John Wray is the author of the novels The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan’s Tongue (2005). He wrote much of his new novel Lowboy, published in March, inside the New York City subway system, where a lot of it is set. Lowboy is a story told in twin tracks: the sixteen-year-old schizophrenic Will Heller is off his meds and believes the world is about to end and that he can prevent it by having sex with a girl. While this is happening, Heller’s mother tries to find him with help from a cryptogram-loving missing persons detective.
Wray, 37, has even held some readings of Lowboy in subway cars. Tomorrow night he will read alongside Wells Tower and Arthur Phillips as part of the Happy Ending Reading Series; Vampire Weekend will also perform. That event is sold out, but Wray will also be reading with Charles Bock Friday at Word book shop in Greenpoint, and later will take part in the Bryant Park Summer Series "New Voices in American Fiction" on July 29. We spoke with Wray at his Brooklyn studio about Lowboy, hairless cats, and the very strange place that is New York.
Lowboy is your third novel, and the first book you’ve written set in contemporary times, and also the first set in New York. How did you decide to start writing this particular book? Part of what appealed to me about the project was that it was such a straightforward premise. There's nothing convoluted about the plot or the events. They could be described in a sentence. Or two.
What would those sentences be? One sentence for each narrative thread: 1) Schizophrenic teen runaway travels around New York City on the subway system looking for someone to sleep with in order to save the world, and 2) Mother of schizophrenic teen runaway and African American missing person specialist try to find him before he does something nasty [laughs].
And your last two novels— Canaan's Tongue, my last novel, would take like 40 sentences to describe. And I guess that appeals to some people. I'd only written 2 books before this and the elite group of people who actually read my second novel [laughs] were probably surprised by Lowboy.
Why's that? When it became clear to me I might finish my first novel I was already thinking that I wanted my second one to be as different as possible from my first. Then I wanted my third to be as different as possible from my second. Mainly because— not because of ambition— I just didn't like the idea of always writing the same novel. There are authors I love who always write the same novel, like Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy. I mean they might not feel that way, Hemingway might have been like, what are you talking about? But from an aesthetic point of view, he was writing the same book over and over. It would drive me insane. It would be like an obsessive person at an asylum darning the same sock.
You’ve said in interviews that you admire filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder for their ability to switch styles from project to project. Is there an analog in terms of literature of an author who does that? That's such an interesting question. I could have mentioned so many other directors, Howard Hawks, or Mike Nichols, or Alfonso Cuarón. There are so many of them. There's a tradition in film, and there's this thing that's kind of a curse on fiction in the 20th century, I don't know who it was in what writer's workshop who first thought of this "finding your voice" notion. I think it's destructive. I mean I think it's fine for certain writers who are finding a voice they're interested in— but they're choosing a voice, a particular role to inhabit. People with the archetypal voice: Gertrude Stein or James Ellroy or Raymond Chandler. I mean you hear it and you immediately know it's them, it's consistent from book to book. They chose that voice. Kids in creative writing programs are told that there's a single, genuine voice inside them, only one, and that they have to find it. And I think you can really give a kid a complex with that. The truth is you are starting out your career and you have this whole spectrum. You can choose what you want and it'll be your book no matter what. And you can do that again with your next book or you can do something totally fucking different if you want.
I’d think that a lot of people might want that, to know what to expect from a book before they’ve read it. Yeah. I think absolutely people want that. I once interviewed Haruki Murakami, which ended up being a great interview, one of the best things I've been involved in. It was a long Paris Review interview, which meant we could spend a long time talking. I'm a huge fan, and the interview process revealed a lot about what goes on behind the screen, and demystified it. One of the interesting things Haruki said was that while he had been interviewing John Irving, of all people— it's like this endless chain of writers interviewing writers— Irving said to Haruki that when you have your readers you want to hook them on your writing. You want to hook your readers on it like a drug. And you want to get them hooked on that particular feeling like you're writing it for them and you want to come back for every one of your books, like a fix. And if anyone was interested in taking on the whole Irving oeuvre, they'd probably see that.
The Irving Fix. Exactly. I think there's a certain understanding of supply and demand that pertains to the microcosm of the literary world. With movies, traditionally, a lot of people going to the movies don't know who the director is, which is probably freeing. Authors are innately identified with their books.
Even writers who are able to change their M.O. every once in a while. Of course there are writers like that, who’ll change, like Graham Greene, Charles Dickens. Phillip Roth, in his late books. There have got to be some better examples.
