Interview with David Winner

Hometown: Charlottesville, Virginia

Current: Brooklyn, New York

Suzanne Dottino: What are you working on now?

David Winner: I’m working on two projects. The first stars the only character I’ve ever created vaguely based on me.  The protagonist of Enemy Combatant, a braver, stupider, more fucked up version -- crazed by substance abuse and rage against Bush, Cheney et al around 2004 -- runs across evidence of CIA secret prisons in Georgia (the country not the state) and Armenia and with his even more deranged old friend tries to release a prisoner.  This is a challenge, as you can imagine, in terms of being convincing and getting readers to suspend disbelief.   I don’t think I’ve even ever held a gun, and a lot of them get fired off.   In its current state, the novel would give any hunter or soldier a good laugh. I’ll probably get that straight before finishing it. I can only hope that the only comic elements will be intentional.

My other project, a fiction/non-fiction fusion, is an expansion of a long essay that’s coming out in The Kenyon Review about love letters from the 1930’s that I discovered in my great aunt’saunt  Dorle’s apartment after her death. Dorle, a figure in the music world who helped bring Maria Callas to New York, turned out to have had at least seven mostly married lovers in that decade, including Toscanini (sort of) and a man named John Franklin Carter who, according to the Times, was starting a “Hitlerest” party to run against Roosevelt in 1932.   Though Jewish, Dorle hung out after the war with a lot of famous musicians who were former Nazis.  The book tries to tell the story of her and her lovers.   

S.D. Care to share about a moment, a person or a story from your past that made you want to become a writer?

D.W. Two short ones. My tenth grade English teacher let us write stories instead of papers, and I was able to get my class laughing when we’d read them aloud, really pleasing for a shy kid like myself. My snarky little pieces would satirize her love of Herman Hesse, the search for enlightenment.   A few years later, pretentious young man rather than cynical teen, I spent a summer wandering around Rome with Joy Division pulsing from my Walkman dreaming up grandiose fictions that got written but, thankfully, pretty much forgotten. 

S.D. If you could change one thing about publishing what would it be?

D.W. Some breathtakingly difficult and original books get huge advances, but I do think editors and agents can underestimate readers’ interest and patience for dark and unusual stuff. Next year will be the 160th anniversary of Madame Bovary, and I would like to demand that editors only acquire novels with not very sympathetic protagonists though that could kind of screw me up because the protagonist based on me in the book I’m working on is supposed to be well…sort of... nice.   It would also be great if we received actual rejections rather than silences, but I think that’s just twenty-first century culture.

S.D. Who are your literary heroes?

D.W. I love Ishiguro, Alice Munro, Coetzee, Joy Williams, Morrison, Sebald… but the last two works to really obsess me were both by southern southern South Americans.  I tore through Roberto Bolañno’s (Chile) massive posthumous novel, 2666: a combination of a dream-like, poetic but very real depiction of the maquiladoros rape- murders in Juarez with the story of a group of sexually promiscuous Latin American literary critics chasing down a mythical German writer last seen in that part of Mexico.  Most recently I read a novella by Cesar Aira, an Argentinian writer,  (Argentina) called the An episode in the life of a landscape painter about a German landscape painter trying to capture the Pampas horizon line and “Indian” raids.   I think the last scene when the “Indians” finally appear is one of the strangest and disturbing I’ve read.

S.D. What kind of writing excites you?

D.W. Even though I think of myself as a relatively happy person, darker sadder writing is what gets to me.  Most of all, though, I like to be surprised.   The abstract murky world of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished The Pale King, gets suddenly preempted by a strictly narrative and totally hilarious scene in a sports bar.   We realize towards the end of the most recent Joy Williams story in The New Yorker that the elderly female protagonist is in some liminal place between existing and not existing, the ground beneath our feet subtly shaken.

S.D. What advice do you have for writers just starting out?

 D.W. Obviously, it’s a changing landscape with social media, Amazon, self publishing not so stigmatized, so I don’t have too much to say about trying  to get recognition that would be original or useful, but I do have thoughts about revision and determination.    There are some instant geniuses (Lena Dunham whether we like her or not.)   There are also some dull bad writers who stumble upon an amazing hook or have lucky connections, but for many of us, whether we’re talking short stories, novels or memoirs, on-the-job training can be essential.   Even if that first novel you’re banking everything one does get picked up by Random House, you might find yourself embarrassed by it later in your career.    Naturally, we hope everything we do gets published and admired, but if that doesn’t happen, we can still improve just by writing something.  If you’ve been struggling to get attention for a first book for a long time and have a remote idea for something new, put the old book in a drawer and embark on a different voyage.