In Conversation with Adam Wilson

The fiction of Adam Wilson is often incredibly funny, but the concerns at its heart are primal and nervewracking. It’s a potent blend: the laughter that arises from discomfort never quite shaking the fears that lend it strength. In his new collection What’s Important is Feeling and his 2012 novel Flatscreen, Wilson chronicles flawed relationships, middle-class economic anxiety, depression, and characters wrestling with their own mortality and the mortality of those around them.

The stories in What’s Important is Feeling zero in on Wilson’s themes of choice and, as with Flatscreen, contain more than a little sharp dissection of class. “The Porchies” examines the relationship between a group of students and the locals with whom they awkwardly mingle, while “December Boys Got It Bad” follows a pair of recently laid-off bankers as they travel to Brooklyn in search of romance and chemical stimulation. And then there’s the very brief, very memorable “America is Me and Andy,” which distills Wilson’s skill at memorably blending the savvy and the awkward.

Between discussions of the excellence of Sun Kil Moon’s new album Benji and Charles D’Ambrosio’s collection The Dead Fish Museum, Wilson and I talked about What’s Important is Feeling, along with Flatscreeen, his future projects, and what it was like to appear in his father Jonathan’s memoir Kick and Run

— Tobias Carroll

9780062284785

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to start out by talking about “America Is Me and Andy.” I had started reading it, and I thought, “Okay, I think I know where this story is going.” And then, “Wait; I didn’t expect that to happen at all.” It seemed like the two-minute punk song story of the collection.

WILSON

I think that’s what it is. There were a couple of other really short ones that were in the collection originally, that ended up getting cut. This was the only flash fiction piece that stayed, because it fit thematically with the rest of the stories. It was an over-the-top, exaggerated take on some of the same themes that are covered in the rest of the book: suburban ennui, male friendship, inappropriate urges, etc.

There was a lot of discussion about whether to keep it in or not. There were some who thought that people would really be turned off by the story, which I think they probably will. There was a part of me that wanted to keep it for that very reason. It’s like: this is me at my weirdest, take it or leave it.

INTERVIEWER

Clearly, the two characters in that story have had a very complicated history–the Tomb Raider costume one wears, for instance. Do you generally have that in the back of your mind as you’re writing it, or does that come up as you’re writing it?

WILSON

I think I wrote the first part of that story very quickly. It started with this idea of this guy deciding he doesn’t want to be friends with anymore white people with dreadlocks. As if somehow this will be the big turning point in his life. That was the impetus for the story. And then I had to ask: “Who’s he telling this to? Oh, of course! His white friend with dreadlocks! Who is his best friend. And they might be kind of in love with each other.” And then I thought, “What are they doing? I guess they’re watching American Idol.” And it went from there.

I wrote it at a point in my life when I felt really emotionally invested in American Idol.

That passed.

INTERVIEWER

I was going to say, are you still feeling that way?

WILSON

I was really interested in this idea that anyone could go up and sing a song and, outside the ridiculousness of the circumstances, and the fact that it’s on Fox, and it’s this insane, soulless commercial enterprise, one can still achieve some pure moment of transcendence. That all that other stuff doesn’t mean that someone with a beautiful voice can’t go up and sing a song in a way that’s really moving and incredible. That may be rare, but it happened.

INTERVIEWER

What was the process like of putting this book together?

WILSON

Originally, I’d sent my agent every story that I’d ever published or had finished to the degree where I thought it was, maybe, includable. There were something like twenty stories. Off the bat, she cut about four or five. From there, my editor cut a couple and wanted me to add one. It was all, ultimately, up to me, but he had some suggestions.

INTERVIEWER

Was the story that he wanted you to add something that you’d written subsequent to selling the book?

WILSON

It was a story I hadn’t written yet.

INTERVIEWER

Can I ask which one?

WILSON

Yeah. It’s “The Long In-Between.” Which was a story I had started; he was saying that he wanted one more longer story to make up for the shorter ones we were cutting. I agreed.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have an idea of how the flow of it was going to go?

