Books In Conversation
MARK WISNIEWSKI with Daniel Woodrell
Watch Me Go
(Penguin Putnam, 2015)
Sometimes my mailman hates me—I get a lot of books delivered to my door since we have no bookstore within a hundred miles and I buy a lot of books, plus he has to lug all those that are sent to me by nice publishing people I apparently met and had drinks with at the only big publishing event I’ve ever attended. The galleys make a stack against the wall, and I don’t really know why I pick up one book from the stack and not another. I saw the title, Straightaway, as it was then, and I thumbed through, skimming random paragraphs, found horse racing bits, legal difficulties, wit and the promise of a smart, dark trip. I then read the novel with great pleasure and wanted to say so, but I had somehow lost the letter with the editor’s email address. A brief search found Mark’s website, I wrote him there, and my blurb was delivered. Some months later I received an early morning email from Mark saying in a spirited fashion that he thought I should’ve won an award whose winner had just been announced, but I told him he was mistaken, must be, I hadn’t been nominated for anything like that. He gently suggested that I was wrong, so I looked around and sure as shit, he was right. I didn’t know I was nominated until he told me that I should’ve won. That led to a little caustic, funny, rueful exchange between us concerning the life of writers these days, and this interview is basically a continuation of that conversation.
Daniel Woodrell (Rail): There’s a section in the Raul Ruiz book, The Poetics of Cinema 2, where he discusses parallel narratives, and I know Michael Ondaatje and others seem to embrace the notion. I find it very appealing, some element of mystery seems to naturally arise simply from the approach. In Straightaway you have used parallel narratives in a most natural and compelling way—how, and why (if you know) did you choose that structure? Had you tried to write it differently, but this is what worked? Or did you see the structure from the git-go? What are the benefits, what do you think it adds?
Mark Wisniewski: Funny you still call it Straightaway. As it happens, Putnam changed the title to Watch Me Go. (In fact I just put a copy of the finished book in the mail to you so you can see the final result.) I’m curious: which title do you prefer?
Rail: I’m used to Straightaway, but Watch Me Go suggests vivid personality and propulsion and a wider vista.
Wisniewski: Then I’ll be happy with Watch Me Go. To your question about how the parallel narratives originated: what came out first were maybe 50 pages of Jan sections—about the secret sprint on Equis Mini, about her running in the dark with Tug, about the finding of a corpse in the drum on the side of a highway. I had no idea how the drum got there, or why the person inside it had been killed. I had no idea about Deesh. And then, years later, when I did begin writing Deesh’s voice, I thought I was writing a short story. It kind of bothered me that there was a drum in Deesh’s narrative, too—I thought this mention of a drum by Deesh was embarrassing proof that my imagination was running out of images/objects to write about. For a couple years, though, I insisted that Deesh was merely narrating a short story (“Straightaway”)—that he had nothing to do with Jan. I even cut pages so his story would meet magazines’ word maximums. It wasn’t until Rushdie chose “Straightaway” to appear in Best American Short Stories—which caused numerous agents to email and say, “We think this should be a novel”—that it hit me that, damn, maybe it was a novel, the same novel Jan had been narrating. And when I realized this, I was ecstatic. Writing for me had been in a rut (couldn’t get published by a major house, kept needing to book-doctor novels written by other writers and watching these people strut off into wealth and acclaim), and now, it seemed, my days could be fun again. Only problem now being that my agent disagreed about dovetailing Deesh’s and Jan’s narratives. So I parted with that agent, a good move in that now I could do what I wanted, but, then, of course, you need to find another agent—which is not fun, especially when you’re still trying to finish the book. Still, I agree with you that there are benefits to using a parallel structure. It makes for page-turning, since it does indeed provide an overarching mystery: the reader wants to know how these two storylines will collide. It also underscored the vision of this particular novel—that if people could simply listen to each other’s stories a tad more closely, maybe we could ease up a little on all the rants and shootings out there.
Rail: You have Deesh and Jan as narrators, characters you, at least on the face of it, don’t seem much like. Was this a conscious stretching for you? To find the voices of a black man in trouble and a woman from the racetrack world? Are you a writer who goes Stanislavki and sinks into your characters before you can write them?
