The Magical Work of Fiction:
An Interview with Daniel Wallace
Daniel Wallace is the award-winning author of four novels, all published in the last ten years: Big Fish (1998), the national bestseller that was turned into a major motion picture by director Tim Burton and Columbia Pictures in 2003, Ray in Reverse (2000), The Watermelon King (2003), and Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician (2007). In addition to writing a screenplay for Universal Pictures, called ‘Timeless,’ Wallace has published over three dozen short stories in venues such as The Yale Review, The Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, New Stories from the South, and The Best American Short Stories, and his work has been translated into eighteen languages. He has also published two illustrated children’s books, Elynora and O Great Rosenfeld. Wallace is a gifted illustrator whose drawings have appeared, among other places, in the L.A. Times and Italian Vanity Fair; as a result, his stories often reflect a strong visual sense. A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Wallace has lived almost all his life in the South and now teaches creative writing as a Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of our finest contemporary comic novelists, Wallace’s work explores and expands the genre of comedy through fiction that is funny, yet serious; his stories dynamically open up comedy as a means for profound reconsiderations in the midst of comic resolutions. This interview was conducted over two days, on April 3 and April 4, 2008 in Loudonville, New York, while Wallace was serving as the featured writer for Siena College’s Greyfriar Living Literature Series.
DT: To begin with a couple of general questions, what authors have influenced your own work in terms of subject as well as technique?
DW: My first serious influence in high school was Kurt Vonnegut. I remember waiting for Breakfast of Champions to come out at the same time I was waiting for the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach to come out. The structure of my books is like the structure of Vonnegut’s books. They look similar to his books. Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is a departure from my other novels, but typically my chapters, like his, are very short. I didn’t think about this until recently, but, like myself, Vonnegut is also kind of a doodler. Breakfast of Champions had some illustrations in it. And then I moved into the southern fiction: Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, even though I’m not sure they had much direct influence on my own work. And the magical realists are really important to me: Garcia Marquez, Calvino, Kafka—although he’s not usually thought of as a magical realist, he ought to be. I like his sense of humor a lot, and, as I look back on my own work now the way I would look back on other another author’s work, I see the parallels: the mix of darkness and humor.
DT: How would you describe your writing process?
DW: I don’t bring to the act of writing a lot of conscious sense of what I’m doing. I don’t have a plan to how things are going to go. I let the story go and trust that it is going to evolve in its own way. For instance, I had the title of Big Fish, but I had no idea how it was going to end until about thirty pages out. I’m more of an improvisational writer. When you start out with a blank sheet of paper, your choices are infinite, but as soon as you start to commit to one word and two and three, your choices diminish. So the story starts to open up as you’re writing, but also it’s constricting because you close off possibilities. You’re setting it in a certain time and space. Ideally what happens is that the book ends when it can’t go any further. But all that is determined by every word that came before it. So all the material is there for what you’re going to create as you’re creating it, not before. It’s only deterministic after it happens.
DT: There are a range of allusions to classical mythology embedded throughout Big Fish—for example, Hercules’ labor of subduing Cerberus, the name of Edward Bloom’s World War II Navy ship is The Nereid, the naked woman in the river as a water nymph, Edward’s Ovidian metamorphosis into a fish, etc. What inspired your interest in mythology? Is your use of mythic allusions a parody of how ummythic and insubstantial contemporary life seems? Or are they part of an effort to raise contemporary life to a mythic level? Or something else?
DW: Well, I’ve always loved myth and saw them as beautiful and sometimes sophisticated adventure stories that had these wonderful scandalous elements. I like the way that people and gods were depicted in myth. I would put Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and The Bible on the same self; I think of them as part of the same impulse. I see myth as having a basis in reality. Like Odysseus, for example, I wouldn’t be surprised if that character were based in a real historical figure from which the stories were drawn. And the stories presented in myth are sometimes descriptions of the natural world that couldn’t be explained in other ways, without art. There’s one where Zeus wants to make love to a woman and doesn’t want Hera to see so he makes the sky cloudy, and that’s the explanation for clouds that interweaves this playful agency behind it. So I thought that if these stories could be applied to real people and that real people could be understood in terms of myth through history, then we could understand a contemporary man’s life in the same terms. I could tell the story of a normal man’s life through that lens by which things that have explanations in reality are exaggerated into myth.