WILSON

The collection itself? Not really. I had a vague sense. “Soft Thunder,” I knew I wanted to be the beginning. And I knew I wanted “The Porchies” to be near the end. I think, originally, “The Porchies” was going to be the last story, and my agent and editor both thought “Milligrams” should be, and I agreed, so that became the last story. We were going to have the title story go earlier, but I felt like people would probably read the title story anyway, because it’s the title story, so we should stick another one earlier, to mix things up. “The Long In-Between” was originally going to come later, but I thought it should go earlier, just to have something different.

I think that was the hard part, to make it feel like you were reading something different from story to story. Some of the stories are quite similar. But then there are these few outliers.

INTERVIEWER

Reading “December Boys Got It Bad,” you have these two characters who have both been laid off. Their dynamic seems to be that one of them is much more boorish and much less likable, and then you have the friend, who seems to be much more reluctant, who’s questioning things. Is the narrator meant to be taken at face value, or is he painting himself as the more likable one because he’s the one telling the story?

WILSON

It’s an interesting question. I think that for the most part he’s meant to be taken at face value. That story came about because I wanted to humanize someone that everyone hates. I’d been going to Occupy Wall Street protests, and there was a part of me that wondered, who are these dudes we hate so much? There’s not just one stereotypical banker. There are different types of bankers. It felt like this exercise in compassion, to try to imagine a guy who ended up in this world, and almost unwittingly being involved in this thing that was, really, this huge fuckup, and which really fucked up a lot of people’s lives. And, at the same time, not being such a bad guy, necessarily.

That was the goal of the story: to figure out how to make that character sympathetic. I think he’s flawed–he’s not a fully sympathetic character. He’s passive. He’s complicit. But I think that’s what, in some ways, I relate to, in him.

INTERVIEWER

That dynamic definitely felt very true, and, in some ways, very uncomfortable. (In a good way.) Where did the bits about house music come from?

WILSON

I just assumed that the other character, Lawrence, who is kind of evil, would listen to really bad house music. It’s not more complicated than that. I imagined them being in this place with these hip art school chicks, and this guy puts on the least hip music there is. I’ve known this type of guy before, they’re stuck in a certain year or a certain moment. I remember when I was in high school, there were a couple of years when everyone was doing Ecstasy, and everyone got really into trance. I never could get into that type of music at all, but when I was on drugs I listened to it and liked it. But there are some people where that was the only time in their life that they were listening to new music, or that they were interested in molding their tastes. I think that’s a pretty common thing, that the stuff that people like in their teens and twenties ends up being all they know. There are some people who are really into music, who are constantly seeking out new stuff. But the majority of people had one brief time when they got into something, and they never moved on from that. And that’s who I felt that this character would be.

I also felt that there was something about that music that’s brainless. All he wants to do is dance. The narrator, he wants to think. The other character wants to dance, and in some ways, that’s why the other character is going to succeed, and he’s the one who gets the girl, and he’s the one who’s going to bounce back from losing his job.

INTERVIEWER

When did you settle on the title for that? It seems so perfectly suited to the story.

WILSON

I’m glad you think so. I wasn’t sure about the title. It’s not that obscure of a reference. It’s a reference to the song “September Gurls” by Big Star, but my title is from the chorus. I was worried it was going to be confusing, because the story takes place in September, which is when the stock market crashed. It takes place on the day that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, and it’s about these two bankers going out on the town and dressing up as hipsters to try to meet girls. And the idea was that the girls that they meet are September girls, they’re the girls from the song, in that they represent some kind beginning of the school year, pre-winter hope. And the guys are December boys, whatever that means.

INTERVIEWER

Did some of these stories predate Flatscreen?

WILSON

Yes, one or two.

INTERVIEWER

Did you find that these stories had an effect on shaping either Flatscreen or the novel you’re working on now?

WILSON

Yes, definitely. A lot of it was written concurrently with Flatscreen. Clearly, there are many of the same themes at work. I’m interested in tackling some of the same themes; you can definitely see echoes between Flatscreen and the stories. In some ways, the biggest difference is stylistic. I think, in Flatscreen, I wanted to have this hyper voice; the whole thing was this long monologue. And having him speak in this very stylized way: he almost never uses the word I, he doesn’t use conjunctions. That felt like a very specific voice to me. And I had room to do things that wouldn’t work in a story; there’s a lot more room for riffing and rambling. In the stories, I was much more interested in concision and tightness.

