Interview: Joan Wickersham
Conducted July 2014
Issue No. 5 – September 2014
Joan Wickersham was born in New York City and grew up there and in Connecticut. Her new book of fiction, The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story, was published by Knopf in October 2012. Her memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order was a National Book Award Finalist. She is also the author of a novel, The Paper Anniversary.
Her fiction has appeared in magazines including Agni, Glimmer Train, The Hudson Review, New England Review, Ploughshares and Story, and has also been published in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and other anthologies. She has published essays and reviews in Glamour, Yankee, The Los Angeles Times, and The International Herald Tribune; and her op-ed column appears regularly in The Boston Globe. She has read her work on National Public Radio’s “On Point” and “Morning Edition.” She also writes frequently about architecture, including “The Lurker,” a column she created for Architecture Boston magazine.
She has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story and has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, The Massachusetts Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo. She graduated from Yale with a degree in art history, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two sons.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: You refer to the collected shorts of The News from Spain as “seven variations on a love story.” Of course, the story settings themselves crisscross a generous swath of literary and real-world history, with little formal overlap beyond the recurrence of the title motif. Was there a sense during your writing process that these pieces would emerge so thematically uniform – seven takes on the same central tale? How did that develop?
JOAN WICKERSHAM: This book didn’t grow out of separate stories; it was conceived as a unified piece right from the beginning. I had the idea to try to write a book in which all the stories would have the same title, “The News from Spain,” but the phrase would mean something different in each story. It was a somewhat whimsical idea, and if it hadn’t worked I would have seen it as just an exercise to help generate some new pieces, and would have dropped the idea of a book. But I hoped the stories would start to talk to each other, like the movements of a piece of music; and hoped that the phrase would develop an accrued resonance, something deeply felt and elusive, as the book went along.
BA: That notion of the ‘universal story’ perhaps appears strongest in your closing piece, in which a married woman falls for another man. This man is only referred to as ‘A,’ so as to “shrink him a little,” to reduce him to a surrogate for all the ‘other men’ in the world. Their affair never takes off. The story comes to its natural close. And then you do something fantastic, and leave us with this:
You meet someone, you fall in love, you marry. You meet someone, you fall in love, it turns into a disaster. You meet someone, you fall in love, but one of you is married, or both are: you have or don’t have an affair. You meet someone, you fall in love…
It’s a beautiful reminder that all lives, all stories are echoes of one another, with little flourishes thrown into the details. How, as a writer, do you sort that out? How do you make sense of both the infinite potential of storytelling and the concession that everything’s been done before?
JW: Your last sentence is such a good way of expressing the central paradox of this book, and maybe of all writing, and of love for that matter. It’s always new and individual and specific, and it’s also always the same story over and over. But as a reader and as a writer, I fervently believe in the infinite possibilities of storytelling. And I reject, or try to ignore, the notion that everything’s been done before. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing about; what matters is how you write it. I think that if you go really deeply and honestly and patiently into what you’re working on, and let things sit for a while between drafts (I mean months, sometimes years), and keep your bullshit detector finely tuned to get rid of the places where you’re imitating someone else, or striving for effect, or censoring yourself because you’re worried about what someone else might think, you can eventually get to something that feels new and right.
BA: Your writing is unusually adept at divorcing love from sex, or even romance. While your characters recognize adultery as physical betrayal, they also interpret the spark of longing itself as a kind of consummating act, even when unrequited, even when those same characters find themselves powerless against that desire. How do you read love as distinct from marriage, or sexuality, or monogamy? What to you, from a literary perspective, is love?
JW: We tend to equate love with action, maybe especially in fiction, movies, and TV where there’s an expectation that feelings will be dramatized. But I am more interested in the weird messy private stuff we feel but don’t act on – don’t even necessarily tell anyone else we’re feeling. There’s sex without love, sure, but there’s also love, or love and desire, without sex – between friends, between a woman and a gay man, between people happily married to other people. I never realize what I’m writing about until long after I’ve finished, but I think a lot of this book has to do with whether we feel shame about these unruly passionate longings, or simply accept them as human: the struggle between humiliation and dignity.
BA: Several of the stories featured in The News from Spain center around pre-existing figures: Eleanor Roosevelt and George Balanchine make veiled appearances, and you weave Mozart, Da Ponte and their characters from The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni into a single complex narrative. What was it like drawing from outside sources like these? Did you feel at all restricted by the histories and expectations these characters bring with them?
JW: I am so moved by those figures, but my interest in them was not biographical and I wasn’t trying to write historical fiction. I never name them, not out of coyness but more because I’m not writing about those real people – it doesn’t matter if you recognize them or not – but rather doing a fictional riff on the emotional contours of a situation. What would it feel like to be permanently in a wheelchair after having been your husband’s favorite dancer? Or to be an eminent woman in your 60s and falling in love with a much younger man? We do this kind of questioning and imagining and projecting all the time, when we read about historical figures; and we do it with people we love. We think we know them, when all we really know is our imaginary version of them.
The Mozart story came out of my admiration for his treatment, in the operas, of women who’ve been kicked around by love. Again, it’s that struggle between humiliation and dignity – with Rosina and Elvira, you feel that love tries to make fools of them but fails, because Mozart gives them such beautiful music. And then that led me to look at Mozart and Da Ponte, and the part that humiliation can play in artists’ lives and their work. The story sort of wrote itself, in that lovely way that sometimes happens. And it was especially fun when I realized, partway through, that the most famous line in the most famous aria in Don Giovanni, the catalogue aria, concerns a piece of news from Spain.
