Books In Conversation
WHATS IMPORTANT IS READING
ADAM WILSON with Ben Pfeiffer
In his new collection, What’s Important Is Feeling, Adam Wilson unleashes 12 ecstatic yet recognizable fictional voices, each deeply his own and also somehow a fragment of contemporary cultural consciousness. Wilson is the author of a novel, Flatscreen (2012), and his writing has appeared in publications like Tin House, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, including this collection’s title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and in The Best American Short Stories (2012). In just 224 pages, Wilson’s collection catalogues the hopes, hang-ups, hilarity, and heartbreak of male adolescence through an array of voices, again similar yet different; through it all, the author relentlessly seeks out his narrators’ faults, prejudices, confusions, and strengths, resulting in an uncompromising and uncomfortable collage of young American masculinity.
Ben Pfeiffer (Rail): Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to be a writer? Where did you learn to write? Was it in an M.F.A. program? Did you have mentors?
Adam Wilson: The main thing was reading a lot as a child, a student, a young person. My dad’s a writer. He’s written eight books—four fiction and four nonfiction. He’s an English professor, too. I wasn’t a good student, and I wasn’t good at much, but I always loved reading, and my dad gave me a lot of books. At some point writing seemed like one of the few things I could actually do. I pursued it in the same way a kid who has a doctor or a lawyer for a parent might pursue those careers.
Rail: People who decide to be writers might have the opposite experience if their parents are lawyers and doctors.
Wilson: Yeah, I had the opposite experience from most people. I grew up in a creative household. My dad’s a writer, my mom’s a painter, and I have an uncle who’s a stand-up comedian. Those kinds of careers seemed viable. Other things like being a doctor or a lawyer seemed alien and impossible.
Rail: Let’s talk about creativity. Where do you get ideas for stories? Do they come from other stories? Do you look to your own life or other people’s lives?
Wilson: It depends a lot on the story. Many of the stories in What’s Important Is Feeling began autobiographically and veered from there toward fiction. I often begin by attempting to tell a true story from my life and then quickly realize the true story isn’t that interesting. I have to make stuff up to create a story anyone would want to read. I’ve always liked telling stories. I’m the guy at the party telling a crazy anecdote. But I’m never good at keeping to the truth. When I was younger, I was famous among my friends for exaggerating, but it was just a way of writing fiction.
Other times, a story began with a piece of language, a line, a sentence, and then I had to figure out who was saying it, or who was hearing it. The story “We Close Our Eyes” is a good example, because it started as some funny dialogue—a guy asking his sister how many dicks she’s seen—and I had to figure out the heart of the story, which turned out, unexpectedly, to be about their mother dying of cancer. My own mother had a cancer scare a few years prior. She turned out to be fine, but I’d been unconsciously incubating a lot of anxiety about it, and it emerged in this story. “Milligrams,” the collection’s final story, was one I kept trying to write from the perspective of an ultimately peripheral character, one of the friends who shows up to collect a dead guy’s stuff from the shared apartment he’s been living in. This character was a lot like me, and his experience matched one of my own, but at some point I realized that he wasn’t as interesting as another character, the junkie still living in the apartment where the other guy had died. That’s whose story it really was. And then I decided, what would be even more interesting was if the junkie had a girlfriend. And then it starts to become very far removed from my own experience.
Rail: You can feel the darkness in the stories, but they’re funny and touching, too. You can see it in a story like “Things I Had,” where the narrator’s grandfather has Alzheimer’s, and, because he mistakenly thinks the narrator is his long-dead lover, he kind of molests him, but not as a predator. It’s touching, funny, and disturbing. Do you seek out moments like that in your fiction? How do you find that hilarious, disturbing, poignant place?
Wilson: That’s the challenge. How can you write something to make people laugh and be entertaining, but at the same time find some deeper truth? For all the humor, I want these stories to have an emotional center. Oftentimes, humor can be a mask to the deeper darkness that’s in a story. A lot of times the process of writing for me is to slowly scratch away that mask until it’s gone by the end. And, you know, I’m not sure I always succeed in doing that, but that’s the goal.
“Things I Had” was an especially hard story to write, because it’s such a delicate situation. How can you write something about a boy having a sexual relationship with his grandfather and write it in such a way that the sex stuff isn’t used as a cheap way of getting an intense emotional response? You don’t want to use it just for shock value. That story came from an idea that even though the character has this sexual relationship with his grandfather, he’s not necessarily abused. In some ways, it’s a tender relationship, and a loving one. I like this idea that it wasn’t a bad thing in his life. And that it wasn’t this thing that scarred him. It was this one place of emotional tenderness in an otherwise cold family.
I wrote these stories over a long period of time. But they all have similarities in terms of what they’re interested in, what they’re trying to get at. The first story in the collection, “Soft Thunder”—I wanted to write a story about a high school band, because I’d been in one. Actually, I had three separate stories I wanted to write: one about the narrator’s relationship with the girl, one about the high school band, and one about this time I spent working at a restaurant. At some point I realized they were all the same character, and it’d be a much more interesting story if more than one thing was happening in it. None of them quite worked until I figured out they could be the same story. I merged them together. Some of the stories came together that way.
Some of them came fully formed, though. “December Boys Got It Bad,” the one about Wall Street Bankers on the day of the market crash—I wrote that one really quickly. I thought, “What if these bankers decided to dress up like hipsters to pick up girls?” That question prompted the entire piece. It came out in one shot. It came out of a lot of thinking I was doing at the time about the Wall Street crash, and I was just starting working on this novel that I’m working on now. That story was originally going to be a part of the novel, but ended up becoming it’s own thing.
