Antoine Wilson Interview by Grover Gardner
Grover Gardner: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Antoine Wilson. Antoine is the author of Panorama City, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of Fall 2012, and is also the author of The Interloper. Antoine is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the recipient of a writing fellowship from the University of Wisconsin. He is a contributing editor of A Public Space and his work has appeared in the Paris Review, Story Quarterly, and Best New American Voices, among others. Panorama City is the charming and humorous story of a man making sense of the world and finding his own way. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audiobook, narrated by Paul Michael Garcia, simultaneously with the hardcover on September 25, 2012. Antoine, thank you for joining us today.
Antoine Wilson: It’s great to be here.
GG: Our listeners are not going to be familiar with the book yet. Tell us a little about the story.
AW: Panorama City is the story of a village idiot who wants to become a man of the world. Oppen Porter is a twenty-seven-year-old small-town guy, something of a naïve … grew up with his father outside the town of Madera in the Central Valley. The book opens after his father has died, and he, following his father’s wishes, buries him in the backyard. Of course, this doesn’t sit well with the local authorities, so he has to go live with his aunt Liz in Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley, part of Los Angeles. He decides that he’s going to take this opportunity to become a man of the world. Aunt Liz has different ideas. She thinks that his father did a terrible job raising him and that he needs to be mainstreamed. She sees him as cognitively disabled. This results in Oppen going through a bunch of different stages—working in a fast-food place, joining a storefront evangelical church, falling under the influence of a rogue philosopher/con man. He eventually finds his own way toward learning what it means to him to be a man of the world. Oppen moves back to Madera after getting in an accident. Believing he’s on his deathbed, he records onto cassette tapes everything he thinks his unborn son might need to know about how to be a man of the world. Most of that experience comes from his short time in Panorama City.
GG: Where did the idea for this story come from?
AW: It had a three-pronged genesis. I wanted to write a comic novel. My previous novel, The Interloper, was funny but dark and not comic in the sense that it ended very badly for the characters involved. I was reading Don Quixote and Candide, and I really wanted to respond to these books and figure out what a modern contemporary comic novel would look like. As for the second prong, I was walking down a street in Iowa City one day and I met this strange guy who was very tall—Oppen Porter is six-foot-six. This guy was exceedingly friendly, seemingly naïve. He was from Bakersfield, I think. He was telling me how he loved to ride the bus across the country and that he had friends in every town. He was built like a big football player, but he was very naïve and sweet. So somehow, bumping into that guy gave me a template from which to work on Oppen’s character. Then I had a dream that I’d buried my father in our backyard, and that image stuck with me. So those things collided to get me started writing this book. Then, two years into writing the book, I realized that Oppen should be speaking to his unborn son. That was the key to everything that came after that, the idea that he was a link between generations.
GG: Was it originally third person?
AW: The very first sketches were third person. There was an opening scene from the point of view of the postman, watching Oppen dig a hole in the backyard and wondering what he was doing. But very early on, I decided that I wanted Oppen to tell the story in his own voice, which is something that Candide does not get to do—Don Quixote, Sancho Panza do not get to do. I wanted to know what it would be like to hear the fool speak for himself. But I hadn’t yet come up with the idea that he would be motivated to speak by passing wisdom on to his son.
GG: It must have been kind of a liberation to discover the first person—you know, his own voice.
AW: It was enormous, and my process is such that I tend to write a few pages, based on a few notions, until I can’t move forward anymore; start over; write a few more pages; and then once I’ve got a solid framework, I can usually get up to about eighty pages before everything falls apart. I think this book was about four of those hundred-page drafts before I was really onto the final one—the one that went all the way through. All that time, I was refining and working on Oppen’s voice. The other day I was teaching a class on revision and looking back at the early drafts—which I don’t tend to do—I saw the same phrases that had made it into the final book, but slightly modified. They’d gone into me and come out slightly differently. Some of the same verbal tics Oppen has appeared very early on but in different forms.
GG: So you met this guy in Iowa City. How long did you talk with him?
AW: Ten minutes.
GG: (laughs) Ten minutes. So clearly there has to have been a lot more of Oppen’s character coming out of yourself or other people … You got your template, but where did the rest of him come from?
AW: From me. From some part of me that generates fiction. I’m a fairly rational person in general, but I do try not to poke at that part of me with the rational stick too much, if you know what I mean. Yeah, Oppen’s voice comes from me and there’s always a bit of a Venn diagram between who I am in the world and who my characters are on the page. So somewhere in there, there’s an overlap and I don’t poke at it too much.
GG: I’m going to poke at it a little bit more myself. You were drawn to Don Quixote, Candide, and now Oppen. Are you a quixotic character? Are you a picaresque person? Are you a hero in your own—(laughs) you know what I mean.
