Although it isn’t likely to be selected by your grandmother’s book club, John Wray’s Lowboy (FSG), the story of a schizophrenic teenager on a quest to lose his virginity, was one of last year’s best-reviewed novels and a popular breakthrough for its author. It’s a weird, dark, and unexpectedly fun ride. An Oberlin alumnus (OC ’93), Wray sat down with me to discuss Lowboy, his experience as an undergraduate, and the hazards of finding your creative voice.
Mack Gelber: Can you talk about what you studied when you were an undergraduate here?
John Wray: I kind of moved around and tried out all sorts of different things and never really declared. I started out a biology major and I realized I was really bad at biology, and I switched to anthropology. I then pursued a visual art major and I was doing painting. It took me a while, actually, to get into the creative writing department here.
MG: Did you have to apply back then?
JW: Yeah. And I think I got rejected the first time I applied as a freshman, so it wasn’t until I was sophomore that I actually started taking creative writing classes.
MG: Were you writing fiction?
JW: Well, it was like the 101, it was the combined thing. My fiction was really terrible when I was at Oberlin; my poetry was a lot better. So that’s what I ended up focusing on while I was here, just because I had an easier time with it somehow.
MG: Was there a point at Oberlin when you figured out that you wanted to write for a living, or be a writer in the sense of your identity?
JW: Yeah. I didn’t do much writing when I was in high school because it didn’t seem like you’d ever be taken seriously doing it, and it also didn’t seem like a tenable career choice. That was one of the great things about coming to Oberlin – I realized at some point, after maybe a year or so, that you could be a creative writing major or take creative writing classes and you’d be taken seriously for it. I was almost astounded that people would finally take my writing seriously, and as soon as I realized it was a possibility I became very serious about it. I certainly knew, well before I left Oberlin, that I wanted to write as my profession. Now that doesn’t mean I had any sense of whether that was a realistic goal or not. It seemed even then like an unrealistic goal.
MG: Did you still think of yourself as a poet at this time?
JW: Yeah, I thought of myself as more of a poet by the time I left Oberlin, because my poems were just better at the time. And then I lived in various places; I lived in Texas for a while, and I only wrote poetry there. And I moved to New York City, actually, to go to an MFA program in poetry at NYU. Which was great because there was a stipend attached which allowed me to be able to afford to move to New York City, but the program was not for me, and I realized part of the problem was that poetry wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel like my poetry was getting any better, and if any of my old professors are still around Oberlin they can confirm that my poems weren’t really all that good. And then suddenly at some point I felt as though I had the patience or the endurance to try to write a whole book, which was something I never thought I really would be capable of. And as soon as I had that feeling, that I might be able to write a whole book, I just started trying to do it. And then it took two to four years to have anything to show for it.
MG: Where are we on the timeline, late ’90s?
JW: Yeah, mid- to late ’90s, I guess. I went to NYU from ’94 to ’95, then I dropped out, then I just floated around New York for a few years, playing music, mostly. It was probably around, like, ’97 or something, before I really felt like I had what would eventually be the first novel.
MG: So it was a pretty circuitous route between graduating from Oberlin and the publication of your first novel.
JW: It was not a direct route. When I left Oberlin I did not think I was gonna go to an MFA program. I had these very romantic ideas that I was just going to work on a fishing boat or be a rock star, and then eventually that would be my day job: being a rock star.
MG: But it sounds you still managed to work those kinds of notions into your career [to promote his second novel, Canaan’s Tongue, Wray floated down the Mississippi River on a tiny raft, giving readings and interviews along the way].
JW: Yeah, and I played in some really good bands for a while, I had a very good time just kind of wasting time in New York for a lot of the ’90s.
MG: Anyone the average Oberlin student might have heard of?
JW: I played with Chan Marshall of Cat Power for a while. But I was playing with her when she was in Manhattan and then she was like, “Oh yeah, I’m also playing with these guys out in Hoboken, New Jersey.” And I was always thinking, “Yeah, I’m sure they’re just some losers out in New Jersey,” and it ended up being half of Sonic Youth that she was playing with. Yeah, and then a bunch of bands that probably people would never have heard of, I’m assuming. But I never really thought of myself as a musician; it was more just a way of having fun, for me. So it was a very circuitous route.
MG: Can the writing process ever be fun, too, or is it as excruciating as many authors seem to find it?
