious thing for the average, blue-collar Viking guy to get into. What if you were a Viking thinking about doing a blood eagle—and instead said, “Screw it, let’s just get a beer.”

What characters are you attracted to? Are they doing what matters?
I like morally ambiguous characters who have certain low impulses that get in the way of their loftier ones. I’m interested in people who are in trouble, and something has to happen, dramatically. I was just reading some Lydia Davis stories, and they are amazingly gripping. I could never write narratives that manufacture an emotional crisis in such a tiny space. Stories about a woman who could leave a glass of water on the bedside table where it might leave a mark, or she leave it on a book, and it’s a crisis. A tiny, tiny little crisis that contains so much. I can’t write like that. I’m more traditional. I write about what happens. But I love writers like Lydia Davis or Nicholson Baker.

Like Baker’s The Mezzanine.
Right: A guy takes an escalator to go get some milk and then goes back to his desk and that’s the novel. It’s brilliant. I just don’t think I could do it. I feel like I need to tell stories with a more traditional arc. I may want to abstract the form down the line, but I’m also pretty new to stories. I’m trying to get my head around the realist short story and its dramatic objectives. I feel like I need to know more about the form before I can abstract from it.

There is something about your language that is so careful and joyous and witty.
I think that I want my sentences to do all those things. I want my work to be funny—and have a light touch. But I don’t want to write merely comic stories. I want to reach into a bigger space. I want the language to be careful, but I also want it to have exuberance and humanity. I’m obsessed with sentences. And if you’re not obsessed with sentences, you shouldn’t be a writer. It’s amazing to me to see how many of the books on The New York Times bestseller list are written by people who have no interest in sentence craft. And it’s amazing that so many people want to read them. Whenever I open up a book and see sentences, it’s like I’m picking up sheets and feeling for the thread count in between my fingers. If there are thin sentences, then I’m not interested in reading.

Do you know when a story is done?
I would revise for years if I could. I really need editors to take the stories away from me. I hope that I can become a little bit more level-headed about it. I get sort of crazy. I reach down to the micro-micro level, go over and over every word. Even when I get the architecture into place, I still do a bunch of passes. It takes me a while to get there.

And now you’re writing a novel? How has that been a different process for you?
I am. I’m working my way through the first draft, and for now I’m just trying to be nice to myself. Short stories are such an airless medium—you’re constantly aware that readers will be looking, at any moment, to abandon ship. You really have to set sail immediately and then you have to make stuff happen. I think the short story is an incredibly demanding form. So far, writing a novel, I’ve been able to ease myself into it—letting it sprawl more and letting the characters breathe. I can be a little bit less uptight with the language, at least initially.

You’ve also written a lot of nonfiction. Does it feel different to you than fiction?
In the language department, in terms of fiction, there has to be something interesting going on in every sentence—whether it’s rhythm or word choice. Every sentence needs to be able to stand alone. In nonfiction, sometimes you just need to convey information. A lot of magazines don’t let you get away with a lot of show-offy sentence work—there are a few that do, like Harper’s. Maybe there are certain structural things in my fiction that may stem from nonfiction features: the anecdotal lead, the expositional second section. You can see that in a few of my short stories.

In your headspace, is it difficult to switch between the two?
It’s very hard. It really screwed me up the first few years. When I got out of grad school, I was doing a lot of magazine work to pay the bills, and I tried to do this thing where I used the long-form nonfiction creative process for fiction. With a nonfiction story, you go out and you report for a few weeks, and then soon you have huge mountains of notes, and then you sift through it and try to pull out a few nuggets and a few decent scenes, and then you come up with a contextual argument to make those scenes relevant. And then boom, you’re done. I once tried to do the same process with the draft of a short story—“taking notes” on all the possibilities and then trying to distill it into something coherent, and that was just wrong. It didn’t work. With short fiction, you have to do all you can to constrain the writing so it doesn’t herniate. And fiction needs a real emotional coherence. It’s impossible to write big gaseous reams of dialogue and expect to them to dovetail.

And are you getting better at switching back and forth between the forms?
It’s still hard. Physically, I have a fiction desk and a nonfiction desk. Remember, with nonfiction, it’s always so exciting before you go out and do it. Someone calls up and says, “We’ll send you to this offbeat event or this exotic country, can you do that?” You think, “Sure, I can bash that out in a couple weeks.” With fiction, you can’t work on something for a week, and then go away for a month, and then come back and expect to have any depth. There’s a certain immersion fiction requires that nonfiction doesn’t. You have to live it and breathe it. You have to make it your life. It’s a very delicate process: to get into the position that we can make our characters real to us. It’s a particular self-seduction. And a lot of time being alone. It’s amazing to me the people who have full-time commuting jobs, and they squeeze in writing when they can. Me, I need a good six hours to get two or three hours of work done.

Which is more true, fiction or nonfiction?
Fiction is probably truer. Fiction is much messier. I don’t psychologize my nonfiction subjects the same way that I do my characters.

Do you feel like your reporting experience influence the way you see the world and observe it?
I think the way I see the world is just the way I see the world. Reporting didn’t train me to see in a different way. Most of us are moved to write because we look at things that are going on around us and we find them interesting. And then we have the language available to express those moments. That impulse, for me, was there from the get-go. The nice thing that happened when I was out reporting—especially the stories that I tended to do—was that I often had no angle. I used to write three cover stories for the Washington Post Sunday magazine and the assignments would be like this: “We’re going to do a cover story on horse gambling. So why don’t you go hang out at a track for a month and see what happens?” Which is great but also terrifying, because you have to come up with story out of nothing at all. So I’d have no clue what I was aiming for. As much as I could, I would write frantic notes and put everything in there—every little detail, every moment. Even if nothing was going on, it was, okay, let me describe that terrible linoleum. I would constantly keep the pen moving. There’s no quest that puts the details in service of a story. Everything is potentially important. It’s almost the opposite of the deliberateness of fiction.

How do you hope your stories will impact people?
I don’t know how I want them to be read, other than people reading them and saying, “Oh, that didn’t suck.” [Laughs.] I write for people who love language, and people who like story, and people who aren’t averse to darkness—and the idea that in the midst of a lot of hard-heartedness, there can be a moment of decency that won’t trip their sentimentality alarm. People ask what I’m trying to say about the natural world, because there are a lot of animals and trees in my stories, and I’m sure there is a smart answer for that. A lot of European interviewers want to ask me what I’m trying to say about America. Whether I’m in dialogue with a French writer I’ve never heard of. It’s not a puzzle in a box. And I’m just writing a goddamn story. ✧