Brock Clarke and Kevin Wilson talk inspiration, performance art, unlikeable characters, Cormac McCarthy, short stories, and potato guns. Brock Clarke is the author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England and Exley. Kevin Wilson is the author of The Family Fang.
First off: I love The Family Fang. This would make for an awkward discussion if I didn’t love it, too, so I’m really glad that I do.
And with the books that I love, I’m always wondering where they came from. I don’t mean from what autobiographical source, and don’t even mean what literary source, either, but how those books might be an extension of, or a reaction to, something that the writer has already written. And in the case of The Family Fang, I’m wondering two things.
First, I can see some similarities between TFF and your story “The Shooting Man” from Tunneling to the Center of the Earth–not so much the tone or style, but the subject matter: violent public performance art. Was there any connection, in your mind, between the new novel and “The Shooting Man”? (I can think of other writers I know, or I think I know, that you like–Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor–who have also written stories that have then become part of novels). When you finished the aforementioned story, did you think, I’m not done with this kind of thing yet? Or am I seeing something when I should be seeing nothing. Because that does happen.
I love all of your stuff, Brock, as I’ve told you many times before, so I’m glad you liked the novel.
It’s strange that you mention “The Shooting Man” as it’s a story that has a very specific literary source, Steven Millhauser’s “The Knife Thrower”. I was trying to copy it as much as possible and yet make it my own story. I hadn’t considered it, but now that you mention it, I can see those connections between The Family Fang and The Shooting Man. I am fascinated by public performances, the way in which a performer creates something mysterious and strange and then transfers the responsibility of reaction and processing to the audience, who doesn’t really know what they’ve entered into. This is perhaps a larger statement about the relationship between the artist and the viewer, the unfairness in some ways of how the artist creates something and then leaves it to the viewer to deal with the fallout. I think about this a lot and so it made sense to use that to slightly different effect with the Fangs. In both situations, it does not end well for the viewer.
I don’t think I ever considered the connection between that story and this novel. The time between them is so great that it’s possible that I wouldn’t recognize the connection even if there were one.
That makes me wonder about the connections between your novel, Exley, and the writer himself. I think your book does a good job of showing us the connections, but I’ve always been amazed at the way that you take an existing narrative and twist it in ways that render it a wholly unique story. I’m thinking of the way you play around with Barthelme (“I Bought a Little City”) and Cheever (“The Swimmer”) in your short stories. How does that start? With “The Shooting Man”, I read Millhauser’s “The Knife Thrower” and, that very same day, I said, “I’m going to do something with this.” It was as if the framework of Millhauser’s story, beyond it’s original intent, suggested an entirely different story to me. Is there something of that in your own process?
My experience is like yours, with the short story: in the case of “I Bought a Little City” (a story I love), I thought that what was fantastic in Barthleme’s story might seem less fantastic now–that is, more plausible within the context of the Disneyfication of American cities–and that updating his story might not just be an updating or an homage but also an interesting commentary on something I thought interesting and written in a way that I also thought interesting. A bland but accurate way to describe pretty much every piece of short fiction I’ve ever written.
With Exley and A Fan’s Notes it was a little different: my initial interest in the novel (as the subject of my novel) was the town it was set in, Watertown, and then it seemed wrong to write anything about Watertown without also writing about Exley, and then the writing about Exley seemed more compelling to me than the other stuff I’d written and I thought I’d see what would happen if I tried to make the Exley stuff take over the novel, and in order to make the Exley stuff take over the novel, I first had to write a character who allowed Exley to take over his life. It wasn’t–unlike the stories I’ve written that have come from Barthelme or Cheever–a riff, or an updating, or even an homage, really, although I have obviously love A Fan’s Notes. But it is a twisting–I like the way you put that, because my idea of a book, or a story, is that you twist things–autobiography, anecdote, geography, literature–so that they fit and inform your vision of the world, but don’t totally correspond to the world outside the book.
This is one of the great things about The Family Fang, by the way: components of it remind you of things you might encounter in the real world, but they’re more violent, more absurd, more purposeful, less random, and flat out better written than what you’d find in the real.
