Baltimore Review Interview with Geoff Wyss

by Seth Sawyers

We enjoy checking in with writers we’ve published in past issues. We loved Geoff Wyss’s “Black and White,” a story about a teacher who is mistaken by the New Orleans police for someone much more dangerous but also a story that gradually becomes, well, self-aware. We published Wyss’s story in the Summer 2015 issue. Baltimore Review editor Seth Sawyers contacted Wyss via email over the course of a few cold Baltimore weeks.

SS: So we published your story, “Black and White,” almost a year ago now. What are you up to? Writing stories?

GW: Yep, stories, though I’m not sure “stories” is the right word. They’re tending toward some hybrid form that spends more energy undermining than building story. I’ve finally admitted that I don’t care much about story, that devices like plot and traditional characterization feel boring and spent to me, so I’ve given myself permission to dispense with them. Writing without those limits is like trying to arrange furniture in a room with no walls, but it’s restored a sense of play and exploration to writing that I was starting to lose.

My exhaustion with story comes not just from writing but from reading—a sense that a lot of what I read in literary journals is a reconstitution of other stories I’ve read in literary journals. God knows that as an editor for BR, you read a lot more stories than I do; how often are you really surprised by something you’ve read?

SS: It’s a little different for me, but I understand. It’s not that I tire of any particular form, but that I see quite a few stories that are functional but for any of a thousand reasons don’t rise above that. What I crave most of all is to be moved. It’s very difficult to move another human being. I do crave that something that I wasn’t expecting, yes, but in terms of the emotional impact, I guess.

GW: We might be saying a similar thing from two directions. For me, thinking too much about the functionality of a story can cause it to be merely functional. (For this reason, I’m pretty bad at talking about why a story “works” or doesn’t.) Like you, I need emotional weight, and I don’t really care about sense and symmetry and coherence. I tend to over-plan and over-organize the rest of my life; I want my fiction to be something else.


SS: You’re working on a novel in addition to the short stories?


GW: Most of my writing last year was spent doing (I hope final) edits on a novel that’s coming out in December. The main character is an art professor and single mother who takes a job as a graphic artist aboard a floating country.

Working on that novel made it clearer to me than ever that short stories are my natural form. I can be much more nimble in quick bursts than with a piece that locks me into a single aesthetic for five years. (Or for this novel, ten.)

I sometimes feel like life moves too fast even for short fiction. It takes me like two years to finish a story, and by then the politics and pop culture and the whole zeitgeist can feel as if it’s turned over. Or maybe I’ve just gotten older and everything looks different to me.


SS: Congrats on the novel. That’s wonderful. I come at it from a different perspective, I think. As a writer, I flat-out don’t have that many ideas—or good ideas, anyway—for stories, so that’s one of the things that impresses me most about short story writers, that churn of new situations and problems to be worked out. Care to talk about where “Black and White” came from? The initial spark?


GW: I was thinking about drones. About how much we like watching others, watching ourselves. And by extension, about writers as the most obsessive of watchers.


SS: Also, you seem to be pretty prolific, in addition to polished.


GW: I don’t know about either of those. It takes me a million drafts to finish anything, and then when I get it back in print, I see all kinds of embarrassing things I want to change.


SS: Like looking at a photograph of yourself from two years ago, where you think: I thought I looked good in that shirt? Really?


GW: Exactly. I almost always end up hating what I’ve written once I’m a few years away from it. But I’ve sometimes had the weird opposite experience of being intimidated by something I wrote in the past—it can seem to have an authority or finality that makes me wonder whether I used to be a better writer than I am now. I now see that I was sending out the novel like five years sooner than I should have been. I’ve resigned myself to the idea that I don’t really know when my stuff is done. Do you feel like you know when a story is finished?


SS: I think if you could figure out how to teach that, you’d be able to live a comfortable existence. So it sounds like, with “Black and White,” we’re seeing you get energized about writing again: playing with form, with, as you say, narrative, plot, character. (Is that the right word, “playing”?)


GW: I’m OK with “playing.” I was starting to take writing too seriously. Seriously in the wrong ways. I was professionalizing it: thinking about where I wanted to publish, what editors might want to see in my stories, how to find an agent. The more “professional” I got about writing, the less I liked writing. Maybe another way to say it is that the wall one has to maintain between writing and the business of writing had begun to disintegrate. It was like I would sit down in the morning with my coffee and look at the other side of the couch and there was Speer Morgan peeking over my shoulder. How do you maintain that wall?


