An Interview with Joan Wickersham
Joan Wickersham is an extremely clever writer, delivering moving stories and memorable works. Her latest book, The News from Spain, is a collection of short stories that each share the same title but are vastly different, showcasing how broad her story-telling capabilities are. The collection has been praised by the New York Times Book Review, Oprah.com, and The Boston Globe, among others.
Her memoir, The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, garnered much attention and praise. In her memoir, Wickersham takes readers on a search for answers surrounding her father’s suicide. Framed through the structure of an index, the memoir imparts a sense of fragmentation upon its readers. The compartmentalization of each event in the memoir expresses the cyclical train of thought that accompanies trauma in the mind. The fragmented structure works to bring the readers into the circular questioning Wickersham experiences as she turns over each aspect of her father’s suicide. It was a National Book Award finalist and named book of the year by several media outlets.
Not many writers can move as seamlessly as Wickersham does between fiction and nonfiction. She has proven herself a master of both. Her fiction has appeared in Agni, Glimmer Train, The Hudson Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Story, among others, 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 NPR’s “On Point” and “Morning Edition.”
Wickersham also has received the Ploughshares Cohen Award for Best Short Story and has been the recipient of several grants from places, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She is a graduate of Yale University, and currently resides in Cambridge.
Jennifer Murphy: When did you start writing? What made you gravitate towards writing?
Joan Wickersham: As a child I read all the time – went to the library, spent my birthday money on books. And I had a wonderful teacher in fifth grade who had us write a story every three weeks. She had a box full of pictures cut from magazines, and you could pick out an image on which to build a story. By the time I was in college I knew I wanted to be a writer, though I majored in art history because I figured I’d never get another chance to spend a few years just looking at paintings. And I’m glad I did – it taught me to look very closely at everything, and it’s been an ongoing source of pleasure.
JM: Who are some authors you’ve looked up to when you started writing? Which authors or books inspired you most?
JW: What excites me is language – writers who have an electrifying voice. Dickens, Isak Dinesen, their energy. But sometimes the voice can be very quiet and precise: every sentence in William Maxwell’s novels feels right.
JM: You’ve written both memoir and fiction. In your experiences of writing in the two genres, how do they differ in process and production?
JW: I try to find the voice and form that is right for the story. The Suicide Index could have been published as fiction – in a way I wish it had been – but I thought it was important to call it a memoir because my father really had died that way. When I write nonfiction I try to make it as nuanced as fiction, and I think fiction has to be as believable as nonfiction. With either, you’re just sitting still with the characters and the events and writing down what you see and hear. So in a sense the process is the same whether you’re inventing or remembering – invention feels like remembering. If it’s memoir, though, you need to be truthful. You can’t make the fish four feet long if it really was two feet long, just because you think a four-foot fish would make a better story.
JM: Can you talk about your writing process a bit? Where do you start? What does it take to get you to sit down and write something? Is it an idea? Is it a character? What type of spark do you need to get going?
JW: Often I have the characters and a general situation floating around in my mind. Then one day the door just opens – I’ve been banging on it for years, asking those characters to let me in and they won’t. But suddenly the door falls open and I have some sentences, a first paragraph, and then I can stay. And then maybe a new character jumps in, who I hadn’t even known was there. Malcolm, the dancer’s caregiver in one of The News from Spain stories, was like that. The dancer’s Russian husband said, “Malcolm made macaroni,” proud of his ability with American tongue twisters, and I thought, “Who’s Malcolm?”
JM: How do you approach revision once you’ve completed a draft? What revisions strategies have worked for you in the past? What strategies have not worked?