The vets with the potato gun, for instance–that whole scene is incredible, starting with Buster’s job at the men’s magazine (a tremendous moment, when he mentions that he wrote a piece about the world’s biggest gang bang, and the guy driving the car stops the car and say, “What, now?”) and then extending to the actual potato gun William Burroughs/William Tell business and then Buster’s inevitable and yet still shocking wounding. I felt like I knew those guys, and yet they felt much more nuanced and engaging then the guys I know who resemble them in real life. Where did that scene come from, anyway?
The potato gun scene is something I’d been thinking about for a while, a way to process an incident with a potato gun from childhood. It’s a story that is better told in numbered order:
1. Older kids have a potato gun
2. They let us younger kids shoot the potato gun
3. It is awesome
4. Older kid tries to discharge potato gun and it becomes jammed
5. Older kid tries to check the firing mechanism and points the barrel of the gun at the ground
6. Potato gun discharges directly into his bare foot
7. It is hard to discern what is smashed up potato and what is skin
8. I never ever get near a potato gun again
It was just a weird feeling to have this calm understanding that, in that moment, I felt like I was at the center of the universe and then, immediately afterward, learn that being at the center of the universe means you get blown all to hell.
The people in that scene were just my friends and my cousins, people I loved very much because they were essentially kind people, who were goofy and unafraid of being goofy and would allow themselves strange things because they knew they would probably never have access to the really good things. And, if they become heightened in the way I present them on the page, it’s probably because my affection for them changes my perception of who they actually were.
This leads me to a question I have for you about character. I think one of the things I have tried to copy from your work, one of the thrilling aspects of your stories and novels, was that you created these totally believable characters who kind of constantly fuck up and, if presented through a slightly different lens, would reveal themselves to be people you would never want to be around. And yet, perhaps it’s the voice or the honesty of how they are presented, these characters became deeply sympathetic, incredibly charming, and, okay, somewhat attractive. My question, I guess, is: are you aware of how permeable the line is for your characters between sympathetic and unsympathetic? Does this even matter to you (in regards to how a reader feels about your character)? Am I reading too much into your characters?
Also, to go back to your need to write about Watertown, your work seems deeply connected to place and, from hearing you talk about how you came to write Exley, a driving force in the way you start to make something. I feel connected to the South in my own writing because I am slightly lazy and I know that if I set my story in the South, I’ll get most of the details right because I’ve lived here my entire life. But I’m never so driven by the location that it seeps very far into the story, or, if it does, it isn’t conscious. What is it about the northeast, or any place, that serves as a necessary element in the way you tell a story?
On the subject of great potato guns scenes in contemporary fiction, yours is one of the two. The other is in Jim Shepard’s Project X, in which two teenagers are firing a potato gun in one of their rooms and the one kid’s mother comes in and says they’re making a mess, and the other kid says, “It really is an outdoor sort of toy.” But then of course they’re also planning on Columbining their high school, so the line isn’t as gut busting as it would be otherwise.
Speaking of unlikable characters, right? I’m more aware of my fondness for unlikable characters, or potentially unlikable characters, because other people seem to be aware of them. And mostly, they’re awareness of my unlikable characters doesn’t make me more aware that they’re unlikable; it only makes me more aware that other people might find them unlikable. Me, I rarely think about it. I’m attracted to them because–and this is stupid reductive reasoning, so forgive me–those are the kind of characters to which I’m attracted: not because I’m attracted to their badness, but because their badness is only part of the story, and because it’s only part of their story, their story is complicated, and can affect other characters in complicated, surprising ways. As Donald Barthelme said, “I’d rather have a wreck than a ship that sails. Things attach themselves to wrecks.” For me, part of this disconnect between how I think of these characters and how others think of them is related to our basic inability to distinguish between what makes people good in real life and what makes them good as fictional characters. I wouldn’t want to be married to some of the people in my fiction; but then again, I wouldn’t want many of the people I love in real life to be characters in my fiction, either. They’re too good. If that makes any sense.
