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"Deadpan and Nervous at Once": An Interview with Eric G. Wilson

Eric G. Wilson's most recent book, a hybrid of memoir and literary biography, is How To Make a Soul: The Wisdom of John Keats.  He has also published three other works of creative nonfiction: Keep It Fake, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, and Against Happiness. His essays have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Oxford American, The New York Times, The LA Times, Paris Review Daily, The Chronicle Review, and Salon, and he has recently placed fiction in Cafe Irreal and Posit.  He teaches at Wake Forest University. Check out his website and Twitter.

His story, "Sworn," appeared in Issue Seventy-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, Eric Wilson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about Poe, unreliable narrators, and moving from nonfiction to fiction.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Sworn”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

A confluence of two factors. First, in my nonfiction writing, I was exploring possibilities for expanding my essayistic persona, the “I” of the essay. I had been reading Geoff Dyer’s Zona, in which his speaker comes across as a character in a Bernhard novel as much as an actual historical being. This is also true of the speaker in Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. I thought, I’d like to experiment with that technique, imagine my “I” as a character in a fiction. I’d already done this to some extent in my last nonfiction book, Keep It Fake

While this idea was circulating in my head, I was preparing to teach Poe’s “William Wilson,” a story with an unreliable narrator who seems not to know he’s unreliable. In other words, he reveals information to readers that he doesn’t seem to know he’s revealing. This is true of many of Poe’s narrators, usually nameless obsessives.

Dyer and Poe merged in my head, and I thought—I’ll write a first person fiction in which an obsessive and possibly guilty character is describing an event to an interlocutor. The character, a nameless “I,” reveals more than he knows. Indeed, he reveals exactly what he’s trying to hide.

In your story, there is a first-person narrator and someone he is directly addressing whose voice we never hear. Because the unseen addressee has control over when the narrator speaks, it seems like he is talking to an authority figure, perhaps an officer of the law, but of this we can’t be certain. Why did you choose to tell the story in this unusual way? How did you decide what information the reader would and would not be privy to?

I imagined my narrator in some sort of interrogation chamber. He might be in a prison, he might be in an asylum. I imagined that his interrogator would not be present, but in some sort of observation booth, asking questions through a speaker. 

I got the idea for this technique from Brian Evenson’s story “The Third Factor,” in his collection Fugue State. In the story, the narrator monitors the behaviors of the man who commits suicide. My interrogator whose voice we never hear could be this man. 

I should add that Evenson is probably more of an inspiration for this story than Dyer or Poe. He read from Fugue State at my campus last spring. I thought, I’d like to try to develop a voice like Evenson does in some of his tales, deadpan and nervous at once, lucid on the surface, but obviously obfuscating, prone to pedantic qualification as a kind of defense mechanism. We see this voice especially in Evenson’s “Desire, with Digressions.”

The narrator speaks in a peculiar voice, often clarifying precisely what he means by simple words like “know” and using lengthy phrases like “the place of the room where I sleep.” What did you have in mind when you designed this character’s voice? What did you do to inhabit his unique linguistic style?

In creating a highly self-conscious kind of diction, I wanted to manipulate a tension in the narrator. He is extremely careful, aware of what he knows and what his interrogator might know, but also careless, unknowingly revealing darker truths about himself. The vague diction, such as “the place of the room where I sleep,” also is a defense mechanism, an example of the narrator being afraid to speak directly about the terrible thing he seems to have done. 

Your bio indicates you are primarily a writer of nonfiction. How does your process differ between the genres that you work in? What lessons have you learned from nonfiction that inform the way you write fiction, or vice versa?

While writing Keep It Fake, I discovered the joy of imagining my autobiographical “I” as a character in novel. Even though I was writing about things that “really” happened, I did so from a particular mood, the kind of mood a fictional character might have, and in a particular voice, one voice among many. The process was exhilarating, liberating. From that kind of writing, the move to writing first-person fiction was quite logical. 

Given the kind of nonfiction and fiction I’m currently writing—first-person and voice-driven—writing in both genres feels very similar. I will say that since I’ve turned to fiction seriously, which occurred about a year ago, my nonfiction has become more playful, more literary.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I am working on a collection of weird tales, in the tradition of Evenson and Ligotti (and Lovecraft and Borges), of which “Sworn” is a part. Other parts of the collection have recently been published in Café Irreal and Eclectica

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Fugue State, obviously, by Evenson, and also his Immobility. A wonderfully strange, lyrical book by my colleague Joanna Ruocco, called Another Governess / The Least Blacksmith: A Diptych. Knausgaard’s My Struggle, vols 1 and 2. Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station.  Dennis Lim’s David Lynch: The Man from Another Place.

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