In the acknowledgements for his new collection of short stories, What’s Important Is Feeling, Adam Wilson admits that his own father considers him “one weird dude.” This should be taken as a compliment, we think, since while some of the material here made our fur crawl, Wilson is ultimately an expert navigator and explicator of the types of emotional and sexual strangeness you human beings are capable of. We chatted with the author about prose techniques and why no one wants to read about attractive people making each other come.
UNI & CHLOE: First lines are important—they’re the snacks that lure you in. And in terms of first lines you, Adam Wilson, are a veritable high-octane genius-machine. “No one knows who slept with her first”; “My grandfather was an old queen, and when he was dying he would grab me through my pants and try to make it hard”; “I’m done being friends with dreadlocked white guys.” Tell us: What’s the recipe for a perfect opening line? Is an opening line like that the initial catalyst for a great story, or does it come later in the process?
ADAM WILSON: I’m not sure if one recipe is better than others, but looking at the three you’ve quoted, mine seems to involve making an extreme statement and then spending the rest of the story trying to justify it. The main thing, for me, is getting the reader interested. We live in such an ADD culture, that every sentence seems like an opportunity to lose the reader. I try to make a big bang at the beginning in order to say, STOP, read this, it’s not gonna be boring, there’s sex in it! I often read my opening sentence to my own cat, Frida, and if she stops destroying furniture or chasing pieces of paper around my apartment in order to listen then I know I’m on the right track.
Young adulthood—dramatic teenage years, existential college years—seem very important to you. We’re 4 ourselves which, in cat years, puts us right in this target demo. What’s interesting or fruitful about this time of life? Can we ever expect to grow out of this awkwardness?
Awkward? Aren’t cats supposed to be graceful? As for me, I’m still trying to deal with the psychic wounds from my adolescence. I had a baby face and a ponytail and no muscle mass to speak of. Older kids called me “Hanson” after the band who sang “Mmbop”. You would still be writing about it too. Luckily, cats don’t have to go to high school.
In the acknowledgements for the book you thank your father, but then admit that after reading this collection he called you “one weird dude.” Are you a weird dude? Does it feel weird to have your dad read a story in which the protagonist is, you know, idly masturbated by his dying-and-mostly-senile grandpa?
You know, I didn’t feel that weird about my parents reading this stuff. My dad is a writer, and has written some pretty weird shit himself, so I feel like he can take it. I do, however, feel weird about my girlfriend’s parents reading the book.
What are some songs that we should listen to while reading What’s Important Is Feeling?
I would listen to the albums Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady, Celebration Rock by Japandroids, Doris by Earl Sweatshirt, and Manhattan, the debut record from my old high school buddies, Skaters.
Is it important for writers and those-who-want-to-be-writers to go through a so-called “drug period,” so that they can later drag themselves out of the gutter and use their hard-fought wisdom to craft better, more authentic prose?
Let me ask you this, are you two more authentic cats for having tasted catnip? Did it alter your worldview? Improve your sex lives? Or just make you mellow? Drugs are fun and provide good material, but they’re not great for writing because they make you lazy and dumb. I sometimes think I could have written the next War and Peace if I hadn’t taken so much ecstasy as a teenager. That said, I like fiction that both funny and sad, and most drug experiences involve some combination of both.
Most of your protagonists tend to be men (or boys), and considering that we’re two girl-cats, we appreciate the insights into the male psyche that you provide (we never knew it was so sweaty, so sometimes sad, so occasionally desperate). But in “The Long In-Between” you’re suddenly narrating a first-person story from a woman’s point-of-view. Did that feel strange? What sort of research did you do?
It didn’t feel so strange, to tell the truth. I think that writers, as a species, are basically feminine creatures. That what all the Hemingway/Bukowski macho posturing is about—trying to hide the innate femininity of what we do. For more on this theory, read Anne Carson’s amazing essay, “The Gender Of Sound,” in which it turns out the Greeks thought vaginas were mouths and vice versa. That said, I did pass the story by a number of really helpful female readers including my girlfriend, my mother, and a close friend, before sending it out for publication.
There’s a good amount of sex in this book, and very little of it makes us feel comfortable. Like the little tryst in “America Is Me And Andy,” during which two teenage friends are watching American Idol, and suddenly become engaged in an unexpected act of potentially non-homosexual fellatio, if that’s a thing (which it probably, definitely isn’t), and then one of their moms walks in on them, which is of course not what you want to have happen when you are “sucking with every atom, salivating.” Why is sex more interesting when it’s a bit unnerving or somehow wrong? And as a fiction writer, how do you go about accurately capturing this—all the crippling undertones and endless permutations present when people do something so simple as fuck?
I think most things are more interesting when they’re unnerving and wrong. Good sex is boring unless you’re having it. No one wants to hear about attractive people making each other come—it’s like, stop bragging. I’d much rather read about people with flawed bodies having flawed, human sex. Sex is such a ridiculous and hilarious thing when you think about it, and it can also be incredibly sinister and dark. I’m interested in people with hangups, people with sexual anxiety, people who are uncomfortable in their own skin and touching other people’s. These are all things I can relate to. As I said earlier, I like funny and I like sad, and bad, weird sex always has a little bit of both. I’m also interested in taboo, and notions of shame and guilt in relation to sex. I think the difficulty is figuring out a way to do it that doesn’t come across as simply in there for shock value or cheap titillation. In the story you mention, I was a bit nervous about going for such a “big” ending in the way that I did, but I thought the story justified it, because it’s really an allegory about the relationship between beauty, shame, sex, and violence in America. It’s not a very subtle one either, and I didn’t intend it to be—in a sense I wanted to tackle some of the collection’s persistent themes in a more straightforwardly satirical and over the top way.