Rob Jacklosky: How much of your personal experience as a croupier did you draw on in your fiction?
Anthony Wallace: I worked in the casino for quite a while before I started writing fiction. I ended up in Atlantic City because it seemed new and interesting and possibly a way to make some money and avoid the dreaded 9-5. The money was good from the start, but the job is like glorified factory work, and I began to see that I was trapped, or on the way to becoming trapped. Some of my early stories are set in the casino because that’s where I was, and also because I was not seeing that aspect of American life depicted in fiction. There is much more I can do with that experience and that I want to do—but I keep putting it off for some reason. I’d like to write an Atlantic City novel that involves some historical research.
RJ: Were you published before you left the casino work? When did you begin your MFA?
AW: I decided to try writing—because I wanted to and because I thought it could be a way out of the casino industry. And it was. I started writing short stories around 1993 or 1994, and one of the first stories I wrote won a prize in the Florida Review, so I thought, Hey, this is pretty easy. I can do this. It turned out to be anything but easy, but I did continue to write, and I published five or six stories before I came to study in the Boston University graduate creative writing program in 1998. Leslie Epstein called me up and offered me a teaching fellowship, which was a full scholarship plus some money in my pocket for teaching one section of creative writing, so that was it for me and the casino industry.
RJ: At what age did you begin the stories that made it into The Old Priest? How long was this collection in the works?
AW: “Jack Frost” and “Upstairs Room” are the two oldest stories in the collection, and they were published the summer of 1998, when I moved to Boston, so I was around forty when I wrote them. They were fifteen years old when The Old Priest was published last fall, and I guess the collection took most of those fifteen years to complete because I revise compulsively and was making small changes right up until the final proofreading for publication. I was twice a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, but in retrospect the collection is stronger for waiting the two or three years until I won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. It was a really big kick for me that Amy Hempel was the final judge for that competition because I very much come out of the tradition some people think of as ’80s Minimalism. The biggest influence on me in that group of writers was Raymond Carver, and I think you can see and hear Carver in a few of the stories, especially the two I just mentioned.
RJ: Was there a point where you stopped writing and gave up? A low point?
AW: Well, I did all my giving up at the beginning, when I graduated college and didn’t try to become a fiction writer. But as I got older, I realized I had betrayed myself and tried really hard to right the wrong turn in the road. I came to study creative writing at BU when I was 41 years old, and right away I felt at home and in my element. It was exactly the right place for me to land. I didn’t feel so much older, and the other graduate students didn’t treat me like I was so much older. Actually, among the twelve of us in fiction, there was a wide range, from 23-41.
There was a low point, but it came after I went to graduate school. I kept writing, but it was hard for me to get an agent—I still don’t have one, though I almost have one—and it was also hard for me to place work in the best journals. I wrote a first novel that nobody wanted to publish or even represent, and by 2012 I was starting to think about the possibility that I never would get a book out, and what was I going to do, how was I going to deal with that? I was in my mid 50s, and the whole thing, which had mostly gone according to plan for the first five or six years, just stalled out. I stopped submitting work to journals, stopped looking for an agent. And just when I was trying to make peace with not publishing—I never thought about not writing because I had already spent so much time not writing and it just hadn’t worked for me—Ed Ochester at the University of Pittsburgh Press called to say I’d won the Drue Heinz. I hung up the phone and screamed for several minutes. I mean really violent screaming. Nobody in my building called the police or otherwise inquired, which is a little disturbing.
RJ: Your South Jersey settings feature Atlantic City and towns in the Pine Barrens. As a native of Newark, I found your settings exotic and strange, sometimes bleak. They are unlike other writers’ depictions of the state (Tom Perrotta’s or Philip Roth’s or Richard Ford’s). Can you talk about the towns you grew up in, and “your” New Jersey?
AW: I grew up in South Philadelphia, and we spent some time every summer at the Jersey shore—in Brigantine, mainly, which is a barrier island just north of Atlantic City. Then I lived in New Jersey for almost twenty years when I worked in the casino. So I’m writing about southern New Jersey, and I think most of what has been written about New Jersey is more about Asbury Park (Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey) and north of that, much closer to NYC. If the collection were longer, I would have done even more with that, with the other Jersey. I have what the Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor called a “submerged population group”—a group of people in a society that the other members don’t see. That’s especially true of “The Unexamined Life,” in which Miles gets caught up in a subculture of people sometimes called “Pineys”: people who live in New Jersey in a way that is more rural, and who seem in most ways like people from the South. Last summer I visited my friend who lives in Upper Township, which is way south, and we bought hard shell crabs from two guys who looked like the backup band for ZZ Top. They did not talk like anybody in a Philip Roth novel—much more like people in a James Dickey novel!
RJ: Many of the stories in the collection are wholly realistic. But in some of the stories there are hints of magic, the fantastic, or the uncanny (visions, dreams, tiny dinosaurs). How important is that element to your work?
AW: Very important. Most important. I never wanted to be a “wholly realistic” writer, and I’ve always tried to find ways around what I consider “the problem of realism” without doing anything gimmicky. The problem of realism is that you don’t want to give peoples’ everyday lives back to them: it’s boring, and it’s limited in a variety of ways. They don’t need what they already have. Art to me is about transformation. You can see Raymond Carver moving into different territory in Cathedral—mystery, revelation, transformation. In contemporary American short fiction, George Saunders has just brilliantly gotten around the problem of realism, but also notice that his best stories are about real people and real problems. The fantastic and the realistic elements are so perfectly balanced that he creates what Flannery O’Connor called “a deeper kind of realism.” That’s what I’m after.
RJ: You have a lot of insight into Catholicism—the intimacy (in a good way) between the old priest and the protagonist. How important is Catholicism to your work?
