After seeing his or her fiction appear in some of the country's most prestigious literary journals (a la New England Review, Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories), tradition dictates that a writer moves to conquering the world of the novel. Such has been the case for Mark Wisniewski, who in August saw his latest novel "Show Up, Look Good," published from Gival Press.
The novel's protagonist, Michelle, makes the move from small-town Illinois to Manhattan brought on by a heavy bout of self-crisis. The big city represents a new world for the wildly insecure Michelle, one with the potential to frighten, surprise, sober and inspire hope.
Wisniewski is the author of "Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman," as well as a respected poet.
The Daily Nebraskan caught up with the two-time University of California Regents' Fellowship recipient to discuss his recent work.
Daily Nebraskan: It seems of all the aspects of your writing, readers and critics tend to take notice of your voice, first and foremost. When it comes to your "binge writing," does feeling like you're in the midst of a certain voice that you want to exercise keep you at the desk?
Mark Wisniewski: Absolutely. A story-laden voice in my head that's coming out through my fingers on the keyboard feels like a gold mine, so if that happens, I don't stop. Which is to say when "Show Up's" narrator's voice was in my head, I didn't want to eat or sleep because you never know how long a voice like that will stay. John Edgar Wideman taught me this method of drafting fiction in 1989, when I was at UMass, and I can't thank him enough, if for no other reason than this method helped me draft my Pushcart and Best American stories. Plus it's fun to write that way. Certainly it's the case that once you finally do hear a vibrant voice, like Michelle's, in your head, the pressure is off of you personally.
DN: "Show Up, Look Good" takes off fast. Did it in the original drafts? Is it important for you to get a plot off the ground quickly for fear it may not otherwise?
MW: The rush to Manhattan, that is, without Michelle describing every tree in Pennsylvania en route, is true to how her voice told the story to me. And I always try to trust the voice. Wideman's theory was that the voice knows what it's doing storytelling-wise, that it has its reasons for sometimes moving along quickly and sometimes slowing down to explain. And of course the pace of a first-person narrative is an aspect of the characterization of the narrator, so when I use this Wideman method, only later, after drafting is done, do I ask things, like, "Why my narrator didn't give more details in a particular section?" In theory, the manner in which any narrator narrates a novel implies a lot about that character's fears, hopes, level of dysfunction, occasion-to-tell and purpose in saying anything in the first place.
DN: It's not a particularly long novel either. When you're starting out are you thinking, "I'm going to hit between 205 and 220 pages." How much of the length of your novels is an organic product of the writing process, I guess is what I'm asking.
MW: I didn't think at all about a page count. Mostly I hoped the voice in my head would keep telling her story. In fact, the first time I transcribed her voice, the results covered maybe 12 pages. And I loved the results, but they appeared to be only a short story's worth. Then, many months later, her voice again came alive in my mind, and it kept giving me three to 10 pages a day for weeks until I had about 450 pages.
And that 450-page early draft, in fact, even after quite a bit of revision and editing, was far more wise-cracky and irreverent and full of funny and sad side stories, just pure Michelle talking away as if she and I were at some bar and she'd had a few drinks.
But after my agent, the one I had back then, failed to sell that version, I followed the advice of one presumed expert in publishing and cut away a lot of that original material, some of it pretty fine stuff. At least one chunk of it published subsequently as a short story and I also toned down the humor.
DN: What is your relationship to a character, like Michelle? Can you feel closeness to a character if you don't condone their actions or feelings and, if so, what form does that closeness take?
MW: She fascinated me. When she did things I wouldn't have done, I pulled for her. I myself had lived in Manhattan, and I, like Michelle, have never had a trust fund, so I knew what she was up against. I told myself that if I were her, I'd never do some of the things she did, but on the other hand my time in the city brought its share of opportunities to do shady things in order to pay rent. I mean, I lived in Midtown in the mid-`90s before Guiliani and Bloomberg "cleaned it up." If you wanted to find trouble, all you needed to do was walk around the block. Back then I was also asked to do unethical things in academia and publishing, so as far as Michelle's involvement with shady people went, I felt pretty darned close to her.
DN: What are the pitfalls of crafting a character as lonely, insecure and isolated as Michelle?
MW: I don't consider Michelle lonely. I think she's alone at times, as are many main characters now and then in any novel. If anything, she strikes me as someone who found a sort of happy solace in Manhattan, where all you need to do to fight loneliness is leave your building. I mean, I found it impossible to feel lonely in that city. There's too much humanity, beauty, verve and energy.
DN: What were your favorite and the most problematic parts of operating in a New York City setting?
MW: Maybe the most problematic part has turned out to be this whole "loneliness vs. happiness in Manhattan" issue you just asked about. It could be that, for readers who've never been to New York, Michelle came off as lonelier than I thought she had, which could mean that some non-New York City readers won't quite understand why Michelle so badly wanted to live there. I mean, if the reader isn't bringing to the text what the author trusts the reader is bringing, you end up with fiction that not everyone gets and that some readers might even therefore resent. Who wants to be the wallflower not laughing at the joke?
Regarding what I like about using a New York City setting, that answer is easy: believability. Because setting fiction in NYC is like setting it in a bar full of drunks, outlandish plot twists become far more plausible.
DN: When I interview bands or musicians, I always ask them how "this album" embodies where they are as artists. Is that a fair question to ask of you as an author with this novel? Do you conceptualize where you've been and where you're headed artistically as a progression?
MW: Novels strike me as indeed like albums. Both take a while to create and edit and produce and both need more than one person to get them out into the world. Both do tend to result in some overall theme or themes coming from their essence, as well as from how they're promoted. And right now the themes in "Show Up" that resonate most for me are the themes of love vs. hatred and candor vs. pretension. Michelle had a lot to say about both of those tensions and a lot of public discussion about "Show Up" has addressed these themes or pursued them. If nothing else, emails I've received about "Show Up" have tended to be frank messages about people's love of the book or odd ones lined with that veiled rudeness so often practiced by literati. And as much as I find those themes of interest, I'm not sure I want to write more fiction about them. As Michelle herself said, "If love exists, it exists, and if it doesn't, it doesn't, and no amount of talking can change that."