JW: I don’t think of writing as fun, I have to tell you honestly, because it’s work. Really, honestly, anything, once it becomes work, is work. I really like the idea of being a writer as a job, and I really like not having to sit in a cubicle all day long, and some of what I’ve written gives me pleasure even now when I think about it – and I really like having the idea of a scheme for the next thing. But the actual daily process of writing is pretty much an unbroken sequence of disappointments and frustrations. I don’t find it particularly lonely; there’s a cliché of it being lonely to be a professional writer. I see my friends in the evenings. That’s not a problem. But doing anything creatively, if you really do it wholeheartedly, it’s going to be a bittersweet experience at best because you’re never as good as you’d like to be. Thank God there’s revision, so you can end up with something that’s a little better and smarter than you are yourself, just conversing. But no matter how compulsively you revise you can never create something that’s perfect.
MG: Has any sort of Oberlin ethos made its way into your work, or have any lessons from a creative writing workshop particularly resonated?
JW: I don’t think I learned any of that stuff from school because, actually, when I was in school there were about ten years before the publishing world was gripped by panic when they started entertaining these crazy notions of how to make reading a nearly published novel a sexy thing to do. Things have really changed; I never imagined when I was taking creative writing classes at Oberlin that I would be doing all these questionable stunts.
MG: Actually, the whole deal with the raft almost sounds like a Winter Term project on steroids.
JW: [Laughs], kind of. But the two publishers that I’ve had are both about as literary as publishers get in America, and they’re still completely – I mean FSG is so happy that I’m willing to do this stuff. Because we live in this increasingly fractal culture, and there are so many more things to do with your time than ever before. Considerations like authorial dignity, you know, they kind of have to be shelved, unless you want 212 people to read you. So my approach has been, rather than somehow compromising the stuff that I write or trying to write stuff that’s more mainstream, I’ll just write exactly what I want to write and on the side I’ll do this ridiculous stuff. It’s a way of allowing myself to not water down my actual writing and still hopefully selling enough to pay the rent.
MG: It’s a refreshing thing to see in the insular literary world. What’s your take on that insularity?
JW: I think that insularity is always an unfortunate condition, usually based on either ignorance or defensiveness, and neither of those are particularly appealing things. I think the perception of fiction reading as something that’s inherently elitist should be done away with as much as possible. But, unfortunately, this is a pretty intensely anti-intellectual country we live in; it’s a society that’s very suspicious of even just education in general. You have everyone from movie stars to politicians trying to play down how much education they received and trying to seem as Regular Joe as possible. A perfect example of how weird things have gotten in our culture in that regard is, like, J. Lo’s song and video “Jenny From the Block.” Remember that video? Jennifer Lopez, you’re not from the block – you may once have been from the block, but – she’s writing this absurd song about how she doesn’t think she’s anyone special, and of course in the video she’s covered in diamonds and hanging out on a pier. There’s a tremendous pressure in this country for people demonstrate that they don’t think they’re anyone special. Unfortunately, carrying around Infinite Jest is something that might get you a date if you happen to be on a college campus, but anywhere else in America people are going to regard you with profound suspicion. And that’s something that you need to try and overcome as a younger writer. I mean in a way these various funny things that I’ve done, among other purposes, serve the purpose of showing that one doesn’t take oneself too seriously. Because that’s the perception of a writer and a novelist in particular: someone who takes him or herself too seriously.
MG: Can you talk a little about the mindset, in creative writing workshops, that you have to find and then develop your own specific voice? I hear you’re not a proponent of this.
JW: No, I’m not a big adherent of the “find your voice” school. I don’t actually believe that we’re all somehow born with some voice that’s inherently ours. That would be like learning to play the guitar and being told that you need to find the exact subgenre of popular music that you can play. Whatever you do, don’t play afropop and don’t play R&B and don’t play heavy metal because that’s not who you are: you play alt-country guitar. How ridiculous would that be? And the truth is that, as a writer, what people think is finding your voice is really figuring out at least one mode in which you can write effectively. It’s not your voice anymore than Cormac McCarthy’s style is somehow Cormac McCarthy’s voice. He could easily have developed a completely different way of writing. In fact, the way that he does write is at least as much William Faulkner’s voice and Ernest Hemingway’s voice and Sherwood Anderson’s voice as it is McCarthy’s voice. So I think that’s a trap that particularly younger writers can fall into; it also leads directly into the anxiety of influence. If it’s all about finding your own distinct voice, then the last thing on earth that you want to do is read a David Foster Wallace novel and see how you can learn from him. But in fact there’s no better way to learn how to write than to very consciously and concertedly imitate writers that you admire. It’s all part of a continuum. And that’s what I really don’t like about the “finding your voice” malarkey, that it’s an extreme simplification and I think sort of a denial of the fact that you’re really part of an ongoing discourse. It throws up a lot of hurtles, in my opinion. I think it’s much more constructive to say, “Why have you chosen this voice to write this story, and in what ways is this voice that you’ve chosen working or not?” It’s not anyone’s inherent voice; I mean none of us were born speaking English. It’s something learned.
