Wells Tower - All the American characters are Vikings: randomly violent, tough, and dangerous to know, invading a tiny country for no apparent reason

Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009)

"We begin with a story of a man waking on the floor of a beach house, saltine crumbs lodged in his ass. We conclude, in the title story, with an ambivalent Viking’s ruminations on love: “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself.”
Tower’s families and hapless men are bent and broken in a multitude of surprising and delightful ways. In “Leopard,” a boy’s attempts to outfox his wicked stepfather are complicated by a runaway pet leopard. In “Down Through the Valley,” a man is cajoled into picking up his ex-wife’s injured lover from a New Age spiritual retreat.
Tower occasionally over-explains, and some images seem enamored with their own (admittedly undeniable) beauty, but these are minor quibbles. Wells Tower is a ferociously talented writer, author of one of the most powerful and entertaining books you’re likely to come across this year." - Justin Taylor

"A debut story collection from Pushcart Prize winner Tower. Tower's stories could last 15 rounds with Donald Ray Pollock's story collection Knockemstiff (2008), after which both volumes would likely scrape themselves off the mat, bloody and raw, and go split a bottle of rotgut whiskey. Most of these stories have first-person narrators, many of them middle-aged men, who turn to alcohol to numb the pain of familial discord or divorce. Not that all of these narratives are variations on a single theme. Sibling rivalry seethes through "Retreat," which begins: "Five is about the number of strong drinks it takes to make me want to call my brother on the phone." A father's death sends a good man spiraling into a living hell in the opening story, "The Brown Coast." In "Leopard," the second-person narration invites the reader to enter the consciousness of an 11-year-old boy, his innocence undermined by masturbation, murder and a tense relationship with his stepfather. "On the Show" reinforces everything scary associated with traveling carnivals-the carnies featured include a heroin addict, a child molester and a young man on the run from a fight with his stepfather. After many stories set in the indeterminate present, the title story, which closes the collection, concerns marauding Vikings, with the final paragraph offering the closest thing to an affirmation you'll find in these pages. The title barely hints at the scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners power of the stories." -Kirkus Reviews

"Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a peculiar, visceral debut. Fathers express love and loathing to their sons in equal measure: "Burt, fight to death before you let somebody put you in his car" is what passes for paternal wisdom in "Executors of Important Energies," a story that chronicles—with brutal, excruciating clarity—the last undoing of a parent in his son's eyes. "Either way, you're probably dead, and believe me, it's better to check out before they get creative on you." Seemingly random acts radiate enormous menace. In "Down Through the Valley," a man, Ed, is forced to take a long car ride with his young daughter, Marie, and his wife Jane's new lover, Barry. "The sky was going dark," writes Tower, "when Marie bent over in her seat and did a strange thing. She leaned her head down and put her lips on the gearshift. She got the whole thing in her mouth and it stretched her jaw open all the way. A ribbon of slobber slid down onto the gear boot and twinkled in the green glow of the dashboard." Her father, repulsed, tries to pull her off. "It's all right, Ed," says Barry. "Jane and I let her do that on long trips. The vibrations relax her."
There is always, just off the margins, a kind of dread and cruelty lurking, waiting to burst onto the page. Tower is a burgeoning master of articulating the weird shapes our private fears take when they become public—or real. The ambient unease of "Down Through the Valley" soon erupts past terror into violence, displaced onto a bystander. There and elsewhere, the author is eerily, painfully adept at observing the exact moment of our own self-destruction, when the implicit becomes horribly overt.
The title story, Tower's most bighearted and sentimental, is not coincidentally the one in which the violence is least sublimated: The story chronicles the marital and pillaging difficulties of a roaming band of blood-soaked Vikings. "I guess I'm just drawn to people who defeat themselves," says Tower, picking out the common thread. "People who really want human connection, or who want a safe harbor, but can never have that, or somehow fuck that up."
"There are lots of books being written about America today. Many even use America in the title. But the country they depict often looks nothing like the country in which we actually live. Except the country that Wells Tower depicts." - Zach Baron

"I thought the universal order of smart folks had agreed we were now living in a post-American world. If that's the case, then what's up with all the new novels that use American in the title — at least seven in 2008 alone. Maybe part of the answer is that we're a nation that has largely abandoned reading without entirely giving up on the mythic idea of the Great American Novel. I'm talking about old-school, realist fiction that seeks to show us who we are and how we might have gotten into this mess; books that are American in more than name alone. The way we live now, dig?
Here's what we have instead, the latest "American" novel, American Rust. Its author, Philipp Meyer, writes heavy sentences full of monosyllables and simple truths. ("It is a good life to walk into someplace and eat food.") He knows how to break a story into three reasonably compelling acts. And even if the pitch is somewhat familiar — a pair of friends from a mining town commit a crime that threatens to change everything — the story is paced well. But for all the weight of its title, what American Rust actually delivers isn't so much Tom Joad as Joe the Plumber. This isn't the America we actually live in; it's a caricature populated by movie actors and a cardboard set of boarded factories. The writing, I think, is supposed to mimic the speech patterns of white working-class people. Instead, it sounds like an Ivy Leaguer mimicking the speech patterns of white working-class people. It's one part Woody Guthrie, one part All the Pretty Horses, and 98 parts Hillary Clinton.
We need something better and more honest than that. We need books that offer us a picture of the America we actually live in, rather than the one the Palins are selling us. We need books like Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. The stories in this new fiction collection by Wells Tower are set mostly in the places we do not wish to vacation in, but where many of us live. These are grim suburbs. Rings of shopping centers. Towns delineated by restaurants. The stories open with hangovers, fuel themselves on lousy food, and often end in extended, involuntary vacations. The emphasis is on life as it is lived — not in the grandeur of the cineplex but in small houses, and in the small moments of boredom and despair that characterize so much of our lives.
This isn't The Grapes of Wrath, to be sure. Tower doesn't offer much hope. Nor does he offer an elegy. And yet what his portraits lack in grandeur, they compensate for in their accuracy. The America depicted here is jittery and exhausted. Nobody solves the crime. And nobody gets away with anything. The characters muddle on through. They get drunk and they get sad and they go broke and they perform weird acts of kindness, and sometimes they invade smaller countries for no good reason. I mean they live the way we Americans do." - Benjamin Alsup

