Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Interview: Robert Freeman Wexler

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Robert Freeman Wexler’s latest novel is The Painting And The City, out from PS Publishing in July 2009. He has also published a novella, In Springdale Town, (PS Publishing 2003 and reprinted in Best Short Novels 2004, SFBC, and in Modern Greats of Science Fiction, iBooks), a novel, Circus Of The Grand Design (Prime Books 2004), and a chapbook of short fiction, Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed (Spilt Milk Press/Electric Velocipede 2008). His stories have appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including Polyphony, The Third Alternative, Electric Velocipede, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio with his wife, the writer Rebecca Kuder, and daughter Merida Kuder-Wexler.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In the introduction to The Painting and the City, Jeffrey Ford mentions your proposal for "Crapcon." Could you share with us how you came up with the concept, and what's dissatisfying for you when it comes to the "regular" conventions?

And thanks for asking me...

I like conventions. There are people I wouldn't know if I didn't go to conventions, friends I only see once or twice a year. Convention panels put me to sleep, so I don't bother with them, but otherwise conventions are fine.

This actually wasn't about conventions when I first brought it up, but Jeff popularized it to include everyone. There are various invitation-only writer's camps out there, with picturesque names: Sycamore Hill, Rio Hondo, Iguana Glenn, etc. I have no idea who runs these or how those in charge decide who to invite (I've obviously never been invited to one). Jeff had been to one and I asked him about it. He had some things to say (he always has some things to say), and one of us suggested getting a bunch of writers together and staying in a cheesy motel somewhere like New Jersey, drinking beer, talking about whatever, but not trying to do serious things like critique each other's fiction. Jeff expanded it to make it more like a convention, so anyone could go (and he came up with the name even though he says I did, or maybe Lucius Shepard came up with it. The source doesn't matter.). None of us were serious about it, but it would be fun to do someday.

I'm all for tearing down genre classifications but such labels are usually for the benefit of the reader. In your own words, how would you describe your style of writing? Or is Robert Freeman Wexler his own sub-category?

Every interesting writer is their own sub-category, and every interesting writer has been influenced by a lot of other writers. I don't know how to describe my style of writing. I read things I like and try to write something that I would like to read. I like surrealist art and try to incorporate a surrealist feel into most of what I do. Is that a style-box I can fit into?

Maybe genre classifications and labels are useful, but they also can turn off potential readers. And a label is an insufficient way of describing a book. I write fantasy but the word fantasy means different things to different people.
When I look at the science fiction/fantasy section of a bookstore, I don't see books that look like the books I want to read or write. But I don't see many on the other shelves either. I would like to see a better way to cross-market books. Something like Amazon recommendations, if you like x, you might like b.

I want to reach people who read fantastic fiction published outside the genre as well as people who read fantastic fiction published inside AND outside the genre, because I believe those would be my core readers. My fiction isn't going to appeal that much to people who ONLY read books with spaceships or wizards on the covers, but there are people who like spaceships and wizards, and also like what I do.

Are you ever tempted to lay out your own books or do you happily accept that the burden lies with someone else?

I do lay out my own books. The only one I didn't do was the collection. I probably could have done it, but John Klima never offered and I never asked him. I thought about it but decided that letting John do the layout would be a good exercise in letting go of control. Plus, I knew he would do a great job.

After PS accepted my novella, In Springdale Town, I said I would like to do the design and layout. Designing and laying out my own books was very strange at first. When I saw my writing from the viewpoint of designer, it made me question its worth. I thought I was wasting everyone's time, putting a book out into the world. This was especially true of Springdale, because it was my first book, and because it has the side-notes. They were difficult to lay out, and while working on it I considered deleting them all, thinking that they were pretentious and stupid.
But I had no choice. I'd already been paid! The book was listed in the catalog.

seeing my writing from a different viewpoint also helped me see things that weren't working, and I could change them myself. Most writers don't have that opportunity. Maybe most wouldn't want it.

I read an article years ago about how James Joyce had an interest in typography and the appearance of his work. Good text design is supposed to be invisible. Good text design improves the reading experience. An interest in design and typography can be another element in the writer's toolkit. It doesn't mean writers should also be designers, but why not learn more about it.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of poorly-designed books out there and a lot of authors don't seem to care. I'm an odd case, of course, but I have trouble reading poorly-designed books. Things most people wouldn't notice really bug me. I also have trouble reading poorly-written or poorly-edited books. Being forced to read a poorly-written poorly-edited poorly-designed book would probably kill me.

How did PS Publishing end up publishing The Painting And The City?

PS published In Springdale Town. After it came out Pete Crowther, the publisher, asked me if I wanted to send him something else.

How did John Klima end up publishing your chapbook?

John published a story of mine ("Travels along and Unfurling Circular Path") in Electric Velocipede. When I decided to look for someone to publish a chapbook of my short stories, he was the one I thought to contact.

Did you have the novel and the short story collection in inventory (ready to go) or did you have to pitch an idea first then write it?

For the collection, all but one of the stories were previously published, so I had those. The plan was to combine those with one or two new stories. "The Sidewalk Factory" ended up so long that there wasn't room for a second new story.

I was already working on The Painting and the City. But had no idea when I would finish it! Luckily there wasn't a deadline.

I don't think I would be able to pitch an idea and then write it. My way of working is too slow and too unplanned. Or, I could pitch something but I wouldn't be able to guarantee that what I pitched would match what I turned in.

Also, I had no way of knowing that PS would want The Painting and the City once I finished it. There wasn't anything formal--just an offer to look at my next thing.

There's a theme of anti-commercialization in your texts, whether it's chapters like "Homage to the Fallen Deities of Commerce" to your chapbook's title, Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed: Stories. Could you elaborate more on that? How about the paradox of selling and promoting yourself as an author and the value of your text as art rather than as a plain commodity?

