Gary D. Wilson’s first novel, Sing, Ronnie Blue, was a best-seller and appeared in 2007. His second novel Getting Right (John Hunt Publishing, UK, January 2016) has been called “compelling” and filled with “grace, grit, and gentle humor.” He has influenced the writing world through his time teaching fiction and short story writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago Graham School. He has published widely in literary magazines, including Glimmer Train, Quarterly West, Witness, In Posse Review, and The William and Mary Review.
Wilson’s stories have been anthologized by Red Hen Press and W. W. Norton’s Flash Fiction Forward. His short fiction collections have been finalists for The University of Pittsburgh Press Drue Heinz Literature Prize and The Iowa Short Fiction Award. He has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He and his wife live in Chicago and have two sons. He’s currently at work on his next novel, The Narrow Window
Wilson was kind enough to visit with me and answer some questions about his novel writing process, growing up in Kansas, and what makes for a good writing teacher.
Where did the idea for Getting Right come from?
The genesis of the book was my own visit to see my sister who was undergoing exploratory surgery for lung cancer. She had a pic line inserted in her arm and the skin around it was puckered like a mouth. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. So I sat down and tried to write it out of myself. That exercise turned into an exploration of the fusion between memory and imagination as I tried to make an artifact out of my experience instead of leaving it a raw nerve.
Can you introduce Getting Right? How did you arrive at the title?
The novel is told in three acts, one each devoted to the sister, the brother, and the narrator—the “me”—of the story. Early on, Connie, the sister, poses a challenge to the narrator, who happens to be a writer. If he’s so damned smart, why doesn’t he tell the story of her life? The narrator eventually agrees but only if he can tell it as he sees it, rather than as she would like it to be told.
In terms of a title, I either have one in mind immediately or it takes me forever to discover one. In this novel, the narrator’s sister asks, “Are you right with Jesus?” That, of course, implies a religious basis for the title that isn’t necessarily there. The getting right has more to do with the narrator, who is unnamed, trying to get right with his life while also trying to get right with his family. They all believe he’s abandoned them by moving away and are ever ready to lay a guilt trip on him about that. They’re not a particularly likeable bunch, and the narrator doesn’t get along with them but feels a sense of loyalty to them. Juggling all those conflicting emotions is where the getting right comes in.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
A high school English teacher turned me on to language. It was a magical time. I wrote some in high school—all horribly immature stuff, as you can imagine, and I continued to play with the idea of writing at the small liberal arts college I attended, where I was active in theater and the literary magazine.
At one point I considered dropping the idea of writing in favor of an academic career, but before I did that my wife and I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Swaziland, Africa. We had no cell phones or laptops, of course, and found ourselves with lots of time on our hands. I started keeping careful notes. I wrote three or four short stories. I dabbled in poetry, and I read constantly. By the time we returned to the States, I had pretty much made up my mind: I would apply to MFA programs rather doctoral programs. I got my MFA and have been writing and teaching writing ever since.
Where do you stand on the whole MFA vs. no MFA debate?
MFA programs do have value. They help a writer concentrate and can provide some work with the craft of writing. They also help you form a network of like-minded folks, which is nice, since writing is such a hermitic occupation. But I don’t believe MFA programs truly teach you how to write. That comes from having an innate sense of language and a story worth telling. So I usually ask someone who wants my opinion about whether she/he should get an MFA, Why? Unless you’re getting it as a teaching credential, why invest so much money for a masters when you might be better off spending your time writing?
What makes a successful writer?
Talent with language and having a compelling story to tell. Having the discipline to put your butt in the chair and write. Developing your critical skills so that you become you own best critic. And being crazy enough not to let all the negative things that will inevitably be said stop you.
What makes a story worth telling?
If it has appeal beyond the pedestrian. If it strikes a nerve. If it moves someone from dead center, gets them away from where they live, makes them see and feel things in a different way.
You’re not in the same place when you finish reading it.
You’ve taught at some prestigious programs for many years. What makes a good writing teacher?
Somebody who listens well and is able to hear both sides of a conversation, which is more difficult than it sounds. Somebody who has compassion, empathy and is able to keep their own egos out of the situation.
Best writing advice you’ve received?
Don’t write with someone standing over your shoulder. Write with your own vision and sense of story.
Was writing your second novel easier than writing your first?
The intensity of the process is the same. When it hits, as Hemingway said, you have to have the legs to run with it. But it’s more a marathon than a sprint. With both novels, I tried to limit myself to writing four hours a day but doing it nearly every day. Any more than that and I find that my work flags. Near the end of writing my first novel, Sing, Ronnie Blue, I upped the pace to maybe 14 hours a day. I may have done the same with Getting Right, it’s hard to remember, since it was so emotionally close to me. A different experience entirely. I had to take breaks to cry at times.
Outline or no outline?
I have a conceptual outline in my head. For example: if I’m working on chapter eight, I might get an idea for chapter 10 – Jack goes to see Jill—and jot it down. But I usually don’t outline in detail. I do like to know the ending of the story I’m writing and work toward it, but in Getting Right I didn’t know the ending. I was struggling with how to conclude it when a friend asked me if the story was a tragedy or a comedy. I said I wasn’t sure. She said traditionally a tragedy ends with a funeral, a comedy ends with a wedding. Viola. But I can’t tell you which way the book ends.
How do you handle revision?
I try to handle revision on two levels: first is the macro level, where I look at all the big stuff, conflict, character, setting, etc. It’s there that I move whole sections around if I’m going to—one thing that working on a computer freely allows. I love it. Second, on micro level I take care of punctuation and spelling and dialogue, etc. Over the years, I have streamlined the whole process by rewriting old copy as I read it in preparation to carry on with the story. But one word of caution, which I emphasize with my students and remind myself of: overzealous rewriting can rob any story of its energy and spontaneity. Ruin it.
What is your writing routine?
I soak myself in coffee, give a cursory glance to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, go to my study. I try to follow the dictum of a writer friend: spend ample ‘ass-time’ at your desk. At lunchtime, I’ll recheck emails, eat, and read the funnies. After that, I run errands and maybe mid-afternoon go back to my desk to take care of matters other than writing.
Who are your major influences?
Isaac Sterne, and I love Marilyn Robinson for her exquisite language. I also admire Steven Dixon, and Wright Morris.
Favorite reads lately?
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Tenth of December by George Saunders, and Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Do you have any favorite books on craft?
Most craft books are simplistic because writing a novel is a whole lot more complex than people write about. It’s daunting. The books that talk about the art of the novel on a level that’s beyond the “how to” nature of the task are best.
Why do you keep writing?
Because I have never done anything else that comes close to the high—or low—I can get from writing.
Any last words of advice for those just starting out?
Run away. But if you can’t, take the task seriously. Creating good writing is not a game.
Writers and readers can find out more about Gary Wilson and his work by checking out his website.