Interview with Jincy Willett
The trajectory of Jincy Willett’s literary career has been an unusual one. After its publication in 1987, her brilliant first book, Jenny and the Jaws of Life, fell out of print for years, and she didn’t really anticipate ever publishing a second one.
Fortunately, through the intervention of a prominent American humorist (read the interview to find out who!), Willett’s heartbreakingly, breathtakingly funny work experienced a revival in 2001 with the reissue of Jenny, followed closely by the publication of her debut novel, Winner of the National Book Award, in 2003. The American reading public should be enormously grateful for this small miracle, for Willett’s inimitable voice is tremendously wise and entertaining, and utterly unlike that of anyone else writing today.
I had the pleasure of conducting this interview with Jincy Willett via email over the course of a few weeks in November 2004, and am pleased to include it in its entirety here.
KR: Of what does a typical day in the life of Jincy Willett consist?
JW: It’s really too depressing to describe. I’m a 57-year-old hermit, scraping together a meager living as an online tutor. On a good day I write for a couple of hours. I watch too much TV.
Actually, most writers’ lives probably aren’t much more thrilling. We’re mostly a bunch of introverts, gazing palely at whatever part of the passing scene we’ve been unable to blot out.
KR: How did you become a writer? Was it something you always knew you wanted to pursue? Did it run in your family? Where did your creativity have its genesis?
JW: My parents are both creative people. My mother is a Barbershop music arranger, and my dad is a terrific photographer. My son plays jazz piano, arranges, and composes.
When I was a kid, I did nothing but read, and of course I wanted to be a writer. When I was about twelve or so I sat down and wrote the first sentence of a story. It was so awful that I quit forever. A couple of decades later, when I was a philosophy major, I took a fiction writing course from R.V. Cassill, just for fun. When he handed back my first story, he advised me to send it out, to “the New Yorker first, and after they reject it, try Ploughshares,” etc. I was stunned. All I wanted was an A. I went home and sobbed bitterly.
The point is, it’s one thing to have a fantasy, but when someone (who knows what he’s talking about) tells you that you can, in fact, become whatever you’ve dreamed of being, all the fun goes out of it. It’s up to you now. If you don’t make it, it’s your own stupid fault. Darn that dream!
KR: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? And what are you in addition to a writer?
JW: If I could have a whole second life, starting from scratch, I’d try dancing. How wonderful, to make music with your whole body! Besides writing, I edit and teach.
KR: Could you please tell the story of your emergence in 1987, your relative obscurity, and your re-emergence in 2001 thanks to David Sedaris? I know you must have told this particular anecdote before, but can you share it one more time with feeling?
JW: I was very lucky, in 1986, to have my collection of stories, which I had just begun to shop around, bought by St. Martin’s Press. A wonderful publishing house, by the way. They take chances on writers like me. There’s nothing like your first time, and despite the fact that Jenny didn’t sell well, I was very pleased. But I didn’t really pay all that much attention, because more important things were going on in my life. I was forty and pregnant for the first and only time. Then the baby came, and soon after my husband fell ill. He died in 1988. I packed up my 22-month-old son and our belongings and moved from Rhode Island to California, where the rest of my family was living. During the unpacking phase, when I was still more or less deranged with grief, my publisher forwarded to me an actual fan letter. Some young guy in Chicago really liked the book, and asked if he and his friends could put on one of the stories as a puppet show, and I said, sure. The letter meant nothing to me at the time, but as the years went by I would recall and appreciate it. Somebody out there liked what I wrote.
One day, in 1997 or 1998, I was on the internet, doing this embarrassing thing that all of us do but don’t like to admit to (Googling myself), and I found six entries instead of the usual five, one of which was “Sedaris Reading List”. The page was from some weekly newspaper, and on it David Sedaris listed some of his favorite books, including the usual suspects (Everything That Rises Must Converge, and so on) and one of them was Jenny and the Jaws of Life. I almost passed out.
