(Europa Editions, 2012)
Wichita, the first novel from Thad Ziolkowski, Director of the Writing Program at Pratt Institute, is a postmodern take on the false binary of the country and the city. New York and the Midwest each trade in the mundane and the sublime as Ziolkowski imagines the late-late adolescent stumbles of one ambivalent Lewis Chopik, a recently dumped Colombia grad, as he contemplates going AWOL on the future the academic side of the family has carefully planned out for him. Gorgeous, trashy Wichita and a general climate of chaos with his New Age mother and volatile brother, give Lewis a space in which to test and recognize his limits. Via e-mail exchange, Ziolkowski and I recently discussed this vibrant, brainy, funny, beautiful novel, his movement from poetry to fiction, and some of the steps in between.
Mindy Cardozo (Rail): You have a book-length collection of poems, Our Son, the Arson (What Books, 1996), many essays of cultural criticism, and in 2002 you published On a Wave (Grove Press),a memoir of surfing and your adolescence in Florida. What prompted your shift to the novel for Wichita?
Thad Ziolkowski: When I fell in love with reading as a teenager and took refuge in it, it was fiction that I read, and from that point on I aspired to write fiction of my own. But after giving it a fairly sustained and serious try as an undergraduate and finding that I tended to get paralyzed by technical problems, and also to sort of hold myself unpleasantly aloof from experience in the persona of “novelist,” I gave it up and concentrated on poetry, which I found came more easily and also allowed me to produce in the margins of living a fuller, less self-conscious life. It was only through writing On a Wave, the memoir, that I worked out a way to approach representing my experience in long-form narration—action and pacing and the rest. And there came a certain moment when I realized that writing the memoir was showing me the way to write a novel and to return to my roots as a writer.
Rail: What were some of the books that you attached to early on? Did they shape your own eventual fiction?
Ziolkowski: At 16, I loved Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, which my mother gave to me, Salinger, Updike’s Couples because it looked pornographic, Judith Guest’s Ordinary People, and various fat bestsellers by Michener and Irving Stone. It’s hard for me to know whether or how that fiction marked what I eventually wrote, but I strongly suspect that it did.
Rail: Rosalind Krauss’s essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” suggestively appears at the very end of the novel. Is Wichita a kind of literary exercise of what we might call the “expanded field” of literature?
Ziolkowski: That’s an exciting proposal but it might be a bit misleading, since Wichita is—unless I’m missing something because I’m too close to the work to see it clearly—pretty much just a conventional, realist novel. Not that good realism doesn’t expand the field of literature! But I guess what I’m saying is that my aesthetic ambitions, strictly understood, are fairly modest. Put another way, I don’t think Wichita is to the contemporary novel what Earth Art was to sculpture of its moment. I felt I had my hands full just writing literature in the unexpanded field, if you see what I mean.
Rail: I guess I was thinking more about your own disciplinary shape-shifting. You direct the Writing Program at Pratt, have a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale, and write in a variety of media for diverse audiences. Many English departments still defend separations between their creative and critical writing programs, and creative writing students are often made to focus on a single genre.
Ziolkowski: Well, if I’ve been able to operate in a variety of forms and manners, it’s thanks to the tolerant, nurturing nature of Pratt, an arts college where the divisions and pressures of research universities are largely absent.
Rail: What is your relationship to Wichita and the Midwest? Have you spent much time there, or were you drawn to it for other reasons?
Ziolkowski: I went to high school in Wichita, then went back to visit my mother for a number of years following that. I worked as a waiter there, as a ditch-digger, and as a carpenter’s assistant. So I know Wichita and Wichitans fairly well.
Rail: You have a striking ability to describe contradiction without condescending to critique. I was struck by your ear for the cross between manipulative, intense narcissism and encouraging, radical confidence embodied by many earth mothers of Abby’s generation. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that her free will approach to parenting, drawing as it does on troubling alliances between New Age theologies and unbridled capitalism, were culpable for the disastrous adulthoods her sons find themselves wading through.
Ziolkowski: Thank you. I’m inclined to give Abby a pass on the question of how her sons turned out. But I’m something of a formalist when it comes to literary characters. The criteria I apply are whether they’re compelling and believable and serve a useful function in the narrative.
Rail: The spectacular shape of twisters suggests a singular, almost volitional approach to destruction, which, in your narrative, becomes a kind of awful siren or hungry volcano. You’ve written a bit about surfing. Are there similarities between storm chasers and surfers? Do tornadoes have something other than annihilation to offer?
Ziolkowski: Yes, storm-chasers and surfers are a lot alike—different species of nature-worshipping pagans. Tornadoes share a quality with waves, especially big, life-threatening waves: they’re terrifying and beautiful at once, which is to say, sublime. I think that’s the quality that mesmerizes and awes people, makes them willing to risk everything for the experience.