Where did the story come from for you? Did any of your life experiences inspire you, or find their way into the novel?
back in 1997, I was visiting Seattle with some friends and I stopped a man from walking in front of a train. He was air drumming, headphones on, looking the wrong way, and I got his attention just in time. He looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “Oh my God. You saved my life! I’ll buy you a big steak dinner!” Once the train was past, though, he kept walking. For years, my friends made fun of me for never getting my steak dinner. I’ve always been interested in the relationships between rescuers and the people they rescue, and I guess this incident stuck with me. I mean, how many steak dinners is a life worth? About 10 years ago, I tried writing about it, but I could never find the right form. I even tried to write a play. Eventually, I came to the beach rescue in Mouth to Mouth
, and the idea that the rescued man should be, hmm, I guess the word is toxic
, in some way. The fact that he’s an art dealer comes from my experiences working in the art world in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Like Jeff, I walked into that strange, strange world knowing practically nothing about it.
What struggles did you have in writing Mouth to Mouth? How did you work through them and complete the book?
I wrote Mouth to Mouth
while also working on another short novel, switching from one to another when I hit total despair. Which is to say that I abandoned the book several times. It was while working on a complete draft of that other book that I stumbled on the structure I needed to make Mouth to Mouth
work. The other book remains abandoned. I guess I have to get myself into the middle of something new to stumble upon what the other one needs to work properly? I wouldn’t recommend this process.
Can you talk about how you devised the structure of Mouth to Mouth, and what function the "story within the story" plays in the reader's understanding of the characters?
Writing nonfiction feels like a series of compromises, little prevarications.
This novel examines the stories we tell others — and, to some degree, ourselves — about how we came to be who we are today. I’ve explored some of this with first-person narrators in the past, but for Mouth to Mouth
I wanted to lay in another layer explicitly, so that the storytelling happens within the frame of the novel, rather than between narrator and reader. This creates a bit of distance, perhaps, in which the reader can wonder about Jeff’s motivations behind telling the story to his old college acquaintance. Pressing against this unreliability, in the reader’s experience, is the narrator’s relating much of Jeff’s story in a close third-person point of view, traditionally a reliable source of narrative information. It creates an interesting tension.
The art dealer milieu you depict in the book was vividly described, and I was excited to learn about a world I previously knew little about. How did research play a role in writing this part of the book, and Mouth to Mouth in general?
Whatever research I do when working on a book typically has to end up floating around in my memory banks to make its way into any of my work. I have to absorb it, chew it, spit it back out. A full notebook doesn’t do me any good. For Mouth to Mouth
, I read books on the contemporary art world, watched some documentaries, revisited auction catalogues, etc., but most of the milieu of the novel arises from my personal memories of the art world at that time.
Mouth to Mouth has a complex relationship to truth and fiction. As I read, I felt like I was unlocking levels of a complex puzzle box in hopes of discovering more about the characters (or myself, or life) at the center. Does The Truth matter to you as a writer?
Well, who knows what “The Truth” is, right? That said, telling the truth matters to me a great deal. In life, I generally avoid lying, partly because I’m terrible at it, but mainly because it’s my nature. That’s one reason I prefer writing fiction — there’s no expectation of truth, on a literal level. Whereas I find writing nonfiction painfully difficult, because even if you’re trying your best to tell the truth, you’re going to miss the mark in some way. The limitations of language, memory, perspective, etc., prevent you from ever writing anything completely true. To me, writing nonfiction feels like a series of compromises, little prevarications. Whereas fiction isn’t beholden to the world in the same way. Of course, there’s always so-called higher truths, about human nature — we lie in order to tell the truth and so on — but I see those as more of a byproduct of a process that lobs suppositions and asks questions rather than aiming at any hard target. As for the puzzle box and what lies at the center, I like to leave room for the reader there, to interpret what they discover in the text based on what they themselves bring to it.
The serendipitous events in the book felt fated sometimes, but at other times, we see that they are very premeditated. As I read, I began to question why Jeff was telling this story at this moment: Was this a confession? A performance? Can we ever really know another person? (This is getting very philosophical. I love when books provoke these kinds of questions.)
These are just the questions I hope readers will ask! I don’t have answer-answers, but I would argue that fate and serendipity are two sides of the same coin, and that every confession is also a performance. Plus, not only can we never really know another person, but we can’t ever really know ourselves. As for Jeff’s relationship to his own story, i.e., does he think he’s telling the truth, I don’t have any special knowledge. I know just about the same amount as our unnamed narrator. (Who is not me, by the way. I sleep fine on planes.)
I've spent very little time in Los Angeles, and thus the art I've encountered about the city has shaped my perception of it profoundly. I'd love to hear about your history with the city, and how you decided which version of Los Angeles to present in Mouth to Mouth. How important was the setting to you while writing the book?
I’m from Montreal originally, and I grew up in California’s Central Valley, with a year-long stint in Saudi Arabia. But from middle school onward, for the most part, I lived in Santa Monica. So Southern California is my home, and people who know me might assume I’m from here, but I nevertheless continue to feel like a bit of an alien. As such, for me Los Angeles is both familiar and a source of endless fascination.
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Pleasure. And a tiny — like a nanometer — shift sideways in how they look at the world.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels Panorama City
and The Interloper
. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Best New American Voices
, and The Los Angeles Times
, among other publications, and he is a contributing editor of A Public Space
. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, he lives in Los Angeles. His website is: AntoineWilson.com