"Anyone who’s taken even a lazy stroll through the well-worn territory of destructive fictional masculinity—Hemingway, Carver, Faulkner, Roth, Cheever, Yates, Bolaño, et al.—will recognize the basic flora and fauna of Wells Tower’s stories: the hunting trips, the fistfights, the hard drinking, the adultery. He is, like his great forebears, a connoisseur of violence. His debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, is (as its apocalyptic title suggests) an astonishingly well-stocked smorgasbord of cruelty, coercion, insult, and predation. It opens with a man waking to a feeling of dread, a cracker shard “lodged deep into his buttock crack, like a flint arrowhead,” and things only get more sinister from there. A cat eats a baby pigeon, slowly. A loathsome little sea cucumber (“it looked like the turd of someone who’d been eating rubies”) poisons, overnight, an entire tank of exotic fish. Brothers nurture mutual addictions to lifelong sadomasochistic rivalries (as one puts it: “I carry a little imp inside me whose ambrosia is my brother’s wrath”). A wife wakes up, screaming, to recurrent visions of a man standing over her. An old father’s brain is pillaged by dementia. The violences compound, quickly and complexly: Peacekeepers escalate the fights they’re trying to stop; a son, slapped by his father, runs to the bathroom and punches himself “several times to ensure a lasting bruise.” Various creatures are elaborately gutted: a moose (“Blood ran from the meat and down my shirt with hideous, vital warmth”), several catfish, and a medieval priest named Naddod.
Tower, who grew up in North Carolina, has been seeding these stories patiently across magazines and literary journals over the last ten years or so, quietly building a reputation as a painstaking stylist devoted to the near-impossible art of highly polished colloquialism. Reading his work piecemeal as it emerged, what stood out most was the lovely warmth of his voice. His sentences are strenuously musical, full of careful detail and surprising metaphors (“sunset still smoldering behind the molars of the Appalachian range”). He has a special talent for channeling the idiosyncrasies of lower-middle-class speech, and his plots often weave around bright little bursts of incidental dialogue:
Then she turned back to her newspaper and brought our chat to an end. The front-page story of the Aroostook Gazette showed a photograph of a dead chow dog, under the headline “Mystery Animal Found Dead in Pinemont.”
“Quite a mystery,” I said. “‘The Case of What Is Obviously a Dog.’”
“‘Undetermined origin,’ says here.”
“It’s a dog, a chow,” I said.
“Undetermined,” the woman said.
I didn’t realize, until I read the stories back to back, how much ugliness Tower forces that voice to contend with. His fictional universe is a perfectly balanced little biosphere of violence and mercy, aggression and nurturing. Epiphanies are instantly spoiled, scams turn out to be acts of kindness, mercy tips easily into sadism. When a victim catches a break, he immediately starts prowling for an advantage. And yet, somehow, the book is not cripplingly depressing. Tower’s voice is too consistently artful and funny and empathetic. Although we’re deep in the familiar backwoods of Man Country (only one of the nine stories is told from a female perspective, and it’s largely about how she’s hemmed in on all sides by males), it also feels like something slightly new in the canon of maleness—a little glade or clearing, where the air is slightly different. His characters’ masculinity is self-aware, regretful, and willing to peek cautiously outside its own borders. In the book’s first story, “The Brown Coast,” a man impulsively flips a large, lazy, hungry exotic fish out of a tide pool and smuggles it home wrapped in a wet T-shirt; as he runs, it bucks and flaps against his body, leading him to consider, briefly, life on the other side of the fence: “It was a violent and vital sensation, and Bob wondered for a moment if it was anything like this when a woman had a baby inside her.”
The book’s most memorable story is also its most unusual. The title story abandons Tower’s typical cast of (roughly) contemporary Americans in favor of a boatload of Vikings heading off to plunder a tiny, defenseless island. It functions as a kind of test case for the Tower aesthetic. Viking violence is inherently mythic, its mundane cruelty having been worn away by centuries of History Channel specials. The story’s expedition is led by Djarf Fairhair, an embodiment of pure legendary violence: He eats food out of dead men’s stomachs, clubs people with severed legs, strides across the shoulders of enemy armies lopping heads off, and (in one of the book’s more horrifying scenes) matter-of-factly performs something called a “blood eagle,” a form of torture that involves pulling a victim’s still-breathing lungs out through holes in his back. “As Naddod huffed and gasped,” the narrator tells us before he looks away, “the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings.” (Historians speculate, terribly, that this was a real Viking ritual.)
Tower seems to enjoy undercutting this kind of romanticized barbarity. In a clever reversal, he has his Vikings speak in the same lower-middle-class Americanisms as the rest of his characters. His narrator is Harald, a reluctant raider who would have preferred to stay home with his wife, working his land, and who (at least until the end) refuses to participate in any pillaging. Midway through the attack, a farmer named Bruce comes out to shoot the breeze with Harald and the other nice Vikings:
“So what are you doing, any looting?”
“Why? You got anything to loot?”
“Me? Oh, no. Got a decent cookstove, but I can’t see you toting that back on the ship.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a coin hoard or anything buried out back.” “Jeezum crow, I wish I did have. Coin hoard, I’d really turn things around for myself.”
Although Harald and his friends never pillage outright, they do end up committing a more ambiguous act of violence, and the book finishes as it began—with a man waking up haunted by a feeling of doom: “You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. It’s crazy-making, yet you cling to them with everything and close your eyes against the rest of it. But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home.” - Sam Anderson

