“The end times, they could be good times”: In conversation with Sean Wilsey
I softly sailed up and over to one of G-Force One‘s two windows, in the emergency exits. Direction doesn’t matter when you’re weightless. Up and down are no longer markers. I suddenly understood how in space there is only everywhere. And this revelation was accompanied by the fleeting physical knowledge of what it was to leave the earth. I could move in any direction. All was calm and effortless. And to an astonishing degree–astonishing largely because the understanding was so matter-of-fact, as though I’d begun to internalize my own understated Neil Armstrong–this sort of comfort with wonder felt like the goal of both science and religion. Here I was with a bunch of Mexican salesman on the Vomit Comet, doing the kinds of things that make others want to either throw up or, in NASA-ese, “work with us to do them,” and lo, it was good. I looked outside and saw that we were canted violently towards the ocean, like a bombing run or a suicide mission–like Project Amerika, DC-bound, coming in. A wave of vertigo…”Feet down!”
–Excerpt from More Curious, (McSweeney’s, 2014)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Exuberance is the word that comes most easily to mind as I read the essays in this collection. You jump in with both feet and approach each subject with enthusiasm and an eye for the absurd detail or snatch of overheard conversation. Whether you’re driving across the country in a 1960s pickup that won’t go faster than 45 mph, poring over advice and recipe (!) columns from mid-eighties issues of “Thrasher” magazine, querying the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene about rat population stats, or canvassing for Obama in Indiana (and getting called a “nigger lover” by little old ladies in the process), your curiosity and sense of adventure propels the reader through each piece. The prose appears effortless in the best sense of the word and any writer knows how difficult that is to pull off. Which essays in the collection presented the biggest challenge to you during the writing and revision process, and why?
SEAN WILSEY: The essay I had the hardest time with was “Travels With Death.” It’s the longest, most overtly ambitious and mission statement-like in terms of laying out what I believe in as a writer (possibility-of-failure-laden experimentation, humor, empathy, irreverence, excess), is in a genre (the cross country travelogue) that lots of writers have very successfully explored, and goes after big topics like friendship, death, the advertising business. When I drove across the country at 45 MPH I had no plans to write about it. But then the journey wound up being too eventful and strange not to. I started taking notes on the trip when I got to San Antonio. 10,000 words worth of notes! But I didn’t look at them for six years. Then I wrote a draft of the piece over the course of many incredibly frustrating months. I wanted to figure out how to say everything I could about millennial America, in a scathing and loving way, and keep a narrative at the center, and make this weird leap and turn a fictional character (Red, of Red Roof Inns) invented to sell cheap motel rooms, into an exemplar of how advertising gets into our heads, but as a sort of anti-example (nobody remembers him), and a countercultural figure who, because of his non-fame, is this wild, free, sad, bigoted, hard-living sort of shadow-of-America American.
At one point the piece ballooned up to around 30,000 words and I thought it might be its own book. A (Redless) version was published in The London Review of Books at around 5,000 words, and then appeared as the introduction to State by State, a book of 50 original essays on the 50 states that I coedited with my friend Matt Weiland. My wife, Daphne Beal, was really helpful in the editing process. And I remember her telling me, “You need to differentiate between what’s interesting and what isn’t instead of simply giving us everything that happened, and giving everything equal weight.” Pretty basic. Although isn’t that the very opposite of what the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard does to such acclaim now? Anyway, the “definitive” version, published here, which I’m 80% happy with, is 16,000 words.
In contrast I had a great time writing about skateboarding and got that 10,000 word essay done in a single, painless month. That said, I did not have children then.
Technically I only got called a “nigger lover” by one little old lady.
AR: Wow– 10,000 words of notes kind of boggles the mind! I’m particularly curious about how you managed to capture the (often hilarious) dialogue in this piece and others. You relate a number of overheard or off-the-cuff conversations: a Red Roof Inn customer lodging a complaint, a San Antonio man selling toy Nazi soldiers, and the uber-loquacious Don Harris, who seemingly can’t stop talking for an entire day. How do you handle getting these unanticipated encounters down in detail (in contrast, say, to a planned interview where you might be expected to carry some sort of recording device)? Do you just have incredible recall when it comes to dialogue, or are you furtively taking notes, or…?
