Adam Wilson is the author of the anti-coming-of-age novel Flatscreen (2012) and a new short story collection, What’s Important Is Feeling. He writes beautifully about ugly stuff: addictions, afflictions, moral failures. His characters are often adolescent (of mind if not body), and Wilson makes a point of giving the lie to Hollywood arcs and endings—which means his characters are also often disappointed.
Both books lean heavy on humor and light on resolution. At times they’re incredibly depressing, to the detriment of their Goodreads scores. Some of the stories in What’s Important Is Feeling are loosely autobiographical, but Wilson—a down-to-earth bald dude in glasses—isn’t telling which ones.
EVAN ALLGOOD: In “December Boys Got It Bad,” “Some Nights We Tase Each Other,” and “The Porchies,” we meet affluent characters who wish they were lower class. Why do you think that resurfaces throughout the book?
ADAM WILSON: Well, I’m not sure that they want to be lower class so much as they’re embarrassed by their affluence, and find certain culturally received notions of working class squalor to be romantic and sexy in their otherness. It’s very rare that people want to admit to having money. People who have money are very secretive about it, which causes a lot of well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous behavior. To me, there’s something morally reprehensible about having a lot of money and acting like you don’t have any. Or, if not morally reprehensible, then annoying. (laughs)
EA: It’s kind of insulting.
AW: Insulting, yeah. I can’t stand books written by middle-class white people from the East Coast who affect working class Southern personas. I feel like it’s romantic and sentimental and phony. I come from a privileged background: I went to Columbia for graduate school. I live in Brooklyn. I have lived in Manhattan. I’m white. I’m Jewish. To pretend none of those things are true—and to not investigate them—seems like a cop-out. I want to think about those things and not hide from them. I want to interrogate them. It’s difficult to approach those subjects, and I don’t think people do it. You get a lot of writing about the very wealthy, the kind of Bret Easton Ellis celebration of decadence masquerading as satire. And then you get the fetishistic romanticization of working class America, hardscrabble lives of quiet desperation, that sort of thing. There’s very little to romanticize about just being kind of rich, and from the suburbs—and I feel like that’s exciting in a way. There’s a reason people shy away from it, which makes me want to approach it.
I’m interested in the various specific delineations of class. Because there are many strata and we tend to lump people into this one or the other. In “Some Nights We Tase Each Other,” there’s a house full of people all occupying different places on the class spectrum. They all have different relations to their exploitation of this homeless guy that they let move in with them, which has to do with their own backgrounds. I think that’s interesting.
EA: These white, well-off college kids think doing this makes them cooler on some level, right?
AW: Right. Cooler, and also because they fashion themselves as Marxists, and this is their experiment with redistribution of wealth. They’re incredibly exploitive of the homeless man, but then he steals all their stuff. The super-rich kid of the group says, “He deserved it”—he deserved to steal their stuff. But that’s just because this guy can buy new stuff with his credit card. He can buy another three-thousand-dollar guitar. Whereas the kid who has the campus job—he is white and privileged, but he also has to work—can’t just buy all the stuff again, so he’s a little more pissed off.
College is an interesting place in terms of class because it’s so hidden a lot of the time. Then you graduate and it becomes very apparent who had money and who didn’t; who college was just play for, versus a place where they actually had to prepare for something. “The Porchies,” too, is very much about that. I feel like I’ve gotten criticized for writing about privileged white people, but to me the stories are all deep interrogations of that privilege. But I don’t know, maybe that’s not coming across. (laughs)
EA: Why are so many of your protagonists teens and twenty-somethings?
AW: Well for one, there’s clearly still stuff I’m trying to work through from my own experiences—the psychic wounds of teenage years. But late adolescence is the subject of much American literature. I thought of my novel Flatscreen as an anti-coming-of-age book in some way. It’s about this guy who’s gleaned all his knowledge from television and movies. He understands his own experience only in relation to these kind of received narratives that already exist and that he’s completely internalized to the point where he can’t really imagine anything else. So in comparison, his life doesn’t make any sense; it’s lacking a certain narrative propulsion. He can’t figure out a way to reconcile that. I think the stories in this book are much the same in that they’re about people who already know what the story of their lives is supposed to be, but it’s coming out wrong.
This is sort of tangential, but I think it relates: One of the things I’m really interested in is that living in this age of social media, we’re constantly seeing false representations of people’s personas online, and their lives, which have been curated to seem rather ideal and perfect. I think our own lives can never quite seem to live up because we’re only seeing other people’s best photos and their happiest moments.
EA: They untag the shitty photos.
AW: Yeah, exactly. This seems like a problem. It’s like the romantic comedy problem: How do you understand having a real relationship when your only models are these impossibly perfect relationships that we’ve seen in movies? We’ve been conditioned to have this understanding of a first kiss as something that happens with the perfect song playing in the background, and the kiss is with one of the twenty most attractive people in the world. So when we compare it to our own experiences, we’re constantly disappointed. I think younger people and teenagers are especially impressionable in that way and have less life experience to rely on. They’re disappointed in their own lives simply for not being what they imagined them to be. I don’t think that’s particular to younger people, but I think the characters in the stories seem paralyzed by it, maybe in a way that I felt paralyzed at different points in my life.
EA: In Flatscreen, you shuffle through a series of stock endings before arriving at the actual ending to the book. It’s a very cool way to discard each one and say, “That’s what happens in movies. That’s not what’s going to happen here.”
