Sep 10, 2009
Words: Christopher Currie and Wells Tower
Image: Chris Somerville
Back in March, during one of my reverential trawls through my RSS feeds, I began hearing about an American writer, Wells Tower, whose short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was beginning to garner some very warm praise. After reading Edmund White’s review in the New York Times, I knew I wanted to read it. Badly. Using my best bookseller’s cunning, I tried desperately to get Allen & Unwin (the book’s Australian publisher) to part with an advance copy, to no avail.
And I am ashamed to say, amid the other shiny new books, I forgot about it. I picked it up eventually in late July, and was blown away by the quality of Wells’ writing and narrative skills (more on that below). To my great surprise, I found out that Wells was going to be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival (a fact I had to triple-check, thanks to the time I thought George Saunders was coming to the Sydney Writers Festival, and had nearly booked my tickets before realising my information came from a typo in a press release). To my greater surprise, Wells was available for interview! When my good buddy Angela threw this info my way, I jumped at the chance to catch up with the author of my favourite short story collection of the past five years.
After he wowed audiences with his impeccable and impressive ‘In Conversation’ session with Chris Flynn at the festival, and signed his book for a good twenty minutes, Wells very generously gave over his time to me for an interview. Just talking to him makes you begin to compile a hefty checklist of short story writers you’ve always meant to read but just haven’t. And he talks like he writes, with a profound, considered intelligence. Which made me all the more aware of the distracted yapping that was my interviewing style. To Wells’ credit, he took my strange questions and answered them eloquently.
You’ve probably done a whole heap of media for this book—what’s the question you’re most sick of being asked?
People like to ask me whether there’s a resurgence in short story publishing, or whether we’re experiencing some sort of short story renaissance, which I couldn’t possibly begin to know. I suppose you should ask that of the person who’s never read a short story before. I’ve loved short stories for quite a while. That question is impossible to answer.
It seems as though it’s part of a cycle, though. It seems as if there’s a short story collection every few months or years that gets some attention. But I think people will always pay attention to short stories on some level.
You said you read a lot of short stories. Has that always been the case? Do you go out of your way to read short stories, whether they’re in collections, journals or magazines?
I guess I’m not really chasing as many short story collections as I probably should be. I think we had a great run in the United States in the 20th century. We had a lot of people who were fantastically gifted: John Cheever, Richard Yates, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Denis Johnson—there were a lot of people who really dedicated themselves to the form, in that it wasn’t just their workbook for longer works. If you read someone like Nabokov, who was the master of the novel, when you read his short stories, you can tell it’s just his sketchbook.
I suppose it’s rare these days to find someone who devotes themselves fully to short fiction. To me the short story is such a difficult puzzle; when you find someone who’s done it well, you really enjoy going back and reading their stories again and again and trying to see where the gears are, how the machine is put together. With a good short story, as soon as you’ve got a flat paragraph, or unnecessary information, the reader is gone.
Do you see the transition from short stories to novels as the inevitable career progression of a writer?
I don’t. I suppose there is this emphasis on novel writing, as in If you’re a real writer, you’d better get to it on a novel. In some ways I think it’s more difficult to write a successful short story. That said, I’m having a miserable time getting started on my own novel, and that will be tremendously difficult too, but I agree with the famous Cortázar quote that the novel can win on points, but a short story has to win by knockout. A really gripping short story, I think, is such a difficult thing to pull off. I don’t think there’s any reason to disdain the people who’ve done it well. John Cheever is certainly one of those. Reading his novels, they kind of don’t hold together. I read a couple of them this summer, and they’re fine, but somehow there’s not the same kind of intensity.
I was interested in the time frame of the stories that appear in the collection. How far apart were they written, and published?
It was probably six or seven years. The first short stories in the book were really the first short stories I ever wrote: I wrote those stories in graduate school. I suppose I wrote four or five stories over two years, and then the rest, probably over another four or five years. But I was doing a lot of magazine work then, too, so I didn’t really have a lot of time to focus on the fiction.
Did your journalism start before the fiction, or did it happen at the same time?
Kind of simultaneously, yes. I sold my first magazine piece in the spring of 2000, and then went to graduate school in the fall of 2000. Not long after I got out of graduate school I got a contract with the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, so I’d do three cover stories a year for them, and those were quite long—about eight thousand words, so it would take two or three months to do the whole thing, with the reporting and the writing and the editing, so it was quiet a bit of work.
What is the relationship between your fiction and your nonfiction? How do they live side by side?
I think when I started writing large magazine stories, it really screwed up my ability to write short fiction. The way you write a big magazine piece of course is that you go out and do some reporting. Because I had no journalistic training, I was kind of a frenzied, paranoid note-taker—I would take so many notes because I was so scared I wouldn’t come up with anything worth writing about. I would generate huge amounts of notes, many hundreds of pages for each story. From there you would try and figure out which scenes were strongest, or whether you’d taken a good description of something, and then, for eight thousand words, you’d take five or six scenes and try and come up with a contextual argument, and thread the thing together to make it more or less work. For a while I was trying to use that same approach to writing short stories, where I would just generate these big, explosive, terrible drafts, and I’d think I’d be able to go back and condense it into something that made emotional sense. But it never did. I think with a short story it’s really about trying to define a small, private space with a lot of intensity and an intimacy of feeling, and it’s very hard to try and fumble your way into that with large, unwieldy, emotionally vague drafts. But then, a lot people I met when I was out researching nonfiction pieces have made their way into my fiction.
When you were writing nonfiction, were you reading other peoples’ work, in the same way you’d read other short story writers?
I was. I was reading more nonfiction when I was doing magazine work. But again, I think I have pretty standard canonical tastes. I was reading George Orwell’s nonfiction, and Joan Didion and Ian Frazier. It’s important to me to have a stack of books at the side of my desk so I can just crack into them and remember that writing is possible.
When you were deciding on which stories to include in this collection, were you looking at the bigger picture, i.e. will these nine stories work as a whole? Or was it more a case of looking at each story individually?
I was just looking at them individually. I wouldn’t have really known how to work in themes that would make it appear more ‘book-like’. For me the theme of the book was simply that they were the first nine stories that I wrote that I didn’t despise. I guess at one point I thought, well maybe the way to make this work is make the stories linked, and to have somebody from one story wander into another, but a lot of times that just feels really stupid and contrived, so I stayed away from that. After the collection was under contract, I went back and threw out three or four stories. Many others I re-wrote: I scraped them to their foundation and rebuilt. For me it was just a case of going through and trying to do away with what felt like cheap tricks—stories that felt like they were a bit too glib, or there were emotional parts in the story I was deliberately shying away from. That’s how it works for me, going back and working out what is the most important emotional tension in each story, and trying to address that in subsequent drafts.
Part the second of this interview can be found here.
Christopher Currie is a writer and bookseller. You can read his thoughts and writing at www.furioushorses.com. His first novel will be published by Text Publishing in 2011.