INTERVIEWER

Some of the stories in the collection are set in Massachusetts, as is Flatscreen. Do you find it easier to write about Massachusetts when you’re not living there?

WILSON

Yes, definitely. Like many writers, I’m trying to deal with the psychic wounds of my adolescence. I’ve lived in New York for seven years, and I feel like I’m finally at a place where I know it well enough to start writing about it. I have enough psychic wounds from my New York life, and enough distance from them, that I can finally start in on that. The New York stories in the collection–“December Boys,” “The Long In-Between,” and “Tell Me”–are some of the more recent ones that I wrote. But I’m still going back to Massachusetts: my new novel is set partially in New York and partially in Massachusetts.

INTERVIEWER

Reading “The Porchies,” you have Massachusetts as a setting, but you also have a lot of interesting comments about class and economics. I wanted to talk about that for a little bit…

WILSON

I’m glad you picked up on that, because I think it’s a huge theme of the book–of both of my books, really–which I’m not sure always comes across. It’s funny; I’ve gotten a lot of criticism for writing about quote-unquote privileged characters. It always annoys me, because to me, I feel like these books are really interrogations of upper-middle-class privilege. They’re interrogations, but they’re also sympathetic, in some ways; they’re not satire. I think that may be something that people have trouble dealing with; they’re not sure how to read them.

I think it’s very easy to make everything very black and white, to separate people into these categories. The middle class in America is huge. It’s one of the few countries in the world that has a middle class, really. In most of the world, there really is this huge line between the people who have money and the people who don’t. In America, there many minute strata of class within the middle class. And the delineations between them are really nuanced and complicated. That’s something I’ve always been really interested in.

If you think about the most recent election, Obama was constantly directing his speeches to the middle class. But the middle class means different things to many different people. I grew up in a quite wealthy suburb of Boston. It was an interesting place to grow up; it was also a really big place, around 90,000 people in the city I grew up in. I grew up with these very confused notions about class, like some of the characters in my stories. Part of that was due to the fact that people were so rich in my town that, even though my own family would have been considered incredibly rich in 99% of the world, in my town we were not considered that, because my parents drove a Jeep instead of a Lexus. Or because we lived in an old house instead of a new mansion, even though our old house was humongous. It gave me these very confused notions about class.

And then I went away to college and went, “Oh, wait–I really do come from this incredibly privileged background.” And I had to reshape a lot of my thinking about it. And then, moving to New York, where you suddenly meet people who are both rich and poor to degrees you didn’t know were possible. I thought those people in my hometown were rich, but, Jesus. Here there’s money on a whole other level. I think it can be really fascinating and really confusing. I’m sympathetic to these characters who are struggling to figure this stuff out.

I think there’s something very sexy about the super-rich, the Bret Easton Ellis kind of decadence; incredibly rich people behaving decadently and then, maybe, getting their come-uppance. People are attracted to that; that’s sexy, that’s fun. It’s pornographic in that way: everyone has swimming pools, and on and on. It’s like Gossip Girl. And there’s also something sexy about hard-scrabble lives of quiet desperation; the romance of the working class. There’s something totally unsexy about the middle class, or the upper middle class. For that reason, it makes me want to write about it. It’s also the world I know.

INTERVIEWER

Keeping with the Massachusetts theme, but going in a slightly different direction: do you see the band in “Slow Thunder” as being any good?

WILSON

No.

INTERVIEWER

Okay. I was wondering how the clarinet fit into that…

WILSON

Definitely not very good. In fact, they’re heavily inspired by a band that I was in in high school, that I can play for you, if you wish. We were going to release a track with the Amazon e-single, but there were technical difficulties. Although our bass player was pretty good. I was the singer, and it was not…not so much singing. I think it would be a compliment to call it singing.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned earlier that, at AWP, you would be reading nonfiction for the first time. What’s the focus going to be there, relative to your work in fiction?

