Exclusive: Lowboy Author John Wray Takes the Cliche Out of the NYC Subway Story


We started reading Lowboy only a few days before we walked into Barnes and Noble and saw its dark cover prominently displayed, featured next to other titles from the weekend’s Times book review. Since then, we haven’t been able to stop reading it, much less reading about it. We’re just glad we got drawn in by Lowboy’s visions and hops through the New York City subway system mere moments before the Times gave it a rave review and New York Magazine declared Wray’s novel “a long-deserved breakout from a phenomenally versatile writer.”

We got the chance to ask Wray a few questions about his third novel, which follows Will Heller, a sixteen-year-old with paranoid schizophrenia who stopped taking his meds, and is traveling through the NYC subway system, steadfast and alone. After the jump, we ask him about the writing process, being an MFA drop-out, and what it feels like to be compared to J.D. Salinger.

Lowboy is haunting and uncomfortable, in the best way possible — it’s a pleasure to read, even when it’s not. We love how Wray manages to inject the familiar with flashes of the unexpected: Lowboy is your typical teenager, looking for love and worried about global warming, but takes them both on as goals in an obsessive quest; he weaves through the NYC subway that we all know and love, but which Wray portrays in such a way that makes it seem darker and more alienating than usual.

Flavorwire: The NYC subway system is almost one of the protagonists of your novel — and is a location that you capture beautifully and excitingly. What advice would you give to writers who hope to write about the subway in a non-cliche way?

John Wray: The best way to write about anything in a non-cliché way is to read as much as possible — to familiarize yourself with what the prevailing cliches are, in order to avoid them. That’s something it took me a long time to learn. You have to immerse yourself not only in your subject, but in the popular discourse about your subject, to know how to contribute in a way that’s genuinely new. Revision is helpful this way — hunting ruthlessly through your first or second or third drafts, cutting all cliché and flatness out. I use as many cliches as anybody else when I write; I just don’t keep them.

FW: Lowboy has been likened to Holden Caulfield in some early reviews. What do you think about this comparison?

JW: I don’t object to it, actually. I loved The Catcher in the Rye growing up, and it was an important touchstone while working on Lowboy. The two novels are different enough, in all the self-evident ways, that I don’t feel uncomfortable in Mr. Salinger’s shadow.

FW: Your third novel follows two highly-acclaimed books, The Right Hand of Sleep and Canaan’s Tongue, and you’ve been the recipient of a Whiting Award and part of Granta’s “Best Young American Novelists” series. And yet! You dropped out of not one, but two, MFA in creative writing programs. How much, in your view, did NOT finishing either of these programs contribute to your writing success?

JW: I certainly learned a lot in writing workshops, particularly at Columbia, so I wouldn’t want to give the impression that dropping out was an important step toward my maturing as a writer. I don’t regret the money I spent on grad school; I’m just glad that I didn’t spend more of it.

FW: You’ll be doing several readings in New York in March (including one on the L train!) but it’s not exactly simple to catch on to what is happening in the book without a careful reading. What would you want people who haven’t yet started the book to keep in mind when they go to one of your appearances?

JW: The passages I’m going to read will be pretty easy to follow — usually I’ll be reading the opening few pages of the book. I guess the main thing I’d like people to keep in mind is that the novel is a serious one, regardless of the fact that I’m jumping up and down with a megaphone in my hand on the subway, and generally carrying on like a jackass.

If you live in New York, catch Wray at one of the following readings around the city in the coming weeks: Manhattan to Williamsburg Thursday, March 12, 2009 @ 6:30 p.m. Meet at the end of the L platform at 14th Street & 8th Avenue.

Williamsburg Thursday, March 12, 2009 @ 7:30 p.m. Spike Hill 184 Bedford Ave

New York City Thursday, March 18, 2009 @ 7 p.m. McNally Jackson Booksellers 52 Prince Street

Brooklyn Thursday, March 19, 2009 @ 7 p.m. Book Court 163 Court Street

Brooklyn Tuesday, March 24, 2009 @ 7:30 p.m. Community Bookstore 143 7th Avenue

New York City Wednesday, May 06, 2009 Happy Ending Reading Series @ Joe’s Pub. 425 Lafayette Street