AN INTERVIEW WITH DENNIS WALL.
By Dennis Wall.
How long have you been writing?
Why do you ask?
Because I’m you, and I think it’s a question you would ask if you were interviewing yourself.
Oh, okay. I’ve been writing for…that’s a tough question. I wrote in first grade, and I think even before that. Can you be more specific?
How long have you been writing as a “writer.”
I started writing fiction about 30 years ago. On the nonfiction side, I published the first of 500+ magazine articles many years ago. Until recently I’ve written fiction sporadically—a lot for the first 10 years or so, then less for a long while, for various reasons, and now quite a lot. During all this time, I’ve been a writer and photographer for a living. A few years back, I started focusing heavily on fiction, went to grad school to sharpen my skills, taught undergraduate fiction writing, and returned to writing fiction with renewed passion. These days I write nonfiction for my job (at an environmental institute) and fiction for my spirit.
How many novels have you written?
Seven. No, eight. And I’m working on a new one. And there will be more, unless I die prematurely or my mind goes fritzy. Well, no, if the latter happens, I’ll probably still keep writing. It might be pretty convoluted writing, with stuff about the war I was never in, my shoes, some long-dead pet, all jumbled together in a form that’s pretty much indecipherable…but I doubt I’ll quit.
Okay, enough CV questions. Let’s get down to the writing. Who is the most interesting person you ever wrote about in your journalistic career?
I’d say Jerry Jeff Walker, an Austin-based musician best known for “Mr. Bojangles.” He’s larger than life and works to keep it that way. I wrote a profile of him for Third Coast, Austin’s one-time city magazine, which is one of about 50 magazines and newspapers for which I’ve written. We first met at a restaurant, where we began our conversation. Later, we jogged together around Town Lake, now Lady Bird Lake, then went to his sprawling Hill Country house, where he played me songs from his latest album, “Cowjazz,” at the kitchen table. We spent hours talking as we sat out on his patio overlooking the beautiful Texas Hill Country, a patio that was doubtless the site of numerous epic parties populated by the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon, Townes van Zandt, all those outlaw guys. It was a privilege to meet with him and write about him, and lots of fun. I got a good article out of it, and the article was nominated for a magazine award.
I also interviewed an ex-CIA agent who wrote a book on his African regime-changing exploits and got canned and sued by the agency for it. We sat in his living room and he told me the place was probably bugged. He also said he considered me a “hostile interrogator.” That was cool. He warmed up after awhile. I’ve also profiled numerous painters, writers and other artists, all of whom were colorful characters. I did a lot of stories on pizza-shop owners, too, and those entrepreneurial types are a special breed and are often fun and interesting as well. Actually, I recall few boring types in any of the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted over the years. Maybe the boring ones are forgettable, though. Which only makes sense.
Lately I’ve had the distinct privilege of meeting and working with Native American elders and environmental staff. But let me stop here. I’m hoping to focus mostly on fiction. So how about if we talk about that?
All right, it’s your interview.
Yes, in every sense.
How do you get story ideas?
That kind of thing will be in the blogs on this website. Please ask me something else.
Okay. Hmm…I don’t know what’s going to be in your blogs, so we could waste a lot of time here.
I don’t know yet, either. It’s going to be about ties between writing and photography and nature and creativity. I’ll be figuring out as I go. But there will be some nuts ‘n bolts stuff about writing and photography, too. So that stuff will be covered.
Okay. Here’s one: Where do you get off providing craft advice to fiction writers?
That’s a good question. Here’s a quick answer: I don’t feel like I’m exactly giving advice as much as exploring my own experience and hoping it resonates with others. But I do have about thirty years of experience as a writer, and probably twenty as a photographer. I’ve written hundreds of magazine articles and a bunch of novels, I have a graduate degree in creative writing, and I’ve taught university-level creative writing courses, which always garnered good reviews from my students. I guess visitors here will be the ultimate judges of whether I have anything valuable to share. I have a pretty good sense of my limitations, and I try to stay fairly humble, though not completely because, let’s face it, some degree of ego is required for anyone who puts himself out in the world this way. Let’s move on—this is making me uncomfortable.
What kinds of novels have you written?
I’ve spent a lot of time working to find my niche as a fiction writer. So I wrote suspense novels; a detective novel; a comic detective novel; a work of literary fiction; a drug smuggling novel; a “novel of paranoia,” as the editor at St. Martin’s Press who worked with me for a year called it; and a political satire/suspense novel/urban fantasy, which is Shriek, a novel you can purchase through Kindle books, and I hope you do—not you, the interviewer, but you, the reader. And I’m writing a new one right now that I’m pretty excited about. I’ve also written lots of short fiction and nonfiction, and several screenplays, one an adaptation of a novel, one an occult suspense story, and the third a teleplay I wrote and tried to pitch to The X-Files, whose “people” wouldn’t read it, as they usually don’t, and then the series ended, so that was that. I really enjoyed the X Files, and that teleplay was fun to write—it was about faeries who smuggle themselves to the U.S. and survive by stealing lunches and stuff from people in parks and parking lots. One of them tries to lure Skully into forever faerie land, but Mulder isn’t having it…aw, never mind, the X Files is history, gone to DVD collections. But that was a lot of fun. It was kind of a break from my regular work, and more experimentation and niche-seeking.
