Interview with Stephen Wright

by David Kushner
(c) 1994

DK: Why did you title the new book Going Native?

SW: Well, it's real complicated. I suppose it's one reason I was pleased with the title when I finally settled on that, because it has so many levels of meaning really.

Of course there's the traditional one which comes from the British Colonial experience of someone just being out there in the bush. That's probably explored most thoroughly in the Borneo chapter.

For the rest of the book, maybe the bulk of it, the meaning is kind of a grim joke. The main character in there goes native in an American sense and he turns into a psychopath. (Laughs)

The other thing as I get into it - and I get fascinated with these questions, because it's a book about exploring the nature of violence and the nature of what we're made of really. I think the longer you brood on these questions the more fascinating they become, the more that whole area seems to open up, whole realms of speculation.

It just strikes me that in this culture, in this highly civilized culture, I basically feel that we're all the same creatures people were thousands of years ago, thousands and thousands of years ago. I don't think there's much evidence that human beings have changed in any dramatic way. Technology has changed in kind of attracting culture to change, but I think the actual human beast itself is pretty much similar as it's always been.

So I think that under this kind of vast superstructure of civilization is all this other stuff. And I suppose looking at it biologically there is that reptilian brain that the whole cortex sits on top of. It's just there. And it's part of our heritage and its inescapable and the fact that it is inescapable leads to some disturbing conclusions about what it is we're made of. I think that question is what the book's about. In that sense I think that Going Native means having these more primal desires and impulses just rise up and seize hold of you.

I suspect this really happens. It happens, I think, when your sense of self becomes more and more fragile and more and more tenuated and there's less control then. What lies in the wake is a life of just sheer impulse and living for the moment, etcetera. This is where a lot of people going up to prison live. That's why they have problems. They don't know how to channel all this or even how to successfully repress it. This is what learning to be civilized is all about, learning how to deal with your anger, your rage, that everyone has. I think everyone's capable of killing. I don't have any doubt about it. Everybody. I guess people don't want to be told this. (Laughs) But, frankly, I believe it's the truth.

DK: You have one character in Going Native who says this expression of the primal self only happens through "sex, art, and murder."

SW: Well, that's just one way of looking at it. And when you look at that character he's a pretentious asshole. I think it's a viewpoint, but not the final viewpoint.

The so-called creative act, no matter which of the arts it's in, is also a highly destructive act. Something is being broken down in order to make something new. That's just the way it works. Art is sublimation. We're talking about mental forms other than actual lives in bodies. A lot of art is murderous, not in a literal sense, but art that we regard as great art is always like that.

Did you ever read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee? In the introduction he talks about what art really is and he proposes this test: Put on Beethoven, turn up the speakers as loud as you can stand and put your head right on the ground next to it. What you're hearing, is this at all comforting? Is this at all nice?

It kind of attacks that whole notion of art being some kind of coddling sedative for people. This is about as outrageous and murderous an act a person can do short of really doing one physically. All art, especially the greater it is, the more subversive it is, the more murderous it is of preconceived notions, of preconceived patterns of thinking. I mean, this is violence in a way.

I think this is a healthy use of these impulses and emotions. We've got to do this, it's absolutely necessary. I don't see art as a luxury at all, as some little appendage to a society. It's an absolute necessity.

DK: The book also seems to be an indictment of America's reliance on popular culture.

SW: Okay, that brings in the rest of it. It just seems that a lot of what we see in other cultures and would label as primal instincts is, in our culture, all being done for us by pop culture. This is what pop culture is all about, it's the display of our pagan interests - especially in rock music and contemporary film. Those are probably the two strongest most overriding of the arts in present culture. They sort of sum up pop culture.

That is the final meaning of Going Native, being immersed in all of this. Obviously you can write a book like this without loving all these creepy movies and I love them as much as anyone else. But I also feel that they're just emotionally brutalizing. I like McDonald's too, but I don't want to eat it everyday. It's the same thing. It's that constant diet of stereotypes, of black and white thinking and it's emotionally brutalizing for all of us.

Why should we allow certain topics, say murder for example, to be so inprovenced of pop culture and a kind of beat level of making? So what I set out to do, and I don't know how well I succeeded, but to try to bring to bearings as much armament as I could muster in dealing with the same themes in a literary way. Then you see that words can go in places that all this other stuff can't begin to go.

DK: Why do words have that power?

