Conversations: A Remarkable Literary Debut

Author Wells Tower ’96 garnered rave reviews across the country for his first book, the short story collectionEverything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Farrar Straus Giroux), when it was published in March. The book was featured on the cover of The New York Times Sunday Book Review.

By David Low &rsqup;76

For the Sunday Times, acclaimed writer Edmund White reviewed Wells Tower’s collection and wrote: “Every one of the stories. . .is polished and distinctive. Though he’s intrigued by the painful experiences of men much older than he is, Tower can write with equal power about young women and boys; about hell–raising, skull–bashing ancient Vikings, and an observant housebound old man of the 21st century. . .His range is wide and his language impeccable.”

In each of his stories, Tower has the extraordinary gift of making you care deeply about the lives of his misfits and lost dreamers, as if you had entered their skins—whether he is writing about a thrice–divorced entrepreneur down on his luck, a teenage girl flirting with an older man, or a cross–section of people whose lives intersect at a fairground.

Tower majored in anthropology and sociology at Wesleyan. After graduating, he wandered to different parts of the country, living in New Orleans, Maryland, Oregon, and Maine and doing odd jobs such as data entry and warehouse work. Tower received an MFA from Columbia University; two of the stories he wrote there were published in The Paris Review and appear in revised form in the new collection. He has written nonfiction articles for the past five years for The Washington Post and Harper’s; he also played in a punk band for six years.

In a March interview in The New York Observer, Tower said: “I think what people really want is fiction that in some tiny way makes their life more meaningful and makes the world seem like a richer place. The world is awfully short on joy and richness, and I think to some extent it’s the fiction writer’s job to salvage some of that and to give it to us in ways that we can believe in.”

DAVID LOW: When did you first start writing?

WELLS TOWER: I was pretty young. I’d always had a fondness for language, for narrative. I think I was in second grade when I had my first public outing. I wrote a couple of plays. They opened and closed on the same day. I haven’t since written for the stage.

DL: How do you know you have an idea for a story?

WT: Story kernels take different forms. Occasionally, I’ll steal an entire anecdote from somewhere and turn it into fiction. Sometimes, I’ll think I’ve got a short story all but written in my head, and when I sit down at the keyboard, it disintegrates. Other times, I’ll think I’m sketching an image or a joke, or a notion for a character, and it metastasizes into a story. It rarely happens the same way twice.

DL: What sort of writing rituals do you follow?

WT: Like many writers, I work best in the mornings, and, if I’m working on fiction, it’s absolutely critical to get away from the Internet. The mental space where fiction takes shape is small, private, and, ideally, well–deep. The Internet, on the other hand, is infinitely large, public, and shallow and for me, toxic to the fiction brain. So I don’t have WiFi in my apartment. I’ve got an Ethernet cable at one desk, and a second, Internetless desk in my bedroom where I do my fiction writing, which seems to do the trick for now.

DL: Many of your stories deal with blue–collar protagonists who are drifting or unfulfilled or who find themselves at a low point in their lives. What attracts you to these characters?

WT: I actually wouldn’t characterize them as mostly blue–collar. I’ve got one redneck carpenter, but I’ve also got real estate developers, attorneys, petit businessfolk, some Vikings—who knows what kind of collar those guys wore. But it’s true that we find them at low points. Life’s low points have a lot of potential narrative energy. A question mark immediately superintends the story: will things get worse, or will they improve? For me, it’s a fertile place to start a story.

DL: Your characters often find themselves in violent situations—or there’s a threat of violence lurking beneath the surface. Why?

WT: I’ve got a fondness for dramatic conflict, where much is at stake for my characters, and where we can watch that conflict take shape and ignite. Violence can sometimes be a handy way to vivify that moment of ignition.

DL: You grew up in North Carolina. Do you think of yourself as a regional writer?

WT: Not at all. I’ve lived many places: Middletown; Portland, Oregon; New Orleans; New York, and traveled to and known people in many, many more. Each of these places wields an influence on my fiction.

DL: You write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you enjoy writing in one genre more than the other?

WT: Here, please permit me to quote myself, from an essay I wrote about the process of revision:

“Nonfiction—even ‘literary’ nonfiction—calls for tools and processes that are pretty much useless when it comes to making short stories. In metalworking, they have this term, ‘cold connection,’ which is when you take two pieces of metal and a rivet. A few smart bashes, and you’ve got a bracelet with lots of nice bangles on it, and you’ve spared yourself the hot, tedious business of soldering and sweating joints. In a pinch, nonfiction can squeak by on cold connections. You go out and witness things, and if you’ve got at least a few compelling scenes, you can fuse them with the cold rivets of journalistic writing—the transition, the fraudulent hardware of arc and angle. Nine times out of ten the reader won’t feel gypped, never mind that there’s no real heart thumping in the thorax of your tin man.

“Fiction can’t be approached in such calculated fashion, at least I can’t approach it that way and feel good about myself in the morning.”

Fiction is much, much more difficult for me. Both the agonies and rewards, I find, are greater with stories I make up.

DL: What book have you read recently that you wish you had written?

WT: Charles Portis’s Dog of the South. One of the driest, weirdest wits in contemporary literature, Portis never writes a dull or unfunny line.

DL: Did you learn anything about writing when you were an undergraduate?

WT: It wasn’t until my senior year that I really learned the value of clarity in writing. My first three years at Wesleyan, I’d gotten reasonably good marks on papers by simply clouding them up with a lot of jargon and five–syllable words. It wasn’t until my senior year that one of my professors rightly pounded me for the obtuseness of my writing. “If there’s one thing you should learn as an undergraduate, it’s to express yourself clearly in writing,” he said, making the obvious point that the idea should come first and the job of language was to express it, rather than to recite fashionable academic sloganry and hope the reader could make sense of it. A very simple lesson but worth the price of admission, in my opinion.

David Low

David Low '76 writes about arts and culture for the Wesleyan magazine and Wesleyan Connection. He is associate director of publications in the Office of University Communications. He is also a published fiction writer. E-mail: dlow@wesleyan.edu