You can’t imagine what a shock this was. The loveliest part was that Sedaris was and is the only American humorist I’ve been able to get excited about since Perelman soured and quit the sphere. This was praise from somebody I respected. When I came to, I wrote a letter to him via his agent, expressing my gratitude. What a nice thing. Plus, I had two fans! That kid in Chicago and David Sedaris.
About a month later, Sedaris wrote me from Paris, a very pleasant letter, at the end of which he said something like, “You probably don’t remember this, but a long time ago I wrote you a letter, about putting on ‘The Best of Betty’ as a puppet show…”
That’s my David Sedaris story.
Except that it doesn’t end there. In 2001, a couple of months after The Thing, the magazine Time Out New York, in its November holiday shopping issue, asked 10 writers which book they would save from obscurity if they had the power to do so. As it happened, Sedaris was the first writer asked, top of the list, and he named my book. This caused a small (very small, I’m sure) sensation in the publishing world, and a larger sensation at St. Martin’s. A few weeks after the Time Out article they told me they were going to re-issue Jenny, in paper, with a cool new cover. And they asked if I had anything else in the works, and I said I had a half-finished novel, and they told me to finish it. And here we are.
What I love about this story, besides the obvious, is that it’s an anti-networking story. Mr. Sedaris and I have never met, and he found my book, without prompting from reviewers, in a public library.
KR: The Sedaris story is an excellent one. Now it’s your turn: what book (or books) would you rescue from obscurity, and why?
JW: I would rescue the great American humorists: Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Don Marquis, Ring Lardner, S.J. Perelman.
KR: After Jenny and the Jaws of Life came out in 1987, the book received good reviews, but little popular notice. How did you handle that, and how did you handle languishing in relative obscurity for the next 10-15 years or so? What did you do in the interim? Did you keep writing? And do you have any advice on writers who may be in similar situations on how to keep the faith?
JW: I’m not a particularly humble person, but I am a humble writer, with cause. I think I’m better than most unknown writers, and quite a few known ones, but so what? I’m not Melville. The greats show us how enormous the canvas is, and here we are, most of us, crowded together in a corner, scribbling away. Anyway, I’m in the Library of Congress! It doesn’t get any better than that. Obscurity really isn’t a problem. (Poverty is, but that’s not the same thing.) When you look at how many books are published every month, it’s a miracle that any of them get read by anybody.
What I did in the interim was raise my son, gaze palely, and add occasional pages to this silly novel I had started when I was pregnant. I’m not at all sure that I would ever have finished it if it hadn’t been for David Sedaris. I was already in print, you see. I like my stories, not all of them, but most, and in them I had put everything I knew. I had no more stories in me. Still don’t.
Writers, especially young ones, should take consolation from the fact that as they age they can only gather material and perspective. You can write your first novel in middle age. I just blurbed a wonderful novel by an 87-year-old woman, Frieda Arkin. Second novel! It really is never too late.
KR: I wanted to ask you about the issue of prolificity. You’ve only released one collection of short stories and one novel. Admittedly, both of them are brilliant, so it would be easy to make the case that you’re more in it for the quality than the quantity, but does it ever bother you that you’re not, say, Joyce Carol Oates? Why do you write so little and do you wish you wrote more?
JW: It bothers me that I’m not Philip Roth. Or that I’m not bursting with terrific plots, thrillers or mysteries, that I could turn into gold under an assumed name. I wish writing weren’t so hard.
KR: You’re currently living in Southern California, right? How did you end up there, and why? Do you like it? And will you ever leave? Your novel is set, quite firmly, in Rhode Island. Is that your original home, and do you miss it? Will you go back?
JW: I came out here because I had to. Rhode Island is my home. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back, but I hope to. Being away from it probably helped me write Winner. If you yearn for a place, it’s easy to make it come alive on the page.
KR: Do you think it matters where people are from, and that a sense of place has to do with a sense of identity? Why? Is this changing with the rising American global monoculture? Will we ever be all the same? Should we be worried about this type of homogeneity, and what can we do about it, if anything?