SW: It's all the subtlety and nuance. That's what I mean by emotionally brutalizing. It's just all so blunt and heavy handed. My sense of life and of all these problems is much more complicated than what I get out of a movie like True Romance, for example. Much more complicated than this. So I think a lot of my impulse in doing this was to address this in several levels at once.

DK: How does the inverted structure of your novel come into play?

SW: What I'm doing is denying readers a quick and easy identification with Wylie, because that's how that type of story is always being told. That to me is too easy and too simple and finally that story's too boring that way. Because when this happens in real life, it has real consequences. And they're not pretty and it's not entertainment and it's not something you get a voyeuristic thrill out of. When real blood is spilled, it's a whole different matter. That's what I was trying to get at. So why not show the people who a person like this touches and how it really means. That's one big reason for constructing it like this, for turning it inside out. I don't want to have a kind of voyeuristic thrill ride of a pleasure seeker.

DK: What happens is that the reader sees Wylie's victims as real people, like in the end of the Borneo chapter.

SW: It's an alternate point of view. There is nothing from his point of view. That whole last scene, which a lot of people find very disturbing, my reaction is "good, it better be." I don't want it to be anything less than disturbing. In a way, though, it's all a trick. It kind of reminds me of that scene in Psycho. The way Hitchcock's done it is that you don't even see anything. It's a joke, it's all in your head. He's put together little bits of film that give you this horrific impression of this awful murder, but it's all completely impressionistic. You never see the knife go in. It's all done with sound and quick cuts. It's a masterful piece of film making.

In my little scene, you don't see anything. It's all in your head. You never see him do anything. All it is is dialogue and it's all very simple prose, if I remember right.

DK: What challenges did you find by writing the novel inside out?

SW: (Laughs) Imagining new chapters. In a way, I'm glad I didn't know what I was getting into when I started, because it became a horrific compositional problem. Even though I realized that for the subject matter and thematically it had to be structured that way, it was a big risk. That built-in reader frustration that stops and starts, stops and starts.

With any other book, you get your characters, you get your location, you get the people invented, and you start a motion. What will happen, if you're really lucky, you get a nice little momentum and it certainly helps the reader and it certainly helps the writer because you get a little steam going.

But, this book, every time I got a little steam going it stops. Then I have to start over. Every chapter.

DK: Is that why you don't like writing short stories?

SW: Maybe. I don't think I think well in short stories. It just seems more natural to me to take a longer breath, I suppose.

What I realized after I'd done a few of these things was that I was burning down a novel per chapter. I started thinking that any one of these chapters could be expanded into a novel. So you're using up a lot of material. And to do what I wanted to do it meant that I invent these people with as much care as I possibly could, because they're going to have to be interesting themselves if there's no over-arcing narrative.

That's why as I got into it I had to keep raising that ante with every chapter. You get into trying to top yourself. So all these things are going on and I was glad I didn't know what I was getting into.

DK: In Going Native and even M31 you're critical of America's TV culture. What do you think about the notion that people are reading less because of television?

SW: I'm skeptical of this whole notion of the golden age of reading. This is the kind of thing that is bannered and waved whenever people want to get on their high horse about the state of culture and how we've gone downhill. I'm just real skeptical about it.

There's some aspects of literary culture that maybe people aren't aware of. For instance, every book of Faulkner's, except Sanctuary, was out of print two years before he won the Nobel prize. There weren't people sitting at home pouring over one of America's greatest authors. There's this implicit notion that if we didn't have TV and we didn't have movies, everyone would be reading William Gaddis. I don't think so.

But, saying all that too, I think there is something different and that is this kind of suffocating wealth of the pop cultural over everything. This total conversion of everything into entertainment, I don't think, is any good for anybody. This is what I think is bad.

It's just that never before has there been this technology to kind of zap you from every angle almost around the clock. That's the reason for all this, to sell stuff, to sell products. That's what I mean about this whole Hollywood stuff. They don't give a damn. They don't care if there's holes in the plot you could drive a truck through, because people will put down their seven or eight bucks anyway. The cynicism that's behind all this is really incredible. It's hardly even worth it to make anything of quality. This I find disturbing. Where it's all going to end, I don't know.

By the time I finished Going Native, I hadn't even read the beginning in almost a year, so enough time had passed that I could look at the thing as if someone else had written it when it came time to copy edit. When I got done, I thought to myself, God, I'm really ambivalent about all this stuff. (Laughs). There's a certain kind of exuberance, too.