Wisniewski: Deesh, when his narrative began flowing into that short story, was this very lively voice in my head. It was only a matter of sitting down and transcribing what I’d hear. You could argue that since I was brought up poor and then worked gigs teaching economically disadvantaged students, I’d been immersing myself in Deesh’s character for decades. I mean, I never thought of Deesh as being black as much as I thought of him as being fearful of how he’d pay for this whole business of loving a woman and having a kid or two and eating meals with them under a roof. What I’m saying is, I knew that guy. I knew his neighbors and friends. I knew that no matter how wisely or morally he handled himself, he was destined to find trouble—there was this very thin tightrope he needed to walk exquisitely or he’d end up with nothing or worse. Deesh was more of a poor Polish kid than some people realize. Jan’s narrative voice, though, rose differently. Jan wasn’t female for the longest time. Jan is female because, after roughly two decades of the novel being rejected because she was male, I finally got the message (one of the rejecting agents was kind enough to tell me) that no major house wanted a novel from me unless it was narrated by a woman. I now realize this was sort of a line, because, obviously, there are novels published by NYC houses that feature main characters who are male. But maybe publishing wants only so many “tough-guy” authors? I don’t know. Does this issue resonate with you? Why did you use a female main character for Winter’s Bone?
Rail: I think publishers are pleased when a novel features a girl or woman, but nobody ever told me I had to do that. Long ago I worked on a novel that wouldn’t get going, and after I’d struggled with it for weeks I realized that one of the males felt more like a woman, so I came up with Wanda and that simple insight goosed the novel to life. Winter’s Bone was, in this regard, a happy accident. Ree was the center, the story, really, so I went forward with her, simple as that, no calculation, and that, my eighth novel, was the first to sell over 5,000 copies (the others were in the 2,200 to 4,400 range, or, as an editor once said to me, “You sell like a poet!”). It was suggested to me several times that a female protagonist might be the reason for increased sales. I’ve always had women in my fiction and they are never there just to iron the sheets, but, with motives that I trust are pure, I am now dithering around with something that is almost entirely about two women at the center of an anti-social spree (violent, and yes, basically true). But I wouldn’t hesitate (I like to think this anyhow) to write about four silver-haired guys in a canoe if I felt pulled that way.
Wisniewski: Might you share the working title—of this new one about the anti-social spree—or do you keep working titles private?
Rail: Bad juju to talk publicly about something not yet fully alive. And it is a book that may not ever arise to walk among us.
Wisniewski: Anyway, I can’t wait to read your next, and no doubt I speak for a large crowd in saying that.
Rail: How much time do/did you spend at the track? Did you walk hots or something as a younger person?
Wisniewski: As a younger person I’d go to the track with my parents and siblings and grandmother—huge family tradition. Arlington Park in Illinois (we lived in Wisconsin), and we’d always go in August, and it was always a big f-ing deal. Just after we’d cross the border, we’d stop on this parking lot between a cornfield and a school and put down blankets and have a picnic. Hard-boiled eggs cracked open on my dad’s windshield, turkey sandwiches on fresh eggbread, and even orange soda—all the stops were pulled out. My grandmother was so old she could barely see, but she’d be grinning while drinking a prune juice wine cooler from a Kerr jar—this was back before those jars were fashionable. Anyway we’d all be so darned happy. We were city people who were about to watch real-live horses run, and there was also all this hopeabout what might come of that saved-up gambling cash in our pockets.
Rail: When I was 19 or so I went to Aksarben, the track in Nebraska, with the nest egg I’d amassed while loading trucks in Kansas City for minimum wage. I figured I’d go home with a wad of green but I knew nothing except that the whole scene was colorful and deeply scented, so I bet the favorite to show in every race—got cleaned out, limped back to 41st Street. Seemed mighty fishy to me at the time, and there just is this oddness about horse racing, the majestic can be on view, sure, but also these shitty little schemers are hustling all over the place, too. Is the great appeal of the sport in that dichotomy?
