MB: What is your religious background?
CW: I’m not a religious person at all, really. Far from it. But I had the unique experience of being a non-religious person growing up in a small town in Northeast Texas. So throughout my life I was steeped in various devoted interpretations of biblical narrative. The closest our family ever came to adopting a religion was when, in an arguably noble attempt to set our family on a, well if not more righteous, certainly more socially accepted path, my older sister (who was very young at the time) insisted our family begin attending church. The idea was that we would then be more like the other families in town, more like her friends’ families, and a little less…our strange selves. My parents were very open-minded and supportive, so we went. I don’t remember which denomination it was, or even what we did there. I only remember dressing up for a few Sundays in a row, then being very happy when we abandoned the project. Christianity, in one form or another, was the dominant religion in our hometown, but I never really got into it and, aside from this little experiment, I was never really asked to. Then, in grade school, I had a good friend who was Muslim, (his was the only Muslim family in our school, I think) and I used to talk to him a lot about his beliefs and his particular religious practices, and the benefits/challenges of these. I distinctly remember him telling me that I had to believe him about something or other because he couldn’t lie as it was against his religion. That struck me then as very convenient; to have a system of beliefs that worked as a set of rules governing your behavior. In my head, he didn’t have to worry about lying because he couldn’t lie. It was against the rules. I was open to, and enthusiastic about, his religious experiences and accounts because he was my friend and they were so unfamiliar to me. The idea of finding something like that for myself became appealing, and I asked my mother to take me to the library so I might read up on various religions and see which one best suited me. Then I too might have a set of rules by which to live. On the one hand, the project was a failure. No single text, or tradition, really fit me that well, but it all seemed really wild and each religion exhibited these great imaginative capabilities. I was learning a lot. At the same time, I was struggling my way through Tolkien, some Shakespeare, Greek mythology, that kind of thing. It’s probably for this reason that I have always viewed religious texts simply as powerful narratives, as literature, rather than existential truths or solid guidebooks for how to live. At best, I guess, they’re examples of how things could be, or might have been. But, again, this was just my experience. Since then I’ve always studied religious texts as/alongside literary texts, particularly the Bible, as it was such a dominant narrative voice in the town/state/country where I grew up. This was one of the initial sparks for this project, engaging a biblical narrative on literary terms, and exposing it to the same manipulations/experimentation one might any other literary tradition.
MB: And as a book that is shaped by the book of revelations, people might expect the usual apocalyptic story that tends toward epic devastation, but instead Revelation is focused very intently on a quiet, transformative upheaval. How did you come to this more subtle / personal approach to apocalypse?
CW: That’s a good question. I wrote a lot on this topic in a piece I did for Necessary Fiction, along with AD Jameson, Jen Gann, Patty Cottrell, Jesse Ball, Gabe Boyer, Zach Vandezande, and Thania Rios, which can be read here. In that piece I talk a lot about how this book is, on the one hand, an attempt to exorcise the dominant narratives I’ve been exposed to in my writing life. This includes biblical narratives, but also heavy-weight literary figures like Raymond Carver and Anton Chekhov, really a whole tradition of psychological realism with which I was hit over the head as a young writer as an example of the finest writing one might aspire to. And while I admire these writers, it all began to feel very limited and frustrating. So I looked for a way out. I discovered authors like Ben Marcus and David Ohle, or even Robert Coover, and more recently Amelia Gray, whose work is wonderfully unfamiliar and strange, and yet still feels incredibly intimate and humane. Part of this has to do with their various techniques for making the familiar unfamiliar, rather than abandoning it all together in pursuit of something altogether foreign. I got a charge out of that, I suppose. A big part of it is a certain sense of freedom and play I get from the authors I now admire most.
However, a more direct answer to your question would be to say this book is a collision of narrative modes, on a very basic level a formal experiment. And yet I’m still concerned with telling a good story, at least in this particular book. I think fantasies of the apocalypse will always have the capacity to move us because they have to address some of our, or at least my, primary occupations: the suspicion/concern that the world is beyond our control, and is quite possibly all going to shit, and the knowledge of our inevitable death. Many end-of-the-world narratives, particularly that of the book of revelation, are concerned with salvation: what it means and how it might be achieved. In Revelation I wasn’t interested in salvation. I was interested in what it means to live on in its absence. In the absence of a larger salvation narrative, it seemed only natural to focus intensely on the character’s everyday interactions and exchanges. How these characters lived from moment to moment, related to one another, and how quickly and easily that could change became very important to me. A friend of mine, the writer Zachary Coleman, told me “Revelation…like life and the lives found in the book, compiles a series of moments and events that make up a whole, which in turn bursts, fades, and disappears, leaving the beauty of those moments, and nothing.” I thought that was a really nice summary.
MB: Also, where many novels focus only on a pivotal moment in a character’s existence, Revelation takes the reader through the entire life of a character – from birth to death – can you talk to us a little about bringing a character through a fully evolved lifetime in the span of a mid-size novel?
CW: I wanted to link the experience of reading a book to that of a life lived. So the space between each chapter represents a considerable chunk of a life we’re speeding through page by page. The moments we’re given by the story are almost entirely in the aftermath of some major emotional/psychological/biological shift. So every time we’re reintroduced to the characters, they’ve changed. Sometimes a day has passed between pages, sometimes years. Change becomes the focus, and the way of knowing more about the characters and understanding their story, noticing what’s changed about them and what’s the same. So the idea would be that you’re constantly re-calibrating your sense/expectations of each character, while simultaneously feeling like you’re getting to know them better. The other side of this is that they are more rapidly approaching death than your average protagonist. For every installment these characters are thrust forward, more and more persistently toward the end. But to be approaching death in this apocalyptic world is the result of survival.
