Conducted by Robert Segedy, McIntyres Fine Books, Pittsboro, NC.
RS: Hello, Stewart. I really enjoyed Wish You Were Here, and I am very excited to start spreading the good word on this incredible novel. I was lucky enough to take this book on vacation recently and really had a chance to read this in several long stretches of time. It was a real pleasure to have your book and just plunge into it, totally focus on it and enjoy it. Can you describe how you designed the book to give us such insight into so many different characters?
SO: Thats kind of you, Robert. As for the design of the book, were always dealing with a subjective point of view. Its always a character looking at their own particular place in the family trying to figure out exactly where it is, where it has been, because theyre all looking into the past, because theyre getting rid of the house. Its a time to stop and take stock of whats going on. Right now some of them arent in very good places in their lives, and sometimes they see themselves as more sinned against than sinning. Their views of each other are often contradictory, and I kind of like that.
RS: Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
SO: I was going to write a horror novel about a haunted amusement park and I had the whole thing plotted out. I became interested in the amusement park as a whole, and how an amusement park works, and what the workforce is like there and whats their relationship to the staff. I went out to Cedar Point, Ohio and did some research, interviewed a lot of people, and as I was doing that I got interested in a town, a little city next to it: Sandusky, Ohio.
So I was going to write a novel about the amusement park and the town, and how the two sort of fed off of each other, an uneasy relationship. And I started getting more interested in the town and I was going to write a novel just about the town, with the amusement park off to the side.
And then one day I noticed this woman driving through town on the way to her cottage. She was going to close it up because her husband had died and she was getting rid it. So I thought, well thats interesting, and I figured I would follow her for a while, try to figure out what was going on in her life, and that became much more interesting to me. So I chucked all the research, chucked the plotted novel, and said Ill follow her and see whats up. When you run into a character you have to treat their story with the respect it deserves. So in her case this seemed to be the treatment that was required, and once I met all the people around her, I realized it was a story of the whole family, rather than just her.
I felt while I was writing it that I was getting further and further away from what we think of conventional fiction. I was going further and further out into deeper experimental waters, even though the surface of the book looks very conventional and standard. Its not flashy, its not plotted, in fact its the opposite of that.
RS: Can you talk a little about the tensions that exist between various characters throughout the book?
SO: Shifting alliances are whats going on there, theyre all hoping for something. I think in the end that they all end up wishing the best for each other. I think that this is typical of those types of vacations that try to bring the exploded nuclear family back together. The tensions get high very fast; it doesnt take long.
RS: Critics have responded by stating that this book does not have the traditional arc of most novels.
SO: Obviously from the way I wrote the book Im not shooting for the typical big climax. A lot of people talk about the obsessive narrative. In a lot of plotted fiction, and literary fiction, theres a character that is obsessed beyond all reason with something, which leads to some very large and cataclysmic climax. When in fact our lives arent like that. We dont think of the world or ourselves in those terms at all. Hollywood does, and what we would call the melodramatic novel of the past, thinks about us that way. Theres a lot of daily living, thats what I wanted to get across.
RS: Thats what I liked. It was the small things, something would trigger a memory and that would be a reminder of Henry. The cabin for example was more like Henry than like any other member of the family.
SO: Yes, its true, the cabin being there means that Henry is present there all the while. They dont have to think about him to have him around them all the time. The cabin is changing their lives, which I thought was the important thing. This is a book about whats missing, hence the title, WISH YOU WERE HERE. And that sentiment is totally heartfelt and honest.
I think that every character has a certain someone they wish were with them right there at that moment. In Emilys case its obviously Henry, in Sarahs case its the boyfriend, in Ellas case its Sarah, her not really being there for her.
RS: The issue of wanting things to be perfect or at least easier is expressed by many of the characters. Can you speculate on what that is about?
SO: It seemed to fit the vacation experience. Much of the book is about getting away from our everyday lives. Because theyre all put someplace where theyre not working, they cant avoid things. No matter how much they try to avoid them while on vacation, they have so much time where they have to be with each other, that they have to confront these things, so its a natural place where they can dig in and deal with the meatier issues. Many people are losing or changing their identities.
RS: And not everybodys having a good time either.
SO: Because of the situation that theyre in, with Henry having died and Margarets husband just having left her, theyre all kind of searching for themselves in a way. The only one that isnt actively searching for him or herself is Sam, who has subjugated all of what hes feeling into his kleptomania or his strangeness. He doesnt know hes searching for himself, but everyone else is.
Justin doesnt know where he stands now that his father is gone. Ken still doesnt know where he stands, which I think has been a lifelong thing with him. Meg goes through rapid changes all the time; shes been going through those since she was a child. Emily without Henry doesnt exactly know whats going on, and certainly Arlene doesnt. Arlene is at the loosest ends of all.
