Wells Tower is a literary star on the rise. He was recently named one of The New Yorker’s “Top 20 under 40” fiction writers who “capture the inventiveness and the vitality of contemporary American fiction.” And so he does. With his debut story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009) Tower exhibits the kind of tender ferocity that makes both readers and reviewers sit up a little taller knowing they’ve experienced something remarkable. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, was reviewed not once, but twice, in The New York Times, by both Edmund White and Michiko Kakutani. Tower’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in publications like The Paris Review, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, GQ, Harpers, and McSweeneys.
Tower was born in Vancouver, grew up in North Carolina, and received his B.A. from Wesleyan University and his M.F.A. from Columbia University. He is the winner of two Pushcart Prizes, the 2002 Plimpton (Discovery) Prize from The Paris Review, as well as a Henfield Foundation Award. In the summer of 2010, he was awarded the Tenth Annual New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, which provided him not only with a grant, but with an office of his own in the main branch of the library on 42nd street.
His speech is delivered softly but with as much of a punch as his writing.
When did you become interested in writing?
My first literary outings were in the first or second grade when I wrote a couple of plays. I was commissioned to write stuff on tooth decay.
They were doing some sort of tooth decay module. It was a hippie school.
Was it performed?
Yes. The class put it on. Two plays actually. I am not sure if there was any plot or if it was just kids running around screaming. I think it was more the latter.
You went to Wesleyan for your undergraduate degree. Did you pursue writing there?
I didn’t. When I was at Wesleyan, it was the height of the political correctness movement. For some reason I thought it would be really bourgeois to major in Creative Writing, even in English. The alternative was to major in some humorless branch of the humanities. I ended up majoring in Anthropology and Sociology. It was as though you were somehow hitting a stroke for bolshevism by reading a lot of Foucault and stuff like stuff. When I graduated college and the spell of all of that cumbersome, erudite language wore off, I realized that I hated the way most academics were writing and that it was just a terrible idiom to try to convey anything matterful about being a person. So I went away from all that.
After college, what did you do?
After I got out of college, I was thinking about working in publishing. I moved back to my hometown in North Carolina and got a job with the only publishing gig in town, a magazine called DoubleTake, which was a sort of literary and documentary photography magazine that also published fiction and poetry. It was a pretty swanky magazine, published on heavy, beautiful stock. I got a job there as the night watchman.
What were your duties as a night watchman?
To lock up, water the plants, set the alarm. That was pretty much it. I wrote a really, really overheated cover letter that had something to do with modes of representation or something like that. I worked my way into doing some more legitimate things for them, like writing their press releases, doing their website, and some editorial stuff.
The night watchman job was the first ever not really awful job I had ever had. I tend to have really bad jobs.
Before the DoubleTake gig, I had been in Portland, Oregon for about a year right after college and had a job doing data entry. That was a really profoundly alienating job. Awful. It was at this place that distributed little electronics parts. They didn’t even make them there. And I never got to see them. They were stored in a warehouse out back. And there were no evocative descriptions of the electronics parts on the invoices, it was just these product numbers. So all day I was madly keying in product numbers. And if I made any errors I had a boss who would chew me out. It was the kind of job that was tedious and complete monkey work, but where you had to try really hard to do well.
You could have some music in the office if you put your phone on speakerphone and pressed the ‘hold’ button. Then you could hear the ‘hold’ music coming through the speakerphone thing. But it was the worst kind of light rock, all day long. So the question was: what’s worse, listening to the keys clacking all day or listening to Peter Cetera all day? It was awful either way.
Were you alone in that office?
No! I was in there with my boss. She had the ‘hold’ music going.
During college I worked in the dish room in the cafeteria. In the summers, I generally did manual labor. I worked on a pike crew one summer, I worked on a landscaping crew, I was a garbage man for just a day. I worked in a movie theatre— that was a really great job. You got to hang out with your buddies by the popcorn. That was the only cool job I had. I was a real Johnny Lunchpail in the hourly wage days.
