Thursday, July 30, 2009

interview: John Wray, author of Lowboy

John Wray's newest is Lowboy, which came out a few months ago. It's a good fanciful jaunt through NYC's transit system, viewed through the eyes of the handsome and schizophrenic Will Heller, who believes that the world needs him to end its global warming crisis. To do that, he really just needs to find Emily Wallace again. Hot on his trail are Detective Lateef and Will's mom, Violet who aren't sure if he'll commit another violent act. Lateef soon realizes that his problem may not just be Will, but Violet too.

Lowboy is Wray's third book, following The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan's Tongue. He lives in NYC. Wray discusses good book promotion, character inspiration and the fate of his indie rock band.

Heard about your subway readings to promote the book--what were those like?

John Wray: Just about everything I’ve done to promote Lowboy has been a blast, especially all the subway-related stuff. Most readings tend to be so intensely boring that people are deeply grateful for anything out of the ordinary, which I turn makes the whole book-promotional circus a whole lot more worthwhile. My rule of thumb this time around has been “if it feels like a chore, don’t do it”. Though, now that I come to think of it, I’ve done just about everything anyway. It’s been a good time.

Were their some unassuming passengers who didn't know what was going on?

Not at the 8th Ave. station, where the line starts, but with each subsequent stop more ordinary, luckless commuters got on, and I had to stop myself from apologizing to every one of them. But they were actually very polite, and some of them ended up getting off with the rest of us at the Bedford stop and coming to the party at Spike Hill.

How did that compare to the Mississippi River trip? (In 2005, to promote Canaan's Tongue. Here's a good article about the trip).

The rafting trip was more of an escape, so much so that I sometimes half-forgot that I was trying to get people to read my book; we spent most of our time fishing. We didn’t catch all that much, but it didn’t matter. It was all in the interest of Literature, after all. That’s Literature with a capital ‘L’.

Did you come up with these ideas yourself or did the book PR people chime in?

Those were my own ideas, actually. I’ve found, through grim experience, that it’s a hell of a lot easier to promote your book if you’re having fun doing it, and it’s a lot easier to have fun if you’re not standing in the cookbook section of a Barnes & Noble, trying to be heard over the noise of the toddlers in the children’s section three aisles down.

Which idea came first--Heller or the train system? Both seem so integrated, that it seems like Heller would be completely different without the train.

For me, Will Heller’s fascination with the subway is as essential to his character as his sense of humor, or his good looks—or his schizophrenia, for that matter. It developed organically with the rest of him, as I was first planning the book. So Will came first, I suppose, but not by very much.

The setting and time for Lowboy doesn't seem to be as "weighty" as in your previous works--was that a deliberate decision to write about a situation and characters with a little bit more immediacy?

I don’t really factor weight into my writing decisions, as such; something begins to interest me, and if, over time, it comes to interest me enough, then I try to write about it. My first two novels are set in the past, but I never thought of them as ‘historical’, or ‘thrillers’, or even ‘literary’, as far as that goes. Those sort of labels may be necessary to the book trade, but I don’t think they’re of very much use to authors. John Grisham et al excluded.

I've been reading a lot of detective/crime noir stuff from the 20s/30s (check our just concluded series on hard-boiled/crime noir stories) and there's seems to be some of the same tension in the relationship of Violet/Det. Lateef---femme fatales vs. detectives. What was that an influence or inspiration at all?

It was a key influence, especially the writing of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald and—of course—Dashiell Hammett. A big part of the pleasure of writing
Lowboy came from paying homage, however indirectly, to that most pleasure-giving of genres.

What made that relationship tick for you in writing it?

The sexual tension, of course, and the melancholy common to both characters. It also didn’t hurt that I pictured Violet as looking exactly like Bibi Anderson, the Swedish star of
Persona and a bunch of other Bergman movies. I’ve always had a thing for Bibi Anderson.

What attracted you to writing about schizophrenia?

It’s hard to say what inspires a given book, because I’ve learned over the years not to second-guess a project too much, at least at the beginning. Something gets into your skull and at some later point it kind of bleeds out onto the page, and if it’s halfway decent you run with it and don’t ask questions. I had a friend, growing up, who developed symptoms similar to Lowboy’s, but I don’t think that’s why I wrote the novel. I just saw some kind of possibility there.

Anything that interested you about the disease and condition that you didn't know about before conducting your research?

God, all sorts of things. The fact that schizophrenia fills more hospital beds in this country than all other mental illnesses combined. The fact that the frequency of a certain delusion mirrors the larger social anxieties of the age—in the 19th century, many sufferers believed themselves to be Napoleon; fifty years later, it was Stalin. Nowadays, Al Qaeda features prominently on the list of paranoias.

Read some of Citizen's adventures on your Twitter account. Why didn't he make the cut?

Citizen was a character I enjoyed very much while I was writing him, but he turned out to be inessential to
Lowboy, as proven by the fact that I cut him out completely and the book seems to work regardless. But I still have a soft for him, and was happy to find a home for him after all. He cracks me up.

What's harder about writing a novel now than it was when you first started?

With each new project, it gets harder to convince yourself that you have nothing to lose, which is crucial, I think. You’ll never take the big risks otherwise.

The Internet didn't have too much info about your band Marmalade. Are you still writing or performing material in that? Any good recent band finds?

Marmalade, rest in peace, is ancient history. So are all the other underbaked musical projects I’ve dabbled in over the years. These days, I only play in friend’s wedding bands, which I love. And I play guitar in my pal Matt Dojny’s sporadic no-fi brainchild, Body & Monkey. Which is, objectively speaking, the greatest band in the history of western civilization.

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