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Q&A: WELLS TOWER, author of
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

An online exclusive interview

(L) Wells Tower / Photograph by SUZANNE BENNETT


Monday, June 08, 2009

By Eugenia Williamson

The name Wells Tower entered the literary lexicon in 2005 when a short story about ennui-addled Vikings appeared in The Paris Review. “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” plucked at random from a teeming slush pile, was Tower’s first attempt at publishing his fiction.

For the next few years, fans of Harper’s magazine and readers of The Washington Post could read Tower’s giddily depressing journalism on subjects as casually horrifying as telemarketers and Young Republicans. Simultaneously, his fiction gained traction, culminating in last year’s New Yorker publication of the story “Leopard.”

Still, those hoping for a glimpse of the personality of this writer, deft enough to slam-dunk a first person account of a faked fainting spell, a panegyric about carnies as well as the aforementioned Vikings, were doomed to fail. Unlike nearly anyone with a byline in the supermarket circular, Tower forewent any means of self-promotion, including a homepage.

Then suddenly, thanks to the near-universal freak-out over the brilliance of his first short-story collection (the first printing of which sold out within two weeks of its release) and numerous print profiles, two of which appeared in the New York Times, everybody knew the basics: his pedigree (MFA, Columbia University), his age (35), his hometown (Chapel Hill, North Carolina) his residence (Greenpoint, Brooklyn, third-floor walkup).

STOP SMILING sat down to talk to him on the Boston stop of his first book tour to find out if they got it right.

Stop Smiling: I’ve read a number of reviews in which the critic emphasizes the violence of your stories. A commenter on Slate asked why the reviewer had included your description of a blood eagle (a Viking torture ritual), since it grossed her out over breakfast. There’s a whole spectrum of violence in literature — from Chuck Palahniuk to Cormac McCarthy. Where do you fall into that?

Wells Tower
: People have gotten very into that [violence]. I don’t know why that is. Maybe they’re a bunch of sickos. I was just talking to my brother on the phone the other day, and he was saying one of his tenants got drunk and ran over his wife in the driveway. The old man who talks with the gunshot victim in “Door in Your Eye” — that actually happened to me. I had this neighbor who, when she moved in, had this pack of photographs she’d taken of this guy who’d been shot on the street. It was such a bizarre episode that it went straight into the fiction. These things happen all the time. You don’t have to look too far to find horror. I think it’d be a lot more contrived to go in the opposite direction, to say that life is easy and sweet.

We’re members of a very difficult species. It’s an awful, awful thing to know that you’re going to die someday, and there’s an imperative to do something that matters to you. I don’t know if the stories are darker than life itself — I would probably say not.

SS: But you have to acknowledge a certain nihilism in them. The characters don’t take a journey of self-discovery, they don’t learn anything and they’re not redeemed. They’re the opposite of the characters in books like Everything is Illuminated and The Lovely Bones — what The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Brooklyn Books of Wonder.”

WT: There might be some truth to that. I suppose I like short ‘n’ nasty short-story writers like Richard Yates. It’s rare, but there are a few stories that stand out as great sweet ones. I think Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is one of those. It’s a really, really lovely story, but it also has brains exploding all over the place. It may have its detractors, too, if they’re worried about spilling their breakfast.

Violence makes a certain sort of sense in short stories, when there’s a limited amount of time for something to happen. Violence, of course, is a powerful and simple way to embody conflict. I think I’ve done less of that lately, but the early stories, like “Down Through the Valley,” are sort of brutal. I actually tried to get away from that in the rewrite, but the editors liked it, so I had no choice. The Viking thing was violence as a kind of gag.

SS: You seem to have a lot of brothers. Do you think there’s any correlation there?

WT: Three brothers. They’re a good bunch. It’s all guys, which maybe has something to do with the standard motif about the collection, that it’s “a guy thing.” I don’t know — it’s gripped a lot of guys, apparently. There was even one review that put a picture of a big muscle next to it.

SS: How do you feel about that? What’s it like to have profiles and reviews in so many places?

WT: It’s strange. It’s so unlike the life that happened up until now — being quiet and alone a whole lot. It is weird to keep talking about myself and talking about this work, and these days I’m doing so much more talking about myself than I am doing work — though I suppose there’s always time to do more work and there’s not always going to be a time where people will want to put a Dictaphone in front of you.

SS: I’m trying to remember which short story writer last got this much attention. I think it was Nell Freudenberger. (Read here.)

WT: I suppose it is an unusual thing. I think it’s really important not to think about the public stuff, just because I don’t see how it can help my work. I’m astonished that there are so many people who like the book, that people are excited about it, but I wasn’t able to write these stories because I was getting a lot of attention.

That’s not totally true — I had luck pretty early on with getting published. Even before the collection was out, I was in a place where I could get published in certain magazines and not end up in the slush pile anymore, but it certainly wasn’t like I was sitting down and thinking, “Oh, I’m some kind of big pro and now I’m gonna write some hotshot short story.” And I just think that sitting down at the table thinking, “Now I’m gonna write some real pro thing” would be a terrible mistake. It’s one way to go bad. You have to stay in a really, really private place for fiction.

For me, fiction takes getting into such a fragile state of self-hypnosis, without thinking too much about how people will read it or whether it will get published or whether it will match up to certain things people have read. The Viking story had gotten a lot of attention, especially after Ben Marcus put it in his anthology. I had a few people phone me up and say, “Hey, you’re the Viking guy.” It was kind of a one-hit wonder thing. For a while I thought I’d never write another story again, but I kept at it and wrote a bunch of stories that are better than that.

I wrote the later stories thinking about form and about how to find new ways of thinking about the short story, rather than, “How can I replicate this sort of thing that people seem to like?” Which is to say that if I got too into the public side of things, I’d be afraid of losing something necessary, something private, the something it takes to write something worth a shit.

I guess it depends on how you deal with [attention]. I don’t know too many writers who have been really successful socialites and public people who have gone on to do phenomenal work. I guess people like Norman Mailer could do it, and Truman Capote, to some extent. That ended in tears. I think the public thing doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the life, the stuff you need to do in order to do your job. That’s a totally different path.

I didn’t write the stories with a particular audience in mind, particularly not a critical audience. I think as much as anything, though, once something is out there, published, you just have to let go. I think it might even be necessary to divorce yourself from the book. It’s no longer this place where you were experimenting with stuff and trying things and seeing what could work out. To have suddenly committed to a particular incarnation feels strange. I would have worked on the collection for years, probably. When people feel one way about it or another way about it doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t feel obligated to advocate for the stories as they are. I guess now I’m this pitch person of this thing that’s out there, but fiction is so complicated and it takes so much work and revision that I would have gone on tinkering for quite a while, if I’d had time.


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