book came out I told myself that all I wanted was that it didn’t get panned by critics, that it wasn’t a total flop, that I wouldn’t be revealed as a fraud. So when it started to get good reviews and get chosen for awards it felt a little mad, a little wondrous—scratch that: a lot wondrous. Like I said, I’ve been lucky.
CG: It seems that people are talking more these days about the novella form. I think most people have only a vague idea of what a novella is, and probably only in terms of length. What’s your definition of a novella? Is the form coming back?
JW: I hate to define novellas by length, but I suppose that, at base, is the easiest way to differentiate the form from others. Though even that’s slippery. I just wrote a long story that’s 15,000 words. That feels on the edge of a novella to me, but it still feels like a short story. But I have a 20,000 word piece that I wrote last year that feels like a novella. 5,000 words isn’t a huge difference. So, it’s more about what each piece is trying to accomplish, what it needs to do in order to work, and the way that that shifts the experience of reading (and writing) it. So I like to define a novella by what it does that’s unique, by the unique way in which it can touch a reader and the way that it opens up a story that’s different from how a short story or a novel works. When I talk about that, the best I can do is this: If a short story typically looks at a small, precise part of the world with intense focus and a novel looks at a large swath of the world with a certain generosity of scope, then a novella, I think, looks at a small, precise part of the world with the focus of a short story, but it treats what’s within that focused lens with a novel’s generosity and care. So there’s room for back-story. There’s room to sit with a character for a while, to get to know him or her—and the landscape of the life—in a way that’s not typically possible in a short story. And yet there’s the drive, the intensity of the short story in a way that a novel just isn’t built for. Which is part of why I love the novella form so much: For me, it combines some of the things I love most about novels and short stories. You kind of get the best of both worlds. Except, of course, it can’t do what either of those other forms do, not fully—because it’s doing its own thing—so I’m certainly not placing it above either of those forms. It’s just different, and deserves to be taken as seriously as either of the other forms.
I hope that’s happening. I think it might be, though not necessarily in the way I’d like. I think the form of the novel is being expanded to include the novella (there are so many short, short novels these days), and I don’t think that helps things. It seems to me that a 600 page epic novel and a 120 page slim novel (they’re out there!) are such different beasts. To call them the same thing seems to blur both, I think. I wish the publishing world would just come to peace with publishing a 120 page novella and calling it that and let the form take its rightful place.
CG: The voices of the three novellas in the book are all quite different from each other, and one of them, “Sarverville Remains,” told from the point of view of a mildly retarded man, is different from just about everything I’ve read. Was that one particularly difficult? How did you go about getting it just right?
JW: Well, thanks, Cliff; that’s hugely gratifying to think that Sarverville stands out that way. It’s the closest to my heart of probably anything that I’ve written, so that means a lot to me. Maybe because I was so close to it, emotionally, it wasn’t particularly difficult. In fact, it came perhaps more quickly than the other two—certainly, it flowed out faster than “Stillman Wing,” which is written in an authorial voice that’s closer to what I think of as my natural voice. But that’s part of how “Sarverville” worked: once I had the voice, the voice did the work. Geoffrey (the main character, and narrator) just spoke. I know that sounds flakey, but it’s true. He talked; I wrote. That said, the structure of the piece is probably the most complex of anything I’ve written. So when I wasn’t writing, wasn’t putting down what Geoffrey said, I was banging my head against the wall trying to map out how the hell the thing was working. That was hard. There were days when it made my head hurt. A lot. But that was the conscious puzzle-solving aspect. The subconscious writing, once it started (and I failed at it a year before I got it right), just rolled.
CG: I’m curious about your path to publication. I know you got your MFA at Columbia, but how did this book come about? What was your publishing experience before you finished the book, and what did agents and editors say when they saw the novellas?
JW: It was a slog; it was really draining and really tough and often depressing and, if it weren’t so invigorating when a few things came through, I don’t know that I would have kept at it. Not the novellas, but the path to publication in general. I wrote some failed novels first; I ought to just put that out there. They were long and I put my heart into them and worked like hell at them and I just wasn’t ready. So I consider that my training ground, maybe even a kind of proving ground. It wasn’t short stories; I didn’t write short stories, not seriously, until just before the MFA, and then not successfully until afterwards. But, as is common, they were my first way into publication. And I went a pretty typical route: publishing first in smaller journals, then gradually in better ones, until finally Granta took a story of mine and that really did feel like a shift, like I had crossed some kind of fault line. The thing is, I crossed it when I was ready to cross it. I really do believe that if you do the work, and work at it, and keep improving, when you’re ready the world will be ready, too. It’s just a matter of pushing yourself to that point, and pushing through the hard, hard times that build up to it.
