Stephen Wright by Jenifer Berman

BOMB 46 Winter 1994
046 Winter 1994
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Stephen Wright. Photo: Jerry Bauer ©1993.

Speaking to Stephen Wright is a constant effort to excavate where the impulse and the inspiration originated to create, as writer Robert Coover put it, a “pornographic twilight zone of beebee-eyed serial killers, drug-stunned pants-dropping road-warriors and marauding armies of mental vampires.” In his soon-to-be published third novel, Going Native, Wright tracks Wiley Jones, a.k.a. Tom Hanna, on a deranged roadtrip through the American media-saturated underbelly. Brandishing a gun-of-the-moment and an attitude defying dislocation, Wiley deserts his humdrum suburban life outside Chicago and embraces experiential chaos. In a stolen Ford Galaxie 500, Wiley weaves in and out of the lives of the dope-smoking, girlfriend-slapping Mister CD; a slashing chameleon of a hitchhiker; a wanna-be screenwriter/roadside motel manager; a camcorder-wielding, S&M-simulating peeping tom; a lesbian couple running the Happy Chapel in Vegas; and ultimately, Tia, his face-lifted, breast-implanted, Southern-Californian “wife.”

With his razor wit and unabashed eye for detail, Wright takes normalcy to task. He celebrates the primitive compulsions that lie, just barely, below our civilized surface. During one of his stopovers in New York between teaching gigs, I had a chance to quarry over coffee.

Jenifer Berman To quote a review of your last novel, M31: A Family Romance, your work is “a supermarket rag’s headline turned into grisly disturbing art.” That’s a very good way of describing your work. Do you think you’re writing about what people want to read?

Stephen Wright I do. Right now the tale of the murderous outlaw seems to be our culture’s story. Just look at the movies that have opened this fall. Every other one is about some damn serial killer, and that’s a term the culture hadn’t even heard of ten years ago—serial killer. And now you can’t escape it. It’s amazing. And that relates to the whole “going native” thing. Where do all these pagan impulses work themselves out? We don’t have any ritualized outlet for them anymore, so they’re all bouncing aimlessly around in pop culture. That’s finally one of the things the book is saying.

JB You seem fascinated with giving a voice to the other, to a voice outside the mainstream. Do your characters come from personal experience or your imagination?

SW My imagination, largely, I think. A lot of it is a mystery to me: what you’re drawn to, where the imaginative energy is. I’m always looking for the pockets of energy. To find those and then to exploit that, to find out what’s really pertinent to this material and what’s really authentic in your own imagination.

JB Did you originally intend to write a straight narrative?

SW I think so, but I don’t think I was happy with that. I was looking for a better way of telling the story because just doing Wiley’s story was too boring. What I’ve done in Going Native is take the characters who would be minor characters in another kind of book and make them major. Everything in the foreground is what is normally in the background; it’s kind of turned inside out. I just found it inherently more interesting. It became more thematically correct because finally, one of the things the book is also about is the nature of the contemporary self. And the picture of the self the book depicts here is not exactly traditional. It’s looser, slipperier, less clearly defined.

JB People have called your work difficult, dense, and confrontational. How did the idea of your audience come into play when writing Going Native?

SW I wasn’t sure exactly where this particular book was going or what I was doing entirely when I started. I had that scene, that opening in the backyard, that house in the suburbs in Chicago and I knew, I had vague ideas about the end, but I had no idea that the structure would take the form it did, or where it would go. Then I suddenly had this revelation on how exactly this book should be done—different sets of characters, different settings. When it occurred to me how this had to be done, I was horrified because I didn’t really want to do a book like this. I had just finished the first chapter and then I saw how the second one had to go and then I saw the whole thing laid out like sausage links. You start, you stop, you start, you stop; there’s almost a built-in frustration in the reading of the narrative. But I also realized that it was exactly what had to be done to make this particular narrative work. So I went ahead without any great cheer, without any great expectation that it was going to find an audience. But to do the book the way it had to be done, I just had to structure it that way. Halfway through, my whole idea about it reversed. I started feeling that what I initially thought were obstacles and negatives were pluses because it is different. It’s an old story, the road story, the story that we’re telling to ourselves these days. It’s every movie, it’s every TV show. This book came out of watching “America’s Most Wanted” and my growing fascination with the very American notion of abruptly, casually stepping out of one life and into another. We’re a country—particularly the male half—of potential escape artists.

JB Each chapter is a story in itself and the protagonist Wiley—or his alias Tom Hanna—comes to affect the lives of this motley group of characters for that brief moment he waves his wand—or his Magnum.

SW It’s a Glock; it’s a gun-of-the-moment.

JB Whatever he happens to have in his hand. But what fascinated me was how he changes these characters’ destinies in some way.

SW Yeah, the hitcher—Wiley is the shadow of everyone in the book and the hitcher is the shadow of him. See, I found this much more interesting. Wiley’s story is more boring, actually.

JB Well, he ends up in the same place. As soon as you leave the Ford Galaxie on the off-ramp, is that it? Are you doomed?

SW (laughter) I never thought of it that way. I don’t know if there isn’t always a hint that he could just leave again. I wouldn’t necessarily rule that out. I was working on the assumption that the beginning isn’t necessarily the beginning either. He could have had a previous life, a previous family before you pick him up in chapter one with this particular one. And so, in a way, this is open-ended at either end.

JB Escapist fantasies seems to underlie all your work. In Meditations in Green it comes via heroin; in M31, this family—or cult—is waiting for their return to the planet M31, from which they believe they are descendants.

SW That book is really about religion.

JB I was going to ask you—Waco, the Branch Davidians must have been quite a surprise in light of M31. The book became prescient in an awfully frightening way.

SW But that’s an old story, too. It’s already happened so many times. And with M31 it was the idea of this cult and UFO thing—it’s religious. It’s something movies often show; Spielberg is obviously very aware of it, the Christian myth retold in technological terms. And actually you’re able to get much more of the old-time religious emotions, real awe and real dread, the kind of emotion it’s pretty obvious the early Christians felt much more acutely than people do today. I find this fascinating. You can look down your nose at people who are part of it, but it’s a genuinely human need.

JB The quest for a belief system, a higher authority, something to determine right and wrong?

SW That’s right. Any kind of meaning at all, but the result, in this case, is kind of pathetic. When you immerse yourself in the literature of the UFO realm it has the quality of reading pornography. The sensibility starts feeling the same way as overdosing on pornography. Reading tale after tale and paranoid plot after paranoid plot about UFOs and how real they are and how the government’s covering it up and on and on. You just read one or two books and pretty quickly you grasp that the stories all have a very interesting sameness. Going Native is another, similarly desperate story we seem to be telling ourselves, and it’s awfully pathetic also.

JB How autobiographical is your work? Meditations is clearly about Vietnam. A young soldier, in Intelligence …

SW I was there. I had a similar job. But if I had just written an autobiographical novel, I wouldn’t have been satisfied with that. I knew I had my hands on incredible material and I wanted to do it the way I felt would be right, to construct a pleasing whole out of a handful of jagged pieces. I really struggled with trying to figure out how to propose that.

JB Was writing an exercise in purging your experience?

SW No. Before going I had a certain amount of curiosity about what the hell was going on there, what’s the big event? In the back of my mind was always, “You could always write about this,” to be perfectly frank. That’s an element in why I didn’t flee the country. Ultimately, I’m not so sure a book is worth that risk, but I suppose you could argue it either way.

JB The malice you bring to your criticism of contemporary culture, was that attitude magnified by your experience in Vietnam or was that a conviction you held before you went?

SW That brings up an interesting point and it also became a problem in writing the book. By the time I got drafted, it’s halfway through ’69. We’ve already had the Tet Offensive in January of the previous year, and everything was falling apart. The year started with the Viet Cong running across the grounds of the embassy in Saigon; with Lyndon Johnson in essence resigning the presidency; Martin Luther King getting shot in April; Bobby Kennedy getting shot in June; then the Democratic convention in Chicago; and then the whole thing comes to a conclusion with Richard Nixon being elected president. It was a very ugly year, very ugly. And by the time I got there, no one had any innocence about all this. Not like in ’64 or ’65, when people were still swallowing certain ideals about America saving the world, about being the do-gooders. It became a problem, because the traditional book is that someone young and innocent goes …

JB … and then becomes so disillusioned.

SW My characters were already at this very low, cynical point, and so what happened in the book is that it just went down from there. The whole situation was one of complete demoralization. By the time I got to Vietnam no one gave a damn about anything. Everyone was just going through the motions and that’s the kind of thing that the book shows. I wanted to touch on a lot of the aspects of this, but it wasn’t until I had done a couple of sections that the whole botanical metaphor just popped into mind, how it neatly linked everything together: defoliation, Agent Orange, the jungle itself.

JB You were working on a very abstract, metaphorical level.

SW That’s the glue that held it together.

JB Is Going Native an effort to strip away the veneer which enables us to interact socially, to peel back the layers of onion skin to see what the core really is?

SW And what is there? Acting like a psychopath. (laughter)

JB Or being a psychopath. Killing whatever or whomever is in the way. The common denominator among all of your characters is that they’re living on the edge, walking the line.

SW They’re playing with it.

JB They’re playing with it, not knowingly, because they were born there. That’s making a very political statement.

SW That’s a really good point. That’s one of the ways the book pulls together and also ties into the idea that Wiley is, or all the characters are functions of Wiley and vice versa. On a very deep level, there is a psychic similarity. It’s just a matter of degrees.

JB Or a matter of socialization. Do you consider your work political, because in some ways it seems to be a call for social activism?

SW Not with any conscious intent. Obviously, there’s a point of view, you can’t escape that. But I really don’t believe in the notion of writers as social engineers and I think if you start going down that road, you just lose your artistic edge. Everyone who has gone down that road has ended up going from first-rate work to work of lesser quality.

JB Do you see yourself then as a social investigator?

SW I suppose. I’m not sure there’s a solution to any of this. I don’t think it’s a novelist’s job to provide the solution. The job is the seeing. I’m certainly trying to make it sharp and clear.

JB What about your female characters? Many of them seem to be vehicles, a means to an end for Wiley: “Can’t live with them, but can’t fuck without them.”

SW Well, doesn’t it strike you as real, as to what’s going on? The book is largely a book of problems. For me, though, the female characters occupy the firmest psychic ground in the book. As far as I’m concerned, a character like Jessie Horn, the Las Vegas street brat, is a genuine American hero. Sure, Jessie’s and Nikki’s lives are often messy, occasionally out of control, but they’re the only characters making a serious, realistic effort to deal with the problems life has dealt them. They’re not fleeing like most of their male counterparts, they’re turning to face their demons right in their dens. They seem to know the score in important ways their men are totally oblivious to.

JB What are you working on now?

SW Another book. It’s set in the Civil War period, and it’s a book about race. It’s called The Amalgamation Polka, which was actually a derogatory phrase used in the election of 1864—that if Lincoln got reelected blacks and whites were going to be dancing together in the White House. This pretty phrase was concocted to try to get him defeated—the issue of mixed marriages cynically raised as a potent political force. I’m zeroing in on this period because it seems to me that everything about America was so much clearer, out in the open: the greed, the misogyny, the racism. It’s the same today, and in some ways worse, but more subtle, covered up. When you read historical research everything seems much more naked, and more importantly, maybe from the point of view of a novelist, the actual people … well, I think there’s a blandization of character that has happened. You don’t have that in the 1850s and ‘60s. People were bizarre, just so individual. The thing is, you can get lost in the research because it’s so endlessly fascinating.

JB Do you focus exclusively on the novel?

SW The novel is my personal burden, I guess. I never had much interest in short fiction. I just jump in the pool and start swimming to the deep water.

Jenifer Berman is a writer who lives in New York. She s currently working on a documentary film.

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The novelist on her loss of faith, youth culture, cult leaders, and spending time with syllables. 

Darkness and Light: Dan Sheehan Interviewed by Sara Nović
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The Restless Souls novelist on reading his reviews, working as a medical equipment tester, and writing responsibly about war and trauma. 

Originally published in

BOMB 46, Winter 1994

Featuring interviews with Haruki Murakami, Ileana Douglas, Dan Graham, Mike Leigh, Campbell McGrath, Dona Nelson, Tran Anh Hung, Julius Hemphill, Stephen Wright, Robert Schenkkan, and Lawrence Gipe.

Read the issue
046 Winter 1994