An Interview with Wells Tower
Wells Tower grew up near Chapel Hill, NC, in a rural region tempered by progressive, well-to-do townships that he refers to as the exburbs. Along with the swampy gulf coast of Florida, Wells recreates this region in his fiction with rich detail and an affection and yearning for home. Driving that strong feeling is a penetrating and occasionally hilarious awareness of hypocrisy and bad decision-making, tempered by empathy for human beings who run into bad luck.
Wells has been quietly publishing short stories over the past decade in several of the major venues, along with a good bit of magazine and newspaper writing. His first volume, Everything Ravaged and Everything Burned, is a powerful culmination of momentum that sheds light in multiple directions on the many themes and literary origins of his work so far. He is an old-fashioned short-story writer, hoping to keep the tradition alive.
We met in late March in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn at a place with a name that makes reference to Alice in Wonderland, and over cheap stout discussed the stories in the book, pietist hippies, M.F.A programs, Flannery O’Connor, and other topics.
Did growing up punk influence your writing at all? The freedom of imagination with zines, for example.
Like did punk rock change my life? (Laughs) The zines were fun. I did one with my bandmate Al that was kind of literary. It was review-based but not of records or anything; we did things like review surgeries people had, or car accidents; when I got into a wreck, we compared it to Camus’. We also did a lot of things on all the vegan people in the punk scene…
There’s a tension in your stories with hippies; they tend to be nemeses. Does that come from there at all?
That’s more with my parent’s generation. There were all these back-to-the-land types that moved down to this part of North Carolina before the region really blew up, back in the ’70s, and a lot of them are really just huge assholes. You know, really hypocritical. "Me me me…" A friend of mine just shared a name with me for these people out in San Francisco, you know, the ones in long beards and white pants with yoga mats who think they can yell at you because they eat so much yeast, or whatever. They’re called "snags."
I first read your story “Down in the Valley” as an undergraduate when it was out in The Paris Review, and I’ve remembered it over the years. I noticed with the new version that you’ve sort of toned down Barry, the hippie who makes off with Ed’s wife. He’s still an asshole, but less of one.
Yeah, it’s interesting that you notice that. I wanted to complicate that a little bit, sort of blur the moral line. There are no good guys in my stories, and I wanted Ed to dislike him for his own reasons.
Three of the stories -- “The Brown Coast,” “Retreat,” and “Down in the Valley” -- feature a similar man-child, if I can call him that.
In the first two, a father has passed away, and in “Down in the Valley” the protagonist is a father. He’s let his life get away from him. A distant or absent father appears in other stories as well: “Executors of Important Energies,” “Leopard,” and “On the Show,” but we see a tender father in “Wild America,” and the title story’s narrator is intent on settling down. Are we to draw hope from these two?
You know, there’s so much desolation that I have to write in some warmth here and there (laughs).
Your characters may not be good guys, but with exception of the Viking bloodeagle-giver [a battlefield procedure; you’ll have to read the story for the gruesome details], they don’t mean harm. Stephen, the brother of the protagonist in “Retreat,” may be self-centered, but he draws out something good from his brother, and when Matty tries to take advantage of him, it’s more pathological than mean-spirited.
I have heard it from a few quarters that the book’s characters are exceptionally ugly or cruel, which I find a little surprising. I think they’re all fairly tender people who want the usual things -- tenderness, human connection, safe harbor -- but who cannot help vexing themselves.
The characters in your stories are occupied by a particular language, and by the details of tools, hardware and mechanics. It seems like a comfort zone for them. While Ed has his reverie of making love with his wife in the time before she ran off, he thinks of the quarter-inch lag bolts they sheared away from the bed frame. How did you come on to this language?
There’s a hard-worn gentleness where I come from that’s dramatically rich; everybody’s a carpenter; everybody’s working on their house. I’m a terrible carpenter, but I love the work. For the past ten years I’ve been making a living as a writer, and it’s been a solitary life ever since graduate school. That kind of work is the total opposite; you have a job that you know will be completed within a certain amount of hours. With writing, you can never know.
What pushed you to pursue an MFA?
I decided to come to New York and to do the whole grad school thing because I thought I wanted to get a job in publishing. Before that, I was working the night shift for DoubleTake, and eventually they let me do a few editorial things, and then I got involved with the Washington Post magazine and tried to write a story for them about joining a traveling carnival crew. It wasn’t until I started grad school that I got really serious about writing.
Who are some of your influences?
It’s really the canon: Cheever, Yates -- his novels get so concussively depressing, he drives it in so deep, but the short stories are just as complete, and they’re so amazingly structured.
The emotional foreshadowing.
Yeah, they’re amazing.
The stories don’t go as far into misery as the novels, but they leave off in that direction.
Right, they only show you the horror of what’s going to happen. Before I was able to write anything publishable, I was writing these stories that were ending with all kinds of destruction and violence. I was probably reading too much Flannery O’Connor, where everything ends with, you know, a lightning bolt.
Are you haunted by O’Connor’s notion that every story must be a complete dramatic act?
I haven’t read that, but I’d probably agree. I’m very much interested in preserving the short story tradition, in writing stories that are tight and where something happens. I love Poe and Chekhov, and also Denis Johnson -- Jesus’ Son is such an incredible book. Thom Jones, Ethan Canin’s Emperor of the Air, Allan Gurganus, Nicholas Baker. What I really love in Chekhov is that kind of minute action, where all that happens is somebody picks up a hat and puts it down. Nabokov did that too, in his short fiction. I also love Walker Percy, and Barry Hannah. Ben Marcus was incredibly helpful, a great inspiration. He had this thing where he’d caution us against "aboutness." You shouldn’t try to make your stories be "about" something, he would say.
