After eight acclaimed novels, Richard Wiley (who co-founded the Black Mountain Institute and taught creative writing at UNLV before retiring in 2015) has finally unveiled a collection of linked tales. Tacoma Stories, published by Bellevue Literary Press, is at once a love letter to, and an exploration of the lives of people who inhabit the city in Washington that birthed everyone’s favorite surf-rock band the Ventures and the Mars Candy factory. Wiley, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Tacoma, will be in town April 11, at 7p, to sign books at the Writer’s Block. Desert Companion had chance to chat with Wiley prior to the free event.
The jacket blurb for Tacoma Stories mentions Sherwood Anderson (who wrote the 1919 short-story cycle Winesburg, Ohio) and Raymond Carver (who wrote many incredible stories set in Northwest). But the book that Tacoma Stories brings to my mind is Dubliners by James Joyce. You have a knack for writing subtle, unusual epiphany endings. I’m thinking in particular of “The Man Who Looked at the Floor,” about an ex-CIA agent, Jonathan, who believes he’s being cased by someone who lived in Nigeria when he (Jonathan) had been working as an embassy spy. Indeed, in the story’s last few pages, Jonathan experiences a moment of sudden, shattering insight. How close was Joyce in your heart as you wrote Tacoma Stories?
This is a very interesting question. Of course, the comparison of Tacoma Stories with Carver and Sherwood Anderson came from (the writer) Bob Shacochis, not me. I hadn’t thought of Carver at all when writing the stories, but I did know that I wanted them to be linked, as are Anderson’s. As for Joyce and Dubliners ... when I was starting out some 40 years ago, I was terrifically influenced by Joyce, first by Dubliners — I still read “The Dead” once in a while — later by Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At Iowa I even took a class in Finnegans Wake with the great Joycean scholar Anthony Burgess. All we did during that class was read the thing aloud and drink and eat finger food, but I learned a lot about writing for sound as much as for meaning, and I think any knack I have for epiphany endings must come from building up a rhythm toward that ending starting a few paragraphs back, if that makes any sense. And Dubliners is packed with that.
Your story “Anyone Can Master Grief but He Who Has It” is perhaps the strangest, most heartbreaking story in the collection. It relates the saga of English professor Ralph, who goes to visit the wife of the colleague with whom he’d shared a love. She has kept the poor man’s form in taxidermy! There’s a touch of Poe to this one, but you never let the story veer into the realm of the macabre. There’s a Henry James touch, at the end, when Ralph burns the poem he’d intended to share with the widow, and I wonder: Did you ever write the poem for Ralph? Or did you know going into the writing of this story that Ralph’s high-minded notions of loss would be wrecked by having to get rid of his dead lover’s stuffed corpse?
This story started out, in a much earlier draft, with Ralph and his dead lover’s daughter going out in a boat with her still-alive but terribly crippled father, and then having the daughter pull the plugs on the boat to assist in her father's suicide. Ralph was forced to swim back to shore with his poem floating beside him on the waves. The story almost worked in that form, but, of course, story writing isn’t horseshoes, so “almost” isn't good enough. As for actually writing the poem and putting it in the story ... I was simply afraid that any poem I wrote would not be able to match, qualitatively, the poem I wanted Ralph to write, especially since it had such a great title going in. What could be better, after all, than to brag about a poem that you don’t actually have to write?
The interwoven tales comprising Tacoma Stories are sometimes diffusely plotted (“The Dangerous Gift of Beauty”), at other times tightly plotted (“The Dancing Cobra”). The latter is side-splittingly funny and displays the filmic side of your writing. It’s very cinematic, and I wonder if you drew any inspiration from screenwriting to conjure the scene-switching comedy of teens snatching a mom’s brand-new, um, toy?
No inspiration from screenwriting, though I do “see” the scenes I am writing as if they were in a movie, most of the time. As you know, the mother in the story appears very early on, in “The Day of the Reckoning of Names.” She, like the woman in “The Dangerous Gift of Beauty,” lived her early life using her beauty as a tool, of sorts, so I wanted to show her at odds with growing older, as it were, in her half of the scene-switching. As for the kids at the drive-in movie ... such awkwardness was not only a big part of my high school years, but of those of nearly everyone I knew. So I simply wanted to write a funny story about it.
