Author Joan Wickersham grew up in New York, studied art history at Yale and published her first novel, The Paper Anniversary, in 1993. Years later, she published a well-regarded memoir, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order. She has commented before about trying to write about such a harrowing subject:
When I got the news, I didn’t believe it, but at the same time I thought, ‘Of course.’ It seemed at once impossible and inevitable; and that was the paradox I started trying to write about. Figuring out how to tell the story took years of false starts. Eventually I completed a numb, lyrical, chronological, third-person novel which didn’t really work, and which I finally set aside. A year later, I was awarded a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. The first day there, I looked at the draft of the novel, which I had hoped to revise, and saw clearly that what I really needed to do was junk it.
In Wickersham’s newest book, The News From Spain, seven diverse stories share the appearance of the title’s phrase within the narrative. It’s a clever conceit that, as critic David Ulin points out, “builds the seven loosely related pieces of fiction… around the amorphous middle, which is ultimately the only thing that life, or narrative, has to offer us.”
In the cozy comfort of my local great, good place, the Keltic Krust, Joan and I chat about children, bookstores, Al Stewart, writers’ colonies, crummy days, happy childhoods, real people as characters in fiction, reading as a pathology, Cloud Atlas, and literary prizes. And much more.
Joan Wickersham: Is it working now?
Robert Birnbaum: Yes indeed. Does the title of your collection have anything to do with the Al Stewart song of the same name, which comes up when you search engine the phrase?
JW: No, I found it the same way—long after I had been deep into writing this book.
RB: Why use the phrase as a kind of unifying element?
JW: Because this book came out—I had an idea for a story one morning, called “The News From Spain,” and then I didn’t get a chance to write the story. When I finally got a chance to write the story, all I could remember was the title. So I lost whatever that original idea was. And so I tried to think of what could that story have been. And then I thought, “Well maybe it was a story about this?” And it wasn’t. But that could have been a story with that title. And then I suddenly realized it would be very interesting to try to write a collection of stories, all of which had the same title, but it would mean something very different in each story. So in a way this is a book that started off with a very formal structural idea, which I could have dumped if it didn’t work. I thought at the very least it would help generate some stories.
RB: How is it you forgot the story you intended to write?
JW: That happens to me all the time. I think it happens to a lot of writers. It’s interesting to me—people often ask writers where they get their ideas. I don’t think that’s the right question. It’s more, “Why did a particular idea stay and why did it work?” We’re having ideas all the time and forgetting them all the time.
RB: I wonder about forgetting. I think we can remember everything but we can’t recall everything. That is to say we need a trigger—it’s all there.
RB: Isn’t that what psychiatrists function with? You spoke for writers—do you know a lot of writers?
JW: I have been going to work at [writers’] colonies for the last eight years. Every time I go I meet some writers. I have become friendly with a lot of people over the years. I didn’t have a group of pals that a lot of writers had when they were a young age. I didn’t go to a MFA program and I didn’t teach. I was pretty alone—which was fine. I have a lot of friends who aren’t writers. It’s last decade that I really met a lot of writers.
RB: You live in Cambridge, hotbed of writing. (laughs)
RB: In addition to the colonies, do you now have regular contact with writers?
JW: A little bit. But you know, writers are pretty much home in their pajamas writing. It is solitary.
RB: Is the book business distracting from the task at hand?
JW: It could be. I try to stay out of it. One of the things I love about going to the colonies is that that’s not what goes on there. The conversations are basically about what a crummy day you had. I love that, because I always have a crummy day. I need to be reminded that everyone always has a crummy day.
JW: And that’s out of the crummy days that you get a book.
RB: Yaddo and MacDowell invite a diverse group of artists.
I am constantly fighting against the myth that every day is supposed to be a great day.
JW: When you asked if my friends were writers—I actually have friends who are composers and painters and sculptors. One of the things that’s wonderful about going to those places is you meet people in other disciplines. You also see that everybody in every discipline works the same way. It’s still the same slog.
RB: “Every day is a crummy day”—is that a trick you play on yourself?
JW: That’s a great question. Yeah, it is.
RB: It’s inconceivable to me that if every day is a crummy day that one would continue.
JW: I am constantly fighting against the myth that every day is supposed to be a great day.
