The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Antoine Wilson


If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through the end of August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week we caught up with Antoine Wilson, whose upcoming second novel Panorama City introduces the indelible voice of Oppen Porter. At the beginning of this idiosyncratic novel, 28-year-old Oppen thinks he’s dying in a Madera community hospital. From then on, he sets out to impart as much wisdom as he’s gathered for his unborn son. Through a series of monologues recorded on ten cassette tapes, Oppen narrates his transformation from village idiot to man of the world. During this journey, he encounters a homeless philosopher, a beautiful fortuneteller, and (in a strangely affecting chapter) an extra-long French fry. The novel doesn’t come out till September 25th, but Wilson was kind enough to chat with us about his new book, Southern California writers, and tragedy in literary fiction.

Your novel Panorama City features one of the more charming protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. I found it a brave choice that you gave Oppen Porter such an optimistic worldview. Compared to the more ironic voices so popular in contemporary fiction, Oppen stands out as refreshingly sincere. How did you discover this voice, and what did you gain from using it?

Generally, I like to assume the best of people, and I’m terribly slow at picking up when people are being disingenuous. (This can be a huge blind spot, but it does make for a pleasant life.) Early on in the writing process, I realized I could endow Oppen with an extreme form of my own tendency, and use it to slice through a myriad of false things in search of a few true things.

Oppen’s voice also comes from: Sancho Panza, Candide, some Beckett, some Thomas Bernhard, a very tall, very friendly, sort of off-kilter person who approached me on the streets of Iowa City many years ago, and, Bohumil Hrabal’s superb novel I Served the King of England.

The last few novels I’ve read had very bleak endings. Without giving anything away, I think it’s fair to say your ending isn’t a grim one. Why do you think happy endings are so uncommon in literary fiction?

People like to say that comedy equals tragedy plus time. Given a bit more time, though, the comic will swing around to the tragic again. Tragedy is a given; we all die in the end. But we live in a culture that lacks a strong tragic sense. For whatever reason, we’d rather ignore decline and death, and we eschew talk of failure in all forms. Meanwhile, we’re failing all over the place: economically, militarily, diplomatically, the list goes on. Literary writers — as opposed to those writers seeking primarily to create entertainment product — seek out and express certain difficult truths, many of which lie hidden under or behind the mainstream culture.

With Panorama City I deliberately sought out a less-than-bleak ending because I was dealing with: 1. A character trying to find his place in the world, someone I wanted to see succeed in some respect; and 2. The degree to which life’s hard facts are tempered by the cyclical nature of things. Not to get all Lion King on you, but while writing this book, my father died and my son was born. I wrote Panorama City from a very deep feeling that my current heroic moment is but a tiny link in a long and winding chain.

I found Panorama City to be a novel that felt distinctively Southern Californian. How did you decide on Panorama City as your setting? Your first novel, The Interloper , takes place in an unnamed beachside community not unlike Los Angeles. Do you see yourself as a Southern California writer? Is there such thing?

I live in Los Angeles, and I’m constantly seeking to reconcile the world “out there” with what comes out on the page. In that sense, I’m probably fated to be a Southern California writer. I’ve always taken to heart Faulkner’s line about his “little postage stamp of native soil” being worth writing about, but I still have no idea how to apply that to LA I’ll probably die trying.

I chose Panorama City because I wanted to set the book in the San Fernando Valley — I wanted Oppen to believe that he’d come to the big city without his ever actually getting over the hill into LA proper. I also wanted a place that had shifted demographically so that Aunt Liz could be stubborn in her remaining there. I wanted someplace at the margins, but not off the edge.

Where do you see American fiction headed? Or perhaps, where do you hope and/or dread it will go?

There’s been a big explosion of genre stuff, of literary writers crossing over into different kinds of storytelling, which is a sign that literary fiction could use an infusion of some sort, that it’s getting ossified. I thought David Shields’ Reality Hunger was really interesting on that point (ossification, not genre), and though I don’t necessarily agree with Shields’ take on everything, I sympathize.

I’m hoping American fiction moves toward the direction of risk, invention, and new forms. I don’t doubt that some segment of it will. The question is whether there will be institutions to support writers willing to take those risks, and readers eager to read the work that emerges.

I’d like to see fiction writers — young or old, American or not — attempt to make the novel novel again.

What’s the last good book you read?

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace.

Illustration by Allison Pottasch