February 16′s Lit Show featured Wells Tower, who read from his short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Picador, 2009). The book, Tower’s debut collection of short fiction, is a finalist for The Story Prize. His short stories and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, A Public Space, and elsewhere. He’s received the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review and two Pushcart Prizes.
On The Lit Show, Wells Tower discussed, among other things, the treatment of nature in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, anti-lyricism and the “succinct poetry” of crude phrases, the author’s editing process and the long evolution of the stories in the collection, and detail selection and the role of long-term memory in fiction writing.
Wells Tower reads from “The Brown Coast”:
Wells Tower Interview Transcript
Joe Fassler: I thought we would start by talking about the treatment of nature in your stories. It seems like there’s a duality in a lot of them. Sometimes nature’s this physically oppressive or malignant kind of thing. There’s almost an anti-lyricism to some of the descriptions. And yet, sometimes nature is the only thing of value, it seems, in some of the stories. And I’m thinking about the sea cucumber and the brown coast and the yellow-finned fish. There’s the transcendent beauty of nature and the poisonous manifestations of nature there in that story, and I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
Wells Tower: Sure. People have asked me about this a fair amount, and I think I don’t have any sort of coherent, intelligent response. I think that nature in the story often behaves the same way we see people behaving in the stories. I’m using nature as this avenue for escape and redemption and beauty when there’s a lot of human ugliness going on, but again, I think just lapsing into pastoral loveliness would get gross and gooey and not good. So, I like to have things go wrong there too. But I think there’s a fair amount of animal stuff in the stories, and I think animals are handy, because you can have them be kind and be these receptacles for decency that it would be hard to get away with, with human beings, because it would seem too sentimental. So often, when I want to have a sweet or funny moment, I’ll have a pigeon walk into the frame and do something amusing. Yeah, I don’t know.
Fassler: It’s interesting that you say that the nature is often mirroring what the humans do, because very much it seems to mirror the inner climate of what’s going on. Again I’m thinking of “The Brown Coast”, when Bob is walking around feeling like his life is ruined, and his landscape is ruined in that way. And when I got to the last story, “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” it seems like an interested insight of that story is that it comes with the girl with the missing arm, and they’re shocked by the ugliness of it. Why are you missing that arm? And the answer is that one of them chopped it off. They were responsible for the ugliness they were seeing, and I was wondering if there’s any sort of implicit if not critique, just awareness of human fallibility, human mucking around in the wilderness that’s sometimes responsible? I mean, sometimes those kind of anti-lyrical passages I was talking about hinge on a human blunder gone wrong, like an ugly garden, and I was wondering.
Tower: Well, I think throughout the stories, throughout the collection, there are stories about people wanting to do good and then ultimately doing ill, and I suppose some of that comes into the way the natural world functions in the book, but really, there wasn’t any conscious symbol-crafting that went into the choice of some of the pastoral stuff, or the animal stuff. With “The Brown Coast”, that was a story I stole from a friend of mine who was a bartender, and some guy came into his bar and told him this story about how he’d gone down to Florida or something and built this aquarium, and it had gone wrong. And to me, it was just a perfect anecdote, and the idea of the aquarium as this means for this guy’s redemption and recovery seemed really rich, and then also funny since it all fell apart in a kind of amusing, sad way.
The first draft of that story, I actually did a straight transliteration of the anecdote as it was told to me by this friend of mine. And the comic punch line of the story was supposedly the actual guy who had built this aquarium, they put the sea cucumber in there and it ruined everything, and then he took it down to the beach, and he was getting ready to throw it back in the water, and in the instant where he had his arm raised, the thin spat on him, or peed on him, in his face. And I put that in the first draft of it, and it just seemed way too pat, and too dumb. And because that was the first story I wrote — really, the first short story that I ever wrote to completion — that was an interesting lesson about how you can’t rely too much on the truth, or you can’t assume that because something was real, that will somehow make the story good. And when I wrote that, everybody was like, this is so dumb, and that would never happen in real life.
Fassler: So, the real version of the story isn’t always the best version, and that’s your job, to milk the best version out of life?
Tower: Absolutely, and it’s weird, with a lot of the stories in the collection, I would be deliberately stealing somebody’s perfect, pat anecdote, and in order to make it work for fiction, you have to roughen the surface to some extent and loosen the connections up, and make it less of a perfectly meshed set of narrative gears, which is interesting.