SS: That’s a great question and an admirable goal, the idea of a wall between your creative self and your professional self. All I know is that, both as a writer and as a reader, the words can feel alive and fresh and vital or they can feel, as we’ve mentioned before, functional. (And it’s difficult even to be functional! Some days that feels like an accomplishment: the attainment of functional writing.) But I think maybe what we’re both craving is writing that feels alive. For a while, above my desk, I had taped up a quote from Bernard Malamud: “The idea is to get the pen moving quickly. To make a scene, work up a feeling, ride on it.” Maybe that’s one way to maintain the wall, to tap into some vein and just go?


GW: It’s a nice idea, anyway. When I see my high school students do that—bang out a three-page story in one class period that ends up being pretty good—it seems like magic to me. I write really slowly and with great self-conscious pain.

The professional has never invaded the artistic more disastrously for me than when I went to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2013. Paradoxically, however, seeing that professionalism reflected in a hundred other writers helped me purge it. Tim O’Brien is a great person and an energetic teacher, but hearing him tell my workshop that a story must have a plot hook by the bottom of page one because editors need a reason to keep reading reminded me why I decided 25 years ago never to be part of another workshop. That kind of certainty about what stories are supposed to do, how they’re supposed to be made, kills my interest as a writer.

I’ve published enough to prove to myself I can do it; if I don’t publish again, it won’t be a tragedy. At the same time, it’s clear I’m never going to be an Adam Johnson or Jonathan Safran Foer or Zadie Smith, so I don’t have a literary reputation to service. So there’s no reason for me to get too concerned about audience.

It was also at Sewanee that I had a conversation with Shannon Cain about autofiction, a conversation that felt like it gave me permission to do what I was already starting to do: letting fiction and “reality” bleed together as a way of seeing both afresh. I think I like the word “dangerous” better than “playful,” in the way David Shields (in Reality Hunger) uses it in the phrase “readerly danger.” Shields’s argument is that we’ve learned so well how to read the traditional short story that it no longer has the power to disorient and unsettle the way writing would if it were truly vital.

I liked a lot of the individual writers I met at Sewanee, but writers (and writers’ conferences) in general kind of freak me out. Is it just me, or is everybody sort of comparing himself to everyone else kind of all the time in a literary world of scarce resources?


SS: Unfortunately, I think you’re right. It’s difficult to avoid that comparing stuff, and I applaud you if you can do it. Which makes me wonder: do the poets do it more or less than the fiction and nonfiction writers? It doesn’t help that writers tend to be pretty hyper-aware folks to begin with.


GW: I suspect that the poets do it just as much as the fiction writers but that they just won’t admit it. (This very topic is discussed by Hananah Zaheer and K.K. Fox in Week 12 of their Lipstick in the Trenches blog.)


SS: I think our editors responded to your story’s self-referential nature, to its playful qualities, to its, well, strangeness. Readers may think of Calvino or Barthelme or Beckett when they read “Black and White.” Who have you been reading these past few years and was there a moment when the light bulb went off and you thought: I’m going to start writing stories that don’t follow the traditional form?


GW: You were right about Beckett. I read Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable last year, and they were probably on my mind when I wrote “Black and White.” Other things I’ve recently enjoyed for the way they bend genre: Teju Cole’s Open City; W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz; Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04; Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be; Rachel Cusk’s Outline; Gwenaelle Aubry’s No One; Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M.; Harold Brodkey’s Stories in an Almost Classical Mode; Eric Bennett’s A Big Enough Lie, Alexsander Hemon’s Nowhere Man.


SS: When did you know you could maybe do this, for real?


GW: The time during which I thought I could write “for real” was pretty small, basically a couple years during undergrad when my delusions about everything were at their peak. I don’t like to think about writing as something I do “for real”; I like the idea that it’s a sneaky little thing I do off to the side. Actually almost nothing makes me more uncomfortable than somebody asking me about my writing. I can answer those questions when I’m behind a table at a panel, but if I’m with friends or family, I get this feeling of shame, like they’ve asked, “How’s the masturbation going?”

I’m not sure what your background is, but something about being from where I’m from (Peoria, Illinois) is always going to make writing seem like a slightly unworthy hobby, best hidden.