DT: How did you conceive of the novel on a structural level?
DW: I didn’t start out with the idea of Big Fish as a novel. I was really just writing little bits and pieces. The first versions of the story were footnoted, so that you could see the parallels between the mythic level and the everyday reality of this figure taken from middle America. But in later revisions I took the footnotes out, because they seemed to be forcing the obvious. The structure really came from the fact that at the time I was a new father. I simply didn’t have the time to sit and stew in a novel. So I thought of writing these vignettes as a means of mental exercising, of keeping in shape, while I was raising my kid. But as I moved along, I saw that they were describing an arc of a whole life. So the first draft of the novel was all these mythic vignettes. The death scenes were added later. That whole relationship between father and son that is fleshed out in the death scenes was only included later and I think it makes the book more comprehensible to the reader.
DT: It’s interesting that your relationship with your son literally affected the composition and structure of your novel while the book itself focuses on the narrator’s relationship to his father.
DW: Yes, I really do feel that my son influenced the structure, and my father influenced the substance. Because of my son, I didn’t have time to write a thirty-page chapter. I wrote during his naps, and, like the rings of a tree, you can see the length of the chapters as being the length of the naps he took.
DT: In terms of the substance you mentioned, Edward Bloom seeks to make himself immortal through retelling the gradiose and mostly self-aggrandizing stories of his life. Do you believe in this vision of secular immortality? Can a “great man” exist today? What does modern “greatness” entail?
DW: That’s a good question. I don’t think I can answer it. At one point in the book it says, and I do believe this to be true, that if a man can say he is loved by his family, then he can be considered great—that there is only this much more discrete, individual idea of greatness. The thing that drives the soul of the world is not the larger-than-life people—the dictators, the emancipators—but the people going about their lives everyday. For me, the most important thing I can do is to be a good father to my son. I consider this much more important than books and writing. I don’t know that Edward Bloom was a great man. It is a mistaken idea that he has to look for greatness outside the family, when really it lies in his relationship with his wife and son.
DT: The issue of myth seems not unrelated to the novel’s attention to the lines we draw between fiction and truth, and between art and reality. I noticed the heavy repetition of the phrase “as if” throughout Big Fish; in his introduction to E. A. Robinson’s King Jasper (1935), Robert Frost proposes “as if” as a kind of two-word definition of art, particularly its ability to make something virtuous, even pleasing out of our sufferings: “Give us immedicable woes...And then to play. The play’s the thing. Play’s the thing. All virtue in ‘as if.’” Could you say something about this tension between truth and fiction in your work? Can fiction or art sometimes be more real than truth or reality?
DW: That issue spans all of my books. I believe, and this is certainly not an original idea, that there is no objective reality, that it’s more about what we want to believe than what actually is. I went to a magic show last night and in the program was this optical illusion trick. On one side was a circle and on the other was an X, and you close one eye and move the paper closer and eventually your peripheral vision will make the X disappear. Because your mind is creating this whiteness, guessing that that is what should be there once the image disappears and so your eye erases the image and fills the space with blankness. And I feel that’s what we all do. We fill in these gaps in our own ability to understand with ideas that make us happier or more comfortable, and that’s not unlike the nature of myth. This idea seems so fundamental and I don’t feel like I do a good enough job of explaining it outside of the stories themselves.
DT: You suggested earlier that real life, at least in terms of taking care of your son, is more important than fiction, than writing. Is there any sense in which you would define real life as a form of fiction, a creative work in progress? This seems to be something that you explore in your fiction.
DW: Oh, absolutely. All you have to do is talk to two people who witnessed the same event to realize that both are wrong and both are right. I’m not doubting the reality of everything, but it’s just that the way we feel it and see it creates the meaning of it.
