Larry Woiwode’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Harpers, GQ, The New York Times, Paris Review, Partisan Review, and others, along with two dozen stories in The New Yorker. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and is included in four volumes of Best American Short Stories. He is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Lannan Fellow, a U. S. State Department Traveling Artist, and in 1995 was awarded the Medal of Merit from the American Academy of Arts & Letters for “distinction in the art of the short story.” He is poet laureate of North Dakota.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Erin Regan. Of the process she said, “Larry’s impressive body of work spans decades, and each piece I encountered was full of richly-crafted scenes and characters that had been constructed with great empathy and love. His responses in this interview demonstrate the same generosity with words.“ In this interview, he discusses the importance of place, his devotion to truth, and fidelity to his characters.
Superstition Review: In Beyond the Bedroom Wall, you seamlessly shift between different points of view and time periods to tell the Neumiller family’s saga. How did you approach writing a novel that encompasses so many distinct narrators and eras?
Larry Woiwode: Slowly. Pieces of the novel appeared over a ten-year period and I was working on parts of it before that. I had a college fascination in the unaccountable grotesque, call it metafiction, laboring under the influence of Beckett (especially Watt), Borges, Nabokov, Kafka, William Gass and the like. I believed this was the truth of my time, and to represent what is called reality in any other form would be a lie. I was living in a room on St. Marks Place before it became gentrified for a rent of nine dollars a week—not an aesthetic setting—and on a sunny fall afternoon it came to me that if I wanted to be absolutely honest, not lie an iota, I would have to admit the most significant influence in my life was my maternal grandmother. She guided me out of the speechlessness of grief after my mother’s death, when I was nine.
I sat and drafted a quick sketch of a scene centered on her. With a bit of work the sketch became more general, as the addition of specific details has the power to do, and an ending came that set my hair on end. I had been showing William Maxwell, whom I met the year before at an Arts Conference at the University of Illinois, some of my metafiction, and this sketch, now a story, I thought, I sent by mail, as I remember, rather than carrying it up to his office, as I’d done. I heard in a week that The New Yorker was taking it, my first real publication, and it set the direction for the rest of my work. The story falls at almost the exact center of Beyond the Bedroom Wall. The shifting points of view in the novel are meant to give as many characters as possible a voice in the story, the leaps in time to save the reader time. All interstitial material—call it transitional or descriptive material—went.
SR: That is such a compelling description of literary inspiration. Do you often begin a piece by writing a specific scene?
LW: I usually see the end of a story or novel in a cinematic scene a projector in my head casts on an inner screen. Sometimes I try to find words for it but most of the time I head the writing toward that scene, which I can call up at will, or so it seems. When I saw the father at the end of Beyond the Bedroom Wall sitting in a chair, talking to his son, the novel took direction. When I was riding in a subway under New York City the inner movie of an older man walking into a bank and kneeling at a teller’s window appeared on that inner screen. Seventeen years later that was the scene that Poppa John, once I figured out who the character was, headed toward.
SR: You also combine diverse techniques in Beyond the Bedroom Wall, including prose, poetry, diary entries, and even descriptions of specific photos. What inspired you to use such varied methods of storytelling?
LW: Certain of the techniques, along with the shifts in point of view and time, derived I suspect from the diversity of techniques and time-bending in the authors I once admired. I believe it was my wife who said at some point that the novel resembled a family album—that became its subtitle—and I believe I saw the several modes as further ways of getting a truer texture of the Neumiller’s story. At a juncture when I was ready to send off the manuscript in despair my wife said, “What about those earlier generations you always talked about?” So I started over, thanks to her, additional stories started falling in place, and at a certain point I saw I had in hand five books. So far three have appeared and I’m finishing the fourth. It’s in an entirely different mode, as Born Brothers largely is.
SR: Would you expand on what it’s like to return to the same family again and again in your fiction? What is the premise of your newest Neumiller narrative?
LW: My first novel was not concerned with them, the second was, the third was not, the fourth was, the fifth was not, so it looks like I do refer to them every other novel, and then The Neumiller Stories appeared after Indian Affairs. Again and again? It doesn’t feel that way to me and from the start I wanted to avoid—whether recurrence or obsession—I saw in Salinger’s Glass family chronicles. Silent Passengers, my last book of fiction, stories again, deals with entirely different people.
SR: I was so moved by your short story “Silent Passengers,” in which you manage to capture, in only 17 pages, the fragility of life, the heartache of parenthood, and the quiet joy of returning home. How do you approach telling such complex personal stories, especially in a short form?
