Walter Wetherell’s fiction includes Souvenirs, The Man Who Loved Levittown, Hyannis Boat and Other Stories, Chekhov’s Sister, The Wisest Man in America, Wherever that Great Heart May Be and now his newest novel, Morning. He has been the recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, two O Henry Awards, the Due Heinz Literature Prize and recently a fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Lyme, New Hampshire, with his wife and two children.
Robert Birnbaum: Tell me why you wrote this book.
Walter Wetherell: I’m not exactly sure how I got the actual inspiration for it. I think I recognized quite early that to write a novel about TV was to tackle probably the most unpromising, unliterary, anti-literary material you could possibly think of. Something about the audacity of that really appealed to me. Made me feel like it was worth thinking about. Then a couple of things plugged in pretty quickly. One, was my intellectual understanding that television was probably the greatest cultural turning point of the Twentieth Century, that life was one way before the introduction of network television and another way after it. Certainly, our way of looking at the truth [was different]. At one moment we looked for truth in all kinds of ways. We looked to books, we looked to friends, we looked to priests. And suddenly we were looking for truth out of a screen, from electrons. That seems to be a huge change. So that was the intellectual half of that. The emotional half was tapping my own memories. I was born right in the epicenter of the baby boom. I was among the first kids to grow up with TV. I can remember watching it — it must have been the early, early Fifties — among my earliest memories watching the Today show — and I couldn’t tell you one episode or one thing. I just remember the feeling of it. And it all tied up with that era. So that was part of it.
I think also writers are always fascinated with the years when they were born. The year you were born is always the most important year in the history of the world. I’ve always been interested in the late ’40s, early ’50s — what was going on then. I thought at first…I was toying with the idea of a nighttime TV show. On the order of the early Tonight show with Steve Allen. The closest thing I had to a flash of inspiration was when I said, “No! A morning TV show would be much more interesting.” Number one, it was much harder to get people to watch in the morning. That was the really revolutionary thing. It wasn’t hard to get people who were tired from work, who when they came home — all they wanted was a beer and to watch Milton Berle or some thing like that. That was no big deal. But TV was never on in the morning when it first began. And to get people to change their habits utterly, and to sit down, instead of getting the kids ready for school or after that. Or instead of rushing right off to work, sit down and watch a TV program, I think that was really the boldest innovation in this bold new technology. And since immediately — writers are always looking for metaphoric possibilities — the metaphoric ‘morning’ is so suggestive, because there is morning for America, we’ve won the war. The Cold War really hadn’t gotten going full steam. The future looked very bright. It was the morning for this new technology, television. It was morning for me. Personally. That was part of it. And then I thought about that part of the novel takes place in 2001 and I thought about morning for this new century. I thought about morning for the Cyber Age, which we are either still in or just coming out of. Then I thought about the kind of claims made in the morning of television — exactly those same claims are and were being made for the dawn of the Cyber Age. How it was going to revolutionize life. And it certainly has. About how it was going to energize democracy and make a community out of the world. So everything kind of meshed. The joke is, of course, I haven’t had a TV in twenty years.
RB: Why is that a joke?
WW: Why would somebody who doesn’t have a TV decide to write the great American TV novel?
RB: You just told me lots of good reasons.
WW: Again, that was the chutzpah of that. Actually, it was an advantage. I’m making a joke of it. The reason there are very few novels about TV — very few, remarkably few, considering its power — is that for most writers it’s like trying to describe the inside of your eyeball. It’s too close. It’s literally too close.
RB: You haven’t seen Survivor or that Millionaire show?
WW: No. I just know about them from hearsay. No. Some of this stuff floats in the air. You can go outside to the street on a calm day and get some of it. It just hangs in the air. It’s part of the culture. But somebody like me, who hasn’t watched in a long time, can get some kind of distance from something that it’s damned near impossible to get distance from. Also, it was easier for me to try to go back and recapture the early spirit of television, the early idealism and even romanticism of early TV because it’s still kind of new to me. When I watch TV and I’m watching the Yankees — they’re a thousand miles away — I realize, “My god, I’m actually watching these guys.” I kind of appreciate how it must have been for those people in 1950 — suddenly to have this miracle — it absolutely conquered everybody instantly. Much faster than computers, by the way.
