Interviews

Antoine Wilson

Antoine Wilson has just released his second novel, Panorama City, about a small-town guy with village idiot levels of good faith who spends forty days and forty nights in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. Oppen Porter, certain that he’s dying, narrates his story into a tape recorder from his hospital bed, for the benefit of his unborn son. His narration is both hilarious and tragic as he evolves from somebody who wants to be a man of the world to somebody who just wants to go home, and the way in which Wilson traces this evolution is my favorite part of the book—Oppen’s voice is a huge voice, an energetic voice, but one that’s also fragile. Over time, Wilson applies the hypocrisy of Panorama City to Oppen’s voice as if hypocrisy were a weight, and we as readers watch this voice bend and give, and we see Oppen discover what’s really important to him.

In the book, Oppen’s girlfriend is Carmen, an Hispanic former prostitute, and she mispronounces Oppen’s name. Instead of rhyming his name with “poppin’,” she rhymes it with “open,” and I promise that, in the next few lines, this tidbit will become significant.

Wilson and I met at a Le Pain Quotidien on the west side of Los Angeles.

TOM DIBBLEE: I have a funny anecdote for you.  

ANTOINE WILSON: (Laughs)

TD: I print my stuff at the UPS store.

AW: Ok.

TD: I kinda know the people there.

AW: Right.

TD: I sent this in by email. (Holds piece of paper with questions for Wilson written on it.) And it’s two Hispanic girls working there who I kinda know, and they bring the printed paper over together, and one of them goes, “Is it open?” And I’m like, “What? Is what open?” She’s like, “Is it open?” And I’m thinking she’s talking about the file I sent them or something, and I’m like, “Yeah, open it.” And she puts down the paper and points to “Oppen” and goes “Is it Open?” And I’m like, “Oh my god!” And the other one goes, “See it’s a name! Oppen!”

AW: So I made that up. I mean I never heard any Hispanic girl say “Open” for “Oppen.” That’s amazing. I love it when people from novels pop up in real life.

I was at a bar on Sunset Boulevard after a reading at Book Soup, and I went with some people who write in the office over there where I do a lot of writing; I rent an office there. So we’re sitting there, and they’re like, “What’s your novel about?” And I hadn’t developed any kind of sense of… I hadn’t done the one sentence thing. So I just started mumbling and rambling, “You know, it’s about this guy, he’s six-foot-six, blah blah blah…” And they’re just giving me shit the whole night, like, “How tall is your protagonist again?” Like this is the least relevant detail I’ve just given them. “What is your book about?” They want to hear a sentence, not like, “There’s this guy, he’s six-foot-six.” And so then, an hour and a half later, we’re all just sitting there bullshitting and stuff, this guy walks in and sits next to us on this patio, and he’s six-seven, and they’re like, “Hey come over here! You gotta hear about this guy’s book!” This guy came over and listened to us.

TD: You’re like, “It’s about you, man! Finally I get to meet you!”

AW: Exactly.

No there was a real guy though. A real guy who was the physical inspiration for Oppen. I was walking down the street in Iowa City in the middle of the summer and this guy sidles up next to me and starts talking to me about how he’s got friends everywhere he goes and he’s traveling across the country and all this stuff, wanting to know where I’m from, this very hyper-friendly kind of guy.

TD: Did you talk to him just that one time?

AW: Yeah. It was just a walk from the dorms into the middle of Iowa City. But it was just this idea of this guy, he seemed very naïve. He was very gung-ho on having like… He was from Bakersfield or something. He was from California. He was just cruising through, and he started telling me like how he loves to make friends everywhere he goes. And I thought that was an interesting way to go through life. He was in his twenties, probably, and just a little bit off.

So he inspired Oppen in part. But the other thing I was trying to do in Panorama City was figure out how to approach a comic novel. I was reading Dead Souls, I was reading Don Quixote, I loved the movie The Jerk. These things started to jell, and it ended up that I liked this idea of Sancho Panza telling a Don Quixote story. There was more Paul Renfro as a Don Quixote figure in earlier drafts.

(Oppen meets Paul Renfro on the bus from Madera in California’s Central Valley to Panorama City. Paul is a schemer and Oppen gets wrapped up in Paul’s worldview, becoming something of a right-hand man to him.)

I use influences like crutches, but then at a certain point, you have to start responding to what you’ve put down in your own project. So the book drifted toward Candide, and then the last crutch was Bohumil Hrabal. I Served the King of England was a huge book for me in terms of figuring out how to do a naïve, first-person story, but a story that doesn’t rely on dramatic irony. The classic example ofa novel that does rely on dramatic ironywould be The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Did you ever read that?

TD: No.