MB: Switching gears a bit, you’ve garnered praise from Ben Marcus and Adam Levin – as such, how much pressure is on Revelation as a debut novel, or on you as a debut novelist?
CW: I don’t feel any particular pressure on the book, as a debut novel. If anything, Ben and Adam’s support really boosted my confidence in the project. I’ve been a huge admirer of Ben Marcus’s work for a long time, and it was sort of a dream come true to suddenly be in contact with him, and then to have him read the book and say nice things about it, it was all pretty unreal, actually. As I started to say earlier, Ben Marcus’s work reinvigorated my enthusiasm for prose, and he led me to discover a wealth of authors working in a variety of exciting ways. While this book is not really like Marcus’s work, I probably never would have written it if it hadn’t been for him. My early writing had very different concerns. Ben’s work gave me permission to explore a little, and to have some fun. And there’s a remarkable sincerity at the heart of Ben’s work that has always really appealed to me. Having his support in the end was more than enough to leave me satisfied.
And while this may be silly of me, I haven’t given much thought to the potential pressures of this being a “debut” novel or on me as a “debut novelist”. I mean, I want people to read the book and for it to affect them, and I of course feel pressured to make the work as solid as it can be, but I’ve since moved onto other projects, and I’m more concerned with those now, I guess, than worrying about how this book is received or how that might effect people’s feelings about the new work. I do view each book as pretty singular, though they come from the same network of ideas and instincts. While the books may illuminate aspects of one another in some uncalculated way, I think the order in which they’re written or published is in many ways irrelevant.
MB: Can you recommend some other recently released first novels, other writers that are just now hitting the indie scene that we should be reading, or that you are?
CW: Yes! Well, this name is circling pretty widely, so I’m sure I’m not telling anyone something they don’t already know, but Amelia Gray’s novel THREATS (which I believe came out yesterday?) is really a fantastic read. It’s thoroughly engaging and strange and surprising. There aren’t a lot of novels like it. Also, I’ve been reading manuscript after manuscript by an author named Jen Gann. None of the books are published yet, but I’m really looking forward to the day she releases one of these to the public. She’s a really great writer. Right now she has a chapbook out with Magic Helicopter Press, called Backtuck. And you can read an excerpt from one of her novels in American Short Fiction. It’s called “Miniature Buffalos”. I don’t have a strong sense of how long he’s been around, but I only recently discovered Norman Lock, and he’s such a fantastic writer. His book Grim Tales is really incredible. There’s also a book by the poet Zachary Schomburg, called Viking, forthcoming on McSweeney’s new poetry imprint, that I had the honor/pleasure of serializing in Dear Navigator, the online journal for which I acted as associate editor. You can start reading it here, if you like. Unlike his other books, Viking pretty much follows a singular narrative, or the same basic set of characters (though the edges of what I mean when I say “narrative” or “characters” are pretty blurry), so in some ways it’s more like a novel. Steven Moore would probably argue for it as such. But it’s an amazing piece of writing. Just terrifying and thrilling and very moving. No one writes like him. There is a lot happening right now in the indie-lit scene, a lot to be excited about. I haven’t listed anywhere near everything, but these are places to start. These are the authors I’m thinking about daily.
MB: What is next for you, what is in the works? And will your next book be released from Mutable Sound or a similar indie label, or will you be seeking a university or mid- / large-sized publishing house instead? I’m always curious where authors see themselves going after the success of a first novel.
CW: Right now I’m finishing up a book of poems, that was originally titled Denton, TX. The book recently took on a collaborative element, though, and I’ll be finishing up the project with the poet Ben Clark. We’re now calling the book Kate Jury Denton Texas. That book’s in the works, not quite finished, but an excerpt will be published in the April issue of Mud Luscious Quarterly. I’m not sure what will happen to it after it’s finished, but we’re really excited about it. For right now, I have a collection of prose forthcoming on Spork Press, which will be out in August of 2012. I’m really excited about this collection, and for the opportunity to work with Drew Burk and the good folks at Spork. They make beautiful handmade books down in their lab in Tucson, and they represent some of my very favorite contemporary authors (Schomburg being one). Excerpts from this collection have been published in a few places, but two new excerpts will be out later this year in Hobart 14. And then I have two novellas coming out with Atticus Books, a mid-sized publishing house based in Maryland. They’re publishing the two books Gainesville and In One Story, The Two Sisters as a novella tandem, under the title A Long Line of Diggers. That book will be out in the winter of 2013. I love Mutable Sound, though, and I’m currently talking with them about coming on as an editor at the press, so that we might continue to work together. As for whether or not I’m seeking a university or mid-/large-sized publishing house, it all depends on the book, I think. I’m happy to find people who are enthusiastic about the work, and who put their whole selves into the publishing process, in the same way that I put my whole self into the writing of the books. I’ve worked with three very different presses on several very different books, but they’ve all brought a lot of energy to the project, and seemed genuinely excited about the work and what they might be able to accomplish by representing it. That’s really what I’m most interested in. I’m just looking to find people who like the work and are exciting to work with. I’m not sure where I see myself going exactly. My policy so far has been to make the books, put them out there, and then go wherever the energy is. And that’s worked out so far.