In episode 77, the WITTScasters try to build a list of the things most commonly overlooked by fiction writers–including why characters don’t get sick, how some stories seem to be set nowhere, and what you can tell about characters by where they buy their pizza. Also, Brian reveals that he’s gotten some writing done recently, Ben sees a light at the end of the teaching tunnel, and Jon wants to send kids back into the coal mines. All that, plus a quick trip to Ireland via William Trevor’s “The Woman of the House.”
Topics and Reading Discussed
- You can read William Trevor’s story “The Woman of the House” at The New Yorker. For free, even.
- Though this particular story isn’t included, Jon and Brian (if not Ben) would heartily suggest picking up Trevor’s Selected Stories.
- Break kayfabe and learn about “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik’s arrest for yourself.
- And to learn about “working snug” and other related vocabulary, check out Grantland’s pro wrestling dictionary.
- Philip Roth, in Everyman and other novels, is one of the best writers out there for examining the vulnerability of the human body.
In which Jon argues that the “South” (and regionalism at large) doesn’t exist. In which Ben takes him to task and brings out exhibit A, Jon’s “southern” novel. In which Brian says, “It’s not the region so much as the writer.” In this episode, the boys ask the tough questions about regionalism, transforming place, and the role of literature and the storyteller in preserving shared places. Heavy shit. Then they take a gander at Sarah Layden’s story “Decoy.”
It’s AWP time again, but instead of joining the dance party in Minnesota, the WITTScasters are at home reliving AWPs past and comparing notes on their aging memories. Then a discussion of R.T. Smith’s story “Docent” leads to a review of the many modern threats to the Truth. Finally, Jon tries to kick off a debate about the death of regionalism, which becomes a cliffhanger for next time…
- R.T. Smith’s “Docent” is online in The Missouri Review‘s archives, but you may already have it on your shelf in The Best American Short Stories 2004 or New Stories from the South 2004.
- AWP is upon us again, but the boys are recording the podcast from home rather than braving the meteorological vagaries of April in Minneapolis.
- If you, too, couldn’t make it to AWP this year, just wake up with a hangover and scroll through the #AWP15 Twitter posts. It’s like you’re there!
- Ben is sticking to Joshua Ferris’ funny ones. Having read Then We Came to the End this summer, he recently picked up To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. But Jon has read Ferris’ The Unnamed, and while it’s not comical like the other two novels, it’s the one whose characters have stayed with him.
- By contrast, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See didn’t quite hold together for Jon — despite what the Pulitzer committee says — and by this time next year he probably won’t remember it too clearly.
- Brian’s memory is failing him, too, particularly when it comes to the plot of Mad Men, but as Ben points out, once Brian is married he can outsource his memory to his wife.
- Oh, eggplant parm…
- R.T. Smith’s story is narrated by a dedicated docent at the Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University.
- The Seattle Underground. Brian was telling the truth, this time.
- What scares Jon more than the singularity? The disappearance of a (imagined?) source of authoritative truth.
- How not to do journalism.
- “Docent” is a great example of the literature of the south, but Jon’s not so sure that there still is a south. So join us in Episode 76 when we discuss regionalism.
They say two out of three ain’t bad, and the WITTScasters sure hope so, because one of them didn’t finish reading the story for this episode. But that doesn’t stop all three from weighing in equally on issues like how to handle criticism, whether literary journals should charge submission fees, and whether anyone should give a shit about teenagers.
Join the boys as they host their very first guest: the construction workers constructing a patio/firepit/well in Jon’s neighbor’s backyard. Beyond the hammering and saws, the boys manage a fine discussion of books-turned-movies and whether good novels can ever create a good film. Then the boys delve into the squirrelly world of sentences and the cult of the author in a discussion of Jonathan Lethem’s “The King of Sentences.”
In Episode 72, Ben’s been building his students up to a completed short story, Brian gets a pocket notebook to make him observe the world like a writer, and Jon adds the Millenials to his shit list. Then the boys chew on Thomas Pierce’s “Videos of People Falling Down,” which provides plenty of fodder for a discussion of the risks and rewards of cerebral writing.