RB: Sixty million sets…
WW: Something like that. Hardly anybody in America had seen one in 1948. By 1952, almost everybody had one. That steep rise in ownership has never been duplicated.
RB: I can think of a few movies about television but I can’t think of any books.
WW: It’s a remarkable thing when you think about it. There are dozens, hundreds of Hollywood novels, right?
WW: A lot of good ones, too.
RB: There is Paddy Chayevsky’s Network.
WW: Nope, a screenplay. They had a luncheon to launch this [the novel]. And they had a lot of television people there. In my little comments I said that. They all raised their hands, I said, “Oh shit, here it comes.” And they all said, “Network.” (Both laugh) Which says a lot.
RB: Is there some kind of regression here? You have written a novel about television, which I expect you will end up discussing on television. How does that go?
WW: (long silence) It’s very ironic, of course. If you stopped to think about the ironies, you wouldn’t get very far in any kind of media business in this day and age. It was pretty interesting in Chicago, for instance, to be on television and to see what goes on behind the scenes and the anchorman sitting there spraying his hair with hairspray and things like that. The last thing I wanted this novel to be was an anti-TV diatribe. I’ve done that, I’ve written an anti-TV diatribe. I wanted to get aside from that and to try to capture that romanticism and that sense of endless possibility. And also that sense of innovation. They didn’t know the power they had; they didn’t know what they were going to do with the power. For one brief moment, certainly, they had a chance — at least they felt they had a chance — to do something good with it, something that could change mankind for the better. That was I suppose when you talk about the Golden Age of Television, that’s what they were talking about. I didn’t have to be negative about what happened since …we all kind of know that, where it went sour. That E.B. White epigraph, written in 1950 or 1951, “Will TV be a saving radiance in the sky or an unbearable disturbance of the peace?” You wouldn’t find many people saying it’s a “saving radiance” now. And whether it’s the opposite, well, there are a lot of people who think it is. TV has been around for fifty years. It’s a long time in many respects. I’m surprised about the reactions I’m getting from people about the history of TV. I’m realizing that history of TV is not quite the same thing as the history of warfare or the country. These things are so immediate and alive for people…
RB: You do say, though I don’t remember if it is contemporaneous with the character’s development, “Television has no history. It’s all present tense.”
WW: You say that and think that, but it is not until the book comes out and you get people’s reactions…
RB: You just made that up?
WW: Well, I kind of thought it was true. Hey, it’s a novel. I made everything up, basically. You intuit things and then find out that people actually do think that. That’s kind of neat. I made up things about McGowan relating to the camera that I just did from intuition because I’ve never really been on camera… Then I talked to people that knew the man that the character is loosely based on [Dave Garroway], and the first thing they talk about is his way of relating to the camera, saying that nobody ever did it better. And also saying in the same sentence, that it came at a great emotional price.
RB: You allude to the time he spends after each show, his need to retreat one minute for each minute of airtime…
WW: writing, there is a certain performing quality to writing. Even though you are alone in your room and it’s total solitude. I’ve always found it easy to relate to actors and singers or somebody on stage. I can’t quite describe why. There is some link there. I think that writers have always been fascinated by those characters. Certainly there is a kind of withdrawal each day when you finish writing. And an even a bigger withdrawal — sort of postpartum — when you are finishing a novel or a book. Which you have built your life around for two years. It’s not hard for me to empathize with a performer, faced with losing that public personality and having to come up with what? Must be a terrible moment for some people.
RB: When you thought of the signature gesture that McGowan had and he took this trip to ruminate on it …what was Dave Garroway’s closing gesture?
WW: “Peace.” Which was an interesting thing and a gutsy thing to say. At the end of the show, the camera would be on him alone, and he would bring his arm up the way I describe in the book and he would say, “Peace.” And say it incredibly earnestly. It sounds so hokey now. But if you ever saw a tape of it, you would realize he said it with such conviction.
RB: One word can be quite powerful.
WW: Exactly. I play around with it. McGowan tries, “Take it is easy but take it.”
RB: Studs Terkel’s line.
