The epigraph of Exes contains a quote by Richard Hell, one of the first punks to spike his hair and author of an autobiography called I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: “Everything should be kept. I regret everything I’ve ever thrown away.” Here is a book which stays true to this idea of Hell’s yet operates on a kind of precision and restraint that keeps the language taut and the plot rolling.
Winter writes about Clay Backall III, who has lost his brother, Eli, to suicide, and is trying to process not only this event but also his estranged brother’s life leading up to it. We alternate through the points of view of eight others loosely involved with Eli, exploring Providence and its decline, and returning always to Clay, who can’t and won’t let go of the need to understand what happened. Clay even begins to comment on the others’ stories, a tactic that in less skilled hands could be pretty annoying. In Exes, though, this feels natural and pleasantly unsettling.
Winter’s writing seems effortless. It’s sad, enthralling, at times hilarious stuff. In the first paragraph, for example, we meet Clay, whose landlord is giving him a week to clear out of a place that Clay describes as the end of the line: “Two babies had fallen out of windows that year alone, and now a guy was walking around with a sword. If you touched the stove and the refrigerator at the same time, you got a shock that felt like a punch in the heart. I’d wet my hands and grab hold and come to in another room.” The experience of reading Exes is similar. And these lines remind me of something Denis Johnson—who, by the way, was born the same year as Richard Hell—would write.
Max Winter (not to be confused with poet, critic, and illustrator Max Winter) is a graduate of UC Irvine’s MFA program, and his work has appeared in Literary Hub, Day One, Diner Journal, and elsewhere. He lives in Berlin with his wife and son. Exes is his debut novel. We spoke through email.
The Rumpus: Since this is such a sad book, in a lot of ways, I’d love to hear your take on humor in your writing. For instance, in “Jubilee,” a section I particularly enjoyed.
Max Winter: Thank you. You know, that’s the oldest thing in the book, which in my case means really fucking old. I won’t say how old, but I will say that I wrote it before 9/11. But the funny thing is, “Jubilee” wasn’t always funny. At first it was narrated—as all my stories once were—by this dour, terse, vaguely Carver-esque sadsack. And it was dead on the page. You were just slogging your way through all this misery with some numb dullard who could hardly be bothered as your guide. But once I found Mark Slepkow—an amalgam of my most hapless high school chums, but with the governor turned down—it came alive. If for no other reason than I was laughing. Because on one level, the humor’s just there to keep me company—a little gift of endorphins to get me through the largely un-fun emotional grind of writing—but on another deeper level I see humor as maybe the most apt expression of grief. Laughter is not remotely the opposite of crying. Think about how much laughter you hear at funerals. Because when we tell stories about our departed we often tell the funny ones. Maybe the only time my family is reliably, consistently funny is at funerals. Because the worst has already happened, so what are you gonna do? Why not laugh? It’s how we live.
Rumpus: Part of the appeal of Exes is that it is such a complex book, with various perspectives compiled by the main character, Clay Blackall. Was this idea of a fractured narrative something you began this novel with?
Winter: It sounds like a cop-out for me to say that’s just how I think, but, yeah, this is pretty much just how I think. Whenever people describe linear time to me, I’m frankly amazed. I mean, I understand how clocks and calendars work, but with every passing day the present can’t help but contain increasing amounts of past. So where does one begin? Likewise, I have a hard time believing that any story—no matter how narrow its scope—can really be told from a single point of view. All of which is to say that my narrative sensibility has always been fractured, containing as many digressions and roundabouts and callbacks as a frequently-interrupted shaggy dog joke.
But I will admit to feeling retroactively validated when I picked up The Evil Hours, my former workshop-mate David Morris’s remarkable book about PTSD and read the following:
…Trauma destroys the fabric of time. In normal time, you move from one moment to the next, sunrise to sunset, birth to death. After trauma, you may move in circles, find yourself being sucked backwards into an eddy, or bouncing about like a rubber ball from now to then and back again. August is June, June is December. What time is it? Guess again…
I promptly choked on three minutes worth of unswallowed saliva. I knew this phenomenon intimately—both in life and on the page—but had never seen it spelled out so clearly.
Aesthetically, meanwhile, I also happen to agree with Randall Jarrell, who said “The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” Exes is, after all, a book about wrongness of all kinds, but especially about temporal wrongness, and I don’t believe that imitative form is necessarily fallacious. Indeed, as many of my favorite books show—Jesus’ Son, Pale Fire, By Night in Chilé—sometimes it’s a verity. Plus, for a whole host of ethical reasons, I dislike slick art about ragged, fucked-up things. I feel like you’ve got to show your work.
Rumpus: I love Jesus’ Son. And the idea of how trauma affects how a person experiences time makes a lot of sense. I’ve never been a fan of the strictly linear. Did you have an organizational structure for keeping sections straight?
Winter: It was all just in my head. At some late point this made me nervous, so I wrote it all down, chronologically, on five duct-taped-together poster boards and, much to my relief, saw that it added up. All except for one historical discontinuity that I left in, because it had always been a mistake I knew I was making—the sort that gives that guy something to look for and object to. (My book is like a party thrown by tool-using WASPs—everybody gets a job.) Besides Exes is fiction, and, both mercifully and problematically, that guy seems not to touch the stuff.
But, again, this is pretty much just how I think. This is literally the only place where it’s proved useful, apart from video stores, which sadly no longer exist— just one of a great many things that ceased existing while I was working on my book.
