Writing Has to Have an Edge: The Millions Interviews John Edgar Wideman

May 8, 2018 | 6 books mentioned 10 min read

For more than four decades John Edgar Wideman has written novels, short stories, and nonfiction books that have chronicled contemporary American life while considering larger questions—historical, cultural, and existential—that underlie it. His new book is American Histories: Stories, a title could encompass a lot of Wideman’s work. John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Romare Bearden, and Jean-Michel Basquiat make appearances, but the stories are also about suicide and teaching writing, family conflicts, and relationships.

The book comes out less than two years after Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, about the father of Emmett Till. For people of Wideman’s generation, Emmett Till’s story is personal but also universal. Many Americans have talked about growing up with that photo in their houses, and what it meant. Wideman sought to uncover more about Till’s father Louis, who was courtmartialed and hanged during World War II, and to interrogate what his life and death mean for the present moment. That journey and the resulting story, which is ultimately about what our society was–and continues to be–is an example of how Wideman has always balanced the personal with the universal.

coverI began reading Wideman as a teenager and he was one of the first writers whose work forced me to consider structure and genre in new ways, think about how new narrative structures and ideas can be a valuable way to rethink the past. His work taught me to be conscious of the author, reconsider what a novel could be. These two new books are among the best of his career and I would place American Histories as his very best collection of stories. Now in his 70s, John Wideman’s work is as relevant and timely as ever, and he remains one of our best, most important writers.

The Millions:  Some writers think of themselves as primarily novelists or short story writers. Do you think of yourself or your work in that way?

John Edgar Wideman:  I definitely don’t think of myself as anything but a writer. Number one, that gives me a lot of license, but number two, that’s really how I think. When I start a piece I don’t start it as a scholar, as a short story writer, as a novelist—I just start writing. I have some things on my mind and maybe I get a couple words down, maybe I get a lot of words down first time through. In a sense, it doesn’t matter. The point is for me to have something that stirs me up enough that I go ahead and start thinking about it and put words down on paper about it. That’s the process. What I come up with, that’s kind of problematic. It depends on where the piece goes. A piece about Nat Turner or a piece about my sister can go in any direction—towards memoir or towards history, and that’s not my choice. I might think I’ve written a piece of memoir and somebody else might think I’ve written fantasy. The labeling is a part of the publication process, the settling in of the work with the public, and I don’t worry too much about that. In fact, I love the freedom of just starting out. That’s the whole point for me.

covercoverTM:  You might sometimes write a book like The Island, which is a nonfiction book about a specific subject, but otherwise you begin by just sitting down and writing.

JW:  I was speaking to the impulse in me. I have ambitions. If I’m working on a book of short stories and I want to have a couple more, then I’m in that mode. I’m thinking about stories and maybe I go back and read some of my favorites like Heart of Darkness, or Benito Cereno—just to get a little humility and put everything in perspective. [Laughs.] I’m working on a novel. Or I think I have a novel idea. I have a couple hundred pages written so I’m thinking like a novelist. I’m thinking this thing has to have some weight and some heft and direction so it’s a different mindset, a different framework. But it’s the work, it’s the doing it, that matters. Not what somebody calls it. Not even what I call it, for a while.

TM:  As far as a novelistic mindset goes, I think about your novels and I’ll cite The Cattle Killing, which is both my favorite and I think your best novel, and it does not function and it is not structured the way we think of a novel working.

coverJW:  Well, I would hope not! [Laughs.] One of the criteria for me of almost any work is how is this piece I’m reading connecting to similar kinds of material or similar attempts that I really like. How is it pushing those? How is it talking to those other works? What is it doing to try to talk to me about the tradition that I want to be a part of? It’s a kind of community and I want to see signs that the particular work I happen to be reading is pushing at the limits, opening up new doors, opening up new ways of seeing things. I may be paying attention to transitions in the new work that I’m reading or writing. I may be paying attention to characters. What are the boundaries in terms of chronology, in terms of isolation, in terms of context? Is the work I’m reading shifting these things and making them interesting? If not, then very quickly for me, I lose interest in the new work. Or interest in my own work—for a while anyway—until it begins to come into conflict with the borders, with the tradition, and ask questions about limits and tradition.