RS: I was reminded of Henry James and Tolstoy because of the internalized feelings and the lack of direct confrontation. Were there any writers that you read or had in mind when you wrote WISH YOU WERE HERE?
SO: The three writers that I read during this book, that I thought were helping to sort of feed the book were Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse; certainly there are echoes throughout the book of that. William Maxwell, Time Will Darken It, signaled by them being named the Maxwells, and Alice Munro, who rarely if ever plots her work and usually bases it on how people see themselves through others.
RS: That was one of the things that struck me so deeply, was the lack of a linear plot leading up to a major climax. This book was subtler and it was much more about the characters internal lives.
SO: I felt as I was writing it that by the time I got to about page 400, I was almost halfway done, and it was getting further and further out there. There wasnt any major plot line, there wasnt any event that the reader was looking forward to; I knew it was based entirely on character and the way the characters saw each other.
RS: Can you comment on why this book is so different from your other works. What did you do to make this novel work? One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because it seemed to be realistic. The characters were 100 percent believable. So much of todays fiction is just the opposite.
SO: That was what I was trying to shoot for; I didnt know if an audience would sit still for it, especially due to the size of it. Its a book that could be taken on a vacation and you could live your vacation alongside the Maxwells vacation. It could be a book that you retreat into when youre stuck in that situation.
RS: The novel deals with the details of a regular day to day life, the daily nuances of life. I felt that this detail wouldnt work in a film because its just too subtle.
SO: That I think is the real opportunity of writing fiction, using point of view and going deep within a character and finding these moments of intimacy and stillness, and I like to do that. Book after book I end up doing that, even if its a heavily plotted book, or a weird book, theres always these moments where the characters run up against themselves.
That seems to me, as a writer and a reader, something that I really look forward to in books. When I can be with these people, alone with them in these moments of intimacy, thats what I value the most. In this book I based almost everything on that.
In my other books, A World Away for example, theres the beach house and the general unhappiness of the people in the novel. In this book I wanted to be very generous to all the people there, but not to soft sell what their feelings are. If you had to pick who is the sympathetic character, the one hero that youre going to follow around throughout the book, there isnt one. The main character is the family, its the unit, and its not always happy. But by the same token, its not really a grim book.
RS: Were you overall happy with the book and how it turned out?
SO: Yes, I think so. I did it the way I wanted to do it. And it was a new way and a very different way for me. I felt that I spent a lot of good time with the characters and found plenty that I hadnt suspected in them at all. I feel good about the characters, and also feel close to them. Even though I finished it two years ago, moments still very vivid to me. I can still be with them from moment to moment, and thats usually what a book is worth to me. The time I can spend with the characters, whether Im reading one or writing one.
RS: This is the type of book where the reader becomes intimately involved with each character.
SO: Its a leisurely book, like a Chekhov play is a leisurely play. All the people that you meet ultimately divulge the true desires of their hearts over the space of the play or the novel. In this case their true desires are opened to us, the readers, but not to each other, and that may be the saddest thing about the book. That almost secretiveness that some of them have.
RS: I noticed the overall lack of intimacy and the discomfort with each other when they all are in the cabin at once, or in the van. What does that say about the dynamics of the Maxwells as a family?
SO: They dont quite know what to do with each other, and sometimes thats what families are like. They dont know what to do with each other even though they really do love each other, and they wish the best for each other. Its just difficult. And of course theres plenty of misunderstandingeveryone is so worried about what everyone else thinkseven though what he or she thinks of each other really doesnt really change that much from year to year. There are lots of old grudges.
I think they do break a little new ground during the week and thats because of the pressure of Henry being gone, and the cottage being sold. They do divulge some things to each other. That scene where Meg and Arlene are smoking out near the garage and Meg says What did you really think of my father, did he really like me? and than she pre-empts Arlenes answer and says Well I didnt really like him either. Its Arlene that is totally scandalized and shocked. The truth comes through and then the other person thinks, do I have to rearrange how I see the past, my own past, because of what she said? Arlene thinks about that, ponders does she have to, and then says No, Im not going to.
RS: Any last thoughts on Wish You Were Here that you would like to share with us?
SO: I was trying to focus on whats most important and most intimate in real lifethat is, the way people treat themselves and those closest to them. If Im lucky the reader will then naturally dwell on these questions and relationships in his or her own life; at all stages of his or her own life (another reason for the multigenerational spread).
As a memory book, it hopes to stimulate the readers memory and bring back
things like eating breakfast with your father before he leaves for work, or the old salt and pepper shakers that you used to have, or the favorite cups. So that even while youre spending time, looking through the garage or a used bookstore or a flea market in the Maxwells world, youre doing the same with all the odd treasures youve stored up in your life.