Wisniewski: Precisely the appeal. The spectacle of the dichotomy itself attracts people, yours truly included. And there’s the notion that if everyone is rubbing elbows with everyone, hey, you never know who you’ll meet, or which wise-guy’s tip you’ll overhear, or what might come of the cash you and these schemers bet on those nine races. Plus there’s an awesomeness in the displays of speed by these large, ultra-athletic animals; to me, there’s this sort of love involved in moving forward as fast as you can with others who are pushing themselves all-out, too. That’s a notion I tried to explore and understand by writing Watch Me Go. I think Jan was simpatico with this notion since she was born, and I think that, toward the end of the book, Deesh was, too.
Rail: You’ve already established that you are eclectic in what and how you choose to write, so a single label might slide right off of you, but how do you feel about the writing world’s persistent need to label? Literary, commercial, noir, suburban noir, gothic, slipstream, mystery—add on as many as you wish, but do you think the labels can become self-regulating? Or that it’s a concern at least that if you are consistently labeled you will just seep into an acceptance of the label, and censor writerly urges that might not fit the term? Chekhov said: All labels are a form of prejudice. My own experience is also that they don’t do much for the writer, and might be ruinous if he or she starts believing them. You teach (I never have) so you’ve actually probably dealt with this quite a bit, with students and perhaps your own books. Feelings on this?
Wisniewski: I think Chekhov was right. Labels might be argued to be the definition of prejudice, and now that you bring up teaching as well, my dislike of labels pasted on writers rises a notch. When you teach, if you’re good at it, you try not to label students, because that would be a disservice. Each student’s mix of talents is different, needs to be praised and coaxed and urged into improvement in a way best suited. You don’t mess with individuality when you teach; individuality is where you and the student discover and mine the gold. So, yeah, now that you put it that way, this labeling business does truly bother me. Though at the same time, if it’s going to happen, you want it to happen as accurately as possible. There was some mislabeling of Watch Me Go as galleys were sent out—marketing/publicity pitched it as a flat-out commercial thriller when, let’s face it, there’s also some literary introspection there. As a result, some arcs were read by people who expected a bang-bang-bang plot—and, naturally, those expectations weren’t met. Early on a few of those Amazon Vine people (a tough, bullying crowd in any event, I’ve learned since) declared themselves duped and got all up in arms and attacked the book and me with two-star ratings. So that kind of labeling is something you, as a writer, want to know about, right? Or maybe not? What’s been your experience? Have you let publishers label you and your work however, or have you felt the urge to intervene?
Rail: When I sold the first novel I wasn’t going to argue about anything. I was in need, man, didn’t see anything to crab about. So I was labeled as suspense/mystery, which wasn’t so far off as to irritate, though mystery was misleading. (My second novel was set in Missouri during the Civil War, and a major paper titled their review, “Mystery Novelist Pens Western.”) My mother is a classic mystery buff, always had stacks of paperbacks by Christie, Tey, Stout and so on around the house, and she said, “This book is a lot of things, but it’s sure as hell not a mystery.” So the side effects of labels were soon felt around the ol’ holiday turkey. Eventually I tried to come up with my own term (as you say, it’s going to happen anyhow) and used Country Noir in 1996, and I’m pretty sure that’ll be on my tombstone whether I use the term ever again or not.
Wisniewski: Pine Noir, they’re also now calling your work. And a few people out there have said Watch Me Go belongs in your school, even though the country setting is in upstate New York.
Rail: I’ve been to Oswego twice, and passed through country as rough, rugged, and wonderful as anything down here.
Wisniewski: Just be in a car with the engine running before dusk, is my rule in country as raw as that.
Rail: I started publishing books in 1986, and you’ve been around, too, so I was wondering what important shifts you’ve seen in the publishing world as time has gone by. For instance, when I began, there was a sort of understanding that “novels” were to be 380 typed pages, at least. Now I see Cesar Aira, Patrick Modiano, Denis Johnson, and quite a few others publishing standalones that are perhaps a third of that length, or less. Some of the old rules seem to have been relaxed, at least from where I sit. Length might seem a trivial matter, I guess, but I certainly was told several times to pump some steroids into my books to fatten them to the preferred girth (never could bring myself to do it). What are the changes that seem most important and/or annoying to you? What has been improved?
