The Rumpus Interview with Sean Wilsey

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Sean Wilsey, San Francisco’s bad boy made good and author of a memoir of childhood delinquency, Oh The Glory of It All, is back with a collection of essays titled More Curious, which catalog his current obsessions. Included between these covers are meditations on soccer, NASA, 9/11, and of course, skateboarding. And yes, there is a sizable piece on Marfa, Texas, about which you cannot write without mentioning Donald Judd, the avant-garde artist who essentially bought and built the town. His ghost is in it, too.

Perhaps the centerpiece of Wilsey’s book is a trip he undertook with a friend and a dog (yes, named “Charlie” but after Charlie Chaplin), from Marfa to New York, in an old truck whose maximum speed was 45 mph. Driving amidst the aftermath of recent deaths of friends and family members, Wisley digests these transitions amidst fleeting landscapes and people who provide balm for his soul. It is a welcome addition to American road trip lit.

Wilsey’s essays are difficult to resist. Even if you’ve never touched a skateboard, he will make you wish you had skinned your knees or broken a wrist. His writing cast spells—Wilsey may have gone down to the crossroads with Robert Johnson. He even made a soccer fan out of me.

I spoke with Wilsey about crazy relatives, the healing power of road trips, J.D. Salinger and David Foster Wallace, and living the life of a memoir writer.

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The Rumpus: You quoted Zadie Smith in the intro to your new book in which she says, “…there is a sadness in this country that is sunk so deep in the culture you can taste it in your morning Cheerios.” Did you find that to be a common thread in the US as you traveled across it or did you find other more prevailing trends that we all seem to share as Americans?

Sean Wilsey: Sadness takes on a special resonance stateside because of our Obligatory National Cheerfulness. We have so much of everything—how dare we be sad? So it’s almost a national monument that we all ignore. Smith’s line seemed like an ingenious way of getting at the internalization of that fact. Also, there was a General Mills plant involved in the narrative I was spinning in that intro.

Rumpus: One of the stories from More Curious describes a road trip you took to New York from Marfa, Texas. You’d recently suffered the deaths of friends and relatives and I was wondering about the curative powers of the American road trip. What is it about the highway that has a healing effect upon the soul?

morecurious_cover_FINAL_PRWilsey: I drove across the country at 45 mph, the minimum speed limit. So: if the only thing that allows you to deal with grief is time, I did spend a lot of time not doing anything other than looking at the road and getting passed by everybody. Most road trips these days are not-so-healing because they take place in a car with cruise control at 70-plus miles an hour—way faster in Texas. (You can go over 90 on the “Texas Autobahn”; and how can you end up feeling anything other than anesthetized at that speed?) I ended up crossing the country at 45 mph, due to the limitations of my vehicle. Which was kind of like time travel. Or nostalgia in motion.

Rumpus: I’ve been thinking of road trip books such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, in which she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail to digest the recent death of her mother and a blossoming entanglement with heroin. And of course you have Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley which is his confrontation with growing old and Kerouac’s attempt to escape his alcoholic ennui with Neal Cassady in coast-to-coast trips. Do you think this is a uniquely American phenomenon, this type of road trip cure?

Wilsey: Yeah. Nobody has the amount of navigable pavement that we do, and, probably more importantly, no one has the amount of empty space between points. I mean maybe the Russians do, but they have a fucked up highway system. And they might arrest you and throw you in jail on trumped up charges. But let’s say you are in Germany, which has an amazing highway system, and you are getting to place after place so rapidly that you wouldn’t have time to think—you will not have a curative or introspective road trip experience. You will have an efficient transportation experience.

Rumpus: I was trying to think of a European equivalent or anything off the continent, like Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries.

Wilsey: Yeah, but didn’t he do that in South America?

Rumpus: You caught me in a Sarah Palin moment. I meant to say anywhere outside of the United States.

Wilsey: Yeah, but nobody’s going to kill you in America. Or, well, perhaps I’m having my own Palin moment here. It seems increasingly likely that someone will kill you here.

Rumpus: I have a collection of road trip books starting with a book by Dreiser called Hoosier Holidays. And Sinclair Lewis wrote a book called Free Air, which along with Dreiser’s book are the first featuring the automobile. These books always make me think of the attraction of the open road. Do you think your trip was a conscious effort to process grief?

Wilsey: That was my intention. And an unstructured excursion was really useful. At the time I really thought I had failed in that mission. But now I realize that maybe it was a bit more of a success than was immediately apparent. I thought it was a failure because of the way I wound up getting drawn into a lot of other narratives on that trip, which I didn’t expect. So I felt that the grieving got pushed to the side. But now I think I probably didn’t understand very much about how to grieve anyway. So I’m going to declare retroactive grief victory.

Rumpus: Do we process events by doing something else?