DT: Big Fish suggests an interconnection between jokes and stories, pointing out the narrative structure of jokes, and the humorous or at least pleasurable quality of narrative, even when narrating unpleasant events. Could you draw this out a bit? What do you think is important about the connections between telling stories and telling jokes?
DW: Part of it is just that all writing is a kind of letter from the self, the writer, and regardless of the biographical content, it’s always autobiographical in some way. Nothing in any of my books ever happened to me, but all of it is autobiographical. And sometimes I don’t even realize it until later that a certain scene is a representation of something that happened to me, or of some thought I’ve had. You can know me by analogy through my stories. Basically, I love jokes. Life is hard, and laughter is good. There is really no way for me to write about death without humor. I want to talk about things that aren’t necessarily enjoyable, but I want readers to enjoy the enjoyable. And one way to do so is to sugarcoat it with humor. It’s really hard to make somebody cry, but I can easily make you laugh. And the source of both of those emotions is not quite in the same place, but definitely in the same neighborhood. If you can approach that place through humor, then the chances of getting into deeper emotional places later are much greater. Laughter is an easier path to those emotional spaces. If somebody said, “Would you rather do away with jokes or your concept of suffering?” I would probably get rid of suffering and keep the jokes.
DT: Although doing away with suffering would probably get rid of all the jokes.
DW: Yes, so obviously you can’t do both.
DT: Mark Twain once quipped, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.”
DW: I completely agree.
DT: In Big Fish, the jokes almost seem to become a figure for your own art, converting pain into pleasure, and the pithiness, the narrative compression of jokes is not unlike the condensed structure of your chapters.
DW: Yes, and the jokes are all thematically related to the book in some way. They are all either about fathers and sons, or about death.
DT: For instance, the Pinocchio joke. It’s about myth and religion—the fairytale nature of religion—but also misrecognition between fathers and sons. There’s so much inside the jokes that’s self-reflexively commenting on your narrative structures and ideas.
DW: While you’re laughing, you’re getting more deeply into the material of story itself.
DT: Some of the novel’s humor centers on literalizing clichés or colloquialisms (e.g., Edward “digging his own grave,” the story of Karl the Giant as a literal “tall tale” and he literally becomes “the biggest farmer” in Alabama, etc.). We think these are just expressions, mere words, but they become real in the world of the novel. What is the importance of this motif in Big Fish?
DW: Well, I think that language is funny. Cliché often has a meaningful source to it. But it shows the shared nature of our language. And it’s also to have fun. It adds another level of meaning if you get the puns, but it isn’t necessary to understanding the narrative.
DT: In addition to its use of humor, Big Fish is also comic in its other meaning: the figure of Edward’s death is looming throughout the narrative, yet the story ends well. You are primarily a comic writer. Would you say something about comedy as a genre, and the paradox of literature that is comic, yet serious, harmonious and dissonant at once? What are some of the challenges of writing fictional comedies?
DW: I prefer a happy ending. I don’t see any use of putting stuff out there that doesn’t provide something to hang onto. It’s just not something that I want to see in the world. I think writing comedies allows space for both challenge—if done right, comedy makes you think—and resolution to occur at the same time.
DT: Big Fish ends in a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis. Why does Edward transform literally into a Big Fish at novel’s end? Is there any particular figurative weight to this image?
DW: Well, the image of the fish occurs again and again in the book. There’s this whole idea of greatness, of being something more than a big fish in a small pond—this big fishness. There’s also the idea of the fish story—people are always exaggerating the size of the fish they caught. And then there’s also this idea of fish being slippery and hard to hold and hard to catch. And the ending brings together the two sides of the novel: the mythic half and the real half. And when you’re writing, these ideas are working in you and they suggest themselves without you knowing it. Of course a lot of practice goes into writing before you’re composing a particular story. It’s like playing basketball. When you’re in the moment out on the court, you’re not thinking about a crossover dribble or faking left and going right, it’s something you do instinctively from repeated practice.
DT: Sort of a willed habit.
DW: Yes, and when it works, it’s not an accident, but it’s also not a pre-structured moment. You’ve prepared yourself for the moment, but there’s no telling when or if it happens.