JW: Some people are very aware of where they come from; some regions—well, the South—exact a kind of fealty. I suppose there is some danger of us all blanding out, but I don’t think it’s as serious as the media would lead us to believe. If you shut off the tube, get in your car, and head out, you’ll find that this country is anything but homogenized, once you leave the interstate. You’re still an outsider everywhere but home, except California, unless you’re from New York.
Anyway, what is your identity? Is it where you grew up? Yes, but it’s more about your mother and father, the way they were when you first knew them, and your second grade teacher, and a chance meeting at a party a casual friend talked you into attending, and the forty-year marriage that foundered after twenty, and so on. And then there’s your DNA, which trumps everything. Besides, when you write, you’re not saying, really, This is who I am. You’re saying, Here is what I know.
KR: The title of your first novel is excellent—right up there with A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in fact—how did you come up with that, and why? Also, while I was poking around the Internet looking for background information (of which there’s not a whole lot), I noticed that the book is called Fame and Honour in the UK and Australia. Were you bummed out that it had to be changed for those markets?
JW: I’m not bummed out that the title was changed for the U.K. and Australia; I’m bummed out, and bemused, by its title here at home.
Here’s another long-winded story. The novel was always called Fame and Honor; I think it’s a great title, a gift from that Schopenhauer quote. It’s apt as all get-out. But it’s rather drab, as my publisher unkindly pointed out to me while I was busy trying to finish the last third of the book. In fact they said the title was out of the question and asked me to come up with a better one. I was so annoyed that I e-mailed right back with the dumbest title I could think of. (I knew somebody once who’d made a movie called “Winner of 12 Academy Awards,” which I thought was pretty funny.) They re-e-mailed with issues: it was pretty dicey, their lawyers might not let them use it, and could I come up with another suggestion? Nope, I said. They said they’d get back to me. Here was my clever ploy: I would keep lobbing increasingly inane titles at them until they finally relented and let me have my own title after all.
About six weeks later they called with the great news that their lawyers had given this title the green light, and everybody just loved it. It had, or was manifesting, Buzz. I was horrified. I had by this time forgotten about the whole thing (I was down to the last couple of chapters) and now my book had a joke title, which was sure to tick everybody off, reviewers and readers alike. I tried arguing, even pleading, but the deal was done. You can’t argue with Buzz. Besides, it was my own fault. The whole mess is really pretty funny, when you get right down to it.
I still don’t care for the title. It’s a smart-ass title. I wouldn’t have gotten stuck with it if I weren’t such a smart-ass myself. It worked though. St. Martin’s was right. It got reviewed all over the place.
KR: The protagonist of your novel has the unusual name of Dorcas Mather, and your own name, Jincy, is unusual in its own right. Is that what it says on the birth certificate, or is it a nickname? What are its origins? And is your name last name Willett? Or Kornhauser? What role, if any, do you think our names have on our identities? On the identities of authors in particular?
JW: “Jincy” is my great-great-grandmother’s first name. The only time I’ve ever seen it in print, spelled this way, is in Gone With the Wind, where it’s the name of a “Negro fortune teller”. I think it’s an old nickname for Virginia, or maybe Jane, that never really caught on. I very much liked having a name that no one else had.
“Willett” is my maiden name. One of my ancestors, Thomas Willett, was the first mayor of New York, and did real estate business with Miles Standish. My mother, like Dorcas’s mother, comes from the Midwest.
Edward Kornhauser was my husband and a professor of engineering at Brown University. He was a wonderful reader and a great critic. If I had it to do over again, I would publish under my married name. Too late.
“Dorcas” and “Abigail” are both solid old New England names. “Mather,” too, like “Willett.”
KR: Dorcas is a sexless, acerbic, and intelligent librarian. Why did you choose her as your protagonist? I read a review of the novel in The Onion that suggested that she may double as your alter ego. Does she, and if so, in what ways? Are you now or have you ever been a librarian?