AW: Well, it’s an autistic boy narrator, and he’s got his view of the world, and it’s very specific, it’s charming. But while you read the book, you read through him and around him and you pick up all these clues that he’s missing out on—you’re seeing the adult version while he’s seeing the autistic child version—and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want that feeling that you’re reading around the narrator, and I feel like with Hrabal’s narrators, you’re right along with them, it’s not about getting around them as much as it is dealing with what they say.

TD: I Served the King of England ends with the protagonist in his waiter’s uniform, in a cabin, alone, and he’s still clinging to this man of the world thought. But Oppen hits a point where he comes off that thought and realizes it was a false goal.

AW: I think there’s a more satirical element to Hrabal there. He’s dealing with oppressive political conditions, and my book is not explicitlypolitical. So in the end, it’s more of a bildungsroman. Oppen finds his way in the world. He finds his way to the path that he’s going to take. So the ending’s different. I used Hrabal to understand the first-person, but the other correspondences are mainly coincidences or similarities thanks to common sensibility.

But with Candide, I wanted the happy ending of Candide, the tend-your-own-garden ending. Oppen comes back to that patch of wilderness. He gets to bury his father where his father wanted to be buried.

TD: Throughout the story, Oppen says he’s dying, but Carmen, his girlfriend, provides a sense of reassurance. You don’t know what’s coming, but her reassurance opens up space for this Candide-type feeling. She’s there with love for him, not at all believing that he’s even going to die.

AW: She gets her redemption. She’s had a messed up life, but only with somebody like Oppen, somebody who’s not going to judge any aspect of her past, can they actually go, the two of them, to embark on the next phase.

TD: Why does Oppen want to be a man of the world?

AW: I think it comes down to his father being dead, and Oppen recognizing that he’s been relieved of the burden of taking care of his father, but also recognizing that there’s no one above him, that it’s his turn to take the stage, so to speak, and that, combined with the fact that an opportunity presents itself with Aunt Liz saying, “You gotta come down here and stay with me.” And she’s obviously thinking she needs to mind him and look after him, and he sees this opportunity like, “Well, I’m gonna have to go to the big city, here’s my chance to learn about the outside world.”

TD: Aunt Liz feels the need to mind him and it seems like everyone has an agenda for Oppen. Why do people respond to Oppen this way? Oppen thinks he’s fine. Why does Aunt Liz want to take care of him so much?

AW: Because he’s totally naïve. She thinks he’s basically going to walk off a cliff if he’s not looked after. She really perceives him as somebody who needs to be mainstreamed, somebody who’s got a real developmental disorder. Aunt Liz is coming from a place of deep concern. She has a limited point of view of who Oppen is. And, I think pretty much because he’s naïve and open, people try to figure out how to use him for their purposes. For her, it’s a matter of feeling like her brother did a terrible job raising Oppen, so she needs to look after him. But she doesn’t totally respect him as an individual, as a fully formed human being. Because of the way he presents himself, you know, he believes most things that people tell him and he’s illiterate. He’s led a very circumscribed life. So, that’s why Aunt Liz is the way she is towards him, and I think Paul Renfro sees an opportunity. Paul’s a classic shady con man type, and he sees somebody who will buy whatever he says. And I think Paul goes from seeing him as somebody who could be a mark to somebody who could be a helper, who could reflect what Paul needs to feel, which is that Paul’s a genius. Paul’s a guy who was a promising young man who had a series of nervous breakdowns, and he doesn’t mind having somebody who could reflect his light and be a sidekick, like Sancho Panza.

TD: Oppen refers to himself as a shield. What does he mean by that?

AW: It goes back to the grade school thing, where he recognizes his own position as a scapegoat, as somebody who could be teased or bullied. But he feels that he’s strong enough to be the person to take that kind of abuse, to shield other people from it, because it doesn’t really affect him deeply. It’s him saying, in the classic sense of the scapegoat, “Let’s heap all our sins and anger and send it out to the desert.” He’s feeling that he knows he can take it, that he’s protecting the weaker kids, and this makes him feel even stronger, that he can be the guy who people are going to say, “Hey, go dive off the bridge.” And then he, in a sense, comes to feel that way about protecting Paul Renfro when he puts Paul in the attic, when Paul goes to live there, and he feels like he’s protecting Paul from all these people who are coming after him, which is going to allow Paul to grow.

TD: Oppen’s last name is Porter, and in your first novel, The Interloper, we have Owen Patterson—O.P. and O.P. What’s the relationship between those two characters, or between The Interloper and Panorama City? Or did you mean for Panorama City to have a relationship with The Interloper?

AW: No, I don’t mean for them to have a relationship except for the initials. I feel like I’ve written a completely different book. Yet, in some ways they’re similar. They’re both first-person narrators that are unreliable, but in completely different ways. It’s the question of how you get outside perspectives into a first-person narrator. I treat all first-person narrators as unreliable on some level, and while The Interloper hit a lot of what you might call the classic benchmarks of an unreliable first-person narrator, with Panorama City I was interested in exploring what else was possible on a technical level.