LW: You've nearly brought on tears by the generosity of your question, and to be honest, I’m not sure. I tried several times to tell the story, based on a similar incident in my own family, and it was nearly ten years later that I finally got the story down by forcing myself to finish it from beginning to end. A new editor I was working with at The New Yorker helped smooth out some infelicities at the edges and an incident at a hospital a pool that was overwritten. How do I accomplish, when I do, your wonderfully generous description? By grace.
SR: Weather plays an important role in both your fiction and your memoir—it acts as an element of setting, a metaphor, and a plot catalyst. How do you craft weather and how does it develop in your writing process?
LW: It’s there, as it always is on every side of us, all around, every day. I tend to spend as much time outdoors as I can. I always have, since I was a child, when it wasn’t unusual to walk fifteen or twenty miles when I thought of a place I wanted to visit. My love for the natural world was enhanced when I had to deal with it one to one, as it were, as a farmer and rancher, as I’ve been for thirty years. The love originated in my long early walks and found its fruition when I worked on a ranch in western North Dakota—I was thirteen—and later on two farms. In those occupations the weather is the major player and antagonist, so one keeps an eye on it from morning to night. I hope I allow weather to happen in my writing as it happens in day-to-day existence. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously set it in place as an objective correlative, that term T. S. Eliot resurrected.
SR: What is your relationship with nature like today?
LW: The same—daily, consistent. I’m on our place in the southwestern corner of the state nearly every weekend. I tend to shrubs and trees and pastures and haying and horses and keep an eye on the wildlife and bird species passing through. I love the smell of turned earth but I’ve resisted breaking up a piece of virgin prairie sod that remains on our place. We’ve kept the land organic for thirty-five years. I get out in tree rows and woodlots during the fall and winter to cut wood for an outdoor wood-burning furnace. I’m conscious of the daily weather and the position of the moon and stars.
SR: In your memoir What I Think I Did, you write about your early career at The New Yorker and your survival of North Dakota’s most brutal winter. What connections do you see between these two experiences? What was your process in choosing these for the book?
LW: Both were seasons of survival, as the book’s subtitle puts it, or so I saw them. Until I began placing pieces at The New Yorker I was essentially a part-time collator of PR mailings and a delivery boy. I don’t think the memoir makes much of a point of not eating for long stretches, sending my weight down to 110 from a probably perfect 135 in those days. I can cut to the chase of the aura of a fourth-floor walkup that rented for nine dollars a month by saying somebody on a fixed income or drugs died in his or her room at a rate of about once a month. I was threatened with a revolver and a knife. Death was pervasive and I’m sure a side of consciousness suggested to fail at writing would be to die, internally, if not actually. And when you must deal with necessities in minus forty-degree weather with an added forty-mile-an-hour wind, in the coldest winter in North Dakota’s history, you realize you’re at the outer edge of survival, or I did. A few years after that winter the book started falling in place as clearly as the formations of dominos I used to stand on end and, no matter the wicked patterns or curves, once the first was flicked, all went in a whoosh. The essence of the work then, as with most books, was merely finding the right words.
SR: In What I Think I Did, you describe writing a memoir as “an attempt to tame memory’s takeovers into paths we tiptoe down toward truth.” What truths have you found while writing your memoirs?
LW: That my memory, at certain points or on certain topics, is not reliable, as different members of my family pointed out when I asked them to check the accuracy of incidents in which one or another was involved. I also learned, as if I didn’t know, that the grief over the death of a parent when one is young, or disorder and early sorrow, is endless. It doesn’t seem quite resolved until one’s own end. I also learned, working with memoirs, that my identity is formed by the language I’m able to find to define it. The essence of identity, as is true of all original thought, is formed with words.
SR: In the introduction to your newest collection Words for Readers and Writers, you say the essays “deal with the act of writing, with a reader’s response to writing, and the ways we all use words, including Facebook entries, to fashion meaning for our lives—even identities.” How has your relationship with words influenced your identity as a writer? Did writing this book change how you understand your own identity?
LW: Every book and in a way every sentence, depending on the adjudication of honesty involved, is a plunge into the morass commonly called identity. I’m not sure anybody knows his or her exact identity, ever. I know my memory is flawed, I know my moods change and at times subtle shifts in identity occur over a day, measured by what has come up or I get down in words. I question myself about my identity and resonate with Borges’ parable ‘Borges and I.’ I know that no aspect of thought, no facet of identity exists until it’s defined in words. Anything other is a daydream or empty fantasy.
SR: Your latest memoir A Step from Death is addressed specifically to your son, Joseph. Did you write any of your other works with someone specific in mind? How does writing for such a specific and intimate audience influence your process?
