Susan Tepper: Phoebe, from your very first sentence of “In The Woods” I was sucked in. And such a straightforward, unembellished sentence it is: Everett Finn liked white bread sandwiches. It felt like an arrow shot through my head. This Phoebe Wilcox is the next Anne Tyler, I was thinking. As the author of this story (book) are you aware of similarities in tone, texture, style? (I ask this from a place of highest praise for both authors). Also, it’s the kind of thing agents ask writers all the time: Who do you write like?
Phoebe Wilcox: Well, until you asked that question, I’d never made any such analysis because I’d never read Anne Tyler, though Judith Lawrence of Lilly Press had said the same thing about Tyler’s writing and mine. I actually just now went on Amazon and finally read the first chapter and a half of The Accidental Tourist. The similarity I noticed was an ability to describe human emotions in an insightful way. What is not the same is that my writing seems much more poetic, but then I haven’t read much of her at all. Someone recently asked me if I’d started out as a poet and that is completely accurate; that person had me pegged.
ST: Yep, your poetry flows through this as the river does. You’re a River Poet, is that correct? Tell us a little about the River Poets. I first met you as a poet, in fact I reviewed your chapbook before I even knew about Angels Carry The Sun. Do you think being a poet has influenced any of the plot choices you made in this fiction?
PW: I never think of myself as being included in anything- it’s like I’m a permanent outsider; however, I guess since I’ve been to a few meetings of the River Poets, I could be considered a River Poet. They almost had a brawl at their Christmas party over a sexual innuendo, so it’s a little risky going to those meetings! As far as being a poet and this influencing plot choices? I don’t think so. Poetry just flows like blood and plots are like working on a car. Two separate animals. And the only way to do it is to climb underneath a junker and tinker, tinker, tinker. You may get greasy and knick your knuckles. It’s going to hurt and be sort of boring, or boring several times over, until you find that wire (that twist) that you know will get your junker on the road and on it’s way to being a rip roarin’ nasty-ass machine. Wanna go ninety with me, Suz?
ST: Most definitely will go ninety with you Phoebe! The novel is practically brand new and I know you’ve been working your butt off to promote and read and do all the right things.
PW: Yes, and just want to add that my plot choices mostly hinged on my wanting this to be a story of hope. I wanted there to be a certain innocence to these characters in often-horrendous situations.
ST: Many poets refer to themselves as “outsiders.” I think it’s almost a kind of poet cachet. Whatever works, whatever keeps the flow. I love that you decided to give your novel a specific emotional edge, and that being one of hope. It is important to many people in these unsettled times to feel there is hope in the books they read and the films they see. We writers are competing with the visual image all the time.
Phoebe, certain word choices you made, name choices, settings- led us into a more placid zone than the world of today. I mean, no one is bombing the twin towers in your book and the airports were easy then. What was your personal emotional climate during this writing? Since you decided to go for “hope” did you push away certain darker elements?
PW: I made a lot of choices in that book that would be soothing for people, actually. Because I personally get fed up with so much cheap glorification of violence, and I truly feel that good writing can be done about any old topic. A good writer should be able to make a laundromat an exciting place, you know? My own personal emotional climate when I started that book at nineteen was a place of desperate unrequited love! I definitely did push away darker emotional elements to lighten the book. I’d gone, many years after the book was underway, to a writing/art center in Cape Cod, the Fine Arts Work Center, and there met A.J. Verdelle, an author who was instructing the workshop I was taking. She said that “the first order of revision was tendency.”
So for example if you tend to be depressive and write books that are total downers for everyone, what you need to do is go through the thing and perk it up a bit, so we don’t all read it and go kill ourselves. Basically, that’s what I did. I decided to make Flora more upbeat than she was when she first started. I gave her more of a sense of humor than she had. In the end I was really happy with the result. She was stronger, less passive, funny, etc. I liked her more and felt like readers would find a book that they’d enjoy living inside for a little bit.
ST: I adored Flora. She has so much life to her and resiliency. She is a character that can “take us on a journey.” When I studied writing, that’s what was stressed: write characters that you and the reader can journey with. You’ve done that here.
Read “In TheWoods” by Phoebe Wilcox.
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.