“I Began With Nothing But This Scrap of Language”: An Interview With John Wray, Author of The Lost…
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In John Wray’s four novels, psychology and history collide, sending one another spiraling into profound and unpredictable directions. In Lowboy, a young man grappling with schizophrenia is pursued across New York by a dedicated police detective; in The Right Hand of Sleep, a man returns to his hometown in Austria in the late 1930s only to find that many of his old acquaintances have embraced Nazism. His latest novel, The Lost Time Accidents (FSG, 2016) returns in part to that milieu. It is at once the story of Waldemar Tolliver, a man in contemporary New York who seems to have fallen outside of conventional time, and the story of several generations of his family, including his great-uncle, the perpetrator of numerous atrocities, who now resides in historical infamy with the nickname “The Black Timekeeper.”
In this novel, Wray deftly juggles multiple plotlines over the course a century, riffing along the way on the history of science fiction, the horrors of totalitarianism, the birth of a cult, and romantic obsession. I met up with him in his publisher’s Manhattan office to discuss the creation of the book, the way that odd phrases can lodge in your mind, and the advantages to writing an expansive, sprawling work of fiction.
Tobias Carroll: You now have four novels out in the world, and with this one, at least in part, you’re returning to the Austria of the 1930s as a setting. Did you know from the outset that this was a time and a place that you wanted to return to?
John Wray: My first novel is set almost exclusively in the 1930s in Austria and Germany. I find that when I finish a book, at least for a good long time, I have acquitted myself of my obligation to that subject matter, and I don’t want anything more to do with it. After finishing that first book, I really thought that I was never going to engage with the Holocaust or the Third Reich again. I thought, “Okay, that’s done.”
Certainly, central Europe in the 1930s was about as severe and absolute a test of every adult citizen’s moral fiber as has ever existed.
I think to anyone who has connections of any kind, particularly familial connections, to that part of the world and that period, the compulsion to explore what it was like to be alive during that truly surreal part of world history, and one of the rare periods where each individual person’s ethical makeup was put to an absolute test… One could argue that it happens all the time. Maybe right now, you’re either doing your part for gun control or campaigning against the use of drones internationally in warfare or climate change, or you’re not. You could argue that that happens all the time. Certainly, central Europe in the 1930s was about as severe and absolute a test of every adult citizen’s moral fiber as has ever existed.
So that’s just very interesting, particularly having relatives, ancestors, who were alive at that time and who responded in very individual and idiosyncratic ways to the tests of that era, ways both positive and negative. It just wouldn’t let me go. The Lost Time Accidents covers a century, so it was going to pass through that time. Since it’s very loosely inspired by the history of my family, it was going to pass through those places, too, as much as I might have preferred to avoid them. There are wars and world historical events that I largely skip in the book, like Vietnam, for example. But it turned out that the period just interested me. It’s a fascinating period. It’s really hard to not be interested in that period.
TC: My father’s parents left Austria in the 1930s–his father was Jewish, his mother was Catholic–and so I can relate to a lot of the family dynamics and divides that are found in the novel.
JW: One of the fascinating things about exploring one’s own family history is that it is fractal in a sense, as you move backward. If you were to draw out your family tree, the farther back you go, the more branches there are. It spreads out like a fan as it goes back. Which means that if you’re going back 100 years, almost, you’re not just talking about one ancestor or one relative; you’re talking about a cross-section of society, probably. Each of those people will have reacted or participated in a given era in very distinct ways. I think anyone who’s not exclusively of Jewish descent who had relatives who lived in central Europe in the early 20th century is going to find some monsters there. In the case of my family, mostly cowards. There’s no one in my family history who’s remotely as freakish or impressive as the Black Timekeeper in the novel. The problem with writing about your own family is that–it’s a good starting point, but unless you come from a really fucked-up family, you’re probably going to do a lot of embellishing and a lot of exaggerating until you get something that’s really entertaining and compelling.
TC: What was the starting point for the novel for you? Was it wanting to write a multigenerational family saga, was it this idiosyncratic theory of time travel, was it riffing on science fiction…
JW: All of those things were part of the appeal. Unlike any of my previous novels, this novel, which has been incubating in one way or another since my mid-20s, really began with the title, which has never been the case for me before. When I was writing my first novel, I was in very strange circumstances. In order to be able to afford to write almost full-time and live in New York City with no real income, I squatted, essentially, in a band rehearsal space in a basement in DUMBO. I was playing music in those days too, so it was a rehearsal space that was shared by a bunch of bands. There happened to be a back alcove that I pitched a tent in, and I lived there for a year and a half. I had a very strange sleeping and waking schedule, because it was underground. There was no light. I was really cut off from the rest of the world.