JW: What I realize is that out of a crummy day you get something—a few sentences. An idea that doesn’t work, but you can go to sleep and wake up the next day and see how to make it work.
RB: What constitutes a crummy day?
JW: A crummy day at home is when you never sit down at the computer. At a colony, I sit there and sit there and sit there. I write something that stinks. I take a nap. I go for a walk. I throw out what I wrote in the morning. And just before dinner I get four sentences and realize that’s interesting to me. And then I wake up the next morning and do something with that.
RB: Ever feel like you made a mistake when you say you didn’t like something you wrote?
JW: A mistake?
RB: You’ve written it and didn’t like it when you wrote it, and then in retrospect you think, “Oh, that was OK.”
JW: I tend to be very hard on myself. So I can sometimes let something sit for months and then I’ll pick it up again and realize, “Gee, this is really quite interesting.” I didn’t know what to do with it and I walked away and I shouldn’t have.
RB: You didn’t train as a writer—how did you become one?
JW: I think I was always a writer. I have been a writer since I was a little kid but I didn’t know how to put the pieces together. For me that was a long process and a very idiosyncratic, solitary process. It needed to be that for me. That’s not true of everybody.
RB: Why do you say you were a writer since you were a little kid?
JW: I always loved books. And I was always writing, even as a kid.
RB: You were reading and writing. Extensively? Reading a lot?
JW: Yeah, yeah. I had a teacher in fifth grade that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers who take the class into the library, and she would pull out a bunch of books that she would say, “These are the ones you would like.” And it was always very specific to each kid. And she was always right. I loved the books she picked out for me. She had us write a short story every three weeks, which in fifth and sixth grade, to have someone doing that was pretty exciting. It’s a real loss that that’s not part of the curriculum as much as it should be. They teach writing now to a rubric, which is a great way to get kids to hate it.
RB: We’re training for a stronger America. If you and I hadn’t arranged to meet today what would you be doing?
JW: Um (long pause). I try to sit down every morning and do something. But a lot of times—what I find excruciating with writing, the advice I would give another writer, is you have to be willing to write it wrong. But for me, writing it wrong is so painful. My husband can slog out a first draft and it’s lousy and he knows it’s lousy but he’s got something to work from. With me, I can’t stand that.
RB: A little compulsive there, isn’t that?
RB: Write something down and then demand of yourself it should be perfect.
JW: Yeah. It’s a hindrance, it really is.
RB: I have always though that’s a good first step—get it down on paper.
JW: For me, it has to hypnotize me while I am writing it. If that doesn’t happen, that’s when I go for my walk or do the laundry. I’m not a terribly disciplined, productive writer, in a way. But when I go away to a colony, I produce enormous amounts of work, partly because I know I am not going to be interrupted.
RB: What is your revision process like?
JW: This book really didn’t have a lot of revision. I wrote all of these stories while I was away. They kind of came out whole.
RB: How long did it take you to write these seven stories?
JW: It was at four years of residencies—a month here and six weeks there.
RB: And in between you didn’t touch them?
JW: In between I was noodling a little bit. Sometimes I would go away with pieces of something and sometimes that would turn in to something. The story in here that is about two girls in an all-boys school—that piece came out of my teaching at workshops. I gave my students an in-class exercise of writing a quick, vivid character portrait. While they did it I sat there and did it too. I ended up with two portraits—one of the other girl at the school, one of the math teacher’s wife who was also the Spanish teacher. Then when I went away to MacDowell in 2010 I had those two portraits and I was able to turn that into a story in about three days. A lot of the stuff I refer to as a crummy day or unproductive I am actually noodling around with something. So when it comes out whole—
RB: In the future you won’t say it’s a crummy day (laughs)?
JW: Yeah. No, I value crummy days. I love crummy days. The reason I say “crummy” days is there is this kind of myth that writers have, including beginning writers and experience writers, that somehow a crummy day is a bad day. My feeling is that a crummy day is actually quite a good day.
RB: What about the myth that writing is very hard and can be painful? You used the word “excruciating.” I don’t think you are referring to the same kind of emotional experience, are you? You don’t get down or deflated?