Fassler: My last question on this topic of the interaction with the natural world, there’s two stories that end with scenes of eating. There’s the possibly-tainted moose flesh in “Retreat,” and the other is the house-potted tomato at the end of “Dora in Your Eye.” And it seems like again, nature as being this possibly-tainted, possibly tainted by us, this hollow promise and retreat. And then, in “Dora in Your Eye,” this silly potted plant somehow is a manifestation of him taking a bite for the first time in so long into something good and refreshing and wholesome and right. I was wondering if there was any — and “Dora in Your Eye” is later in the book, and “Retreat” is very earlier on. I was wondering if that was a swing? I don’t know if there’s any relationship between those scenes in your mind?
Tower: No, there really wasn’t. The moose stuff in “Retreat” was another anecdote that I stole from this guy in Alaska who told this story about when his brother-in-law wanted to go moose hunting. His brother-in-law came up from the Lower 48 and wanted to go and bag a moose. And this guy, who’s a bush pilot, wasn’t all that keen on it. But, they went out one day and spent the day waiting for a moose to show up, and it was pouring rain, and it was a miserable day, and finally late in the afternoon, the bush pilot convinced his brother-in-law to pack it in. And just as they were getting ready to head back, a moose walked out of the bushes, and the guy shot it. And then, it’s this long, hideous ordeal of breaking it down and chopping it up. And just as they’d gotten the boat packed — and by Alaskan game law or whatever, you have to take, I think, 80 percent of the meat, or it’s a felony. You know, you can’t just shoot a moose and leave it there.
So, anyway, they had the boat totally packed, ready to leave, and then a second moose walked out of the bushes, and the brother-in-law shot that one too. And so then they had to go through the whole ordeal, but this one, the hide is difficult to remove, and as it turns out, that moose was rotten and spoiled the whole head. Anyway, so I tried to put that in a first draft, and again it was one of these stories that was a little too perfect. But, I liked the idea of the rotten moose, and I remember when I was going through the edits to the first version of this story, with Eli Horowitz at McSweeney’s, I was walking down a street in New Orleans and talking to him. We were doing the final tweaks on the story, and the ending still wasn’t there, and we knew there was something good about the idea that this character had shot a moose, and it was this moment of triumph for him, and it had to go wrong in some interesting way. And then, it just occurred to me, he should eat the moose.
But then, “Dora in Your Eye”, that was an interesting process of revision, too. That story initially appeared in A Public Space, and it was a story told from the point of view of a 20-something narrator, and it was a much more Gen-X story about this young guy who’s in a weird neighborhood, and he had this preoccupation with this.
Fassler: So, the father wasn’t in the story at that point?
Fassler: Who becomes the narrator in the final.
Tower: Right. In the originally-published version, the antagonists were this narrator guy who’s some young white dude, and then his girlfriend. And it ran like that, and then as I was revising it, it seemed like, who cares? This is a story about a guy who’s just moved to New Orleans, and he’s been told that his neighbor across the street is a prostitute. And then he goes over and visits with her, and it turns out that she’s an elderly drug dealer. As I was looking at that story again, it seemed like there was very little at stake for this young white guy with this interaction with this woman he thought was a prostitute, and it seemed more interesting to me to make it a guy in his 80s, and thinking this might be the conclusion of his erotic life to go and have this moment with this woman.
I think the idea of the tomato, I love the way fresh tomatoes taste and smell, but I think I’d recently reread Grapes of Wrath, and there’s a moment in there where the grandfather in the family is talking about how, when he gets out to California, he’s going to eat all these peaches and let the juice run through his beard, and there’s something wonderful about it. Of course, with the tomato, he’s consummating the sexual act he’d been hoping for with this woman, and it’s this last carnal throe for this guy.
Fassler: It does get physical with the beard. You have that nice description of it.
Tower: Right. No, I like that moment, the ending of that story.