WW: All these guys have …does Terkel still do that?
RB: I don’t know. Did he interview you when you were in Chicago?
WW: They tried very hard to get me on. He only does a couple shows a month. He is busy with his own book. I forgot the question…oh the sign..oh yeah, I thought about that. He couldn’t say, “Peace.” Because this is a novel after all, and I wanted something better than that to suit my purpose. So he says, “Truth.” Kind of making that a pledge, benediction, promise, and I hope it wasn’t too obvious, that’s was TV was claiming to do. Still is claiming to do. It’s bringing you the truth. “Never mind books, never mind radio, never mind newspapers, we’re gonna bring you the truth. As it happens. We’re gonna show you the world as it is, in a way that no other medium has been able to do before.” So, when he [McGowan] says it out loud, it was not that far-fetched. Because that, after all, is what they were promising. Of course, in his case, once he says that, he gets stuck with its implications. It’s an awful gutsy thing to say. It’s a can of worms. But once he says it, he stuck with it. Toward the end of his program they force him to give that up because it’s very obvious now that the truth is lost on television.
RB: You introduce McGowan in this way: “He teetered on that most appealing and vulnerable of points: a young man on the verge of making it in the big splashy American way.” What’s appealing about that?
WW: The kind of young man that achieves power and celebrity in this country has a golden moment when the whole world is at his feet. There is a certain tension there about whether or not…we are almost ready to have them fall off his pedestal. So it’s appealing in a literal sense. These people are usually handsome and bright and whatever. Whatever has made them a star or celebrity is powerful. That appeals to us. But there is something almost perversely appealing about their imminent fall, that we can’t help sensing is just over the horizon. Think of F Scott Fitzgerald. How appealing he was for that short little time in the late Twenties.
RB: The first person I thought of was Charlie Parker.
WW: You can run right down the list from athletes to jazz musicians. That famous Fitzgerald quote, “There are no second acts in American life.” That may be true, but the first act is so damned attractive and appealing, who needs a second act. I wanted to put him [McGowan] in that balancing thing between overwhelming acclamation…
RB: I certainly see him as tragic and heroic, but at the end the book, there is place where he is ranting about Massachusetts as the “worst fucking place in the world…”
WW: That’s because his girlfriend, his lover, is from there. Well, the question with McGowan, which even having insider’s knowledge having written about him, I really couldn’t answer is, “What would have happened to him if he hadn’t been shot?” Whether he would have gotten his act back together and gone on to personal happiness and some sort of professional satisfaction? Or whether Chet was just putting him out of his misery? I really don’t know. I don’t want to know.
RB: It’s not clear to me where his relationship with his true love, Lee, is going?
WW: That, too. He’s forcing himself to believe that he loves her…
RB: And that she loves him.
WW: It’s a little ambiguous at best. There, though, I was leaning more toward a definite shading. That no, it wasn’t going to be. It was just too much to expect that it would. I think he’s smart enough to realize that, too. I think he understands that. He’s trying to force himself and pretend that it’s all going to be fine. I think he realizes it’s not going to be.
RB: Which makes for great tension and great drama. Who do you think is going to read this book, find this story attractive?
WW: Good question, of course. A lot of people will be, hopefully, attracted just by the surface story, i.e., it’s about television, the early days of television. The way they are promoting it is trying to appeal to those people and get that message out. Subsequently, or at the same time, hopefully, there will be a readership that will see more — I’m getting a little bored talking about television — and will see it as a very ambitious book trying to come to terms with what happened in the second half of the century, to the bright promise of America, using its most potent technology, its most telling moment, which was television. I talk about the atom bomb, everybody thought that was the American invention. And then America voting en masse that it wasn’t…”We don’t want that invention. We are not interested in that, what we’re interested in is television.” For that matter, you could say that television has gained America much more imperial power than the Atom bomb ever has.
RB: [Director] Milos Forman was asked what he admired about America. He said, “Three things. Harley Davidson motorcycles, Winchester rifles and Zippo lighters.”
WW: Yeah, that’s America, that’s what they like, the gadgets. They like the stuff. The liberation of Eastern Europe was motivated by the fact that they wanted the goods. They wanted the toys.
