A few months back, I got a chance to exchange emails with Wells Tower. Below, find answers to some of my questions in full. Author of the collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and recipient of a 2010-2011 New York Public Library Fellowship, Tower is currently working on his first novel. Here he talks about the supposed “death of the novel,” the “rise of the short story,” ordinary life…and Pliny the Younger. His collection was among the best reviewed (it got the unheard-of honor of being TWICE reviewed in the New York Times). You can listen to him read the hilarious and violent and beautiful Viking title story here, and read one of the best travel essays (about visiting Iceland with his father here). But first, here’s the interview:
1) Writers from Philip Roth to James Wood have been warning us about the “death of the novel” for almost fifty years. What kind of credence, if any, do you give to these kinds of claims (that the novel is obsolete, dehumanized, hysterical, and incapable of “keeping up”)?
We hear the same thing about literature generally, and I don’t buy it. Prophesies of the novel’s death are a kindred vanity to the Evangelicals’ claim that the Rapture, any day now, is upon us. It’s fun to feel like the last of something. And, sure, video games outsell literary novels by a dispiriting proportion, but unless we somehow cease to use language to make sense of the world, I am sure that people will continue to write novels that matter. (Way more after the jump…)
2) How would you characterize the place of short fiction in contemporary American letters, especially in comparison with the place of the novel? You have said in several different places that Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is not intended as a series of linked stories, for example. How do you think a set of linked stories works on readers differently than something like your collection?
a) The conventional answer, of course, is that the short story is the neglected runt of American lit, and it’s probably true that with the short story’s radically diminished presence in glossy magazines over the past few decades, the average American reader may be a bit less comfortable engaging with a piece of short fiction than our grandparents were. But the chief effect of the shrinking mainstream market for short stories is that these days people write them because they want to, not because they aim to get rich, which has assisted short fiction’s transformation into a “literary” form, i.e. one in which the writers care about language and art and not necessarily about their work’s ready adaptability for the Hollywood screen. In this sense, I can’t see how the short story’s lot is tremendously different from that of the literary novel.
b) I didn’t deliberately not intend EREB to be a set of linked stories. They simply happened to be the first nine stories that I wrote the republication of which between book covers didn’t rouse me to cold heaves. Linked stories can be wondrous (Winesburg Ohio, Jesus’ Son, etc., etc.), and with non-linked batches, there’s something thrilling in seeing a writer create a new microverse every fifteen or twenty pages or whatever. The only hazard with the linked collection is when the stories have been deliberately riveted together out of misbegotten obedience to market forces, a move recognizable when a character from one story wanders into another only to ask someone the time and quit the scene.
3) Why do you think nonfiction and “creative nonfiction” is popular right now? I love the anecdote about the inspiration for “The Brown Coast” as kind of a hybrid story about a local bartender and your trip down to the Gulf. What role does nonfiction play in shaping your work?
a) Is creative nonfiction more popular than it once was? It seems to me that going back to jeez, Pliny the Younger, through Mayhew, Orwell, Capote, Didion to the heavies of the present moment, people have always wanted to read accounts of true things rendered with the novelist’s tools.
b) That story, actually, I think germinated in the traditional way. I heard an anecdote, staffed it with characters of my own devising and set it on an unlovely stretch of coast I’d chanced upon in Florida. But sure, my nonfiction magazine work informs the fiction plenty. My hard drive contains thousands of pages of conversations with people I’ve met while reporting, and often their voices bleed into the fiction.
4) Every fifteen years or so (if not even more frequently), critics declare a “renaissance” in the form of the short story. It happened with Carver and the Dirty Realists. It happened around the time of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. It seems to be happening right now. You have mentioned that, based on your understanding of the climate in America when it comes to short fiction, you had expected your collection to go largely unnoticed. In your estimation, why does short fiction seem to go in and out of favor?
I have absolutely no idea.
5) You describe your characters as being “on the verge.” What are they on the verge of? Is this almost-not-quiteness a circumstance unique to contemporary life in America?
It’s an interesting question. I certainly didn’t set out to write anything broadly diagnostic about the American psyche, but perhaps I can get away with saying that our national dreamlife–of bootstrapping prosperity, professional fulfillment, emerald lawns, bridal magazine kitsch, etc., etc.–rewards us with a particularly American sort of dissatisfaction when our lives fail to match up.
I can’t remember when I described my characters as “on the verge,” which now sounds foolish to me. Maybe what I was trying to describe is my preference, in short stories, for characters in sufficiently precarious situations that the events in the story may alter them (the characters) lastingly. Why? I think it was my high school English teacher who said, “They don’t make movies about people who don’t get hit by cars.”
6) Can you say something about the relationship between physical and emotional pain at the level of ordinary life in the work? It seems less than common in recent American fiction to portray the grit and grime of everyday life. But maybe I’m off on this point.
I’m not sure I’ll be of help here. Being a fairly sunny person, I can’t offer a lot of wisdom about how so much dark stuff creeps into my fiction. I guess I expect fiction to say something honest about what it is to be a person, a difficult condition for most us. We are cursed with nimble minds that constantly, punitively present us with images of better lives, better versions of ourselves and the people we love. I suppose that the brutality in the stories–emotional and physical–simply wants to be a means of vivifying by amplification those quotidian disappointments and regrets that would bore and irritate me if I tried to write them life-size.