JW: I would love to be a librarian. I wish I’d gotten the proper degree, back in the day. What a great day job.
Sure Dorcas is me. She’s a librarian and all, but essentially she’s a reader. I thought it might be fun for readers to read about a reader, someone who experiences life directly through books. Actually, I don’t think she’s sexless. She’s just determined to be above all that.
I chose her as a mouthpiece. First person narration is dangerous, because if your narrator is boring, obnoxious, or a general pain in the neck, you’re going to push your readers away. I was afraid this would happen with Dorcas, and I’m sure that in some cases it did. She’s very opinionated, constantly annoyed, and relentlessly negative, especially in the first third or so of the novel. I couldn’t see any way around this, though, given the package the novel comes in.
KR: Your use of twins as opposites (Dorcas as the sacred, the mind, the spirit versus Abby as the profane, the body, the id) is intriguing. How did you handle this binary without making them mere cartoons? And in light of the recent election, our country seems fairly evenly divided as well. Are people really like this? Are they mostly good or bad or what?
JW: I was really worried about the cartoonish setup, which struck me right from the beginning as heavy-handed and unpromising. Fortunately it turned out that this dichotomy was as much a figment of Dorcas’s imagination as it was of mine. It’s true that she’s virginal and cerebral, etc., but the sisters have a lot in common too. She has staked out her claim by differentiating herself from Abigail, which is an act of will.
Meanwhile our country is entrenched in a bogus class war between the reds and the blues. It’s like we’re in the middle of some Dr. Seuss book, and not one of his better ones. Some reds voted positively, for a man they apparently admire, and an even larger percentage of blues did the same; but basically we were voting against each other. Stupid, ignorant, intolerant Bible-thumpers vs. elitist, traitorous, immoral tree-huggers. Meanwhile, as we rip at each other, we’re being lied to, robbed blind, and generally played for saps. The beauty of the Bogus Class War, from the standpoint of whoever is in power, is that it distracts us. It’s not a question anymore of good and bad, right and wrong; that will have to be addressed later, when we stop calling each other names and relearn how to debate each other civilly, and start paying attention to what the people in power are actually doing.
Thanks for asking. As for whether people are mostly good or bad…what do you think? In my opinion, we’re potentially good; noble, even.
KR: You have a daughter, correct? What impact or impacts has motherhood had on your writing and/or your literary career? Is it wise for writers to have kids? Are child-rearing and motherhood beneficial for the work or detrimental, or do they have any impact on it at all?
JW: A son! A son!
KR: Whoops. Sorry. I don’t know where I heard that. Anyway.
JW: Writers shouldn’t have kids if they’re going to use them as material. Otherwise, I don’t see what children have to do with the writing game, unless you have so many that you can’t support them on your pitiful “advances” and laughable “royalties”.
KR: Your work to date relies on a fine balance of comedy and tragedy, humor and sorrow. Is this a conscious choice on your part? What are the uses of humor in serious writing, and why is funny literature often taken less seriously than serious literature?
JW: We write what we see. I see a slapstick universe. Slapstick isn’t always funny, but it often is, sometimes at the most ghastly moments. What I don’t understand is how any good writer can manage to keep humor out. It’s not as though you have to make up this stuff.
Many otherwise bright people believe that if you laugh at something you’ve rendered it safe, manageable. You’ve desexed it, or domesticated it, minimized its horror, disregarded its dire implications. Well, sure, there’s forced laughter, nervous laughter, idle laughter, polite laughter, but these are just behaviors; false laughs. My husband used to call this the “they all fell in the horse trough” kind of laugh. I think he got it from Catcher in the Rye, where Holden complains about how, no matter how straitened a movie character’s circumstances, they’re always resolved at the last minute with some piece of comic dreck. Critics who look down on comedy either don’t know or pretend not to know the difference between horse-trough yucks and the real thing.