Fassler: Yeah. A lot of your endings are interesting, because they seem at least to me to resist specific epiphanies of any kind. The language gets heightened, and there’s a sense that something important is happening internally, but there’s no real message or anything. I’m thinking of the New Mexico license plate that the father reads at the end of “Executors of Important Energies,” or “Down Through the Valley,” where he’s about to be arrested and has this strange flashback back to his relationship with his life, looking for imaginary prowlers in the house. These seem to me to be almost randomly chosen, like the stuff of life comes up and there’s not a concrete place that you’re supposed to go with it, necessarily. I was wondering if you had a comment on these endings that are so ambiguous?
Tower: Well, what’s a short story? To me, a short story can be anything. The time frame of a short story can range from 20 years to 20 minutes. It can encompass big revelations or tiny observations, or little heightened moments. But one of my rules or hunches about short fiction is that whatever it is, it should at least be trafficking in moments that would work themselves into the long-term memory — sorry about this — that they should at least be moments that would register in the long-term memories of the characters.
What happens when we’re having a moment that we’ll recall 10 years down the line? We rarely hear strings and trumpets and feel as though our life has changed. Usually we feel a pricking up of the senses and a quickening of the heart and this feeling that something important is happening. We don’t know exactly what to do with that excess meaning but to sit there and try to let it resonate within us. And I think those are the moments that I go for to some extent in the endings of the stories, because we don’t have revelations. How often do you have a revelation that counts? If you have one, usually it’s false, or it leads you down some dead end and it winds up being unimportant.
Fassler: Yeah, I like that idea that your long-term memory sometime lights on something arbitrary or strange or perplexing to you later, and that’s much more the feeling these stories have.
Tower: I think in life, we get the sensation of illumination without exactly knowing the character of it. It’s like that T.S. Eliot line, “Sudden illumination, we had the experience but missed the moment. An approach to the moment restores the experience in a different form.”
I think that’s all we get, as people, that dilation of the heart or the senses, or whatever it may be.
Fassler: At your reading at Prairie Lights, you talked a bit about the pendulum of sympathetic characters, and how you often don’t feel you can be done with a story if one character has been on the good side of your sympathies the whole time, you like there to be a swing. And there’s some interesting examples in here, but I like that idea a lot, and was wondering if you could talk a little more about that.
Tower: Yeah, I suppose it stems from a simple edict I try to follow in short fiction, which is not to have good guys or bad guys. I don’t believe in that with people. I think we all want to behave decently, we want to treat each other well, and often we fall short of that. And in the stories, I don’t want to have somebody being the saint and somebody being the demon. I think it’s much more interesting if everybody’s a bit of a shape-shifter, and even the characters we want to sympathize, we see them behaving deceptively or manipulatively. But I think the job of the fiction writer, at least the thing I try to do in the stories, is to show people doing despicable things, but to treat it with enough complexity or compassion that we understand why people are behaving in awful ways.
Fassler: I found it interesting, you said that at least in the original conception of “Retreat,” Matthew had been the definitely unsympathetic character, and Steven had been the definitely sympathetic. And I think that in my own reading, they’re both equally awful at times, and cruel, and yet the saddest thing about the story is that the fantasy almost comes real. It almost happens on the occasion of the hunting of this moose that they are going to move in together and it’s all going to play out, and of course it doesn’t. There’s two pages left, and I remember thinking, how is this all going to fall apart in two pages, and it does so well. I thought that was interesting.
Tower: Yeah, with those guys, the first draft — or, the published version that originally showed up in McSweeney’s — it was told form the point of view of the younger brother, and it was a series of cheap shots at the unsympathetic blowhard older brother. And so in revision, I went back and told the story from the older guy’s perspective, and that wound up complicating the character of the younger brother too. I wanted to see what he would look like from the POV of his despised older brother.
Fassler: We had touched on this a little bit before, but there’s some really nice awful language in the book. I’m thinking of a moment in “Leopard” in which not the narrator of the story — it’s second person — but the main character has a fungal infection on his lip. He’s young, and he’s humiliated by it. And a boy he admires in the cafeteria has this perfectly brutal insult for him that cuts him down. And even in that moment of humiliation, it said, “He couldn’t help but admire the succinct poetry of the line.” And it seems to me in the boo, there’s a lot of great, succinct, crude poetry that just as it does in that moment in “Leopard” gets the audience standing up and jeering. And I’m thinking of when you described the sea cucumber as being, looked like a turd of somebody who’s been eating rubies, or when you say of Steven, he was like a bumblebee trying to fuck a marble. Such great, humorous lines, and I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the value of the succinct, crude, humorous phrase that nails it like that.
