WAG: You've taken a somewhat
unusual road to become a successful novelist: you
started out as a sculptor, began writing to pay
your studio fees and switched to fiction-writing
at the age of twenty-eight.
I finally this week figured out the gist
of the switch (unfortunately the day after the tour
ended), and you know what it is? In 1989 I suddenly
saw words not just as words, but as art supplies.
And that's when everything changed for me. I suppose
Jenny Holzer was the biggest influence. And of course,
I know you're busy promoting
Miss Wyoming now—
Actually, for the next week not at all.
But when you're at home,
how does your day break down, roughly, among sculpture,
furniture design and writing?
I'm a night owl writer, and I do most
work in the three hours before sleep. This leaves
around thirteen extra hours to fill. Most of it
vanishes, and I wish I knew where to. And as for
the work part, well, it's not really work. It's
not. It's what I do as much as a bird builds nests
or ants anthills. And visual work doesn't touch
the verbal nodes of my brain. So I'm always fresh
to write come eleven p.m.
Do you consider yourself
primarily a visual artist or a writer?
Writer. I don't know about you, but I
go through my life with 'subtitles' superimposed
on everything I hear, see or say. For example, If
I were to say out loud, "Jennifer, please pass
me the salt," I'd actually see the words in
front of me, as though my life were a foreign film.
Visual art and gardening are two of the few means
I know of turning off the subtitle switch. So yes,
writer it is.
Do you believe there's
a common thread between creating visual art and
God yes. In my case the biggest crossover
is the use of Pop culture in my work. It took me
a good eight years to figure out this one. People
have always been saying to me, "How Can you
put Pop culture into your work? How can you do
that?" My response has always been, "Well,
how can I not put Pop culture into my work?
It's what we live in. It circumscribes pretty well
all aspects of North American middle class life."
In the visual art world, high culture and Pop culture
got married in about 1955. The marriage is only
now happening in the literary world.
The Pop Art movement glorified
the iconic images that drive American popular culture—
I disagree! It made those images larger
than life and shook us into awareness of their existence,
but much of the work was deeply critical of the
culture—critical in the critical theory sense.
—and the same affection
for pop images of the late 1950s and 1960s can be
seen in your furniture designs as well, I think.
That I would agree with.
But Miss Wyoming
seems to be more ambivalent about the role iconic
images play in society—particularly as they
are created and maintained in Hollywood (although
the beauty pageant world doesn't come out sparkling
either). One character in Miss Wyoming—an
agent, no less—even says, "I don't want
to be disloyal—they pay the bills...but how
much more energy is it worth to make five grizzled
Liverpudlians with teeth like melting sugar crystals
look like sexual and moral outlaws for kids maybe
two decades younger than themselves? It's obscene
past a point." Is it somehow contradictory
to revel in pop-culture icons (however ironically)
while at the same time worrying about its 'man behind
the curtain' deceptiveness?
While its storyline is
straightforward, Miss Wyoming's narrative
structure is rather complex, with a lot of flashbacks
delivered out of chronological order. How did you
approach it as a work-in-progress?
The whole book was written longhand on
scrap paper (a superstition of mine—phone
bills, pizza flyers) and written forward only—no
going back and inserting. I've always thought that
was cheating. This is the first book in which no
notes at all were employed in the writing process.
Earlier books were in some sense quilted together
from thousands of notes.
Did you let the narrative
structure evolve freely as you wrote or did you
map out the transitions before actually writing
the individual sections?
No mapping. Instinct only.
Is this how you usually
approach a new novel?
Nope. This was a first.
A character in Miss
Wyoming says that each person, over the course
of his lifetime, is "going to be four or five
different people." Moments later, he adds "We're
all ebbing away. All of us. I'm already looking
backward. I'm already looking back at that Ryan
that's saying these words." You yourself are
noted for your willingness—perhaps need?—to
change, at least as a novelist, from project to
True. Willingness, not need.
Are you giving us some
heart-felt philosophy in Ryan's voice?
I never thought of it that way, but perhaps,
yes. Again, it's the art school tradition—experiment
with a new form, learn from it, then progress onto
new forms. It's unshakable in me.
And doesn't this suggest
at least one of the dangers of being a celebrity
like Miss Wyoming's Susan Colgate?
That is, doesn't it imply
that the iconization process makes the celebrity
so rigid and inflexible that they aren't allowed
to grow naturally into fully mature adults?
No way. People love a second act. And
a third and fourth. I always thought that Fitzgerald
quote about Americans having no second acts was
What about the average,
unknown Joe or Jane: is having to play 'Dad' or
'Mom' equally constricting?
Ask any parent—nobody plays at
being Mom or Dad. It's too overwhelming an experience,
and utterly unfakeable. It constricts, but it also
liberates, and the liberation is far more often
than not a far better trade.
For that matter, does it
bother you to be popularly deemed a novelist rather
than a sculptor or designer?
I've never even thought of that until
you asked it—no. Not at all. Being a novelist
is a fine thing to be.
What advice would you give
a young writer just starting out and wondering where
Be gentle on yourself until around twenty-nine
or thirty, and then, if you're really serious about
writing fiction, attack if like a pit bull. Most
novelists I've ever met were something else first.
So don't be afraid of not writing for a few years.
It won't leave you. Also: never schedule a book
reading on Oscar night. It won't work.