JOHN WRAY

Interviewed by Liz Moore

John Wray was chosen as one of Granta’s “Best Young American Novelists” in 2007. After the publication of his first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, he was awarded a 2001 Whiting Writers’ Award. His second novel was Canaan’s Tongue. Both of his first two novels were met with a great deal of critical success. Of the former, Anna Shapiro wrote in The Guardian, “Wray is a poet, and it shows”; of the latter, Sam Lipsyte wrote in the New York Times, “There is wild, wicked music throughout these pages.” But it is his most recent novel, Lowboy (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009), a literary thriller that centers on an unmedicated, schizophrenic teenager who has disappeared into the subway system of New York, that has been a popular breakthrough for Wray. In June, I met with him at his favorite café in Brooklyn. We sat in the backyard. He ordered warmed-up chocolate cake. We talked about wedding bands, ornithology, and Tom Clancy.



INTERVIEWER

You’re a musician. Do you still play?

JOHN WRAY

Yeah, I do still play. Mostly all I do now is play for myself because I spend all day on my own. I’ll play a country standard. And then once a year, someone I know gets married and then I organize their wedding band.

INTERVIEWER

And play in it?

JOHN WRAY

Yeah. It’s a lot of work because the way we do it is, they’ll write us a song list of like forty songs and then we’ll learn like twenty-five. But it’s different songs every time, so there’s no repertoire, you can’t say “we know this song.” And they run the gamut from Al Green to Black Sabbath, which is great practice as a musician. Fortunately I get to have really good musicians with me, so it takes a little bit of the pressure off. Except then you’re worried that you’ll be the one that fucks up. I wear this white suit and I dance and stuff. I usually don’t play any instruments, because there are always better people that can be found.

INTERVIEWER

Did you start playing music first or writing first?

JOHN WRAY

Writing.  On my mother’s side, I come from a very musical family, so that was a little intimidating—a classical music background.  My mother not really so much, but my grandmother taught piano.  I was in late high school before I took my dad’s guitar and learned some chords and stuff.  Then I went to college and in college I was a singer in some hardcore bands.  I went to Oberlin, and everyone was in a band.

I did a bunch of writing when I was in grade school. I was really into comic books when I started out. My friend and I started this comic book company. I would put these comics together just by photocopying pages that my friend and I drew. We would Xerox them and staple them together and try to sell them for twenty-five cents. No one ever bought one. It was called Vortex Comics. It turns out there actually is a company called Vortex Comics I didn’t know about.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe now you can buy them out and relaunch your comic book career.

JOHN WRAY

That’s not a bad idea. I’d have to have a lot of money, though. I think they’ve actually done pretty well.

INTERVIEWER

I read that when you were in college you wanted to major in biology and become an ornithologist. At what point did you realize you could make a career in writing?

JOHN WRAY

I got to college and quickly realized there were people who were very serious about wanting to be writers and were completely unabashed and unapologetic about their ambition, and I found that very exciting and surprising.

I still feel kind of awkward about my job. Sometimes I feel that in the U.S., non-creative jobs are de-valued in the popular consciousness. No one thinks it’s sexy if someone is an engineer anymore. They used to—in the ’30s, being an engineer was just about the sexiest thing you could be. So on the one hand there’s that. Who do people want to read about in the tabloids? They want to read about actors or musicians or creative people. But at the same time, in real life, you kind of constantly have to justify this extremely vain and pretentious choice. So there’s a very strange double-standard there. And I think it’s sort of destructive in both directions. There are people who have wonderful, interesting jobs. For example, if someone’s a hydro-electric engineer, that’s a very cool job to have—but that person might feel like they’re not cool.

Basically out of a strong desire not to come off as pretentious, I often find myself dissembling or all but apologizing for my job, particularly outside of New York City. If I’m in Buffalo or somewhere in the Midwest. And it’s very strange. I think of it as a weirdly adolescent quality that I have never been able to shake. I mean even now, if I meet someone at a dinner party, I have to resist the temptation to just kind of mumble, “I’m in publishing.”

INTERVIEWER

I’ve spoken to a lot of writers who don’t find the act of writing at all pleasurable—the act of putting words on a page. Do you? And if not, where do you think the compulsion to write comes from?

