Exquisitely Damaged: A Conversation with Lance Weller
“But there were also white sand beaches north and south of town, and back from these stood crumbling cliffs of stone and clay that tide and wind destroyed and recreated seasonally. Against the northern cliffs and sprawling off into the black forest there sat a tiny Indian settlement for itinerant workers. Canvas shelters trembling in the wind. Rude shebangs of cast-off planking, of branch and packed moss and fern. Little tents of stained bed linen rife with fleas.”
As a person who thinks she belongs rooted in the Pacific Northwest, I immediately felt drawn to Lance Weller’s Wilderness. Weller’s debut is one of those novels that delivers you to that place (in this case both a remote northern left coast beach and the Civil War) drenching you with geography, leaving you rooted, leaving you smelling the smoke from the battle, tasting the spray from the ocean. I found myself needing to know how Weller arrived at that profound sense of location and how he dug so deeply into his characters.
Stefanie: Wilderness is rich with memorable, broken characters, (Abel Truman – the troubled and defeated Confederate soldier who lives on the Pacific Northwest beach for years until he is compelled to begin a journey, Glenn and Ellen—a mix-racial couple who buy a piece of remote property for their homestead despite racial harassment, Hypatia—a woman who has lost her child and has been beaten and raped by Yankee soldiers she assumed she could trust). These people are haunted by racism, starvation, horrific injuries, etc. Even the animals—specifically the dog and the mysterious half-wolf—have histories of trauma and loneliness. What was it like to write about such mangled characters?
Lance: Damaged people, people that have been worn down and know it, have always interested me because you can imagine their histories just by looking at them. You can see the years and the cares of those years right on their faces and in the way they carry themselves. I did restaurant work for a lot of years in places that, for whatever reason, drew a lot of the elderly and the lonely and much of the inspiration for many of the characters in Wilderness comes from watching and talking with these people. I don’t think it’s possible to get to a certain age without damage and we are, all of us, broken in one way or another. That being said, writing about these sorts of things—Abel and his dog, Glenn and Ellen, Hypatia—was pretty taxing, emotionally. Maybe I broke down now and again. I probably did. But not writing stories like this would not only be too easy to contemplate, it’d be boring.
SF: Where did you go within yourself as a writer to describe the hunger and pain and deplorable conditions? How do you do that from your desk, where I’m assuming you have heat and food and shelter and decently good health?
LW: Well, there are parts of Wilderness that were written out in the woods! Or, as the case may be, on the beach between Ozette and La Push in Washington State. There are scenes that were written in my tent by the light of a headlamp and scenes that I wrote in the middle of the night in a truly wretched snow camp in the foothills below Mount Rainier. All very romantic and adventurous-sounding but, yeah, the vast balance of the work was done in a comfy chair so it became an act of imagination and I hope that I got it at least a little bit of it right.
SF: There are a couple of truly bad people in your novel. What sort of research did you do and how was that experience to get into the mind of an immoral and basically evil character?
LW: Beyond trying to figure out how the sort of aimless drifters who are the two main villains in Wilderness would make their way in the world—that is, the nuts-and-bolts of their getting along—there was very little research I could do. I was asked a question much like this at a reading once and responded in a sort of deer-in-the-headlights way because, in the main, I like to think of myself as a decent man. A nice guy. But, if I’m going to be truthful about it, it was distressingly easy to write about these villains, these thugs, these bad people. Some of it was me trying to be true to my take on the times—the ignorance, violence and the casual racism—but some of it comes from the darker places most of us have buried within us. The harder task was balancing all that darkness with light, and without that lightness coming off saccharine or overly sentimental (though those were sentimental times).
SF: While you could visit the timeless beaches of the Olympic Peninsula to get the feel of where Abel’s camp would be, you couldn’t exactly travel to the civil war and immerse yourself in battle. Did you have doubts and concerns about writing about a historical era?
LW: The historicity of Wilderness was something that worried me to no end. I had very little knowledge of the American Civil War before starting the book and, in many way, coming from a position of vast ignorance helped to highlight those facets of the conflict that were important to Abel’s story. So when I read various histories, I read them with an eye toward the common soldier’s experience. I read diaries and letters as I could find them and then, when I had a draft, I realized it still wasn’t enough. So I took two trips back east to visit as many of the Eastern battlefields as I could and got to spend a good chunk of time stomping around Saunders’ Field in the Wilderness itself where the centerpiece of the novel is set.
