It’s All Painful: An Interview with Wells Tower
By Rebecca Scherm
Prior to last winter, I’d heard Wells Tower mentioned countless times, and I’d read the dazzled reviews of his work. But I’d never sat down with his fiction. Then friends and colleagues began to insist that I read Wells Tower with increasingly persistent personal attention. People grabbed my forearms: You must read Wells Tower.
Maybe these friends recognized in my own writing an attempt toward something Tower has already sublimely captured. We are both displaced Southerners writing about the people who stayed in the humid, hard-drinking towns we left. In my stories, people teeter innocently on the verge of hysteria until pushed. In Tower’s stories, people attempt to grow up, get it together, and get home — and then some guy goes and commits a Blood Eagle.
The first Tower story I read was “Retreat,” a gleefully sour battle between two unlikeable brothers, collected in New Stories from the South 2010. The introduction revealed this “Retreat” to be a revision of a story that had appeared in McSweeney’s—twice. There are at least four versions of the story in print: those that McSweeney’s published, the one in New Stories from the South, and the version in his debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
This past fall, in fact, I taught my undergraduate creative writing class at the University of Michigan sentence-level revision through a side-by-side comparison of another one of Tower’s openly-revised stories, “The Brown Coast.” I stood at the hot, humming overhead that was projecting the text on the pull-down screen in front of the blackboard and squinted out at the room. “Why do you think he changed ‘ass’ to ‘buttock crack’?”
After the laughter, I got responses that indicated the Tower revisions were working magic on my students: “It’s more specific”; “It’s funnier”; “It sounds like something a certain person would say”; “It’s, like, less gross, but also more gross.”
So when Wells Tower visited Ann Arbor in the fall of 2011, selected by the University of Michigan MFA Program’s fiction cohort as the Janey Lack Visiting Writer, I was eager to meet the author whose work I had come to late but had increasingly come to admire. And though he was going on only four hours of sleep, he generously agreed to an interview.
At the time of this interview, Tower was a visiting faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2009. His fiction and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and The Washington Post Magazine. Last year, The New Yorker named him among their “20 under 40” fiction writers. The following conversation took place early one chilly November morning in the lobby of the Bell Tower Hotel.
Rebecca Scherm: I’ve begun to think of you as this great reviser, because you have openly shown work in various incarnations. When you published the first versions of these stories, did you consider them finished?
Wells Tower: No—it’s weird. When I first started publishing, it was very exciting but utterly mortifying. The first fiction I ever had published I sent to the slush pile at The Paris Review. Kind of an arrogant move. They took both of the stories, and they put me on the phone with George Plimpton, who had always been a hero of mine. I couldn’t believe it. At the same time, the thrill of getting into a fancy journal was definitely shaded by a sense of mortification that the stories were not good, and they were not done.
Had you changed them since you submitted them?
Not really, I just knew that they were doing things that were not … respectable. I was in grad school and I hadn’t read a huge amount of contemporary fiction. My early stories were pretty derivative, banging the Southern tambourine quite gracelessly. I knew they had some cheap tricks, but I took it on the chin.
And the versions that appeared in The Paris Review — did you revisit them before they were published in the magazine?
I tried to. I proposed some very stupid edits, which they fortunately rejected.
The carnival story [“On the Show”] I submitted to my editor at Harper’s and didn’t hear anything. By the time he came back to me and told me the story had been accepted, I’d written a totally different story based on the same thing. So I sent him this other version. The first one was a first-person narrative, and then I rewrote it as a kind of Altman-esque thing, a bunch of teeny windows into different lives, all centered around this MacGuffin-ish thing of the boy getting raped in the porta-john. Ugh. And he just said, “Okay, either one, they’re both fine.” We spent a few days on the phone, wondering which one. Then we sent it around Harper’s for a vote, and they went with the first one, which I think was not as successful. I put the other one in the book.
How does it feel to labor over revisions — this must be changed, this is unacceptable — only to hear your editor say, “Ehh, either one?”
Right. Is it just that it doesn’t really matter? Even with “Retreat,” I have had some pompous, lofty arguments over why the revised version is better. I sent it to my editor, who said, “Oh, I don’t know. The first one was a little more fun.” We ended up kind of hybridizing the two drafts. I think, in my heart, the second version of “Retreat” is a better story.
It’s subtler, more generous.
