John Wray – The Lost Time Accidents
John Wray follows his acclaimed 2009 novel Lowboy with The Lost Time Accidents (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a rollicking comic novel which follows four generations of an eccentric and physics-obsessed family from early twentieth century Europe to present-day NYC, with many historical and geographical points in between. Narrator Waldemar “Waldy” Tolliver guides us through this tale from inside the Spanish Harlem apartment formerly occupied by his elderly shut-in aunts, where he believes he has become trapped “outside” of time.
Waldy’s epic and self-justifying opus takes the form of a written appeal to a mysterious “Mrs. Haven.” Amidst the detritus of decades of hoarding and haunted by the crimes of his forebears, Waldy believes that penning the Toula/Tolliver family saga—and their theory of time-travel—is his best means of escape. It is up to the reader to determine what is real and what is imagined in Waldy’s immensely entertaining account. We caught up with John Wray to discuss The Lost Time Accidents for this week’s Late Night Interview.
ANNE RASMUSSEN: The scope of this book feels dizzying at times, as we follow the ancestral lineage of Waldy Tolliver through four generations. Inventions, discoveries, the rise of science fiction, cultish religious figures, theories of time and space, family secrets, betrayals and noir escapades fill The Lost Time Accidents, which, in addition to juggling everything mentioned above, is very, very funny. I understand from previous interviews that you’ve been working on this book for quite some time. How easy or difficult was it to keep track of all the details over the course of writing a book of this scale? Were there particular strategies that you developed to keep the story in focus over time as you wrote and revised?
JOHN WRAY: I think I can say without fear of exaggeration that it was staggeringly difficult. As much as some writers might boast, after the fact, about the length of time it’s taken them to finish their books, I’m pretty damn sure that no one has ever set out to spend five or more years—more than seven, in this case—on any given project. It destroys your morale. After about five years one reaches a tipping point of sorts, after which it feels as though no amount of money or affirmation could possibly justify the percentage of one’s lifespan the book has taken from you. These last few years have been harder than I would have thought possible. And the great challenge, of course, is that the reader should never fully sense the effort you’ve put in. My goal for this book was that it be as much fun as possible—that it be lighter than air. That’s also, to a large degree, what kept me focused and (reasonably!) sane—I told myself that as long as the narrative gave pleasure on a page-by-page basis, the book would succeed.
AR: That insight into the process is actually reassuring to hear! I’m curious about how the editorial revision process works over this kind of time span. How does revision play into helping maintain a balance between overall continuity and that lightness and pleasure at the scene/page level?
JW: Revision is key. It’s crucial for all of the obvious reasons—thorough, strategic reworking, though absolutely excruciating at times, is what separates great fiction from hack work—but also because a process that includes it from the beginning gives the writer badly needed courage. I don’t think I’d have the nerve to begin a novel, any novel, if I didn’t know that I could take as much time as I needed, once the rough draft was done, to address each of my many failures in the course of that first bumbling attempt. It’s a slow process, but an effective one. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, “No one can tell me I revise too much.”
AR: What is the role of research for you as a writer who sets novels in a particular place and time, whether the present-day NYC subway system as with Lowboy, or turn-of-the-century Moravia or Vienna, as with TLTA, or around a particular theory or system of beliefs? At what point in the process does research fit in, and how do you ground the reader without bogging the narrative down with historical or scientific detail?
JW: I used to dread research when I was in school—now it’s the most enjoyable part of writing for me. While you’re still in the research phase, everything is fascinating, everything is possible. I think it was Cormac McCarthy (in his Oprah interview!) who said that the farther you progress in your work on a given book, the farther you find yourself from your initial ideal. As far as knowing how much research to do, and when to begin writing, my own rule is simple: I research a given subject to the point at which I feel comfortable making things up. I couldn’t restrain myself at that point, even if I wanted to.
AR: Research can definitely be a bit of a rabbit-hole for the curious writer, rife with the possibility of distraction. Were there instances where you encountered something in your research for one novel that made you think, I can’t pursue this now but this is going into my next project?
JW: I’m constantly coming across things in my research that strike me as promising for future projects—my office is full of scribbled notes and photographs and clippings from magazines and newspapers, lying on the floor and stuffed into binders and tacked to the wall. Most of them will most likely never be used, but it’s comforting to have them regardless. And the opposite has also happened: I’ve been years into a project when I’ve come across something, either by chance or because something I’ve written has jarred the memory loose, and found that it perfectly suited the needs of the narrative. Those are some of the loveliest moments in the whole process.