RB: They wanted jeans. You want to characterize TV as very American, but it seems that people who have done it best have been the British.
WW: Yeah, but maybe the point is who’s done it worst? And biggest. We are not talking quality here; we’re talking size and power.
RB: Perhaps everything in TV worldwide was and will be a reaction to what was done here?
WW: There’s no question about that. Oddly, I was told that there has never been a good morning show in Britain. They’ve tried to imitate; it’s just never worked. It’s bigness and size and the brassy kind of quality that is distinctive and makes it very American. The quality is almost beside the point. There was some excellent quality. And there is now, but in the Fifties, there was live drama, the Today show was much more news focused, less fluff and gadgets. There was Omnibus. They had a moment, where I think the networks, which had total domination, still took serious culture seriously. They at least had to pay lip service. They had to have Toscanini on. They has to have that Omnibus program, they had Alistair Cooke. They took news very seriously. But then…even the Today show brought the chimp on. How did the Today show make it? They had a chimpanzee on. So that may have been the turning point of television right there. Sure you could have quality television, but only if you had a chimpanzee on.
RB: Was there an explosion of popularity for the morning show? Or did it build gradually and the monkey put them over the top?
WW: In my book, it’s the chimp that really puts them over.
RB: Could one argue that eventually the morning type show would have been the way to go? That just the way life has accelerated would have brought this kind of show a greater audience?
WW: I think it was a risky thing to do. Yeah sure, now it seems inevitable. News was never on in the morning. It was always on at night, even on the radio. There weren’t even cartoons, nothing. Just test patterns. I watched the first five minutes of it, the first Today show. Really fascinating to watch. Garroway was very nervous. You could see that they were improvising. I didn’t make up that open set business, which was revolutionary. They had people smoking on camera. They still had to pay lip service to the newspapers. They then dolly in on the headlines from the Herald Tribune. Literally cut out and pasted to a bulletin board. Very funny, but charming in a way. That’s a thing I have been thinking about a lot. Fifty years, it’s almost far enough now, that it’s own mythology… maybe hasn’t arrived and maybe this book is the first step toward doing that, “Hey listen, this is fifty years ago, we can start making these mythic characters and playing around with it now.” I think that’s taken some people by surprise.
RB: Maybe some smart young hot shot is going to read your book and say, “Let’s do that now!”
WW: Well, the funny thing is that one of these guys watching was the guy that help found CNN, not Ted Turner. The guy, nobody knows his name. I didn’t know his name and I couldn’t remember it now. He said afterward, “My god, I thought I invented half these things!” They had stuff scrolling along the bottom. I think the Twenty First century is going to be a century of reinvention anyway. All these things we trashed, we are going to have to reinvent. Maybe we are doing that in literature right now.
RB: Is there an audience out there that wants to be challenged, to be told stories, doesn’t care about Survivor or sex on an island with fifteen strangers?
WW: Well that’s what the test of this book is. Ultimately, it’s a serious book. It’s not an ersatz biography of Dave Garroway. It’s not a rip off of early television. It’s trying to say something about the modern world.
RB: You have some compelling quotes, but I was especially fascinated by this unattributed one, “In 1950, America was a country lousy with greatness…”
WW: Yeah, I think I made that up. I don’t remember now. I’d stand behind that. I think 1950 was a big moment in United States history. As McGowan teeters on that vulnerable point, America, in retrospect, teetered on that point. People think that the novel is set in the Fifties…nowadays they think of Grease on one hand and Leave it To Beaver on the other. I’ve never seen the Fifties that way.
RB: Newt Gingrich saw them that way.
WW: Oh well. I see it as an energetic, new exciting decade. I was two years old when it began and twelve when it ended — I was growing up. For any kid that’s an exciting period.
RB: Then 1959, Sputnik, and the very real promise of space travel…
WW: The early Fifties…Broadway absolutely at its height. Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Jack Kerouac. It was exciting times, a lot going on there. It’s that earlier era I’m trying to tap in this book and the dawn of TV, too. All that, before 1955. I think it was a little bit different than the cliche that everybody remembers.
