in conversation with Alex Shephard

Here is the highest compliment I can think to give: Wells Tower writes sentences that remind me of the late Barry Hannah. The sentences in Tower’s debut, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned incinerate the page: they’re sorrowful and funny as hell, often at the same time; most of all, though, they’re true and, though they remind me of Hannah (and Cheever and Denis Johnson and Larry Brown, for that matter), utterly original.

Over the past few years, Tower has gained a reputation as a successor to Hannah and Brown as the next great Southern writer and, with Philipp Meyer, as a particularly masculine writer. To some extent, both are true — Tower’s fixation on language is particularly Southern and his stories are populated by the kind of sad-sack, down-on-his-luck guys that pop out of Ray Carver stories. But Tower’s interest in the South isn’t as sociological as someone like William Faulkner’s: as he tells me, he’s primarily interested in parts of the South, like his native North Carolina, that are “culturally up-for-grabs” — crossroads between the past and the future, red and blue, urban and rural. And, though people certainly get hurt in his stories — the titular story in Everything Ravaged is about Vikings, for Christ’s sake — violence is never an engine or a means to any end. Instead, it’s pointless, as it creates or exacerbates conflict, and, most of all, absurd. Tower is primarily interested in characters who mean well — who want to fix broken relationships and build new lives — but struggle to change themselves. But, while Tower poignantly evokes his character’s struggle to find happiness, his sentences are pure joy. Over a beer, Wells and I spoke about his stories, his writing process, and his relationship with Barry Hannah.

Despite being labeled (or perhaps pigeon-holed?) as a Southern writer, you write about places – so often, the sticks or exurbs – that are all over the country. More than anything, in terms of setting, when I was reading Everything Ravaged I was thinking, “here’s a guy who spent some time playing in the woods as a kid.”

[laughs] Yeah, I spent a lot of time out in the woods. It’s funny – that’s something that’s come up a fair amount in conversations about the book. “It’s very naturalistic, there’s all this stuff about animals and the forest.” That was something I was never really conscious of when I was writing those stories. But so much of my private life when I was a kid was out in the woods. I did a lot of growing up just running around out there.

How do you feel about the Southern writer moniker?

I don’t know. I guess I don’t really identify so much as a Southern writer. I mean, there are certain kinds of tricks and strategies, and a sort of calculi narrative sympathy, that I see in somebody like Flannery O’Connor, who’s just irresistible – I mean, the way she puts a story together – and who I admire not as a Southern writer but as a brilliant architect and as a master, somebody who solves these really complex problems of sympathy and moral difficulty in fiction. She’s somebody who I have to be really careful not to take refuge in. I admire a lot of those Southern writers, but also so many other people from all over the map – Cheever, Nabokov, whoever. I don’t feel the agony of influence in a super focused way.

I do think there’s a degree of Southernness that comes through in my fiction. And I do write about North Carolina – and I write about Florida some too – but I write about those places not much for the biscuits and gingham and donkey qualities that you can exploit, so much as their indeterminacy: the neck of the woods where I grew up in North Carolina is really a kind of culturally up-for-grabs kind of place. There’s so many different cultural influences there. There’s a big hippie movement there and the universities and then the [elements] of the Old South. But there still seem to be elements of Southernness that appeal to me, that I have an ear for. I think there’s a particular Southern enthusiasm for language – I mean, I’m sure that’s true for New England and the Midwest, but I grew up hearing it and have a particular fondness for certain weird things people do with language.

You were able to spend some time with Barry Hannah before he died. What was your relationship with his work?

He was just one of those writers who astonished me, and altered my notion of language’s possibilities. The thing that was so phenomenal about Hannah is that with any of his books you could have cut up all of the sentences and strewn them on a floor and rearranged them and the book still would have been so much fun to read. Even in these stories of his that are non-narrative and don’t really track, each sentence is its own little universe. There’s so much pleasure and firepower and exuberance in every one of those sentences. I guess it was just a pleasure to see someone care so much about language and have so much fun with it. He was just a hugely invigorating writer.

How did you end up meeting him?

This magazine called me up and asked if I had any big Southern magazine ideas. I said the only thing I wanted to do was Barry Hannah. So I went down and hung out with him for three or four days. He was such a sweetheart. Such a good guy. We didn’t really do a whole lot. I didn’t grill him about anything. We just drove around in the country and I rolled tape. But he was a really congenial, sweet guy, which was nice to discover after all of the nightmare stories I’d heard about him.

Alcohol and firearms factor into some of those nightmare stories – which is, I guess, a trend among a certain group of Southern writers.

I don’t know how they do it. I don’t know how that whole generation of writers who were such terrible alcoholics found any time to write. You can only imagine the sort of work they would have been doing if they weren’t laboring under a bourbon hangover until 4pm every day.

You’ve also been deemed a particularly “masculine author.” How do you feel about that distinction?