Wisniewski: You’re right: the 380-typed-pages rule has dwindled. In those years when I was book-doctoring a lot (’95 to, say, 2005), the page count I’d tell writers to shoot for was 350, which meant that after I’d cut the fluff and tighten the prose they might come in at 275—and I’d see quite a few 250-page manuscripts get nice advances from major houses. And, true, sometimes manuscripts are fattened up again by editorial after they’re sold, but, as you say, look what’s selling in bookstores. And when you realize how font size and so on are used to make some books heftier, there’s a definite insanity regarding this whole business of length. But what gets me more than that is the similarity of novels of late. Darned near every book focuses on a missing person (which must bug you even more than it does me, since you invented the missing person novel with Winter’s Bone). And titles lately sound far too similar—I’ll admit that, as much as I like the title Watch Me Go, I cringed when a friend said, “Sounds like you’re trying to rip off Gone Girl.” But what’s improving, I think, is that, lately, house editors are keen on making sure every novel includes a story. The days of lovely sentences that develop a character and a few sidekicks who experience little more than a flight to Europe are, thank God, over. Editors seem to be demanding more tension and suspense.
Rail: One of the oddest shifts I’ve encountered is that a scene where a skull is bashed open and a ghoul gobbles a spoonful or two of the old gray matter doesn’t draw much negative reaction, but sex, man, do I hear it from readers if I even have just a little slap and tickle in there. In the ’70s one expected sex scenes (quite clinically delivered by some, and by some I mean John Updike and his imitators) in all kinds of fiction. So how do you feel about depictions of sex and violence as an aspect of recent fiction?
Wisniewski: I’m smiling here. Because, uh, er, how do I answer that? I guess my smile’s a way of saying, yes, yes, I know what you mean, but let’s watch our steps while we talk about this. I was in my late teens in the ’70s, so the fiction that informed my literary coming of age was Updike’s and Irving’s and Roth’s and so on. So there was indeed, via what I read, this notion that sex sells, that male writers who were willing to get “personal” would be rewarded as novelists. There wasn’t the implication that male thoughts about sex were hideous, that men were jerks, that male sexual desire meant objectification—that if you were a male writer you’d better describe the comforter on the bed rather than the woman because otherwise someone’s email to you would threaten to ruin your career. I learned plenty about this antagonism—between genders in the literary milieu—in grad school, where one female grad student in particular, after reading a short story of mine in which men were drinking and talking about women like millions of drunk men in the world do, declared me “unreadable” in a workshop and flung my story at me across the workshop table—then tried to pick a fight with me at a party. Note that, at the end of this short story, the male character who used the bad language was shot in the head by a female character—so he did, in my story’s overall vision, get his comeuppance. But this woman, the one in real life, simply wanted (for whatever reason) to fight with me; the only smart thing for me to do at that party, where she approached me and started taunting me in drunk-guy fashion, was leave the premises, which is exactly what I did.
And I think experiences like that affected what I write now. Show Up (my second novel) was all from a woman’s point of view, and half of Watch Me Go is narrated by Jan. For that matter, we never see Deesh having sex with a woman, just here and there desiring women while under the duress of being this accused bad-guy-on-the-run. And of course Tug’s sections in Watch Me Go are narrated by Jan. For the record: The Tug sections were, merely a few years ago, a third narrative strand (that is, third in addition to Deesh’s and Jan’s) observed through Tug’s point of view, but I was asked by an agent to get rid of the Tug sections—this agent told me she couldn’t sell the book if two of its three narrative strands were male. So my compromise with this agent (to get the book published) was to have Tug’s experience subsumed into Jan’s narrative, that is, to have Jan’s narration now and then tell the reader what she imagined Tug had been thinking/experiencing after the drum disappeared. And I convinced myself (and this agent) that such passages by Jan about Tug could enhance the novel because the reader would sense that Tug wasn’t around to tell his side of the story himself. In other words, if Jan keeps feeling the need to tell readers what she thought Tug was feeling recently, this must have meant Tug had recently become unable to narrate, meaning Jan’s narration was very likely en route to some kind of tragedy related to why Tug wasn’t able. My thinking was also that this move—to have Jan tell Tug’s story—reflected the reality of what it’s like to have someone close to you die tragically (you do indeed, in my experience, then spend months thinking and sometimes talking about what events must have been like for the deceased person just before he/she died); it could also add tension/suspense to the novel, because the reader would also be thinking: Tug’s going to end up leaving Jan one way or another, and one way people leave is by death. My point here, though, is that I wouldn’t have made this revision if agents hadn’t been so opposed to my inclusion of male narratives. For the record, there was also an agent who, once Tug’s point of view was gone, wanted me to remove Gabe from the novel because Gabe was male. And here’s the question: Had I removed both Tug and Gabe from this book, what would I have had left?
