SOUVENIRS (Random House l981 NY)
CHEKHOV'S SISTER (Little, Brown l990 Boston)
THE WISEST MAN IN AMERICA (University Press of New England l995 Hanover; paperback edition University Press of New Engalnd l996 Hanover)
MORNING (Pantheon 2001 NY; paperback edition Anchor Books 2002 NY)
A CENTURY OF NOVEMBER (University of Michigan PRess 2002 Ann Arbor; paperback edition University of Michigan Press 2005 Ann Arbor)
THE WRITING ON THE WALL (Arcade 2012 NY)
Short story collections:
THE MAN WHO LOVED LEVITTOWN (University of Pittsburgh Press l985 Pittsburgh; paperback edition Avon Books l985 NY)
HYANNIS BOAT AND OTHER STORIES (Little, Brown l989 Boston)
WHEREVER THAT GREAT HEART MAY BE (University Press of New England l996 Hanover)
HILLS LIKE WHITE HILLS (Southern Methodist University Press 2009 Dallas)
VERMONT RIVER (Nick Lyons Books l984 NY; paperback edition Simon and Schuster NY l985; second paperback edition Lyons and Burford l993 NY)
UPLAND STREAM (Little, Brown l991 Boston; paperback edition Little, Brown l992 NY)
ONE RIVER MORE (The Lyons Press l998 NY)
ON ADMIRATION (Skyhorse Press 2010 NY)
SUMMER OF THE BASS (Skyhorse Press 2015 NY)
NORTH OF NOW (The Lyons Press l998 NY; paperback edition The Lyons Press 2000 NY)
YELLOWSTONE AUTUMN (University of Nebraska Press 2009 Lincoln)
SOCCER DAD (Skyhorse Press 2008 NY; paperback edition Skyhorse Press 2013 NY)
Travel and nature:
THE SMITHSONIAN GUIDES TO NATURAL AMERICA; NORTHERN NEW ENGLAND (Smithsonian Books l995 Washington)
SMALL MOUNTAINS (Terra Nova 2000 Hanover)
WHERE WARS GO TO DIE (Skyhorse Press 2016 NY)
LE SOUER DE CHEKHOV (JC Lattes l992 Paris)
UN SIECLE DE NOVEMBRE (Les Allusifs 2006 Paris; paperback edition Le Livre de Poche 2008 Paris.)
A CENTURY OF NOVEMBER (Australia Broadcasting Corporation Books 2007 Sydney)
W. D. Wetherell was born in l948, the son of two World War Two vets, his father an army captain, his mother an army nurse. He was raised in suburban Long Island; the proximity of New York City on one hand, and the summers spent at the family summer home on a rural New England lake on the other, were to influence his writing in ways both obvious and subtle. His education owed more to the excellent Hempstead Public Library than it did any conventional schooling; he usually checked out seven or eight books at a time and had them read by the time the week was out.
He always wanted to be a writer, and with his interest in history and current events, journalism or academia might have been the directions he ended up taking. Instead, at the age of fourteen, he fell in love with the great novelists--Melville, Conrad, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky--and made up his mind that writing fiction, serious fiction, was what he wanted to build his life around.
He had already decided, if he was ever lucky enough to get something published, he would use the byline W. D. instead of Walter, in tribute to some of his heroes who also used their initials: Thoreau, Chekhov, Salinger.
He dropped out of college in l967 after one unhappy year, and wrote his first short story working in his parents' basement with a ping-pong table as his desk. His twenties were difficult years, but he never stopped writing, so it's been a continuous working curve from that day to this.
As for supporting himself, he followed the old tradition whereby a writer works only long enough to earn enough money to quit and write until the money runs out. These jobs included working as a salesman at a department store, an editor at a magazine, a tour guide, and as a teacher.
His first published story appeared in l976, eight years after he began writing and many rejections. His first novel, Souvenirs, appeared in l981. Two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts allowed him to devote himself to writing full time, and helped make possible a move to Lyme, NH in l982 with his wife Celeste--and Lyme, the "Upper Connecticut River Valley" of Vermont/New Hampshire, is where he's lived ever since. His daughter Erin was born in l986; his son Matthew in l990.
Wetherell is the author of over twenty books: novels, short story collections, memoirs, essay collections, and books on travel and history. His essays, short stories, and articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Virginia Quarterly Review, Georgia Review, Appalachia, the Boston Globe, Reader's Digest, Fly-Fisherman, and many more. For eighteen years his essays on travel appeared frequently in The New York Times.