JW: I do. What I mean when I say “crummy” is “falling short of my expectations.” To me, “crummy” is a reality kind of word. That’s what I try to do when I am writing, to keep myself grounded in what’s real and what’s reasonable, and not think I can sit down and start typing page one and end up with page 351 at the end. That’s the fantasy I am still prey to.
RB: Did Jack Kerouac write On the Road in one go or just use the same roll of bathroom paper? He didn’t write it in a single speed-freak trip. So this is just now being officially published—I haven’t seen any reviews. What do you think of your book?
JW: I love this book.
JW: I have enormous affection for the book and for the characters and for the humanness of it.
RB: I was impressed by there not being any throwaway characters. None seem to be there for decoration or acting in the service of a plot point. They all seem to have some impact on the story. I found interesting the story about the biographer who goes to interview a famous racecar driver’s widow with his own wife and child. That story went all over the place and yet made sense. I did feel like you were hard on him.
JW: On him? Yeah.
RB: The interview subject sees him as perfectly competent but the wife is more interesting. Anyway, there are two stories that seem to have real-life correlates. Were you thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt and Balanchine?
JW: Of course. The reason I didn’t give them names in the stories was I wouldn’t presume to know what Eleanor Roosevelt was thinking or what Balanchine’s wife was thinking. But I wanted to start from those stories. One of the things, I think, that this book is trying to do is wonder what some of these experiences that we see in other people from the outside feel like from the inside. But I wouldn’t presume to know what any particular person’s experience was from the inside. So I wanted to make it a little more like “of course if you read that story”—actually I won’t say “of course”; a lot of people don’t seem to get that it’s Eleanor Roosevelt.
There is a kind of esoteric architecture-speak that is unreadable to anyone that is not an architect, and I believe unreadable to many that are architects.
RB: One of the trade reviews didn’t get it—it was actually a dumb review, as if they didn’t read the stories.
JW: (whispers) Thank you.
RB: You do comment within a story about the alternative possibilities, it could have been this or it could have been that.
JW: Right, right.
RB: What I thought was charming about the stories was the way they unfolded in very unexpected ways. The story with the Eleanor Roosevelt character starts off so differently—there is a story within a story. In a way all the stories are like that. How did you know you got these stories right?
JW: That’s a hard one.
RB: You love the book so you feel like you got it right.
JW: I do. There were three stories I wrote that didn’t make it into the book. One that I wrote and the next time I read it, it seemed a little false to me and I just threw it out. And then there were two others—one that got stuck and I couldn’t go on and threw it out and wrote the Eleanor Roosevelt story instead. And there was a third that just—I know when they are wrong. When they are not wrong I know they are OK. My husband is a great reader and when he loves something I find that a very—
RB: I don’t know how many people you showed this book to, but did anyone not love it?
JW: No, but I don’t really show stuff to people.
RB: Your husband? Your editor?
JW: I didn’t have an editor when I finished it. I had to start all over again. My last book was Harcourt—the editor who bought my last book was no longer working for them so I had to start from scratch. But that’s OK; I would never want to get a contract for something in advance. I like to take my own time and do it for myself and not feel like I am writing for a client, which is what happens.
RB: Nonetheless that’s an intimate relationship and it would be nice for them to develop over time.
JW: The editor I have had for this book has been absolutely amazing—George Andreou. He’s incredibly smart and has a very light touch. I’ve loved working with him.
RB: You’ve written a novel, a memoir, and short stories. Do you write poetry?
JW: Yes. I have an op-ed column in the [Boston] Globe, and then I have done some reporting, and also I used to have a column for Architecture Boston called “The Lurker,” where I would hang around different design people and write a kind of fly-on-the-wall piece.
RB: Who writes well about architecture?
JW: Paul Goldberger and Michael Kimmelman.
RB: It doesn’t seem to be interesting to a lot of people.
JW: I think they would be—there is a kind of esoteric architecture-speak that is unreadable to anyone that is not an architect, and I believe unreadable to many that are architects. But it’s a fascinating subject.
