INTERVIEW | The Third Degree: Robert Wilder
A few weeks ago, author Robert Wilder took a break from his life of writing, teaching, and teaching writing in Santa Fe to come to Las Cruces to read from his first novel, Nickel. Afterwards, I had the pleasure of meeting Robert and asking him a few questions about the novel, his visual writing process, and why humor might be the silver bullet for a political overload.
Learn more about Nickel and the rest of Robert Wilder’s work here.
Brady Richards: Your latest book and first novel, Nickel, just came out. (Congratulations, by the way.) In it, two young friends, Coy and Monroe, navigate adolescence, illness, and the agonies of social hierarchy. In addition to your writing career, you have also taught English at the Santa Fe Preparatory School for over two decades. How did your experience as a teacher inform Nickel, and how have your students responded to the book?
Robert Wilder: My experience as a high school teacher informed the book in so many ways. I based the world of the novel on everything that goes into a semester of high school—homeroom, classes, bus rides, research notes. I was also particularly interested in how the school experience moves between moments of isolation to group dynamics to some sort of pageantry like award ceremonies or assemblies. All the primary and secondary characters are cobbled together from parents, students and faculty I’ve known over the years, at Santa Fe Prep but also at my own children’s schools and places I’ve visited. I love school culture and the different ways schools approach the impossible task of educating groups of children.
My own students have been very nice about Nickel but mostly they see me as the guy who takes attendance and grades their Gatsby essays. That’s the way it should be. I get more questions and feedback from kids who don’t have to listen to my lame jokes every day.
BR: I love lame jokes. Have you found that humor is a critical skill for a teacher? How about a writer? Your other books, Daddy Needs A Drink and Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge, are hilarious. I’m interested in how you approach comedy in your work, how you get to the funny. And have you any designs on writing a “serious” book, whatever that means?
RW: I can’t speak for all teachers, but I find that humor to be a great way to liven up a class for the students but also for me. I have deep empathy for students who have to sit all day and change subjects every fifty minutes. If adults had jobs like that, we’d quit or go nuts. So I think it’s my duty to try to spice things up any way I can and that includes jokes and puns and just being silly. I also want to model that it’s possible to be serious about reading Shakespeare while being funny (or trying to be). Standing in front of students every day can be a lonely business, so I’ll often mumble an obscure joke simply to crack myself up. After making a mistake on the board or doing something stupid, I’ll poke fun at myself in a way that only I understand. Those asides acknowledge the challenges of the job, especially after over twenty years of teaching other people’s children. The kids (and some of the parents) all think I’m insane but that’s fine by me.
Humor has always been a big part of my life. I grew up with a father who loved comedy so when we were not doing chores, it was a jokey household. I owned comedy albums by George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Bob Newhart, and my father had Henny Youngman, Bill Cosby and Victor Borge on vinyl as well. I watched Saturday Night Live on NBC and Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones, and The Goodies on PBS. I even bought an anthology of SNL scripts as well as Don Novello’s The Lazlo Letters, which I adored. I could go on and on all the way to Ricky Gervais’ The Office and Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. For me, humor is a type of intelligence. Obviously, it’s a way of processing pain and darkness, but it’s also a sensibility, a way to communicate with others who see the world the way that you do. I think it’s odd to meet people who have a good sense of humor then read their prose or poetry and see that it’s completely devoid of one. It’s almost like leaving out verbs. The stories and characters I like are the ones that offer the full range of human emotional experience—pleasure and pain, joy and sadness, humor and pathos. I think whatever I write will offer some sort of humor even if it’s quiet or subtle.
BR: Speaking of Fawlty Towers, in a 1991 lecture on creativity, John Cleese states that serious subjects can be discussed with humor—and are maybe best discussed with humor. Solemnity, he claims, impedes communication and, worse, serves pomposity. Do you find that humor is a more effective way to get at the truth of serious subjects?
RW: Absolutely. I think when complex ideas are approached with solemnity they can be overly simplified or reduced to talking points or even propaganda. Humor is like a lens that offers a different and sometimes a more sophisticated angle from which to view. I think one of the reasons that people are turning to folks like John Stewart, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee for news is because they avoid melodrama, sentimentality and hyper sensationalism. In a way, these shows use humor to break through the noise to expose the truth or subtext in important issues. I also believe that humor gives us a way to acknowledge and discuss the painful and taboo. When someone makes a joke about cancer, they are acknowledging to the group how hard it is to talk about. In my book, that’s better than forever skirting the subject. I recently listened to a podcast from Malcolm Gladwell where he thought satire weakened our response to serious issues. I’m not sure that’s true. Without satire, I don’t think many people would even know what the hell was going on.