I would wander around, late at night, in DUMBO and Vinegar Hill and Brooklyn Heights, and sometimes further afield. One day, pretty early on into that time, I was wandering around Vinegar Hill. I turned a corner and saw the Hudson Power Generating Station, which is the big electrical station that is on the water. There was this wonderful old sign, which they may have replaced now, which said “Welcome to Hudson Power Generating Station.” And then there was a blank space where numbers were supposed to go. It was something like “00000 Hours Without A Lost Time Accident.” And I thought, “What is that? I have no idea what that is, but it’s a great phrase.”
What does this fragment mean in this scribbled note of this dead crackpot scientist, who happens to also be the revered ancestor of this very fucked-up family?
It just had a magic for me, right away. It’s so fertile with associations. It could mean almost anything. And as I began to write the book, it became almost like a chip from the Rosetta Stone. The multitude of valences and possible meanings of that phrase led directly to the various strands of the narrative. It became, in a way, a mystery story, in which the central mystery is not “Whodunnit?” but “What was done?” What does this fragment mean in this scribbled note of this dead crackpot scientist, who happens to also be the revered ancestor of this very fucked-up family?
TC: When I got to the point in the novel with the power station and the sign, I realized that, right, I had encountered this phrase before. I had completely forgotten that this was a phrase that existed outside of the world of your novel…
JW: I began with nothing but this scrap of language–just these few words that seemed to resonate in all of these strange ways. There were all sorts of overtones and undertones and harmonics. Haruki Murakami once told me that he writes his books to find out who the murderer is himself, whether or not there’s a literal murder in his novel. He doesn’t know himself. He’s as much in the thick of the mystery as the reader is later. And he believes that it’s important for the type of books that he writes. I thought about that when I was working on The Lost Time Accidents. As I was writing it, I wasn’t necessarily sure which of all of the many strange and conflicting definitions of that phrase would turn out to be the one that was central to the novel. Virtually every character in the novel has a different interpretation or guess as to what that phrase might have meant to their ancestor.
TC: After getting the initial idea for the book in your twenties, how much time did you end up working on it, and coming up with ways to balance all of the different plotlines in it?
JW: It was extraordinarily difficult. This was certainly the most difficult novel to write of the four novels that I’ve finished at this point. It took me seven years. And seven years in which I wasn’t doing a lot of teaching. I purposefully tried to pare down my committments. It was virtually daily work for almost seven years. Which is too long for me. I’m never going to do it again, I don’t think. It took something out of me, certainly, and I’m still recovering from it, really. It was incredibly difficult.
It was probably three years of writing the first draft, and at least four years of feverish revision. When I emerge from the other end of the tunnel of working on a book, but particularly with this one, I almost can’t believe that I didn’t give up a bunch of times. And I considered giving up at least three times. At one point, I had fully decided to. But somehow, the mystery of the novel wouldn’t leave me alone, and I went back to it.
TC: In terms of the revisions, were they more structural? Were they more about changing the way that characters interacted? Was it everything?
JW: It was conceptual, initially. I spoke earlier of the various overtones and undertones and harmonics that the phrase produced, and how each gave rise to a different facet or a different narrative in the novel. Getting all of those harmonics to resonate together in a way that seemed focused and effective and powerful took a great amount of calibration and a huge amount of language work. Most of the revision eventually turned out to be very, very, very detailed language work. There’s probably not a sentence in that book that hasn’t been rewritten between five and eight times. With me, that’s always the way that I spend most of my time: revising.
This notion that you can talk about a book’s content and talk separately about its style is an illusion.
This notion that you can talk about a book’s content and talk separately about its style is an illusion. Or even a delusion, I would say. Maybe it’s a useful delusion. You’re getting everything that you’re getting through the words on the page. There is almost no effective revision for me without focusing your attention on the specific choices with words that you’re making. I truly believe that you could take a book that seemed to have a very specific take about a given event–let’s say the rise of Scientology–and, simply by line-editing that book and making equivalent choices, you could eventually end up with a book that presented a completely different interpretation, explanation, and experience of the events described in the book, without actually choosing different events to describe.
TC: There’s almost an element of translation in that, too, which makes sense, given that you have a novel where some of the characters are speaking in English and others are speaking in German. The courtship scene in Buffalo involving German-English flashcards was particularly memorable.
JW: That’s one of my favorite parts. And those were real military German-to-English flashcards that I found in a junk shop. There are a lot of things like that in the book–a lot of what I thought of as sampling. The equivalent of sampling in hip-hop. There are a lot of quotations in the book, and a lot of found, almost randomly, in a John Cageian sense, objects. Like I was taking a walk, and I happened to find this page torn out of a magazine on the sidewalk, and it had something interesting; let’s see if this might relate to the themes in the book in some way, and in a way that would be fun and funny and surprising.
TC: There’s also a scene at the power station where there’s an homage to Kafka–would you say that that falls into the same category?