Rumpus: Exes took you fifteen years to write. What kept you coming back to this particular project?
Winter: Stubbornness? I’m at least as stubborn as I am slow. But I’m never more stubborn nor more abiding of slowness than I am when I believe in something, and I believed in this book, even when I didn’t believe in myself, which I mostly didn’t. And sometimes, if I’m being honest, that self-doubt spilled over the rim of my somehow still-unfinished book, the vessel into which I’d poured all such doubts for so many years.
Then I read an article about the New York Mets that explained the concept of sunk cost. I thought about my book, of course, but mostly about my credit card debt, the adjunct hustle, those recently-rescinded tax credits that had briefly lured filmmakers to Rhode Island and that would now no longer provide my wife with well-paid work. “Oh shit,” I thought. “I’m the Mets…” Then I remembered that I loved the Mets. “So fuck it,” I thought. “I’m the Mets!”
Plus, Exes was always meant to be a ghost story, and with each passing year I had more and more ghosts and needed somewhere to put them. As my father-in-law once told me, apropos of burying his father, the dead need an address. I didn’t get him at the time, but I do now.
Rumpus: I saw that you thanked Brad Watson, who was a teacher of mine at the University of Wyoming. He’s an amazing guy. Brilliant writer. How did he, as you say, “show you to stick up for what matters?”
Winter: Yeah, Brad is all of these things; we are lucky to have worked with him. When Brad was a visiting writer at UC Irvine, he was mostly interested in what we thought we were trying to accomplish with our work and would invite us to discuss these goals, something which, as you know, is actually pretty rare in a workshop setting. I’ll admit that at first I found it off-putting—if only because it was so unfamiliar an approach—but eventually I came to see it for what it was, which was an opportunity for clear-headedness and forthrightness. I never availed myself of the opportunity to explain myself, but nevertheless, simply hearing my workshop-mates do so—of identifying, as you say, their own stories’ “black holes”—with all due clarity and earnestness, snapped me out of something that had been bogging me down at that point, which was a kind of intentional unintentionality. Back then it was as if my stories were dreams dreamt by someone who didn’t believe that dreams meant anything, if that makes any sense, which of course it doesn’t, which was the whole problem. My whole approach was simultaneously precious and cynical and vague and self-serving, which is pretty much the Venn diagram of Total Suck. That I wasn’t quite ready for the discussion Brad encouraged was the whole problem and, in turn, the whole point. But the respect he paid the process—of which, to him, this self-explication was a part—and, by extension, the writers, stayed with me, and eventually helped me out of the fog. Like I said, I’m slow.
But also, wait—this means you read the acknowledgments! That makes me happy. I went back and forth with a few friends about just how many people I should thank—there’s this prevalent attitude that long acknowledgements are somehow amateurish, but I don’t agree. If anything, mine are too short. I left off a lot of names. Like all the people who picked my son up from school so I could steal some time to write, or those who said encouraging things about my work when I really needed to hear them. I shake my head at brief acknowledgments in debuts. “That’s not possible,” I think. It takes a lot of fucking people to make that first one and I mistrust writers who won’t admit it. Plus it just about reeks of lone genius in a garrett/cabin/attic/four-dollar room. The only artists I know who required no immediate aesthetic help—who arrived more or less fully formed—were Julie Atlas Muz and Jason Molina. But as Jason once said, thankfully, “If the only two words you ever say are thank you, then that will be enough.” As someone who needed and received a great deal of help over the years, I consider myself commensurately lucky and grateful.
Rumpus: Julie Buntin, whom I interviewed a few months ago, was your editor. She’s a fantastic writer. What was your experience like working with her?
Winter: Easily the best part of this whole farkakte process, which is damning it—and her—with the faintest praise, because the home stretch with Julie in the pace car—or coach’s box or my corner or whatever sports metaphor works here—felt entirely different: focused, quick, not lonely, sometimes even fun. Julie saw what I had in my book before it was even fully there and helped me both to drag and tease it out; helped make it the book I’d always wanted to write, in other words. She’s an incredible reader—maybe the best I’ve ever worked with, which is really saying something, as I’ve worked with the very best: Michelle Latiolais, Geoffrey Wolff, Maile Meloy, Brad [Watson], Matt Sumell, Marisa Matarazzo, Michael Andreasen. You probably won’t believe me when I tell you that Julie and I never had a single disagreement during the year in which we worked on my book, but it’s true. And she basically took my manuscript apart and guided me as I rebuilt it. We took chapters out, moved them around, rewrote them entirely—in some cases more than once. Out of the literal thousands of edits she made, I think I stetted maybe three or four. She’s just a maven with pace, profluence, and structure; but also every bit as good at sensing what’s too much or not enough on a sentence level. She also, helpfully, knows what’s just too gross. (You’re probably thinking, “Wait, there was stuff even grosser than this?”) I brake for Julie Buntin’s Ew.
Rumpus: What’s next for you now that you’re done with Exes?
Winter: I’m working on another novel that I can’t really talk about except to say that it’s more straightforward than Exes, but also that probably only I would think of it as straightforward. Straightforward for me, in other words. So, yeah, no, probably not that straightforward. I started it the day after the election. That and Coltrane were the only things keeping me close to sane while my son was at school.
Author photograph © Olivia Sauerwein.