All of the below is an interview conducted over email with April Wilder, author of THIS IS NOT AN ACCIDENT, a remarkable collection of short stories published recently by Viking. The collection’s an astonishment: the stories are swerving, strange things. I don’t know if I know how to write all that well about the thing—story collections more and more seem almost infinitely strange, each one so itself that talking about them as a anything other than single, strange things feels like a trick. Here’s what I’d say: it’s a book of restless, sometimes desperate people. I don’t mean either of those adjectives to sound critical: these are stories of folks who are trying to understand things—their past, their current impulses, someone else’s strange claims or ideas—and they hungrily chase after that understanding wherever it leads. That sort of book. I’ll say this: you know how sometimes you can sort of tell how stories will shake out right when you start them? Like, you have a sense of what might happen, either in two pages or in the last paragraph? Not so for April Wheeler’s stuff: her stories were studded with surprises, every one of them.
The interview, as you’ll note, was sort of addressed in one big para by Ms Wilder below, and rather than cut/paste, I think it’s easier to let her full flow just be. Again: the book is This Is Not An Accident, and it really is really, really good.
1. In the loosest and/or most general way, how did you come to writing and/or what are some influences on your stuff? And/or, is there some aesthetic community of which you feel your work’s a part–like, are there other authors working presently whose work you feel yr work’s sibling-ish to?
2. I’m curious, too, if you can talk at all about place and location in the book–certainly the west comes up in the book (and in reviews/whatever of the book), and while I don’t think it feels like some deeply western book, it does feel like a deeply of-place book (I’m midwestern, so the Chicago/Wisconsin ones, for me, thrum). How much does place effect these stories, or, anyway, your writing of them?
3. This might be too tough to get to, but I’m curious: how long do yr stories take to ferment and coagulate? I ask because they feel, in ways lots of stories I’ve read don’t, as if they’ve been built very well/carefully over some time–they feel *accreted* more than written (in this, I think, they feel weirdly a bit like Heathcock’s VOLT). Maybe this really is just the dreaded process question–take a crack if you’d like, but ultimately I’m trying to ask about this incredibly careful patience that all but radiates out from these stories, and 1) if that’s a deliberate thing and 2) how you achieve it. (lord, maybe the q just sucks–if it does, I apologize).
4. This is more personal than I feel 100% comfortable asking, but here goes: your bio lists you as being a mother to a daughter. I’m curious (as a parent to a baby daughter) if or how your writing changed once she was in your life? I don’t know the timeline of all these stories, so perhaps all of them were written once you were a mother. Anyway. I apologize if this is overly personal–you should know it’s almost 100% selfish on my part (I find myself asking writers about this more and more now that I have a child).
5. Elsewhere you’ve noted you’re at work on a novel–can you talk about it, at all? And not even about the stuff of it, if you’d rather not: how’s the writing of it significantly different from the story collection, if at all? Is it harder, or easier? And do you have any soapboxy pronouncements or notions regarding novels vs story collections, the place of literature in the public sphere, etc? (sorry if that finishes flippant–it’s not intended as such).