RB: It’s a lot of what remains of any civilization. I’ve been watching this HBO series called Treme, and any number of times characters comment on how New Orleans gets rid of its past and doesn’t look to the future, which I don’t get—I can’t think of a city that has a more colorful and compelling history. Anyway, the book hasn’t hit the public—
JW: Actually today [Oct. 9, 2012] is the pub date. Of course I feel anxious, you always do. But I feel that everything has been done right and it’s a beautiful physical object, which is important to me. I like the way it looks. I love the cover. I love the way it smells. It’s as done as I can do it. And now it just has to go out and—
RB: It would be incredible for this book to get bad reviews. I really can’t imagine it, other than an objection to the phrase appearing in all the stories—a conceit or contrivance?
JW: When I think about this with my last book, which was called A Suicide Index, that was a formal structure imposed on messy material. There is a way that you can tolerate the messiness of the subject because the structure was so formal. In a way that’s what this book might have in common with that one: That “the news from Spain” is sort of a formal device imposed on pretty messy emotions. Maybe that combination of mess and structure is what I find the most interesting.
RB: How intricate and intense are your relationships with other people?
JW: Pretty intricate and pretty intense. Why do you ask?
RB: The thoughtfulness that is present in the way your characters are made to relate with each other—it’s hardly superficial.
JW: Uh huh.
RB: And if each one doesn’t know some correct thing about another person they seem at least to know something plausible. I was fascinated by that because I don’t experience many people showing thoughtfulness in their grasp of others.1
RB: Were you a happy child? (laughs)
JW: Um, that’s a really good question. I thought I was at the time.
RB: Yeah, right.
JW: Now I look back and I think, “Hmm. Maybe not so happy.”
RB: “My mother threw away my baseball cards. Wah, wah.”
JW: I was an intense kid. I was told a lot that I was intense.
RB: Where did you grow up?
JW: I was born in New York and left there in second grade and then lived in different parts of Connecticut. This is not an autobiographical book—which fiction writers always say. There are always parts that sneak in. And I did go to those boys’ schools. I was one of two girls from seventh and eighth grade—it was the era when all the boys’ schools were going coed and were admitting women, and I went to four of them in a row. So, in a way, growing up in that situation where I didn’t have a lot of female friends, or a lot of male friends. I remember reading an essay by Anne Tyler—she was sick as a young teenager. She wrote that every writer ought to have his or her own version of rheumatic fever. For me, it was being in all those boys’ schools. It was a lonely way to grow up. And it was interesting.
RB: You’ve recovered.
JW: I think so.
RB: You have kids, right?
JW: I have a 24-year-old son and an 18-year-old son.
RB: Do you think about your kids during the day?
JW: I do. I think about how much I like them. I am not worried about either of them.
RB: Do your boys read your work?
JW: I don’t know.
RB: (feigns amazement) What? (laughs)
People don’t know what to say to writers. “Are you on a book tour?” “How’s it selling?” But on the other hand, I don’t know what to say to a lawyer or a dentist.
JW: I think they sort of do, but they seem not to be interested in talking about it.
RB: Are they readers?
JW: Yes, they are huge readers. But I think it’s a little too much information for them—which is fine.
RB: Meaning they might infer things about you?
JW: Yeah. They are not that interested in my psyche. They are interested in my cooking, my conversation. Maybe they’ll read it when they are older.
RB: Are you doing a big book tour?
JW: Not a big one—New Hampshire, New England kind of thing.
RB: What might your publisher expect out of a collection of short stories?
JW: I don’t know. One of the things I have loved about working with Knopf is that they haven’t acted as if I handed them a problem.
JW: Which is the case with a lot of publishers with short stories. It bugs me as a reader because I like to read short stories and I don’t think they are odds and ends, leftovers, which is how some publishers look at them. This was really conceived as a book from day one. It wasn’t a bunch of short stories I had lying around.
RB: It seems that the serious reader of stories is more likely a writer. Is it because they have disappeared from general consumer magazines, which have themselves disappeared—
RB: I take it you didn’t have a two-book contract?
JW: No, I just had this book.
RB: Have an idea on what’s next?
JW: I am sort of working in something, I don’t know what it is—
RB: Meaning what form it is?
JW: I really care about the form. When you were asking me before about doing all these different forms—I do, because I think for each thing you have to find the right way to tell that story, whatever it is.
RB: Uh, you don’t want to say any more about what you are working on?
JW: I don’t think I should.
