An Interview with Adam Wilson, by Celia Johnson
June 2, 2014
Adam Wilson’s latest short story collection is, without doubt, an unconventional pick for a summer read. Still, I promise you, it’ll be one of your most favorite summer reads yet. What’s Important Is Feeling contains stories of drugs, sex, death, and quite a few shenanigans. These tales are full of surprises, including a lot of dark twists, so dark that you’ll applaud Wilson for having the guts to put them out there on the page. In this interview, Wilson speaks about elements of humor, his work habits, and what aspiring writers should not worry about.
The endings to your stories are often surprising and subtle, not an easy balance to strike. Of course, endings don’t work unless the rest of the story does. What’s your creative process? Do you tend to map out stories ahead of time? Or just jump right in? And, since you’ve written a novel and a short story collection, how does the process differ from one form to the next?
I’m glad you like the endings–I find endings incredibly difficult, particularly with short stories, where so much can hinge on it. Screw up the ending and your story goes up in flames. As for creative process, it really depends on the project. With stories I tend not to map out, though I’m often making notes toward an ending while I’m still in the early stages. Sometimes I’ll have the whole story in my head, fully formed, before beginning to write. In those cases I tend to rush through a very rough first draft–sort of a shell of what will ultimately be the story–and then spend a long time editing that story. In the editing process it might become a different story entirely. I think that’s an important thing to let happen–to let the story dictate its own direction, and stray from what you initially planned. Other times, a story will begin with one line or one scene or character, and then I have to slowly figure out what the story is as I go along. It really depends. For my Flatscreen, as well as the new novel I’m currently writing, I’ve mapped out a lot, and used giant and ever mutating outlines. Again, I think the outlines are really useful so long as one doesn’t feel bound to stay their course. The outline for the current novel is probably about twenty pages long, and includes character profiles for each character as well as various notes for scenes or for general ideas. I’ve probably re-written the thing five or ten times as the novel has changed, but I’ve found it really useful to have, especially as this book contains many characters, and it’s nice to have a quick easy cheat sheet when you’re writing a character you haven’t looked at in a few chapters and need a reminder on what her hair looks like or what kind of noises he makes during sex. I actually got this idea, for the character profiles–though mine are just bullet point lists of qualities and background info, much of which will probably never make it into the book–from Norman Rush, who is one of my favorite writers of all time, and who talks about a similar strategy in his semi-recent Paris Review interview.
Many of your stories strike a wonderfully odd and compelling relationship between youth, sickness, and death (or the possibility of death). “Soft Thunder” and “Things I Had” stand out to me. What themes do you find most compelling to explore in your fiction?
I’m glad you pointed that out. I think of most, if not all of these stories as coming of age stories, and I guess what I mean by coming of age is that these stories explore the moments when the characters come to some kind of fuller awareness of mortality, either via the death or illness of a loved one, or the sudden awareness that their own bodies are fragile and ever decaying. I think this is why so many of the characters in my stories turn to drugs and extreme sex, which have the ability to confirm one’s vitality, even as they dangerously hasten the possibility of premature death. I think so much of the extreme behavior of teenagers–adults too, but I’m thinking mostly of teenagers–comes from this impulse to test one’s mortality, and to somehow prove, or reinforce the illusion of immortality. One is terrified of dying, so he drives around drunk while ripping bongs in order to prove to himself that he’s immune to death. At least this was my experience…
You’re renowned for your dark wit. Writer Heidi Julavits nails it, noting that you “expose the psychic abyss that haunts every fit of laughter.” Have any writers influenced the humor in your prose?