JOHN WRAY

I think writing is a curious occupation, because in my experience it combines the most pleasurable thing that I know of, which is make-believe, with the most unpleasant thing I can possibly imagine, which is on a daily basis coming to terms with your fallibility and your shortcomings and the vast distance between what you would like to do and what you are producing. Between your ideal and what is sitting concretely before you on the desktop. There are things like revision that if applied correctly will allow you to decrease that distance as much as possible, but there will always be a gap. It’s an unbridgeable gap between the ideal and the actual when you’re writing. So I think for the people who find writing painful that’s generally what they’re referring to. They’re referring to having an idea that seems fascinating or beautiful or true and, over and over and over again, experiencing the elusiveness or the impossibility of setting it down adequately.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say the most rewarding thing for you, as a writer, is feeling like you’re coming close to what you set out to do? Or to see how people react to it?

JOHN WRAY

No, no, no. The most rewarding thing is that feeling one occasionally has, and hopefully the feeling that one is left with at the end of three or four years of working on a book, that one has succeeded not in attaining that unattainable ideal, but succeeded in producing something that’s more intelligent and interesting and entertaining, funnier, wiser, than one is oneself. It is possible to do that because you’re setting down a chunk of text, and that chunk of text is going to hopefully have moments of interest, and then a lot of pulp in between. You’re revisiting that in the process of revision, and each time you revise hopefully you’re selecting for the parts that work and that almost seem unlikely that you yourself might have come up with. Essentially it’s like being able to have the same conversation with someone, the reader, eighteen times. Until you say it exactly the way you want to say it. Each time you have that conversation, you might have an additional idea or two that might be interesting. By the end, you’re creating this super-conversation that is a lot more interesting than you yourself would be, sitting in a coffee shop talking to someone. It’s a chance to hit rewind on a given period of your life. It’s that thing that one is never allowed to do in actual life, to revisit one’s ideas and rework them until they’re satisfactory.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of people have this idea that most writers have obsessions that they keep revisiting over and over again. All three of your books seem on the surface to be vastly different from each other, set in completely different places and times, but do you have things that keep popping up in your writing from time to time? Where do you think they come from?

JOHN WRAY

I wonder sometimes. When I recognize that a theme or a turn of phrase is recurring, I do wonder whether I’m just on autopilot and I’m lazy and I’m recycling something that worked in an earlier book, but you can also think of it in terms of obsessions that someone might have. I’ve gotten to know Haruki Murakami a little bit, initially because I interviewed him for the Paris Review. There’s a writer who has almost unfailingly recurring motifs or themes. Very often there’s a vanished woman in his books. Not to mention a real, everyday, banal world, and an alternate place to that.

But in my books characters have a problem with objectivity, or with seeing the world the way other people see it. They suffer to a certain degree under extremes of subjectivity, be that mental illness or a profoundly different conception of the world and the way the world functions. That seems to be a recurring theme. And I don’t know why. I don’t know why that is. I’m sure that it’s something that I’ve experienced in the course of my life, that I see the world or understand the world differently from a lot of people around me, but I also think that probably every teenager feels that way. The novel is very well suited to exploring subjectivity, probably more than most other art forms are. It’s well suited to exploring mental states and interiors. The wonderful device of the unreliable narrator. It can be done in film, but it’s kind of the novel’s purview.

What else? I don’t know, failure. I think failure, people failing, seems to be a big favorite of mine.

INTERVIEWER

That might be true for a lot of fiction.

JOHN WRAY

Not Tom Clancy.

INTERVIEWER

No, Tom Clancy wins. You were talking about point of view, and I want to talk about Lowboy here, because the way it’s narrated is fascinating. It alternates between a close third-person, very tightly on Lowboy—his voice is mixed up in that voice—and then a more objective third-person with Detective Lateef.

JOHN WRAY

That’s very much the way it works. I decided that it would be too much for the entire book to play out in the close third-person of a schizophrenic. In Austria, where my family is from, when you’re hiking in the mountains there will be a metal chain or cable fastened to the rock face where you can hold on with your hand as you go. I thought, in the same way, the reader should have stability, or a place to check in at regular intervals to put Lowboy’s take on things in context. I didn’t want to place the burden of explanation or exposition on Lowboy’s shoulders. I wanted Lowboy himself to be free to think however he was inclined to, or however I felt inclined to have him think. Having a fairly accurate second rail for the book to run on allowed me to get a lot weirder in Lowboy’s sections without worrying about whether the reader would always know exactly what was going on.

