"I Actually Knew Nothing About These People I Supposedly Hated:" An Interview with Adam Wilson

 "Mixing Station" - Catherine Elizabeth

 "Mixing Station" - Catherine Elizabeth

Assignment Issue #1 features the first published excerpt, titled "The Parentheses," from Adam Wilson's novel-in-progress. He is the author of the novel Flatscreen (2012) and the short story collection What's Important is Feeling (2014), the title story of which was featured in the 2012 volume of The Best American Short Stories. A recipient of The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize, and a National Jewish Book Award finalist, Adam was recently named to Brooklyn Magazine's list of 50 Funniest People in Brooklyn. In this interview, we discussed his method for writing comedy and his use of 9/11 and the Wall Street crash as narrative backdrops.

To read an excerpt from "The Parentheses," click here.

- Daniel Johnson

In your story “Things I Had” from What's Important is Feeling, the protagonist, Sam, says of the two new friends he meets, Squirrel and Deep, that they "had words for things I’d wanted to name.” Has anyone told you that about your writing?

Adam Wilson:  Maybe this is a roundabout answer, but I tend to think of writing—and all art really—as a form of communication, an (ultimately futile) attempt to represent and articulate, through narrative and the manipulation of language, things that can’t otherwise be reduced or articulated or summed up. I often think of Raymond Carver’s story “Why Don’t You Dance,” about a couple who have a strange experience, and then find themselves unable to recapture that experience when they try to explain it to others. The story ends with the lines, “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”  In a sense, I feel like those sentences aptly describe all of my characters, who are trying to find language to explain themselves and their worlds, and in so doing hope to begin to understand those things themselves. I’m not sure any of them ever succeed, but I think for a character like Sam in “Things I Had,” there is something really thrilling in meeting new people who open him up to a whole new language, a whole new way of cataloguing the world.

In Flatscreen, Eli describes himself and a bewintered New England as “ice-fucked.” All those hyphenated descriptions are poignant in the way they capture a generational vernacular.

AW:  I got really into the hyphen thing for a while when I was writing Flatscreen and some of the earlier stories, like “Milligrams”, which I wrote while I was working on Flatscreen. The idea was that these characters didn’t have the language to say what they were trying to say, so they had to try to make a new one. But yeah, my hope was that it would somehow represent the way certain kinds of media have altered the way we speak—in Flatscreen I was thinking particularly of television and film, but the Internet is certainly a huge part of it as well.

What do you find is the most effective (and what’s your favorite) vehicle for comedy writing?

For the most part I try not to think too much about it during the writing process. Comic writing comes very naturally to me—I tend to cover some pretty dark material, and my instinct is always to offset the pathos with humor--and the only time I really sit down and think about the jokes themselves is during the editing process, when I ruthlessly vet them for anything that’s not working or simply could be better, funnier. Mostly though, my editing process involves trying to make sure the story’s comedy doesn’t detract or overcompensate for the more serious stuff going on below the surface. I think my drafts tend to be much more joke heavy, and then I’ll have to go back and say, “Well that’s a sort of funny line, but what’s it doing in the story? Does it need to be there?”

Each of the stories in What's Important is Feeling has its own hierarchy wheeling onward in the background, but the protagonists tend to reside outside it. Do you tend to favor writing marginalized characters?

AW: Yes, I tend to be interested in characters who, in whatever local hierarchy they’re part of, they’re somewhere near the bottom. In part, I think it’s because it’s easier to root for an underdog; no one wants to root for the cool guy who’s having great sex all day and is happy with his job and his life. Where’s the conflict? It’s much more fun to root for the loser who means well.

Some of your supporting characters, like Kahn in Flatscreen and Felix from "What's Important is Feeling," tend to be vocal about their views on the hierarchies that marginalized them. How fun was it to write characters like this?

AW: Really fun. It involved a lot of reading aloud to myself.

Stories like “The Long In-Between,” “December Boys” and “Sluts” have real-world tension looming in the background of the narratives. How did you find that deepen the world, the characters?

