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An Interview with Antoine Wilson
by Corbin Collins

Antoine Wilson's first novel, The Interloper (Handsel Books, May 2007), is a dark and eerie tale of one man's emotional disintegration. The narrator, Owen Patterson, concocts a unique and desperate scheme to get even with his brother-in-law's murderer. As the plan begins to unravel, so does Owen's grip on his marriage and his life. At once chilling and hilarious, the book is garnering praise from reviewers. Antoine's short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and other journals, and he is a contributing editor to the magazine A Public Space.

Many writers fantasize about their book tour. What has it been like for you?
The transition from the daily habit of writing to traveling around talking to people about the book has been tougher than I thought it would be. Most of the book tour fantasies of my youth receded once I started taking the writing process more seriously—I guess I developed a kind of grindstone myopia from running my thumb across the desktop every day. I thought the epic moment would be when I received a whole box of my book—I expected that to be the big "Oh yeah!" moment. But instead I could barely open the box. It sat on the kitchen table for days. All I could think was, oh shit, I can't change anything.

Let's just say I had to make a conscious effort to enjoy the touring. And I'm a ham, relatively speaking. I did manage to switch gears, though, and I've really been having fun. It's been less about fantasy-fulfillment and more about enjoying a different kind of process. Though I should admit I've long fantasized about reading at Prairie Lights [an independent bookstore in Iowa City], a fantasy that was actually fulfilled at the end of September.

I read somewhere that Moby was at your launch party. How was that? It sounds like it feels a little weird to have this very private baby of yours suddenly become a product in the hands of a company.
Moby's a friend of a friend, so I only just met him the night of the party. He was kind and congratulatory. We talked about David Bowie and John Cheever. About the private baby becoming a product, I'm not sure I would use those terms, exactly. I like to think that the writer's private baby becomes the reader's private baby, too. All the steps in between are just a bit disorienting is all.

How have your writing habits changed now that you have published a novel?
They have gone to the dogs. I've been working on something for about a year now, and everything has come to a complete, grinding halt. But after touring and publicity have cooled down, I expect my habits will return to normal. Publishing provides the temptation to write to the market, or one's idea of the market; it sets up a series of expectations, real or imagined. It's tricky to stay focused on one's process independent of all that, but I'm sufficiently under the radar that I think I'll be okay.

If you're not writing to the market, what or whom are you writing to? I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said something like: Write for one person only. Don't try to make love to the whole world.
I write to a version of myself, a literary doppelganger. I'd like that doppelganger to pick up my novel, read it, and say, "I wish I'd written that."

The Interloper is about a family in the aftermath of a murder. It's interesting that Owen, the narrator, didn't really know the victim, who was his new brother-in-law. That allows you to avoid first-person sentiment while focusing on what happens to the family afterward. Will you talk a little about how this kind of remote grief took shape as an idea for a book?
Well, I'm not sure I approached it that way out of any craft concerns per se. When I was a kid, my older half brother was murdered. He was nineteen years old, driving cross country from Ottawa, where he lived, to Boulder, Colorado. I was only seven years old, and I hadn't grown up with him, exactly, so in a sense the second-hand (or remote) grief had a greater impact on me than the actual event that caused it.

It took me years to figure this out. I wrote about the murder somewhat in a short story called "Everyone Else," which appeared in The Paris Review a few years back. But I wanted to explore the subject further. I felt extremely uncomfortable writing about my brother's murder, even at the remove of fiction—I didn't feel the material belonged to me, if you know what I mean. When Owen's plan came to me, I seized immediately on the idea of his being somehow only remotely impacted by the death. Because I felt like an interloper approaching the subject at all, I figured Owen and I could have that in common. Also, Owen's plan is clever but not sensible. His inability to know what is sensible, I thought, might be underlined by his making a mission not from his own grief but from someone else's.