Rail: I guess the feeling I’ve gotten is that any sex, no matter how perfectly balanced between the partners, is not worth mentioning. Any scenes with details are icky. Seems a huge aspect of human existence to leave out of a character’s life.
Wisniewski: Agreed. But I’ve finally decided that if it is true that book-buyers consider male sexuality repulsive or oppressive or uninteresting—well, hell, I have no grand need to put details like that in my fiction.
Rail: Are there any rituals, or spaces, that are important to you when you feel creative? Can you write anyplace, or is there a certain place you need to go to write?
Wisniewski: I think it depends on the book. Something compelled me to leave the city back in 2000, and as much as there was a lot going on for me then, it now seems clear that that move upstate happened because my gut knew I needed to become rural to get Watch Me Go right. Lake view out the window, up at dawn with the blue jays, bass fishing in the rowboat at dusk or trout down the hill in the Hollowbrook—it all helped that novel’s flow and confluence. And I loved it up there, told my wife we’d never leave, but hours after I finished Watch Me Go we were eating dinner and I said, “You wanna go back to the city? Because I think maybe I’m done here.” And within days we had the house up for sale. And now that we’re here I’m drafting a novel that’s set in the city, and it’s starting to feel like this is home.
Rail: Long ago I tried various intoxicants at my desk, thinking that other writers slam ‘em back and produce genius sentences (That’s you, Barry! And you, Larry!) and somebody was forever bringing up De Quincey or Kerouac and so on. But it turns out I can’t write satisfactorily with even a sip of beer in me, and when I tried Lebanese Blond etc. to help me see the world in another, more beautiful light, I did, I’m pretty sure I did, but I didn’t write anything you could understand the following day. Since I gave up my beloved Luckies (thanks for the cancer, LSMFT) it’s just coffee for me. Did you ever feel tempted to try a cocktail while typing or anything like that? If so, how’d it go?
Wisniewski: I did feel tempted, and the results were dreck. In part because they didn’t make sense, in part because what did make sense was uninteresting. I just sounded like some bored drunk guy trying to type. And buzzed as I was, I didn’t even enjoy doing it. It’s like the drinking should happen here, the writing there: if they want to survive in this apartment, they should keep away from each other. How people like Barry and Larry have combined them to such fine effect will always be a mystery to me. The upshot being, yes, only coffee for me, too, maybe a green tea in the afternoon to convince myself I’m healthy while sitting for more hours straight than anyone should.
Rail: Someone recently asked me if I still get excited about writing and publishing. I do, but it’s different now since I have 10 books of publishing experience with which to compare the details of this trip, and I don’t get as goosey with open joy (my first book sold when we were in the Arkansas Delta, and after that phone call from New York we got out the Old Forester and danced until dawn for about six straight nights) but in many ways I think I appreciate it all more now. Have your feelings about the writing life changed over time? Do you find it more difficult to write after having already published so much? Do the supplies run thin, or keep refreshing? You mentioned health issues, and I am keenly interested in how that might enhance, or otherwise alter, creativity.
Wisniewski: Writing’s easier now because I know there’s no magic. Well, there is, but you know it won’t happen unless you’re sitting and putting up words. And then you simply deal with what happens when someone reads. Sometimes I think the supplies must run thin, and sometimes maybe they have, but if you now and then take a walk or go to the track or gaze at a body of water, some insight or line of dialogue always comes to mind. As far as health issues, as you probably know well, very little good writing has happened in hospitals. What’s beneficial about health issues, though, is they remind you that there’s a clock. Get that next novel written before the day comes.
DANIEL WOODRELL has written eight novels, two of which were adapted for films: Woe to Live On (1987) was adapted for the 1999 film Ride with the Devil, directed by Ang Lee. And his novel Winter's Bone (2006) was adapted by writer and director Debra Granik for a film of the same title, winning two awards at the Sundance Film Festival, including the Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic film, and receiving four Academy Award nominations.