There’s something especially rewarding about befriending someone who is quiet—a sense of finding something special and rare. I met David Wystan Owen a few years ago, when we overlapped in our time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He and I never took a class together, and in drafting this introduction, I tried to locate my earliest impressions of David or recall an anecdote about how we became friends—but I failed. It seems our friendship sprung fully formed from the dive bar we frequented in Iowa City—I.C. Uglies, a dark, scummy gem with cheap whiskey—one of the few places we could meet in small groups without running into crowds of acquaintances. We were seeking a bit of isolation, a bit of privacy, a safe place to talk.
That is a bit of the feeling one gets when walking into to the private lives in his debut collection, Other People’s Love Affairs (Algonquin, August 2018)—a feeling of having walked into a quiet space, unseen. David gave me an ARC of his book last spring when I visited him and his partner, Ellen Kamoe, in the Bay Area. I planned to read the 10 stories on the plane ride home to Seattle. I settled in and opened it just before takeoff. Instead of finishing, I found myself teary and pensive at the end of the first story. The plane was still near enough to the ground that I could see texture on the brown shoulders of grass below, and already I needed a break—to save the rest. I found myself spending much of the plane ride turning over just this one delicate story in my head, rereading the ending, tracing back the gestures and movements of each character toward one another, and looking for the origins of the subtle distances that ultimately prove uncrossable. Every story in the collection is this way: It’s a book to savor.
David’s father is an immigrant from England, and David and Ellen recently co-founded the gorgeous journal of immigrant and refugee writing, The Bare Life Review, along with our friend, writer Nyuol Lueth Tong. Having grown up with an immigrant parent, a sense of dislocation characterizes David’s understanding of what it means to be a person, and each of the stories tenderly examines the ways residents of a fictional British town, Glass, feel their own forms of dislocation. We sit beside them in moments of small humiliation and private triumph that too rarely earn such attention and care.
When David and I correspond these days, it’s often about the noisier parts of our world—the headlines, the outrages. In a time of such loudness, it’s a comfort to remember that small daily experiences compose the truly memorable parts our lives, and these stories serve as such a reminder. While these characters misstep, hurt one another, reveal their follies, and betray themselves, we get the sense that each of them is deeply known and beloved by the writer, and we come to care as well.
I recently spoke with David about his book and his writing life over Skype.
The Millions: These stories are set in a small, fictional English town, which you’ve named “Glass.” I know that you grew up in Berkeley—which is not a small town. Would you speak to your relationship with England, both personally and as a setting?
D. Wystan Owen: Well, as background, my father is English and met my mother in London. They were married in the United States, and then our family lived in England for about a year when I was 2 years old. When I learned to speak, at least in in full sentences, my first accent was British. So in a lot of ways, my connection to this setting feels linguistic to me, rather than rooted in a familiarity with specific places.
That said, I have visited often. My grandparents lived in a town called Preston, which is just outside of Weymouth—sort of southwestern coastal England. I imagine Glass being a little like Weymouth, but smaller—sort of a fading resort.
TM: The stories are connected mostly by place rather than by characters or events. How did Glass come to be a home for your characters, and when did you know you were writing a book about people who lived among each other?
DO: In drafting, the word “Glass” first appeared in the title story, which I wrote in 2012. The stories started to coalesce around that setting after I’d written a couple more. When I was writing the stories, for a long time I was just setting them in storyland. It wasn’t America; it wasn’t England; it was just in the world of the story. And people in workshops would ask, “Where is this set?” The language felt sort of in-between, because that’s the language I grew up speaking in my house. My dad had lived in the States for a long time, so he didn’t speak exactly like a British person—but he also didn’t speak like an American person. The language of this book and the way characters talk is not exactly how people on the southwestern coast of England would speak, either. If a person who lived there picked up my book, they wouldn’t feel like the language was exactly right. But there’s a different type of truth there. Because the language my father spoke is contained in that “in-between” language, and that’s the displacement of immigration, which is in turn resonant with other forms of emotional disconnection and rupture. That language is the thing that made the book come into being in the first place.
TM: In “A Romance,” Abigail says, “Most young people do not stay in Glass,” which made me wonder about the people who do spend their lives there, so isolated and yet so near one another. What do the constraints of a small town environment give you from a narrative standpoint?