MG: What writers have influenced you, lately?
JW: I mean, every writer I’ve ever read and enjoyed. In the last year I think I’ve felt influenced by David Foster Wallace, by Kingsley Amis, by Joshua Ferris, by Shirley Hazzard, by Shirley Jackson, by Kelly Link, by Orhan Pamuk, and maybe Lewis Carroll. Whatever I’ve been reading, really, that I’ve enjoyed. If I don’t enjoy something I make a point of not being influenced by it. But every time I read a book that excites me I think, you know, “It might be fun to try something like that.” I could never write a Lewis Carroll book or a David Foster Wallace book or a Kelly Link short story. It would always end up being mine, insofar as I would fail at trying to be them. I think that’s a more healthy way of approaching things.
MG: Have you incorporated any Oberlin-related stories or details into your novels?
JW: You look at Gary Shteyngart’s first book, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, and Oberlin’s all over that thing [Wray and Shteyngart, also an Oberlin alumnus, are friends]. I’ve never actually written about the college period in a person’s life. I don’t think I’ve ever had a college-age character in my books; they’re all either younger or older. So I really haven’t had a chance. But I think in the book I’m working on now I think there’ll probably be some college. There was certainly enough novel-worthy stuff happening when I was here. It would be a shame not to put some of that in.
MG: Can you talk at all about this current project?
JW: It’s a comic novel basically. It’s grim in a certain way but it’s also comic, about three or four generations of a family that’s sort of loosely based on my mom’s family, a bunch of central European eccentrics. And how they, through a series of accidents, end up in the United States. There’s a lot of pseudo-science in the book, crackpot physics and things like that. But I think the narrator and central character of the novel went to Oberlin, so maybe there’ll be a little bit of Oberlin in that one.
MG: Has Lowboy been a palpable game-changer for your career?
JW: I think it has. I don’t quite know exactly how, yet. It got a lot more attention than my first two books, which is not hard to do because they didn’t get much attention. I don’t know exactly why it got so much attention. Sometimes it’s hard to tell; things reach a certain critical mass of press, and when it snowballs from there… The book that I’m writing now is a very different novel from Lowboy, so it’s kind of ironic. I don’t really know whether I’ll be able to necessarily capitalize on the success of Lowboy very much, because I’m doing something that’s very different again. That’s one of the drawbacks of doing something different each time. But it’s definitely made me feel more secure at my publishing house. It’s made me feel more in charge of decisions that are made, how my books are produced and marketed. It’s just given me a certain amount of confidence I didn’t have. But in real terms it hasn’t made me any more money than my first two books because my first two books just ended up losing money for the publishers, so the publishers were taking a hit. And this time my publishers didn’t lose any money, and that is very satisfying to me. I occasionally bump into people who have read my books now, and that was never the case before.
MG: That sounds satisfying.
JW: Very, very.
MG: Any advice for the creative writing major interested in writing professionally?
JW: Get a good agent, first of all, unless you’re one of those rare people who are extremely good at promoting themselves and looking out for their own interests, making sure you don’t get screwed. Don’t decide what kind of writer you’re going to be too early. Read a shit load – the best thing you can do is read a ton. Every time I come across an inspiring writer who’s not very good, almost always it turns out that they’re not very well read. Really, a good used bookstore is the best creative writing program you could ever attend. It really is. On a certain level, the way you learn to write is by reading great books and by soaking it up. I don’t think there’s any other way you can possibly do it.
MG: Last question. In the wider publishing world, what does the word “Oberlin” connote – or, what does it mean to hold an Oberlin diploma?
JW: I’m always surprised at how many people have heard of Oberlin. It is a name that people respond to. There are also a ton of Oberlin graduates who work in publishing in New York and all these magazines around New York. So you do, just in the course of going about your business, run into people that either you know personally or that it turns out went to Oberlin before or after you. Actually, just in New York in general, there’re a lot of people from Oberlin out there doing stuff.
MG: Thanks a lot.