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Q&A: WELLS TOWER, author of
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned

SS: 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.

SS: 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?

WT: 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.

SS: In his new book, Harper’s senior editor Bill Wasik discusses how the media unintentionally cuts down young writers. Getting a lot of praise and attention can make someone’s work seem trendy and ephemeral. Do you worry that this will happen to you?

WT: Thank God there’s nothing in Everything Ravaged that’s pop culture-y. I took a lot of time with it. I could have maybe published it a few years earlier than I did. Early on, I was very lucky with agents. I had attention from editors. I could have done it before out of sheer ambition, but it was nice to take the time to really go over the stories and do some pretty radical revisions. There’s nothing in there that gives me the creeping horrors.





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