DT: Almost as if the work flows on its own momentum, but there is a clear direction.
DW: Yes, there’s a direction. Like evidence being presented. Every sentence is evidence of something and things do start to take a shape and you follow that shape and then decide what you want to keep and not keep.
DT: Although it certainly travels beyond the local or regional, Big Fish is set in your native state, Alabama, and speaks—though not necessarily with a respectful tongue—to a spectrum of traditional Southern literary motifs, including a focus on memory, storytelling and the oral tradition, local humor, family ties (especially between fathers and sons), and place. How do you define Southernness, and do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
DW: Frankly, I don’t know how to define it and if I started to try, I might have Paula Dean and Walker Percy in the same room, and I don’t want them there. I have no choice but to be a Southern writer since I have lived all my life in Alabama and North Carolina. To take a novel and set it in Albany or Minnesota, why would I do that? The South is what I know. I’m not writing about terrain. I’m not a nature writer. Place is, for me, just that—a place for my characters to interact. Like a Twilight Zone episode, where characters are just set in a lifeless place that people bring life to. And it happens to be that I know the South and have this sort of blueprint. So, I don’t think of myself as a particularly Southern writer and that label can be sometimes restrictive. And a lot of it, of course, has to do with marketing, with selling books. I’m more comfortable being called a magical realist than a Southern writer per se. I’d rather just be Daniel Wallace.
DT: As you said, Southernness often serves as a kind of branding power for organizing authors and selling books. The question is, is there anything deeper beyond that that counts as Southern writing? In your work, there seems to be a challenge to what traditionally has defined Southern literature, including some pretty thoroughgoing satire of those received forms. For instance, in terms of place, the Bloom generations shift from the agrarian South (the grandfather was a farmer, rooted in place) to the new South (Edward is a traveling salesman) to the no South or post-South (William seems to have lost all touch with his Southern roots).
DW: Yes, and that’s true to my own experience of growing up in the South. Essentially, I had the same experience as any kid anywhere. Birmingham, in a lot of ways, didn’t even really feel like the South to me. I grew up on Gilligan’s Island.
DT: Mass culture has Americanized, even globalized, much of stereotypical ways of the older South—the supposed emphasis on the past, the Civil War, storytelling, even dialect.
DW: Yes, even as I use the South as backdrops for my work, I grew up with almost none of that stuff. Nobody in my family was a big storyteller. My grandfather, Weir Rangeley Pedigo, was probably the only one close to being a storyteller and really he was just a big liar.
DT: Was he the main source for Edward Bloom?
DW: Well, I never really thought of him as the model, though maybe some of those seeds of memory were planted from my time visiting with him growing up. He’s more the model for the guy at the farm who’s talking about Jesus and Pontius Pilate and splitting the atom—that’s Weir Rangeley Pedigo. He did have a kind of mythic existence. He was in the Last Cavalry at Yellowstone and he chased Pancho Villa into Mexico.
DT: Would you describe the technique of Big Fish as cinematic?
DW: I think so. It runs in vignettes and “takes” that seem like filmic scenes. Maybe more deeply, the style tries to evoke all the senses, as you take in all the various sensory stimuli when you watch a movie. My fiction tries to do that—to stay at the surface, like watching a movie, but as a way of getting to things beneath the surface. Frankly, I thought Big Fish was going to be a terrible movie, since the narrative line of the novel lingers and doesn’t aim to move forward with much linear momentum.
DT: The film version definitely streamlines the narrative and organizes the vignettes into a more linear format.
DW: Yes, the novel works as a novel, and the movie works as a movie, and it’s kind of apples and oranges between the two.
DT: What did you think about Tim Burton’s film version of Big Fish for Columbia Pictures? The style of Burton’s film seems a good fit for your own fictive technique—a kind of hybrid between German Expressionism and the Southern Gothic—yet there is a sense of comic uplift and a brightening up of the color scheme and tone in comparison to some of his other movies. Did you think that the style worked well in the film version? Was that a fitting parallel for your fictive style?