"Familial love is a double-edged sword. Loved ones can act as the most essential structure for support, and they can also be the first to break down the very foundation they helped to build. For those who gather their emotional strength from their family unit, as a child, from their parents, or in a family they create themselves through marriage, it’s an understatement to say these are the ties that bind. They are the veins that hold us together, regardless of how much we may want to shake off their sinewy grasp.
In Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a debut short fiction collection from Wells Tower, we’re children again, in the tree house or holed up in our bedroom, hiding out at the moment of disconnect when our world comes crashing down around us: our parents are human! Our children are strangers. Suddenly, we’re adults. The characters in these stories are all recovering from the demise of a major relationship: a broken marriage, neglectful parents, ungrateful children, lack of sex, sexual abuse, and overall disillusionment with the people closest to them.
In the opening story, Bob’s entire life falls apart after the death of his father--much to his surprise. “Bob had not been close to his father, so it was puzzling for him and also for his wife, Vicky, when his father’s death touched off in him an angry lassitude that curdled his enthusiasm for work and married life.”
In “Executors of Important Energies,” Burt’s relationship with his father goes from strained to non-existent when his dad develops an Alzheimer’s-like disease. “I was in my twenties when my father’s mind began to go. At first, I thought his failure to remember where I was living, or that I’d finished school was just a deepening of the aggressive indifference with which he’d always treated me, but it turned out to be something that a dozen good neurologists couldn’t figure out.”
In both stories, though neither man is emotionally close to his father, the death one of one and the illness of another sends them reeling.
The most crystallized, intriguing moment of disillusionment comes in “Wild America,” the only story in the collection with a female narrator. Jacey, an unsurprisingly awkward teenager, is traumatized when her ballerina cousin comes to visit. When she ventures into the woods with a boy she’s humoring and the cousin steals the spotlight, her ego can’t handle the sleight. She skulks off into the forest and encounters a stranger drinking beer by the river. The scene escalates as she agrees to get in his car, where he molests her. More shocking and intriguing than Jacey’s attack is the way Tower chooses to end the story. As Jacey drives by, she spies her father out in the driveway:
"At the sight of her father, fear went out of Jacey, and cold mortification
took its place. There he stood, not yet forty, bald as an apple, and beaming
out an uncomprehending fat-boy’s smile. His face, swollen with recent sunburn, glowed against the green dark of the rosebushes at his back. He wore the cheap rubber sandals Jacey hated, and a black T-shirt airbrushed with the heads of howling wolves, whose smaller twin lay at the bottom of Jacey’s closet with the price tag still attached. Exhausted gray socks collapsed around his thick ankles, which rose to the familiar legs Jacey herself was afflicted with, bowed and trunk-like things a lifetime of exercise would never much improve. Her humiliation was sudden and solid and without thought or reason.
"But the wordless, exposed sensation overwhelming her was that her father wasn’t quite a person, not really, but a private part of her, a curse of pinkness and squatness and cureless vulnerability that Jacey was right alone to keep hidden from the world."
In this story and nearly every other in the book, the recognition of a latent displeasure or disgust with a disappointing relation sets of a cardinal insecurity in the character themselves, as if, after being put-down again and again, they finally agree with their oppressor and see themselves as failures.
In “Retreat,” two very different brothers just simply can’t understand each other, yet they persist in trying to force each other to conform to each other’s philosophy of life. A visit from Matt’s brother Stephen sends him down a spiral of regret. “I thought of Stephen and me and the children we’d failed to produce, and how in the diminishing likelihood that I did find someone to smuggle my genetic material into, by the time our little one could tie his shoes, his father would be a florid fifty-year-old who would suck the innocence and joy from his child as greedily as a desert wanderer savaging a found orange.”
Even in the end, the ultimate symbol of their brotherly bond continues to be their failure: the meat from a regal moose Matt kills on the hunt goes sour before the men can eat it. The communal let down, the shared suffering of these characters serves as a uniting force—just like siblings will bond over the abuse of a shared parent.
Since this collection debuted, most reviewers have heralded as a signal of the return of macho man writing. Elizabeth Gumport astutely raises this issue in her review for Bookslut, wondering if perhaps Wells Tower is being lumped into a group of writers to which he doesn’t really belong (Denis Johnson, Roberto Bolaño). She’s right—while the stories here are similarly violent, it’s not as if they fall into some macho, action movie genre. A more appropriate comparison would be to the work of Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections seethes with the same aggression and resentment. And boy, do Tower’s men have “daddy issues.” They house a maelstrom of anger against their inadequate fathers, knowing that they’re doomed to make the same mistakes. And while these men are masculine, they are also keenly aware of their own sensitivity.
Wells Tower is not solely interested in damage and violence for its shock value—he’s more intrigued by its genesis and the way it ricochets off everything we do. His attention to the relationship between a pair of brothers, father and daughter, or father and son, proves that he’s more interested in people, as they enter and exit our lives: especially those who tend to stick to our bones, our family. The world he’s created isn’t a nice one, and Tower, bravely, isn’t afraid to suggest that it’s better to abandon some relationships. After all, to cleanse a dying forest, you’ve got to burn down a few trees." - Jessica Ferri