Rail: It sounds like an organic process. I noticed some of your stories have very different voices or forms. Do you experiment as you write? And do some experiments not work out and have to go in a drawer that all writers have?
Wilson: Definitely. A bunch of stories didn’t end up in the book. For a while I kept clinging to this idea that I wanted to have a story in third person in the book. I kept trying to write stories in third person and none of them fit. Those third-person stories didn’t end up making it into the book for whatever reason. Mostly because they weren’t as good. It wasn’t so much a choice. That’s just how the stories came out. Oftentimes, I would start something in third and switch it to first. I’m just more comfortable as a writer in first person. Although the novel I’m writing now, a lot of it’s in third person.
Rail: How is writing a short story different from writing a novel? You’d written a novel, Flatscreen,before, and you’re writing a novel now. Is it different? Or is it the same process for you as when you write a short story?
Wilson: No, I find it very different, actually. A novel is much more spacious. You have room for a lot more. For the histories of characters. Their childhoods, their backgrounds. When I’m writing short stories, I’m trying to distill something, whether it’s a moment or a feeling. Something condensed. I’m just trying to capture something in a short space. It puts a lot more weight on each sentence, each word, in an exciting way. Novels and short stories do different things, and I tend to use different kinds of voices when I’m writing one or the other. In a story you can try out characters you might not want to get stuck with for five years. In Flatscreen, Eli, the narrator has such a particular idiomatic voice. There were all these syntactical restraints on my writing. He didn’t use the word “I,” he didn’t use conjunctions. After I wrote that novel, it felt freeing to be done with that voice. I said, “I can write whatever kind of sentence I want now.” I can create a character who speaks in a totally different way. That was fun for me.
Rail: Do you have any books you returned to for inspiration when you
were writing What’s Important Is Feeling? Do you have books you love more generally?
Wilson: I often reread my favorite stories because I teach them, and I find that reading a story for the fiftieth time—“Wants” by Grace Paley, “My First Fee” by Isaac Babel, “Murderers” by Leonard Michaels, “Water Liars” by Barry Hannah—can be really instructive. I’m always finding things I hadn’t noticed before, and falling in love all over again. These are canonical stories, at least in my world, but many contemporary storywriters have been hugely influential as well. I could probably go through the collection and point out which writer I was trying to imitate with each piece. I know there are homages to Deborah Eisenberg, Amy Hempel, Mary Gaitskill, and Mary Robison. Probably the two biggest direct influences are Sam Lipsyte and Charles D’Ambrosio, two very different writers whose styles I’ve always been somehow trying to fuse, with mixed results. There was a whole batch of Gary Lutz-inspired stories that were mercifully cut—no one can do what he does, and I certainly looked silly trying. Same goes for my attempts to write like David Foster Wallace.
Rail: Speaking of teaching, I know you just got back from the 2014 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (A.W.P.) in Seattle, the biggest conference for M.F.A. students and professors. Can you talk about writing, teaching, and teaching writing at the university level, including the workshop model, and the idea of two cultures in American fiction, M.F.A. and N.Y.C.?
Wilson: One of the things about the whole M.F.A. versus N.Y.C. discussion: I worry we’re thinking about creative writing programs in a reductive way. There are so many M.F.A. programs and there are so many varieties of experience even within a single M.F.A. program. I find it hard to talk about it in this blanket way as “the M.F.A. experience.” Everyone’s M.F.A. experience depends on what school you go to, but also what professor you have for workshop, or who the other people in your workshops are. Beyond that it depends on where you’re at in that stage of your writing development. Where you’re at in your personal life. All those things contribute to your experience. In that sense, blanket discussions about the M.F.A. experience tend to be reductive.
I’m teaching in the M.F.A. program at Columbia and in the undergraduate creative writing program at N.Y.U. Personally, I think teaching writing is great. In one sense, the rise of the M.F.A. seems like a necessary corrective to English departments teaching less literature. As English departments at universities move toward critical theory, there needs to be a place to talk about actual literature. In part that’s what caused this rise in the M.F.A. I mean, no one is teaching Raymond Carver stories in lit classes. In that sense, it’s exciting and important. In a more general way—and this is something I’ve come to understand recently—reading fiction and writing it can become this important exercise in empathy. We live in a culture that encourages narcissism. Social media is a big part of it, everyone posting about what they ate for lunch and just taking pictures of themselves all the time. Reading is one of the only times in our lives where we’re forced to imagine what it’s like to be another person, to try and inhabit another person’s headspace in a deep way. That’s an important activity for a culture to respect. It’s part of our development as human beings.
There’s so much to be gained by studying fiction in that way. Some of my students might go on to become writers, but most of them will not. That’s true of graduate students, but it’s especially true of undergraduate students. I’ve been posed this question: “What’s the point in doing this and studying this if it’s not going to turn into a career?” A ridiculous question, because it assumes there’s no value in education alone.
As long as people are reading, that’s what’s important. If they’re reading on a Kindle or a spaceship book or an actual book, it doesn’t matter. The important thing for me is for people to engage in literature. And if technology is going to help people do that, I’m all for it. The main thing I want my students to realize about literature and fiction: You might like it. That it might lead them into a longer reading life. I’m an advocate for books because I love them so much, and they’ve been such a hugely important part of my life. As a teacher, I want other people to be able to experience that.