RB: The cliche is about the idyllic Eisenhower years…
WW: Conformity, sure. The ironic thing is that TV — what could have been a revolutionary kind of technology — certainly contributed to that homogenization of culture. Very quickly.
RB: The son of one of the main characters [Chet] owns a radio station…
WW: I wasn’t trying to make a statement about radio being a pure technology. What I’m up to there is almost all these early TV personalities came from radio. They had no other source to draw upon. It made a lot of sense. Was I trying to say something thematically? No. I was very aware that I was writing in the 21st Century there. Ultimately, despite everything I just said, I am not trying to say anything about 1950 America. I’m trying to say something about 2001 America. I didn’t want to end on a down note. I wanted to end on a vaguely positive note. I literally give Chet the mic and a chance to say something, that as a writer, I want to say. I was thinking I’m about to become a 21st-century author. What does that mean? And the last metaphor I thought about was “morning for the novel.” And I’m very idealistic about novel-writing and literature. Ever since the late ’30s we have Cyril Connolly’s famous slogan about how “novelists will be measured by the quality of their despair now.” I thought about that, and I thought about how in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s; we’ve had all these brilliant American novels, almost all of which — the better ones — are 100% ironic in their stance. And I thought about that, about television and then I thought about me and decided it was time to go beyond that — to take a first step beyond that. To see if there isn’t something beyond irony. Not so much that literature is in a postmodern mode or should be but maybe we should talk about a post-ironic mode. That’s what that ending is all about, trying to say fairly explicitly. Hopefully it doesn’t come across as a message, it comes across as a natural thing for Alec Brown to be thinking at that time. Ultimately, that morning metaphor, I had a lot of fun with that.
RB: And adding to the mix of this story you have three children as characters that are somewhat unusual: a teen age girl who is a star basketball player, her brother who, is a precocious and aspiring sports agent, and an adopted black girl who has a weight problem.
WW: I wanted some foreground for this. I didn’t want it to be just a historical novel about the ’50s. I wanted Alec Brown to have a life, to not be wrapped up totally in his father and the story in the past. The only one of those that’s really important is the girl with the weight problem: nine years old, adopted. Among other functions he’s the first person to get to Chet who has just come out of prison and won’t “spill the beans” about the past. Form a technical point of view, I have to set up the possibility that he will indeed talk someday. He does talk at the end. As it turns out he talks to her, he won’t talk to Alec his son. He refuses to, he knows he is writing a biography. There are all kinds of ancient hurts and wrongs. He talking his ears off to the little girl.
RB: When you began to write Morning, what was there?
WW: The idea of the morning show, the idea of the odd relationship — all these guys had sidekicks — there must be between a sidekick, somebody paid big bucks to be second banana to a star, and the pagliacci, tragic comic relationship that might involve. That led to the idea of a girl and of course the show would have girl…and the classic triangle. That was, after the subject matter was up there, where the story started to gel. And after that it gets real hard to explain. The conventional way to write that would have been to write one chapter in the past and one chapter in the present, flip flop every chapter. That was kind of boring, I really didn’t want to do it that way. The most conventional thing in the world is to disguise a novel as a biography. It’s been done ever since Robinson Crusoe and before. It’s an old way of telling. For this book it would have been a slow way of telling it. I came up with this biographical stream of consciousness, as it happens, play-by-play. I never even had a label when I was doing it. Having that problem about how can I get over the slowness I came up with was is a technical solution. I had to do it. I couldn’t have done it the other way. I think it works pretty well.
RB: Saying you think it works pretty well, after all is said and done, is this the novel you wanted to write?
WW: Oh sure. There will always be things that you say, “That was a little of over the top.” The difference between writing short stories, emotionally, and novels is that short stories give you the illusion that you might achieve perfection even if you don’t. The novel, I have always had the feeling that this is a very clumsy instrument, at best. The only thing you can hope for ultimately is that the good parts outweigh the bad parts. Simple as that. As an artistic credo, it’s not very inspiring.
RB: Would the phrase ‘perfection is the enemy of the good’ apply here?
WW: It’s hard to learn to live with the imperfection. I don’t know enough about the aesthetics about it to give a reason…it must have something to do with length. Particularly, in a very ambitious and long and fairly complicated novel, the chances to go astray…it’s a minefield. It’s particularly hard in this day and age to ask a lot of patience of a reader.