SW: Yeah, I took a ton of notes. Even though they sat around for six years before becoming the first draft of the piece, I always knew I’d get to them eventually—10k in notes is like money buried in the yard. In the case of the complaining Red Roof Inn patron and the Nazi figurine guy I wrote down the exchanges immediately after they took place. And I’ll often pull out a notebook and feverishly scrawl something, ultra-conspicuously. I don’t really think there’s anything about note taking that requires stealth. I’m almost always brazen about it. Don Harris, however, is another story. I got in touch with him after the fact and we exchanged a lot of emails, to the end of reconstructing his monologues. So he was directly involved and very helpful.
AR: “No Work For Me” hinges on a day in mid-September 2001 in which you volunteer at a crisis center set up for friends and family members of victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. You and your fellow volunteers are simply trying to maintain some semblance of order—buying office supplies, providing directions–to offset the collective helplessness everyone is facing, and certain odd details take on a strange, elevated significance. I found this essay refreshing in its focus on how ordinary interactions can become strange in the aftermath of an unimaginable event— the everyday confusion of first-day-jitters juxtaposed with the odd reality of a crisis center in the Plaza Hotel (of all places). The most banal courtesies seem both bizarre and necessary in this context. I feel like there’s unfair pressure on writers to create a certain types of narratives about the 9/11 attacks—either a sort of disaster porn or some tidy analysis or “deeper meaning” that we can comfort (or terrify) ourselves with. How did you first approach writing about 9/11? Was it difficult to trust that simply reporting the details as you encountered them in the days and weeks that followed would be sufficient?
SW: I knew there was value to carefully setting down what it felt like to be surrounded by the people who had been in the Trade Center and survived, or had family who were killed there. I suppose Hiroshima by John Hersey is a model for that kind of tragedy chronicling. Getting details and observing carefully what people were actually saying and thinking and doing in the first few days: that’s important. Though I do feel like I tried to do other things as well. And there are moments of out-of-left-field comedy.
AR: I was fascinated by the many parallels you found between 9/11 and the historical accounts of the days and months following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “Someone said the same thing was happening in New York and Chicago in a pan-American doomsday,” you write. “Afterward people bragged that they had been part of it.” And you quote an April 1906 article by Pauline Jacobsen of the San Francisco Bulletin that feels stunningly familiar–as though it easily could have been written about the days following the 2001 attacks. You’d originally begun researching Pearl Harbor as a possible comparable event–at what point in your research did your focus switch to the 1906 earthquake? Was there a particular detail that stood out for you and made you decide to look more closely at the earthquake instead?
SW: I’m pretty sure the Chicago fire could have worked as a comparison. But I have a visceral dislike of Chicago and pretty much glaze over whenever that city appears in print. (Never gonna read The Adventures of Augie March.) I grew up in San Francisco, and was drilled on earthquake preparedness throughout my childhood. My grandparents were in the ’06 quake and my parents were in the ’89 one. So that got me curious. And then I stumbled on the Jacobsen thing and thought it was a perfect indictment of post 9/11 New York.
AR: In “The World I Want to Live In” you describe how your obsession with the pageantry and drama of the 2002 World Cup drives you to purchase the entire 1970’s World Cup (minus two “lost” games) on eBay. You spend the next two months immersed in the tournament (to the gentle mockery of friends) on VHS (25 tapes in all). Still, you don’t drag the reader into that darkened room to watch every minute with you. Instead you thoughtfully (and entertainingly) curate the experience for us: “The fans all looked like farmers. The ads at the edge of the field were for alcohol, tires, and cigarettes. The players wore short shorts and short haircuts.” In “The Objects of My Obsession” you apply the same level of zeal to your quest to acquire high-end, European-made appliances and fixtures (you’re remodeling brownstones) at well below their (admittedly absurd) retail price. You invite us along as you scour Craigslist and travel up and down the East Coast in tireless pursuit of Italian cast-aluminum knobs and tiny German refrigerators. Why is it so satisfying to be a completist, to see an obsession all the way through? Is the process of writing about it an extension of that satisfaction, or a separate pleasure entirely?
SW: Being a completist is maybe more of a disorder than a pleasure. Once I become obsessed with something I must see it through in the most extreme possible fashion, and while it is fun, even essential, there is also something draining about it. I guess it’s wrapped up in my identity and I do not know who I would be if I didn’t do everything with total commitment. But sometimes I wish I could just slack off like a half-ass. This passage from MC’s intro sums up my feelings about writing and obsession: “Writing is simply an attempt to come to terms with things that are almost impossible for me to live with otherwise. On the rare occasions when life is perfect, when it makes sense, I am freed from the obligation to write. Or to write nonfiction. I suppose that if the world around me made sense I would become a novelist.”