DK: There's an almost religious theme running through your three novels. Your characters are searching for some greater meaning. In Mediations in Green, Griffin escapes from the horrors of Vietnam through organic mediation on nature. In M31, the family is waiting for UFOs to come take them away. Then Going Native has a guy who's trying to break out of his own identity. What intrigues you about that theme?

SW: I suppose they all do sort of revolve around a certain base idea and that is: we're not complete. We don't come into this world complete. There's something missing. This hole in ourself, in our identity, is what religion is all about. These are all spiritual, religious problems. How do you fill the hole? What is this sense of loss, of something not here? Everyone has got to come to some sort of terms with it. It's out there nagging at people constantly. It's the cliche of the person who makes it materially and has all the money and everything and then discovers how empty that feels. That's pratically a cliche now as it would be in a culture that's completely devoted to materialism. Of course, there's truth in cliches.

I'm fascinated with this. How do you live? How do you fill that space in a secular culture? I think I basically see it as all of our problems. The books, I suppose, are just various takes on this. I'm concerned that the failure of doing this leads to violence.

If you don't find a solution to this problem, this very individual problem that then, of course, becomes a cultural problem also, the rage can erupt in unexpected and very unpleasant ways.

DK: How much of that viewpoint came out of your experience in Vietnam? Were you thinking about this before you went there?

SW: I doubt it. I'm not really thinking consciously about it now. I think it's something that comes out of the work. It's obviously some sort of string for a lot of the work.

DK: Do you look to any personal experience in your life that may have brought that on?

SW: You see, that's just it. When I look at it, I just don't see anything. I feel as though my world of view, such as it is, was pretty much settled before I was even in Vietnam. All that did was kind of confirm ways of thinking that I was already on to. I do have to say about all of that that I was very lucky to get in and out of that experience without being maimed for life. I think there are just way too many people, more than most people know, who are lifelong Vietnam veterans. That is their job description, that is their life. It's because they went through hell and the whole rest of your life becomes dealing with it. It's so sad, it's so pathetic and there are so many that are like that. I was very fortunate to come out of it relatively unscathed.

DK: How much of Mediations in Green is imagined and how much actually happened?

SW: To me it's a real pleasing mix. That's one thing I really learned with that book. Reading reviews is a very interesting experience. Because a book like that is every now and then going to get reviewed by a person who was there and, of course, those I read with much more care. What amused me is that more often than not, stuff that I made up would be taken as being the truth and an actual experience. And stuff that was really real is dismissed as being just an act of the imagination. It also gives you enormous confidence as a writer, because you realize that you can do it. You can put words together in a way that seems really real. So that was very pleasing. But I was also kind of amused and maybe irritated that the stuff I know really happened has been read as just a concoction, some kind of fantasy. That book is such a mix that it's almost impossible to disentangle. I think that's the kind of thing you're going for when you're writing a book. The more you can get the two strands woven together, the more powerful piece of fiction you have.

DK: Could you have done something like that as non- fiction?

SW: Oh yeah, I thought about this. I could have done it not only as non-fiction, but as a thinly-veiled autobiographical story. I could have done it a lot faster, because the narrative arc is given to you. You just start where you started. I could have been done years before I was. But, I just knew that I had my hands on some really phenomenal material here. I wanted to do it right, what I thought as doing it right. I had some sort of notion of what I wanted to do and it was just a matter of figuring out how to do it. I was much more ambitious. It's more ambitious than wanting to do the "I was there, I was the man, I suffered," kind of thing. I wanted to get a bigger picture going. So I deliberately did not do that. But, you're right, I could have. I could do a book like that much quicker than doing the one I did.

DK: How did the experience of doing a novel like that get you into the next one?

SW: (Laughs) I don't know. With M31, I was totally done with the other one and I just saw this paperback called Messengers of Deception. When I was a kid in Cleveland, I used to go to sleep at night listening to these talk shows and they used to have these UFO people on. It's really eerie stuff, especially if you're listening to it late at night in the dark. You're expecting these little ships to come down. They had these jokers on who'd call in and talk about all their bizarre experiences.

DK: Did you believe in all of it?

SW: I was an agnostic. (Laughs) I thought it was very interesting. I thought as I still do that something is going on, but what is the nature of that phenomenon, I don't think we know. It could be something completely psychological, which is very interesting within itself. I think something important is going on here. That's why I wrote a book about it. Whether or not there really are ships from another world, I think I'm very skeptical about it. But, anything is possible in this universe.