AW: I think, in all those cases, it came about pretty organically in the sense that they covered topical ground that interested me personally. “The Long In-Between” is set during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon, but I wrote it during some of the more recent, ongoing drama regarding the IDF and Israel’s foreign policy. I think, more than anything, I wrote the story to try to assemble some of my own feelings about Israel, and my narrator’s mixed feelings on the subject really echo my own. I think I made the character female to differentiate her from me, but of all the characters in the collection I feel like she is, in some way, the most similar to my actual self.  I think it’s a very confusing thing right now to be a left-wing American Jew, and my hope was that, rather than push any political agenda, or come to any definitive conclusions about Israel, I could simply capture some of that confusion, and some of the frustration with the situation as a whole. “December Boys” actually came out of the novel I’m currently working on (excerpted here in “The Parentheses”), but then kind of grew into its own thing. I knew I wanted to write about the 2008 Wall Street crash from a number of different perspectives, and I thought it might be fun to try to figure out how a couple of young, laid off bankers might behave. In some ways, the major impetus for the whole project came from attending Occupy protests and proclaiming my hatred of bankers, and then realizing I actually knew nothing about these people I supposedly hated. I imagined what it would be like to be some twenty-three year old, straight out of college, majored in econ, got a job at Lehmann Brothers or wherever, and then suddenly find yourself unemployed and truly despised. What would that feel like? As for “Sluts at Heart,” I’d always wanted to write something about the Elvis stamp. The fact that there was a vote for whether we’d choose good looking, young Elvis, or sad, druggie, fat, old Elvis to be on the stamp seemed so absurd to me, so deeply American.

What was the single most important element that made What's Important is Feeling a cohesive collection?

AW: For a while I was really annoyed with people calling it a collection of "coming of age" stories, but after a while I realized it was true. They are all coming-of-age stories in the sense that, even in the stories that involve adult characters, they’re all stories about someone’s life changing after coming into close proximity with death.

For your excerpt in Assignment, "The Parentheses," the backdrop is New York just after 9/11. The event provides Wendy and Michael, on a second date at a Portuguese restaurant, with fodder for conversation. Do you think that happened for a lot of people, with their interactions with strangers, after the attacks? 

AW:  9/11 allowed people, particularly strangers, to become intimate in ways they may not have otherwise. There was a sense of people feeling bound together by the experience, and a very fleeting feeling that there was no longer room for the bullshit of small talk. At the same time, however, I feel like the characters in the story, Michael and Wendy, are kind of nervous to bring it up as well, nervous that they’ll somehow say the wrong thing, or that things will get too heavy for a second date. The fact that they ultimately seem to open up to each other, I think, is a testament to some kind of actual connection.

What was the inspiration for the scene?

AW: The scene with the music in the Portuguese place was partly based on an experience I had much later on, sometime around 2007. I was on a date in a Portuguese restaurant with the woman who is now my long-term partner, but who, at the time, was someone I had only begun seeing.  Suddenly, without us noticing, the restaurant closed, and we were the only customers left, and there was sort of a private party/jam session going on that we’d somehow ended up in. We got corralled into dancing and got very drunk.

The whole experience felt at once surreal and familiar; surreal because it was unexpected and dreamlike, yet familiar because it seemed like the kind of thing one heard about in romantic anecdotes about New York, particularly in certain kinds of movies, the kinds of stories that sound fake or unrealistic until they actually happen. And the experience sort of bonded us as a couple, it made us feel like things like that happened because we were together, that the combination of the two of us created some kind of spark that inspired these kinds of adventures. I think that was what I was trying to capture, and also this feeling, after 9/11, when people sort of just let go of formality a little bit. I wasn’t living in New York in 2001, but I remember coming to visit shortly after, and going to a bar downtown, and just getting into such intense and unguarded conversations with strangers I never would have talked to in a million years otherwise.

Can you tell us a little about Michael?

AW: Well, this section is a flashback, but in the present tense of the novel, he and Wendy are married and he’s a Wall St. banker who’s been skipping work to try to write a non-fiction book about Eminem. He’s an anxious, eccentric guy who I think really means well, but who makes a lot of bad decisions.

And Wendy?

AW: Wendy is also a really anxious person, and an over-thinker. These are qualities that she and Michael share and relate to in each other. But they deal with them in different ways, Wendy, by trying to control everything in her life, and Michael by trying to shuck responsibility. In a way this makes them both a good match and a problematic one. In many ways, Wendy is the novel’s anchor. A lot of the story centers around her job as a social media manager for brands.

I like the seamlessness with which you shuttle between Michael and Wendy’s points of view. Can you speak a little bit about writing the scene that way?

AW: My first book, Flatscreen, is told entirely in the first person from the perspective of a character with a very limited worldview, and so I knew that I wanted the next long project I worked on to be less claustrophobically contained to one character’s head. Michael and Wendy are the two main POVs here, but there are many others that pop up as well. It’s been really fun to write this way, a relief.