Wilsey: Yes. In this case trying not to crash, or throw a rod. But doing something else in an unstructured way. And something useful, I suppose. I think that’s key. And maybe that’s really what freedom is. No structure. Total open-endedness. But productive. It’s terrifying.

Rumpus: Having just read your memoir, Oh the Glory of It All, it struck me that you new book is almost a continuation of your memoir in essay form.

Wilsey: Oh, that’s good to hear.

Rumpus: Does that work for you? It’s as though you annotated your memoir.

Wilsey: When I wrote the essays in More Curious I was taking a break from some of the burdensome personal stuff that I was facing in the memoir. So in a way essay writing was kind of an embodiment of the idea we were just discussing—taking your eye off something and putting it on something else in order to allow the soul, the mind, the heart or whatever, to process. But I agree that the two books inform and feed off of each other more directly as well. The piece about skateboarding is connected to what I wrote about my teenage skateboarding years in the memoir, and there are even a couple of scenes that are in both books.

Rumpus: You write at the end of your memoir that it helped you resolve what was a very tempestuous relationship with your mother and father. Do you think memoir writing is a kind of exorcism for the writer?

Wilsey: I think the exorcism needs to come first. I don’t think you can write a memoir until you actually have a grip on the events it chronicles. I don’t think you can have an agenda for a memoir, other than the truth. I have been working on another memoir for the last—good lord—seven years or something. It’s been taking a long time because I don’t fully know why or for whom I am writing it, yet. Though I do have a title, which is helpful. Part of this book was in the New Yorker in 2013. An editor there knew what I was working on and saw how it could fit into a special issue they were doing. Which was a lucky break. That excerpt was about being an apprentice to a gondolier in Venice. Seeing something from the book in print at least provided proof that I wasn’t insane, and has helped me keep going. I’ve been taking a really long time finishing the book because I feel as though there is a lot of material in it that has a ghostlike presence in my psyche, to riff on your exorcism idea—so I really can’t finish it until I figure it out. Or solidify it. Or fully dematerialize it. Still, I never expected to write another memoir. I thought I would simply write that first one and resume a straightforward career as a journalist. Or maybe change careers completely. I really enjoy photography, and I’ve just had some images published on the web. And I would really like to work in architecture—or perhaps in the hospitality business. I like taking care of people. Though as a father of small children and the son of an elderly person I do take care of people quite a bit. So maybe as a second career I’d like taking care of nondependent adults. And as a writer, and just a human, I like other people and other stories. These essays are somewhere between memoir and journalism, as many of them were written for glossy magazines with big fact checking departments. And I have rewritten and expanded all of them significantly.

Rumpus: I once asked Jerry Stahl if he would ever write a sequel to his memoir Permanent Midnight and he said no, because he wouldn’t have an excuse for not being an asshole.

Wilsey: [Laughs] I don’t buy that at all! I think everybody processes the stuff they care about—that all writers expand upon the things that matter to them in various genres and what I chose is memoir. He just doesn’t want to write another memoir, period. And I don’t blame him. Now that I have chosen to toil in the fields of memoir I am probably just going to keep carrying on in that genre. I suppose it’s entirely possible that I will switch to fiction but I feel like I get this genre. It’s a bit of a stepchild genre and I am perversely comfortable with that second-class status. I’m not a huge reader of memoirs. But when it comes to actually sitting down and writing about the stuff I care about most my own life is almost always the way in for me. Of course there’s a whole further burden of accuracy and responsibility to other people. That maybe makes the whole practice more protracted than I wished it were. Novelists have it so easy.

Rumpus: That was going to be one of my next questions; do you think you might try writing a novel in the future?

Wilsey: I’ve tried. I wrote a novel before I wrote Oh the Glory of It All. But it was missing that mysterious thing that keeps prose engaging. I think there’s a magic involved in literary writing that is really difficult to put your finger on. Think of Murakami, who, despite all his phantasmagorical trip-out stuff, largely writes about someone making pasta or taking a train and thinking Oh the Glory of It Alltheir somewhat banal (a word that actually has interesting etymology, in that its Latin root means “communal”) thoughts; but there’s this weird, almost narcotic ability to hook a reader. And because of that the guy’s a novelist. Then there are certain (most?) memoirs you read and you think, Fuck, this memoir only exists because of some newsworthy event or scandal-worthy event or supposedly shocking thing that is at the center of this and that it’s being marketed around. Yet it doesn’t have any life as literature.

Rumpus: I’m trying to think of an author who wrote an article in The Believer a couple of years ago about an actual event, the death of his wife on their honeymoon while body surfing in the ocean. He wrote about why he chose to do it as a novel instead of a memoir.