When I taught workshops, I used to ask people to write me a story about the First Laugh. There must have been a first laugh, and what was it about? Nobody ever obliged, and I haven’t written one either, but I am convinced that the first human laugh (is there any other kind?) was occasioned by some terrible event, probably a series of increasingly terrible events, possibly culminating in the impending death of the human in question, who opened his mouth to scream or cry out in rage and out came this amazing sound.
I’m talking about that physical-metaphysical-emotional-intellectual fission bomb, that thing where you just explode. The explosion doesn’t diffuse or neutralize anything. It doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t make anything better, except its own brief moment, where it all comes together, the whole picture, in one glorious wheezing sob. Then the mammoth steps on your face.
Robert Benchley once complained that another writer, author of a book ominously titled Enjoyment of Laughter, or Why Do We Laugh?, had “gotten humor down and broken its arm.” I don’t want to do that here, so I’ll just shut up now.
KR: When you’re busy watching too much TV, what programs do you watch? And what is your relationship, as a contemporary writer, with television? Does an author, particularly a satirist, need to keep up with TV to remain vital? Do you consider yourself a satirist?
JW: Because I do so many hours of online work, by the end of the day my eyes just burn, and I can’t read. I used to read for hours every day; now I watch. Never news programs, local or national. They make you sick. You can get all the news you need from the raw feed online, AP, Reuters, and so on. Or NPR, if you can’t make sense out of what you read. TV news only redeems itself when something terrible is actually happening, like the fires last year out here in San Diego. The minute they start asking people how they feel or what they think, you must change the channel. Fortunately, some TV, like the HBO dramas, is well-written. Inferior to a good book, but way better than the movies.
My favorite program these days is an old Japanese game show on which hordes of sturdy, cheerful people compete for no reason, performing absurd stunts, dodging cartoonish obstacles, being pelted by giant balls, and usually ending up in a slough of what looks like industrial waste. They manage to endure all of this without losing their dignity, and they’re great sports. It’s a perfect allegory of the human condition, plus it’s hysterical. MXC is the only true reality show on the air.
KR: Where did you do you undergraduate work? Do you have an MFA? And what do you make of the proliferation of MFA programs in the last few decades: is it harmful or helpful to the health and vitality of literary culture?
JW: I got my BA in philosophy at Brown, and an MA (not MFA, although really it is) in creative writing there too. Verlin Cassill and Jack Hawkes were in the department at that time; Angela Carter was visiting. They’ve all died. Michael Harper is still there, I think.
Graduate programs in creative writing are good for the teachers, most of whom need all the money they can get. For the students it’s nice to spend a couple of years with basically nothing to do but write (assuming you’ve got a free ride). Beyond that, I don’t know. Ask the readers. Are these programs turning out good writers? If so, then they’re helping.
KR: What literary project or projects are you working on at the moment? I read recently that you said you were working on another novel, and that novels sell better anyway; this is true, but is this a purely opportunistic stance? Do you think people should bother writing short fiction anymore?
JW: I’m working on another novel; going for funny-scary this time. There are lots of people in it, so of course lots of plot. I don’t know how to do this.
If a good story idea came to me I’d write one. Stories and novels aren’t the same thing at all.
KR: Why bother reading or writing? Readership is on the decline according to that recent NEA survey, and our own president is loathe to read anymore than is absolutely necessary even though he’s married to a frickin’ librarian; what’s to be done?
JW: It might help if we just stopped teaching lit classes in high school. Concentrate instead on language. Force them to ingest lots of history, but actively discourage them from reading the classics. Absolutely no book reports, or term papers paralleling the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Gatz. In fact, if you catch a kid furtively reading The Scarlet Letter, it’s an automatic two-day suspension.
The reverse psychology thing probably wouldn’t work, but I still remember how purely I despised having to write about books I’d read, even—especially—the ones I loved. Reading is such an intensely private activity.
The great books are out there, ready for you, when you’re ready for them. They just need to be discovered, not taught, or used as weapons in the culture wars. We’ll always have them. Don’t worry so much.