The soldier’s-eye-view of the narrative helped a lot since I wasn’t concerning myself overmuch with the “larger minutiae” of broad troop movements and command personalities and all the mythological stuff that’s built up around the American Civil War. I was able, instead, to focus on Abel and Abel’s circle of friends and their experiences during the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 and write it in such a way that it was as historically valid as I knew how to make it yet still, firmly, fiction.
William Hurt’s character in the film Broadcast News asks Albert Brooks what he should do when his real life exceeds his dreams and Brooks says, “Keep it to yourself.” I’ve had the kind of year I should probably keep to myself. —Lance
SF: How did Wilderness find a publisher?
LW: I think it took me figuring out how to believe in the book—that is, believe it was worthwhile—and then approaching everything as professionally as I could (from researching what agencies were looking for what to putting together my book proposal to my first meeting with a potential agent) before I got any traction anywhere. And, also, luck. I found the right agent at the right time and, even then, it still took a while. When the call from Bloomsbury came it came out of the blue and it came at a time when I was pretty low. I was out of work and had been for a long time. I had applications out all over the place. I was getting interviewed by high school kids and being told I “just wasn’t Target material.” So it was a real, make or break moment for me.
SF: What was it like working with Bloomsbury?
LW: At one point, William Hurt’s character in the film Broadcast News asks Albert Brooks what he should do when his real life exceeds his dreams and Brooks says, “Keep it to yourself.” I’ve had the kind of year I should probably keep to myself. Working with a publisher has exceeded my hopes and dreams in every way and the support I’ve been shown, as a first-time novelist, had been more than humbling. It’s been a privilege.
SF: From the publisher’s acceptance to the arrival of your first copy and on to marketing the book, can you share some highlights from this first-novel adventure?
LW: I could pluck out any number of small moments and call them triumphs but there are a few that will remain with me always. Getting my first overnight package from my editor with his line edits was one. Then opening said package and finding…not as much red ink as I thought I would was another. And not only was there not too much red ink but there were no major edits in form or content other than some tightening here and there. It told me I’d been on the right track and that my instincts (which were all I had to go on) were good.
When I got the call that Wilderness was to be Bloomsbury’s lead adult fiction offering for Fall 2012 and that there’d be a little tour, I was buying donuts at a specialty shop in Seattle (I’ll drive a long way for a donut) and the news just took the breath right out of me. I went down on my knees on the sidewalk.
There was also a very sudden, very rewarding sense of community as I began to hear from other authors Bloomsbury had sent the book to in hopes of getting a blurb or two. I went, very quickly, from not knowing anyone at all to finding myself with a handful of new, real friends. I found new writers to enjoy and my world was suddenly, wonderfully broadened.
My first reading in support of Wilderness—my first reading of anything, anywhere—was at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. I was nervous; flop-sweat nervous. And it was hot; Mississippi-in-September hot. I made the mistake of wearing a sport coat and a long-sleeved shirt and just melted up at the podium. But I got through it and learned the wisdom of the old adage, “trust in the work.” I like to think I’ve learned how to become a better reader/speaker through trial-and-error and also how to stay a LOT more dry.
But really, the best thing about the whole process—even over finally and at last holding a copy of my book in my hands after trying for so many years—has been hearing from people who have enjoyed reading Wilderness. I’ve been…“astonished” isn’t the right word and “thrilled” doesn’t go far enough to describe what I feel for the kindness with which people are receiving the book. “Consistently overwhelmed” is the best way to put, I suppose.
SF: Are there any debut writers/books you’d recommend?
There a great many terrific new writers out there but the three that come immediately to mind are:
Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds. There’s a reason for the accolades and there are some gorgeous sentences in this book.
Lydia Netzler, Shine, Shine, Shine. I can’t think of another book like it and that’s a good thing. It was brave and quirky and I was smitten by it.
Christian Kiefer, The Infinite Tides. Kiefer reminds me a little of Don DeLillo and writes with the sort of fluid, muscular prose that sneaks up on you then smacks you around a little with how well-crafted it is.
Lance Weller’s novel Wilderness was published by BloomsburyUSA in September 2012. Weller is a past winner of the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Weller now lives in Gig Harbor, Washington, with his wife and four enormous dogs.
Stefanie Freele is the author of two short story collections: Surrounded by Water (Press 53) and Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press). Stefanie’s published and forthcoming work can be found in magazines such as Witness, Sou’wester, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, Quarterly West, The Florida Review, American Literary Review, Night Train, Edge, and Pank. She is the former Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review.