Now I’m writing what academics and pretentious writers might call a “metafictional novel,” in which the writer steps in and out of the narrative, hopefully to interesting effect. This one is suspenseful and political and socially relevant and tragic and funny, or at least it’s supposed to be those things. It deals with the immigration issue but from a tilted perspective. It’s a lot of things and doesn’t fit neatly in a book category, which is a problem for some but not for me. I hope it works. We’ll see.
What if it doesn’t work?
I’ll fix it, or try. That’s one of the luxuries of being a writer, as opposed to a stage actor or a singer, where you get one chance at each performance to get it right. Writers can fiddle with a novel for years or even decades if they want (though what a waste of time that would be), and all the reader sees is the final product. Now, with more people posting e-books to the web, there’s a new element in play: A writer can take the book down, revise it as many times as s/he wants, and put it back out. Theoretically, that means if the writer chooses, or if enough readers request a change of some kind, like a different ending, and the writer is amenable—which I probably wouldn’t be but who knows; once I’ve messed with a novel to a certain point it’s done, and I’m on to the next thing—a novel could be revised endlessly. Again, I would consider that a waste of time. There are just too many novels yet to be written to fixate on a single one. But that’s just me. And you.
Did you ever find your niche as a fiction writer?
I finally realized I just want to write fiction. It doesn’t matter what kind. These days I go with whatever moves me, though I do feel my novels should include an actual “story.” My latest, (Untitled Novel), is like that. It keeps struggling to get away from me, and I’m trying to chronicle that process, and the writing process in general, as well as tell a good, engaging tale that has meaning. So the term “niche” has gotten less and less significant for my own work. I know some writers, especially those published in the traditional manner—agent, publishing house, career depends on continuing sales—get a lot of pressure to redo what they’ve done before. Neil Gaiman, in an interview on the Barnes and Noble website, has some cool things to say about that. Basically he writes what he wants, and when he’s successful at something he’ll often move on to a different kind of project, like from comic books to general fiction to children’s books and around again, because otherwise he gets bored. I think that’s an admirable place to be as a writer. Of course, he’s highly successful, so he has more freedom than most who make a living at writing to jump across genres. But more power to him. He’s good at most everything he tries, and he’s covered a lot of ground. I think essentially the rule ought to be: A writer writes what moves her/him. And that’s it.
Here’s a broader question about fiction: What does it do for the world? Don’t people tell enough lies without us needing them written down in books?
Great question—you’re getting better at this. Fiction, I believe, involves telling lies in service to the truth. Someone I can’t seem to find probably said something very similar already, and I give them great credit for an observation that is surely not my own—Francis Bacon is reputed to have said, “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.” The notion of “lies” is a cute way to label what fiction writers do, but it’s obviously an exaggeration and a mislabeling. On the most basic level, fiction writers, if they’re any good, do meticulous research about the worlds they inhabit. More to the point: If they’re any good, they capture essential truths about human nature, motivation and behavior. And if they’re any good, their characters seem real, and are in an odd sense—we all believe Holden Caulfield is real, in a way, and the Joad family, and Huck Finn, and Hannibel Lecter, gulp, and so many others. So “lies” is shorthand, and kind of funny to say, but I think what good fiction writers do is get at subtle, often deeply hidden (in broad daylight) truths about being human, the revelation of which is crucial to the continuing psychic and ethical evolution of the race. So much for staying humble, eh? Truth is, I fumble at getting at such truths and harbor few delusions that I do it as well as I’d like. When I do stumble on truth, I rejoice. The rest of the time I trudge onward, hoping for that next lightning strike.
That sounds frustrating. Why do you keep writing?
To get to those truths. And I guess because I can’t not write. I’ve tried, and over the years I’ve found that the less I write fiction, the crazier I get—more pressured, less patient with people, more doubtful about my meaning and worth. It’s a compulsion, like eating too much or having too much sex. Wait…can you have too much sex?
Forgive me, but I’m going to move on. What else do you do besides work and write fiction?
Look at birds. A lot. And travel, often to look at birds. And play with the goats and chickens and parrot and dog and, occasionally, the weasels…all right, they’re guinea pigs. And dream of that wondrous time when I can write fiction all day and still make enough money to live comfortably, without dealing dope or running con games on the internet, neither of which I do, by the way, I just thought it sounded amusing. I also engage in political activity at times, knocking on doors and calling people to urge them to vote. But sometimes, if the politicians are too screwed up for my taste, I don’t help them at all. And I take photographs. You can find some of them on this website. I’ll soon be playing with photo-blogging and maybe holding a contest now and then where you can win something, like my book, if you send a good photo, which would be a savings of $2.99 and get you a fun book to read. It ain’t a trip to the Bahamas, but free stuff is free stuff, and there are worse ways to waste your time than reading Shriek.
Does looking at birds help your fiction writing?
Yes. It does. A lot.
O…kay. I can’t think of anything else to ask you right now.
I know. Let’s quit. We’re beginning to get strange looks.
Yeah, I caught that—pretend we don’t notice.
Good talking with you. Drop by any time.