But I guess I do think about this sometimes: in an early draft of my story “For Those of Us Who Need Such Things,” for instance, the narrator was, even for my taste, too nasty, too arrogant. And tellingly, the story was originally titled “For Those of You Who Need Such Things.” That “You” was the problem, and the minute I turned the “You” to “Us,” the minute I turned the narrator from someone who didn’t care what other people thought to someone who cared very much, someone who wanted to be a part of other people’s lives, the story became much better.
As for place, yeah, it’s become an important part of my fiction–whether the fiction is set in upstate NY or New England or South Carolina or, as in the case of the book I’m working on now, Denmark. It wasn’t always this way: it used to be that I did everything possible to not set my work in upstate New York, and as a result the stuff I was writing felt distant. But the moment I started calling the town I was writing about “Little Falls” (the name of my hometown), the more free I felt to write about things that really mattered to me. Of course, the town of “Little Falls” in my fiction (as my fellow Little Fallsians constantly remind me) bears almost no resemblance to the real town. But that’s fine, too: for me, place is only important as a jumping off point. I care about place not so that I can show off how well I know it, but because it serves as a metaphor, a setting in which I try to dramatize how little I, or my characters, truly know about the things that matter to them.
It’s funny you mention your work and the South, though, because I was reading somewhere that before The Family Fang, you’d begun a Cormac McCarthyesque novel, and then put it away. What was wrong with that book, in your opinion? And how did whatever was wrong with it lead to what’s obviously so right about TFF? I ask, because I always find it heartening to hear about how writers fail before they succeed (meaning, it makes me feel less suicidal about my own many failures), but also because one of the things that I’ve always loved about your work is that the setting seems to be created, not assumed or inherited. For instance, Fang is set, partly, in Tennessee, your home state; and yet it seems like a home state haunted by different things than, say, McCarthy’s early novels, or William Gay’s. A state that you’ve made home by making it different than other literary versions of that home. Does that make sense? Is this at all conscious?
That’s a really wonderful note about “For Those of Us Who Need Such Things,” the way a single note can change the way you think about a story.
I wish I had more of those moments when I was writing.
I was working on a novel before The Family Fang. It was about a family in the mountains of East Tennessee and it was meant to be a fairy tale version of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It would be dark and disturbing and yet tinged with magic. I had just finished reading all of McCarthy’s work in chronological order and I think I just had his voice in my head when I got to work on the novel I was writing. Part of the problem was the simple fact that I, like many writers, am not Cormac McCarthy. His voice is not my voice. I think I can get dark and I think I can do violence, but not like that. My agent and my editor both thought it was the wrong book for me to be writing at that stage in my career, building off of the weirdness of the stories. I resisted for a while. I remember telling them that if they could give me a few weeks, I would ease up on the darkness and figure out where the humor could be found in the narrative. That was an impossible task, so I finally gave up on it. I think that, basically, the novel didn’t play to my strengths. It’s a book that I just might not be capable of finishing at this stage in my life. I am good at lightness and weirdness that slowly gives way to sadness. And so, since novels are so hard to write and require you to give them so much more space than a short story, I felt like I needed to work with what I was good at in order to help me figure out how to finish it. So I went with the Fangs.
I have spent all but four years in the same county of Tennessee. And yet, I know that my idea of this state is different than William Gay or Cormac McCarthy. My town is rural, but we have a Wal-Mart. We have McDonald’s. It’s a farming town that has become, through a misguided or perhaps inevitable expansion, like many other towns in the south and northeast and midwest and west. I feel like where I grew up, Winchester, TN, is more like Biddeford, Maine, than it is like Nashville, TN. It’s more like Nebraska City, NE, than Chapel Hill, NC. And, honestly, the south that I grew up in was more about not having access to things than it was about landscape. It was about not having a bookstore or a very good library or record store or movie theater and how everything I wanted existed in some city (Nashville or New York City) and not where I lived. And, not having what you wanted meant that you figured out strange ways to make do with what you had, which was wide-open spaces, the ability to hide from the rest of the world, a sense that no one would ever notice or care about the strange things you did.
