Seven years into his involvement with short fiction, Wells Tower has finally released a book of collected stories. The young author is a regular in The Atlantic, and has had work in the Paris Review, The Believer , and McSweeney’s. The new collection’s title, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, hints at the inevitable tragedies within, but not so much at Tower’s stealthy observation and wit; in his inimitable vernacular, the writer addresses the ties that bind and the conversation between man and nature. Sabrina Jaszi at our sister publication Boldtype got his take on the debut.
Boldtype: The language in your stories is sometimes familiar, sometimes totally off the wall. (In “On the Show,” Ellis says, unforgettably: “I’d eat the whole damn child just to get a taste of the thing he squeezed out of.”) What are your sources? How much comes from your own imagination, and who are the real people who inform your dialogue?
Wells Tower: I do keep an ear out for people hitting interesting licks with language. That particular line is a perversion of something a friend of a friend picked up on a fishing boat in Alaska. The original, horrid remark was, I think, “I’d drink a gallon of her pee just to see where it came from.” A wee bit too awful to be of literal use, so I rejiggered it. I guess I do a fair amount of that, stealing lines from real humans and then twisting them around in ways that appeal to me.
BT: In terms of subject matter, Raymond Carver came to mind as I read your book. Was he an influence?
WT: Of course I admire Carver, though I wouldn’t try to write like him. I’m a little too greedy for big words and indulgent usage to pull off the muscular succinctness of Carver’s style. As much as I love him, it’s the writers who obsessively tool their sentences that really make my heart race — Nabokov, Barry Hannah, Nicholson Baker, Walker Percy, Joan Didion, Melville, E.B. White. Nor is Carver somebody I really look to for tips on structure. A writer with his voice, heart, and compact means of conveying large feeling can pull off stories like “Fat” or “The Calm” — shorties whose architecture is pretty close to anecdote. I haven’t got those sorts of gifts. Structure-wise, I tend to look to short stories with a few more moving parts, e.g. the works of Richard Yates (Swiss clocks, nearly all of his short stories), Flannery O’Connor, Cheever, Andre Dubus, Poe, the usual suspects.
BT: You inhabit characters of all ages and sexes, including a few men that could have been you. Why did you decide to tackle so many perspectives, and what do you consider your great successes and failures (if any) in that regard?
WT: I’m sure I don’t know. Most of the stories in the book went through many, many violent revisions. Lots of total guttings and wholesale reconstructions, often with complete shifts in the casts of characters, P.O.V., tense, etc. With each story, there seemed to be some element — a setting, an incident, or something — that made me want to keep bashing away at it, and the characters who wound up in the final drafts were generally the last of a batch of puzzle pieces I’d tried to cram into place. With a couple of exceptions, I can’t really recall sitting down and coldly deciding to tackle one demographic or another. In most cases, the stories insisted on their particular populations after much grueling trial and error. As far as their successes and flaws go, I can safely say I’ve lost all perspective there. If left to my own devices, I probably would have gone on revising until I went insane, but fortunately, my editor finally pried the manuscript out of my hands.
BT: Your title story — a tale of heartbreak in love and war among Vikings — differs pretty noticeably from the others in the collection. How does it fit in, and how did it come to be the book’s namesake and final word?
WT: Its historical prankishness aside, I suppose that story takes up a few of the common themes of the collection — loss, loneliness, the difficulty of making a family work. But none of these stories were part of a deliberate effort to fill a volume with a coherent, unified body of work. The nine stories in the book are simply the keepers from the first seven years or so of my apprenticeship at short fiction. I’ve tried to skin the cat in several ways in there. Some stories aim to win with humor, others with language stunts. In others, I made a deliberate effort to shy away from trusty tricks and tell a simple, earnest tale (“Leopard,” “Door in Your Eye”).
“Everything Ravaged,” I thought a bit too harsh as a title for the book, but after extensive focus-grouping among friends, it emerged as the clear winner. We put it last for the heartsickness and feeling of embattled tenderness of its final lines, which seemed to echo with the other stories in the book.
BT: All your protagonists have monsters under their beds. How does fear act on your characters? How does it act on you as a writer?
WT: Interesting question. I don’t know that my characters are any more paranoid or timorous than the rest of us. If a sense of dread pervades the stories, I’d like to think it’s the usual human dread, the welter of accumulated regret that comes with the terrible awareness, as Ian Frazier once beautifully put it, that life is always “paying out like line.” It’s probably that same awareness that makes me spend most days at my desk.
BT: What do you love about the short story? Do you have plans for a novel?
WT: I love the rigor of the form, the difficult challenge to assemble in a tight space a little machine of emotion that detonates satisfyingly at the end. And, yes, I’m bashing away at a novel as we speak.