"In the nine stories in his first book, Wells Tower has invented a world of rough men and strong women. Often the men are older, battered, no longer successful, and the women have had their patience sorely tried. The husband’s affair in “The Brown Coast” is discovered in a novel way — when his wife realizes that the small footprint on the front window of their car doesn’t match her own. After she throws him out of the house, he retreats to his uncle’s shack on a rocky, unappealing island in Florida. The narrator of “Retreat” has been through two amiable divorces and is now living on a mountain in Maine that he plans to subdivide into one-acre plots, suitable for men like himself. He thinks there are probably lots of them out there, “sad, paunchy hordes” of them,“nightly pacing carpeted apartments from Spokane to Chattanooga, frantic for escape hatches of their own.”
In the nine stories in his first book, Wells Tower has invented a world of rough men and strong women. Often the men are older, battered, no longer successful, and the women have had their patience sorely tried. The husband’s affair in “The Brown Coast” is discovered in a novel way — when his wife realizes that the small footprint on the front window of their car doesn’t match her own. After she throws him out of the house, he retreats to his uncle’s shack on a rocky, unappealing island in Florida. The narrator of “Retreat” has been through two amiable divorces and is now living on a mountain in Maine that he plans to subdivide into one-acre plots, suitable for men like himself. He thinks there are probably lots of them out there, “sad, paunchy hordes” of them,“nightly pacing carpeted apartments from Spokane to Chattanooga, frantic for escape hatches of their own.”
Although the narrator and his nerdy music therapist brother have always been almost murderous rivals, when he calls to invite him for a visit (“From Stephen’s end came the sound of someone doing violence to a tambourine”) the invitation is accepted. But it’s no surprise that everything turns out badly. Stephen’s plane arrives when it’s not expected; stranded in a muddy field, he’s already fuming. The next day, the two brothers go hunting with a neighbor and — well, I don’t want to spoil the story, but let’s just say things don’t turn out as expected.
In “Down Through the Valley,” Jane has left the narrator for her meditation teacher, Barry, and has taken their daughter off with them to an ashram. When Jane undergoes a long “isolation” at the retreat and Barry breaks his ankle, the narrator is persuaded to drive Barry and the little girl back home. The situation that ensues is fraught — and ultimately violent — but along the way there are hilarious insights into the feelings of two male rivals. “No belly,” the narrator reports, checking out Barry, “smooth skin, full head of hair, better-looking than me.” When Barry picks up the child to carry her to the car, the narrator sourly observes that this practiced gesture “showed he’d held her like this many times before.” Nor can the narrator stop conjuring up images of Barry the Meditation Meister in bed with compliant Jane: “You don’t want to get into thoughts about Hovering Butterflies or the Jade Stalk, or the Door of the Holy Abode, when you can remember one time, a few times actually, when you came home late under a fair amount of liquor and you got on top of your sleeping wife going, ‘Come on, Mother, can’t we poon?’ ”
If the narrators and antiheroes of Tower’s stories are half-defeated he-men, bumbling and only partly tamed, then their rivals or antagonists are self-satisfied shamans or therapists or frontier socialists. In “Leopard,” a young boy has a hateful stepfather who does nothing but make mulch and think up chores for the kid to perform. Addressing himself in the second person, the boy thinks, “As a young liar, you can generally get pretty far on the assumption that adults have more important things to worry about than catching out a kid for every little fraud he tries to pull. But your stepfather seems to have plenty of time to study and doubt everything that comes out of your mouth.”
If the intersection between hotheads and cool customers is one of the aspects of Tower’s fiction, another is class conflict. In the story called “Wild America,” a middle-class girl flirts with a louche stranger who plies her with beer, and for a moment she forgets the ordinariness of her life. But when he drives her home, her heart sinks:
“At the sight of her father, the fear went out of Jacey, and cold mortification took its place. There he stood, not yet 40, bald as an apple, and beaming out an uncomprehending fat-boy’s smile. His face, swollen with a recent sunburn, glowed against the green dark of the rosebushes at his back. He wore the cheap rubber sandals Jacey hated, and a black T-shirt airbrushed with the heads of howling wolves, whose smaller twin lay at the bottom of Jacey’s closet with the price tag still attached. Exhausted gray socks collapsed around his thick ankles, which rose to the familiar legs Jacey herself was afflicted with, bowed and trunk-like things a lifetime of exercise would never much improve. Her humiliation was sudden and solid and without thought or reason. But the wordless, exposed sensation overwhelming her was that her father wasn’t quite a person, not really, but a private part of her, a curse of pinkness and squatness and cureless vulnerability that was Jacey’s right alone to keep hidden from the world.”
I quote this passage at such length because it reveals all the tensile strength of Tower’s remarkable style. His syntax, though always easy to follow, is supple enough to wrap itself around several shades of meaning in the same sentence. His understanding of previously under-recognized feelings (in this case, the humiliation of family resemblance) is rich in detail and passionate in utterance. And his familiarity with the whole ghastly world of malls and “cute” commercial culture is serious, even plangent, certainly not merely satirical.
Every one of the stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is polished and distinctive. Though he’s intrigued by the painful experiences of men much older than he is, Tower can write with equal power about young women and boys; about hell-raising, skull-bashing ancient Vikings and an observant housebound old man of the 21st century, even about a cheerful, insouciant pedophile. His range is wide and his language impeccable, never strained or fussy. His grasp of human psychology is fresh and un-Freudianizing.
Ezra Pound once said that the most memorable passages are those that encapsulate kinetic movement rather than static images. He would have liked Tower’s description of a power boat as it “bullied its way through the low swells, a fat white fluke churning up behind us.” And he’d have appreciated Tower’s rendition of a broken exhaust, which sounds “like someone in a suit of armor getting dragged up the street.” Tower’s dialogue is as crisp and contemporary and offbeat as Lorrie Moore’s and his vision of America as despairing as Joy Williams’s (to cite just two of our greatest short story writers).
I once wondered why Surrealism never really caught on as a literary strategy in America. Wells Tower makes me think that nothing bizarre someone might dream up could ever be as strange as American life as we live it. The “beyond” that the Surrealists talked about so much, the au-delà, is America itself." - Edmund White

"In the title story of his debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower uses contemporary American idiom to tell the story of a Viking having second thoughts about his career as a plunderer and pillager.
We've seen reluctant detectives, hitmen and superheroes but never a foot-dragging sacker of cities. It's a weirdly empathetic and altogether unforgettable tale, but once you get past the absurdity of characters with names like Naddod the Norwegian Monk and Djarf Fairhair talking like teenagers around a game of Dungeons and Dragons, the story is fairly conventional: a young man in love must choose between the safety of the life he knows -- the perils of long sea voyages and raiding villages notwithstanding -- and the unknown terrors of raising a family.
For all the literary pyrotechnics on display in this curious narrative, the rest of the stories are surprisingly straightforward. In fact, Tower's skill at things like exposition and characterization mark him as almost old-fashioned.
The story "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" was first published in the New York literary magazine Fence way back in 2002. The story won the Pushcart Prize and was anthologized in The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories in 2004. In other words, this fresh new voice in American fiction is neither fresh nor new; and that's precisely what makes the arrival of this incredible talent so compelling.
Tower's subject? He doesn't have one. He adeptly tackles all manner of familial conflicts: father vs. son, brother vs. brother, husband vs. wife, boy vs. stepfather, in other words, the world. (It must be said that all but one of the nine stories in the collection are told from the point of view of male protagonists.) The stories are set in locales scattered across the country, yet Tower displays the authority of a regional writer:
"He crossed the cockeyed patio. Tiny lizards scattered from his path. He followed the sound of waves to the end of the yard, through a stand of pine trees, limbless and spectral. He stepped from the pines onto a road paved with oyster shells whose brightness in the morning light made his eyes clench up."
It's hard to imagine anyone, much less a literary-minded fellow, paying such loving attention to coastal Florida, but the details are conjured up so thoroughly one can almost hear the skinks scurrying for cover in the understory.
Tower brings his keen powers of observation to bear on the human form as well. In "Executors of Important Energies," a hustler's broken front tooth is described as "a tiny gray guillotine." A tall girl with too much makeup on in "Down Through the Valley" is "a bleached giraffe in tight jeans."
It sometimes feels as if there's nothing Tower can't render in arresting fashion. Near the end of "Retreat," a hunter who has killed a moose and cut out the short ribs and tenderloin characterizes the latter as "a tapered log of flesh that looked like a peeled boa constrictor." Tower's prose is a welcome reminder that the first job of the fiction writer is to introduce the reader to worlds both new and familiar in ways they wouldn't have arrived at on their own.
In the collection's finest story, "On the Show," Tower writes with spellbinding virtuosity. Beginning with the portentous "Now it's dark," the story proceeds with the sun setting on a traveling carnival show. (Readers who have sworn off stories set in zoos and amusement parks will be happy to know that we're not in George Saunders' counterfactual America; sometimes a carnival is just a carnival.)
The sky "glows hyena brown" as egrets take flight over a drainage canal. A lizard, a "Florida anole, cocked on the shoulder of the propane tank beside the service window, slips down the tank's enamel face into a crescent of deep rust."
The surface of the rusting tank prompts the lizard into changing colors, but it's a trick. "Against the lizard's belly, the rust's soothing friction offers an illusion of heat, and the lizard's hide goes from the color of a new leaf to the color of a dead one." This cinematic opening, full of garish colors and things not quite what they seem, introduces an unputdownable whodunit that centers on the molestation of a young boy.
As to why Tower had to wait so many years for his debut is anyone's guess, but one suspects we'll be hearing his name - which invokes prose that is both soaring and deep - for a long time to come." - Jim Ruland