I’ve made a real point not to read any reviews or any blogs or anything that anyone’s written about the stuff that I do. So I don’t really know. I guess I’ve gotten it some at Q & A’s — that I’m kind of a guy’s writer, or something. And I suppose that’s to some extent true. It’s reflected in the people I was reading a lot of when I was learning to read fiction: Barry Hannah, Cheever, Carver, Tobias Wolff, Tom Jones, Dennis Johnson. All those guys are writing kind of “man stuff,” I suppose. But that probably has something to do with growing up in a house that was mostly men: I’ve got three brothers, a stepdad, a dad. But with my novel I’m really trying to bring more female characters into it.

In the interview you did with Barry Hannah you described the stories in Everything Ravaged as being particularly “clean.” What did you mean by that?

I guess I felt that when I had ultimately revised them as much as I could – or as much as the schedule permitted – I didn’t feel like there was a lot of terribly sloppy language left in it. And I didn’t feel like there were big things in the stories that I felt shitty about. It was a funny book to put together because it covered such a range, in terms of time [and] in my development as a writer. The early stories in the book were really the first stories I had ever wrote to completion. So [I had to] to go back seven years later and try to revise those stories [while] leaving some of their initial energy intact [and] not [get] really upset that they were simpler stories with somewhat more crudely drawn characters. [Instead,] I decided there is a certain pleasure in this kind of story and I’ll try to make sure that it’s not too stupid or lazy but to try to clean up the original incarnation of it, and keep the intent intact.

It is funny though. Now I often look back at the first stories I wrote and there’s a kind of simplicity about them and a kind of fearlessness that I just don’t have anymore. Now when I write stories there’s a lot more going on; there’s a lot more moving on; I’m trying to reach deeper into the characters. Whereas really, there’s an interesting lesson in the introduction to Cheever’s Big Red Book [Editor’s Note: he’s referring to the affectionate nickname for Cheever’s Stories, which is very big and very red] where he’s talking about all these stories written over forty years and he said his favorite stories in the book were the ones he wrote in a week. I think maybe there’s something to that: to come up with a short story with a very, very small idea and try to go after it in an economical, focused way. You know, often with a short story you really end up going out to sea. I don’t know if this was in the Barry Hannah interview, but I do remember this thing that he said when I saw him speak at The New School. He was talking about fiction and someone asked him about writing fiction and he said, “Here’s my advice: get in and get out.” [laughs]

That is some good advice.

Yeah! I wish I could follow it.

How does splitting time between North Carolina and New York affect your writing?

I think it’s weirdly harder than it used to be. I used to think that I could just write anywhere and do revisions in airport terminals, but now there seems to be some start-up costs to bouncing around so much. I’m really looking forward to just being in one place for quite a while. I don’t know – each place has its own little incentive system. In New York you feel the pressure of all these publishing types that you spend your time with, and all your friends have books coming out all the time, and you think, “Well, I’ve got to stay at it.” And in some ways that notion of how quickly the gears of the industry are spinning – I don’t know, maybe it’s good, but it tends to freak me out. I can’t really hurry my fiction. New York tends to be very good for magazine stuff …. but as far as having a quiet contemplative life while really being able to think about fiction and maintain a pretty good reading diet, North Carolina is a bit better for me. And also, in North Carolina, I don’t spend time with any other writers much down there …. that’s pretty nice, to be somewhere where no one really gives a shit what you do for a living. …. Up here it just seems like you get drawn into the orbit pretty easily.

One thing that comes up a lot in interviews you’ve been involved in is the subject of revision. For something so central to a writer’s life, it’s something that’s rarely discussed in interviews, so I’ve always appreciated that about you. What’s your attitude towards revision?

Often, I think not quite sanely or healthily, I sat back down with a lot of the stories – even ones that were published in fancy places – [because] when I was finishing the book I just felt awful about them. It just seemed like there were all sorts of compromises they had made to make magazine deadlines or whatever it was. So for a lot of the stories I revised by rewriting the story entirely – just going back to the original germ that inspired the story and coming up with maybe a completely different plot and completely different cast of characters, but saving some little chromosome from the original story. The story “Retreat” was first published from the perspective of the younger brother; the carnival story was a first person piece when it first came out in Harper’s but then became this multi-narrative thing; the story “Door in Your Eye” had a different narrator and a different antagonist; the version of “Wild America” in the book in no way resembled the original.

There’s definitely a cohesiveness to Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned that I don’t think would have been there if they weren’t so heavily revised.

Particularly with the early stories, I just had no idea what the fuck I was doing. I didn’t know what sort of compact the story was trying to have with the reader; I didn’t know what its aims were. I wasn’t really thinking about it in terms of “what’s the bigger emotional problem of the story?” And that’s what tended to be driving my revisions. After the two or three or four months I had spent writing the first draft it seemed to have now declared an emotional problem that I didn’t know was there when I sat down to draft it. [So I would realized that] I happened to have chosen characters and a plot that don’t really get at that problem in the most effective way. Revision was about finding new and better tools, at least in my mind.

There’s a real restless energy to your stories – like Barry Hannah, you’re always veering into uncharted waters. It seems that your revision process, though remarkably disciplined, is driven by that restless energy as well.