His autobiographcial short story, "The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant," telling the story of a fourteen-year old boy who must choose between the girl of his dreams and the fish of his dreams, has been anthologized over twenty times, and appears in many textbooks for middle school, high school, and college English.
Wetherell's awards include two NEA Creative Writing Fellowships, three O'Henry Awards for short stories, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the National Magazine Award, the Arnold Gingrich Fly-Fishing Heritage Award, The "Best Short Story" of l993 award from the Catholic Press Association, the Michigan Literary Fiction Award, the National Magazine Award, and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year Award in l990. He was Visiting Scholar at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center in Italy in l993. In l998, he received the Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters allowing him to devote himself exclusively to writing for the next five years.
In 1985, Wetherell was invited to read from his work at the Library of Congress.
Reviewers and readers, responding to Wetherell's work, have spoken of his wide range of subject matter, approaches, styles, and characterizations, his narrative daring, originality, and compassion,the power and grace of his prose style and the homage he pays, sometimes subtly, sometimes explicitly, to the long literary tradition that has fueled his writing from the start.
Wetherell's most recent books include Summer of the Bass, published in the winter of 2015, and Where Wars Go to Die: the Forgotten Literature of World War One, published in the spring of 2016.
At a time when many daily newspapers are going out of business, the Upper Valley region of NH/VT is fortunate to have one of the best small dailies in the US: The Valley News. Wetherell's column on the art of writing, On Prose, appears in the Book Pages every other month. Here are some recent columns:
An empty blue-book for a student writing an essay in an important exam. A blank white computer page for someone composing a cover letter for a job they desperately need. A soft linen sheet of stationary requiring just the right words to console a friend who's suffered a heartbreaking loss. a cold white sheet of paper staring up at a young writer beginning their first novel.
An empty page of anything requiring words to be applied can be an intimidating sight, just as, for shy people, an auditorium full of people can frighten them into muteness. But by the time a professional writer reaches mid-career, he or she has worked out a rough kind of truce with the terror of the empty page; it can still intimidate, but won't freeze you into impotency.
You feel toward it what an old pro athlete feels as he stares toward a field that he's played on a hundred times before, messing up there plenty, but having his share of successes, too, so it's a place where anything can happen. But for a writer it's much better than for an athlete, since the game isn't played live. If you're willing to rewrite, play the game over and over again in private before playing it in public, you can be reasonably sure you will finally make the key save, or score the winning goal, be carried off the field in triumph by happy readers, few suspecting how many times it took you to get things right.
Again, that's if you are willing to rewrite--and that's a big IF. For many great writers, rewriting was a luxury they simply didn't have time for. Shakespeare, with actors demanding their lines and the Globe Theatre filling up fast, almost certainly did not put Hamlet through draft after meticulously crafted draft. Dickens, with the printers waiting to tear the pages from his hands for a hungry public, couldn't spend hours fussing over adjectives and verbs. The volcanoes of literature, like Thomas Wolfe (sending off million-word manuscripts to his editor) or Jack Kerouac (typing on 120-foot long rolls of taped-together paper) would probably say that their unfiltered spontaneity was what gave their work its raw power, and that rewriting was for weaklings. Many contemporary writers don't seem interested in style at all, or at least the kind of effortless, graceful style that only comes with a tremendous amount of revision.
And while geniuses and hacks may get away with it, not bothering to rewrite, I myself would sooner jog down the interstate naked than show someone a first draft. I'm a mediocre writer when I'm facing a blank page, concerned only with filling up the emptiness with almost anything. What I'm good at, from long practice, is rewriting, where instead of relying just on nervous energy, I can begin to apply experience, patience, know-how, and craft. "Do-over!" we used to call when we kids played kickball--and when it comes to rewriting, I'm a do-over man all the way.
It might be useful to explain the mechanics of this, my rewriting process. Three pages, a thousand words, is a good morning's work for me, but to get that I'm revising as I go along, so when I finally have three pages completed on the left side of my desk (I'm pulling pages from my printer), I have at least eight or ninepages on the right side that I'm going to throw out. If I'm working on a five-page essay like the one you're reading, that means fifteen pages are thrown out to get a completed first draft.
I repeat the process for the second draft--30 pages thrown out now--and then again for the third, so by the time I end up with five pages I'm satisifed with, I've thrown out 45 pages covered with almost more marginalia, insertions, cross-outs, and self-exhortations ("Write better!" is a frequent one) than there are lines actually printed in type.
