Robley Wilson talks to Dawn Raffel about genre-hopping, boundary-free editing, and the necessity of virtuoso grumbling
On October 16, legendary editor and writer Robley Wilson will give a craft talk here. Below is an interview Wilson did for our online magazine, The Literarian.
If you love short stories, you might well know Wilson from his six powerful collections (Who Will Hear Your Secrets?, The Book of Lost Fathers, Terrible Kisses, Dancing for Men, Living Alone, and The Pleasures of Manhood). Or you might know him as an award-winning poet (Kingdoms of the Ordinary, A Pleasure Tree, and Everything Paid For), or critically acclaimed novelist (The World Still Melting, Splendid Omens, and The Victim's Daughter).
If you are a writer, you might have studied with him at some point during the more than three decades he taught (mostly at University of Northern Iowa, with numerous guest stints around the country, including the Iowa Writers Workshop).
You may even owe the start of your career to him. From 1969-2000, Wilson edited the North American Review, winning two National Magazine Awards and helping launch an extraordinary number of writers. He published the debut stories of Jennifer Egan (who just won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction), T.C Boyle, George V. Higgins, Sue Miller, Abraham Verghese, and Jane Ciabattari (also featured in this issue), as well as very early work by (among others) Gail Godwin, Barry Lopez, Louise Erdrich, Lee Abbott, Frederick Barthelme, Denis Johnson, Kim Edwards, Jennifer Egan, Ursula Hegi, Ken Kalfus, Bobbie Ann Mason, Antonya Nelson, Mona Simpson, John Edgar Wideman, and Aimee Bender. Wilson calls this “lucky”—we call it brilliant.
You really are a six-way threat: short story writer, novelist, poet, screenwriter, teacher, and editor. Has there been artistic synergy between these endeavors?
"Threat" is probably not the right word, but I'll consider them in order. From the beginning, I wanted to write short stories; Hemingway, Wolfe, Maugham—these were my early cup of tea—and later Updike and Salinger and even Roth. I say “even” because I don't think of Roth now as a short story writer, but at the time, the Goodbye, Columbus collection was important to me (as was, much later, the long "Ghost Writer" story published in the New Yorker—an extraordinary piece). Briefly, I had an agent who kept urging me to write a novel, but I couldn't imagine such a thing—until finally I was too old to resist. I wrote poetry seriously for a little more than a decade, and then the muse fled me. Screenwriting was a thing I thought I'd rather like to try, but while my first attempt won a prize, neither it nor the five scripts that followed it has ever provoked anyone's interest. I wasn't a terrible teacher, but I probably never worked as hard as I should have. I was a helluva good fiction editor. How all these "endeavors" blend into a literary life, I honestly don't know. Maybe what we have here is a simple inability to settle down and be organized.
There may be something to be said for not settling down. Has switching forms been critical to your growth as a writer?
In the 1960s I persuaded myself that I was going to be a poet, even though from my high school years through college, my focus was on the short story. I published quite a few little-magazine poems, and when I came back to fiction, I think I was far more conscious of the possibilities for imagery in my stories. I've forgotten how to write poetry, but whatever residual poetics haunts my brain still whispers advice on matters of diction and detail.
Is there also a price to be paid for working in different forms? Does the reader—or worse, that entity known as the marketplace—want to confine the writer to one box?
I don't think the marketplace gives two hoots about forms or boxes. We're talking commerce, aren't we? If the marketplace could make a buck off your laundry list, it would start commissioning laundry lists, and agents would importune their writers to hang out in laundromats with smartphones.
There’s a popular notion that the literary world is made up of “emerging” and “established” writers—and by “established,” the implication is “famous.” Yet many “emerged” writers produce a substantial body of serious literary work without winning the fame-and-money jackpot. Others have a moment of fame that passes. Do you have a sense, from your long career as a writer and editor, of what it takes to sustain oneself as an artist over the long haul?
I suppose it requires a kind of virtuoso grumbling, usually provoked by the insistence that the literary world must a) be centered in New York City, especially Brooklyn, b) concern itself with writers under the age of forty, c) be notably interested in stories of first- or second-generation immigrant experience, or d) center on plots and/or characters that are unlike any you would expect to meet in the real world in a thousand years. I find The New Yorker guilty of encouraging all these perverse criteria. Yet I do admire The New Yorker, and it amazes and delights me that they still manage to make room for the wonderful Alice Munro. As an editor, I wanted the North American Review always to have as much class and conscience in our little corner as The New Yorker, and Harper's and The Atlantic, in their larger spaces.
It did! I’m going to turn the discussion back to your writing. How important is sense of place to you? I’ve sometimes felt that the land itself is one of the main characters in your novels.
Place has become more important as I've grown older, and now that I'm living in Florida, my home state of Maine appears more and more in my fiction. Exception: my last novel, The World Still Melting, is set in Iowa (where I lived and taught for nearly forty years), and couldn't have been set anywhere else. Otherwise, Maine is probably more home to me now than it was when I grew up there.
Your wife, Susan Hubbard, is a novelist. Do you edit each other?
We read each other, and we make suggestions, but we're each protective of our own style and diction and attitude toward the world, so we don't "edit" each other in any formal sense of that word.
The NAR published a great many debut authors and also had frequent contributors, including—if I remember correctly—Andre Dubus, Margaret Atwood, Barry Lopez, and Michael Martone. Was your own artistic life influenced by them?
I think not. All of them were friends who were sometimes close and sometimes not, as time and geography dictated, but, alas, I pre-date all of them. I especially admired Andre's work—the NAR published him so often that he actually stopped submitting to us because he felt he was crowding out newer writers—and I once rented the Atwood/Gibson farm in Ontario for a year, where I wrote the first draft of my first novel (never published) on the back pages of one of her early novel drafts; maybe that constitutes an influence?
Well, it sure would be fun to read now, two-sided. A distinctive characteristic of The NAR was that it was extraordinarily eclectic (something we try to emulate at The Literarian). You could find just about every approach to the story within its pages; there was certainly no such thing as an “NAR story.” I read the first microfictions in the NAR long before the word “microfiction” rose to popularity; I also saw very traditionally crafted works right next to those that subverted tradition. What did you look for in a story? What made you say yes?
I was in a unique and fortunate position at the NAR, because I was a committee of one, answerable to no higher authority. So the short answer is that I looked for what I liked—simple as that. I had no screeners; I read all the prose that came in. When we started getting a lot of very short fiction, we created the "Four-Minute Fiction" category for the magazine: stories that ran from a couple of hundred words to perhaps a thousand. We had no rules, no boundaries. In general, you have to remember that the "slush pile" is aptly named; most fiction submissions are at best mediocre and easily cast aside. If a manuscript wakes you up, you take it, tradition and "story arc" be damned.
What are you most excited about reading now?
I'm a remarkably lazy sort, and I don't read much, but after Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel, I determined to try him. I read The Bad Girl and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and was appropriately amazed and pleased by both. I wish I could read Spanish; I have to take the translations on faith, but these two worked well for me. On plane trips—and I've suffered through a couple lately—I read old pros like Elmore Leonard and P.D. James. Oh, yes, I did read all three of Stieg Larsson's Girl Who books. Weird.
What have you not written yet that you’d like to try?
I've got a story in the current Santa Monica Review about the first American woman to die of AIDS in the early 1980s. It's pure fiction—I have no idea who the first might have been—but I think I'd like to build it into a novel that covers the character's life from 1930 to 1981. I may never finish it; it's going to require a certain amount of research, and as I say, I'm lazy, and...well, you know...
Next Story: "Like a Demon" by William Lychack