One of the pleasures of the book is the widening discrepancy between Owen's narration, which is mild-mannered and straightforward—he's kind of a nerd, he writes software manuals—and the increasingly crazy thing he's doing. This gives the book a darkness that becomes disturbing. How did you decide on matching up Owen's voice with his actions in the plot? Or did the voice come first?
Both came first. I hatched Owen's plan as a result, I think, of discovering that the man who had murdered my brother was going to be let out on parole. This was in the late 1990s. I was driving down the same freeways my brother had been on, that is, through Colorado and Nebraska, and I wondered what I would do if I were to encounter my brother's murderer in a bar or something. Somewhere out of the frustration, out of the inability to figure out what I would do, came this cockamamie idea.

I called a friend of mine and asked whether it was a novel, a short story, or a paragraph in a novel. He said it was a novel, I said okay, and that was that. I set about trying to figure out how to integrate this idea, this high concept thing, into the kind of novel I wanted to write and read. Owen's voice developed independently of all this, and much more slowly. I started very close to the bone, writing in a voice not unlike my own about a slightly alternate version of my life. The marriage theme, for instance. The next thing I knew—which is French for hundreds of crumpled pages later--Owen and his plan were one.

Owen has a kind of creepy Sleeping Beauty fantasy about his wife. It's like she's dead, too, and out of the way so that he can pursue his mad idea of breaking the heart of the murderer. When she cries, he thinks it's beautiful. When she seems to recover from her grief, Owen sees it as a step backward—a chilling moment in the novel. His alcoholic bachelor life before Patty suggests he was depressed. What is it that makes Owen, "a solid B" kind of guy, crack like this?
I wouldn't describe Owen as "a solid B"—remember, that's his self-assessment. He's the kind of guy who would call himself a solid B, which is a whole different sack of potatoes. He's the guy who aspires to the B. I like to think that had his brother-in-law not been murdered, he might have been able to paper over his troubled childhood and live a somewhat normal life. That's what he claims he's trying to restore, throughout the book: a normal life. But the question was why does he crack. Hmm... Let's just say that making up fictional characters, as he does with his fictional Lily Hazelton, exposes him to more of himself than, say, writing software manuals.

A lot of visual elements in the book feel like metaphors: Frisbee, Sleeping Beauty, the box of baseballs, Whack-a-Mole—plus the strange fantasy his alter ego Lily has about having sex with Henry with her head in the corner. Where did you get such a sense of the power of the visual in your writing?
Good question. Early on when I started writing stories people would tell me that they were really visual. I took that as a pejorative for some reason—I wanted my stories to be cerebral. Or something. But I guess I'm a visually oriented person—is that glib to say? I'm glad to hear that the visual elements feel like metaphors. It was all meaning, sense, and clarity on this end. Except the Whack-a-Mole. That was a straight-up attempt at the fancy stuff, top of the pyramid down, the wrong way to write.

You're talking about Frank Conroy's pyramid at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, in which Meaning, Sense, and Clarity form the base, and the elements of writing get harder and fancier as you go up the pyramid: Voice, Tone, and Mood are a step up, followed by Subtext, Metaphor, and at the top, Symbol. What do you make of Frank's emphasis on this? How much did the Workshop in general help you as a writer?
Frank's primary focus was on writing as an act of communication, and on reading as an act of co-creation. Reader and writer meet halfway-ish. For some reason, lots of aspiring writers need to be reminded that their sentences should be readable and decodable, and Frank did that, semester after semester, before allowing any discussion of what he called "fancy stuff." Pay attention to what is on the page—simple as that. And yet the idea had to be banged into many people's heads, including mine.

Living in a community of writers was extremely stimulating, and I guess I would say it was extremely helpful to me as a writer, in various tangible and intangible ways. It continues to be helpful, in the sense that I still exchange work-in-progress with people I met there.