AW: I didn’t know that Roman Catholicism was so important to my work until I wrote “The Old Priest.” I’ve come to understand that my Roman Catholic upbringing is inseparable from who I am and that just because I’m not a practicing Catholic does not mean that I’m not a Catholic writer. The novel I’m working on now is called I Believe You, Messengers, which is a phrase from a poem by Milosz called “On Angels,” and the book is filled with elements of Roman Catholicism, including the Blessed Virgin Mary as a sustained presence. I love what Mary Szybist did with the Annunciation in Incarnadine (2013 National Book Award in Poetry) and am trying not to rip her off too much.
RJ: Your characters make some choices that leave the reader squirming. These are still sympathetic characters, but they make choices that a reader has a hard time accepting. How do you manage to get readers to care about these characters who are so obviously flawed?
AW: Well, maybe because I care about them. I don’t know why I would write about characters I don’t care about. And I myself have made my share of bad choices, so that might be one reason why I write about them. Doing the right thing would not be so hard most of the time, if only we knew what it was. The tendency in my writing that you’ve described so well got me in trouble with my first novel, in which my main character makes some really destructive choices. Most readers see her as an unsympathetic character, even though I am very sympathetic toward her. One reviewer complained that my stories are full of people with problems. Well, yeah—narrative runs on conflict, and if everything is hunky-dory, then how do you dramatize that? The Garden of Eden is not a very interesting place until the snake enters into it. So maybe part of it is theological. And part of it is based in my own experience of ending up in a dead-end job and wondering if I would ever escape.
RJ: Do you begin with character? Or do you begin with a story, or a problem you want to explore? You have a lot of striking images embedded in memory. Where do you begin?
AW: I usually start with a compelling image, and a lot of writers have said that. I read recently that Harold Pinter said that, and I would have thought it might be less true of a playwright. Faulkner said The Sound and the Fury started with an image of a little girl’s muddy drawers. I’ve always been attracted to strong imagery and try to give the reader a vivid picture show because that’s what I want when I read. When I teach fiction writing, I always stress imagery and the fact that you move the reader along from picture to picture. Probably this was always true, but it certainly is true of readers who have grown up with film as the primary narrative medium.
RJ: How many courses do you teach? How many hours a day do you get to write? Do you have a Graham Greene word count or an hour limit?
AW: I love my work at BU, both with my students working on the Arts Now project, which I developed with my friend and colleague Bill Marx, but it does take a considerable amount of my time during the academic year. I teach 3/3 plus the work I do on Arts Now plus other kinds of committee work in the Writing Program. I’ve been very active during the past five years in helping to shape the Writing Program, not just the curriculum but how full-time, non-tenure-track lecturers are perceived by the larger institution, and it’s been rewarding but also time consuming. When I tell other more successful writers what I do at BU, they’re horrified. Some writers—a lot of writers, actually—erect protective barriers around themselves and their time. I’m more of the approach that I’ll just give everything 100 percent, that energy generates more energy. Plus I get four months off in the summer and a month around Christmas—I have time enough to write if I can find anything worthwhile to say. I do think it’s important to write every day, to keep one’s hand in and to treat writing as an everyday activity. Working on a novel during the academic year is harder than writing stories or poems because you need more sustained contact with the material, both on the page and in your own head.
RJ: How has waiting until your 40s to begin publishing affected your career?
AW: My age, which is really the basis for this interview, has colored things. I think things like, Well, at this rate I’ll really be cooking by the time I’m sixty-five! The fact that I’m working way outside the conventional narrative about writers and their careers has created some dissonance. I think most readers would like it if I were in my early to mid 40s. I think I would like that, too!
RJ: Are there young writers whose work you admire?
AW: Wells Tower, Brett Anthony Johnston, Miranda July, Nathan Englander—off the top of my head, those are the latest who have really knocked me out, but I don’t read as much as I’d like to because I’m working all the time. I’ve been meaning to read Yiyun Li, for example. Miranda July is especially interesting to me because she synthesizes influences from ’80s Minimalists like Amy Hempel and Mary Robison with what came after as a result of David Foster Wallace and what we might call the McSweeney’s influence. For me she’s got the whole package, and I look forward to reading her first novel.
RJ: Do you have any advice for late bloomers who find themselves in middle age without a published book, or people who turn to fiction later in their careers?
AW: I think you have to find reasons for doing it that are not external, that have to do with you and your life and your relationship to the world and other people. Part of my relationship to the world is through language and my evolving relationship with language. If I make the right kind of contact with language then I make meaningful contact with the world. I found that out, but it took me a long time. If I make meaningful contact with my characters’ experiences on the page, i.e. through written language, in some way I make deeper contact with my own experience—and not just when I’m writing autobiographically, as most people can see I’m doing in “The Old Priest.”
RJ: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
AW: This is not advice, but it has certainly stuck with me. A professor of mine at Lafayette told me in 1978 that if I wanted to become a writer I could do it—that I had the ability if I wanted to put in the work. That came back to me in the ’90s when I decided to give it a try, and it was important to me that he’d said that because I respected him. Writers need people they respect to believe in them. Leslie Epstein always believed in me, and it got me through some low points that people I respected supported me and what I was trying to do. My friend Chris Walsh sent “The Old Priest” to Keith Botsford at The Republic of Letters after it was turned down by a dozen top journals—and that led to the Pushcart. Any artist needs to have support. Even Emily Dickinson, who was so little understood in her own time, had Thomas Wentworth Higginson. One person was enough for her to get by with. So I’ll give some advice to writers just starting out: You can’t do it all by yourself. Whatever you write, somebody, somewhere, has got to respond.
Click here to read Rob Jacklosky’s feature piece on Anthony Wallace.