How much of being a good writer comes from raw talent and how much from hard work? What do you do after you’ve mined all the “low-hanging fruit” of your life for material? What does empathy have to do with invention? And will robots cutting our hair signal the rise of the machines? All these questions, plus the timeless power of Charles Dodd White’s story “Hawkins’s Boy” on episode 71.
How do you make stuff up? Where does fiction come from? What’s the secret to it all? The imagination gives us plot and characters, but the boys debate whether fiction writers actually do anything more than put great sentences on the page. The boys dive into heady stuff here as Jon and Brian make progress on new novels and Ben embarks on his first semester of teaching fiction since graduate school.
- Second place for storySouth’s Million Writers Award in 2014 went to Susan Tepper’s “Distance,” published online at Thrice Fiction.
- Tepper’s story is about a museum guard. Other museum-inspired stories include R.T. Smith’s “Docent” (published at The Missouri Review and widely anthologized) and Nick Hornby’s “Nipplejesus” (published in his anthology Speaking with the Angel).
- Ben thought of one more, where a post-apocalyptic couple brings home a squid from the museum and puts it in their bathtub, or something like that, but now he can’t find the story. (WITTScast listener challenge — if you know what story he’s thinking of, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll send a WITTScast windbreaker for the first correct answer!)
- After last week’s discussion of Edward P. Jones, Brian and Jon are revisiting Jones’s collections Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children.
- Jon stumbled onto Philip Roth’s interviews over at Web of Stories, which inspired Jon to go back and reread Madame Bovary.
- Flaubert recommended writers “be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” which gives Jon hope for his life in the suburbs.
- Speaking of the imagination, Brian says there are two approaches to world-building. Some authors want you to believe the illusion, while others just make something formulaic.
- Or you can do something in the middle, like Roth’s The Human Stain, which is (probably) based on someone from real life.
The WITTScasters discuss how, if they were to return to the classroom, they would teach introductory fiction to undergrads now that they are old and wise (in contrast to young people who, according to Jon, “don’t know shit about shit”). Then they turn to the excellent not-so-short story “A Rich Man” by Edward P. Jones, who shows ’em how it’s done.
- Edward P. Jones’ story “A Rich Man” still seems to be up for grabs for free at The New Yorker. It isn’t short, but it’s damn good.
- In Ben’s fiction class, each day will start with a quote about writing and a writing rule. (But rules, as we all know, are made to be broken.)
- One of Jon’s favorite writers, Robert Stone, died recently. Jon offered a WITTScast remembrance for Mr. Stone, which also gave him a chance to do some more griping about those damn hypocritical baby boomers.
- Robert Stone’s best known work is probably National Book Award winner Dog Soldiers, but Jon’s favorite is Outerbridge Reach.
- Here’s the Paris Review interview with Robert Stone, which is WITTScast-recommended. (Q: Is writing easy for you? A: It’s goddamn hard.)
- “A Rich Man” is from Edward P. Jones’ collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. You might also want to check out a related collection, Lost in the City. (Oh, and he won a Pulitzer, too, so don’t overlook The Known World.)
It’s the first show of 2015, and the new year brings new writing questions. Ben’s looking to cast off the shackles of traditional fiction, Brian’s wondering how to fit larger-than-life subject matter on the page, and Jon is… painting? Then the boys are nautically challenged by Amy Benson’s story “At Sea.” All that, plus the digital enhancement of murals, the artistic merits of Twitter aggregation, and the legendary toughness of Harley Race.
- Amy Benson’s story “At Sea” is floating around over at Agni Online.
- If you haven’t checked it out yet, grab your laptop, cue up Word, and write along with the WITTScasters in episode 67 — our gift of silence in a world of noise.
- We may be in the era of double ties already, but we only have two years to go a long way in robot technology.
- Meet Harley Race, the 8th-toughest professional wrestler of all time, whose life story has Brian wondering how to make a fiction strange and alive when the subject you’re dealing with is already so unbelievably strange and alive.
- “Flowers for Algernon, but with pro wrestlers.” Brian would read that 10 times out of 10.
- Mark Rothko’s Harvard murals teach us, if nothing else, to use good paint.
- “At Sea” is reminiscent, structurally and linguistically, of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.”
- For your consideration, the 100 funniest tweets of 2014. Does Jon think this is art, just like Amy Benson’s story? To his great surprise… maybe.