AR: How then, do you feel about a subject after you’ve written about it in such detail, if that makes sense? Does the obsessive fever lift? Do you carry these interests forward with more enjoyment, having wrestled through the process of giving them their extreme close-up? Or is there just that awkward intimacy of being that guy that now knows a lot about doorknobs?
SW: I feel a combination of all three of these things. There is always a blessed abatement. The fever has to break. And I have to move on to a new fever. But the thing with which I am obsessed then becomes a part of my identity, and I feel like a larger, calmer, more connected-to-the-world sort of person. Which is a very good feeling. And then, as you say, there’s a bit of embarrassment attendant to being an authority on something. I’d rather be an amateur than an authority. One day I imagine having a blowout pool party attended by all the people I’ve met through my obsessions.
AR: In 2009, forty years after the moon landing, GQ Magazine sent you to write a piece on NASA’s dwindling federal funding (“NASA Redux”). Your report on the doomed Constellation program takes you to Cape Canaveral where you watch the Endeavor liftoff, drink water made from reprocessed human waste, and (unwittingly) rub shoulders with Neil Armstrong. From there you go on to visit space centers in Alabama, Texas, and Mississippi, and finally to Washington DC, where, in a strange sort of coda, you experience a zero gravity flight, hungover and surrounded by jubilant Mexican salesmen. How did that GQ assignment originally come your way?
SW: Mark Kirby, who now edits the soccer magazine Howler, was working for GQ, asked me out to lunch, and suggested NASA as a topic. I’m not really sure why. Just an editorial hunch. But a lucky one for me, as, after I said yes, I fell totally in love with NASA. I still think they represent this country at its best. Then GQ assigned Robert Polidori to take the pictures. At the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, I was introduced to some rocket scientists like this: “This is Sean. He’s the writer. But wait till you meet the photographer! He’s really good!”
AR: NASA does feel like a really great fit! In order to be curious one has to admit to not already knowing everything…and who better to epitomize curiosity than an group of people devoted to exploring (literally) the vast unknown? But there’s increasingly less room in our culture to admit uncertainty or acknowledge anything bigger than ourselves. You observe “NASA is an arts organization disguised as a federal agency trapped within the government bureaucracy.” It’s heartbreaking to see NASA forced to justify its “value” to the public in the narrowest, most immediate terms (facilitating cell phone and GPS technology– devices that allow us to engage even less with our surroundings). Did you have any idea when you took the assignment that you would be reporting on the end of an era? And have you kept up with NASA since writing the piece?
SW: Initially I neither knew nor especially cared that I was reporting on the end of an era. But I was quickly smitten with the institution. The era-end-ness only came out late in the process. So my experience of writing about NASA was like the experience of falling in love with someone who has a terminal illness. I’m still in touch with Bert Ulrich, at NASA HQ in D.C., and Mike Gernhardt, an astronaut and diver in Houston. They are both fascinating, thoughtful, entertaining people.
AR: Do you think there’s still a chance to cultivate this type of large-scale wonder for kids growing up in a society where inquiry is often derided as a weakness or a luxury?
SW: Of course! There must be. A few changes in governmental priorities and we could be heading to Mars. Do you really think people are deriding inquiry as a luxury or weakness? That’s a doomsday sign if I’ve ever heard of one. People only lock into some notion of certainty when they are in the grip of full-on dread. Like the Pentagon.
AR: Not people as individuals, I don’t think, but collectively: the media, political groups, whoever is presuming to be in charge. Your comment about NASA being an “arts organization” made me think about the ways in which art has been summarily hacked out of school curricula as an “extra” (and now, bafflingly, science itself seems to be under attack– in terms of educational priorities, the climate change debate.) And while personal technology has sped up our ability to access information, can we really process it any faster in terms of understanding something more deeply? We look something up in seconds on our phones to settle an argument but this makes information itself feel disposable. You’ve touched on the fear connection in these essays–watching television after 9/11, you found it to be “at once knowing and false. Knowing seemed to be the new tone we had adopted in the face of the vastness of everything we didn’t know.” I guess I see the sidelining of NASA you witnessed in 2009 as a logical outcome of this attitude becoming sort of entrenched in media and pop culture. So I wonder what you think it would take, psychologically, I guess, for those governmental priorities to shift back outward again, toward exploration (an admission of not-knowing)?