DW: Frankly, I probably would have been happy with this movie under almost any conditions because I felt so separate from it. I had complete control over the book; I wrote every word of it. But in terms of the movie, everything was out of my hands. And I liked that. I didn’t want to have any creative control over the film. I just thought of it as an adventure, as something for fun. I don’t think of the movie as being representative of the book. I did meet with John August, the screenplay writer, who did an excellent job, but I always thought of the film as a separate work of art, and I’m OK with that.
DT: Though the idea of temporality plays a role in all of your novels, time takes center stage in your second novel, Ray in Reverse. The narrative is in essence a sequence of “flashbacks” because the story runs entirely in reverse, beginning with Ray’s experience in the afterlife, and moving backwards from his death to his childhood. Could you say something about the unique structure of the novel?
DW: There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is my desire to provide a comedic ending. Had Ray’s life been told chronologically, it wouldn’t have ended happily. Second, by moving backwards, you can see more clearly how Ray became who he was, how events created the person he became. Things might have gone differently had he been able to live longer—you never know. At the point of his death, relatively early in his fifties, he was just getting enough distance on his own life to realize who he was and unfortunately didn’t really grasp his identity until he was dead. Death is the ultimate distance you can have on life and, through the technique of the book, we were able to see him at least get some sort of clarity. We’re the beneficiaries of that distance, not Ray.
DT: That comic effect comes, despite the dark events portrayed, because we know how it all ends. We know he dies and there is an afterlife. But because of the reverse structure, moving backwards, it creates a happy ending, since the end of Ray’s life is not the end of the story. There’s no grand progression to life, but that’s OK. Things could have gone differently, but that’s not a terrifying state of affairs. Although his days are literally numbered already from the novel’s start, there isn’t a suffocating sense of fatalism to the narrative or to its vision of experience.
DW: Yes, things could have gone differently, but there’s no crushing dread to that. So many of the events from Ray’s life do rest on a moment of chance. Spinning the penny, running over the dog—these are things that might not have happened. In the book on scientific understandings of randomness that I’m reading right now, it says that an event is indeterminate before it happens and is only determinate after it happens. Reading backwards, you think that there’s no way Ray could not have hit the dog, yet of course there are a million ways for that moment not to have taken place.
DT: Sort of like chaos theory, the butterfly effect.
DT: Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury that “Man’s misfortune lies in his being time-bound.” Technically, there is no future for Ray; the narrative structure of your novel is absolutely bound to the past. Yet there isn’t that sense of time as an ephemeral, yet implacable burden in Ray in Reverse.
DW: It’s a much different atmosphere in Ray in Reverse. With something like The Sound and the Fury, the context is so much bigger in a way—time and history—whereas in my book, it is more about how time affects an individual. It’s almost as if the narrative takes place inside.
DT: Yes, even though Ray in Reverse is, like all your novels, set in the South, it seems the least tied to that context, almost fully emptied of that larger weight of cultural time and history.
DW: Yes, if it were on any Southern author’s bookshelf, it would probably be on Walker Percy’s.
DT: Against the comic overtones, the novel’s weird reversal of narrative momentum also evokes a poignancy, even sadness as we move backward in chronology. Because of the narrative order, Ray’s the one who stays, while it’s as if the other characters die off incrementally as the storyline progresses backwards.
DW: Yes, you still lose people, but you lose them in a different order, a different way.
DT: But you know you’re going to lose them. The first time Ray meets Jenny, who of course becomes his wife, we realize that this is the last time we’ll see her—she’ll in effect be killed off by the narrative form.
DW: Yes, and if you follow it to its logical conclusion, the baby we see at the end is closer to death than anyone.
DT: There are a number of reversals like that in the novel. How did you come up with the narrative design?