Yeah, the first one is just a piñata job on the character. [The revision is] a more complex challenge to enlist not only the reader’s sympathies but my own sympathies on behalf of the less sympathetic character. It was written in better faith. In the first one, I just sort of had an idea for this character: I will make fun of him, and he will be ridiculous, and that will be the pleasure of this story. But I think that’s not enough.
You work on these stories for years, then send them into the void. Is that moment of silent consideration when the urge to revisit the story seizes you? Or do you just revise constantly?
The revisions for my book happened because the book was being published. Some stories, like the carnival story, I hadn’t found a publisher for, and I was just revising, revising, revising. It was this idea that I knew I wanted to do more with — essentially the cutting room floor oddments of a nonfiction piece I did [for The Washington Post Magazine]. I think because it was the first magazine story I’d ever done, I just couldn’t really take editing like a man. I sort of thought, I can’t believe that you’re cutting all this language I came up with! I wrote all that stuff! I had this experience! So that one, I kind of knew I wanted to do more with. I hope to publish another book of short stories at some point, and I’m sure I’ll do the same kind of number.
At some point when you start to write seriously and start to get published, you realize that the goal is to do as good a job as you can, not merely to get your work into print. Starting out, we all think as soon as a story is published in a magazine, it’s done—especially if it’s in a fancy magazine. If they took it, you know it’s good, because they’re so fancy! But you realize no editor is going to be as hard on your work as you have to be. They don’t have the time. They don’t want to put up with you that much.
What you said about finding a home for the bits that were dropped from the non-fiction piece strikes me as a theme for a lot of your characters— trying to get home. From “The Brown Coast” all the way to “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.”
Yeah, it’s been five years since I was back in my own house in North Carolina, and I have friends who are pressuring me to go back to New York. But I’m going to go back and be by myself in North Carolina, and it really does proceed from this deep yearning for quiet, for being in my own space. Before I moved to New York I was living there for about three years, and my mother and father pointed out to me that those were the only three years I lived for an unbroken time under one roof. But I think the sense of yearning that I’m bringing to this fantasy about going back to live in North Carolina probably proceeds more from the fiction than the fiction proceeds from my own sense of rootlessness. I had a solid, well-grounded upbringing. My parents lived in different houses, but in the same town, and they are both loving, solid, and decent. But that yearning for safe harbor feels like an unending source of poignancy for me.
That really rings true, that you can write about something and then want it, infected by something you made up.
Yeah, and I did a lot of that self-sentimentalizing in my early twenties about life in North Carolina after I finished college and moved home. I lived in a house of low quality and did some bad carpentry projects and things like that. And there was a certain kind of blow-hardism about stage-ily taking up a hammer. I still mess around with carpentry, or just terrible around-the-house manual labor. It just feels so much better than writing. An hour that you spend power-washing your deck will actually bring you one hour closer to its conclusion, which is just not the case with writing. And that’s a rough lesson. It is hard to realize that writing things just for the sake of throwing them away is crucial to the process.
That initial drafting process, when you’re staring at the blank screen—I know writers who say that’s the fun part for them, as opposed to revision.
Those people are insane. It’s all painful. The only part that’s fun, in my opinion, is when you’ve been miserable looking at the blank screen, and you’ve been miserable writing the first draft, and you’ve been miserable through every phase of the revision, and you still think the story sucks, and down the line you look at it, and you see that all that hard work actually yielded a good piece of writing.
It sucks significantly less than it used to.
Yeah, it’s true! It’s nice, to realize a story isn’t something I despise.
In your collection, two strong themes emerge: the longing to get home — wherever that means — and grappling with masculinity. The title story embodies both, a kind of literalized metaphor. How did you make the leap from the contemporary absurd world to the marauders in “Everything Ravaged”?
The Viking story was its own weird little project, and it started out with a very smart-assy genesis.
It’s so big-hearted!
I think that’s why it ends up being so big-hearted — I didn’t want to do anything other than make a couple of jokes. But that somehow freed me to do something much more sentimental in the end. Whereas, if I set out to write a story thinking — now I’m going to say something heartbreaking about family — that would just be impossible. The fact that the story was able to defeat my ambitions, or transcend them, was cool. It’s nice when that happens.
Can you talk more about that — building a whole story around a single line, a single gag?
It’s a good lesson for writing a short story: it’s best to really start small. The Viking story is built around that blood eagle thing—that was real, and that was the kernel for that story. I think the best stories start from something tiny.
