Russell Wangersky is the multi-award-winning author of The Hour of Bad Decisions, Burning Down the House, The Glass Harmonica, and as of this month, Whirl Away.
Read Salty Ink’s review of Whirl Away here: http://saltyink.com/2012/04/04/salty-ink-on-russell-wangerskys-whirl-away/
In what ways has being a journalist helped you be a better writer?
Being a journalist – particularly in print – has helped tremendously, first, because it means I’m always working with words. That helps with finding the right language, with pace and pitch, it’s just a huge value to other writing. The other thing it helps with is concentration: every newsroom I’ve ever worked in has been noisy and chaotic – if you can write in that clamour, slipping into a story in the relative quiet of your own home seems far easier.
The authenticity of your characters is both commendable and notable, like how Dennis in “McNally’s Fair” knew everything that can go wrong with a rollercoaster and how to cheat your way into passing a safety inspection. Is it just a matter of meticulous research, an inherent need to be accurate, or has your day job made you an all-around trivia buff know-it-all?
My day job involves paying attention all the time, and poking into scores of things that I find interesting. I worked with a firefighter for several years who was a pressure vessel inspector – it sets you to thinking about what that involves. In order to do my job, I have to see things, and I have to talk to people about what they do, how they do it, and what they find irritating. Luckily, that’s become a skill I never turn off. It bugs family members sometimes, who wonder why I have to talk on and on with everyone I meet, but it’s hugely valuable.
Pick three stories from the collection, and tell us where the idea came from or what you were setting out to capture:
“Echo” — it’s a story that started while I was out running, when I ran past a small boy who said as clear as a bell “You don’t care what I think.” That made me wonder: what is his world like? Where do those adult words come from? Most of my stories start that way: trying to answer the question “what if you took that to the logical extreme?”
“Sharp Corner” — The idea actually came from a small piece of road just outside of St. John’s where there have been a series of accidents on what should be a relatively easy-to-navigate gentle curve. There’s a house right on that corner, and, after passing it a few times, I began to wonder what it would be like to live there.
“I Like” — I actually quite like cooking, and wondered what a relationship would be like if someone began to replace their need for physical contact with a kind sensual relationship with food.
You’re writing both shorts and novels – when an idea or character comes to you, how do you decide whether it’d be best served as a short or a novel?
I almost always think things will end up being longer than they are — if I think an idea might be a 5,000 word short story, even if I think it’s going to be that length right while I’m in the middle of writing it, it tends to come to a relatively quick end as soon as I understand just how it’s going to end. I like to make the characters, let them do their thing, and bring the piece to a close when they’ve decided what’s going to happen. I’m not a writer who does long-term planning of narrative arcs with maps or models – I don’t enjoy that, because I always feel that you end up forcing your characters to do things that they might not, if you let them do the talking. So, I guess that, in reality, I let the characters and the issue decide whether it’s a story or a novel – and I’ve only had limited experience with novels.
I find, personally, delivering a powerful short story is harder than writing a powerful novel. Why do YOU think that is?
I’m not sure I do: I think it’s harder to deliver a powerful collection of short stories, because there are so many different kinds of readers, and it’s hard to deliver a collection that people consistently enjoy – everyone has favourites, and ones they don’t like. The beauty of short stories, to me, is that as a writer you can sit and work and hold the whole thing in your head – you never lose your place or have to go back and see where and when things happen.
Do you have any favorite short stories, collections, or short story writers?
Oh, that changes a lot. Right now, I’m really taken with three short-story collections: Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake, the horrendously harsh but intriguing Guilt — Stories by Ferdinand von Schirach and Zsuszi Gartner’s wonderful Better Living Through Plastic Explosives.
Is there one book you wish you wrote, or, learned a lot from as a writer?
I think the book I learned the most from was Alistair MacLeod’s The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, which I first read in high school. It was the first book that actually sent the message that the things that were happening in the close world around me could actually have a broader value to others.
There’s certainly a thematic link in all these stories – people with one foot past their tipping point. Was this intentional, to write a suite of stories around a concept, or are you always writing stories, and grouped these together for their theme? Do you prefer themed collections as a reader?
I think themed collections and linked stories seem to be more popular with publishers — perhaps because they feel that it’s one way to try and subvert readers who the publisher believe are more attracted to novels. In Whirl Away, the theme came after the stories – they just seemed to naturally group together after the fact. I like both kinds – except sometimes, you run into collections that stretch too far to make the theme work. And that can actually weaken the package.
What’s the one story from this collection that’s stayed with you the most? Any reason why?
For me, “Echo” — just because the boy in that story seems to be so caught in the way his whole life will unfold. And that’s a tragedy.
You’ve done very well with awards recognition, and have been well-reviewed. But what’s been one comment from media so far that you just couldn’t wrap your head around?
I know that journalists and reviewers have busy lives and many other duties — by far the strangest comment I had to deal with, in terms of just leaving me stunned, was when I was on private radio in Halifax for my memoir Burning Down the House. I was on a call-in show, and the host sat me down, an ad started to run, and he said “I haven’t read anything except the back cover. You’ve got 30 seconds to fill me in on what it’s about.” I think I wasted 10 of those seconds with my mouth hanging open.
This is your third book in a row by the fantastic Thomas Allen. Have you worked with the same editor each time, and is that a good thing, that familiarity with each other?
I’ve worked with Janice Zawerbny for all three: she is a very gentle editor, although one that just politely won’t give up when she sees a problem. We get along very well, and it is a good thing – you get an idea when either of you is uncomfortable with something. You also get to know the mechanics of the publishing house pretty well, and that helps a lot if anything gets in a jam – you know who and when to call.
You’re writing books at quite a pace: 1 every 2 years since 2006. You’ve probably got another one well underway, do you?
I’ve just finished the first draft of a novel – but a first draft that still has a lot of work to be done, because it is quite a peculiar thing. I like writing much more than editing – and I like to be working on something all the time. It means the house doesn’t get painted, but I do manage to get potatoes in the ground in the spring.