TM:  You’ve always been interested in that. One of the short stories in American Stories is a conversation between Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The way that Bearden used collage and the heart of his work, about changing perspective and ways we think about the work, is important for you.

JW:  Extremely important. It appeals to me that Bearden could spend a lot of time just holding a piece of material in his hands and looking at it. A literal piece of material, like part of a quilt made by traditional Southern quilt makers. He could hold that in his hand and live with it, maybe put it on the wall and think about it for a long time and daydream. That seems great. How the hell do you get that thing into a collage? Do you make a cartoon of it? Do you cut a swatch of it out? Do you try to reproduce it with a sketch or a painting? And what was so important about that anyway? What about the smell of it? What about the fingers and hands that made this? Is there a place for them in the collage? Maybe that’s what the collage is all about? Fingers and hands. Are they dark hands? Is that a connection? You go from there.

I want my interests to be piqued. My imagination is restless. I don’t work systematically. That’s not true; I do work systematically because I work hard. I’m very demanding of myself. I read about Bearden—I read a lot about Bearden—I scrutinized his work, I read biographies of Bearden, though not all in the same week or day. That Bearden-Basquiat story had an early form as an essay for a book about Bearden. For that essay I had done a lot of homework and had been back in Pittsburgh and walked some of the streets he walked, talked to some people who were Bearden experts. Reintroducing me to a part of the city that I thought I knew but had changed over time. Learning all that was fun and eventually some of that got into the story that appears in American Histories.

TM:  That’s been true throughout your career. There are events and ideas and concerns which you return to in different ways and different forms.

JW:  I think it’s been that way from the very beginning. I’ve just become more conscious of how my mind and imagination works. I’ve tried to take advantage of that and also prune it and control it and use it to my advantage. And the advantage of the readers. You mentioned The Cattle Killing and it’s a kind of collage. A very ambitious attempt, maybe, to squeeze into one moment the history of two or three cultures and many individual folks and many stories and many epochs in history.

TM:  You were saying that your mind may wander and be open to possibilities, but you work in a very disciplined way.

JW:  Yes, and I expect that in what I read. If not, then very quickly what I’m reading becomes a kind of beach book. All kind of writing is difficult. Any good genre of writing is difficult to do. It takes a certain kind of genius and skill and I respect it greatly. Distinctions are invidious. You read something and it grabs you and you enjoy the hell out of it and that’s that—Thank you, author, thank you, book. You don’t have to put it on the shelf of classics or beach books. It has a lot of qualities that connect it with both classics and books that people read on the beach and have fun with. So I respect good writing, but the stuff that keeps me going, that I want to come back to, has to have an edge. There are certain formulas at work in genre fiction that I get aware of. If you’re in the mood, that’s enough. But I’m more demanding in my reading time. I want to feel I’m pushed. I want to feel that I’m learning something about writing, about expression, when I am taking the time to read books.

TM:  American Histories is your second book in less than two years. Writing to Save a Life had a collage quality to it. The book was about trying to look at something from multiple perspectives and approaches.

JW:  One side of it is always the personal. My family background, my history. That’s where I come from. That’s the world I write out of and that is a certain kind of language—or many languages. They connect themselves to that world. I feel comfortable when I go there. And then whatever else happens beyond my mind, whether it’s the Berlin Wall or a sonata by Bach or a question about time, what makes some things visible and some things invisible—all that, it all starts from the personal, from the family. That’s what constitutes me. And then where I take that becomes either a good story or not such a great story or becomes a novel or becomes an essay. That’s freedom. I think I earned that freedom to move in many different worlds by becoming more and more certain about where I come from. My specific world even though that world always is changing. Hence collage. Hence at least two very different kinds of elements, the personal history and the larger history, cultural and sociological and political. The context in which I find myself.

TM:  Your work has always been very personal. You’re not the narrator of every story in this book or most of your work, but I feel like “you” keep coming up. Are you conscious of that?