DW: Like Big Fish, Ray in Reverse started out as a kind of cut-and-paste job, just individual stories with no overarching storyline, no grand design. But over time, I saw connections between the stories, that it could become a book. Both Ray in Reverse and Big Fish record the arc of one man’s life. I had all these stories about Ray, and I had to figure out how to make these strands encompass a book. I’d already written a book with a linear chronology—Big Fish begins with Edward’s birth and ends with his death—and wanted to do something different. I just had a kind of epiphany and decided to go with it. And this was before a lot of the backwards stuff that’s out there now, like the movie Memento or Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow. This was before I’d read or seen those, so it was really just a moment of clarity that I had, and it worked. You don’t always know why it worked, but in this case I think it did.
DT: Why include a vision of the afterlife? And why this particular vision of heaven—“paradise” as a kind of twelve-step program meeting group. Very bureaucratic and therefore very contemporary.
DW: Well, it’s always an imaginative challenge to come up with a vision of what the afterlife might be like. And this vision of heaven as a series of self-help groups seemed to make sense. Ray’s kind of an Everyman figure since he sort of floats through life and lets events shape him, not the other way around. The self-help program vision of the next world suggests that we always leave with regrets, things that we need to expunge. Yet after those leftovers from life are settled, the implication is that you move on and become a speck of light or something. Like a kind of purgatory, a contemporary one that wouldn’t exist without the tropes of modern life.
DT: Many of the events of the novel have the ring of truth to them, in the sheer quirkiness of their details, such as the heating bill/love letter, the escaped elephant General Mosely’s affront to suburban banality, the button-collector episode, the new uncle who sells faux art masterpieces. They seem weirdly representative even in their uncanniness—representative of uncanniness. Are any of these based on experience?
DW: I hate research. I don’t research very much. I feel that if you can present something with authority, and authority means details, you can pull it off without reseach. Part of me wants to write a Civil War novel and not read anything about the Civil War—just make everything up. The only trouble I’ve gotten into by not researching is when I read the part about the young Ray going up to the casket and stealing the penny from his dead grandfather’s pocket at the wake. After the reading, a woman came up to me. She was a funeral director. She said that someone couldn’t really do that because the top half of the coffin would be open and the bottom half closed, and it would be too far down for a kid to reach into a pocket in the closed half. She was adamant.
DT: Your next novel, The Watermelon King, is set again in Ashland, Alabama. It is based on local tradition in the rural South, yet connects with universal myth through the archetypal scapegoating of a community member in order to bring about renewal. In Big Fish, you focus on personal myth. Here, you call attention to communal myth. The scapegoating rite is a grim subject on certain levels, yet again the tone, though mixed, is ultimately comic.
DW: Well, I was interested in that whole idea. I did some reading as broad background—Joseph Campbell and that sort of thing—but made up the details of the specific ritual of the Watermelon King. If you read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” you can understand what you need to know about that kind of ritualized sacrifice. But I consciously changed the scapegoated figure from female virgin to male virgin to give it a certain twist.
DT: In The Mind of the South, W. J. Cash wrote about a distinctively Southern form of ritual violence, “the savage ideal.” Is the novel uniquely Southern? Not simply in its concern with a kind of savage rite, but also its focus on agrarian South that, like Ashland’s watermelon supply, is desiccating?
DW: Yes, The Watermelon King is my Southern novel. I was tired of Southernness. I was tired of people writing Southern novels because it had become so genre-fied that people weren’t writing books derived from their own experiences but from the experience of reading other Southern novels. I was sick of that. So I decided to pack every trope of Southern writing in there. Everything from the dead mule to incest to miscegenation to watermelons to the town idiot to burning things down. The only thing that’s really not uniquely Southern is ejaculating into a fire circle in a field. At least not that I know of.
DT: Is the novel primarily a parody of Southernness, what we critics like to call a “postsouthern” work?
DW: Well, I wouldn’t want to limit it just to that since I think does more than poke fun at other Southern writing. Parody is definitely an aspect that’s in the book. But it’s kind of a serious parody. It’s not a hoot.
DT: Yes, on the level of subject matter, one would think that The Watermelon King would be your funniest novel and yet through the execution it comes across as the most grim, the most distressing, even as it—true again to comic form—ends well. Perhaps it is more akin to parody in its larger sense as repetition with variation? Parody, in postsouthern fashion, is not meant to shore up the fragments against our ruins, but it just leaves them there as fragments to expose how tired, how exhausted that kind of writing has become, but in that process you create something new.