LW: Every piece of writing should be directed to one person alone, or that’s the advice I give young writers. Why? A dear friend or trusted colleague or confidante whose intelligence exceeds yours will help hold you true to course—you won’t fudge or write up or down for an “audience,” one of the worst words directed at writers, with its origin in marketing. A single auditor, besides holding you true to your course, tends to establish a consistent tone. Beyond the Bedroom Wall was addressed to my father, as if he were across the table from me. I often tell stories to William Maxwell—that is, he’s the person across the table—or my wife, my most unsparing critic, since she’s seen me from all sides and inside out.
SR: You’ve said that you could never write about a place you hadn’t been. What is the impact of rooting stories in familiar settings
LW: A setting is the place any character has to have to merely set down his or her feet. It’s the locus of the story and the ground the story is going to travel across. It is, in a real sense, endemic to a character’s identity, an additional dimension to that person, which is why I want to know to a certain extent the territory I set a character down in. In too many recent stories it seems a blur or fuzz and that removes a certain dimension from both the character and the story itself. Notable exceptions occur in Jane Smiley, Louise Erdrich, Thomas McGuane and others, and I’m grateful for those exceptions. On another level—and this is the “odd” one I mentioned before—the greater the particularized detail in a short story, novel, drama, whatever the genre, the more enduring its story will tend to be, as in the outstanding examples of Tolstoy and Shakespeare, not necessarily in that order, although Tolstoy would see it as exactly right, I’m sure, given his life-long animus against his major competitor, Will from the farm-country Stratford, a farmer himself, later in life, as Tolstoy was. Chekov and Joyce and Proust also come to mind in the matter of particular, precisely detailed place.
SR: In an interview with John Wilson about your new collection of essays Words for Readers and Writers, you talk about “fidelity to the real” and the importance of capturing ordinary moments that impart meaningful messages about life. Your works demonstrate a mastery of this technique. What is your approach to writing about ordinary events in a way that gives them such meaning?
LW: I’m not sure I have an approach, and searching backward through the ages of my mind for an answer, I would have to say I consider not when I’m drafting but as I’m rewriting, the writers I admire, such as Cather, Colette, Tolstoy, who are rooted in place, generous to characters of all kinds, and couch all this in a prose Daniel Menaker has described as clear and strong and grain alcohol, referring to Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow.
SR: Many of your works include Christian characters and themes, including a commentary on the Book of Acts as part of an anthology on the New Testament. Which Christian narratives have most influenced you and your fictional work?
LW: I would suggest that all of my work, from the first novel onward, contains Christian outlooks and characters. Yes, the commentary on the Book of Acts, written for inclusion in an anthology at the invitation of the poet, Alfred Corn, kept exerting pressure to grow until it became a book itself, published by HarperSanFrancisco. I was primarily interested in the narrative techniques, conjunctions, and power of that particular text, the most narrative of the New Testament. I would say the work of Cather and Tolstoy—see “Master and Man”—sensitized me at an early state to the essential Christian doctrine, Love Your Neighbor. The major characters in every one of their books and most of their stories do this, and both writers are able to love their characters, good or bad, as one should a neighbor—characters closer even than a neighbor in their habitation of an entire portion of consciousness.
The other influence, when I began reading it front to back, as few critics do, was the Bible. The concurrences and dovetailing in its narratives and poetry and teachings written centuries apart (even four hundred years, if you tend toward modernism) were so uncanny to a person who had read and written and edited millions of pages of prose and poetry that it could only be called, as it was by a computer that was fed the entire text with a series of questions about its probability, Supernatural.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
LW: The entrance was once an old pump house struck by a flying tree in a tornado. My son and I straightened that, got it square, super-insulated it, and to the left is a workbench and to the left of that an inverter that regulates electricity from solar panels and wind chargers. To the right is a greenhouse, self-designed and built, where I raised tomatoes and habanero peppers one winter. A hall ahead lined with books leads to the setting where I spend most of my time writing—a twelve-by-twenty-two room, wide open, with windows south and a counter along most of its left or north wall where a couple of computers sit. My son and I built this and installed a floor of three-quarter-inch oak flooring .The back of the counter is lined with books on Auden, fifteen feet of his books and critical responses and the like, for a mini-biography of Auden I was once contracted to write and still may. A huge painting of our early family by our oldest daughter forms a partial wall ahead. Another computer sits on an oak desk here—a Mac I once tried and seldom use now. Grandchildren like to play games on it. A couple of comfortable office chairs stand ready at the counter and it’s here that I work.