6. What’s the view out your window?
The “how did you come to writing” and “of place” questions tie together for me. In my experience, writers (maybe artists in general) are people who for whatever reason, wind up having cultivated an inner life that’s more vivid than the outer. For me, it was moving around when I was young. I have nearly eidetic memories of daydreaming in the back of one of my dad’s second-hand Cadillacs (the mini-hearses, is what we drove) while we passed some place on the way to some place else. I think anyone who grows up in a chronic state of Outsider will come naturally to pay attention to the pace of life here versus there, what’s cool and who’s cool and how can you get that way yourself quick; even, what these things might have to do with the climate and sun’s slant, the beer or chocolate factory on the outskirts of town. As a reader, I get excited when it feels like a story couldn’t happen anywhere other than it does. Part of me would like to think you could fall in love with a guy in Chicago on a certain night who would escape your notice entirely in Santa Monica on the same night. The book’s epigraph from Sartre is there because for a long time the collection was called “We Eat The Color of Cake”—which was an idea that blew my mind when I read it, that two pieces of otherwise identical cake taste differently if one is red and one is yellow. I don’t know if that’s what Sartre was saying, I was a ridiculous philosophy student, but while I’m at it… there is also the tradition you find in Plato’s Republic where movement in space signifies philosophical movement. So the novella is, on many levels, “all over the place,” but some of that was planned (for the rest, sorry, and thanks for persisting, if you did). I wanted to think about what it means—and specifically what it means to Eckhart psychologically/metaphysically/what-have-you-ly—to move from LA (where his neighbor sells pot edibles for a living) to Salt Lake City, Utah (basically a theocracy). And, importantly, to do so in the aftermath of his father’s death and family’s disintegration. Wherever I’ve lived, there have always been these wild characters going about in plain view breaking like a 100 taboos, and everybody has seen them or sort of seen them, but they’re so out of frequency, socially, that they’re essentially invisible. Maybe they’re homeless; often you can’t tell. There was a guy in San Diego who rode around on a super tall crazy bike naked except for half of a football attached like a codpiece. Billy, and the pretend-alive doll he has saddled himself with, seems to be some walking manifestation of the distortions and malformations inherent in the belligerently-family-oriented local culture—one which haunts and allures Eckhart and Russ both, both of whom are more or less orphans. But again, the backdrop of Salt Lake; the pilgrimage, almost, from Los Angeles; the closing final exodus North—in my mind, the very plot (such as it is) is geographically- driven and/or resolved.
As for “the dreaded process question,” I guess I’d start by saying I have no commitment to quantity. If I wrote two or three books in life, that would be fine with me. Nor do I need a story or whatever to be perfect; but I need to feel like I’ve slept on it properly. By “sleep” I mean any sustained access to the subconscious, usually while you’re doing something else. So my process is to take a riddle (plot impasse, scene, character pickle), feed it into the machine, then wait. The machine will solve the riddle whenever the fuck it feels like it. I think I figured out “We Were Champions” five years after I started it. Now, you can bypass the machine and still write, and still write well, but ultimately that writing comes from small mind, and I’m not all that interested in what small mind has to say (not mine, anyway). If that’s the position you take as a writer—to let the thing drive itself—then it’s just going to take as long as it takes. The first story. I wrote that story, I rewrote that story, I un-wrote that story, I de-wrote that story—in the end, that story (Kat in that car) is about the writing of that story. One day I walked into a therapist’s office, one with whom I’d awkwardly run out of things to talk about, and I told her the only thing really bothering me was a story I was writing and would she mind, if it wasn’t insulting or illegal or whatever, if we spent the session analyzing a fictional character (Kat). She said sure and set her timer. We had a blast. At ten till she excused me out and charged her usual fee.
Having a daughter changed a lot for me. Luckily, I wound up the story collection a few weeks before she was born (I got the offer from Viking sitting in a hospital bed; a baby in one arm and a book deal in the other (“whose life is this?”)). I say luckily because it would’ve been rough working on stories with an infant. Given the constant interruptions to your day, your sleep, your mental capacity (ugh), it’s a lot easier to manage a novel, which is more dreamwork than the logic of short stories, which I tend to overcomplicate anyway. There’s a bigger parallel, though, between baby and novel. The minute I had a baby I became much more aware of historical time and spheres of consequence—my life and her life and how it will all go. The short story (like the childless?) concerns itself more with digital experience, discrete units of coherent experience (whether that lasts a minute or a year); the novel’s ground is more the interplay between the digital and the accumulative, how the aberrations alter the pattern in an unfolding arc over time. I don’t know how exactly, but it seems obvious that technology is changing our experience of time; what amounts in narrative, maybe, to a redistribution of the relative emphasis on the digital vs. accumulative. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but it seems like something we should look at, and I don’t know a better place to do it than the novel. Finally, the baby changed my subject matter. I’d been working on a novel that had nothing to do with babies or children or that whole part of life, and the dissonance (between what I was living and what I was writing) got to be silly. So I set the other novel aside and am now deep into another dealing with babies, mistaken identity, a stolen car (*note: the baby is not in the stolen car*), eternal love.