What's the strangest place in New York? Whoa man, I could name my 30 strangest places; I've lived in this town too long. I love Doyers Street in Chinatown, which used to be called Murder Alley. Barber poles all along it. No place feels more artificial, more like a movie set. Breezy Point in the Rockaways is really strange. The Rockaways are home to Jacob Riis Park. Not a lot of people go there. It's amazing. There's a battery there from World War II that had these enormous canons that covered the entrance to New York Harbor, and there are all these weird bunkers and subterranean areas. There's a wooden deck on top of the battery with beautiful views of the city. And there's this little town at the very end called Breezy Point, an idyllic little town, very sort of lower middle class, and you go there but people are not friendly. It's this weird place, almost like an Alfred Hitchcock village. Close to the city, but also completely cut off. The whole town is a co-op.
There’s a private community west of Coney Island, too, called Sea Gate. In Breezy Point you get this sense that outsiders are not encouraged. It feels weird to go. And like, it's not even in New York. Another weird place is the Brooklyn Anchorage, inside the Brooklyn Bridge. They opened it up for parties—I once saw Sonic Youth play there, that's a strange place. There's also, oh god, North Brother Island is one of the strangest places. One of my best friends and I, Matt Dojny, who has just finished a novel I think is going to be a big deal soon, we did a thing for A Public Space. It’s an Impossible Sightseeing guide to New York, and it features North Brother Island. We thought it would be fun to do this tour of places you can't actually go to.
And the closed-off part of the City Hall station is in there, too, which is a place that also figures into Lowboy. Did you actually go to North Brother Island? We did. Ornithologists go there. They're very strict about it but we finagled passage on a canoe. It's so bizarre, the abandoned hospital and the sinister history. I think there was an Indian settlement there at some point, and then the quarantine, Typhoid Mary. You could write a whole novel on Typhoid Mary. The fact that the hospital was converted into a detox center for kids with problems, I mean, there's such misery there, and there were so many accusations of abuse. You always feel creeped out exploring abandoned buildings but in a place like that, where you know that nasty shit went down, it's particularly creepy. You feel very justified feeling creeped out.
Tell me about a New Yorker you admire. P.T. Barnum.
How come? He was a genius, in his way. He managed to build up a fortune from nothing, and he made his fortune by simultaneously managing to cynically cater to the lowest common denominator of the public and somehow, maybe even in spite of himself, vastly enrich the culture's notions of what entertainment could be. I mean, he's the first person that comes to mind. Anyone who's partially responsible for the notion of freak shows already gets some points in my book.
Favorite subway line? The A, the one goes out to the Far Rockaway. It goes almost over the water, I always liked that bit. Like a cross-country train.
Hey, so at one point in your novel, Will and Emily are on the run and Will tries to buy for cupcakes for Emily somewhere close to the Christopher Street subway station. Is that Magnolia Bakery making a guest appearance on page 130 of your novel? [laughs] Well, it's an affectionate, fictional dig at Magnolia, in the same way that the Bella Vista facility is and is not Bellvue Hospital. I definitely meant for people to think of Magnolia and maybe have a bit of a chuckle because I do think they're a bit overrated and they've annoyed me at times.
Do you like cupcakes? I love cupcakes, yes. I personally do enjoy Magnolia, but like Emily in the book I don't think they're worth waiting in line for.
Do you consider your writing to be dark? It depends on the book. The book I'm writing now is going to be pretty goofy, which is scary to me. So I think of it in dark terms, because I'm not sure I'll succeed. It's a multi-generational family saga but playful, sort of meta-fictional, darkly comic treatment of this family of semi-crackpot physicists. It's loosely based on my own family—not in the physics sense—where there are plenty of crackpots. An eccentric family, but in the unified sense of this family. But I suppose that it would be a fair appraisal of my three books so far, dark. I think one of the few accurate common features is that none of them sidestep unpleasantness.
And right now you're doing a Twitter experiment. Are you writing a sort of cell phone/Twitter novel? I'd like for it to be a cell phone novel but I don't know if anyone is actually getting it on their cell phones and there's no way of knowing that. As much as I love the idea of a bunch of school girls downloading my novel, that doesn't seem to be the dynamic that's in place with Twitter in this country, unfortunately. I think maybe "novel" isn't the right way to think about it when you're writing it or when you're reading it. The way that Twitter is set up, there are many obstacles to writing a novel as an ongoing narrative.