How about after your stint at the ‘hold’ music office was over?
After the data entry job in Portland, I had a job working in a Nike warehouse. That was just a straight warehouse job, boxing up shoes and things like that. But I was so eager to write that I somehow let my boss know. My boss was a nineteen year-old kid who was probably making ten times what I was making as a warehouse guy. What a weird idea, really, that I sidled up to this nineteen year old dude, who’d probably dropped out of high school, and was like, “Hey man, I want to be a writer.” Anyway, somehow I let him know that I knew how to write. So he would pull me off the line and I would write his emails for him. I would pack all of my frustrated literary ambition into this kid’s emails.
What did the emails sound like?
It was like: “Hey Larry, we need more of the number 3 boxes on line 6.” And my version would be like: “Dear Larry, I have been contemplating the matter regarding those boxes on line six and my thoughts were as follows…”
Amazing. Were you doing any writing on your own at this time, or were the emails the extent of it?
I was doing a weird little zine that I’d started with a friend of mine. There was this huge guerilla publishing operation back then, in the mid-nineties, where everyone was making crappy little zines and sending them out to people. There would be zines dedicated to other zines and so on. Most people were doing music reviews and stuff about veganism and politics. So, we wrote weird little essays that were spoofing that somber zine stuff. We would do reviews of different surgeries we’d undergone. I wrote a review of a car accident I was in. Then my friend Al juxtaposed that with a bunch of photos of famous car wrecks, like James Dean’s wreck and Camus’ wreck. Smartass stuff you do when you think you are clever. We just called everything a review. It was a fun medium to be able to write whatever the hell you wanted.
Do you think it was important to have that kind of forum where you were able to write and publish whatever you wanted?
It was just an opportunity to play. Which I think really is important. I think if you don’t at least have a part of your apprenticeship as a writer being pure, unfettered play, then that is too bad.
Do you find the act of writing painful or enjoyable?
There are times that I am able to chuckle at my desk. I don’t know how much pleasure is involved, though. I find writing, for the most part, pretty painful. There are degrees of discomfort with it. If it is really, really uncomfortable and you can hear the gears grinding and see the sparks fly as you are forcibly winching every sentence into existence, it’s probably not good. There has to be some sense of pleasure and ease in the composition or it’s probably not going to be great stuff. That said, I guess I’ve written a few “successful” things that people have liked when literally every moment of the composition was like the worst laborious plodding. But I think the better work is work that makes it look easy and, hopefully, is somewhat easy in the composition.
You played in a punk rock band for several years.
Yes. I quit a day job to do some touring with the band. On tour, we just made enough money for gas and a little bit of food. We were so poor.
What would have been on your grocery list from back then?
In the band days we were doing a lot of oatmeal. My innovation with oatmeal was to throw in a spoonful of chunky peanut butter. I think Susan Stamberg or someone had plugged that as a complete protein on NPR. In the band days it was actually really important to figure out different calorie vectors.
But I was trying to cook OK. I remember making complicated curries in my early twenties. I really liked making pies and cookies. Loved making desert. And meatloaf became a stand-by pretty early on. I would make my own granola. And I made my own hummus— that was a great money saver. You make it out by the pound. It was interesting feeling so besieged financially. It was the same thing when I was at graduate school at Columbia. Those were real flood-relief quantities of hummus. Seems like I had the whole town mapped in terms of where you could get a good deal on cheese or bok choy or coffee. I had an entire values circuit in lower Manhattan. It would take me three hours to go shopping because it felt worth it to walk fourteen blocks to save fifty cents on a bag of oats.
Was that time just miserable, or do you have some nostalgia for it?
Being really dirt poor in New York is kind of exciting because the mere fact of survival is a kind of triumph. That sense of being really financially embattled. I remember not knowing if I was going to be able to pay rent or not, even though I lived in a shoebox that was dirt cheap by today’s standards.