“The Women,” meanwhile, does in fact veer into the macabre. Here, we have a judge, Andy, who, having met Ted Bundy in a law school class he’d taught years ago, ends up haunted by the killer’s victim’s names and biographical details. So much so that the judge buys Bundy’s childhood home in a Tacoma. “The Women” isn’t a horror story, but it offers the reader many horrifying aspects to ponder, especially regarding the obsession of love. Did you find yourself having to mute Andy’s sinister inclinations?
I didn't think of Andy as having particularly sinister inclinations, so I didn't have to mute them. I did think of him as a man always at odds with women — way back in the first story he’s offering free wills to women in bars in the hope of getting laid, after all — and I wanted the reader to wish for his success with his current paramour, with whom he buys Ted Bundy’s childhood home. This was another story that had a number of false starts before it found both its rhythm and its subject. Bundy went to the same high school I did, three years after me. I, as well as many Tacomans, have suffered his rude interjection into our consciousness, and I wanted to dig him out of mine. And as the story progressed, I decided I wanted to name each of his (known) victims, as a remembrance of them instead of him.
“eHarmony Date @ Chez Panisse” is the most generous story I’ve read about online dating. Was your aim here to write something that defied the darkness and melancholy we often find in a New Yorker-type story that covers similar ground?
A few years ago my wife and I stopped at Chez Panisse for lunch. It was an expensive lunch, $80 a person, but the place was famous, and we were on holiday. Sitting next to us was a man and woman whom, we couldn’t help noticing, were asking each other very elementary questions. “How long have you lived in Berkeley?,” etc. The lunch was to-die-for, and after ours we decided that the couple next to us must have been on an internet date. My wife said, “You should write a story about that, call it ‘eHarmony Date @ Chez Panisse,’” so that is what I did, later publishing the story in the Los Angeles Review. At the time, it had nothing to do with Tacoma. It is the only story in my collection not actually set there, so when I began to fashion the architecture of Tacoma Stories, I remembered Mary from “The Dangerous Gift of Beauty,” and gave the woman her name and back story. I did and do like the idea that something like that might turn out well, so I gave it a happy ending, much unlike many of the New Yorker stories that we read these days.
“Out for a Drink” ties up the collection nicely, in a way I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t see Richie as a possible stand-in for the author, and I didn’t anticipate the characters’ discussion of how writers play fast and loose with the truth. Was it the last story you ended up writing for the collection?
Yes, it was the last story I wrote for the collection, the shortest story in it, and perhaps the only one that might not stand alone without the collection, since it harkens back not only to the first story, “Your Life Should Have Meaning on the Day You Die,” but also to several others. I guess I wanted a sort of unexpectedly metafictional ending, which characters complaining to the author about how they were treated in the collection. It, like “The Women,” is also the only story in which ghosts appear. That is, if one believes that ourselves at 22 years old or so are ghosts to us in later decades.
Tacoma Stories is a celebration of short-form fiction. You published most, if not all, of these stories in a range of different literary magazines and anthologies, and it seems like you did it effortlessly. How do you view the lit-mag scene for story writers today? Has it changed much compared to the days when you first began sending your work out?
It seems to me that publishing short stories has always been terribly difficult, but it may be even harder today than it was when I started writing, for there are fewer venues for them and fewer serious readers, I am sorry to say. Actually, however, I published only seven of the stories in my collection previously. Some of them were requested, two were sold by my agent. Agents don’t like sending stories out, either, because there is usually very little money in them, and two or three I sent out by myself. I dislike doing that, everyone does, I suppose. But I love the form. Some writers like to say that short stories are harder to write than novels but, though they are quite difficult, that is bollocks. A story can only kill you for months; a novel can do so for years or even decades.
You wrote eight novels before sitting down to complete a loosely connected story collection. Why did you wait so long to publish a book of short fictions?
I was always engaged in some novel and couldn’t see my way clear to take time out to write stories. I worked on a novel called Commodore Perry’s Minstrel Show for nearly 11 years, Soldiers in Hiding took me six, and all of the others took at least half that long. Now that I am of an age where I don’t have a lot of decade-long time increments left to me, I am drawn to the idea of dispatch, I suppose.