JW: The Suicide Index went through many drafts. There was a major revision, nine years into the project, where I just threw out most of a 400-page manuscript and started over. Then once I came up with the index structure, I had to tear apart and redistribute some pieces I liked and get rid of others. But once I could see what the book was, it became easier to revise in the overall service of the book. The News from Spain required very little revision. There were stories I wrote that didn’t make it into the book because I didn’t think they were as strong, but the pieces that are there came out pretty finished. It was a wonderful experience, maybe particular to that book – I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to work in quite that way again. More generally my approach to revision is to put something away, and let it sit for months, sometimes years. Then I can pull it out and look at it more coldly. Often I just start over, without looking at the previous draft; and somehow what I learned from writing that early draft makes it possible to do a piece that works. I think it’s also important to have an early reader whom you really trust. My husband is a wonderful reader – sensitive, honest, and not prescriptive. But it can take a long time to see your own piece clearly, and to know what to do with a reader’s comments. You ask what strategies have not worked, and I guess I’d say: Impatience.
JM: Your memoir, The Suicide Index: Putting my Father’s Death in Order, takes the shape of an index. Using this form provided a sense of how this experience affected the various parts of your life. The third story in your newest collection, The News from Spain, also uses an unconventional structure. This story is constructed through a series of vignettes, which build on each other as the story progresses. You also used the epistolary structure in another story in the same collection. What is your approach to form? Do you begin a story with a specific form in mind or do you begin a story with a more conventional approach and write your way into a form? How does form emerge in your writing?
JW: Again, I experiment until I find the form that seems like the right way to tell that story. Often it works the other way around: I struggle with a story, and then eventually I find a form that unlocks it. Recently I published a piece of fiction in One Story called “An Inventory,” which is a numerical catalogue of a woman’s romantic obsessions, beginning in kindergarten. I’d tried to write it a few years before as a conventional first-person narrative, and it didn’t work. When I came back to it, my instinct was to try second person, and I used footnotes to create different layers of time in the piece. The piece really wanted to be about time and perspective, but I didn’t know that until I stumbled on the right form.
JM: In The News from Spain, you shift point of view from one character to another, quite gracefully and without hesitation, in most of the stories in the collection. I noticed this because I haven’t encountered many American writers who are confortable with shifting point of view. How did you decide when a story warranted another point of view? Was this something you considered much while drafting, The News from Spain? How did this affect the collection?
JW: I wanted each of the stories to feel like a little novel – rich and a little bit baggy, and very much about character. The book is about the different kinds of love people feel and don’t want to speak about, or don’t know how to speak about, so a lot of what happens is interior. Using multiple viewpoints, and parallel stories, and stories within stories, were all different ways of giving the stories a kind of amplitude that felt right.
JM: In the last story of The News from Spain, the main character begins to personify her emotions. I thought this was a particularly successful use of metaphor. In the story, the narrator begins to describer her emotions as if they were other characters. My first question is how did you come to that idea? Secondly, is the idea that emotions rule your characters independently of their own will, something that you approach all of your stories with in mind?
JW: I had started a story in the form of a fictional essay – a woman trying to write about an unexpected attraction to a man she worked with. She wrote a sentence about how she and the man continued to work together even after their feelings had “made themselves known” – and I thought, boy, that’s a stilted sentence. But rather than delete it I had my character acknowledge that it was stilted. “‘Made themselves known’ – as if these feelings had their own lives apart from us, their own dilemmas about how to behave.” And then she began to imagine her feelings as a houseful of unruly servants. You’re right that this book is very much about people being ruled by their emotions, or struggling not to be. It’s about love, and the struggle between humiliation and dignity. But I only figured that out after I’d finished the book. I don’t think I approach a story with an idea in mind – I think writing the story teaches me what the ideas are.
JM: The endings in each story from The News from Spain were thoughtful and worked to tie up each story nicely. How do you approach ending a story? Do you write towards something, with an ending in mind? Or is it more a process of letting the story unfold as you write and then arriving at something you couldn’t predict?
JW: Occasionally I’ll write toward something, a final image or a last line. But more often now I love the feeling of just groping in the dark.
Jennifer Murphy writes Fiction. She is an Arizona native living in Boston where she is an MFA candidate in the fiction program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She is the recipient of a Kathryn and Gelndon Swarthout award in creative writing, a Randel and Susan McCraw Helms Homecoming Writing Award, and most recently the Mary Doyle Curran Scholarship. When not writing she tries to find edible Mexican food in and around New England. She is currently working on a collection of coming of age stories, set in the southwest.