RB: What do say when you meet someone and they inevitably ask—
JW: What do I do? What do I say—um, I say I am a writer. For a long time I was afraid to say that. But I do say that, but I feel then the next question is—
RB: “Have I read anything by you?”
JW: Yeah. People don’t know what to say to writers. I don’t know how I feel about Oprah not being on the air but I have this secret pleasure that with this book no one is going to say to me, When am I going to be on Oprah? That was a bad question, and then the other question is, “Are you on a book tour?” “How’s it selling?” All these things—people just making small talk. I guess they don’t know what to say to a writer. But on the other hand, I don’t know what to say to a lawyer or a dentist.
RB: Why do we ask the question? People seem to ask, “What do you do?” without any idea what we expect after the initial answer.
RB: Tell me what you read.
JW: I read a lot of 19th-century novels. Right now I am reading a big Polish novel called The Doll. It’s one of those New York Review of Books reissues. Those books are gorgeous. They have confirmed to me a lot of books that I already loved. And I’ve been introduced to a lot of books I would have never found, particularly Eastern European stuff.
RB: Yeah, that’s a nice development, along with publishers such as Archipelago and Open Letter.
JW: Pushkin Press. They are beautiful books, physically, which I care about, and they are also books you wouldn’t otherwise find.
RB: If you like Eastern European fiction, Dalkey has just published its fourth annual Best of European Fiction.
JW: Oh wow.
RB: It’s edited by Aleksandar Hemon.
JW: Are they anthologies?
RB: Oh yeah.
JW: I would definitely look at those.
RB: What about contemporary fiction?
JW: Its kind of hit-or-miss. I don’t try to stay on top of it the way I think a lot of people do. Certainly, there are writers that if they publish a new book I rush to buy it—
I spend a huge amount of time in bookstores. There are some bookstores in New Hampshire that my son and I will drive three hours just to go spend the day in these places.
RB: Who are those people?
JW: Peter Cameron. He had a book called The Weekend, probably 20 years ago, that I thought was one of the most gorgeous novels I had ever read. He’s beautiful stylist—a quiet writer, but there is always something bold and subversive in whatever he does. He is one that I would definitely rush out to buy. There is a novelist named Lily King, who I think gets better with every book.
RB: It’s disturbing that within the diminishing population of book pages only a small sampling of books are discussed.
JW: I agree. First of all I think it’s horrible that the book pages have shrunk and shrunk, but also it seems as if it’s telling us what we already know, when it should be telling us something we don’t already know.
RB: What is it that we already know?
JW: Just that these are the new books. We know these are the new books because we have heard it a million times. That’s the thing that I think is good about the internet. You definitely find stuff there. But I still find things by going to the bookstores and looking.
RB: I can only go to used bookstores.
RB: I pretty much know what’s there in the new bookstores. In the used bookstores there is a greater possibility of discovery. I also feel as if it’s a literary version of a pet shelter. I frequently rescue books, buy books I already own to give away, thinking, “Why is this book here?”
JW: Me too. I buy books I already have copies of—because it’s there and I can’t bear to leave it there. I spend a huge amount of time in bookstores. There are some bookstores in New Hampshire that my son and I will drive three hours just to go spend the day in these places.
RB: Wow. I go to the Bryn Mawr bookstore.
JW: That’s in my neighborhood.
RB: It’s clear that there are a great many good writers, too many for corporate media to pay attention to. Besides cooking and reading, what’s your cultural diet?
JW: I am not much of a cook.
RB: Oh, you had to say that.
JW: It’s really reading. I am reading all the time and listening to music a lot, but again, 18th-century music. So, it’s reading and talking to my husband and friends about books.
RB: Ever entertain the idea that there is some personality or pathological disorder that might come from a worldview formed by reading? You are not in sync with other people.
JW: I think that’s true. But pathological disturbance makes it sound like something negative. I am not sure that it is.
RB: I was just trying to suggest a condition or some such.
JW: Yeah, I think that it definitely is. But it also means that when you find your people you recognize them.
RB: Right; there aren’t many people with which to share these kinds of thoughts. I talk to my son about the books I read.