"In his outstanding debut story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower captures a variety of experience that is as far-ranging as it is close to home. These stories of Viking marauders, teenage girls, and fractured families are violent and tender. They're stories told with the kind of honesty that makes us see our worst selves in the best possible light.
In "The Brown Coast," for example, a man named Bob Munroe wakes up "on his face" with a hurting jaw and a "real discomfort in his underpants." Readers quickly realize that this character's dismal physical condition is only rivaled by his desperate emotional state. Munroe has cheated on his wife, and in their separation he's stuck with the impossible task of fixing up his uncle's ramshackle seaside home.
Munroe is middle-aged, unemployed, and otherwise despicable, but readers will find themselves rallying to his side as he tries to capture a bit of beauty in the form of an aquarium "as long as a casket and three feet deep." In Munroe's efforts to sustain this collection of living creatures, we see our own Sisyphean impulse to build something beautiful only to find it broken, to rebuild it only to watch it break again.
Several others in this collection, like Munroe, are men in the middle of relationship meltdowns. "Retreat" is the story of two brothers united after one of them, a twice-divorced real estate shark, invites the other to visit the cabin he's fortifying in a remote part of Maine. In this setting, childhood rivalries become fresh, blossoming into full-blown adult tensions that aren't so far removed from their infantile origins.
In "Down Through the Valley," the narrator gets commissioned to drive his daughter and his ex-wife's lover home from a retreat center. Given the circumstances, the explosion of rage at this story's conclusion isn't so unexpected. And in "Door in Your Eye," an eighty-three-year-old widower strikes up a friendship with a drug dealer who lives across the street from his divorced daughter. The families in Tower's stories are — if not so much like our own — like those we recognize all around us.
Tower's writing has already garnered significant praise, including two Pushcart Prizes and the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review. Although some of these short stories originally appeared in the likes of The New Yorker, Harper's, and McSweeney's, "a number have been extensively revised" for this book. Tower's stories are gems as individual pieces, and they come together here to form a dazzling crown of a collection.
Tower's writing style is fast-paced and funny, but a dark undercurrent runs beneath even the lighter, laugh-out-loud moments. No one walks away unscathed from his or her predicament, as the collection's title story "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" suggests. In this, the book's final story, readers may at first think the shift away from modern American lives to the stuff of Old Norse legends represents something vastly different.
But in fact, we find Tower's Viking characters, Gnut and Djarf and Haakon, slugging it out on the tiny island of Lindisfarne with the same urgency of those living in present-day Manhattan or Charlotte or Mendocino. In "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned," we see how people have struggled from the beginning of time to balance their desire for the so-called "mainstream domestic groove" with their want of the reckless freedom that accompanies the sight of "land scooting away with every jerk of the oars."
The most out-there story in terms of time and place, "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" nonetheless brings this book's themes together. The story's narrator embarks on a bloody assault of a nearby clan, only to return home with the understanding of "how terrible love can be." He lies awake in bed with his wife, fearing for "those people" — his loved ones — and "the things the world will do to them." Each story in this collection bears witness to those "things," and yet we see Tower's characters — from ridiculed pre-teens to ailing fathers to carnival ride operators — marching forward in their midst." - Traci J. Macnamara

"The first things you feel are joy and awe. The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower’s first collection, are pieces that care, first and last, about telling a damn good story. A block-bodied girl uses psy-ops against her impossibly beautiful ballerina cousin. A man slums it on the coast, waiting for his wife’s anger over an affair to cool off so he can go home. A little boy pretends to be sick so he doesn’t have to go to school and have everyone make fun of the burger-shaped fungal infection on his face; instead, he stays at home and is forced to deal with his stepfather’s unyielding demands and salt-of-the-earth instability. Each of these characters is fully realized, selfish and greedy, funny and resourceful. We enjoy spending time with them, and with the well-crafted stories they inhabit. Tower’s use of compression and summary to contextualize poignant or dramatic scenes is elegant and efficient. The granular and hilarious detailing of landscapes—North Carolina’s landscapes, in particular, are exuberantly and beautifully rendered in this collection—and characters is solid, remarkable. The virtuosic moments in Tower’s prose make us gape, wince, laugh out loud: the hilarious or heart-rending one-liners, the hard-eyed endings, the way in which objects are imbued with astonishing, imagined inner lives of their own.
But about halfway through, the ecstatic feelings begin to sour. Page by page, story by story, we begin to doubt the purpose of these stories, to doubt our right to the pleasure we felt reading the first half of the book. These darker feelings accrete, solidify. The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, it must be said, are relentlessly cynical. The blurbs on the book jacket and the front-page review in the New York Times Book Review spin this as a virtue, but after 230 pages, this reader became candy-sick of cleverness. The rotting world of the traveling carnival in “On the Show” owes a great deal to Flannery O’Connor’s tell-it-like-it-is approach to human evil and vanity, and the title story (despite it’s O’Connor-ish title) is heavily indebted to George Saunders and his trademark mode of history as colonized by a contemporary spirit of gleeful anachronicity that talks a little like a TV-addicted teenager and a little like a Human Resources mediator. The heartlessness in many of these stories leaves us feeling the debt more than the gratitude; O’Connor and Saunders both use their stories to point the way away from greed and selfishness toward more difficult but ultimately more rewarding paths. Tower seems less interested in pointing the way towards those brighter roads. The lack of light in the collection left me feeling lost.
So you’re disappointed for a few hours, a few days, definitely less than a week, before you realize that thing you always have to realize (or re-realize) after you have finished listening to a powerful voice. Wells Tower is not the voice of the world. He is one voice pleading its case, making its argument, trying to describe a world and how it works. And he makes the case well, telling stories about deep and layered characters dealing with difficult and very human problems. Even Mr. Tower’s tendency to end stories abruptly feels perfectly suited to the life-ain’t-what-its-cracked-up-to-be, get-used-to-it-kid jadedness of the stories’ narrators. But we are not obliged to agree with this assessment of the universal darkness and unavoidable wreckage that accompanies all human behavior. The book is what it is. We are who we are. The world keeps spinning and incredibly, miraculously, no one is thrown off." - Brian Short