What are they? First of all it's a pain in the ass to go back and look at your previous tweets. Secondly, they're shown in reverse order. So I try to think of it more as a fictional newspaper column, where each tweet is a sort of a mini self-contained jelly bean that should be fairly fun to consume on its own. In my Twitter novel there's this loosely defined character called Citizen, and I try to say his name in every tweet. I think each could be read on its own and each could be as fun to read as another. It's like doing stretching exercises, and it doesn't permit you to fall back on your stylistic tricks. It's also a way of feeling less anachronistic, which is why a lot of fiction writers are into Twitter. It's not too much of a stretch, but they're not engaging in some weird nostalgic practice, which is silly because there's no real difference, in my mind, between a chunk of text on a screen or in your leather bound journal. Doesn't really matter.
Do you have a dog? No. I mean, I like dogs. Why do you ask?
I don't know. I thought it would make a good question. [laughs] I like dogs and cats. I'm more of a cat person. I grew up with cats and I love their pride, you might call it their arrogance. I like that they don't need you. I do like dogs, unfortunately I have so many friends with pet allergies.
You could get a hairless cat. I've thought about it. A friend of mine had a hairless cat named Macaroni. It was cool. I mean, freaky, but kind of cool.
Under what circumstances would you leave New York? I've spent a lot of time outside of New York—I moved here in 1994. I could easily stay here until I die and be content. Sometimes I feel like there's a bit too much keeping up with the Joneses with creative people here. There's a competitiveness that's healthy and another that's unhealthy. This past winter my girlfriend and I spent a few weeks in Key West, and I'm not a Florida person, but I couldn't believe how I was so extremely relaxed there. As cliche as it sounds, it just felt so good to be there. And Key West, it's so effortless to live there if you some source of money—I think finding a job there might be tough. We had a couple of bikes and it was like, even the pedaling was effortless! It made me think that if I were to have children, I might leave so they could grow up deprived of New York so when they moved to New York they could really appreciate it. I'm still dazzled by the freakishness, the glamour, the bizarreness of New York, only because I grew up upstate.
What the most significant unsolved New York mystery? Is there really an underground river under New York? What's the sense of these underground rivers? Is it just water being forced through soil or are there actual caverns and creeks? Why did the Second Avenue Subway line take so long to start being built?
I thought I saw something once in National Geographic once about that river. There are ships underneath Wall Street. I'd also love to know why the Dutch sold New York City, why they gave it up. That was fucking stupid. And the Dutch? They're a savvy nation of traders and merchants. The Spanish had to be driven out, they knew the value of what they were giving up. But the Dutch?
I heard you wrote your first novel in a tent you pitched in a DUMBO basement. That’s true.
And you had no electricity? I had electricity but no heat. I had a portable radiator, this electric coil thing. In the winter I had two of those heaters by my desk but it wasn't enough to heat the space. It got pretty fucking cold there.
Do you write on a laptop? I wrote my first two books on a typewriter and then entered them into a laptop for revisions. One time a water pipe burst at my old place and soaked 60 pages of typed paper. Luckily typewriter ink doesn't smear away but all my handwritten notes were unreadable. I had clipped them up like laundry, each individual page, to dry it out.
All that effort and time with your margin notes—was somehow not being able to read them ultimately helpful? I think the slowness of the typewriter, that process, entering each word into the laptop when you're making your first revision, you can't just skip over a word you know. Sometimes I think that maybe that led to a more thorough first revision, but I'm not even sure that's true because I did the same thing with my second book and still made a bajillion revisions.
Did you come up with a character first, Lowboy, or the plot? Basically, this friend of mine told me about a news article she'd seen. I think in Austria, this middle-aged man's medication was wearing off and there was a manhunt for him. I thought that's a great premise for a thriller, and I think he was on the public transportation there. It just came to me in this package, like a little pellet. Later I decided to make the character younger, a teenager. And the sexual obsession he has came after that, I have no idea where that came from. Maybe it was in an effort to be less grim. I definitely don't intend it to be a book read with undue seriousness, it's a book about serious problems, but there are jokes in there.
So you don’t write explicitly about things that happen in your life, but sometimes personal details emerge and surprise you? I don't try to avoid touching on my actual life experiences but I don't seek it out when I’m writing. Usually when experiences from my own life crop up it comes about more or less unconsciously. Something pops up, and you don't even recognize it yourself but someone who knows you well sees it clearly.
Has it happened that someone close to you is convinced you're writing about them when you aren’t? Members of my family are always recognizing themselves in stuff I write, sometimes with justification sometimes not. But they're always pleased. Even though there aren't a lot of characters you might want to be based on.