Flannery O’Connor was really dismissive of students who thought they should have a thesis in their stories.
For a writer of your generation, your work seems pretty clear of contemporary pop cultural and technological elements. With the exception of a couple of cell phones, these are analog stories. There’s an Indiana Jones reference, and some cable TV, but it seems like it’s more for nostalgia’s sake. Are you writing for your generation?
I really don’t feel as though I’m writing for my generation, or that I’m deliberately not writing for my generation. I guess the only audience I really write for are the people upon whom I inflict early drafts -- my editors and patient friends. The person I try hardest to please is the cranky, spiteful critic in my head who keeps up an incessant caterwauling of invective and unhelpful fault finding. If I write something that quiets that guy down, I can usually feel confident that it’s not completely awful. But I’m definitely not interested in consumer references or things that only exist in the present time; that kind of thing always turns my stomach if I think about doing it. I’m not a cultural critic.
I recently heard a younger author -- about ten years younger than you -- say on a panel that his work is inspired by the Internet.
What? Oh my god. The internet is a fucking curse! To write good fiction, you have to get into a tiny space that’s infinitely deep. That thing [the Internet] is so vast, yet has only a centimeter of depth. I actually have two desks; one with internet for magazine work, and a desk just for writing that’s completely offline. "Inspired by the internet…"
What is your process like?
Well, I can never coldly write a story; it doesn’t work. I’ve tried it where I have an outline, and I’ll think this is going to be so easy, but when I sit down of course it’s not. You have to get into a state of autohypnosis and let the story be what it wants to be. That takes time. I usually spend mornings writing fiction, then around one o’clock or so I head over to the magazine desk off my kitchen.
Do you get the same satisfaction from writing nonfiction?
For me the respective satisfactions of fiction and nonfiction don’t much resemble each other. With nonfiction -- magazine stuff, I’m talking about -- you’re done when you editor says you’re done. With fiction, “completion” becomes, for me at least, a kind of will o’ the wisp. No matter how much I’ve worked and reworked stories, there always seem to be deficiencies, unturned stones, new holes to stray down. Fiction is much more anxious work for me.
The age of sixteen seems to have significance in your stories; in “Executors,” the son expects the father to pass down a certain torch when he reaches that age (in this case, a sports car and the hot, younger stepmother). Then, one of the other stories has a son who imagines that birthday to be the day that he and his father will have a fistfight and figure everything out.
There really isn’t any specific father-business intended. If I write from the perspective of a teenager, it’s because there’s an opportunity to enter into real emotional turmoil, which is something that’s actually hard to do well. But that’s the material for fiction; characters who are purely governed by the id.
There’s a righteous indignation shared by many of the characters, even when they know they’re lying; or they become worked up at the idea of even being accused. The matter of guilt or innocence becomes insignificant. The young con artist in “Leopard,” and the lieutenant on the Pirate crew in “On the Show,” who says, “But even if you did,” when outraged that the police would take a DNA sample from random suspects. He’s not saying “but even if you’re innocent”; he’s saying “but even if you’re guilty.” What draws you to this perspective?
Human beings have a tendency towards hypocrisy. People behave badly.
But going back to the father in “Wild America” who seems to mean well, even if he doesn’t know what the hell’s going on with his daughter, or the Viking in the title story -- not Djarf, the warmonger, but Harald, the protagonist. He’s a kind of decent, merciful guy who just wants to start a family and love his wife, and would probably prefer to leave the helpless denizens of distant shores alone. And most of your characters are tender, as you say, on the inside. Is it harder for you to write that than the darkness?
No, I think it’s easier to write sweet stories.
But it can be difficult to avoid sentimentality (not to say that your stories have it).
There are legions of glorious, chilly writers out there (Kafka, Nabokov -- intermittently, etc. etc.) but I’d say that if you find yourself purging your stories of human feeling out of simple fear that someone’s going to call you sentimental, then you might be in trouble. In my story “Retreat,” there’s a patent grasping for kindness. Here are two guys who are the only family each one has left. There’s a tenderness between them, but they can’t get past their enmities. Writers should bring some light to things. When I found that Cheever’s journals are bleaker than his fiction, I saw that he was looking to give his fiction more hope than what he saw in life. Did you ever read his story “The Pot of Gold”? It’s an incredible story, with a sweet ending. The protagonist doesn’t get exactly what he was looking for in riches, but in the end he realizes that the pot of gold is his wife. You can feel Cheever yearning for some kind of redemption with that story.
In my stories, I’m searching for what drives people to do bad things, and also to show their error. This comes out in the “Down in the Valley” revision. There are similar situations in several of the stories, but the characters might have come into them through different circumstances. Some are probably permanent, but others might be temporary. A character might just be going through a rough patch.
Like the character in “The Brown Coast”?
You know, that story was inspired by a guy I knew from my town, a bartender -- he was also a carpenter -- who told this story of having an aquarium and screwing it up with a poisonous slug that killed everything. And I got the setting from a trip that I took with my girlfriend at the time to the Gulf Coast, where there turned out to be no beaches, just all this smelly mud.
I think in the beginning I thought that if I had a good anecdote, I could have a story. That sort of worked at first, but it obviously needed to go further. With graduate school, I found that I had to get worse before I could get better. I wondered at one point if I should do experimental work, but that didn’t work for me. Ben Marcus was such an inspiration to me because even though his work is experimental, he’s got real emotional anguish in there; it really comes through.David Varno writes fiction and lives in Brooklyn. His blog, 55, (http://the-wick.com/55) is inspired by a Minutemen record.