"In Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis—that classic essay on the origins of American republicanism—the historian pauses over a description of what happens to the pioneer when civilization catches up to him. It comes from an 1830s guide to the West. "He builds his cabin, gathers around him a few other families of similar tastes and habits … till the neighbors crowd around, roads, bridges, and fields annoy him, and he lacks elbow room. The preemption law enables him to dispose of his cabin and cornfield to the next class of emigrants; and, to employ his own figures, he 'breaks for the high timber,' 'clears out for the New Purchase,' or migrates to Arkansas or Texas, to work the same process over."
This anti-social frontiersman with his elbows out is the guiding spirit of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a short-story collection by Wells Tower. Though not exactly new to the literary scene—he has now published his first book, and suitably enough, it forges into the wilder regions of the American character in lucid, vernacular prose.
The title story, set during the Viking era, is simultaneously unlike anything else in the collection and the best example of what Tower is up to. The characters are, yes, marauding Vikings who attack a neighboring island without provocation. Although Harald, the narrator, feels he has outgrown the whole rape-and-pillage game, and although his wife urges him to stay home, he hops on the longboat and then watches as his compatriots go "on a real binge," hanging monks from trees.
The pathos in this story comes not from the brutality itself, but from Harald's curious detachment, which he conveys in riveting sentences. Here's his description of a grotesque ritual called the "blood eagle":
[Djarf] placed the point of his sword to one side of Naddod's spine. He leaned into it and worked the steel in gingerly, delicately crunching through one rib at a time until he'd made an incision about a foot long. …Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there a second, and then drew Naddod's lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings. I had to turn away myself.
Tower's precise rendition of this grisly surgery—the crunch of the ribs, the image of Djarf fumbling around Naddod's innards, the lungs flapping like wings—builds to Harald's understated response, as if to a paper cut. He's the pillager-as-spectator, caught in the limbo between true callousness and true feeling, trapped—despite his longboat—in his passivity.
Marauding is a practical necessity ("Once you back down from one job, you're lucky if they'll even let you put in for a flat-fee trade escort"), and, besides, it's less "crazy-making" than domestic life, because the latter is so precarious. As Harald notes in the melancholy last paragraph, "You wish you hated those people, your wife and children, because you know the things the world will do to them, because you have done some of those things yourself. … [S]till you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home." Hearth and home, wife and children are simply not as durable as oars and steel.
The Vikings, of course, are really Americans—invading a tiny country for no apparent reason. And all the American characters in the collection are Vikings—randomly violent, tough, and dangerous to know—just on a smaller scale. They are real-estate developers, carpenters, and entrepreneur inventors, bumbling through life, alienating their spouses, relatives, and friends. Tower isn't the first writer to document the anti-social American spirit, but he's a keen observer of how the drive to break out of confinement rarely leads to true release. Like Harald, Tower's other characters—for the most part—do love their families, but they constantly find themselves striking out alone. And their missions have a way of backfiring.
Take Matthew, the narrator in "Retreat," a thrice-married real-estate developer who has "lived and profited in nine American cities" and just recently bought a small mountain in Maine. Since childhood, he's had a tense relationship with his brother, Stephen, but after six strong drinks, "our knotty history unkinks itself into a sad and simple thing. I go wet at the eyes for my brother and swell with regret at the thirty-nine years we've spent lost to each other." He invites Stephen up for a weekend hunting trip with the best intentions but antagonizes him compulsively: He's late for the airport pickup, and their reunion starts off with a fight. Back at his cabin, he pressures Stephen to spend his life savings on a real-estate venture, then storms off to bed. When Stephen tries to communicate his sense of loneliness, Matthew lets out "a long, low fart."
These cruelties are uniformly petty: just so many paper cuts. Yet the cumulative effect is excruciating for Stephen, as well as for the reader watching Matthew ruin the weekend. Not least, they are excruciating for Matthew himself, who succeeds only in walling himself off. In the final scenes, Matthew shoots a moose and feels momentarily elated. But the meat is spoiled: "[T]here was a slight pungency to it, a dark diarrheal scent gathering in the air." While Stephen laughs it off, vowing to hunt again the next day, Matthew stubbornly eats his putrid steak—a bizarre bid to deny the fruitlessness of their trip, which becomes yet another point of separation between the two brothers.
Many of Tower's protagonists are so hypermasculine they're Hemingway-esque. Yet one of his best-drawn characters is Jacey, the teenage girl in "Wild America." The title is lightly comic, setting the reader up for another story like "Retreat." What's "wild" here is not a geographic area—although much of the action takes place in a state forest. It's the catty competition between Jacey, "with a shiny chin and forehead and a figure like a pickle jar," and her cousin, Maya, "a five-foot-ten-inch mantis of legendary poise and ballet repute." Their casus belli is Leander, an unhygienic boy with no trace of his namesake's seductive warmth, whom Jacey kissed recently at the local planetarium. When the three set off together for a walk, Maya first plays the part of wingwoman, talking up Jacey's accomplishments, but soon tires of that role and starts to flirt with Leander.
Tower's portrayal of Jacey's reaction is pitch-perfect: Unable to compete with Maya, she lashes out in an agonizingly childish but still hurtful way. "[W]hy don't you just go off somewhere and fuck? I mean, there's all kinds of bushes and stuff around here for you all to fuck in... She'll totally do it. She's a pretty big slut." All Jacey can do after her outburst is run off alone: Tension leads quickly to ferocity, then to the fantasy of isolation. Adventure thwarted, Jacey wants to "go back to the afternoon dark of her mother's house and watch TV and eat Triscuit crackers topped with cheddar cheese and a pickle coin." But she feels "Maya and Leander's eyes on her, watching her loiter on the bank like a fool" and doesn't have the guts to "let them see her heading home." She's the classic adolescent and the classic Tower character—deeply ambivalent about human bonding, she tries to break away and finds herself trapped.
Turner's pioneer is aggressive by necessity: To succeed, he acquired, in Turner's phrasing, "that coarseness and strength… that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil." Tower's characters have inherited the frontier mentality, but the wilderness they're taking on is no longer a physical space: It's other people and themselves. Their aggression is not so much willed as impelled, and while the pioneer at least creates something—a cabin, then a town—before leaving it all behind, Matthew, Jacey, and the rest only tear things down. Nor does Tower give them the solacing illusion that in this destructive process, they are claiming their freedom. It's a bleak state of affairs, alleviated for the reader—though not for pillagers themselves—by the sharp, brutal clarity of the author's prose." - Juliet Lapidos