AW: The character had this anxiety, and I had this anxiety as a writer, which was: How do I make a coming-of-age novel new and fresh and different? So my own anxiety as a writer was cycling through these endings, like, Well, this is one way people do it… This is another way that it ends… Trying to figure out how I could do it. I think that my own anxiety is matched by the character’s anxiety, his own struggle of how to live an original life, and how to live when his only models are these narratives received from media and pop culture. So it became the solution itself, because the idea is there are no endings, that life continues. I almost felt like each time he said one of those endings and then the book continued, it was him surviving that ending and saying, “No, this is bullshit.”
I especially hate that ending where the guy drives off into the sunset and the perfect song’s playing and the credits roll, and we imagine, Okay, he’s leaving his past behind, so all his problems will be solved. Which is just such a lie, and it’s a lie that I experienced. After college I decided to move to Texas. I grew up in Boston, and I thought I’d move to Austin because it rhymes and I’d heard it was cool. I didn’t know anyone there. I packed up my car and drove there—and I got there and I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have a job. I was much more miserable than I’d been before.
EA: I did the same thing except I drove to Los Angeles. Miserable.
AW: I feel like that’s something that needs to be addressed, this great lie of these movies. You don’t meet the beautiful waitress who falls in love with you at the first diner you pull into, and then magically write your novel or screenplay in rest stops along the drive, and then it gets published the day you arrive. (laughs) I think the same thing sort of happens in the stories, in a different way. There’s not much that’s resolved.
EA: In “The Porchies,” the narrator says outright that this wasn’t the defining summer of his life. This isn’t that kind of story, which is a theme that pops up throughout the book.
AW: Yeah, instead of this being the shitty moment of his life before everything changes, this is the moment where everything starts getting really shitty, and continues to. (laughs)
EA: That kind of tone and arc reminds me of Sam Lipsyte.
AW: Sam has been a huge, huge influence on me as a writer, as a teacher, as a friend and editor. I moved to Austin after college and was really quite lost and unhappy, and I didn’t know much about New York or the literary world or MFAs or any of that stuff. And I read Home Land while I was living down there, and it was the first time I’d ever read a book where I thought, I’d like to write something like that. You’re allowed to do that. Then I read Venus Drive and the rest of Sam’s books, and I Googled him and saw he taught in Columbia’s MFA program, so I decided to apply. And I went and got to work with him, which was really amazing.
He worked on some of these stories with me. He also helped me with the editing of Flatscreen. He’s been a very generous reader and friend.
EA: Did you think of Flatscreen as your Home Land? They’re kind of similar.
AW: I wanted it to be. (laughs) I mean there are some very different things about it, but yeah, that was a very important book when I was thinking of Flatscreen.
EA: Does humor come naturally to you? Did you always know that you were a funny writer?
AW: What I want to try and do is pull the reader in with jokes, and then suddenly have them realize, Oh wait, this is actually really sad. (laughs) It’s a hard thing to do, and the writers I love are people who do that, Lipsyte definitely being one.
It took me a while to start writing things that were funny. Freshman year of college I read Raymond Carver—as many people do—and thought, I’m gonna write sad stories about people working in factories in the Pacific Northwest. Like, what? That’s something I know nothing about. It took me a while to realize that I could play to certain strengths and not be embarrassed about it. Or that I could do things that were funny. It was exciting when that happened, but it’s a constant battle for me to balance the funny and the serious. I think it’s hard: As a comic writer, you’re constantly worried that no one’s gonna take you seriously, that people will only think of you as a funny writer. So I try to remind myself that I shouldn’t give a shit about that, but also to make sure that the humor isn’t cheap. I don’t want the humor to be making up for some deficiency somewhere else.
EA: My favorite tone is funny/bleak. Lipsyte and Saunders and all these authors who make you laugh on one page and cry on the next.
AW: Me too. That’s the good stuff. Sam Lipsyte once told me that his favorite arc for a story was sad, sadder, saddest. (laughs)
EA: I loved finding out where the dad was going in “We Close Our Eyes.” The reader thinks he’s having an affair, and instead he’s going to an arcade. Did you plot that out, or was that a happy byproduct of the scene where he crushes his son at GoldenEye?
AW: That’s exactly what happened: I had to figure out how he could be so good at GoldenEye. In the story, this kid’s dad tells him his mom is dying while they’re playing GoldenEye. And his dad is wiping the floor with his son in GoldenEye. I had written half that story and I brought it into workshop—I was in Gary Shteyngart’s class at the time—and everyone in the class said, “The dad can’t be that good. He just picks it up and he destroys him?” I was trying to figure out where he was going, and I knew I didn’t want him to be having an affair. I wanted it to be something that was sort of surprising. Suddenly I thought, Well, maybe he’s going and playing videogames because his wife is dying and he wants a way to connect with his son. So he’s actually doing this really sweet thing. I’d set up the problem, and then I had to figure out the solution. I was very happy when I came up with it. (laughs) Really, one of the more satisfying solutions.
EA: I remember Vince Gilligan saying that with Breaking Bad, they would intentionally write themselves into a corner at the end of an episode or a season so that they’d have to come up with a really innovative way to write themselves out of it.
AW: Right. I think it was a similar thing with “Milligrams,” the last story, where this couple uses a live lobster as a sex toy. I wrote that first scene and thought, This first scene’s kind of awesome, but I have no idea what I’m gonna do now. Then I said, Well, what’s here? The lobster… I guess they have to eat it now. (laughs) Put it in the pot.
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.