Wells Tower on Fiction and Revision

Wells Tower is a literary interviewer's free ride. In two audio appearances from Iowa City last February, the author of the short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned proves himself to be gracious, forthcoming, funny, and just as verbally rich extempore as he is in print. Tower answers any and all questions about writing with an assiduity that guarantees a satisfying spin for the listener, particularly the listener who craves the stimulating discussion of literary craft. He is serious about language and thoughtful about story, but not Olympian or precious, or coy about the alchemy from life into fiction. The three free podcasts mentioned below are all worth checking out.

A Tower Trio
In these successive February 2010 audio interviews with Sarah Fay at the "Live From Prairie Lights" bookstore (includes video link) and with Joe Fassler for KRUI's "The Lit Show," and in an earlier July 2009 interview with Michael Silverblatt for KCRW's "Bookworm," Tower provides parsable insights on how to balance lyricism, description, and emotion in a story, recounts his efforts to make his stories more morally complex by avoiding the overvilification of "bad" characters, and reads some excerpts. Tower also reveals his penchant for extreme revision: before delivering the manuscript for Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, he made changes as major as swapping narrators and redirecting plots in stories that had already appeared in literary journals. (All of the above links lead to web-based audio; as of now "The Lit Show" Wells Tower podcast is downloadable from an iTunes feed.)

The Metaphor of Process
In Tower's "The Lit Show" interview he cautions that not every character can speak in "perfectly architected quips," and says he sometimes goes back to reduce the cleverness in dialogue (before you hate on this, check out how he's put just enough cleverness in the bullying dialogue in the opening section of "The Leopard," viewable online at The New Yorker). Clever language seems to come to Tower without much effort, and even in off-the-cuff interviews he uses a fresh metaphorical fluency to describe the process of writing. He talks about "high thread-count" sentences, and how using pretty language used to describe pretty things "shorts itself out," and about the necessity of "roughening the surface" of stories, especially ones that are based on real-life anecdotes which have become too smooth from barstool retelling. The 50-minute podcast from "The Lit Show" is the most intimate and craft-intensive of these three interviews, and includes a bonus list of the rich and inspirational Americana he covered in his post-MFA nonfiction assignments for The Washington Post Magazine.

Angsty Teens and Reversed Endings
The 56-minute recording from Wells Tower's February 2010 appearance with Sarah Fay at the "Live From Prairie Lights" series in Iowa City he warms the audience up with a funny anecdote about nude scanning and personal frisking in the Tulsa airport (long before the current TSA brouhaha). Tower also reads from his only female-perspective story from the collection, "Wild America," which demonstrates his alarming ability to transmit the patios, angst, self-deception, and slippery solidarity of two teenage cousins in North Carolina (text of "Wild America" viewable online at Vice). In the interview portion of the recording (about halfway through) he shares the daredevil fact that sometimes when he revises he doesn't even look at the first draft of a story and works off its "inspirational DNA" to germinate a new story. Crikey. He also talks about emotional truth and the "low-amplitude nirvanas" that his characters get to in the stories. Tower prefers short story endings where sympathy swings radically from one character to another, and has an aversion to endings where the pendulum ends right in the middle. Using unusually plain language, he states "I like endings where people think they want something, and then they get that thing, and then it turns that that's the wrong thing."

Language Giddiness and Symbolic Fauna
Tower's publisher sent Michael Silverblatt two earlier versions of the story "Retreat" from Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned as background for this interview with Wells Tower on "Bookworm." The 30-minute recording, in which Silverblatt enthuses over Tower's "narrative extraordinariness" and hypothesizes over the conflict between contemporary minimalist "guy story" editing trends and Tower's maximalist prose instinct. Tower resists the idea that he's been edited down in that way, and talks about liking short stories "with beginnings, middles, and endings, and ideally some sort of turn at the end." He says his private impetus for writing is his enjoyment of language, but he feels there's a certain amount of "narrative and directness he needs deliver" before he can "really let go and riff and sport in the language." Silverblatt makes an interesting comment on the "Ice Age gentlemanliness" of the Viking husbands in the title story compared to the husbands in the contemporary stories (click here to listen to Wells Tower read the entirety of "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" for the Guardian Books Podcast). Around Minute 18 Silverblatt also offers a psychological theory on the metaphorical role of animals in the stories: that a diseased moose, a poisonous sea cucumber, and a pigeon embryo presage the fate of the humans. Tower seems to find this insight interesting, yet also seems to rebut it by relating that, with the exception of the pigeon, all the animals came to him as anecdotes which he stored like spare parts. A discussion of details in fiction ensues, and the interview winds up where it opened, on the role of revision in Tower's process, and his frantic desire to be a "better, smarter writer." Thank goodness that he came to feel that there's nothing in the finished collection that fills him with "the cold horror" of the unrevised manuscript, and I hope we don't have to wait nine years for the novel-in-progress to appear.