KR: Reading is clearly very important to you: what, in your opinion, is the value of reading? At one point in WOTNBA, Dorcas is trapped in a sporting goods store during a blizzard and is so desperate for something to read that she “made a library out of Rocco’s Famous Sport & Trophy, and to this day I can remember the address, down to the very zip code, of the factory in Worcester where his trophies were made, and the banal cover designs on each of his catalogues and all six recipes on the back of the Bisquick box” and so forth. I’ve totally been there, but lots of people evidently haven’t; why aren’t more people like this?
JW: You and I and many other people have a certain kind of intelligence; we’re very verbal, obviously, but beyond that we value the words as aesthetic objects. We like the way they look. In extreme cases, like Dorcas, we’d really rather look at words than at almost anything else. I’d like to think this proves us deep, but I don’t know. My son, a much more creative person than I was at his age, really doesn’t much like to read print, but he soaks up audiobooks like a perfect sponge, retaining and comprehending just about every detail. I don’t mind being the way I am, but it would be awful if we were all alike.
KR: In the short story “The Best of Betty,” you have the increasingly unhinged titular advice columnist publish a list of what BETTY REALLY BELIEVES which includes “1. That God is criminally irresponsible. 2. That nobility is possible. 3. That hope is necessary 4. That courage is commonplace 5. That sentimentality is wicked. 6. That cynicism is worse. 7. That most people are surprisingly good sports 8. That some people are irredeemable idiots. 9. That everybody on the Board of Directors of GM, Ford, Chrysler, and U.S. Steel, and every third member of Congress and the Cabinet ought to be taken out, lined up against a wall and shot. 10. That whining, though ugly, sometimes advances the ball.” What do you believe?
JW: What Betty really believes. Only the names of the corporations have changed.
KR: Do you consider yourself a cynic and/or an ironist, or do you have more hope than that? Why?
JW: I’m absolutely not a cynic. Irony abounds. It doesn’t come from us. Hope is something you have to work at. I’m beginning to sound like David Carradine.
KR: Relatedly, many of your characters tend to worry a lot about things they simply cannot control; is this okay? What is the use of worry, if it has any at all? And should people just try to stop worrying or should they be more pro-active and try to take matters into their own hands?
JW: You’re a good reader! I didn’t realize it was that obvious (the worry). I addressed it consciously in one story, the rape story, but I wasn’t aware it was so pervasive.
I used to worry a lot, and only about things I couldn’t control. That sort of anxiety is toxic. The only good part about it is that, for a time anyway, you can harness it for your writing. I wrote about five good stories in six weeks during a time of fear and trembling. You can know intellectually that this sort of worry is really magical thinking, a silly attempt to control the universe through the power of your fabulous mind and the extremes of your emotional suffering. But you don’t really know this, for good and deep in your bones, until the bad thing happens anyway. Then you can relax.
KR: Also, a lot of your characters find themselves put into terrible situations (rape, cancer, murder, death, etc.) by things they cannot possibly hope to control or explain. Are you a fatalist? How dark is your own worldview? What is the duty of the novelist/writer to help make the world a Better Place? Can literature change things?? Does art matter???
JW: If we have a duty, I suppose it’s to render up what we know. And to stay awake. But then we all should be doing that.
KR: In your novel, your depiction of the poet Guy DeVilbiss (winner of the National Book Award for his collection Persephone’s Grotto) is utterly unforgiving and ruthless. Why? And how do you really feel about poetry? And do you write—or have you ever written—any poetry yourself?
JW: I have nothing against poets. In fact, I know so little about poetry (except what I like) that I had a hard time making him up. My treatment of both DeVilbisses is mean-spirited, and there’s really no excuse for it. Guy is a fool, but that’s not a hanging offense. It was fun, though.
KR: From Ripley in “Justine Laughs at Death” to Conrad Lowe in WOTNBA, you’re uncannily adept at depicting hideous misogyny. Do you ever think of yourself as a feminist author?