DO: Yiyun Li has an essay, “It Takes a Village to Tell a Story,” which explores (among other things) the role gossip plays in those settings—the secrets people have in small towns, which they need to have, because if they don’t, everyone will just know everything. I don’t know if my book has that sense of people gossiping about each other, but these stories, for me, are about the secret lives people carry on simultaneously with the lives they present, and that feels like a small town thing. You don’t have privacy, so instead you have secrecy.
TM: There’s timeless quality to your style—it feels very classic—and certainly belonging to the same family of writers you admire, like Yiyun Li and William Trevor. It was interesting to hear you say that, in drafting, stories are set in “storyland,” and I wonder if storyland exists apart from time as well. How much does time enter into your idea of setting?
DO: At least in drafting, I don’t think about time much as part of setting. I’m most interested in people’s feelings, which aren’t so dependent on that. Sometimes it becomes necessary to consider: in a story like “A Romance,” for example. In that story, the main character, Abigail, has the feeling that it would be shocking if people knew she wasn’t a virgin. That’s not really a thing that would be shocking now, even in a small village, so you have to think a bit in that case about when the story might be set. But this book, for better or worse, doesn’t really gesture outside itself very often, to things like the sexual politics of the world we inhabit. Mostly, it creates meaning internally—whether that’s a strength or a weakness, I don’t know.
TM: Would you be willing to share a bit about your relationship with Yiyun Li? I know she’s a mentor of yours, and I wonder what it’s been like to have the mentorship of someone who is also such an important literary influence.
DO: I went to the University of California, Davis, for grad school [getting an M.A. in English], and she was my teacher. I was not writing very good work at that age, though many of my classmates were. I was doing what I think a lot of people do as undergraduate writers—just trying shit out. So it wasn’t that Yiyun read my work and thought it was so good. But, I just really liked her, so I set up an independent study with her, where we read together. We read Trevor, we read Graham Greene and Edith Wharton—two other writers I just love. And then we kept reading together after. I would go to her house in Oakland, and we would have agreed upon two or three novels to read and we’d have, like, a book club. I love Yiyun’s work, and I do think about it a lot in writing, but I was even more influenced by the way she read. I had never been taught to read that way. She’s extremely inquisitive. When she reads something, she comes in with a hundred questions. Like “Why do you think this character did what he did?” or “Do you think that character really meant it when she said …?” And her approach is so much better for writing, because all those questions become things you could write your own book about.
TM: After William Trevor’s death, you published an essay on LitHub in which you wrote, “We have so few private spaces anymore. The world is kept so seldom at bay.” I’m wondering if you could expand on your idea about privacy as it relates to the writing life.
DO: I think the reason I like books is because you get to enter into this world where you’re alone. You leave behind your life outside that book, and in fact you enter this world where you don’t even exist. There’s this total erasure of yourself. And it’s true of writing, too.
One thing I remember distinctly from when I was a kid is the experience of going to the movies. Often my grandmother would take us, and I remember the feeling of walking out of the theater and knowing that, in a minute, she was going to ask whether I had liked the movie, or what I thought of it. I remember dreading that moment, because the experience of seeing the film was something private for me. That private experience was something I didn’t want to give up.
TM: You have a relatively private life yourself. What are some of the ways you protect your own privacy to give yourself space?
DO: I’m a bit of a homebody, both personally and professionally. I mostly work at home. Sometimes a library, but I tend not to work at cafés. And the friendships and relationships that I value a lot are, I think, pretty intimate, but I don’t have that many of those. I think some people feel good when they share their own emotional lives with other people, either via social media or by being more emotive in social situations. They want their internal state to be seen and recognized, and that feels comforting. There’s maybe a feeling of solidarity if they find someone else has had a shared experience. I don’t feel that way very often. I usually feel like I’ve lost something, a bit, except with people I really trust and feel close to.
When people ask me about stuff I’m working on, I’m not good at talking about it. And it’s necessary sometimes, with agents and editors. I think one reason writers are so bad at talking about our work is that we’re reluctant to give it away. When I see someone post on social media something like, “I finally figured out the ending to that story I’ve been working on,” I want to say, “Well then go write the story—don’t tell me!” I just don’t understand that impulse. I don’t relate to it. To me, the moment I tell you something like that, I’ve given away the thing that was the reason I wanted to write in the first place.
TM: I’ve seen reviewers focus on the loneliness of your characters. I think that feels right—they are lonely—but I’m also interested in the other edge: I see many of your characters motivated by desire—a desire to connect, of course, but also a sexual desire. Some of your characters find love in relationships that could be called queer, and some find connection in relationships that aren’t reflected in any of our codified ideas of love. Is the nature of a character’s desire often a starting place for your work?