DW: That’s what I tried to do.
DT: And there is unlooked-for regeneration for the two main characters, even though the town and its old ways—and by extension, all those overused Southern tropes—go up in flames at the end.
DW: Absolutely. The novel does offer a kind of escape hatch from the past.
DT: There are at least two different narrative forms: vignettes told from the perspectives of individual characters versus the more sustained first-person narration of our main character. What’s the point of that structure? Was the novel written in a certain order?
DW: I was doing the vignettes first based on the story of Lucy, whom we learn about through the documentary-style interviews her son conducts with the various townspeople, where we see the person being interviewed but not the interviewer. As Lucy’s son was learning about the mystery of his mother, so was I. And then at about page 100, I wrote The Watermelon King myth to give the novel clearer structure. And so then I moved that to the front of the book and it became the central structuring principle.
DT: Most of your novels explore misrecognition between fathers and sons, but this book investigates misrecognition between mothers and sons. Why the shift here?
DW: Well, I didn’t want to be a one-trick pony. And I love women, as people and as characters. And I think the dynamics of mother-son relationships are at least as interesting and complex as father-son ones.
DT: Magic is, of course, a major motif in your most recent novel, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, set again down South at mid-century. The novel plays on some of the issues associated with magical realism, and there’s a thoroughgoing emphasis on distinguishing between real magic and simple tricks.
DW: I believe there are a lot of parallels between writing and magic. There are a lot of tricks to writing. I’m interested in whether it’s possible for a series of hoodwinks to develop into an experience of art, of real magic. Because magic is not something that a magician does. It’s something that you do, that the observer or audience member makes happen. I know what I did in this novel to achieve the effects I wanted. I know how I’m trying to make somebody feel. And the way that this happens is not through some otherworldly inspirational voice guiding me. These are fictional tricks that you practice and learn. Hopefully, the reader doesn’t see behind the curtain, doesn’t see the moves I make to achieve those effects. And yet at the same time what you see in this book is that there is no real magic. It is all tricks. And the idea that there is some greater force behind it all ultimately isn’t true.
DT: But, like well-practiced magic, the audience experiences the illusions as if they were real.
DW: That’s right.
DT: All of your novels contain self-reflexive images about the process of writing itself: myth, jokes, ritual, magic. Does the motif of magic represent a more cynical view of art, that it’s simply illusions that you’re pulling over on the reader, or is there something redeeming about art as magic?
DW: I don’t feel like it’s cynical at all. In terms of Henry, none of his life is true. He’s lost everything, including a sense of his own skin color, his own racial identity, and his sense of self. So he has to believe in the power of magic in order to believe in his own life. And in fact you see by the end of the novel that the truths are bigger and better than the dark inventions that Henry has created for himself.
DT: What are some of the truths?
DW: The stories that Henry has embraced, generated by his father, that only the Devil could have engineered the taking away of Henry’s sister. So Henry had to believe in that evil in order to set himself up as a force of good in the world, something combating that evil, at which he totally fails. Because the fact is, that evil doesn’t exist. There isn’t this Manichean struggle between the two. That’s the truth we discover. The man he set up to be the Devil, evil incarnate, is actually a pretty nice guy. It’s about recognizing the ambiguities of life. And it’s about making choices. In giving away his daughter, the father, who was able to see that he was a drunk and was never going to make enough money to support two children, may have made the right decision for his daughter, though not for Henry. But he was also a coward in not telling Henry the truth about the disappearance of his sister.
DT: Race is also not a black-and-white issue in the novel, literally. Could you say something about the role of race?
DW: Believe it or not, I wasn’t thinking directly of race when I was creating the character of Henry, the Negro Magician. I was thinking in terms of how people are perceived in the world. The way most people are judged is with just a glance, and then they are easily filed into a racial category. I know we’re talking about big things, but I don’t usually think in those terms when I’m writing stories. I just have a kind of vision—in this case, the vision of three rednecks beating up a Black magician in a field—and let it take me where the story should go.