AW: I don’t think of myself as much of a hero, but I would say I’m constantly trying to reconcile the absurdity of the big picture of life—of who we are as creatures on this planet—and the real emotional seriousness of our relationships, and even our politics—what it means to be a father, what it means to be a husband, and what it means to be a citizen in a country that wages war. Life can get very serious, and on the other hand, if you zoom out quite a bit, what is it? It’s kind of a cosmic joke. So I oscillate between those things and that, I think, definitely informs my perspective of comic novels and of comedy in general. I’m just not quite sure all the time how seriously we’re meant to take life.
GG: You mention Don Quixote and Candide. Are there modern writers who’ve influenced you, or if not influenced, at least pushed you toward your own writing and your desire to write?
AW: My first, greatest influence was probably Nabokov—and to the point that I had to read a lot of Henry James as a kind of methadone. I realized early on there’s no imitating Nabokov and it’s not a good idea. It’s not what I wanted to do, but I got very hooked on his writing.
GG: Why? What was it that drew you?
AW: I think it’s the combination of what you might call the superficial pyrotechnics and skill of his writing, his use of language, combined with a real artistic depth that I find powerfully moving, both emotionally and intellectually at the same time. He fires on all cylinders, and I also find him to be extremely funny—
AW:—in ways that other writers are not necessarily able to be on the page. In that vein, I like Nicholson Baker a lot. He’s another person who’s very playful with language at times and very funny and yet very thoughtful. I also like Thomas Bernhard, the dark Austrian novelist of a number of really great ranting novels with no paragraph breaks that are so dark they seemed funny. They’re full of repetition and I think some of the repetition in Oppen’s voice comes from that, just on a superficial level—the patterns of thought, the patterns of speech, the comma splices, the sort of Beckettian comma splices. Another author is named Bohumil Hrabal, who wrote a fantastic novel called I Served the King of England. His work really helped me sort out that first-person fool narrating his own story. And then of course, Being There by Jerzy Kosiński and “Gimpel the Fool,” which is a short story by I. B. Singer I read twenty something years ago. That might even have planted the seed for this book. I tend to use reading almost as a crutch while I’m working on something, especially for the first few years, and then as my legs grow stronger, I throw aside the crutches, until finally, to mix metaphors, I’m running under my own steam.
GG: How did you get familiar with these foreign writers? What started your interest in European writers, especially Eastern European writing?
AW: I don’t know. For some reason, I feel an affinity in that. I’m not sure what the source of that is. Hrabal I discovered by reading a book of essays by James Wood—I think it’s called The Irresponsible Self—about comedy and fiction. I was very excited to read an essay about Hrabal there. That’s how I tracked down those books.
GG: You grew up in part in central and Southern California—
GG: Did the landscape and the society there have an influence on where to set your book?
AW: Yes. I mean Oppen comes from Madera, a small town in central California near Fresno, where I lived for four years in the late seventies and early eighties. I was a kid fresh from Montreal, a French Canadian boy in California farmland. The Madera that’s depicted in the book is somewhat imaginary, based on my memory probably more than what contemporary Madera is like. But the Panorama City of the book and the San Fernando Valley that’s depicted there is very much contemporary, and I think the San Fernando Valley is a very interesting place as a sort of LA that isn’t quite LA proper and is distinguished in large part by that and by the sprawl, and by the mini-malls and that sort of thing.
GG: You mention several times comedy and humor in writing, although from the sound of it you have a penchant for darker humor, irony. Where did this interest in comedy and how it’s presented and how it’s acted out—where does that come from?
AW: I’m a fairly optimistic person, so there’s that. In the sense of Aristotle, I’d like to try to finish a book with a wedding if I can, and I think there’s a sort of overlap of the comic and the absurd—and comedy as a coping mechanism—that has been a thread through my whole life—my personal life.
GG: What’s next? Are you working on something now?
AW: Yeah. I’m just starting to sketch something. I’m ridiculously slow at the moment. I’ll spend a good deal of time in the office writing stuff that ends up disappearing, or I’ll make one big decision about the project and then spend a whole week thinking about whether or not it’s a good decision. Yeah, I’m working on another novel that takes place entirely in one day.
AW: Yeah, that’s what I’ve got so far. I mean I’ve got a few other things, but I’m not going to tell you.
GG: (laughs) Okay. Thank you very much for joining us today.
AW: Thank you.
GG: I’m going to run and track down some of those books you mentioned. I’m not familiar with some of those people and they sound very interesting. Always a nice by-product of these interviews is to learn about new writers and influences on people.
GG: Thank you so much. We’re very much looking forward to the book and the audio coming out.
AW: I can’t wait to listen to the audiobook. I love audiobooks and as soon as I get my copy I’m going to just put the headphones on and disappear for however many hours it is.
GG: Cool. Listen, thanks again, and we appreciate you talking with us today.
AW: My pleasure. Thank you.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Antoine Wilson. You can find Panorama City and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in September 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.