Where was the shoebox?
It was in the West Village, which sounds surprising. But literally it was the size of a Volkswagen. It had a toilet in one closet and a shower in another closet. It was not a place that radiated joy. It was right on 7th avenue. It was so loud it was really like having a tent on 7th avenue.
Let’s backtrack. You moved to New York to get your M.F.A. at Columbia. What made you go to graduate school?
Maybe some sort of craven credentialing impulse. But maybe that’s not true. I had been writing with some degree of discipline in my early twenties. I was trying to always have something in the works, some little essay or piece of journalism or something. But I didn’t really know what it would be like yet to write every day. I thought going to graduate school would be a good way to figure out what the life was like. I hadn’t been writing fiction at all before graduate school. It seemed like it would be a good boot camp. I figured I would come to New York and wind up getting a job in publishing. I thought it would give me leverage to survive writing.
But you were publishing work before then, right?
Yes. In some zines that were one tier up from really terrible. And I had an article in The Washington Post Magazine about the time I worked as an operator of a pirate ship ride on a moving carnival. I exploited the whole thing as a short story in my book [Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned].
What was your experience of graduate school?
I got a huge amount out of Columbia. Early on, I found a really good mentor in Ben Marcus [read his DoY here]. I was kind of amazed that I was able to do that thing of writing fiction. Really, the first stories I ever wrote to completion were my first workshop stories. I guess I expected to get absolutely savaged by my classmates. That did happen a few times, but mostly people were just really nice and seemed to think I knew what I was doing…which surprised me.
I don’t know if I learned practical stuff about structuring a narrative and things like that, but I think the most useful thing about it was getting used to writing every day and having regular deadlines…being in this environment where you are subjected to the sorts of demands that the life of a professional writer would put you through. Which is a difficult thing.
You go from being somebody who is thinking about writing, or being someone who has some sort of facility with language, to suddenly being in that headspace of thinking about it all the time. It is a very rough, alienating transition to go from civilian consciousness to writer consciousness. It does put you in a weird remove from most other people. Suddenly you respond to what you go through in a very different way. You stop feeling like quite such an alien after a while. But you constantly have that description-generator going in your mind, occasionally being vain enough to break out your notebook.
You published two stories that you wrote during your time at Columbia while you were still there, in The Paris Review! From the slush pile! Wow!!
Yes. I sent the first two stories I wrote to The Paris Review. They took both of them.
It was really weird. It seemed like a colossal bit of luck. When they accepted that first story they called me up and put me on the phone with George Plimpton. Plimpton had always been a huge hero of mine, so that was kind of an astonishing moment.
The important lesson there, and about all the public parts of writing is: none of it made doing the work any easier. In fact, for a few years after I got out of Columbia, where I’d had a good amount of early publishing success, I was really having a hard time writing. I was writing these stories that just kept failing because they were getting way too clever for their own riches. They were terrible. Just clever pretexts and a bunch of pyrotechnic constructions. Cleverness is, for me, really the enemy.
But the Internet is the devil.
Yes. It is really bad. I have a program on my computer that jams your Internet for a certain period of time so you can’t access it. Although, when I was down in North Carolina for a while, I didn’t have Internet where I was staying. It was a great relief. Henceforth, I will not have Internet where I work.
I read somewhere that you have two desks, one for writing fiction and one for writing nonfiction.
I did when I lived in my old apartment in Greenpoint. That was handy. One desk had Internet, the other didn’t. Because when you are writing nonfiction you really do need the Internet, since you’re constantly fact-checking and things like that. But I really do think for fiction writers, it is the most lethal thing that technology has done to us. For most of us, writing is so difficult that you’re just dying for a distraction. You’d really rather be doing anything but writing. It is just so easy to mess around with all those toys out there. It can be an awful virus to unleash on your workday.
