One of the great things about hosting a show about things you think are awesome is that people who share your values listen — and often they’re awesome themselves. Novelist Antoine Wilson and I had emailed about the show before I even knew he was a writer. When he wrote a new (and highly critically acclaimed) book, “The Interloper,” I had former intern Tim Noble, a fiction writer himself, talk with him about the book and writing. – Jesse
Tim Noble: The Interloper hinges on a very unique and rather drastic decision by its protagonist. How did the idea for The Interloper come about? How much was plotted beforehand and how much came about “in the moment”?
Antoine Wilson: I can trace the origins of the germ to a single thought I had while cruising eastbound on the I-80 in a silver Lincoln Town Car in the summer of 1998. The thought was this: What if, at one of these gas stations, or behind the desk of one of these motels, or in a random bar, what if I ran into the man who had murdered my half-brother almost twenty years before? What would I do? That germ remained in the back of my head another four years before it turned into Owen’s cockamamie plan. As far as plotting goes, it was all plotted “in the moment.” Only that moment lasted two years.
TN: Do you think it’s possible to write a novel so closely dealing with death without the type of experience you went through?
AW: Absolutely it’s possible. Thinking deeply about experiences that are not your own is one of the novelist’s most crucial muscles. It’s the quadriceps, for heavy lifting. But of course the biceps get all the attention. In any case, what I meant by my statement was simply that I wouldn’t have chosen the subject matter if it hadn’t come from personal experience. I’m not interested in writing crime fiction, per se.
TN: The book deals in some dark and strange areas of the human psyche, but at the same time, contains a good bit of humor and reads fairly quickly. Is there a line between literature and “pop” fiction, and, if so, do you give much thought to what category your own writing might fall under? I’m thinking during the editing process particularly.
AW: I’ve been trying to define some of these things for myself recently, so it’s good you ask. My working distinction between so-called pop or genre fiction and so-called literature is that while the former aims to create a specific, almost programmatic experience for the reader, the latter is more open to how it is read and received. You get the sense in the former that the writer has created an entertainment, whereas with the latter the writer is engaged in trying to understand or bring order to human experience.
Of course there are genre and/or pop books that go quite deep despite their trappings, and there are plenty of literary-labeled stories of struggle and redemption that are no more than potboilers. I don’t think too much about what category I belong to; I’m aspiring to literature all the time, in that I’m more interested in creating something organic and true than perfecting an entertainment. That said, The Interloper is a fairly lean and tight machine—the fact that Owen is pursuing a plan pushed it in that direction, I think. I pared away quite a few thematically-based digressions before the manuscript went out. It didn’t have to do with making it more pop or less literary; I was just staying true to the concerns of the book.
TN: What led you into fiction writing? Was there a particular moment that the light bulb went on, and you thought, “This is what I want to do for a living?”
AW: Who makes a living? Perhaps it would be better to say, “This is what I want to do with my life.” For me it happened somewhere in the middle of college. I had always written, had always wanted to write, but it wasn’t until I decided to quit my job as an EMT and decide not to apply to medical school that I put my chips down, so to speak. I was influenced in this decision by three books (all of which I’m afraid to go back and read now): The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster; Another Country by James Baldwin; and V. by Thomas Pynchon. I don’t know exactly how those three worked their magic on me, but they did.
TN: You attended the prestigious writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa. Could you talk about your experience there? Many aspiring writers today see an MFA as the only logical step after college – are these workshops worth all the hype?
AW: I had a great experience at Iowa. Two years under the umbrella of the academy with no goal other than to write fiction. I’m sure I picked up lots of craft tips, and I know I became a better writer, but I’d say the most valuable lesson I learned was to take myself seriously as a writer. And to begin to take myself seriously as a human being. As far as the hype, well, you know what Public Enemy had to say about that. I don’t mean to be glib. In general I highly recommend MFA programs for people who really want to write—at the very least you become a better reader and a better critic of your own work. I just wouldn’t suggest going into massive debt to attend one.
TN: You occasionally teach writing classes at UCLA. How do you approach the prickly task of teaching others to write, a talent some would say falls under the category of “you either have it or you don’t”? Has the experience helped your own writing at all?
AW: I have no idea whether teaching helps my writing. They’re two very different things, and I’m always struggling to bring them together. While it’s probably true that “you either have it or you don’t,” I’m not sure it’s my job to be the judge. I remember my own early stories. They blew chunks. Misguided, immature, poorly developed chunks. So I try to nudge people forward in doing whatever it is they’re trying to do. And while I encounter a lost cause now and then, every once in a while someone blows my socks off, which is always a treat.
AW: Who’s the best author we’ve never heard of?
AW: If you haven’t heard of Thomas Bernhard, it’s Thomas Bernhard. If you have, it’s Bohumil Hrabal. If you’ve heard of him, too, maybe Lars Gustafsson. If all of those are old news, try the stories of Maile Chapman or Jack Livings—neither of them have a book yet, so you probably haven’t read too much of them. If you have, how about Eric Bennett? You’ll have to wait on him, but it will be worth it.
If you want to see some of the raves for Antoine Wilson’s new novel “The Interloper,” just visit the front page of his website, where they are tastefully laid out.