JW: I’m a Susan B. Anthony feminist. I think we should have the vote, and we do. Once you’ve got that, what happens next is up to you. Of course the deck is stacked, the ceiling glass, but other disadvantaged groups have overcome hopeless odds.
Misogyny is something else. Conrad is over the top (Ripley more so), but there really are men like this, heterosexual men who need and hate women, and underneath the hate is this quivering fear.
KR: Sort of relatedly, in “The Jaws of Life,” “Melinda Falling” and elsewhere, you write very convincingly in the voice of a male narrator; how do you do this? And why are most people not very good at it?
JW: It’s fun to write p.o.v. male, and I’m more playful when I do this. My more serious stuff is p.o.v. female, and it’s harder to write. Who do you think is bad at it? There’s no real trick involved. I think most good writers can switch.
KR: Conrad Lowe, the villain of WOTNBA, is almost cartoonish in his villainy: a veritable Snidely Whiplash/mustache-twirlingly, melodramatically evil man, and other characters of yours are bad/evil in smaller, more petty ways (like the narrator of the story “Resume” or even the protagonist of “The Jaws of Life.” What, if anything, can be done to combat such evil, in all of its forms from the most petty to the most nefarious?
JW: Now this is interesting. Conrad is obviously intended to be a bad man, and Ripley, but the others, in my opinion, are basically decent. The husband in “Jaws” sleeps around but loves his wife. And the ranting guy in “Resume” is having a bad day. Both men are pretty honest about their own shortcomings, aren’t they? They’re just ordinary, like the rest of us.
KR: In WOTNBA, you satirize the type of book that frequently wins the actual National Book Award, a move which put me in mind of William Gass’s piece about the value (or lack thereof) of the Pulitzer Prize. Is it the NBA a worthwhile award? Are you sad that you haven’t won it?
JW: This is going to sound like a crock, but I don’t pay attention to the NBA, or the Oscars, for that matter. I’m with Dorcas. Stay away from the stuff everybody’s talking about. 10 or 20 years down the road, if you happen to run across a copy, see for yourself if it’s any good.
I’m still incensed about how snotty some of the NBA people were last year to Stephen King, and at their own awards ceremony, too. Who’d want to be a member of such a club?
KR: Before I ask you a set of questions about the relationship of your life to your fiction, I’d like to know how you feel about the tendency of readers to hunt for autobiographical clues in fictional works. Does this impulse bother you, or is it okay? And do you like memoirs or do they bug you, and will you ever write one?
JW: I promise never to write a memoir. (About what? Sitting in my room?) I’ve read some great ones, though. Mary McCarthy, C.S. Lewis, Gore Vidal. My best friend, M.J. Andersen, has a brilliant memoir coming out in January: Portable Prairie.
KR: In your story “Julie in the Funhouse” and elsewhere, you write so well about siblings: do you have any of your own?
JW: One great brother. (See, this is why I haven’t written very much. I come from a nice family. No material.)
KR: Also, in both “Anticipatory Grief” and WOTNBA, you include characters who are avid birdwatchers; are you one yourself?
JW: I love birds. I’m not avid, though. Avid birdwatchers keep “life lists”. I hate lists, even grocery lists. If I can’t keep it in my head, it’s not worth hanging onto. I’ll come to regret this attitude when my brain cells start winking out en masse.
But birdwatching is a wonderful habit. When you’re outdoors, there’s always something to notice. They’re so beautiful, and so varied, and most people look right through them. You learn to recognize their songs, their silhouettes against the sky, their patterns of flight. Our primary sense is sight, and so is theirs, and so they color and adorn themselves in ways coincidentally delightful to us. Konrad Lorenz said that if we were like the rest of the mammals, we’d have mammal-smelling societies. Happily, we’re like the birds.
KR: In the story “Father of Invention” and elsewhere, you write eloquently about the relationships (or absence thereof) between fathers and daughters—how do you do this so well, and why is it such a recurring theme in your work?