What are your work habits like?
I try to put in a solid four to six hours a day. I think much beyond that, the pleasure goes out of it. Particularly writing fiction, which is really the process of willing yourself into a tenuous alpha-state where suddenly the world that you are making up seems believable and interesting. I think that kind of spell-craft can only hold for a limited period of time before you start to fake it.
The notion of going into a room by yourself and trying to make yourself believe in made up stuff with sufficient fervor that you think it will be worth people’s time reading it, is a very, very weird thing to do.
Do you feel life as a writer gets lonely?
That is something I had to deal with at first. It is lonely. But, the thing that you learn about it is that it just takes such colossal tracks of time to get any decent writing done. We’re talking about basically taking a whole day to get, who knows, 500 or 1000 words— that you’ll probably end up throwing out anyway! You have to do that again and again. As you get further along in your career, you just very naturally build up resentment for anything that would take you away from that time that you need to throw away. It’s not often that I’m sitting at my desk thinking: “I’m so lonely, I wish someone would come and play with me.” It’s much more: “I wish I were smarter. I wish I had an extra brain in my head.”
But what could possibly be more satisfying than spending your life trying to make people? Of course it is difficult. If it weren’t, everybody would do it.
Writing isn’t exactly a secure and stable career path. Did or does that ever worry you?
There have been some very lean times. But I don’t really have enormous financial demands. I burn at a fairly low economic metabolism that I can adjust according to the amount of money that is coming in. When I decided I wanted to write, I decided I was going to put that first rather than putting marble floors in my house, or something like that.
I think no matter what, you have to put it first. And unless you put it first, at least for a good amount of time when you’re going through your apprentice years as a writer, you are not going to make it. Maybe you will if you are really bright, or really well-connected. But I don’t think you are going to make your best work if you don’t make it the most important thing in your life. If you do that, you are not really worried about if you’re making money or not. For me, the anxiety of being poor was never close to the anxiety of whether I was doing adequate work or not.
I watched a TED talk with Elizabeth Gilbert where she argues that it is time for society to forgo the idea of artists being geniuses and return to a Classicist idea of the genius visiting the artist, so that the masterpiece is not yours alone and, in turn, the pressure of being able to produce new masterpieces isn’t either. What do you think about that?
I don’t think the genius has ever visited me. And I think it is pretty safe to say that the genius has never come within a light year of most people on The New York Times Bestseller List.
But there are geniuses every now and again. It would be pretty hard to make the case that Nabokov wasn’t a genius. I think that David Foster Wallace was a genius. Anyone who can look at the world and turn it, reliably, into such astonishing language, is genius. For the rest of us, it is just work and faith, if that isn’t too earnest a word to use.
Something I think about a lot with writing is something Walker Percy said, that writing is something that you can only really do once you’ve given up. For me, that is more the kind of visitation or periodic useful revelation you are talking about. What it means to me is that after you’ve been sitting at a desk for a long time fretting and thinking, “Oh fuck, I need to write something really good, I need to write something really smart and good, and really, really good…”, I am able to say: “I am not going to write anything that is going to be great. I am just going to try to capture a moment in a way that doesn’t seem cheap, or won’t be embarrassing.” Often, that is what I default to: I am going to write something that is neither cowardly— I am not going to hide in obvious defenses— nor am I going to write something that is going to embarrass me. At that point, it is sometimes possible to write.
Do you have any advice for fledgling writers?
Work really hard. And don’t let rejection discourage you. At the same time, don’t let early success persuade you that you’re a genius. One thing I talk a lot about is revision. I am a great believer in really extravagant re-writes. With my collection [Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned], I went back and totally re-wrote all the stories, even ones that had been published before in good magazines. I went back and destroyed them, told them from the point of view of a different character or whatever I thought would suit the story better. I think getting really fearless about destroying work that you’ve spent a lot of time on is indispensible.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Photo by Jimmy Fountain