Tower: I think my instinct, or my guilty pleasure as a writer is to go baroque and to indulge every impulse toward low potty humor that I might have. And then in revision, I try hard to subtract the excess language and see if there’s a way to make the phrases as compact as possible. But the kind of lyricism you’re talking about, where it’s the turd of somebody who’s been eating rubies, I get that is typical of the way I write, that I want to do pretty stunts with language, but I think if you’re using pretty language to describe pretty things, then it somehow shorts itself out. For me, it’s a much more enjoyable challenge to try to figure out beautiful ways of describing ugly things, or maybe ugly ways of describing beautiful stuff. But yeah, I think there has to be some kind of clashing polarity there between the thing you’re describing and the way you describe it.
Fassler: Maybe you’ll read to us a little bit from your collection?
[Author reads from "The Brown Coast, audio posted above]
Fassler: I wanted to ask you about the opening of the story that you just read and of the collection. When I first read it, I thought this is so wonderfully bizarre. This guy is having this butt-crack Saltine issue, and I’ve never read anything like this.
Tower: Yeah, with that story, I think that we chose to put it first, my editor and I, just because of its simplicity. It’s a very plain little story where not very much happens, and I think it felt to us like a pretty open, unimpeded onramp for the collection. It seems to be one that a lot of people responded to, I think because it doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to figure out what’s going on. The language isn’t reaching all that much, the character’s predicament is pretty simple, without a tremendous amount of psychological complexity, and the arc of the story is fairly tidy.
I think in fact we chose it not because it was doing anything complicated, but because it seemed like a simple, nonreactive narrative that maybe the more difficult readers wouldn’t buck at.
Fassler: And the physical discomfort, even though a lot of people have not had an experience exactly like that one, you can relate to it. And you don’t even know what’s going on. We don’t know the situation, we just know how awfully uncomfortable he is.
Tower: Yeah, that wouldn’t be too much, to have a Saltine lodged in your butt.
Fassler: So, we’ve talked about how many versions these stories went through, and how you’ve changed them from their publications, the way they appeared the first time for the collection. You said at Prairie Lights that you went at the stories Kamikaze-style in your editing, and I wonder if you could talk a bit about the process of razing these stories to the ground and building them back up again, and also, how did you know when to stop?
Tower: Well, sometimes I didn’t, but I did do very strange revisions to these stories. I often didn’t look at the first draft at all, and in revision, I might change the point of view, or the setting, or the plot, or everything. I might just discard all of the recognizable furniture from the first draft and rebuild it. And at times, I got so crazy with it that I wasn’t really revising out of any kind of well-considered editorial motives, but a frenzied desire to be a better writer than I am.
And with a few of the stories, my editor ultimately had to say, stop, you’re doing the seventh gigantic revision when the second one was fine, and you’re making the story worse now. But, I still think it was a good lesson for me to figure out what happens when you stray down every possible rabbit hole in revision. With these stories, when I was going back, I might write 20 pages that would issue — I might do a 10 or 20 page digression out of some piece of innocuous dialogue in the first draft, because maybe there was some sort of conflict hinted at there, and I would go back and try to exploit that and tease it out and see if there was anything there.
It wasn’t a very efficient way to approach revision, but I think it was an important lesson to see what happens when you doing everything you’re capable of doing to a story. That said, if this collection hadn’t been wrested from my hands, I probably would’ve gone on revising it for at least another four or five years, so it’s a good thing they took it away.
Fassler: Obviously there’s a certain level of finality to it now that they’ve been published as a collection, but is there any temptation to keep going back and messing with it, or are you trying to force yourself to move on?
Tower: If I could, I would. Even reading these stories, I see all sorts of little things that I would change if I could have at them again. But, you can’t spend your whole life writing one book. I know some very gifted writers who finished books 10 years ago, and they keep going back and tightening every single bolt until the threads strip. At a certain point, you’ve got to move on, and actually, I was in the middle of a lot of crazy revision on this book. I was talking with a friend of mine who’s an older, established writer, and I was telling him what I was doing to the stories. And he said, that sounds great, but it also sounds as though you’re trying to write your second book first, and it can happen that you wind up trying to write your fourth and fifth and sixth books first. At some point, you’ve got to let it go and understand that your early work will have some limitations, or some impulses that maybe in your later career, you wouldn’t be so pleased with.