JW: What happened with my sons when they were both 15—I tried to talk to them and it was a pretty one-sided conversation. Now that they are older, they are saying things—I don’t know if it had anything to do with those conversations that we had, but they are turning into those kinds of readers that you can have these kinds of conversations with. Which is wonderful. In fact that book, The Weekend, I gave to my son. I give him a lot of books—he has stacks and stacks in his room, I never know what he’ll read and what he won’t, but he read that book and loved it. He said, “Did you notice each chapter is from the point of view of a different character? And when you are reading from the point of view of the character you love that character. And then when you read about that character from someone else’s point of view you don’t love that character.” That’s the kind of conversation that—so you might be raising someone you’ll talk to.
RB: I do wonder about his being able to watch things multitudinous times.
JW: My sons were like that too. I was worried that the whole film and video game culture was instead of reading, but it really wasn’t. It’s something they have in a much more embedded way than I did. But they also have the reading as well.
RB: A lot of interesting films today come from literary fiction. I am looking forward to seeing The Paperboy—despite Peter Dexter having distanced himself from it. Dexter is a wonderful storyteller and I expect that a half-decent filmmaker will pull something watchable out of his writing. His autobiographical novel, Spooner, is hilarious.
JW: Did you read Cloud Atlas?
RB: I never finished it.
JW: I loved that book. I don’t know how in the world they did that as a movie.
RB: I scanned some reviews that weren’t excited by it. I read Mitchell’s last novel. A wonderful book—he’s a terrific writer.
JW: A really interesting writer.
RB: I remember when Cloud Atlas came out it was celebrated, which was a good sign because it wasn’t an obviously endearing novel.
JW: It’s one of those books that the people who did love it, loved it passionately, and that may be more telling than how many people loved it.
RB: So anyway, who do you think is going to win the Nobel Prize? (laughs)
JW: (in a small voice) I don’t know.
RB: I find it interesting that there is serious betting and that British odd-makers are saying Murakami will win it.
JW: I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to stuff like that.
RB: Pulitzer? National Book Award?
JW: In the past I have found a lot of good books that way. But as I said, I find most of my books by going to the bookstore. I love that you go to used bookstores—that’s my thing too.
RB: Do you remember how upsetting it was to some parts of the literary community when [the Pulitzer committee] did not award a prize for fiction?
JW: My feeling is if you are going to have those things then you just have let the committees be however they are. What bugs me is that every now and then there will be five not-well-known writers nominated for something and then a not-well-known person wins it and then there is this big uproar about why were the big books ignored? I think if you are going to have a jury, than you have to trust the jurors. You have to put any prize in perspective—that’s what that committee in that particular year felt like. It’s not a grand anointing. It’s a valuable thing because it makes people who wouldn’t ordinarily otherwise read a certain book, read the book. As do nominations—and that’s good. The idea of putting so much emphasis on which one is The One—to me it’s just another way to get books out in front of people.
RB: I see books are now tagged if they were even shortlisted for an award. I wonder if casual readers care about that—serious readers already know the various long and short lists.
JW: Right. Although because they have done that—when I go to Canada the first thing I’ll do is head for a bookstore. I’ve bought a lot of books over the years that have been shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Governor General. I found a lot of books that way that I wouldn’t have as a U.S. reader. They had a gold seal on them and I bought them and they were great.
RB: In the past few years they have had the same issue of obscure books by small publishers winning.
JW: A lot of Canadian fiction is published here, but much more quietly.
RB: There are some great Canadian writers, and other than Ondaajte, Atwood, and Munro, they barely make a ripple. There was a book published earlier this year that had to do with Biblical myth of Jonah that was fantastic.
JW: Galore. Oh, I loved it. I loved that book; it was spectacular. It’s interesting because I just finished a big Hungarian novel, The Book of Fathers, which felt a little bit like Galore, that same combination of folklore—but if it had just been folklore you wouldn’t have gotten very involved in it, but because it had real people in it, the feeling of real human beings. That’s what I loved about Galore: the combination of fantastic magical stuff but also these people you could recognize as human beings. I loved that.
RB: I can’t remember the author’s name.
JW: Michael Crummey. So when he has a crummy day it’s OK.
RB: I suppose any ending to this chat is arbitrary—let’s pick it up after your next book. Thank you.
JW: (laughs) Thank you. That was great.