JW:  I think what you see is what you get. I don’t want my presence as a narrator to be oppressive. I don’t want to foreground myself in the same manner with the same intensity again and again. I think that the whole idea of a narrative voice telling stories gives me—gives anybody—infinite possibilities. Like singing or like dancing or how you play a particular moment in a basketball game, it’s always changing. I work hard not to be the only character in my fiction or in a particular story, but when you get right down to it, what is a story? It’s a voice recollecting and putting together a narrative. So you start with that voice and how you erase it is just a matter of what, a matter of convention? I guess what I’ve been suggesting is that because I write narratives from my point of view all the time I’m demanding—demanding of other writers and myself—with this infinitely flexible range of possibilities, what am I doing with it? How do I not become overbearing? How can I avoid the kind of cliched methods of disguising my presence that traditional fiction offers? Any sophisticated reader at one level knows, I’m in the hands of a single person no matter what’s supposedly on the page. No matter what’s on the page, there’s somebody telling a story. We all know that. What’s funny is the range and the variety and how we keep coming back to the written word, how we keep coming back to story. The same way we continue to make love with each other. Even though we know where that’s going. [Laughs.] But you don’t, do you? Because it’s Susie this time and George next time or whatever. We know the game at one level, but good art makes it seem like a new game, a different game. One that we’ve never played before.

TM:  As you were saying that, I thought of your story “Writing Teacher“where readers might assume the main character is you, but by the end, that doesn’t matter because the story is ultimately about other things.

JW:  Whatever voice is telling the story of “Writing Teacher”—and it may be the voice of the writing teacher—is a conundrum. The forever receding thing here is that you cannot get to the end of. That was fun to try to play that out and attempt to make that very complicated set of affairs—writing and who’s listening and who’s doing it and how you do it and who’s explaining—which is always at work in fiction or teaching fiction, seem simple.

TM:  I’ve never thought of your books as simple, but I also don’t think of as hard.

JW:  Thank goodness. [Laughs.] I want more readers like you!

TM:  There was a very nice profile of you in The New York Times Magazine last year and part of it was about you being solitary and alone. Do you feel that way? Or is this what random journalists and essayists say about you for whatever reason?

JW:  Who knows? That’s another sort of writing and another set of conventions that people fall into. I enjoyed the writer of that piece. I enjoyed his company. We had a good time. He was a good reader and respectful and I respected him. We had a good walk, we had a good meal. All that was cool. I think maybe that’s why you liked the piece because it was produced from a sincere conversation that we both contributed to and had fun doing. A demanding conversation, however. But to your question, I am a solitary. I spend a hell of a lot of time writing in a room shut up with just myself. And when I’m not doing that I spend a hell of a lot of time walking alone. Hours. At this stage of my life I enjoy it. On the other hand, I depend very much on my wife, I call my family all the time, I travel to see people. But I think it’s inevitable as you age. Your family and friends are both the living and the dead. That’s kind of the hard truth. People are melting away and leaving all the time. So rather than protest too much, I think I’m just trying to accommodate myself to the way things happen to be. We’re born alone and we die alone and that’s unavoidable. But I like to have fun. I like to talk, I like to hang out, I love the company of my wife and friends. If you read a lot of my fiction, it’s about loneliness. It’s about wanting what is not available a lot of the time—a person, a place, a thing. But it’s also I think about sociability, about playing a game, about a crowd of guys on a playground. The ones who are playing and the ones who aren’t create a community and these communities are very, very important to me. Whether they’re in the past or whether I’m living in them right now.

TM:  One reason I ask is simply because so many profiles of writers seemed stunned to discover that the job involves being alone so much. There is a lot of loneliness in your work, but as you said, we’re born alone and we die alone.

JW:  I think the time I spend alone is more unusual than a lot of the time people spend looking at a phone or listening to a phone and talking with it. That’s not my thing. I’m not that generation. That seems to me a much more deeper kind of loneliness comes out of those sort of interactions. If I grew up that way I probably wouldn’t feel that way. Or feel so alienated from that experience of you and your phone or you and your screen. So I take walks. I don’t have earphones and I don’t keep the phone on. But I’m trying to do the same thing people do when they pick up those phones, I guess. Amuse myself and be in the world.

has written for The Believer, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, and other publications.

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