SS: I think that many writers feel this way. And now, to make you more uncomfortable, can you tell us about what this story “means” to you? What’s it about (I realize that you may hate this question)? “Black and White” is at the same time a very easy story to read but which, as it goes along, is a story that complicates itself and becomes self-aware. It’s also funny, and clever, and honest, all the things that more traditional stories can do.


GW: I think I was using it to think about self-awareness itself. I do worry about the self-awareness of the writer. I sometimes feel that the mental habits of writing have pulled me outside of life. Or maybe my native feeling of separateness led me to writing. The story doesn’t try to make a statement about that, just channel the feeling of it. I sort of assume that everyone who writes feels like that, as if you’re sort of writing life as you lead it?


SS: For me, I feel that most when I try to write my way into precarious, dangerous, or morally “bad” places. Making your characters make bad choices, for example. It can feel naughty. As compared to real life, where ostensibly you’re trying to make morally right choices, in fiction I find that having your characters live otherwise can lead to some strange thinking. There’s a weird double-life there, I find, where you can feel most alive when you’re pretending, on the page.

Is it fair to say you’ve put aside “heart” fiction and are more interested in “head” fiction? Can “head” fiction move readers in the same way that “heart” fiction can? I’m guessing, but sounds as if you’ve reached a point where you’re no longer willing to suspend disbelief in quite the same way as maybe you had been previously.


GW: That distinction has never made sense to me. A lot of what most deeply engages my emotions is ideas. Most American fiction is—tell me if you agree—“heart” fiction, but that’s an aesthetic and historical phenomenon, not the only or best way to write. (For discussions of the genealogy of this aesthetic preference, check out Mark McGurl’s The Program Era and Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire. The second book sites the American preference for “humanistic” realism in the context of the Cold War.)


SS: I agree that most American fiction—literary fiction—tends to be “heart” fiction. But, and you might disagree, I think that’s for a good reason, which is that, you know, probably 80 percent of readers can more easily identify with or be moved by the “heart” stuff. Now, “Black and White,” I thought it was “head” fiction but that it still moved me, made me think, sure, but made me identify with another struggling, imperfect human. I think we need to connect with any story, and however the writer accomplishes that, more power to him or her, right?


GW: Sure. The only danger is to imply (as I think probably every teacher of writing does, consciously or unconsciously) that there’s a sort of best place to land on the head/heart spectrum.


SS: We realize that race and troubles associated with stressed cities may not be the primary focus of “Black and White” but, still, for Baltimore-area readers (as most of our editors are), New Orleans didn’t sound all that different from our own town. Can you talk about where you live? Do you often think about your settings? Is it true that New Orleans is particularly fertile ground for stories?


GW: I do set most of my stories in New Orleans, though I doubt it’s a more fertile setting than anywhere else; I just use it because I cannibalize my surroundings when I write. What follows from that cannibalizing is that race is going to echo through my work. The neighborhood in “Black and White” is my own neighborhood. Race seemed useful to me in that story as one prism through which to think about identity, which for the narrator has come unmoored.

Have you tried to write about race, race and Baltimore? I find that it’s one of those subjects I can’t possibly do well if I set out to treat it directly—just as my writing always turned to crap when I thought of myself as consciously trying to write about New Orleans.

SS: I am, as a matter of fact, trying to write about Baltimore right now, and in essay form, which, if handled incorrectly, is about as direct as it gets. But tackling race and class and groups of people is very hard, and very easy to do poorly, so if you have any tips, please pass them along. This has been a really fun way to talk about your writing and writing in general, and so, to close, tell us about something that’s happening with you right now that’s got you all excited (other than, you know, the impending completion and publication of your novel).


GW: I get excited about silly small things like discovering a new size of rubber band in the school supply closet. I like my new racquetball shoes. I mostly lead a very boring life. I’m reminded of Martin Amis’s introduction to J.G. Ballard’s Complete Stories, in which Amis describes Ballard’s “tomato-red Ford Escort” and the other bland details of his suburban life. “Writers should be orderly and predictable in their lives so that they can be ferocious and sinister in their work,” Amis writes. I like that idea.


Geoff Wyss’s book of stories, How, won the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction and was published in 2012. His second novel is forthcoming from Brooklyn Arts Press. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Image, Ecotone, Tin House, and others and has been reprinted in New Stories from the South and the Bedford Introduction to Literature. He teaches and lives in New Orleans.