"One of my favorite moments in Wells Tower's debut collection of short stories does not concern any of his human characters at all. It comes right after a family dinner in a Manhattan restaurant has gone horribly wrong, in the way things do when people bound to each other through years of ill will and forced intimacy are confined to a small public space in which they have no choice but to act out major battles under the constraint of public decorum. A group of men stands on the sidewalk in uneasy camaraderie, uncertain what exactly they've done to drive away the sole woman at their table, and not even sure if they can trust each other to get out of the fix. One of the participants notices a pigeon pecking at a cocktail sword. "It got the blade in its beak," he says, "and waddled proudly down the street and vanished, turning right on Minetta Lane."
Whatever purpose the pigeon has in mind for his cast-off piece of treasure, it seems unlikely it will come in handy for any battles that may lurk around the corners of charming lanes in Greenwich Village (though one would not presume to know what gentrification looks like from a pigeon's-eye view). Many of Tower's characters are similarly outfitted with absurd, most likely useless weapons that plump them up with temporary bravado without really helping things out much.
And most of these characters are in serious need of help. In the title story -- an adroitly executed tale of Viking marauders, where wit, gore and hominess jockey equally for attention -- a good deal of everything on a small, pretty, unfortunately located island is quite literally ravaged and burned. The rest of the stories are set in more or less the present day, or concern children and adolescents coming of age in the decades when Barbara Eden's belly would have been a common target of teen lust and kids would have "stacks of cassettes of your favorite songs, taped off the radio, so all of them started a few seconds in, but you don't mind." But in nearly all cases, people are ravaging their own metaphorical islands, often by extravagant means.
Bob Munroe, in "The Brown Coast," has lost his job, his inheritance, and his wife in a matter of weeks, and has ended up on the floor of his uncle's derelict Florida cabin, surrounded by disturbing joke taxidermy and a homemade Budweiser painting with the script bunched up "so it bulged in the middle, like a snake swallowing a rat." Through Bob's eyes, even the tropical landscape is infected: "[T]he sun looked orange and thick, like a canned peach"; the water is "thick and warm as baby oil" -- even a sunset and balmy water are described in terms more suited for items from a subpar convenience store. When he spots a beautiful fish ("[I]t was a fish for looking at, not eating, a kind of fish that would cost you good money at a pet store"), he lures it with his own spit in an attempt to spiff up his dismal surroundings.
Like befuddled warriors, characters often perceive threats where it's manifestly unclear any exist: In "Retreat," a real estate hustler who has recently bought a mountain in Maine is convinced that his brother -- a broke music therapist who lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment with a dying collie whose bladder must be manually voided ("someone regularly seen by the roadside, hand-juicing a half-dead dog") -- holds a grudge against people like him ("people who have amounted to something and don't smell heavily of thrift stores"), and invites him up for a vacation, mostly to torment him unfairly for perceived slights.
Though many of the stories concern the violent misunderstandings between men and their rivals, sex doesn't offer anyone much solace either. In "On the Show," a first date between divorcés goes horribly wrong when one of their sons is molested in the Port-a-Potty while they are making out on the Ferris wheel (in that story, the woman says that her ex-husband would "grab at her like he was trying to clutch his way to a place where he'd never have to touch a woman again"). The cuckolded husband in "Down Through the Valley" reluctantly agrees to drive his daughter and his wife's new lover -- a meditation teacher -- back from an ashram ("I was heartened that Jane wanted to get us to the place where we could start doing favors for each other. It was her sort of olive branch, more wood than fruit," he says) and not surprisingly finds his thoughts wandering to some truly dirty uses for yoga moves. After discovering his much younger wife has been unfaithful, the father of the narrator of "Executors of Important Energies" "took her back without forgiving her, then went on to betray her many times, believing it was something he owed them both."
The sentences in this book are a constant reminder of Tower's talent - strange, precise, frequently grotesque and singularly his own. A cat brings in a dead bird that looks like "a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute." A teenage girl watching a nature show observes that velvet from an elk's horns looks "like carpet from a murder site." A carnival worker passes the time by flaking the dead skin from his arm: "[F]or nostalgia's sake, he pauses now and then to mound the dead skin into a line and guesses at it's cash value if the skin were good cocaine."
Despite - and perhaps because of - all the pillaging and ill will going on in these stories, there is a primal sense of home as well. One of the Viking marauders returns with a one-armed wife - "Is this a voluntary thing or an abduction-type deal?" his friend asks - and spends the whole time boat ride back from her destroyed kingdom "trying to keep her soothed and safe from all of us, his friends." Two of the stories in the book - I'll leave it to readers to discover which ones - end with characters under the covers, fearing for the intruders who may come for them and their families. In both cases, part of the fear seems to come from being unsure about just who the real intruders are. For those who have already ravaged and burned others, its not clear if they have more to fear from the threats without - or within - those walls." - Amy Benfer