Part of those hard times, for me, was my first experience with an agent. I signed with a great agent at a big agency and she took on a novel that I thought was good and that she loved and it almost sold—came so close—but never did. That was tough. Seeing it slip away from me. And then seeing her slip away from me, because after the novel what I had was the novellas. And she didn’t want anything to do with them. She read one, came back to me with the dreaded “Can’t you make this into a novel?” and started another and hated it and wouldn’t even read the third. Which probably would have been the reaction of most agents: novellas? You’ve got to be kidding me. But, luckily, I found an agent—PJ Mark, who I’m with now—who was brave and wise and wonderful in all ways. He took a look at the novellas, read them over the weekend, got back to me and said, This is what we’re going out with. I thought he was nuts. Everyone thought he was. I’m sure people in his office probably thought so too. A no-name author with a collection of quiet novellas about rural people? Good Lord. I felt like I could hear the whole publishing world chuckling. But then—after we went out with it to five editors—it got picked up in about a week. By a wonderful house and a legendary editor, both of which I love. I sat there in the editor’s office the day she said she wanted to buy it and felt like there were two of me in the room: the one sitting in the chair, all professionalism and calm, and the one that had stepped out of my body and was doing fist-pumps and full-throat-hollers all around the room.
CG: The book, which was one of my favorites of last year, is set in western Virginia. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in that part of the state. Are you done writing about it now or does it still inspire you? And what other places appeal to you as settings for your work?
JW: Oh, I’m not sure I’ll ever be done writing about that part of the world. It’s in my blood, at this point. My mind just goes there at times, and the stories in me get set there, if that makes sense. But I am soon going to start a novel set down there and it will bring together a lot of what I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, so it feels to me like it might allow me to put that part of me to rest—at least for a while. Which is good, because there are so many other stories I want to dive into, in so many other settings. Setting is hugely important to me; I can’t separate it from story. So my notebooks are always full of ideas jotted down while I’ve been in different places all over the world. The novel that I’m currently working on is set in northern Russia. The story I just finished is set in central Pennsylvania. The book I was researching while I was on a Fulbright is all set along the Upper Nile—from Egypt to Uganda. So it’s not really one place, it’s place itself that is such a driving force in my work.
CG: I’m curious about the illustrations in the book. You did them, right? They’re terrific. Can you tell us about them?
JW: Thanks again, Cliff. I’m really glad that they made it into the book; it made the book feel even more personal to me, somehow. They were originally going to be sections from old tractor manuals; I had wanted to include images in something ever since I read WG Sebald and this novella felt like it needed them, in part because the way that time works in the piece made the idea of chapter breaks, or even hard breaks of any sort, seem wrong for it. The way that an image works both forwards and backwards in a text, that it’s open-ended in its relationship to the story and, as such, changeable and fluid—that felt right to me. For various reasons I ended up doing drawings myself instead of using images from old catalogues, and I’m so glad I did. They combine human parts and tractor parts in a way that brought together some important themes in the novel; I hope they do so in a complex way.
CG: I’m always interested in influences on writers. Who are some of your literary heroes? Whose work would you say has influenced yours?
JW: I was deeply, deeply influenced by many writers—and still am, of course. My first real influences were storytellers more than literary writers: Leon Uris, Frederick Forsyth, that kind of thing. But then I found great storytellers who were also great writers—Steinbeck, particularly; Steinbeck probably shaped me at the outset, when I was first starting to think about writing, more than any other writer. From there, I found the writers I love and who still influence me really strongly now: Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and contemporary writers, too, like Annie Proulx, Jim Shepard, Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy…The list could go on and on.
CG: Is there another book scheduled to come out yet? And what are you working on now? More novellas?
JW: Nope, no book scheduled to come out. Though I am working on something. Two things, actually. A collection of stories and novellas (it’s going to be long) and a novel (the one set in northern Russia). Both of which seem like real departures for me, which is both exhilarating and terrifying.
CG: Do you have any tips for writers who are looking to break into publishing?
JW: Write what you have to write, what you have in you that needs getting out. That’s where your best work will be and so, even if it seems impractical, even if there are other things that feel more logical, that will be the thing that puts you on the map. I really believe that. I wrote each of the novellas in The New Valley with a kind of hopeless resignation: I didn’t think they’d be published; I didn’t know how they might; but I had to write them. I wrote them as breaks, almost, from the other more practical stuff (short stories, a novel) that I was writing. And, in the end, it was the novellas that launched my career. They were the most honest, deepest, heart-felt work. And I believe that work will always out.