BA: Another one of your stories from The News from Spain was anthologized in the 2013 edition of The Best American Short Stories. This was your second inclusion, following the appearance of “Commuter Marriage” in the 1990 edition. How’s it feel to appear in such a well-regarded publication? Do you feel that this “variation” of The News from Spain stands as well on its own, or would you prefer readers encounter it as part of a greater whole?
JW: Well, it’s terrific when you find out they’ve chosen your story – you might do a cartwheel, if you know how (I never could). And really good to be in company with the series and with the other writers in the book. The story [2013 guest editor] Elizabeth Strout chose is about a woman who has spent years trying to juggle her own life with the need to take care of her mother, who’s now in a nursing home. Both characters have love affairs going on, but the story’s real romance is between the two of them – this long, prickly, frank, deep and maddening love between a mother and a daughter. I think it works fine on its own – I wanted each of the “News from Spain” stories to feel complete, as packed and rich as a little novel – but of course I hope that a reader who finds it in The Best American Short Stories might be led to The News from Spain, to see how those seven pieces work in concert.
BA: In 2008 you published The Suicide Index, a form-busting memoir that attempts to work through the before, during and after of your father’s death as though it were a document pulled from the back of a cabinet (“Suicide: finding some humor in: ashes, p.105”). It’s a brutally personal work, but also not unlike The News from Spain in its attempt to force structure onto the pain and chaos of human life. From an outsider perspective, this appears like something of a mission statement for your writing: “To make life less messy.” What do you make of that assessment? It feels like such an impossible goal.
JW: I’d actually say, “To find ways of storytelling that let life be as messy as it really is.” With The Suicide Index, the mess came first: I worked on the book for ten years before that index structure emerged and pulled it together, which paradoxically allowed it to really bust loose. And as I said earlier, The News from Spain started with the structure and then turned out to be about all these messy feelings.
Conventional linear narrative is often artificially clean. I’m interested in figuring out a new structure – the right structure for each particular story – that buckles the reader in safely so that the ride can be as wild as it really needs to be.
BA: You’re a regular columnist for the Boston Globe, writing on subjects as varied as public affairs, marriage advice, the literary world and your own neighborhood in Cambridge. How’d you get into journalism? Do you feel it compliments your work in fiction?
JW: In 2009 the Globe asked me to be a guest op-ed columnist for six weeks. I started with a piece about what Jane Austen might think if she looked herself up on Amazon. The editor asked if I’d like to stay on, and I’ve been writing the column ever since. I love the constraints – 700 words, with a deadline every other week – and also love experimenting with all the different forms an op-ed can take: a personal essay, a piece of literary criticism, a satire of online reader comments, a deadpan rendering of the rhetoric in gun magazines. Most of my columns are not tied to immediate news events so I have the luxury to put several days into each piece, more if research is involved. Recently, for instance, I hung around for a few days at the courthouse watching probation officers work, and went out with them at night on home visits to gang members on probation. You ask about how the column affects the fiction – I think that writing in any form makes you a better writer in all forms. Occasionally, though, I take a sabbatical from the column; I find I need some spans of time where I’m free to concentrate only on my own work.
BA: We just discovered your Architecture Boston column “The Lurker” in the course of doing research for this interview and we love it! It’s another play on form, merging “live” blogging, snippets of overhead conversation and observational humor in short, lively posts that feel like the perfect way to talk about the value of design in the Twitter Age. How’d you come up with it?
JW: Oh, I’m so glad you found those pieces – I loved writing them. Elizabeth Padjen, who was then the editor of Architecture Boston, asked me to write a regular column about hanging out with people whose work involved design in some way. I decided to structure each piece as a timeline, and to write in a terse no-comment sort of style – only of course you can slip in a lot of comment just by choosing what to write about and which details to include. Some of the pieces were directly related to architecture, but most were farther afield: sitting in on a marketing meeting at a cemetery; spending a day with a janitor cleaning apartment buildings; hanging out with the manager of Boston’s sewage treatment plant; a walk through New York’s Museum of Sex; a minute-by-minute synopsis of the movie The Fountainhead (a movie I would strongly recommend, the next time you’re in the mood to watch something unintentionally funny).
BA: We’ll be blunt: we don’t know anything about architecture. (Well, that’s not true – Katie has a pair of art history degrees, but Max is hopeless.) Where does your interest in the field come from? What more can you tell us about the art of contemporary architecture?
JW: My husband, Jay, teaches courses in the history and ethics of the architectural profession. We’ve been together for a really long time – since college – and when we travel we always go to cities. We walk around and look at buildings and he tells me stories about who built them and why and how, and what happened when the money ran out or the client was poisoned or pushed out of power or the architect got into a rivalry with another architect. He’s a wonderful storyteller and teacher, and over the years I’ve caught a little bit of his knowledge and a lot of his enthusiasm.
And there’s something else I’ve learned from him that has to do with architecture and writing – literally with structure. When, after ten years of working on the book about my father’s suicide, I came up with the idea of using an index structure, I had doubts about whether it would work. Jay told me that at the École des Beaux-Arts, architecture students were taught to design using a parti—an initial formal concept that guides the design process. It might or might not be visible in the finished building, but it would serve as a kind of organizing principle to help generate and clarify the design. This helps me a lot when I am working on an early draft and also later on in a project: to figure out and stick with a parti, which I can always discard later.
BA: You’ve now completed the novel-memoir-short story collection trifecta and broke a number of structural rules along the way. What do you have planned for your next release?
JW: I never know how to explain what I’m working on – it always sounds stupid, and then the other person gives me a look that says, “That sounds stupid,” and I get derailed. So. Now I just smile and say, “Um, well, I’m not sure.”