Where We Live: Talking with W. D. Wetherell
Tony Ardizzone, the respected American novelist and story writer, recently sat down with W. D. Wetherell to talk about Wetherell's collection of short fiction, Where We Live, published by Green Writers Press.
This is Wetherell's fifth collection of short stories, after The Man Who Loved Levittown, Hyannis Boat and other Stories, Wherever That Great Heart May Be, and Hills Like White Hills. His stories have won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, three O'Henry Awards, many citations in Best American Stories, and a National Magazine Award. His novel, Chekhov's Sister, was cited as a "major contribution to world literature," by The Nation, and was a notable book of the year from The New York Times; in l998, he was granted a genius award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, allowing him to devote five years exclusively to writing. He lives in Lyme, New Hampshire.
Ardizzone's collection of linked stories, The Arab's Ox; Stories of Morocco, was recently republished in a 25th anniversary edition by the Bordighera Press in New York. The winner of numerous writing awards during his long and distinguished career, he was for many years Chancellor's Professor of English and Creative Writing at Indiana University.
ARDIZZONE: Let me begin by congratulating you, Walter, on the publication of your new short story collection, Where We Live, coming out from Green Writers Press this fall.
WETHERELL: Thank you, Tony.
ARDIZZONE: Critics like to point out that your stories often operate on two or three levels beside the surface one. Take this new collection. "A Friend of Millyard Museum" isn't just about a lonely young boy, but a hundred years of the American immigrant experience. "The Old Campaigner" isn't just about a father and his estranged daughter, but the end of American democracy. "Assassins" manages to be about father-son relationships, our crazy gun culture, class warfare, and a half-dozen other themes, all packed in a little over twenty pages. How do you pull this off?
WETHERELL: A lot of it has to do with picking the right situations to write about, ones that cast some metaphorical shadows. I like to show characters caught up in the wind of contemporary history, even if they don't understand this themselves. Even in "Jersey Plates," which on the surface is a bittersweet love story, there's a visceral anger in the protagonist similar to the male anger that runs deep in our culture, and beaks out in all kinds of destructive ways.
ARDIZZONE: When people talk about your fiction, they often mention the extraordinary range, not only in subject matter and styles, but in basic geography. Off the top of my head, I can think of stories and novels set in Russia, Italy, Manhattan, Queens, England, Flanders, Canada, and the American West. But in Where We Live there seems to be a centering going on, a return to your roots in northern New England, a place you obviously care about deeply. I wonder if that's a clue to the title; it's not just where the characters live, but where the author lives, where he feels life with the most intensity.
WETHERELL: There's a coming-home aspect that I wasn't aware of until the collection was finished. Geography is important to me, landscape, the feel of a place. I used to like hunting for stories as far away from home as I could, and even in this new collection there are two set in Montana, but now there seem to be so many good stories around here that I've got more than enough for the rest of my writing life.
ARDIZZONE: And while you live in New England, I don't consider you a New England writer, or a New York writer, but a world writer, if that makes sense.
WETHERELL: Well, I'd like to think my ambitions are larger than regional. But I could live and work in no other place.
ARDIZZONE: You're often called a story-writer's story writer, by which I think people mean many of your stories are about stories, how they're told, the impact they have on the characters telling them.
WETHERELL: A lot of my stories go off in search of other stories. The Old Campaigner doesn't really get going until the daughter asks the father about an incident from the past; Two Chairs is all about stories the husband and wife make up about a couple they've never met. The Call of the Wild--no surprise, with that title--is about the transformational impact a famous story has on a rebellious teenage boy.
ARDIZZONE: Speaking of young people, I've always been a fan of your coming-of-age stories, wherein a young person comes face to face with who they really are, or who they might turn out to be. There are two terrific examples in Where We Live. In "Stars Fell on Alabama," a morbidly shy fourteen-year old encounters, during a Fourth of July fireworks display, a mysterious swimmer who frees him from his shyness once and for all. In the story you mentioned, "The Call of the Wild," a woman remembers making as a girl an epic journey across the frozen landscape just to return some overdue library books. Any tips for writers trying their hands at adult reminiscent?
WETHERELL: You have to decide what vantage point, what remembering point, your narrator is telling the story from. If it's minutes after the events happened, he or she probably doesn't have much perspective; ten years later, some perspective; forty years later, as much as they'll ever have. And that's one of the first decisions I make before beginning any story: how much insight does the main character have into his or her condition....I love writing coming-of-age stories. A man of 70 getting to inhabit the mind and heart of a nineteen-year old? Exhilarating!
ARDIZZONE: I think your stories are saved from darkness by their sly humor, and the courage of your characters. You write about people on the ropes, but they're not quitters. I think in particular of one of my favorites here, "Day One," where a widower, on the day after his wife dies, is faced with a simple household task that nearly defeats him. Nearly defeats him; your characters always find something in themselves with which to fight back.
WETHERELL: Some story writers like extraordinary characters caught up in ordinary situations, but I prefer ordinary characters caught up in extraordinary situations. So they're tested by events, and how they react is where the story lies...Dark? I think only "Assassins," is truly dark, but I wanted to find an allegory for our recent history, the more in-your-face the better. Absent Trump...No, absent the evil currents that generated him..."Assassins" would not have been written.
ARDIZZONE: You once said at a lecture that "A story isn't a moment in time; a story is the moment in time." Someone in the audience put that in their writing blog, and it's gone viral as a good one-line description of what stories should be. I take your point on this--stories are stories, not just random anecdotes--but are you suggesting ever larger ambitions for what a story can pull off?
WETHERELL: I've never liked small, ambitionless, tame short stories; people often confuse "short" with "small." Back in the 80's, when Minimalism was all the rage, I said to myself, "No, Wetherell; anything but that." My friend Hortense Calisher liked to define the story as "a tempest in a teapot," but the American short story seems to be undergoing a long period of deflation and downsizing, so anyone adopting a similar analogy today would have to speak of a zephyr in a short glass or the doldrums in a thimble. My models are Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," or Ivan Bunin's "The Gentleman from San Francisco," or even Muriel Spark's "The First Year of My Life," in which she manages to capture the whole tragedy of World War One in no more than ten pages. These are stories that come from a boldness of spirt and ambition, and I'd urge young writers to emulate them. Show some ambition, buck the trend, take chances, be a Maximalist, don't slice life too thin.
ARDIZZONE: Can I ask a semi-tactless question?
WETHERELL: Sure. Or even a wholly tactless one.
ARDIZZONE: You'll be 70 in October. That's pretty old for a short story writer working at your level. Welty and Cheever both gave up writing stories while in their 50's, and now I see Alice Munro has retired from writing them, too. You've been doing this a long time now, putting out a very considerable body of work. Any thoughts of retirement?
WETHERELL: I dropped out of college when I was nineteen, sat down at a ping-pong table in my parents' basement, wrote a story in long hand on yellow legal paper. There's never been a moment in the years since when I haven't either been working on a story or daydreaming about a story or actively plotting one out. So--retiring? I'd like to think I'd have the guts someday. But the inertia of 50 years worth of story writing still sends me to my desk every morning.
(Note: A longer version of the interview is available upon request.)