JW: Definitely. It’s a slightly different type of riff than the quotations from actual books that dot the narrative–most of which are real, some of which are invented. I’ve always adored Kafka. I think that very few people can actually write in the school of Kafka without it being disastrous. So he always seemed to me like an author that I couldn’t necessarily imitate, but who I loved so much. He’s probably one of my three favorite writers. Suddenly, I thought, this is a playful and kind of amusing hidden homage that also serves the narrative well. I buried a lot of hidden jokes in the book. Sometimes they’re just jokes to myself. Sometimes some people get them.
TC: If I’m totally off-base here, I’m sorry, but–early on, the Black Timekeeper seems to be espousing a theory that sounds like an anti-Semitic version of Philip K. Dick in VALIS.
JW: Obviously, you have to cherish Philip K. Dick, particularly as a conceptualist. There’s a lot of play like that throughout the book, a lot of stuff that I find very amusing. But I’m not the only person to do things like that. It was very strange–a few months after I wrote the section of The Lost Time Accidents set in the power station and features waiting outside the power station and these various gates, that hidden tribute to “Before the Law,” I watched Martin Scorsese’s After Hours for the first time. In After Hours, Martin Scorsese inserted a secret homage to “Before the Law.” Griffin Dunne’s character is trying to get into a late-night after hours club somewhere on the Lower East Side, and he has a conversation with the bouncer at the club, which is also a tribute. It’s so clear that it’s a tribute. At first, I thought I was imagining it, because I had just been imagining something similar. Very rarely has Scorsese made movies that allow for that kind of conceptual play, but in the case of After Hours, he did, and I thought it was hilarious. It’s one of the greatest stories in literature, so perhaps it’s not surprising.
TC: One of the characters in The Lost Time Accidents is a science fiction writer, and Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon are both referenced directly over the course of the novel. Are you yourself a science fiction reader?
JW: Yes. When I first discovered that people were still calling it “sci-fi” without any trace of self-consciousness…For me, it was hugely important. Fantasy and sci-fi were both hugely important for me. I was always hesitant to jump on this genre co-opting bandwagon. To be honest, when I looked at something like Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, it seemed like something written by someone who had no real familiarity with the genre he was trying to play with. To me, that’s why that’s why that book felt flat and effortful. Lots of people now are making a great show of their openness to genre within literary fiction. I was always a little bit hesitant to do that kind of stuff, in part because science fiction and fantasy are so dear to me, and were so important in my development as a reader and as a writer.
This is a novel in which science fiction plays a major role–but almost in a Nabokovian sense. A novel like Pale Fire plays with alternate history. I believe that Ada or Ardor is set in some kind of alternate universe. But, of course, Nabokov’s books are about memory and history and family and sexuality in ways that can seemingly metabolize and incorporate all kinds of other notions–but you would never call Ada speculative fiction. When it occurred to me that I could have a major character in my novel be a science fiction author, and that that would allow me to not only pay tribute to science fiction and fantasy’s importance in my life, but also to write a whole series of compressed science fiction stories and novels–or summaries thereof–the book became much more fun for me to write, instantly. An influence in that direction was Bolaño who, even though it’s breaking certain rules of narrative fiction, often seems to have truly enjoyed describing nonexistent novels in his writing.
TC: Nazi Literature in the Americas–
JW: I love Nazi Literature in the Americas. I was reading that while I was writing certain parts of this book.
TC: Did you have a specific model for Orson’s career?
JW: His career as a novelist? I had a few that I was drawing on. For different aspects of his career, I had different models. Certainly, describing him in his first surge of creativity, when he was writing multiple stories a week, there are any number of science fiction authors. The genre is known for its hyperproductivity. I was certainly thinking of Philip K. Dick in that context. I think I even mention him in particular–I say that Orson was writing at an even greater clip than even Philip K. Dick was able to muster.
In the course of writing the book, I spent some time with Ursula K. Le Guin, whom I interviewed for The Paris Review. She told me a lot of anecdotes about what it was like to write as part of that extended community in those amazing decades, the 60s and 70s.
TC: Do the nonfiction work and interviews you do have any impact on your fiction, or are they largely separate?
Most great art arises out of a kind of strange and, at first glance, incongruous hybridization of influences.
JW: It rarely has a direct effect that I can trace so easily and clearly as I could in the case of the Le Guin interview. But, of course, everything has an effect. You think you’re compartmentalizing your life; some people try really hard to separate their writing from various other banal requirements of their lives. It’s never airtight. I believe that any pursuit of purity or homogeneity is a great mistake for a writer. There’s a well-known phenomenon in genetics called hybrid vigor, which is that the hardiest individuals of a species are often the result of combinations of very disparate gene pools. I think that’s true for novels as much as anything else. Most great art arises out of a kind of strange and, at first glance, incongruous hybridization of influences.