RB: Is that your burden? I went to see a movie the other night. In the middle of it I decided I liked it very much but had I been making it I would have made it differently…
WW: That’s the kind of readers you want. Some readers bail out the moment they don’t like the way it’s going.
RB: In your self-critique, I imagine as you review your choices you accept that on one day you would make one choice and something different on another day. Why would one be superior to another?
WW: I am sometimes conscious when I am writing — and then it scares me when I become conscious of it — is how many choices you make. From the words, to the rhythm of the sentence, forget about the characters and the plot and all those things which you are making decisions about. You are making decisions every second. And you get a chance to review those when you rewrite and you are coming at it from a different direction…A lot of times you will do something knowing it’s a potential weakness or knowing some people will have trouble with it and having to do it anyway. What would bother me would be if someone caught some thing really serious, that never occurred to me whatsoever. That I just missed. If there was something huge that I really missed. But if you say the boy who was a sports agent was a little bit over the top, I know he’s a little over the top.
RB: Where does this book sit in your — I’m not going to use that French word…
WW: Ouevre. A lot of my work has to do with post-war America, the last fifty years of the American Century. And what we did with our culture and our power when we had everything our own way and what it did to people in that culture. And that’s a big part of this novel. McGowan is an artist, even though he’s on TV, he is trying to reshape reality and cast it in his own kind of vision and that’s always been a concern of mine, too. One of my novels, Chekhov’s Sister, which takes place in Russia, would seem to have no connection, but I think there are. They are both about show business. Both themes are about reshaping reality and both have a tragic vision of life. Chet is in the mainstream of my characters because he is fighting very hard for his dignity. The television would seem to be a huge departure. The murder would seem to be a huge departure from what I usually write about, but I can see many connections.
RB: Have you started to write the next thing?
WW: I’d like my next book to be a collection of short stories, which I am still working. All about women.
RB: Written specifically to be a collection?
WW: Yes, not connected so much by characters or theme but connected by gender. I suddenly realized I was writing short stories about women. There is the chuzpah/audacity factor there. We are told that gender is so important and if you are a male writer you can’t write about women, “What do you know about women?”
RB: Really? Still?
WW: Yeah, you hear that though. It’s implicit in feminist literature. Like blacks would say…Styron got crucified when he wrote [The Confessions of Nate Turner]…
RB: He wrote it at the wrong time?
WW: He’d be attacked now. Aside from that, it is a hard thing to do, for men to write convincingly about women. Or vice versa. Or I might scrap all that realize it doesn’t work, and it’ll just be a story collection. Then I liked to write a short novel…something about having a single straight ahead story. No subplots, not a short story, but with a certain amount of size and bulk to it.
RB: Why write short stories?
WW: I really do like writing. It also lets you test a lot of material. Even bad ones are worth writing because it’s awfully hard to devote two years of your life to a bad novel…I suppose it a lot of the growth experience but you can try out a lot of ideas by writing short stories…
RB: Is your publisher looking forward to a short story collection?
WW: Frankly, it depends on how well this does. If this does well, they will be.
RB: If this does well, you could probably write a guide to Vermont swimming holes.
WW: I’m thinking of that. That’s a good one. That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve been insulated from market factors as part of my motivation, all my life. One, because I’d be sure to get them wrong. The minute I have an extra penny to invest in the stock market. Two, I’ve had a pretty isolated writing career, out of the mainstream. I don’t have friends who are writers. So I don’t know what is going on, what’s au courant…and what isn’t. All that aside, there are economic realities that I had to deal with. This is my first major publisher in ten years. I didn’t pick it for this reason, but one thing that occurred to me that perhaps a book about television which has a subject that is easily…
RB: Reduced to high concept?
WW: Yeah, exactly.
RB: “IT’S ABOUT TELEVISION”
WW: What do you say about a novel? It’s about love. It’s about tragedy. Here you can say it’s about television. It occurred to me when I wrote it, it might be of more interest to big publishers. There is an economic censorship out there and it’s very hard to break it. If you are certain age and have a certain track record it’s next to impossible. I managed to break it. I may be back in it again shortly. That question hasn’t been resolved yet.