But actually for me, going back and looking at the very first stories, which I was loathe to do when the manuscript came back, I was surprised by the clarity and braveness and simplicity of them, even though they didn’t seem to me hugely polished, sophisticated stories, necessarily, but they seemed to know their own hearts in a way that with the later stories, I had to find my way into that kind of knowledge of the characters, whereas there’s something about the early stories where I seemed to know who they were right at the outset. I’m not sure how that happened.
Fassler: Are there any particular story collections that you especially admire, or that were touched on, or helpful to you in the process for this?
Tower: I think the people I was looking to with these stories were pretty much the canonical American short story writers: John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates’ short stories, I think, are about as beautiful as American short fiction gets, and Yates is somebody who was so bleak and had such horrific insights about what people do to one another that his novels I find a bit unbearable, because at greater length, he can inflict greater and greater violences on his characters. But in the short story, when he’s only got 20 or something pages, he’s restricted to the low-amplitude apocalypse, and the thing that’s so amazing about Yates’ stories is that he can in the span of 20 pages make you feel as though worlds are imploding when all that’s happened is some guys got up and left a bar. And he’s doing the same thing, it has the same effect that the death and abortion and impotence in the novel has, but he’s somehow able to set up a relationship that you care about, and put it in jeopardy in some sort of hideous way quickly and with a beautiful economy and elegance. So, he’s somebody I look to in terms of structure.
But, Chekhov and Somerset Maugham to some extent, I like his short stories. Carver and Tobias Wolff and Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis, all those people I read a lot of when I was writing.
Fassler: It’s funny you mention Chekhov. In Allan Gurganus’s seminar this week here at the workshop, he paired “Retreat” with “Gooseberries,” the Chekhov, and there were a lot of nice overtones between the two that we talked about.
Tower: Yeah, he told he was doing that. I should go back and read that story. I haven’t read it for years.
Fassler: So, maybe you could talk a little bit about your work as a journalist. From what I’ve read from you in a few interviews, it seems like you worked really intently on fiction during your MFA time at Columbia, and then maybe to make ends meet, or for whatever reason, you went onto journalism for a while. And I’m wondering if it’s hard for you to do both at the same time, and if those two different parts of your brain accomplish different things. How do you make room for serious work in both fiction and journalism?
Tower: I think it’s very difficult, and I think it’s hard to have the two really coexist peacefully. When I got out of Columbia, I took a contract with the Washington Post Sunday magazine. And I would do three cover stories a year for them. And these were pretty long, 8,000 to 10,000 word stories they would assign me. They would give me arbitrary topics, character-driven story opportunities that had no ostensible angle, and they would turn me loose. I did a lot of grotty, blue-collar stories for them. The first cover I did, I rode with truck drivers up and down I-95 on the east coast for a month or so, and then I did a piece on denizens of this run-down horse track in Maryland. I did a piece on people who work at Wal-Mart, people who work in a telemarketing call center, I did a piece on a homeless chess hustler who found his way into the collection.
They were interesting story and interesting journalistic training, because when you’re writing about somebody who’s not famous and who’s not newsworthy, it takes a huge amount of knowledge and reporting time to learn enough about that person to make their story compelling. If you’re doing a piece on Lady Gaga, or something, and you get 45 minutes with her, readers are interested in the fact that she had the seared tuna for lunch, whereas people have no real motive to care about a homeless guy who plays chess in DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C., so it’s your job as the journalist to really get inside his head.
But, it was difficult in the years when I was doing those stories. I was writing a fair amount for Harpers too, and the approach to long-form nonfiction for me was so different from writing short stories that it began to garble my short fiction process. When you’re doing a nonfiction piece, you go out and report and put absolutely everything you can into your notebook and assemble huge seas of notes, and then you go back ,and maybe you’re looking at a couple hundred pages of notes, and trying to distill that into 30 pages of narrative for the story. So, it’s this process of reducing all of this vague information into something that’s coherent.