Was The Interloper influenced by any particular writers or style? It's kind of ostensibly pulpy, but I also thought I sensed Poe lurking somewhere.
Yes, others have noticed the pulp influence as well. But it's got a funky genealogy. It's pulp-by-way-of-parody-of-pulp. The Interloper was influenced largely by my admiration for Nabokov, especially Lolita but also Despair and Pale Fire. However, I was equally influenced by an anxiety of influence—that is, the last thing I wanted to do was try to imitate him.

Poe lurks everywhere, doesn't he? Um, who else? Nicholson Baker, The Fermata, one of the few books around I wish I had written.

What is it about Nabokov that you admire so much? His first-person narrators are usually, like him, European intellectuals—not very similar to Owen. What are some things you take away from Nabokov?
He fires on all cylinders—in a way that renders all imitators caricaturists. And despite his rep as a confectioner, or a cunning gamesman and stylist, his books resonate with deep feeling, usually in the form of some sort of brimming-over of emotion. There's a constant tension between what can be contained intellectually and what must burst out emotionally. Plus, he's hilarious.

Something I take from him, which I'm probably misremembering (can't... find... the... damn... quotation!), is the idea that the real drama exists between reader and writer, not between the characters in the work. Also: "A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual." I could go on and on. I need a 12-step program.

The Interloper is a paperback original. You would think this format would be common by now, especially with first-time novelists, as folks are more likely to take a chance on something for $13.95 rather than for $24.95. But for some reason many publishers and authors still insist on starting out with a hardback version. How did your book take this path? Was it something you wanted or the publisher, and are you happy with it?
When I originally sold the book to Handsel/Other, it was set up as a hardcover. Then the business people at Norton (who distribute Other Press titles) decided to suggest a paperback original. From what I understand, their decision had to do with its being a first novel, and not a particularly long one. The danger with coming out in hardcover at the outset is that if you don't sell enough, they won't even bother with paperback. And if that happens, you're screwed.

I admit I was disappointed at first—those "new books" tables in the front of bookstores tend to be exclusively hardcover. And I was worried I wouldn't get reviewed, and so on. But there's been a change in the market over the last few years. Paperback originals are getting reviewed everywhere. Some, like Tom McCarthy's Remainder, have even made the cover of The New York Times Book Review. The Interloper has been reviewed in a number of major outlets, including The L.A. Times Book Review and The New Yorker, so it doesn't seem to have been too much of a handicap.

The best thing about paperback originals is the price: people really are more willing to take a chance on something that costs only a little more than a movie ticket. And friends and family tend to buy multiples, to give as gifts and whatnot, which helps spread the word.

You have said that you write in longhand, with pen and paper, which is surely rare nowadays. Why do you do that and how does it shape your writing?
One, it forces me to revise as I transcribe, so that my first draft is more of a 1.5 draft. Two, there's no substitute for crossing things out, drawing arrows from one section to another, and scribbling inserts on the facing page. Three, it feels more personal to me—it helps me get into character, which is useful in a first-person project especially.

What have you read lately that knocked your socks off and why?
I just finished an amazing novel from the early 1990s by Tito Perdue, called Lee—about to be reissued in paperback. It's a singular book, a virtuoso performance, about a 72 year-old guy returning to his hometown in Alabama and railing against all the decadence of the modern world. He's despicable as hell and yet incredibly appealing as a character, in part because Perdue is wise enough to keep out of the way, so to speak.
Also, I'm lucky enough to be involved with the magazine A Public Space, so I get to read all kinds of cool stuff through that, such as Maile Chapman's mindblowing "Bit Forgive," which was in Issue 2, and Jack Livings's dark and powerful "The Heir," which is just out in Issue 4. Plus, I'm enjoying Arts and Letters by Edmund White. I tend to read a lot of books at the same time. It's a bad habit.

What are you working on now?
Another novel. I like to say that I'm deep in the woods, with a compass and a gun. Somewhere out there is a bear. There's a certain perversity to the whole process—I'm throwing a lot of "learning" out the window. It's been refreshing and terrifying. I can't shake the feeling that no one is going to want to read it.

Corbin Collins is an American writer and editor living in Holland.

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