DO: I’m glad you said that. There is something I’ve heard said about the book, or maybe it was something that was true when there were fewer stories and is less true now that they’re all put together: that the book is somehow “sexless.” In workshop, Marilynne Robinson—of all people!—called one of the drafts “chaste.” That’s obviously true when comparing it to, say, [Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You]. There’s little to no sex on the page here. But I do think the desire for physical intimacy is present and important to the stories. In some cases, that desire developed over drafts. The story “Housekeeper,” for instance has an element of … if not desire, then at least physicality. The scene in the shower is one of the last scenes I wrote. I wrote it after I’d published the story, years ago, without that scene. And the story did feel less without it.
TM: We’ve never been in a workshop together, but as I was reading these stories, I noticed that in your movements in point of view and even through time, you break many of what might be thought of as “rules” in workshop. What was the workshop experience like for you?
DO: I like workshop. I think it’s good to learn about what your writing is actually doing for readers, because it’s hard to know. So I enjoyed it, and I think it’s a good process for a lot of people, but it also does make people weirdly prim. We had to talk about point of view a lot when I was workshopped. It’s funny because the stories are not avant-garde in any way, and yet it’s, like, shocking to switch point of view. And this is all stuff people were doing 150 years ago. If you read Chekhov or Mavis Gallant, they just do whatever, and it’s always enjoyable.
TM: Your stories aren’t particularly long, but they feel novelistic in some sense. We often get a raw moment in a character’s life and then see that moment refracted through later experiences. I wonder if you would speak to the way you manage time within a story.
DO: I think I basically picked that up from William Trevor. A lot of his stories are like that; the past and the present are brought into the same plane. And this seems truer to me. We don’t see our lives as beginning here and going in a straight line there. The past and present are with us simultaneously. The past haunts us with its presence and it haunts us with its absence. I am interested in memory and the way characters hold onto things that happened to them—and don’t get over them. From a craft perspective, one of the things that is interesting to me is to put the past and present into the same moment. So instead of having a scene in the present and then jumping to the past, you just describe it at the same time. You can use tense to clue readers in, but readers also just understand the logic of it. And so you can have in the same paragraph a sentence about the present story followed immediately by backstory, and the impression you give is that the person is thinking about those things simultaneously. The memory is present and bearing on the action as it’s unfolding. And I think it reduces the feeling of artifice a story can have, when we’re saying, “Just so you know, this thing happened a long time ago and it’s important, so I’m going to tell you about it now, and then we’ll go back to the present.”
TM: Do you feel like there is anything you learned from the process of putting these stories into a book that you can carry into your next book?
DO: All of these stories got revised significantly. Some of them hadn’t been touched in years. And so I think I learned, again, about the extent of rewriting. Every time I’ve reached this point where I think, “Now I understand how much you have to rewrite, and how important it is,” I realize I have to do more.
TM: Your sentences are just lovely—and I know such elegant simplicity only seems effortless. Just on a granular process level, how do you work? Do you labor over each sentence in a first draft or are you working and reworking your sentences through revision?
DO: Sort of both. Either because I can’t get the sentences right the first time—but I try anyway—or because what seems right the first draft isn’t right anymore for subsequent drafts. I do labor over them. They do all get rewritten. But I labor over them in the first draft because the sentences are what cue me into the thing the story is about on an emotional level. I think this comes back to what I mentioned earlier about the way my family talked in my house growing up. It seems a large conclusion to draw from a small thing, but my focus on sentences might be just as simple as having a parent who spoke with an accent. Because then you learn to identify who a person is by how they talk—because the most important person in your life talks differently from other people in a distinctive way. The sound of language, the way the sentences are, the cadence of them … That is who people are to me.
TM: Finally, I can’t let you go without asking you about The Bare Life Review. The first issue offered me some of my favorite reading over the past year. Would you speak a bit to your goals with the journal?
DO: Our mission with The Bare Life Review is to foreground the talents of our contributing writers, which makes it a bit hard to talk about sometimes, because I am hesitant to put into my own words what their work has already so eloquently stated. We wanted a journal that sort of reversed the paradigm of asylum and refuge, of inside and outside, this troubled notion of “giving voice”—these are among the world’s most gifted writers; they already have voices. So the journal is intended simply to celebrate them, and (we hope) to offer some amplification in exchange for the wisdom, the beauty, and the delight they impart.