I started doing that with fiction, where I would generate these vast drafts for a short story that I’d have some idea of what seemed like it might be a fun story, and I’d do it not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but I would do these big, explosive drafts that might run upwards of 100 pages, and then think that I could reduce that for a short story, but it just never worked. With the short story, I think there has to be a real unity of intention, and a real coherence of emotion and tone. It’s very hard for me to fumble my way into that small, controlled space where you know exactly what the emotional resonances of every sentence are supposed to be.
So, a spent a couple of years doing those big drafts, and I never got a story out of it. It was maybe two or three years of fiction work that went nowhere.
Fassler: I guess the paradox of it is that it sounds like lost time to a certain extent, but it seems like so many of the stories here stemmed from experiences that you had while doing your journalistic work.
Tower: They did, and it was a great way — the magazine work has been a great way to meet a huge cross-section of people, a lot of whom wander into the short stories. The story we talked about earlier, “Dora in Your Eye,” I was saying the first draft, it was from the point of view of a young, 20-something white guy. And as I was revising, I was thinking about who that situation might matter more to, and there was a guy I met years ago when I was reporting the story on Wal-Mart, where the Post magazine just had me go and hang around in a Wal-Mart for about a month in southern Maryland. And I met this old guy who would come down to the McDonald’s-ish fast food restaurant in the Wal-Mart every day and play bingo. They had these organized bingo games in the Wal-Mart. And he was in the motorized cart. And I asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I’m down here trying to meet women. I know it’s crazy, I’m 88 years old, but I’m not dead yet, and I’m having a great time.”
And he was such a wonderful guy, and he wound up on the cutting-room floor with the story. But he seemed like the perfect person to make the protagonist of the revision. And that happened a lot. It was a great opportunity to meet all sorts of different people, and to be able to ask them to describe their lives for me was a great privilege.
Fassler: Something you were speaking about at Prairie Lights is the deluge of careless writing, or writing that is meant to be carelessly read, I guess would be more accurate, perhaps in magazines, but especially on the internet. And I love that you said it’s all about gist. You described the internet as being a kind of gist harvest. And then fiction you also said, and I think a lot of people would agree with this, is words that have to be read carefully by nature. And so, I’m wondering if you could talk a little about what you feel the role of the fiction writer is in society today, considering the media landscape.
Tower: I don’t know. I suppose it’s what it’s always been. Fiction and literature is this amazing technology by which we’re able to telegraph human experience, to really convey what it means to eke out your short run of years on this planet by means of the magic of little black marks on a page put a life between the covers of a book.
I don’t think the role of the fiction writer has changed. I don’t think the internet has altered our job. I think those of us who write fiction still want to use language in interesting ways, and we want to try to know something about people. Obviously, there’s a lot more competition now, with video games and YouTube and this kind of epidemic attention deficit that I think does have something to do with the internet, and it is upsetting to see maybe where language might be heading.
That said, I’m sure there are great blogs and people doing fantastic writing on the internet. But I do think, at least for somebody like me, I just don’t read on the internet with the same degree of scrutiny and attention that I do when I’m sitting in a chair with a book, and I think that’s lamentable. I think that if we read too much in that idiom, then we can start to feel like it’s okay to write crappy, sloppy sentences, and with fiction in particular I think maybe even more than nonfiction, I think we’ve really got to treasure language in the way poets do. I was talking to my students at Columbia last fall about it, and I was saying people ostensibly have no reason to read a story that you made up. It’s the easiest thing in the world not to read. And if it’s not clear in the fiber of the sentences that every single word has been chosen with a huge amount of deliberation and intention, then there’s no reason for people to continue reading the work. I can’t remember where I was going with that.
Fassler: You said last night you strive for a kind of high-thread count in your work, and I really liked that idea. Maybe one reason you’re able to do that so well is because you do generate it sounds like hundreds of pages of notes, or just lots of drafts exploring avenues that then get compacted into diamonds.
Tower: Yeah. It’s weird, the thing I was saying about the thread count in language, I think we all know that experience of sitting down and you read a sentence and you can see that there are a bunch of different interesting usages going on, and that the writer is absolutely in control of each word, and it’s been put in place for a reason. I think writers who care about sentences, they often get asked, how do you do this? It’s amazing the way you’re using language. I think that talent comes into it to some extent, but I think it’s much more about spending the time, and really looking at the sentences, and caring. Writing good sentences and using language in a deliberate way seems like the easiest method for making your writing good, and it’s not all that difficult. It’s just about going back and making sure you’re carrying the 1s and being sure that every word is being yoked to the descriptive content or emotional friction of the scene in a responsible and tidy manner, I guess.
