Bookforum talks with Wells Tower

Even an email from Wells Tower is a crackling read. To know why, you'd have to be familiar with Tower’s magazine writing, or with Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, a collection of nine short and sometimes brutal stories that moved David Sedaris to say that Tower might "reinvent the English language." It’s safe to bet that similar acclaim will meet Tower’s new book, which is slated for release next year. Whether Tower is depicting life with a traveling circus for the Washington Post Magazine or writing fiction from the perspective of a wounded stepchild, his voice always keeps readers in thrall, even if they don’t know where he’s taking them. In addition to his fiction and reportage, Tower is currently working as a writer and co-producer for an HBO crime drama that will be released in the near future by Brad Pitt’s Plan B productions.

Since the release of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, you've gone back to reporting. What do you make of longform journalism’s recent return to popularity?

It’s good news for all of us that early reports of the death of literary magazine writing appear to have been overwrought. I was one of those people who hysterically supposed that web-based hordes of armchair opinion-emitters would kill the market for longform reportage. But it appears not to be so. I think our appetite for literary nonfiction is pretty inelastic, from Pliny the Younger through De Quincey, Mayhew, Orwell, Didion to the heavies of the present moment. I think people are compelled in some essential way to read accounts of true things rendered with novelists’ tools.

There's a recognizable tone to all your writing, but at the same time, the reportage and short stories operate on very separate levels. How do you approach them differently?

Well, the assignments are very different. To me, fiction’s mission is always to get at the weird, dark marrow of human experience. It’s an invasive, uncomfortable, presumptuous procedure I could never fully perform on someone I didn't know, least of all somebody I’ve only glimpsed from the far side of a rope line. But obviously, people go to magazine or newspaper articles with much tidier readerly hungers: they want to know the body count, or what Jennifer Anniston ate for lunch, or what it feels like to sit on a beach someplace they can’t afford to visit, or they want to have some fun at the expense of a presidential candidate. For me, the magazine stuff is a welcome relief from the agonized, exhausting probe-wielding that happens at the fiction desk.

You're also working on a novel. Is your nonfiction writing helpful for researching the book?

I don’t, in any sort explicit or purposive way, use magazine assignments as research vehicles for fiction, but reporting hones useful tools for the fiction and produces a reliable lode of characterological and descriptive nutrients. People I meet, stuff I see, inevitably comes up, denatured, in the fiction. When I was first starting out, the nonfiction had some destructive effects, too. For a while, I labored under the delusion that I could approach a short story the way I would a magazine article. When writing a nonfiction piece, you go out, take reams of notes, cull out the good stuff, string it together with some research and contextual info, and bingo-bango, you’re done. For a time, I was generating mammoth, inchoate drafts of short stories and trying to boil them down to their essential salts, only to find an empty pan. The best short stories, I have found, start small and get big despite one’s efforts to contain them. For me, going the other way around inevitably ends in failure.

What can you say about the book, by the way?

Maybe just this: it will concern a family and it will contain a good number of pages.

You've got this reputation as a chronic reviser. When do you know to stop? At what point do you allow yourself enough distance from the work to be able to read and enjoy it?

Ah, Christ. That’s a toughie. For me, revision works like this—I get some germinal idea for a story. Often, this is a foolish oddment of plot: someone finds a thumb in her Tater Tots, a mutant lake is making people act like chimps. Then I start to write and inevitably collide with a lesson I seem to have to relearn with every project: the plotty stuff that happens in a story does not matter, per se. All that matters is how the events of the story resonate in the lives of characters who must endure them, and who did not yet exist when I came up with that dumb Tater Tot idea. So, in revisions, I’ll often do things like scrap the entire plot, and try to substitute incidents that more effectively expose the emotional vexednesses of the people I’ve made.

In your interview with Barry Hannah for The Believer, he said that "fiction writers are good people, usually" and I think many people, fiction writers especially, would disagree. Would you?

I believe that when Barry said that we were talking about the difficulty of writing fiction, and the sense of inadequacy and humility the work inflicts on its practitioners. I think we’d sort of agreed that unregenerate blowhards are somewhat rare among fiction writers. And, yes, we are vain and neurotic and selfish with our time, but I would submit that fiction writers are probably more painfully aware of their own hypocrisies and vanities and pettinesses than, say, the average CEO or steam fitter.

Who are the writers that inspired you?

Too many to count, I’m sure. Any writer who isn’t in love with words and who doesn’t transmit that love in his or her work is not a writer I care to read. Over the years, I’ve freaked over high stylists like Nabokov, Hannah, Nicholson Baker, Mark Leyner, etc., but I feel the same thrill reading the taut sentences of people like Amy Hempel or Lydia Davis. The proper word set in place with confidence, forcefulness and glee gives off a sort of radiation whose most appreciable effect on this reader is a compulsion to keep writing.

How do you feel about contemporary fiction, and do you think it’s capable of sustaining popular attention in the future?

I actually read loads of contemporary fiction, with pleasure and admiration. A few that have lately blown me away: Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Laurent Binet’s HHhH, The Dubious Salvation of Jack V by Jacques Strauss, The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. But I get your point: the culture’s getting less and less literary-minded, and unless people can start designing fiction best read off of two-inch screens, books are bound for obsolescence. I feel the same anxiety but I think, or at least hope, that it’s ultimately misguided. We’ve been hearing for nearly a solid century that fiction is dead, despite a continual abundance of excellent novels and short stories being written and read. It’s hard not to see prophesies of fiction’s death as a kindred vanity to the evangelicals’ claims that the Rapture, any day now, is upon us. It's fun to feel like you’re in the last days of something. And, sure, video games outsell literary novels by a dispiriting proportion, but unless we somehow cease to use language to make sense of the world, I am sure that people will continue to write fiction that matters to people.

You were first published after sending two pieces of unsolicited fiction to The Paris Review. George Pimpton called you himself. This is the literary equivalent of winning the lottery, albeit it comes with much less money and attention. What prompted you to do that?

Yeah, those were the first two stories I’d written to completion, and it was probably some combo of naiveté, arrogance, and the certainty that I’d never receive so much as a rejection in reply that made it possible to send them in. The call from Plimpton, who had long been a hero of mine, did rather blow my mind. That he was willing to take the time to get on the horn and go through edits with an unpublished writer showed a rare generosity.

After being published there, who were you writing for? Were you receiving assignments from editors, or being contacted by agents? Was the drudgework of pitching stories easier?

The Paris Review publication wasn’t necessarily life-altering, but I suppose it helped having that sort of thing in the cover letter for fiction submissions. As far as the nonfiction went, I was already surviving on magazine assignments, mostly for The Washington Post Magazine, and a little later, Harper’s and Outside. Somehow, I was spared a lot of the drudgeries of pitching in those early days. Editors, to my grateful amazement, mostly got in touch of their own accord. I was lucky.

Is there anything you're afraid of writing about? More specifically, anything you've tried to write about and failed?

I’m wholly incapable of attempting what seems to be the dominant mode in magazine the writing these days, the "why everything you think about [health care, Libya, Justin Bieber, global warming, HPV vaccinations, etc.] is wrong and everything I think is right" article. I try to steer clear of writing book reviews. And failures: there are too many to count.