RB: Do you write and then shop your finished work?
WW: I had the whole thing finished. Every book I have ever written I’ve gone out and tried to find a publisher. That’s just the way I’ve done it.
RB: Do you have an agent?
WW: I have an agent. I’ve had five agents. It’s like five marriages. I’m on my fifth.
RB: Because of you or them?
WW: I can say pretty safely because of them. I’m pretty easy to get along with. I don’t call my agent up all the time. I pick someone I think I like and will do a good job and let them do it. A couple years go by and they are not doing a good job I just leave. It’s not because I’ve hectored them and acted like a shit. It’s a strange relationship. If I were lecturing about agent-author relationships, I wouldn’t know what to say. But they are part of the process; they’re the gatekeepers.
RB: Any movie industry interest?
WW: You have to take this on faith. I did not for one second think of…I go to less movies than anyone my age. I don’t go to movies, I just don’t. I can’t explain why I don’t. I just don’t go to movies. It’s the last thing I thought about. But now just about everywhere I go people say this would make a great movie. Perhaps because it’s so visual….
RB: And a chase scene…
WW: Two chase scenes. There’s a car chase scene. My experience has been pretty negative with Hollywood. Almost everything I’ve written has elicited a response from Hollywood. Despite the fact that that one young man said, “Your books would be impossible to make movies out of.” I took that as a compliment. [Today] You can almost not write anything without [movie] interest. Chekhov’s Sister has been optioned for years. Glenn Close supposedly wants to star in it. Since my first short story — twenty years — I never had anything produced. They are great proponents of expressing interest. I am healthily cynical.
RB: Does it matter? You get the option money.
WW: Obviously, career wise it would help. Most of my friends have no literary connection. They are just normal people in that respect. To them a movie is the ultimate. It’s next to Oprah. A movie is the ultimate evaluation of a writer’s worth.
RB: Jeez, can’t you see the paperback version of Morning with Alec Baldwin’s face
WW: That’d be good. He’d be good. I’m ready. My number is in the book. It’s a total mystery to me, that world. Certainly, movies have influenced novels, tremendously. Technically and subject wise and so on. There must be people who see Alec Baldwin from the start. Somebody like me, forget it. It’s the last thought.
RB: Is where you live in New Hampshire remote?
WW: It is and it isn’t. It’s really country. It’s still rural. There are still farms. It’s in a beautiful part of New England. But it’s only twelve miles from Dartmouth College. Which some people would say was still rural. It has all kinds of concerts and lectures…
WW: It doesn’t have a Starbucks, no. But it does have a good library. It has a good swimming pool. Which is important to me.
RB: Do you teach?
WW: I have in the past. I got this grant from the Academy of Arts and Letters where they support me for five years, and the first thing you have to do is quit your job. I didn’t apply for it. It’s all a mystery to me. The only inside information I have is that the meetings they had my name would come up — somehow they found my work — and everybody would say, “How come we never heard of this guy?” Which is a two-edged sword…
RB: Any sense of the reception for this book in Europe?
WW: I have my doubts about it. Chekhov’s Sister was translated in to French, but this is…I wonder if they can relate to what I’m talking about? I was amazed, I was in Britain in March and the bookstores are full of American books…so there is definitely a fascination with American culture. You’d think that would have worn off. But this one I don’t know, it’s a hard thing to judge.
RB: How is the book doing here?
WW: I think it’s okay. It needs one big thing.
WW: Well that would be off the scale. Time Magazine or USA Today. We’re not talking literary, we are talking mass market…a lot of the people I know that are intelligent and educated and buy books never look at the book reviews. That’s not how they get their ideas. I was on All Things Considered for The Wisest Man In America. Ten minutes’ worth, but that was with a university press. The next day people went out and looked for the book and they couldn’t find it. That was a little before Amazon. You need luck. You can do everything right and have a book that’s promotable and have your publisher behind you and you still need luck…
RB: Have you shown up on the summer/beach reading lists?
WW: Not that I know of. It wouldn’t bother me.
©Robert Birnbaum 2001. All fotos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing.