How to Write On the Subway: TFT Interview with Lowboy Author John Wray
John Wray is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, The Right Hand of Sleep (2001), Canaan’s Tongue (2005) and Lowboy (2009). In 2007 he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best of Young American Novelists. Over email the last month we discussed anecdotes and adventures, curry sausages and the hypothetical Lowboy playlist.
TFT: A lot of attention has been made of the fact that the first draft of your most recent novel Lowboy was written on the subway. How did this work, exactly? Did you have any certain areas of the car where you preferred to sit? Did you ever have to change cars because it got too crowded or something?
JOHN WRAY: My favorite place to sit in the car, if it was the type of car mostly used on the F, B and D lines, was facing forward, on the right-hand side next to the window, as far back in the car as possible. I don’t like to have my back on people, generally. I like to sit facing the room, so I can’t be snuck up on. I’m like a wild west outlaw in that way. Not as good with a six-gun, however.
TFT: Did the rhythm of riding the subway ever dictate the rhythm of prose? I wondered this during the sections where Lowboy is riding the train-particularly in the opening chapter and the final chapter. There’s a rhythmic quality to the way the prose that seems to stop and then go. The paragraphs are short, at times clipped. The feeling I got was of an odd kind of space, both physical and psychological-of a kind of disembodiment, even.
JOHN WRAY: Riding the subway didn’t dictate my rhythm so much as the shape, feel and duration of the episodes-the bulk of the chapters that follow Lowboy through the tunnels is divided into (more or less) one-stop-sized chunks, that I imagined, at least at the beginning, to be punctuated by the subway doors opening and closing. I actually wrote some of them in that length of time (though I wasn’t able to keep that up very long).
TFT: In a recent article in New York Magazine, Myla Goldberg referred to you as “the king of anecdotes.” Do you have any good ones from this time spent on the subway, writing Lowboy?
JOHN WRAY: Hmm, let me think. There was the time I was sitting in a completely empty car, late at night, when a homeless man took a break from panhandling and sat down next to me as if we were old friends. “Ever think about buying a house, boy?” he asked me. “Getting a home for yourself?” I told him I had-I was thinking about buying a house somewhere in the country, in fact, getting out of the city altogether. My new friend, who was at least seventy, nodded his approval. “One thing, though,” he said, holding up a finger. “Before you buy that house, sleep in it first. Spend at least one whole night there.” I asked him why and he leaned over and whispered the answer in my ear. “That’s easy,” he said. “Check it for ectoplasmic activity.” That ended up going into the novel verbatim. On the other hand, I never did buy the house. It was probably for the best though, ghost-wise.
TFT: I hear you’ve also got a great anecdote about eating dinner with Haruki Murakami. Something about sausages, if I’m remembering it correctly. Care to relate?
JOHN WRAY: I’m not sure this one will work in print-basically, we were eating curry sausages in a German Biergarten, and I mentioned how tasty they were. He looked at me thoughtfully for a few seconds, then said, “Put that into your novel. Those curry sausages.” I never did figure out what he meant by that, but I followed his instructions to the letter.
TFT: Let’s go down the list. You’ve been a cab driver in Alaska. A musician in New York. A mountain climber in South America. Do you feel these kinds of uncommon experiences, jobs, and adventures are requisite to becoming a writer? Have these experiences informed your own writing?
JOHN WRAY: Absolutely none of them have found their way into my fiction thus far, strange to say. It’s very hard to write about extraordinary circumstances (especially pleasant ones) in a novel without seeming trite or cute. Ernest Hemingway managed it quite well at times, but (thankfully) I’m not Ernest Hemingway. I actually think that a boring, monotonous life-provided it’s not narrow in terms of what one reads or thinks-is a safer model to follow for Ye Olde Writing Life.
TFT: Interesting you should bring up Hemingway on the intersections between life and writing. It was Hemingway who once said, “The best writing is certainly when you are in love.” Would you agree or disagree?
JOHN WRAY: As far as Hemingway’s eminently Hemingwayesque quote goes, I think my answer would depend on the specifics. Pining for someone can be wonderfully motivating; having a ton of sex on a regular basis is (so I’m told) not so very conducive to the old page count. In other words, make sure only to fall in love with people who find you repellent, and you’re bound to go far in this biz.
TFT: You’ve spoken previously of “following Daniel Johnston through Austin in the mid-1990s.” What does this mean, exactly? And what was it like?
JOHN WRAY: It was actually on account of a band called the Butthole Surfers that I moved to Austin, but they proved indifferent-to put it gently-to my enthusiasm for their music. Daniel was much more approachable (in addition, as I came to realize, to being by far the greater talent). There was no need, actually, to follow him around, since he spent a lot of time on the drag in Austin and was easy to talk to, depending on his mood. He’s a beautiful person, and the single most creative individual I’ve ever met.
TFT: In a recent interview with The New Yorker you mention that “from the very beginning I knew that this book was written more for my generation [...] people who were around my age-in their twenties and thirties.” Is there anyone you imagine as the sort of “ideal reader” for Lowboy? Another way to ask this might be: Who do you write for?
JOHN WRAY: The answer to that question varies from book to book-sometimes it’s easy to answer, sometimes next to impossible. I wrote The Right Hand of Sleep in a futile attempt to get my first girlfriend to take me back; Canaan’s Tongue was largely written as a way of venting my horror at the turn that the country had taken in 2001. The question of who Lowboy was written for is harder to answer. In a way, I suppose, I was writing it for anybody who would listen.
TFT: You mentioned that you listened to music while writing Lowboy on the subway. Was this a product of logistical reasons or more inspirational ones-by which I mean, did you listen to music to keep out distractions or to help get you into a particular writing mood or frame of mind? (And if it’s the latter, how does different music inform your different writing styles and moods?)
JOHN WRAY: It was a happy intersection of practical and aesthetic concerns, I’d say. It’s absolutely necessary, if you’re going to write in a public environment like the subway, to plug up your ears with something or other, and the right music at the right time can conjure emotions and associations that can work wonders with a given piece of writing-but only if you’re writing well already. It’s a risky proposition, because music doesn’t like to take a backseat to anything-it’s so powerful that it can swamp your work completely if you let it, and you’ll end up with something very different than you intended. It’s like playing with a chemistry set, to a certain degree. Don’t be casual about it. Sometimes radio static is better.
TFT: Say someone wanted to make their very own Lowboy playlist, music to listen to while reading Lowboy. Any suggestions for listening?
JOHN WRAY: The Grim Robe Demos by SunnO))), Out To Lunch by Eric Dolphy, Person Pitch by Panda Bear, Standards by Tortoise, VisionCreationNewsun by Boredoms, The Curtain Hits the Cast by Low, The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt, Seasons in the Abyss by Slayer, A Crimson Grail by Rhys Chatham, Moon Pix by Cat Power, Pink by Boris, Bach’s Unacompanied Cello Suites, Bixology by Bix Beiderbecke, A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, Night of Ballads and Blues by McCoy Tyner, Friend Opportunity by Deerhoof, Darklands by the Jesus & Mary Chain, Sung Tongs by Animal Collective.
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