AR: One of the threads running through The Lost Time Accidents is the righteous familial rage that gets passed down the Toula/Tolliver line. As family lore would have it, if not for Albert Einstein stealing the spotlight with his theory of relativity, the Toula brothers’ own theories of time and space would have garnered the acclaim and attention that Einstein received. (Einstein, of course, is never mentioned by name—he is contemptuously referred to as “the Patent Clerk” throughout.) The sense of familial resentment is so palpable in this story it seems part of their DNA—and of course only the descendants of “also rans” are invested in recalling that legacy of almost-fame. Were there particular historical cases of scientific/academic rivalry that got you thinking about this angle for the story?
JW: I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the famous French zoologist and theorist, whose contributions to our understanding of the natural world, which were immense, were completely overshadowed by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Lamarck got so much right, but now, if we learn about him at all, his errors are what we hear about: his notion—now partially vindicated—that the traits an animal acquires in its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring. Science is a tremendously creative field of human endeavor, of course, and when I began doing my own research for The Lost Time Accidents, I had the idea to consider science as one might consider literature: a rich field of parallel narratives, competing but not mutually exclusive, each of which might display its own very subjective type of elegance and beauty.
AR: I love the slow unspooling of details and how tightly suspense is maintained throughout the book. Waldy is a quintessential “unreliable narrator” and our only guide: we rely entirely on his version of events. We have no way to verify his sanity (or lack thereof) his good intentions or truthfulness (or lack thereof). And his story is written for a specific someone, “Mrs. Haven,” but the exact nature of her relationship to Waldy is also teased out gradually as the story progresses. You’ve created characters, like the schizophrenic protagonist of Lowboy, whose grasp on reality is in question, but in that case you included outside perspectives as well. Waldy’s narration is at times pompous, at other times like a schoolboy backtracking frantically to deny some misbehavior, and always hilariously self-justifying. One of the pleasures of having only one voice to lead me was that it kept me attuned not only to the details but the tone shifts in Waldy’s storytelling. Did it feel like a risk for you to rely on a single first-person narrator to carry the tale? Had you considered including additional points of view?
JW: My natural inclination is to employ multiple points of view, if not multiple narrators—I’ve done one or both in each of my first three books—but it’s always dangerous for a writer to get too comfortable in his or her habits: I wanted to learn what sort of book I might write if I restricted myself to a single consistent voice. I also had another, more practical reason: The Lost Time Accidents is a busy mosaic of stories, as you’ve noted, and I had to be careful not to overburden the novel with unnecessary complexity. One way to keep the book straightforward and engaging, while covering a century and the lives of a number of generations, was to keep the narrative voice both constant—and to make sure my narrator was worth spending time with.
AR: I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator, and Waldy piles on the hyperbolic charm. So that risk paid off for me as a reader. I also admire the practice of trying out new angles/narrative strategies from book to book. The Lost Time Accidents can be characterized as a “comic novel,” which feels like a bold and potentially terrifying leap to make. What were some of the challenges and surprises you encountered writing in a more openly comedic vein?
JW: The difficulties really were far greater than I’d anticipated. Comedic writing brings with it all manner of contingent challenges—in addition to trying to amuse the reader, one needs to strike a balance between gravity and humor, to make sure that the writing doesn’t cloy. There are many, many comic novels that begin wonderfully but lose their allure after a hundred or so pages. It’s a high-wire act that’s incredibly difficult to sustain. The Lost Time Accidents became progressively darker with each revision. The model I finally hit on was Saul Bellow’s approach in The Adventures of Augie March: what he referred to as ‘serious fun.’ Playful writing about serious subjects. From that point on the book began to click. The two books might not appear to have much in common on the surface, but I think (and hope) that there are deep internal sympathies between them.
AR: If you’re comfortable sharing any details about future projects, what have you set your sights on next?
JW: I’m writing a very straightforward (and very grim) novel about a teenaged American convert to Islam who becomes radicalized. Know any good jokes?
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John Wray is the author of Lowboy, Canaan’s Tongue, and The Right Hand of Sleep. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a Mary Ellen von der Heyden Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin, he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. A citizen of both the United States and Austria, he lives in New York City. Author photo by Ali Smith.
Anne Rasmussen holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. She edits the Late Night Interview column and reads fiction entries for Sundress Publications’ annual Best of the Net. She sympathizes with unreliable narrators.