INTERVIEWER

Was that a decision that you made in the writing of the book, or did you have that structure in mind before you set out to write it?

JOHN WRAY

I began it as purely Lowboy’s point of view, but it was fairly early that I decided that there would be a double-narrative, those two rails. I think that Haruki was an influence there also, even though what I write is not like what he does. I think the novel of his that has the best structure is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which alternates chapters between a more fantastic world and a slightly less fantastic world, and I found that a very satisfying structure.

INTERVIEWER

Have you gotten reactions from people who either have schizophrenia or have close family or friends who have schizophrenia? Have you had the opportunity to interact with them “officially,” or informally?

JOHN WRAY

Yes, I’ve been contacted both by mental health advocates and by schizophrenics. It’s been unbelievable. It’s been gratifying to an extent that I could not have anticipated because I was very afraid. In a way that was the biggest hurdle to overcome with this book. The intense fear that I was misrepresenting the illness. And that I was actually going to end up doing exactly the opposite of what I hoped to do.

INTERVIEWER

What was your process of research for the book?

JOHN WRAY

It was very different form the research that I’d done for the first two books, because being historical, being set in a different era, there was little direct primary research that could be done. Whereas with Lowboy, I began by doing a lot of very traditional research, going to the library and getting out clinical literature about the disease. Reading memoirs both by schizophrenics themselves and by family members. And that stuff actually ended up being the most useful to me. But at a certain point I realized, I can just go outside and walk around the city, and that will be very valuable as research. So I started doing that, and interacted with schizophrenics I ran into in the city. So in that way it was a lot more fun. On the other hand, there was such a vast range of possibility it was harder than normal to decide where to stop.

INTERVIEWER

I don’t know if you’re superstitious about this, but are you working on anything now, and if so would you care to talk about it?

JOHN WRAY

Yeah. I stopped writing Lowboy exactly two years ago, two Junes ago. I started writing a new novel. It’s taking longer than I thought it was going to take. It really is. You start out writing a novel and you think, this book is going to be 300 pages long. So you think, I don’t even need to write a page a day! If I just write a page most days, at the end of a year I’ll have a whole first draft! And then shit happens. And you can’t later reconstruct exactly what shit happened to you, but suddenly two years have gone by and you’re still only about halfway done. It’s strange, definitely strange. Because there were also brief periods where I was writing 1,000 words a day. Articles get in the way, I taught at Columbia for a semester, promoting Lowboy got in the way. The success of Lowboy was wonderful, but it certainly has reduced productivity. I don’t know how people who are actually really successful, genuinely famous writers, actually write. I was talking to Colum McCann about this, who you know from Hunter, and I asked him.  First of all he has a million things he’s doing all the time. I guess if you win the National Book Award, you just have to take a year to do nothing but that. So that’s kind of how I feel, minus the National Book Award.

INTERVIEWER

All of the business matters aside, and the tangible things that distract you from writing, when you’re writing do you have anxieties? Do you have a particular set or group of people in mind whose reactions you anticipate and fear?

JOHN WRAY

Charles Bock likes to quote Jane’s Addiction about writing. Apparently at a press conference, someone in Jane’s Addiction said, “You know, 50% of people love us, 50% of people hate us. It’s called art.”  I tend to subscribe to that view. Obviously if I were to write a book one day that would become a real blockbuster bestseller, I’m sure that would not be unwelcome to me. I could use the money. But my goal is not to write a book that will be universally adored. My goal is to write a book that will be adored by some people and will disquiet, or confound, or even piss off some other people. I think that one should aspire to write a book that will produce a strong reaction in everyone who reads it. But whether that reaction is positive or negative is, in a way, less important.

What I find simultaneously most motivating and most discouraging is to think of my book in the context of books that I consider great, or that inspire me. The most exciting or pleasurable thing I can imagine in connection with being a published writer are those childish moments when you find yourself thinking of the great writers who are long since dead, who you think of as demigods, and then you imagine yourself, even in some indirect way, as part of the same business. That can be very thrilling as long as you don’t think about it too long.

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