The meaner the origins …
Yeah, a short story can easily destroy itself through metastasis. I think if you start a story with more than two scenes in mind, you may be doomed. At least you have a hell of a lot of work ahead of you. If I start off trying to get at this one little moment, that’s all I want to do. And then I have to build the world that makes that moment happen. We’ve all had that moment where you’re on page 25 of a short story and you’ve only ticked off a third of the scenes you think you have to write. It’s just dreadful. But often in the way we conceive stories, they have a lot of moving parts. You read Flannery O’Connor or Richard Yates, and there are a bunch of different movements to a story. You can see how complex it is, and you think you want to write one of those big complex stories. But you forget that those moving parts came into being as the piece was being written.
When you look back at your collection, can you still find those small origins?
Yeah, the stories with sprawling origins were exhausting. The carnival story went through so many huge rewrites, probably eight months of work, and I had forty pages of notes. That’s just not how you write a short story. But for “The Brown Coast,” I wanted to write a story about a guy and an aquarium — that was it.
And “Door in Your Eye?”
That story was based on a thing that happened when I was living down in New Orleans. The pretext was true— I was told that the woman across the street was a prostitute. And I didn’t see her for couple years, I just saw these guys coming and going. Then I saw her finally, and she was in her upper sixties, and it turned out she wasn’t a prostitute, she was a drug dealer. That story I initially published [in A Public Space] had a narrator who was kind of like me at the time, a kid in his late twenties. And it just wasn’t that interesting. Who cares? So in revision, I thought, how do I make this matter? Well, what if this narrator was in his mid-eighties? This could be the last erotic encounter of his life. Then, it counts.
That’s such a good way to think of it — you start with some tiny moment, and then make it matter.
Yeah, and I think that is the important thing in revision — looking at the draft and figuring out what is important. If it is the characters, then have you chosen the right program of incident to subject these characters to? Or if you feel like you have a really great plot, have you chosen the right people, the right point of view? What’s really the emotional goal in the story?
Are you able to find those emotional goals yourself, or do you need other people, between drafts, to help you re-steer the boat?
I don’t know if someone else can tell you. When you are revising or looking at that draft, you know where the real wood is behind the fiberboard. You know when you hit something that feels real and true and that needs to be said, and then you go back and try to make everything feel like that, which is hard.
You don’t really know how your fiction operates on other people. You write some stuff, you have some moment, some anecdote to bash out, and you do it. Then people in your workshop tell you how wonderful this is, or how moving this or that was, and you kind of know in your heart — Well, that’s great, but it is not what I was trying to do. Or I didn’t know I was doing that, and that is unsettling. You think, Well, I guess I’m good at writing in some way that I can’t do consciously. And that’s not good. You have to be completely conscious of what you’re doing in your work. Because if you aren’t, you are not really writing, you’re guessing.
And with guessing, you write toward those accidents people want you to have again.
Yeah, and a lot of it is workshop stuff — people want to be nice, or they want to show how smart they are by finding some piece of brilliance unknown to you in your mediocre story. Are the super-pros in control of every single resonance? I would say yes. In Nabokov, you can see it in every word — he understands the twelve different ways the Latinate frills on a piece of language are going to resonate. I don’t think there is any argument for not being in complete control.
Having been in an MFA program, do you have any sort of simulation of the workshop environment in your life now?
No, I don’t. I think workshops are great in that you make a lot of progress very quickly, progress that, if you’re writing on your own, would take you years and years. At the same time, you can’t really listen to that multiplicity of voices. You pick one or two people who you listen to. But also, that is not really the audience I would want. I mean, who is my ideal reader? Someone susceptible to the pleasures of fiction. I read this Kurt Vonnegut interview where somebody asked him what he considered his job as a writer. And he answered very quickly, “to give pleasure.” Which is absolutely right. If you can’t answer the question “What gifts are you bringing to the reader in this piece of writing?” — then you may be asking something unreasonable by suggesting that they read your work.
Instead of writing fiction as some scholarly exploration of an idea —
Right, or that fiction is the practice of the super-sensitive saints and that people should come and read your prose because you’re somehow more alive to human experience than everybody else. That’s complete horseshit.
[There is] a crazy little metaphor about short story writing that George Saunders laid out [in “The Perfect Gerbil”] in his book The Braindead Megaphone. He compares a short story to matchbox car tracks where every couple of feet of track there’s a little gas station, some spinning gizmo, so that when the car rolls over it, it gets shot a few feet down the track. He says every story should have a gas station every page or two, which is absolutely right — you’ve got to have those gas stations. All that sounds very simple, but what’s a gas station? You know when you read them.
