Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

John Wray: The Revision of Character

BY TURI FESLER

John Wray is the author of three novels, most recently Lowboy, which was just released in March 2009. Lowboy is the story of a sixteen-year-old paranoid schizophrenic who thinks the world will end in six hours if he doesn’t lose his virginity. Wray’s first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and won a Whiting Award in Fiction. For his second novel, Canaan’s Tongue, he traveled down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans on a raft made out of Home Depot surplus, giving readings in towns along the way. This past year, Granta magazine selected him as one of the best American novelists under the age of thirty-five.

Hot Metal Bridge: How did you come up with the ideas for your novels? The subject matter is so varied.

John Wray: I’m usually brimming over with ideas, actually, especially toward the end of working on a book, when the drudgery of revising has really taken over, and I spend a lot of time coming up with escapist fantasies about various other books that I could be writing. The hard part is choosing among the various possibilities, finding the one project that’s rich enough—and fun enough—to sustain me through three or four (or five) years of work.

HMB: You’ve said you admire directors like Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder for successfully directing movies in a variety of genres, and you’ve emulated them by writing books that are very different from each other. Can you draw any additional parallels between your writing and filmmaking?

JR: I’m a very visual person, so my novels tend to be visual as well, composed not only of highly filmic scenes, but oftentimes even of shots. I think Lowboy, for example, could be adapted for the screen in a straightforward way, and with relatively little effort. I often have a film of the book’s events running through my mind as I write, or maybe ‘storyboard’ might be the more accurate term. Other senses come into play as well, of course—smells can be particularly useful—but the process usually begins with sight for me.

HMB: While working on Lowboy, you did most of your writing on the subway. When writing your first two novels, did you do anything to get into the heads of your characters?

JR: Not in the same sense—Lowboy was really an experiment for me with a kind of method acting approach to my subject. The whole thing strikes me as a little childish now—or amateurish, at least—but it does seem to have helped me somehow.

HMB: You’ve said that Lowboy is your first novel that draws from some experiences in your own life; can you elaborate?

JR: I very much wanted the character of Lowboy to be a human being first and foremost—cheesy as that sounds—and a schizophrenic second: in other words, I wanted to begin with a point of view and sensibility very much like my own, and move outward from that point, as the narrative develops, into progressively stranger territory. So I put more of myself (or myself at 16) into the character, and into the novel as a whole, than I did in either of my first two books.

HMB: You’ve written novels on subjects as varied as the rise of Nazism in pre-World War II Austria (The Right Hand of Sleep) and a slave-trading preacher on the Mississippi (Canaan’s Tongue). How do you research your books and prepare to start writing them?

JR: I go about research in the standard painfully boring way, then at some point cut the cord and actually start having some fun. I’ve developed the following M.O. over the years: gather information assiduously until the magical moment when you find that you feel comfortable making stuff up. Then you can really begin.

HMB: As an MFA student with an interest in poetry and fiction, did you find it hard to cross over between genres? How has your poetry writing helped your fiction?

JR: I found it very useful to have had a background in poetry: it helped me—forced me, in fact—to pay obsessive attention to the style of my writing, something most fiction writers in workshops tend to neglect. On the other hand, it did take me a while to figure out how to write plausible characters and plotlines, which is something poetry generally bypasses altogether.

HMB: Okay, one last question. I’m an Alaskan, and I have to ask – what brought you to Petersburg, Alaska, to work as a cab driver? Do you think that experience will ever get used in any of your books?

JR: I started out, like most seasonal workers in Petersburg, as a fish slimer at one of the local canneries; that work was not for me, however (is it really for anyone?) and I bailed at the earliest possible opportunity. Taxi driving on the island was the absolute opposite: easy hours, low stress, pleasant surroundings. Same meager paycheck, though. I’d love to write about it someday.