Stuart Nadler’s Wise Men (Spring ’13) and Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Fall ’12) are both well-served by a single heading: Good Story, Well Told — shorthand for a stellar read, thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure, easy to recommend.
One of the reasons we wanted to put Emma and Stuart together was they’ve both gone from story collections with contemporary settings to ambitious, compulsively readable historical novels about class and identity. Why make the switch from present to past, short to long?
Stuart and Emma answer that question, discuss the importance of story as well as the perils of the internet — and more — in their conversation on the Discover blog.
Emma Straub: Stuart, I feel very lucky to have befriended you when you’d only published one story (I believe this is true–the one in Esopus, is that right?), if only because I will be ruled out of the horde of sycophantic hangers-on who will doubtless emerge when Wise Men is published. You know I think the novel is a masterpiece, but let me say so on the record for our friends at Barnes & Noble. Moving right along! I know you’ve written a vast number of pages–those included in your excellent short story collection The Book of Life and those that remain unpublished–how does it feel to finally have a novel out in the world? Have you always know that you wanted to be a novelist? This is perhaps trying to ask too many questions at once, but I ask because Wise Men reads like such a *classic* American novel, with setting and character and plot all working together like, excuse the metaphor, the engines of a turbo jet. Did you always know that you wanted to write this kind of novel?
Stuart Nadler: I’m so happy you liked the book, Emma. It feels great, certainly for the book to be out in the world. I don’t know yet whether it feels any different, or more substantial, than having a book of stories out in the world, but I can say that when the box full of finished copies arrived recently at my house, I did kind of stare at them in amazement. Most of that is probably because I’m about halfway through a new novel, at about the exact moment in the process where it feels nearly impossible that I’ll ever finish, and inconceivable that I’ve ever finished anything. So, to be able to see and hold a physical copy of Wise Men is a nice reminder that the stress and doubt and loss of faith and the endless, endless false-starts and scrapped drafts do eventually end, and that optimally, what’s left over is a book.
I got to this point with Wise Men about six months or so before I finished, and I asked myself some of the same questions you just asked me, about what kind of book I wanted to write, about what kind of experience I wanted the reader to have while they read it. At the time, I was feeling something that I think a lot of fiction writers think, which is that what we do, this daily, solitary, constant thing, how we spend our time, is not especially important. The economy was bad, the social conversation was depressing, and I wanted to write something about all of it––about money and race and love and guilt. That was really the only impulse I had: to do these things some element of justice.
When I started the book I had nothing but the title, which I’d used in a short story I never finished, and a scene that is now in the third part of the book. It’s the scene where Hilly, as an older man, sees Savannah walking down the street in Washington, D.C, and begins to follow her. Initially, when I wrote that scene, it wasn’t Savannah, but Hilly’s father, Arthur Wise. The scene was largely the same––Hilly follows him into the bar, his father ignores him, and then dictates a note to the bartender, which, basically says, that he never wanted to see Hilly again. It took me a year to write the first draft of this book, and I would say that for nine of those months, this was the first chapter. Everything kind of unspooled from that first scene in a series of questions. Why would his father not want to see him? Why are they in Washington? Who are these people? Why haven’t they seen each other in so long?
Straub: Honestly, that gave me chills. Writerly chills. Isn’t that some kind of magic? Starting with a scene that’s neither here nor there but somewhere in the middle, and even though the characters in the scene changed, that that impulse drove you to find out more? That is the stuff, as they say. That is the stuff.
I’m really interested in what you said about doing things justice–I found that I was trying to do that too, in writing Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Certainly there are thousands and thousands of people who know far more about the movies than I do, and American history in the last eighty years, and while I wasn’t trying to prove that I knew as much as those potential readers, I knew I wanted to do right by them, to not horrify them. Were there parts of Wise Men that scared you in that way? Race is certainly the most obvious example, but as you mention, money is another big one. Race and money both make people very nervous. Did you find that you approached the writing of the book differently when the full picture came into view, after you’d worked out the bones of the story itself? Perhaps that’s just me making assumptions–let me back that up a little bit and turn it into an actual question. Did you spread all these cards on the table, so to speak, and then put together a story in which they all existed, working from the larger themes forward? Or did you work out the story in a more linear fashion (and subsequently these larger themes) after that initial unspooling?
Nadler: I wrote the book almost entirely linearly, scene to scene, chapter to chapter, except for one instance, and that was the ending. I came up with the ending very early in the process, perhaps a month into writing the book. This is something I’d heard John Irving talk about––about the need to know where you’re going as a storyteller before you begin––and it’s stuck with me. I don’t remember now whether I actively hunted for an ending, or whether it came more easily, but once I had it, I pasted it right into the manuscript, so that the act of writing the book became, almost physically, an act of connecting the dots. It was a comfort to know that the ending was there, to know where I was going, even if, for the first few months I wrote, I didn’t know how I would get there. At a certain point, once I had Hilly’s voice, I stopped and made an outline, and then, half way through, scrapped that outline and made a new one––a process I went through a half dozen times, I think. But to the larger point, I didn’t work theme-first, or really, worry too much about whether or not people would be nervous about the material. This isn’t to say that I didn’t worry at all. Of course I worried. I worry about everything. It’s part of who I am as a human. Anxiety, and all its terrible, awful, stickiness, is always there, no matter what. But writing from a place of anxiety isn’t healthy. I suppose it’s sort of like acting in that way: a large part of the process is simply getting out of the way of the material. While I was writing, my biggest, most abiding concerns were to tell a good story, and to show my characters, and their flaws, which are considerable, with as much humanity and compassion as possible. I knew from the start that the book would tackle the issues it does, but I also knew early on that this was the story I wanted to tell. There is, I realize, a general aversion in society to talking about the things that make us uncomfortable, but this, if nothing else, is one of the noble duties of literature.
Straub: Indeed. And I think that there is always anxiety present in some way, but yes, it’s best to move all that aside while you’re actually writing. The anxiety can be helpful later on, during revision, and when you’re waiting for the reviews to come out. I must say, and this is slightly off topic, but even though I’ve always been a fairly anxious person, I surprised myself by not taking all my reviews too seriously. I was thrilled to get any and all attention, because god knows there are a lot of books coming out on any given day, and who am I to assume that mine will get any love? I think being humble and gracious is key to managing expectations.
I’m glad to hear that you knew how the book ended early on–I do that too, both in novel and in short stories, write toward something. Are there other tricks up your sleeve, in terms of helping trick yourself into having confidence? You told me once that your wife had all your internet passwords, and so once you logged out, you wouldn’t be able to log back on. Is that still true? Do you really stay entirely off the internet while you write?
Nadler: Are you an anxious person? You’d never know that about you. You’re definitely right about reviews and all the stress about attention or lack of attention. From the start, I’ve always told myself that I’m my worst critic, and that after going through workshop at Iowa, that I can handle any kind of criticism. Which is probably half true, half bullshit. But the internet––that’s a different thing altogether. I think of you a lot when it comes to this, partly because you have a presence on social media that I don’t, and because you seem perfectly at ease there. I do still write on a computer with no internet access. And my wife still has my passwords. It works better this way, although now, I have to make sure that my cell phone is locked away, and my iPad is in a different room. Do you remember that essay that Colson Whitehead wrote about writers and the internet, and about how we need to stop whining and exert more will power? Maybe it was a year ago, or two. But he’s right! I admit I have no will power. The internet destroys my attention span, nearly instantaneously. It’s become an almost Pavlovian reflex, all this clicking and wandering, this addictive need to consume every news story. I’m a sports fan––and there’s always new news to consume. Scores, trades, scandals, gossip. It’s awful. I can’t help myself. And I know that. I read once where Wells Tower talked about this and said––and I’m paraphrasing, I think––that it’s impossible to write good fiction and shop for shoes at the same time. Which is true, right? But still, most of us write on computers, and so suddenly, in the past decade, our writing instruments have also become these boxes that contain television shows and movies and newspapers, and, if you so choose, every person you’ve ever met or went to high school with. So: no internet access.
One last note about this: last year I read Nicholas Carr’s terrific book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain. It’s a book everyone should read, if for no other reason than to read about the plasticity of our brains, and the way they react to the kind of stimulation the internet provides. It was comforting to read this, not least because I’ve felt, and I think maybe we’ve all felt a change in the way we think, and, for those of us who are old enough, a change in the quality of our attention. I love to read. And it’s important to me to be able to keep that in my life––the ability to keep focused while reading a book without succumbing to the never-ending urge to check my email or see what’s happening on ProFootballTalk, or whatever it is that day.
Any other tricks for confidence? I used to bully myself by tacking aggressive motivational slogans onto a bulletin board above my desk. In the middle of Wise Men, when I didn’t think I could finish it, the note just said You can fucking do it. That’s sad to admit. But I did it. And it worked.
Straub: And you did it! (We can talk more about my anxiety at a later date. I keep that well hidden from the outside world, much like my six-pack abs and flawless Swahili)
Before we move on from the godforsaken internet, I will say that I do think the internet is fabulous when you’re not writing–all that clicking and wandering always gives me lots of ideas. But yes, we should all have wives who lock up our cellphones and iPads and such. May I borrow yours?
I want to talk to you a little bit about Massachusetts. I’ve never been to Cape Cod, but Wise Men made me feel like I’d been summering there my entire life. The salty air, the dunes! It’s such an evocative setting. How did Cape Cod become part of the story for you?
Nadler: Your Swahili is, indeed, flawless. I can attest to that.
But…Massachusetts! For years now, my wife and I have stayed out on the far end of Cape Cod during the summers, very near the National Seashore. Usually we go out only for a few days, and those few days never seem like enough. Those last few miles of Cape Cod are so serene and spectacular. So, part of the decision to set the book there was pure wish-fulfillment. I think you and I have had this conversation before––setting a book in a place you want to visit, or a place you miss, is practically speaking, a good motivational ploy. The thing about the National Seashore is that you can’t build there. By designating the area a National Park, President Kennedy ensured that the beaches there, and the forests, and the spot ponds, and the miles and miles of dunes, wouldn’t ever be replaced by beach front real-estate and hotels, and the sort of commercialization you see wherever there is water and sand. But there are houses there, and these are the homes, for the most part, that were built before the area became a National Park. This was where the idea for Arthur Wise’s house came from, and Robert Ashley’s house. The name of the town where they live is called Bluepoint, which, in the book, is supposed to be between Wellfleet and Truro. But to anyone who knows their seafood, the bluepoint is Wellfleet’s famous oyster. I chose the area for the book because I love it, and, cravenly, because it gave me a good excuse to daydream about living there, right on the water. I might be spilling secrets here, but isn’t your next book set in Majorca? Talk about an evocative setting…
Straub: That is true! And it’s not craven in the slightest to set a novel somewhere just to give yourself an excuse to daydream about living somewhere. When I was researching Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures I had many, many Hollywood fantasies, many of which ended with me spending hours on various real estate websites. (I guess this goes back to our internet conversation.)
Speaking of spilling secrets, I really want to talk about the ending of Wise Men. Let me see if I can do this while avoiding any spoilers: there is a revelation at the end of the novel that made me say YES YES YES. It made sense immediately, and magically opened a window into everything that had come before. Without revealing that turn, can we talk a little bit in a larger sense about what you think about endings? Do you think some sort of suspense is important, a final turn of the screw, so to speak? (Note: I keep writing and deleting questions that would force you to talk in depth about the ending. I feel like I’ve already said too much. I think I need to have a private conversation with you about this, which we can then release in the DVD extras of this interview.)
Nadler: I’m reluctant to talk too much about the ending of the book, if for no other reason than I think the ending says what it needs to say, and anything I might add would just muddy the waters unnecessarily. But, because it’s you…do I think surprise, or suspense, or some turn of the screw is important? I don’t think I would go that far. It was important, certainly, for this book, which is Hilly’s story, told in the exact way he has come to understand his life, and all the various circumstances and tragedies that have shaped it. You, as a reader, get the information in exactly the same order that Hilly does. For my tastes, I like a good surprise at the end of a book, in much the same way that I like a good twist at the end of a movie. All of this, I think, is simply a long-winded way to say that I love a good story, and I love a well told story, and these things, I think, get lost sometimes in this thing we call serious, or literary fiction. A good plot isn’t just for the genres, or young adults, or for the movies. It is still OK to read a book to see what happens at the end. I like that experience––of not being able to read quick enough, of staying up late to finish a book. That’s why I fell in love with books, why I fell in love with reading, and why I got the awful idea to become a writer: story! And that’s why I ended this book the way I did.
Straub: That is a perfect answer, Stuart, because you’ve managed to get at the heart of my question without talking about any specifics at all. Story (and plot) are so important, as you say, in novels of all different stripes. I do very much like it when something happens. I would like to punch people who think it doesn’t matter. How nice that I don’t have to punch you, my friend! And yes, yes, god yes, there is absolutely nothing better than not wanting to go to sleep because you only have a hundred pages in a book and you just can’t wait to swallow them whole. I really can’t wait for people to have the chance to read Wise Men. You’ve written such a beautiful book, and I’m so proud of you. (This is the schmoopie section of the interview.)
Can I ask what you’re working on now? You are one of the Great Hard Workers I know, seemingly always knee-deep in a project. If you’re loathe to admit the nature of what you’re writing, let me ask a broader question–do you think it’s important to get back to work quickly? Do you take days/weeks/months off, or do you need to write every day, regardless?
Nadler: Do you throw a good punch? It’s important to be able to throw a good punch. Or at least, I’ve heard people say that.
I am, actually, very deep into a new novel. In general, I’m always working. Mainly because I like it still, and mainly because I have this sickness wherein, if I stop, and take a day or two off, I get cranky, and generally unpleasant to be around. I guess this goes back to your first question: I don’t know how anyone ever finishes anything. So…yes. I’m plugging away.
I don’t want to say too much about the new book, except that I hope to finish it this spring, and that it’s funnier than my other two books, and that, at the moment, it’s kind of killing me. And not killing me in a good way.
Straub: It won’t kill you. In fact, if you don’t finish it, I’ll kill you. With my punches.
Thank you, Stuart. Go team go!
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.