"Stop Smiling: I’ve read a number of reviews in which the critic emphasizes the violence of your stories. A commenter on Slate asked why the reviewer had included your description of a blood eagle (a Viking torture ritual), since it grossed her out over breakfast. There’s a whole spectrum of violence in literature — from Chuck Palahniuk to Cormac McCarthy. Where do you fall into that?
- People have gotten very into that [violence]. I don’t know why that is. Maybe they’re a bunch of sickos. I was just talking to my brother on the phone the other day, and he was saying one of his tenants got drunk and ran over his wife in the driveway. The old man who talks with the gunshot victim in “Door in Your Eye” — that actually happened to me. I had this neighbor who, when she moved in, had this pack of photographs she’d taken of this guy who’d been shot on the street. It was such a bizarre episode that it went straight into the fiction. These things happen all the time. You don’t have to look too far to find horror. I think it’d be a lot more contrived to go in the opposite direction, to say that life is easy and sweet.
We’re members of a very difficult species. It’s an awful, awful thing to know that you’re going to die someday, and there’s an imperative to do something that matters to you. I don’t know if the stories are darker than life itself — I would probably say not.
But you have to acknowledge a certain nihilism in them. The characters don’t take a journey of self-discovery, they don’t learn anything and they’re not redeemed. They’re the opposite of the characters in books like Everything is Illuminated and The Lovely Bones — what The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Brooklyn Books of Wonder.”
- There might be some truth to that. I suppose I like short ‘n’ nasty short-story writers like Richard Yates. It’s rare, but there are a few stories that stand out as great sweet ones. I think Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is one of those. It’s a really, really lovely story, but it also has brains exploding all over the place. It may have its detractors, too, if they’re worried about spilling their breakfast.
Violence makes a certain sort of sense in short stories, when there’s a limited amount of time for something to happen. Violence, of course, is a powerful and simple way to embody conflict. I think I’ve done less of that lately, but the early stories, like “Down Through the Valley,” are sort of brutal. I actually tried to get away from that in the rewrite, but the editors liked it, so I had no choice. The Viking thing was violence as a kind of gag.
You seem to have a lot of brothers. Do you think there’s any correlation there?
- Three brothers. They’re a good bunch. It’s all guys, which maybe has something to do with the standard motif about the collection, that it’s “a guy thing.” I don’t know — it’s gripped a lot of guys, apparently. There was even one review that put a picture of a big muscle next to it.

SS: How do you feel about that? What’s it like to have profiles and reviews in so many places?

WT: It’s strange. It’s so unlike the life that happened up until now — being quiet and alone a whole lot. It is weird to keep talking about myself and talking about this work, and these days I’m doing so much more talking about myself than I am doing work — though I suppose there’s always time to do more work and there’s not always going to be a time where people will want to put a Dictaphone in front of you.
I’m trying to remember which short story writer last got this much attention. I think it was Nell Freudenberger.
- I suppose it is an unusual thing. I think it’s really important not to think about the public stuff, just because I don’t see how it can help my work. I’m astonished that there are so many people who like the book, that people are excited about it, but I wasn’t able to write these stories because I was getting a lot of attention.
That’s not totally true — I had luck pretty early on with getting published. Even before the collection was out, I was in a place where I could get published in certain magazines and not end up in the slush pile anymore, but it certainly wasn’t like I was sitting down and thinking, “Oh, I’m some kind of big pro and now I’m gonna write some hotshot short story.” And I just think that sitting down at the table thinking, “Now I’m gonna write some real pro thing” would be a terrible mistake. It’s one way to go bad. You have to stay in a really, really private place for fiction.
For me, fiction takes getting into such a fragile state of self-hypnosis, without thinking too much about how people will read it or whether it will get published or whether it will match up to certain things people have read. The Viking story had gotten a lot of attention, especially after Ben Marcus put it in his anthology. I had a few people phone me up and say, “Hey, you’re the Viking guy.” It was kind of a one-hit wonder thing. For a while I thought I’d never write another story again, but I kept at it and wrote a bunch of stories that are better than that.
I wrote the later stories thinking about form and about how to find new ways of thinking about the short story, rather than, “How can I replicate this sort of thing that people seem to like?” Which is to say that if I got too into the public side of things, I’d be afraid of losing something necessary, something private, the something it takes to write something worth a shit.
I guess it depends on how you deal with [attention]. I don’t know too many writers who have been really successful socialites and public people who have gone on to do phenomenal work. I guess people like Norman Mailer could do it, and Truman Capote, to some extent. That ended in tears. I think the public thing doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the life, the stuff you need to do in order to do your job. That’s a totally different path.
I didn’t write the stories with a particular audience in mind, particularly not a critical audience. I think as much as anything, though, once something is out there, published, you just have to let go. I think it might even be necessary to divorce yourself from the book. It’s no longer this place where you were experimenting with stuff and trying things and seeing what could work out. To have suddenly committed to a particular incarnation feels strange. I would have worked on the collection for years, probably. When people feel one way about it or another way about it doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t feel obligated to advocate for the stories as they are. I guess now I’m this pitch person of this thing that’s out there, but fiction is so complicated and it takes so much work and revision that I would have gone on tinkering for quite a while, if I’d had time.
Are you planning on continuing with your journalism?
- I think so. I have a really hard time putting it down because it’s a wonderful privilege to spend time with strangers and really get to know them. Most of the nonfiction I do is often quite long. I hang out with somebody for a run of weeks and really try to get inside somebody’s head in an honest sort of way. That’s where the experience is really invaluable, and it’s nice to have it at your disposal as a fiction writer. It makes its way into your stories.
Also, I think there’s something really exhilarating and self-abnegating about it. With reporting, you can’t think about yourself at all — you’re doing all you can to become the transparent eyeball. You’re let off the hook of your own concerns and egocentrism.
I know it’s been covered in other interviews you’ve done, but I find the idea of how your reportage plays into your fiction very interesting. How does that work?
- It’s very fraught. With fiction, you’re constantly beating the hell out of yourself and trying to bring some sort of story out of your head. Writing fiction is, of course, difficult, but the reporting part of it is really a lot of fun. I exploit the nonfiction all the time, grab characters or even bits of dialogue. Dialogue has showed up in magazine stories and resurfaced in the fiction. There was a lot of bleed (in “On the Show”) because that was something I actually did. I got a job as a carny.
The difficult thing is the difference in the process between fiction and nonfiction. With nonfiction, you might have 50,000 words to whittle down into an 8,000 word piece. Your argument is always ex post facto and then — bingo bango, done!
It can get really bad if you try to write fiction that way — which I’ve done. Part of my problem is that, doing all the magazine work, I’ve gotten so accustomed to writing in the 8 to 10,000 word range. Now when I write a short story, I think, “Okay, it’s going to be this long, and it’s going to have a few different scenes.” In a calculated fashion, I think about how many scenes I’m going to put in there, and always it gets wildly distended and bloated and has no coherence. With fiction, you have to think of a very, very small space that’s packed with a certain kind of sensation or tone or mode of language. You’re climbing into a really little capsule that you’re going to fumble your way out of, but I think that, particularly in the early stages, you really have to think small. I don’t think you should draw yourself too big a roadmap for a short story. The short story itself should lead you into bigger places. To sit down with a list of half a dozen scenes is disastrous. Even though I know it’s disastrous, I can’t stop doing it.
I think my nonfiction is much gentler. I don’t like to do takedown pieces. Some of the stuff I’ve done for Harper’s has been fairly harsh, but I think if you look at the other stuff, it’s not." - Interview with Eugenia Williamson

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