But, I saw this book and I had not looked into the whole UFO phenomenon since I was a kid. It was impulse, I picked this thing up. It's by some french scientist and theorist about all this. It's the guy Spielberg based one of the characters on in Close Encounters. He does all this incredible speculative thinking on what is the nature of this whole phenomenon. That's what this book is about. I started reading it and I thought it was fascinating. The theories had come a long way since the last time I looked into this multiple world thing and holes in the space/time continuum. Maybe this stuff could even be messages from the future. It could be ourselves. There was all this bizarre stuff I had never really considered before.

I was out there in Iowa. I had gone out to Iowa City to go to the Writer's Workshop and thinking about, I thought there's a whole interesting story here. That was kind of the first seed.

The other part was a Patti Smith tune off Horses. That song that she did is based on her reading of a book by Wilhelm Reich's son. It's a fascinating, mesmerizing book about this little kid raised in this bizarre atmosphere. Reich was a phenomenal person, the whole thing of growing up in the whole Freudian movement and just going his own way and being castigated by all the rest of them. And eventually making cloudbusters and ray guns to shoot at UFOs. This little boy is growing up with this and then his father is indicted by the Food and Drug Administration for selling orgone boxes. (Laughs)

Reich invented all this. He became convinced later in his life that there really were such things as UFOs. He had a heart attack in prison and dies. From the point of view of his son he had this whole elaborate thing that the UFOs had come and gotten his father and taken him away. So he wrote this phenomenal book about what life was like from this little boy's point of view. It is quite a memorable book and it obviously made a big impression on Patti Smith. She just imagined this whole song from that point of view, from a whole psychodrama with the ship going up and up and up. I think it ends one side of the album.

All this stuff came together at the same time and that's what gave me the idea for M31.

DK: There's also a theme of dislocation that runs through your work, of people never being quite there. You've written things like, "we are guests in our own lives." "Life is death's amnesia."

SW: I think everyone feels that way. I think we live in a time where everyone's sense of self is very fluid. I think this all has to do with the whole media nest and with what you're subjected to. Other theorists think it has a lot to do with capitalism. Marxist theorists speculate about the late stages of consumer capitalism. That this sort of self is almost a concoction of the whole machinery of the economy in order to get people to be consumers all the time. So you're always off balance, you're always never sure of anything and you buy to keep filling that hole. And if you finally buy the right product, things will be okay. This is the whole basis of advertising.

I think we're under a lot of assault on our own sense of self that maybe, in the long run, is not healthy. It could go either way I think. Maybe this is just our adaptive mechanism to get through this period toward (laughs) whatever period is coming next. I think it's really a very slippery sense of self that is kind of rampant in our culture that gives people this sense of slipperiness and not being sure who you are and feeling as though you are a guest in your own life.

DK: Is it the writing then that cements it together for you?

SW: Yeah. Yeah. Sometimes I wonder how people can live without making something. I think it's a legitimate concern. I'm not necessarily saying I think everyone should be a writer.

To put something together, to make something out of the materials at hand, whatever it is. There's a great quote from Paul Theroux from one of his journals. "Say the thing with which you labor." That became his whole goal. That is the whole point of being on this planet. Because all of us are presented with problems and it's up to each person to solve it in their own individual way.

Sometimes I get this feeling that I don't understand how anyone can get by without making something besides money. (laughs) Making some sort of construct out of whatever the materials they're laboring with. For me writing really, really does. You really get a sense of getting things nailed down. I think that's why people have always written. I think it's real important.

DK: How did you start?

SW: All I can remember is that as early as eight or nine I was making stories. Lying in bed, falling asleep, concocting stories. Obviously kids book were the models. I wasn't writing anything down. I find it very interesting to remember it's almost as though it's something you come into the world with. This is your way of dealing with life.

This is why I'm very skeptical about, did this event do it for you? Did that event? I think we come into the world with an awful lot of equipment and awful lot of cues to go in certain ways. Obviously the environment is going to help or obstruct. It can be very influential and is. But, you're prisoner of your own sensibilities.

DK: A lot of your writing has that inner consciousness to it, like it was existing solely in your head.

SW: Yeah. Yeah. I know one guy asked me, "why do you choose to write in this way rather than in a realistic way?" I said, "I am a realist." And it just stunned him. There was just total silence. This is how it looks to me. (Laughs) I don't feel it is some sort bizarre, off-the-wall thing. You may. But then, go and do your own book. I'm just trying to get down what I feel like to me.