I'm not comfortable with selling myself but you have to sell yourself because no one else is going to do it for you. Anti-commercialism for me is more anti-big business. Economies of scale may be more efficient in some ways but smaller business (and smaller publishers) are more responsive to individuals.

But I would like to be published by a conglomerate because I would like more people to have the opportunity to find my books in bookstores. While bookstores still exist.

Everything is a trade-off.

What is it about New York that you decided to set The Painting and the City in that setting?

It's a city where everything can and does happen. Any major city is like that. I grew up in Houston, Texas, which is a sprawling place connected by cars. There's no life on the street the way there is in New York, or in other cities of the world that aren't married to the car.

I don't remember thinking about where to set it. There wasn't any other place where the story would have worked. What's funny about that (funny to me anyway) is that when I first started writing, I lived in Austin, Texas, and I resented books set in New York. Bright Lights, Big City came out around then. I didn't care about New York. I didn't care about realistic fiction set in the real city of New York. I also didn't care about Texas as a setting. Texas is known for Westerns, not the kind of fiction I wanted to write. Although now that I've succumbed and written a New York novel, maybe it's time for a Western.

When you initially wrote Philip Schuyler's journals, did you already have The Painting and the City in mind or did the possibility of a novel happen after?

I wrote the journals in the course of writing the novel. At some point early in the writing I decided to include Schuyler's journal. When I got to the point where I wanted the journal to fall, I started writing it.

Today's a different era for the writer. One can't hope to be J.D. Salinger for example and you yourself started blogging recently. What's your reaction to all these changes? Do you think writers becoming more public is good or bad? How do you think it affects a reader's interpretation of an author's text?

Part of me wishes I could be more anonymous, not reclusive like Salinger, but less visible outside my writing, like Thomas Pynchon maybe. But at the same time, I like going to conventions and seeing friends, making new friends, etc.

And, as little-known as my writing is, I don't have to worry about too many people knowing who I am. Attention-life is pretty short. In Springdale Town came out in 2003 and Circus of the Grand Design in 2004. Then no books until
Psychological Methods To Sell Should Be Destroyed in 2008. The profusion of writer-blogs and reviewer-blogs happened during that span. I had some stories published during those years, but not having a new book, and not blogging, made me invisible. Most of the people who reviewed the chapbook had never heard of me or read anything by me.

One thing I see is that a lot of writers who blog, writers who have published a lot less than I have, are a lot better-known than I am. They're known because of their network of blogging friends more than for their fiction, but it must translate into more fiction sales, more attention for what they publish. There's nothing wrong with that. Being a writer-blogger is a different genre. It's not what I do. I work at a different pace, at a pre-blog, even pre-computer pace. There might be a topic of interest to me that comes up in someone's blog, but by the time I've thought it through and thought about what I might write about it, the blog world has moved on to something else. I can't keep up with that.

What's your philosophy when it comes to the craft of writing? Do you let the text simmer and work itself on its own gradually or do you espouse a more workman ethic which involves writing every day even if it might be crap?

Both. I don't always have time to write every day, especially now (with a young child). So I have to let things work out in my head. Either way, a lot of the first writing that comes out is crap and has to be turned into something better. I don't usually know where something is going until I'm deep into it, so sometimes there's a lot of material that has to go away because it doesn't fit in with what the story becomes.

Do you have a pet peeve question, such as "is this fiction autobiographical?" or "where do you get your ideas?"


How did you develop your particular writing style? How long did it take you and what were the difficulties in finding your "voice?"

I'm not really sure how to answer this. I never set out to develop a style. A writer's style emerges from reading and writing and thinking. I'm still developing my style and will always be developing it. I put words in front of words and words behind words and then cut their toes off so they stumble.

Is there a particular format that you favor more, the short story vs. the novel? What are your strengths in each?

I don't know if I have any strengths in either form. I like both. Short stories are good because you can (in theory) write something that won't take several years to finish, and then send it out and maybe get it published. Working on a long piece can make you feel forgotten if there aren't short pieces coming out in the interim. My pace (or lack of) is more suitable for long-form. It takes a while to get things out, and a short story doesn't allow that kind of time.

How do you strike the balance between writing with your own unique sensibilities and making your fiction accessible to a certain audience? Who's your ideal reader?

I have no desire to make my fiction accessible to a certain audience, not specifically. I don't think about that at all. I suppose I would be my own ideal reader. I'm extremely particular about what I read, and would like to be read by people who are also particular. If someone doesn't notice the differences between good and bad writing, doesn't notice cliches in writing, then they won't notice how hard I work to avoid cliches and write something creative and artistic. Not that I think I succeed, but I try. So my ideal reader would be someone picky who doesn't want to read a formula.

In your opinion, who are some of the under-appreciated authors?

Cees Nooteboom, Zulfikar Ghose, Richard Bowes, Marly Youmans, Michael Bishop. Of course there are more, but that's who I'm thinking of today.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read a lot, write a lot, get feedback, revise a lot. Workshops can be good. It's good to meet other writers and develop a network of people you can share your work with.

Or, follow Terry Bisson's advice from his Bibliophile interview...

Anything else you want to plug?

Other books from PS: Paul Witcover's new collection, Everland and other stories; Marly Youmans' Val/Orson, Sebastíen Doubinsky's Babylonian Trilogy.


Kristan said...


I found the writer/blogger/writer-blogger discussion very interesting.

"Part of me wishes I could be more anonymous, not reclusive like Salinger, but less visible outside my writing, like Thomas Pynchon maybe."

Me too. But I feel like insisting upon that, at least at my pre-published stage, would be folly.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I think the blogging is an inexpensive way to garner publicity. Plus, I'm introverted, so it suits my style better.

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