Wilsey: Oh yeah, that was Francisco Goldman. He probably thought, how can I really get to the heart of this? And fiction is the way he does it. Though Aleksandar Hemon made the opposite choice in writing about the death of his child. Really, I think it is an impulse to tell the truth that made Goldman write it as fiction. But I always get so irritated by that whole dialogue: hey, how can you remember all of this? And the never-ending jerkoff conversation about supposed lack of truth in memoir. I mean obviously there are people who write memoirs who are liars and make shit up. But I think the category of writer that turns to memoir for literary reasons is not that kind of writer. They are that kind of person who just thinks, wow, I must do it this way, Darin Strauss is that kind of writer.

Rumpus: As in Half A Life.

Wilsey: Yeah.

Rumpus: I feel as though I have read novels that have taught me a more intimate knowledge of history than a straightforward nonfiction narrative.

Wilsey: Totally.

Rumpus: Of course I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Maybe The Gallery by John Horn Burns.

Wilsey: Have you ever read Winter’s Tale?

Rumpus: By Helprin?

Wilsey: It’s a totally fantastic book in both senses of fantastic and it just does this thing where, even though this is a completely invented New York, you get a sense of what the city would have been like one hundred years ago, much more than you might get from a historical account.

Rumpus: I want to go back to Marfa, Texas, where you have spent much time. You were neighbors with David Foster Wallace while you were there. Were you surprised by his death?

Wilsey: I was really surprised. The first person I ended up talking to about it was our mutual friend Michael Meredith. Which is ironic, because Michael and I did that grief trip together across the United States. He and Foster Wallace were pretty close. He was completely shocked and never saw it coming. Wallace just didn’t seem like a person who was disconnected from other people. I think the reason people kill themselves is that they’re either suffering physically so horribly that they can’t live with it any more.

Rumpus: Yes.

Wilsey: Or the mental suffering becomes too much and is largely some form of an inability to communicate—and if there was a guy who could communicate it was him. I think he must have been in such physical and psychic pain that it made his life unlivable.

Rumpus: Speaking of suffering, you write at length about your stepmother Dede, with whom you had a difficult relationship. You write at the end of your memoir that this relationship was unresolved still.

Wilsey: I never understood her beyond realizing that she was a sociopath—which is just an easy way to categorize somebody and not fully give them their humanity. I thought, was it my job to give her humanity, oh god, I hope not. I don’t think I succeeded in that in the memoir because I never saw it.

Rumpus: Will you tackle that in your next memoir?

Wilsey: Oh god, the humanity of my stepmother! I wouldn’t rule it out but mostly I am focused on Italy in my next memoir.

Rumpus: When might that be out?

Wilsey: If I had to pick a date I would say 2017?

Rumpus: That’s good, a reason to keep on living.

Wilsey: [Laughs] What, for you or me?

Rumpus: For me.

Wilsey: Thanks man.

Rumpus: I am also looking forward to the posthumous Salinger novels that are coming out in the next year or two.

Wilsey: Are you fucking kidding?

Rumpus: No, I think there are four or five books coming out.

Wilsey: I thought it was all rumor. Is there any definitive evidence about that? [Googles Salinger]

Rumpus: I recall at least one of them was a spiritual tract and the others were more stories about the Glass family.

Wilsey: Well I remember that was the rumor when that ridiculous documentary came out but it wasn’t his estate or kids or publisher that was saying that. So it’s really just hearsay. I am a Salinger fanatic and I religiously read anything that comes out about him and I’ve not seen anything on the topic of future publications that wasn’t couched in possibility. Nothing has ever been stated as a fact.

Rumpus: I always thought of Catcher in the Rye as an anti-war novel, that Holden was doubting everything he believed in formerly, much the same way Salinger did when he came home from the war. All his previous ideals were in doubt.

Wilsey: So I’m reading a thing on NPR right now that says one of the people who claims the books are coming out are one of his biographers, David Shields, and the documentary-maker, Shane Salerno, but no one else has confirmed that.

Rumpus: That takes away one of my reasons to live.

Wilsey: Sorry to take away one of your reasons to live…

Rumpus: We still have your memoir coming out though; don’t bail on me.

Wilsey: I was just rereading Franny and Zooey the other day. The first Salinger book I read was Catcher, which is sort of a hopeless book. I never loved it. But I loved Franny & Zooey. The journalist Janet Malcom did an unbelievable reappraisal slash review of that book in the New York Review of Books a few years ago. I find myself reading Salinger now and see why people thought he was so full of shit. There’s something fundamentally adolescent about him. But I still really hope there will be more Glass stories.

Rumpus: Last question—what pitfalls would you warn all would-be memoirists to be aware of?

Wilsey: So many pitfalls, beyond the obvious one (people being upset at how you’ve portrayed them). The one I feel I still wrestle with is the compulsion to pack every last thing I know into a book. It’s OK to leave some stuff out—for the next memoir.

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Author photo © Susan Simmons. More Curious will be out in paperback this fall from University of Texas Press.


David lives in central Ohio and works for a sports newspaper. He is a regular contributor to Nervous Breakdown and Andrei Codrescu's Exquisite Corpse. More from this author →