What am I doing with all that labor? Rethinking, for starters. A lot of my rewriting is done laying down on a couch away from the keyboard, where I can try to figure out whether I've nailed the plot, theme, characterization, and "larger" concerns I was originally after. Thoughts and ideas change when you translate them into words, and I want to make sure they've changed for the better.
After that, I start focusing on the writing itself, the prose style, the language, and tone.
Am I being too charming? Too bitter? Too funny? Too grim? How about my verbs? Strong and vivid, or too passive? Am I using cliches, or the kind of lazy automatic phrases the English language is temptingly full of? Are any of my words too dated on one hand, or too trendy on the other? Am I being too obscure, or, in some instances, not obscure enough? How about length? Invariably, I write, long, rewrite short. I also have to be on the lookout for certain words I have an inexplicable fondness for, like "very," the overuse of which is very very awful.
Can you go on too long with this process? Camus in The Plague has fun with a character named Monsieur Grand, a would-be novelist, who is such a perfectionist he can never finish his book, which he rewrites over and over.
"The work he was engaged on ran to a great many pages, and he was almost at excruciating pains to bring it to perfection. Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction. It's easy enough to choose between a 'but' and an 'and.' It's a bit more difficult to decide between 'and' and 'then.' But definitely the hardest thing may be to know whether one should put an 'an' in or leave it out."
And that's an important point about rewriting. One of its most difficult strategic decisions is knowing when to stop.
For many beginners, it's their failure to put the blood, toil, tears, and sweat into rewriting that brings their work to grief. Many are too dependent on outside opinion, a friend's or their workshop's, where what they should be striving toward is to become their own best editor--and this only comes with compulsive rereading and rewriting.
But--and I believe this with every fibre of my literary being--it's worth it in the end. Often someone will come up to me and say, "I want to write," and though I try to be polite, one skeptical part of me is raising an eyebrow. But if ever a young person says, staring me straight in the eye, "I want to rewrite," I will smile in shock and pleasure, lean over, and hug them for all my worth, welcoming them to the pros.
Let's start things off with a surprise quiz. What do the following all share in common?
Tommy Traddles. Hannibal Chollop. Sissy Jupe. Peepby Jellyby. Sir Tumley Snuffin. Sim Tapperit. Ned Cheeryble. Ham Pegotty. Newman Noggs. Serjeant Buzfuz. Uriah Heep. Ebenezer Scrooge.
The last on the list gives the answer away. They're all from the novels of Charles Dickens, miniature masterpieces of the character-naming art, working on two levels simultaneously. Merely as random words, with no character traits attached, they're marvelous--if you can recite them out loud without smiling, you're a sterner man than I am. When character traits are attached, the work even better. The words "Uriah Heep" don't literally mean oily obsequiousness or sneaky servility, of course, but wonderfully suggest it, so when you finishing reading David Copperfield you're convinced that Uriah Heep could not be named anything but Uriah Heep. And similarly with miserly Scrooge. If Dickens had given him the name "Jones," chances are that none of us would be reading A Christmas Carol today.
Giving your characters the perfect name is one of the lesser novel-writing arts, but not an insignificant one--some writers are a lot better at it than others. All the more surprising, then, than I've never read anything about it or heard it discussed; the assumption is that an author plucks a name out of thin air (or the phone book), slaps it on the hitherto anonymous character hovering in the cloud of their imagination, gets on with the job.
In truth, it's a much more complicated, subtle process than that, with lots to consider. Most people get maybe two or three chances in their lives to name another human being, and any mother or father knows how difficult a decision this can be. A reasonably prolific novelist gets to name several hundred human beings in the course of their career, and, speaking from my own experience, getting the 299th right is just as hard as nailing the first.
One of the reasons it's so hard is Mr. Dickens. no one ever gave his characters better, more memorable names than he did, so we're all duffers in comparison. And what about John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress? No subtle pussy-footing around for him--if a character was meant to illustrate a great metaphorical point, he was given an explicitly metaphorical name. Mr. Wordly Wiseman. Lord Hate-Good. Mr. Great-Heart. Mr. Stand-Fast-for-Truth. Anyone trying allegorical names like that today would be laughed out of the bookstore. And way around on the opposite side of the spectrum, Kafka naming his alienated characters "K" pretty much means we can't call our characters "W" or "C" without being dismissed as second-hand Kafkas.