SW: I guess we, as a nation, would have to become substantially less selfish–by which I mean less focused on our own immediate pleasure. Our entertainment culture is designed to keep us dissatisfied. While delayed pleasure is really what NASA is offering. How will this ever change? I think the most likely answer is that it will change through cataclysm. I’d thought that a truly inspired leader could reorder our priorities, and I’d thought that Obama was that leader, but it has not turned out to be so. That said, and to reiterate something that occurred to me while in Miami writing about a beachside hamburger bacchanal: The end times, they could be good times.
AR: You seem to have enjoyed what I can best describe as a loving, long-term relationship with the remote West Texas town of Marfa. I love the otherworldly, stranger-than-fiction accounts of Marfa that begin and end the collection. Can we expect more dispatches from Marfa, now that you’re living there on a more permanent basis?
SW: Definitely. Marfa just keeps on giving. Though I’m increasingly curious about the town of Presidio, sixty miles south of Marfa. It’s growing fast, and is on the border, directly across from Ojinaga, Mexico. Seems to me like it could start attracting some of the people Marfa once attracted. Then again, a cool day in Presidio is one where the temperature stays below 100 degrees. You drop about 2,500 feet driving from Marfa to Presidio, and there’s a price to be paid in sweat for every one of those feet.
AR: You’ve been an avid skateboarder since “discovering” it as a lonely teenager in the mid-eighties. In “Using So Little” you describe how you cut (and chipped!) your skating teeth on steep San Francisco hills, the thrill of velocity and physical danger and that sense of truly engaging with your environment at ground level. As an adult in NYC you continued to skate year-round and logged some unexpected interactions with bystanders along the way. You write, “Skateboarding is bringing emotion to emotionless terrain—unloved parking lots, vacant corporate downtowns, long after the office workers are home. I remember skating in such places and feeling that I was somehow, redeeming them from their daily functions, giving them a secret life.” What is the terrain like in Marfa? I’m curious about the challenges that this radically different environment poses after more than two decades of skating in densely populated urban cities. Are you still skating every day?
SW: Sorry to disappoint, but: I’ve had a few injuries and am a father of small kids—facts that add up, inevitably, to less skating. And, in Marfa, oh dear, zero skating. There’s not a surface in this town that won’t hang up your wheels and I’ve always been a street skater, not a ramp or park skater (to me those guys are caged like animals in the zoo).
AR: You’ve mentioned a number of fiction and nonfiction writers (Pynchon and Mitchell feature prominently in your introduction) whose work you admire, and you’re quick to credit (and quote at length) writers who have inspired you or written about a subject you’re exploring (your essay on rats in NYC acknowledges Joseph Mitchell and Robert Sullivan’s contributions to the subject). On the surface that might seem pretty standard practice (crediting sources) but it also feels like you’re engaging in a more open discussion with your reader about the value of literary influences. Are there any writers, contemporary or otherwise, whose work you’ve only recently “discovered” whose work you’re excited to read more of?
SW: Writers invest themselves with authority by ingesting the work of others–and fully acknowledging this fact, and opening up sources to the reader’s curiosity, is part of the writer’s job, in my opinion. We’re all just the accumulation of what we’ve read and done, and none of us really knows all that much. Authority is a pose. So better to be straight about it. The book I’m working on now is set in Italy, and the writer I’ve been reading is Casanova. Being an obsessive I am reading the full 12 volume version of his memoirs. Currently on volume 9. It keeps getting better and better.
AR: Any more details you care to share about this current project?
SW: A short version of a long section in the book was published in the New Yorker [link below]. And then I’m working on another part, set in Florence, where I was a waiter in a Mexican restaurant. To a Florentine there’s no great difference between a Mexican and an American, bless ’em!
Find a copy of More Curious at IndieBound
Read Sean’s New Yorker piece here.
Sean Wilsey was born in San Francisco, in 1970, and lives in Marfa, Texas. He is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Oh The Glory of it All (Penguin), and the coeditor, with Matt Weiland, of two collections of original writing: State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (Ecco) and The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (Harper Perrenial). For many years he was the editor-at-large for McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and on the staff of the New Yorker magazine. (Photo credit: Susan Simmons)