But on the level of theme or message, The Interloper’s a dark book. It’s about revenge, identity, and damage. Panorama City is about finding yourself in a way that skirts damage, and seems immune to it. I’m sure there are a lot of similarities that are unconscious, but they feel like they are, in a weird way, books that come from very different viewpoints, philosophically.

TD: I felt like they’re total opposites. You have in Owen Patterson someone doing something that, at first, seems sympathetic, or at least you get why he’s doing it, but then becomes so criminal and deranged. He’s such a tragic character. (Owen, upset that his brother-in-law’s murder weighs so heavily on his wife, decides to write letters to the killer in prison. But, he writes as an invented woman rather than as himself. His plan is to break the killer’s heart, and the plan spirals out of control.) But then with Oppen I felt like he’s so innocent, and it makes it seem like it’s the rest of the world outside of him that’s tragic.

AW: I would say that the impetus for The Interloper, of half of it, was an idea, which is: how do you extract justice from somebody who’s by all appearances a psychopath or a sociopath, somebody who’s incapable of feeling? How do you make them feel what they’ve done?

The revenge idea comes from real life. My older half-brother was murdered when I was a kid. When I went off to grad school, I ended up driving across the country by the same route that he did, and at one point I thought—and I knew the guy who had done it was out on parole—and I wondered what would have happened if I encountered that guy. What if I stopped at Embassy Suites and crashed for the night and I went to the bar and I looked over and there’s this guy. That got the wheels turning and this idea popped up of how do you get inside the killer’s heart? How do you extract revenge? And the idea of writing to him, of seducing him with this fake person and then pulling that out from under him, this strange idea came to me. Not as something to do, but as something this deranged character would do. It’s not a good idea. It’s not a wise idea. It’s a clever idea but it’s not a wise idea. And I called a friend of mine and I said, “Is this a short story, is this a paragraph, is this a novel?” And he said, “I think this is a novel.” So then a book grew out of that.

It grew from that idea and a lot of my life flowed in and out of it, but the central engine of it is very fictional. It’s a “What if?” kind of thing. And a lot of the tone was me trying to deal with my Nabokov addiction. People called it out as a sort of neo-noir, James Cain kind of thing. And I was like, “I don’t read crime fiction.” I was like the guy who knew Star Wars only from Spaceballs. It was a very strange experience, dealing with how the book was received by people who were fans of genre fiction.

Whereas Panorama City is… Owen was a guy with a plan, but Oppen is a guy with no plan. Everyone has plans for him. In a sense, Panorama City was way more groping, and way more trying to figure out what… Halfway through it, I wrote a letter to myself that said, “Next time have a fucking plan, because it is just too hard to feel your way there completely.”

But I would say that thematically, Panorama City is way more autobiographical. I’m not naïve like Oppen, but I do approach the world with that open, optimistic way, and I feel like I’ve had to navigate a lot of other people’s ideas about what I should be doing.

TD: I thought that groping made for such a nice structure. My big complaint always is when plot happens too fast, like when it opens up on page one. The stages I saw in Panorama City… The voice is so good. That alone carries the first seventy pages, and I was reading and flipping the pages like, “Yes, yes, yes, yes.” Then you get to the point where it’s like, “What’s the problem here? What’s the problem with this guy?” And wondering what that problem is carries you through all these phases. You have the fast food job, the skin cream scheme with Paul Renfro, the strip mall ministry, you have all these little phases. And then it’s like, right when you discover what this guy’s problem is, that he doesn’t like double agents, hypocrisy, fakeness, right when you discover that, you reveal how he got into the hospital. And in another book, that would be on page one, and all of a sudden, what would happen on page one happens on page two hundred, and you have this really tight crisis that carries the rest of the book.

AW: It’s hard to gauge what a reader’s experience is going to be. That voice and the way things line up in the book is the process of a few flights of inspiration, maybe, five percent, and then ninety-five percent carpentry. My ideal is a book with sentences that feel effortless, like you forget that somebody’s written them. I don’t mean that they don’t have style. I like style. I don’t like neutral writing that much. Like, I’m not looking for that pane of glass type of thing, which is one thing that’s nice about having a spoken voice. But I like to cover my tracks. So after you’ve done that kind of work on something, after you feel like you’ve hidden all the joints, the one thing you can never really know, as a writer, because you can never read your own book for the first time, is what the reader’s experience is going to be like. Whether you want to call it the long haul, the feel of the book, the ride of the book, as the author, that is inaccessible to you. I never really thought about that until I started publishing novels.

Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.