Yes! So many. My dad gave me Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint for my thirteenth birthday, and it was the first time I realized that writing could be funny. I loved the book, but it also made me very uncomfortable–Roth was putting the male teenage brain on display for all the world to see, and I sort of hated him for it, for exposing all that ugliness. I turned away from Roth, and from funny writing for a long time after that. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that a reader’s profound discomfort was something–in some ways the main thing–I was interested in exploring. What I mean by discomfort–and I think this speaks to Heidi’s blurb, which is very generous, is getting a reader to that place where they’re not sure if they’re supposed to, or allowed to laugh, because what they’re laughing at is something ultimately sinister. My favorite example of this is Mary Robison’s novel Why Did I Ever, which I’ve reread a number of times, and which really changed the way I think about humor in fiction. In Robison’s book, her narrator is constantly telling jokes, and telling her own story as if it’s something to laugh about. The narrator’s tone never shifts–she never lurches toward sentimentality or attempts to “get deep”–but as the reader learns more information about her life, we suddenly see her constant joking in a different light, as a a kind of shield against profound darkness. Many other writers have influenced the humor in my work. Sam Lipsyte and Paul Beatty were, and still are very important to me. When I decided to start writing in a serious way, they were the two writers I really wanted to model myself after. In college, and in my early twenties I read a lot of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford etc., I had this romantic idea that to be a great American writer one had to write minimalist stories set west of the Mississippi in which working class men led sad lives of quiet desperation and cheated on their wives. I was trying to write stories like this, and I was failing miserably, because I knew nothing about those kinds of lives. The year I turned twenty-three, I read Sam’s Homeland, and Paul’s The Whiteboy Shuffle, and it was the first time I’d read any kind of writing that felt like it pertained to my own life, not just in terms of the characters’ experiences–The Whiteboy Shuffle is about a black kid in LA, which I am definitely not–but in terms of the language they used to describe those experiences, which echoed the private music in my own brain.
How did you go about compiling this collection?
At first I made a list of all the stories I’d ever written. Then I cut all the ones I didn’t like and sent it to my editor. He said there were still too many stories, and suggested a few more to cut. Then I cut those, except for one to which I felt a strong attachment. Then I wrote a new story and though it was good, so we added it in.
What are your work habits?
As with my process, they are constantly changing. In part this can be blamed on the life of the adjunct professor whose schedule changes from semester to semester, as well as to the former high school stoner who never developed strong study habits, but more so it has to do with the fact that what works one time won’t work the next time. I go through periods of writing well in the mornings, and then periods where I write better in the afternoon–periods where I prefer have my document zoomed in to 180% and other times when I feel like I can only see the work if I can see the whole page on the screen. There’s a lot of trial and error involved, and I’ve found that what works for one project, won’t work for another. That said, not maintaining certain habits is not the same as a lack of discipline. If I could I would write all day every day, but that’s impossible for most people, so during the semester I hold myself to a pretty rigorous writing schedule. I try to write in the mornings, and go until about mid-afternoon, at which point I’ll switch to answering emails or doing other stuff I need to do. I drink a lot of coffee when I write. I used to smoke a lot of cigarettes, but I don’t anymore, and I miss it. I recently got this program that blocks social media and certain other websites during the workday, which has been a HUGE help. No matter how much time I have for writing, in a given week or month or semester, I think the main thing for me–and this is something I don’t hear talked about too often–is spending time thinking about the story or novel when I’m not actually sitting at my desk with a document open. This means either while walking, or at the gym, or on the subway, or waiting in line at the grocery store, to just sort of be thinking about the characters and the story and what the next scene is. I sometimes think this thinking is the most important part of writing, and it’s something you can do anywhere at any time. One thing it does is helps with the anxiety surrounding the idea of the blank screen–I like to think about something long enough, possibly even writing full sentences and sometimes paragraphs in my head, that by the time I get home to my computer it’s more of a race to get it all down before I forget it than to come up with new ideas on the spot.
Would you describe your work space?
Clutter and coffee mugs. Piles of books. Various tubes of Burt’s Beeswax chapstick. A window.
Is there any advice you’d offer emerging writers still struggling to get published?
Try not to worry about getting published, just worry about writing something good.
Author photo by Gabriel Wilson.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice, and author of two nonfiction books, most recently, Odd Type Writers.
Adam Wilson is the author of the novel Flatscreen, a National Jewish Book Award Finalist, and the collection of short stories What’s Important Is Feeling. His stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Tin House, VICE, and The Best American Short Stories, among many other publications. In 2012 he received the Terry Southern Prize, which recognizes “wit, panache, and sprezzatura” in work published by The Paris Review. He teaches creative writing at NYU and Columbia and lives in Brooklyn.