DT: That’s almost an impressionistic or maybe imagistic style of creation, shifting from moment to moment, from image to image, and letting the narrative fill in the blanks between those luminous details, those epiphanies. Your creative process is evocative, letting the stories run on their own momentum. Certainly not writing out themes and saying, “This is where I want to go with this.” But there is a deceptive simplicity to your writing. That surface restraint opens up those bigger questions. Your novels all hold together. They all contain coherent narrative arcs, as you’ve noted, and they do speak to those big things in terms of theme. But your process is to move not from the top down, but from the bottom up.
DW: Yes, I think so. I hope so. It’s important to have both sides. But, for me, I always need to start with those striking visions and then let the narrative go from there. Anytime I read a writer who obviously has a point to make and I can feel him or her pushing me in one direction, I immediately mistrust the writer.
DT: And the image of the magician is the perfect kind of figure for what you do as an artist in this regard. You’re the magician, you perform the illusions, but it’s up to the audience to respond to those in order to complete their meaning.
DW: There’s a good give-and-take there. The writer has to make the illusions feel real enough, and then it’s the audience’s responsibility from that point on.
DT: Although all of your novels contain elements of freakishness, this motif appears most powerfully in Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician. What is the point of these insistent images of freakishness?
DW: I’m fascinated by the idea of freakiness. When I was a kid, I was always really scared of the sideshow and I never wanted to go in there. I’m interested in how people can be scared of and attracted to freaks at the same time. Intellectually, I like the idea of the sideshow as a community where freaks can exist as normal people. But I don’t go to sideshows in person because I feel really uncomfortable studying people for their differences. In a nuts and bolts way, freakishness helps in the drawing of characters because it gives you something to build the physical description of the character around.
DT: We sometimes think of freaks as diminished individuals, as if there’s something off about their individuality. I guess Siamese twins would be the most dramatic example, but it’s almost as if there’s something damaged about the integrity of their selfhood. And yet there’s a paradox in that they’re more distinct than the rest of us. And this seems to call into question what we define as normal.
DW: Yes, I think that’s true. Most of the freakish characters I write about are really no different at heart than other people, but it’s that apparent difference that makes them interesting. It’s weird to think of someone who’s seen everywhere they go, like being famous for no reason. If you’re Sean Connery, you get the same stares as if you’re a person with a physical deformity.
DT: In a circus, freaks become celebrities, and that says something about our culture, this love of spectacle no matter what. It repels and attracts our eye all at once.
DW: Yes. And in Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, I was interested in exploring both the freakishness of the so-called normal family and, on the other side, the normalcy of what is literally a freakish family—the collection of circus performers who function together as a real family once the show ends. The book turned out to be about family more than anything else. And again, this was a surprise that dawned on me as I was in the process of writing it. It’s about getting family, losing family. All of the stories presented are about family. Henry loses one family, but in the end he gets another since the circus becomes a family in itself, where the freaks are able to live a normal life with each other and love each other as real people, where their similarities are more important than their differences. It is through the unreality of the sideshow that they’re able to be real. Henry’s final vision is all about achieving that final ideal of community and family and being a part of the world.
DT: The novel says a lot about family as a created structure, as a kind of collective imaginative enterprise that can be redeeming and productive, not merely restrictive.
DW: Yes, I believe that’s true.
DT: You’ve written screenplays as well. Would you say something about writing for film?
DW: Sure. I enjoyed writing screenplays. I think I benefit as a fiction writer from being able to write in this other style as a script writer. I have the skills to write for film because I am so sensory in my work and I try not to dwell too much in the interior of my characters. But I’m also inspired to work on film scripts for the potential of working with other people. It’s exciting to try working with a group and seeing if a bunch of people working together can make something because my whole previous life as a fiction writer has been working by myself. The freedom’s nice, but it gets lonely once you’ve been at it for years. The experience of seeing Big Fish being made as a film was a lot of fun. It was like watching a symphony—all those violins and all those cellos and everybody working together to create one thing. It’s inspiring and I love the opportunity to be a part of all that.