TC: Around the time that Lowboy came out, you said in interviews that you’d done a lot of the writing of it while on the subway. Was the process similar for this, or did you have to write this in a very different environment?
JW: It was very different. It was such a challenge for me to write about theoretical physics, for example, that I don’t think I could have done it in an environment like the subway. In the book, a sensory deprivation chamber plays a central role. The “exclusion bin” that may or may not function as a time machine. I created a series of exclusion bins for myself while I was writing the really difficult parts of the novel. Including, at one point, creating a kind of box for myself that was lightproofed and soundproofed in a similar way to the contraption described in the novel. It wasn’t always necessary, but it was helpful at certain times.
Sometimes these games that I find myself playing with a kind of Method approach to inhabiting characters’ points of view, whether or not they’re as effective as I think they are, they keep the process fun for me. I try to do it with a certain sense of humor. I’m fully aware that some of these things are ridiculous. In some ways, it’s ridiculous to write a book set in the subway on the subway. These are games that keep my morale up, and lend me some additional momentum when I most sorely need it.
TC: Is that also where the idea to have an interpolation of a Joan Didion article in the body of the text came from?
JW: Yes. One of the wonderful things about writing a big, sprawling, rolling, nondiscriminatory kind of novel like The Adventures of Augie March or Moby-Dick or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is that, if you feel the urge to do something and you trust your gut instinct, you can just do it.
When I knew that I was going to write about these enormous and celebrated dinners that these two eccentric sisters had in Spanish Harlem in the 70s, I realized that I could essentially invite anyone that I wanted to these dinners. So I took great delight in imagining a dinner in which both William F. Buckley and Huey P. Newton were present, for example. When I think about New York City and the American cultural landscape in that decade, I thought of Joan Didion. If you could have dinner with any three people, who would you choose to invite? In this case, Joan Didion is someone who’s writing I’ve always adored. I’m not sure it’s ever found expression in my own work before, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to inhabit her style. I thought, why not invent a Joan Didion piece that she wrote for Vanity Fair in the 80s? Wouldn’t that be fun? Maybe it’ll be a disaster. But I’ve always been a good mimic, and I think if it’s done with real affection and love–in other words, if you know the work of the person you’re parodying–it’ll usually turn out all right.
TC: In terms of the chronology, am I wrong for thinking that the present-day sequences are set slightly in the past? How did you work out where you wanted the end point of it to be?
JW: There was a time in which I thought the story would bring us right up to the present. First of all, the longer I worked on the book, the present moment continued to move in a way that was interesting, considering the themes of time in the book itself. The goalpost was always moving. The longer I took to write the book, the more years I would have to cover if I wanted to bring it up to the present.
More importantly, I realized at some point that the book was a portrait of the 20th century, from the final moments before Einstein’s theory of relativity and the First World War all the way up to the beginning of the internet. It seemed fitting and desirable to have it end shortly before the 20th century itself ended.
TC: One question that hangs over most of the novel is whether this theory of time travel actually works. How was dealing with such an ambiguous element to the story that you were telling?
Writing a novel with an enigma at its very core, with a central mystery as its fundamental motor, is a very strange and surreal process.
JW: Writing a novel with an enigma at its very core, with a central mystery as its fundamental motor, is a very strange and surreal process. For me, the question of whether the theory of time that is developed and then taken in all sorts of different directions by the characters in the book was accurate or true or effective became inextricably joined or linked to the question of whether the various characters in the novel were sane or insane. It became as much of a question of whether these characters were mad as it became a question of whether the theory itself was true. And most of the characters in the novel are mad, in one way or another–some in very benign ways, and others in horrific ways. This question of what is this theory, what does it mean, could it be accurate led me directly in each case to an exploration of the mental state and the hopes and fears of the characters. And almost always, it’s in that exploration of character that the most powerful narratives are hid. A novel can be tremendously sophisticated on a conceptual level, but if its concepts are not used to explore believable, compelling, idiosyncratic human beings, you’re most likely going to lose your reader’s interest.
TC: As I was reading The Lost Time Accidents, I noticed the Dr. Zizmor cameo, and this week brings with it the news that Dr. Zizmor has retired. It seemed like a very strange moment of synchronicity.
JW: Zizmor’s ads on the subway were one of the first things that I encountered when I moved to New York City more than twenty years ago. I’ve always has a soft spot in my heart for Zizmor. He’s become sort of a totem for me. He also appeared in Lowboy, actually. I have a questionable but definite affection for that man, and for all of the strange mysteries surrounding those hideous advertisements that have been on the subway for as long as I’ve had a relationship with New York City. I think–fuck it, I’m going to keep putting Zizmor in my books. I’m going to hide him, the way you can find Alfred Hitchcock in every Alfred Hitchcock film. You’ll be able to find Dr. Zizmor in one form or another in all of my books.