I like the idea of setting your work next to George Saunders’s work. You both write about people grappling with very real anguish in absurd situations, but his work is more openly satirical. What do you think?
He’s able to write these stories with fantastic antic energy about them — they’re hilarious, and sometimes the characters are somewhat absurd, but the absurdity always seems to work its way into some big, painful place. It is a wonderfully complex balance. I do believe fiction should be funny. Ideally, you’re making people laugh. But I think in my own work I’m trying to be funny and awful at the same time.
Is being funny something that became important to you when you started writing fiction, or have you always, well, been funny?
I think I started writing only to be funny. You know, I had a little satirical column in my high school newspaper.
What did you write about?
Oh, just whatever. It was called “From the Mouth of a Philistine.” I don’t think I knew what a philistine was back then.
But you knew it was funny!
Yeah, it’s a pretty snappy title for a high school column! And those were just wacky-whacks. But I think those are both ineradicable tendencies of my work — to be funny, but to go toward fairly dark stuff. Humor and darkness are the only technologies that are really available to me. I just don’t have the firepower to write a philosophical novel. I adore The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, but I could never aspire to write a book like that, a contemplative book that still feels very real and true. It’s just not in me.
Walker Percy, Richard Yates — writers, and more specifically, books, that have meant a lot to you as a writer — do you hold them in the back of your mind, or re-read them often?
Some of those I re-read fanatically. I re-read The Moviegoer fanatically. It just makes me happy, which is odd, because I know a lot of people who find it terribly depressing. Really, the books I go back to again and again and again are my chicken soup. Charles Portis I could read forever. True Grit is phenomenally good, but his later books are so great and weird, funny and strange. There’s this arid wit in everything he writes, so deadpan, with no cheap tricks or gross-outs or cuss words.
When you re-read, are you trying to immerse yourself in the feeling you had the first time or picking for craft?
I think with Portis and Percy, it’s just pleasure. There’s nothing labored in the work. Portis, in particular, is one of the rare writers who plunges me back into the experience of reading, the pleasure of reading fiction, that I had before I started writing. Every now and again you’ll come across a book that defies your writerly impulse to anatomize it and see how it works. The Dubious Salvation of Jack V, by Jacques Strauss, this South African writer, is pure oxygen, a really, really lovely book.
Have you ever read Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, by Yasunari Kawabata? They’re not meditative or philosophical puzzles, but they get you into a moment. And he’s able to do this thing that’s really lost to lot of Western writers — and maybe I’m speaking specifically of contemporary American writers. We’re so afraid of beauty or love or these sorts of soppy, gooey themes in our fiction that we tend to really stay away from them. Or if we find a way to deploy them, it’s very strategic, and we sort of think, How much hideousness do I have to robe this one moment of honest decency in? It’s like in the Viking story— there’s just enough slaughter and gruesomeness maybe for me to get away with the kind of heart-swan moment at the end. But for Kawabata, he’s able to acknowledge that love and beauty are almost like elemental forces, part of human experience, just as you have to deal with heat and cold and mornings and evenings and seasons. Somehow he can just bring in a contemplation of beauty into a story and it doesn’t feel sentimental.
He draws a line between beauty and nostalgia?
Right. I think we feel like beauty always has to act as some kind of instrument of salvation or leavening in fiction; you couldn’t just treat beauty the way you would a chunk of asphalt, which is sort of how he does it.
And yet, there are moments when you have your characters confront scenes of beauty. Bob looking at his fish tank, Harald looking at the vista of his life.
But the loveliness of his fish tank — that’s a very calculated maneuver. The beauty there is an instrument of his salvation, and then it becomes jeopardized. A friend actually told me that detail about the fish blowing the sack that it crept into, this fish that blows a diaphanous bag and then glides into it and goes to sleep. Could that possibly be true? I don’t know.
Do you take a lot of snippets from your friends’ lives?
I guess so—any time I hear something remarkable I try to scoop it up. I wish I were a more scrupulous journal keeper.
That’s a disadvantage of hanging out with other writers—they won’t let you steal from them like your other friends will.
Yeah, I know. That’s another part of my fantasy of life in North Carolina—fewer writers down there.
Really. Between New York and Iowa City, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting another writer.
You really can’t. You can’t even sneeze without it ending up in somebody’s short story.
Further Links & Resources:
- Listen to Wells Tower read “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” on The Guardian Books Podcast.
- Tower reveals his workspaces (really– with pictures!) to The New Yorker.
- Read a free preview to the non-fiction companion to “On the Show” in The Washington Post Magazine archives.