Writing is still a tremendously anxious process for me. It’s never easy. If that’s the sort of energy you’re talking about when you say it’s restless, then I think that’s an intended effect of the way that I write. I think I really do write with a sense of a ticking clock. How can I possibly ask somebody to read all of this shit that I just made up? It’s asking a huge amount of someone – it’s like asking someone to listen to your dream! It’s a huge imposition. So I’m constantly thinking, “I hope I’m rewarding the reader with language, or narrative immediacy.” It’s a habit that, as I’m working on a novel now, I’m really, really trying to run myself off the hook with.

While you don’t necessarily “genre hop,” your stories show off a lot more range than many of your contemporaries – you never settle into a specific class or setting or tone.

[laughs] You mean what makes me feel as though I’m capable of writing about any given subject? Usually it’s some small turn or little irony. That story “Raw Water” is a fucking weird one. That’s a very weird story that I really did not think would ever work out. It was this crazy thing. Basically McSweeney’s got some money to put out this volume that would be all stories set in the year 2024. And they had some money to send us out to do some reporting. So I had this weird idea of this fake sea [in Arizona]. But that was such a vague idea; that story was hellaciously hard to write. …. When I was revising I was going back and trying to make sure that the language was in service of the characters and the story …. And then when I wrote “Raw Water” I was just like, “Fuck it. I am going to have as much low fun as possible. I am going to punish these characters. I am going to go completely into the red line in terms of language and make it as grotesque as possible and just do nothing in earnest.”

It’s almost like a Flannery O’Connor science fiction story! The characters are all so grotesque – one is described as having a “face like a left-hand drawing.”

Right! Everybody’s ugly. Everybody’s gross. Everybody’s a monkey! It was very funny to me that that story was the first story of mine that was part of the little packet of stories to win the National Magazine Award for fiction and it was in Best American.

My parents always buy me those aggregate, “best of,” end-of-the-year mixtape books, and this Christmas I realized that they had basically bought me “Raw Water” eight times.

[laughs] It’s so funny. I think there’s probably a good lesson in it. I certainly don’t look at that as being one of my best stories or anything, but I do think when you get to a place where you say “Fuck it. I’m writing for me. I’m going to just write a story to please myself” that, if you’re really doing that, then some of that pleasure and irreverence will come through to the reader. I don’t know. That story is weird as hell. [laughs]

There’s a similar “What the fuck?” quality to the titular story of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned in which you follow some Vikings who are reluctantly pillaging a neighboring island. You were accused of making fun of fantasy in one of our editor’s Creative Writing seminars.

[laughs] If I was making fun of anybody I was making fun of those dirty realist writers who I also at the same time really admire. That was a really early story and I was reading a lot of Carver and the early Richard Ford stories – you know, this working stiff fiction. That was the gag.

That’s another strange story in that it’s littered with gags for thirty-odd pages and then, in the last couple of pages, it becomes completely devastating.

It is a gag story! It’s an interesting story in that it started as a kind of smart-ass, cynical, meta gag and the thing I like about it is that it did seem to defeat my smart-assed young writer impulses… it did really end up working its way into this bigger emotional space. Or maybe it’s a gag with unearned sentimentality tacked on at the end ….  I guess I really just bought it. The gesture at the end is really crazy and is probably something I shouldn’t have been able to get away with.

The entire story tilts over the course of maybe two pages from one narrative space into another.

Yeah. That’s the kind of thing that I wouldn’t try to do anymore. I just wouldn’t try to pull off that kind of big turn that quickly anymore.

Of course, that story has also been fawned over for being some sort of allegory about Iraq or something.

Yeah. None of those resonances were intentional. [laughs]

How did you research the story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”?

I researched it in the cheapest possible way. I picked up some grocery store books about Vikings published in the ’20s or ’30s and leafed through them and whenever there was something gross or weird I would make a note and put it in the story.

Your characters are remarkably dignified and often rather gentle.

I don’t think many of us are really trying to do ill. And I think most of the ill that’s done in the world happens despite our best notions of ourselves. And that’s something that continues to interest me. It’s much more interesting to me to have a character that’s trying to be very, very good and doing a poor job at it than having someone who’s a wife-beating asshole, or something like that.

Before the book came out you did quite a bit of non-fiction writing for GQ and Harper’s, among many other places. Do you still do that kind of work?

A little bit. I’m starting to realize that it’s very, very difficult to do both. Even to do a mediocre magazine piece takes a few months. For me, it’s still very difficult to turn down magazine assignments — it’s less often about the writing and more often about the reporting. To be able to parachute into some weird world and ask questions about it is a wonderful thing to be able to do.

Is it difficult to balance that kind of work with your fiction writing?

With fiction, you really have to practice your faith in it daily. As soon as you spend two days or a week away from it, you don’t believe in the characters anymore and it’s very hard to work your way back into that sort of self-hypnotized head space where you actually believe in the shit you’re making up. …. After I’ve been doing fiction for a while the thing that becomes so tedious about doing non-fiction is that suddenly there’s all this information that you have to disgorge. And if you care about language then you have to find ways to front-load the exposition that has to be there in a way that feels graceful, or fun to read.

Last night I gave your stories the dullest high compliment I think there is for short stories: “there’s no exposition in these stories.”

[laughs] Exposition is so awful.

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