JW: For the same reason it’s a recurring theme since Sophocles. It’s the first love story—that and the one about mothers and sons. It’s got everything: passion, tragic longings, comic misunderstandings, inchoate shame, profound mystery, abiding connection.
KR: You write with alarming frequency about the sudden, unexpected death of Parents; why is this such a preoccupation for you, or had you noticed that it is one?
JW: It’s not malice. My excellent parents are alive and well, thank goodness. I usually kill characters off so I won’t have to deal with them. God can juggle billions at once; I can usually handle only a handful. The novel I’m working on now has 14 people in it, and it’s driving me nuts.
KR: In “Jenny” your protagonist observes “The thing about getting older is that the good stuff gets better, and the bad gets worse. Life becomes terrifically real.” Admittedly, she’s a fairly ridiculous (albeit sympathetic) character, but I wonder: is this true? Our culture is so petrified of aging, but is it really all that bad? Why or why not?
JW: Aging is terrible in the obvious ways. You lose your looks, and you begin to hurt a little more every day. Otherwise, it’s great. You’ve lived long enough to be able to recognize patterns of behavior—your own and everybody else’s. Relatives, voters, Presidents, nations. You start to see and even form connections between ideas. History comes alive as you begin to sink inside it. You get better at guessing. Best of all you start to lose yourself: that incessant stupid white-noise me-me-me at last drops away and allows you to focus elsewhere, which is what you always longed to do when you were young and pretty and your body worked. At last you’ve got a shot at being wise, at being good. Then the mammoth steps on your face.
KR: In the story “My Father at the Wheel,” the protagonist’s parents take diametrically opposed views on their child’s bookishness, which the protagonist describes by saying “My mother tells me I will ruin my eyes and worse: that the world is going right by me while I read. I’m missing it all, she says, while “My father defends me. If she’s reading, he says, she’s very much in the world.” So to ask a couple of reductive questions: who is right, mom or dad? Which is better, books or life?
JW: Search me. I don’t think that readers, Dorcas-type readers, have anything to apologize for. It would be terrible never to be in the world at all, but I don’t know if there’s much danger of that, for even the most bookish of us. Even C.S. Lewis fell in love, and in the nick of time, too.
I do get annoyed by the common presumption that people who “make every moment count”—mountain climbers, marathon runners, whatever; it always involves buying a lot of expensive equipment—are somehow superior to the people who sit still. Of course we should all seize the day, but this does not necessarily involve seizing a crampon or jeopardizing life and limb. Picture Shakespeare on a mountain bike.
KR: For some reason, I seem to have fallen into the pattern of asking my interviewees about cooking—do you cook? Could you share a favorite recipe with the readers of Redivider?
JW: Carbonara DiBiasio
Here’s a great spaghetti dish without tomatoes or tomato sauce. While you’re boiling your pasta in salted water, break an egg into a deep ceramic bowl and beat it with a fork. Also have ready some grated Parmesan and some red pepper flakes. Now, put some olive oil in a skillet, heat it up, and drop in some minced/chopped onions along with chopped bacon (you can use the already-cooked bacon, or uncooked) and whatever other vegetable you want. (Bacon is best, but if you haven’t got it you could use ham, or salami. You could even leave out meat altogether.) Peas are good, or chopped zucchini, or sugar pea pods. Whatever. You’re sautéing this mixture while the pasta boils. When your pasta is cooked, drain it and immediately dump it into the deep bowl. While the hot pasta cooks the egg, pour the onion-bacon-olive oil mixture over it, and also add Parmesan and hot pepper flakes. Toss the pasta and topping and cooked egg with two forks, until everything’s mixed together. Ta da.
It’s delicious, it’s easy to make, and you can generally find the ingredients in your refrigerator, without making a special trip.
KR: Finally, is there anything you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you about?
JW: Actually, I’ve probably said too much. Thanks for the opportunity, Kathleen.