WILSON

Criticism is different, but in terms of personal essay kind of stuff, I approach it similarly to fiction. Often the fiction starts off closer to nonfiction, and then I start making stuff up to make it more interesting. I don’t really differentiate too much in terms of writing them. And I think my favorite of those kinds of essays, Iike the one’s in Geoff Dyer’s collection Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It take a similar approach. In the introduction, he says something like, “Everything in these stories happened, but some of it only happened in my head.”

INTERVIEWER

It’s almost like the Werner Herzog discussion, where certain scenes in certain documentaries were staged, but he makes the argument that this is making it much more realistic than the actual thing.

WILSON

I think it depends on the piece that you’re writing. With humor, you can get away with it a little more. No one’s asking you to perfectly remember a conversation you had. It’s different if you’re writing a journalistic piece for the New York Times. In Herzog’s case, it’s complicated, because those are documentary films.

I hate this whole argument about realism, surrealism; this whole genre question. To me, it’s all kind of the same. I think of all writing as a form of communication. Sometimes you can communicate the thing you’re trying to communicate by writing a piece of nonfiction. All art is some form of communication. Sometimes you communicate it by writing a piece of fiction. Sometimes you can only get at an emotional truth by making something up. Sometimes you can get at that same truth by making up a whole world. I don’t think those things are that different. They’re just different strategies for getting at the thing that’s being communicated, which is a thing you can’t get at except through the actual piece of work.

INTERVIEWER

When I was talking with you around the time of Flatscreen’s release a few years ago, you talked about the influence of Bellow on it. With the novel you’re working on now, is there a similar relationship between that and the work of another writer?

WILSON

Sure, there are lots. I wrote Flatscreen over six, seven years; I read hundreds upon hundreds of books during that time, and a number of things went into it. I think there are certain basic ideas of the characters and their relationships I got from Bellow. And in the same way, this new novel–I hesitate to talk too much about it, in case I never finish it– but I’ve been read a lot of Bolaño over the past five or six years, and I wanted to try to do something structurally similar to what he does in his longer books. We’ll see if there’s any resemblance in the final product. I kind of doubt there will be.

INTERVIEWER

A couple of months ago, I was reading Kick and Run, where you show up briefly as a character. Was that the first time you showed up as a character in someone else’s book?

WILSON

As a character in nonfiction, yes. But if you read my dad’s fiction, there are versions of me. There’s a story in his collection An Ambulance is on the Way that is very much based on a trip he and I took to Jamaica when I was sixteen. It’s a strange experience. It was a very hard thing to read my dad’s books when I was younger, in part because I was terrified to see myself represented. And reading a book by someone, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is a very intimate experience with the way their mind works, and the depths of their consciousness. That seemed really terrifying to me. Eventually, I read all of his books, and it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. But it was weird. It was weird seeing a character based on you in a book. So now, it’s such payback for my folks, for my dad specifically, who put my family through it a lot. He gets it back.

INTERVIEWER

Earlier, we were discussing a Mary Robison book thatyou were talking about teaching. When you’re reading something with an eye towards teaching it to a class, does that have any effect on your own writing?

WILSON

Absolutely. I think it helps me think about my own writing a lot. There are certain stories that I teach every semester, and read every semester, and know by heart. A lot of what I do in class is read very slowly, and go through a story sentence by sentence, and try to figure out what the writer is doing with each sentence. What the different strategies they’re using are, and how they’re seducing the reader; all these things. Sometimes it takes doing that to realize what they’re doing.

I’m teaching a humor class now, and it’s been interesting, reading all of these books that I love and trying to figure out why they’re funny. It’s a hard thing to figure out: why is this funny? Why is this line funny? It influences your writing, but at the same time, when you’re writing you don’t think about those things. It gets in you, I hope. You imitate unconsciously.

 

Tobias Carroll lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has recently been published by Tin House, The Collagist, Underwater New York, The Paris Review Daily, Necessary Fiction, Bookforum, The Collapsar, and Joyland. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and can be found on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll

 

 

 

 

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