Your mention of that Barthelme quote, which I love, leads me to a question I’ve had regarding epigraphs in books. I read an excellent essay by Roxane Gay about her belief that epigraphs are unnecessary. I thought about this a lot because I love the use of the epigraphs in books and I especially like your use of them in your books. (I believe that Barthelme quote was an epigraph in your first collection of stories). You’ve used lines from Mark Twain and Muriel Spark and Exley and Saul Bellow, and I wonder how you see these functioning in your work. Do you have the epigraph before or during the writing of the book or does it come much later? For me, I hadn’t thought of the epigraphs, partly because the stories took ten years to collect, until I saw them put in one book and realized where some of the connections could be found. For the novel, I had one of the epigraphs from the beginning, the Dorothy Hughes line, and I found it to actually be kind of propulsive (in the same way that a good first line can get the narrative moving) in thinking about the novel in a larger sense.
Well, I should get it out of the way and say what’s true: I’m really glad you went with the Fangs. And it’s funny to hear you talk about the Family Fang being a novel that was easier for you to write, because I read the book and I’m in awe of it and I also think, God, I wish I had written that book, and also, I wish I was capable of writing a book like that.
But I do recognize the temptation of McCarthy: once, after reading four of his novels in a row, I started to write a story written in high McCarthy Old Testament style about a couple of guys who get their car covered in chicken fat. It probably doesn’t need saying that the voice of the story was completely wrong for the subject of the story. But it did teach me something: that you can love some writers and also realize that they’re worthless as models.
Speaking of that: epigraphs. The ten people who read my first book (Hi Mom!) will notice that I didn’t include an epigraph for that book. Nor did I include an acknowledgments page. My theory being, real writers don’t use, or need, such things, and also real writers try to hide their influences rather than broadcast them (if I’d used an epigraph for that book, it would have been from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer). But after that book, it seemed likely that I would never write, or publish, a book again, and if I ever did, I swore I would thank people who deserved to be thanked, and also to wear my influence on my sleeve, or at least reveal it in the epigraph. So part of it’s that. But also part of it is in my interest in how books come out of other books, how writers rely upon and emerge from the influence of other writers. And still another part (that’s three parts) is that sometimes fiction comes from other fiction–you read something in a book, and that focuses your thinking, or directly inspires you to write your own fiction, and then, when that’s done, you include that inspiration in the epigraph. I’m so happy to hear you say that about your own work, because that’s certainly true of me. This new novel I’m working on–it’s a mess, but it’s a much more focused mess (a less messy mess) because of two things I read–one from Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift (“Perhaps, being lost, one should get loster”) and one from Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (“He is the quintessential Dane, with his fear, his iron resolve to repress what’s happening around him. And his indomitable optimism.”) Those two passages helped me to think much more clearly about this new book, about its narrator, what he wanted, what he was afraid of. I see no reason why I, or any writer, would want to hide that.
I know we’ve got to wind this down, so one last question: what are you working on now? New novel? Stories? Memoir? Musical?
It’s hard not to become wrapped up in McCarthy’s voice, as if it’s the voice of God, and so you try to mimic it. I remember an interview where you talked about reading authors like Barthelme and thinking, “I can write these kinds of stories” and I have that same feeling about certain writers that I love. It’s good to know that some writers are worthless for me as models, but there are those moments when I read someone and the work shows me how to write my own stories. The first time I read Aimee Bender, I had that feeling, that I had been failing at a kind of writing and then I read her work and saw how maybe I could fail less.
I’m not really working on anything right now. I have a character and I keep making up little stories for her in my head just to get a better sense of her, and I’m hoping those little stories will start to cohere in some way and I can figure out why I’m so interested. I used to be so focused on the conceit, and now it seems that character is what gets the ball rolling for me. I’ll stick with this character until I fall in love with her and then I’ll try to write a story good enough that she’ll fall in love with me. That’s how it was with the Fangs. I loved Annie and Buster and I tried to make them love me. My wife thinks this is probably not healthy, but it’s just how I’m wired, I guess.