Fassler: There’s that famous and kind of pretentious thing Joyce said about Ulysses, but it was something like, “It took me 17 years to write it. It should take you 17 years to read it.” And it sounds like there’s a kind of reciprocity. The value of fiction — I have students all the time say, why should you write fiction? We have film, all these things that are easier to ingest. It sounds like the value, you’re saying, is not quite to that Joycian degree, but this is something that was poured over, that was invested with sweat and time, and it should ideally urge someone, inspire someone to take deep care in reading it, when at least here in America, most of our culture is about disposability and ease of use, and that’s the value in it.
Tower: Sure, and the flip-side of the Joyce quote is, as a writer, you can’t ask the reader to do more empathic work than you yourself have done in the writer. You can’t ask your readers to care more about the characters than you did. It’s amazing to me how much writing there is out there, these books where the characters are so poorly-imagined and wooden, yet we as readers are supposed to respond to these characters and believe in them when you can tell that the writer himself didn’t care. Reading something like The Da Vinci Code, it’s like a popsicle stick puppet, yet we’re supposed to feel moved. It’s the worst kind of manipulation.
Fassler: There’s a very strong tradition of southern writers and writing in this country. You’re from Chapel Hill, but I sense from a few of the things you said last night that you don’t see yourself necessarily in that tradition, or you say that you felt exotic for a while in New York City, but you became disenchanted with that. I was wondering if you feel that you’re operating in any sort of southern tradition, even in terms of geographically.
Tower: Not so much. The southern thing is something you’ve got to be really careful about. It’s really easy to lapse into the very worst kind of easy stereotype when you’re writing about the south. For me, there are a lot of southern writers whose work I really admire. Of course Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, or more lately Barry Hannah, Charles Portis.
At the same time, there’s something I do like about the south. I think there’s, at least in my experience, an attention to language and a sense of play with language among just about everybody. I remember growing up and working terrible jobs, painting or doing landscaping, or I had a job as a garbage man for a day, and these guys would be working these awful jobs, and the job itself will deliver no pleasure, but talking to the guy who’s working next to you, and using language in ways that are fun seemed to relieve some of the hideousness of the day. But, I think it’s something that happens across classes in the south, and probably everywhere, but I guess because I grew up down there, I got particularly attuned to it. There seems to be a real kind of — people take pride in their storytelling abilities, and their wry turns of phrase, and that sort of thing.
Fassler: Yeah, the dialogue in the book here is so wonderful, and I wonder if being around that sort of graceful, amazing southern vernacular helped you tune your ear for language. And a sub-question I have of that is, it seems to me that though the language is labored over, and you probably did labor over the dialogue in the same way, it’s different in that it should have the effect of spontaneity, and that’s such a different thing than a physical description, and I’m wondering how you work with that.
Tower: It’s tough. You always hear in graduate writing workshops that dialogues should be the greatest hits, that if you have people talking the super-boring way that people generally talk, that won’t do for fiction. And I believe that, so I try to have characters using language in ways that are fun and funny and clever, but at the same time, if every character is emitting these perfectly architected quips, then it just doesn’t seem real. So, to some extent, I did have to go back and occasionally reduce the cleverness of the dialogue because it seemed to pull away from the characters.
Fassler: So, we both know that one of the rudest things you can ask a writer is what they’re working on currently, so I won’t ask you what you’re working on, but I do understand you mentioned that you’re working on a novel. Are you finding the experience of longer form a challenge after working on short stuff for so long?
Tower: Well, I’m sure it will be. I’m sure that there are plenty of days of wracking doubts and self-hatred and all of that, though now I’m just having a good time with it. It’s actually a great relief not to feel the pressure of the ending constantly looming in the next 20 pages, where I can just let the characters breathe and be themselves and find their own way without having to constantly knot all the different ligatures together. So now, I’m in the fun, expansive phase of the writing the novel, and then there will be restrictive, anxious revisions I’m sure for many, many months.