Still, that leaves plenty of room for invention. Melville, when it came time to cast Moby Dick, found the absolutely perfect names. Starbuck, Flask, Stubb, bearing names like that, can only be stolid New England seamen, just as Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo, bearing names like that, can only be heathen harpooners. "Call me Ishmael" the novel begins--and so right from the start Melville acknowledges that what people (and whales) are called will be terribly important.
But, as with so much else in the fiction-writing process, there's a serious contradiction to keep in mind. Some novelists give their characters drab, unimaginative, everyday kinds of names, and yet still have the talent to make them unforgettable. Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina. To my ear, neither name is particularly special or evocative, and yet each, when they become the eponymous heroines of Flaubert's and Tolstoy's masterpieces, achieve literary immortality. Conversely, some great characters bearing humdrum names are impossible to remember. I admire Pride and Prejudice, but try as a might, I could not remember the name of the heroine until I just looked it up: Elizabeth Bennet.
Even absolutely wrong names can end up working in the end. If I heard the surname "Gatsby" without having read Fitzgerald's novel, it would conjure up images of a mild-mannered greengrocer living in the English countryside tending his aspidistra and his beloved cats. But put the adjective "Great" before it, write about him with the skill and passion F. Scott did, and you have, not a homely suburbanite, but someone so suave and handsome only a Leonardo DiCaprio could play him.
Plenty of names in literature work almost entirely on their own, without adjectival prompts. How can a woman named Scarlett O'Hara be anything but a passionate, willful rebel? How can a teenager named Holden Caulfield not want to rebel from his stodgy upbringing? How can a detective named Sherlock Holmes not be quirkily brilliant? (If Arthur Conan Doyle had named him "Robert Holmes," chances are we would have long since forgotten him. And if a hunchback named "Quasimodo" applies for bell-ringing work at Notre Dame cathedral, hire him immediately just for that name.
Indeed, some names are so perfectly matched to their characters they've become bywords in the dictionary, so if you prefix them with the appropriate article, you're describing a familiar human type. "He's a scrooge." "He's a Babbitt." "She's a Polyanna." "He's an Uncle Tom." "She's a Lolita."
As for translating all this into advice for aspiring writers, it's easier to say what not to do than it is to suggest anything positive. Clearly, the obvious names are to be avoided. If your protagonist is an aging conservationist returning to his home by the river to die, it's probably best not to give him the surname "Salmon." Similarly, if you have a young teenage character blessed with beauty and charm, avoid calling her "Grace," while resisting the temptation to name her feisty younger sister "Fury."
The good news for fiction writers is that there are probably more colorful real-world names waiting to be appropriated today than at any other time in history. An American novelist working in the l960's could spend a career plucking names from a ludicrously small catalog. Bob, Bill, Mike, Tom, would take take care of your male characters; Mary, Carol, Jane, Sue, your female ones. Today? Any novelist who doesn't include in their repertoire Yeardly, Ozella, Rhiannon, Ximena, Arnulfo, Chadi, Burhan al-Din, and Dequan is writing in the wrong century.
The other reason is's hard to give generalized advice is that each fictional name comes from a unique set of fictional circumstances. When I came to write my novel A Century of November, set in the last days of World War One, I needed a solid, workmanlike name for the protagonist. An apple grower, a local judge, a man of gravitas, sadness, and strength, I could hardly have called him "Timmy Applebee." I came up with "Charles" early...he was definitely not a Charlie...and free-associated M words from Mordant to Marlin to Morton to Marden. When I first wrote it on the page, "Charles Marden," I knew it was the name my man had to have, simple and unimaginative as it is.
There's one last thing to mention about names, which I'm sure has occurred to other novelists besides me. We live in an age of "naming rights," when, in return for big financial contributions, football stadiums, college dorms, even medical schools, are named after one-percenters with the wherewithal to pay. So. Why don't we novelists sell character names to the highest bidder? You're a lawyer wanting exposure at the national level? Why not slip John Grisham half-a-mil and get your name right there on page 183 where everyone can see it? I'm sure that somewhere, somehow, money has already changed hands.
Me, I did this once--sort of. When my first novel came out in l981, I was dating the woman who later became my wife. Wanting to impress her, showing off just because I had the power to, I gave a minor character appearing on page 4 the last name "Tousignant," which was my girlfriend's maiden name. It worked--we've been married 33 years--and, in my defense, I did it not for money but for love.
ON THE WALL