BR: That may be true. Regardless, we now find ourselves in the fallout of a particularly ugly and truth-evasive presidential campaign—one where satire was operating full tilt. Whether or not that satire was working to cut to the cores of issues, jokes suddenly seem out of place. After the election, people are finding it hard to laugh. Do you think humor is a good way to begin the hard conversations we are going to have as a nation? I’m interested in your take on this whole mess.
RW: I’m not really a political person by nature so I don’t have any good thoughts on the whole mess….
BR: I appreciate that answer. Maybe we’ve heard enough politics for a while. Back to your work. Your first two books were nonfiction; Nickel is a novel. How does it feel to shift gears from the essay format into fiction? And how does your process differ between the two?
RW: I started writing fiction seriously in 1990 and studied it both at NMSU and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. After I trashed a terrible first novel, I concentrated on short stories before I moved into writing essays almost by accident. This may sound simple but the major difference between essays and a novel is scope. When I was at NMSU, Robert Boswell had this comically small cluttered office full of filing cabinets and stacks of papers. I remember him telling me that writing a novel was like carrying that office around in your head for years. I don’t think I fully understood him at the time, but now I do. In fiction, especially a novel, you need to create a world from the ground up. In nonfiction, that world is already created for you in many ways. When working on a novel, you have to consider so much—multiple characters, various settings, plot, pace, scenes—all the elements of storytelling before you even think about syntax and diction. When I was working on Nickel, and the next novel I recently finished, I’d line my kitchen walls with butcher paper to keep track of everything. I like to cook so I frequently have friends over for dinner. While I was cooking or mixing cocktails, they’d all make it a game to try to decipher my notes or diagrams or questions. I’ve been mulling over a new novel idea recently, and I’m eager to get started.
BR: I see Bolognese-splattered novel notes lining your kitchen walls, like an FBI office in a trattoria. For you, is writing a novel a visual process as much as a linguistic one?
RW: “Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form.”—Jack Kerouac
Writing Nickel was an audio-visual process. I started with his voice, which was, at first, a mix of sound effects, movie quotes, song lyrics and self-narration. His voice evolved and widened to the point where I could start thinking about plot, structure and story arc. That’s when the novel became a visual exercise. I tried to see my main character Coy in each scene, struggling with whatever was in front of him. Drawing upon my decades in schools, I attempted to furnish each moment with authentic sensory details.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist but was persuaded (in a sad summer cartooning class) that I might not have any talent in that area. My drawing dreams may have been dashed, yet I’m still fascinated by the visual. Now that my neighborhood has two terrific movie theaters (George RR Martin’s Jean Cocteau and the Violet Crown), I see at least one film each week. Even though Doctor Strange worked better for my son London and his friend Matias than it did for me, I can still marvel at buildings and streets kneading together on the big screen. As I walk the streets of Santa Fe, I always search for the telling detail—the one thing that perfectly captures that house or neighbor or store. When I was writing Nickel, I’d plot out the scenes like oversized cartoon panels, listing characters, setting, plot, and one or two words on thematic or emotional concerns. I know some writers use software to accomplish the task of structuring a novel; other writers are smart enough to need nothing at all really.
BR: I am interested in how your visual planning process defines scene while expanding its potential. Did having a “story board” available for consultation open up narrative possibilities?
RW: I don’t have a story board per se; I just try to sketch out scenes. The first reason is logistical: to keep track of what is happening scene by scene or chapter by chapter. Then, I like to see how the characters are moving emotionally. Obviously, you can think about Freytag here, but I like to consider how the character is progressing or regressing seismically. Charting scenes also helps you consider the possibilities in terms of conflict, character interaction, and what the purpose of each scene is. Why is it in there? In the revision process, you need to know what the scene’s purpose is as well as if it’s in the proper place. Out of nostalgia, I went to see Warren Beatty’s film Rules Don’t Apply. There are things to like about the film, but I left the theater wondering about many of the scenes that seemed to serve little or no purpose. It’s easier for me to scrutinize my own work if I can see it visually.