An Interview with Kirby Wilkins

by William H. Coles


Kirby Wilkins Interview 9/15/2012

William H. Coles

Kirby Wilkins was Division Chair at Cabrillo College for thirty-one years where he taught creative writing.  He studied with Wallace Stegner in the Stanford Creative Writing Program.  He taught at the Foothill Writers’ Conference (1991-2001) and at the Surprise Valley Writers’ Conference.  His novels are King Season, set in Alaska, and Quantum Web.  His book of short stories Vanishing was published by Blackwells Press.

 

WHC

It’s September 15, 2012.  I’m with Kirby Wilkins in Surprise Valley in the town of Cedarville, California, at the Modoc Writers’ Conference directed by Barbara and Ray March. 

I’d like to thank you very much for agreeing to interview with storyinliteraryfiction.com.  It’s been a pleasure to be in your class these past four days, and I really appreciate all that you’ve done for your students.

Kirby Wilkins

Well, we should mention how much you’ve brought to it.

WHC

Well, thanks, but minimal.  I’d like to start with your conceptualization of story in the way that story is so important to humankind and  to a cultured society, but also in the way  humans depend upon story for communication – to get ideas and thoughts across. 

Kirby Wilkins

The importance of story is indisputable, obviously . . . particularly oral stories that come up through cultures that are not written.  Oral stories that come up into the world that we know, the Odysseus and Iliad, Beowulf . . .

WHC

Gilgamesh.

Kirby Wilkins

Gilgamesh.  And, those stories were told to carry on tradition, remember the stories, retell them, retell them in the community, retell them to the family.  I mean that  is the most important aspect of story.  But that’s not where we are now.

WHC

For the prose fiction writer, what are the features of story as you see it that will make it readable, memorable, entertaining . . . I guess?

Kirby Wilkins

For me, the development of story has always been organic and it’s had to do, I think ultimately, with getting far enough into myself, into what I know about the world and what I feel about the world, to finally bring up a shape of some sort.  And then the technique comes in – you maybe heal after that.  There are writers who I think are maybe even more akin to the story tradition–the oral story tradition–who just tell story.  T. Coraghessan Boyle . . . when I read him – I’m not wild about it because he’s so facile–but he tells story.  And you just almost imagine him telling those stories without revision, which I know he doesn’t.  So I think that there are many stories – storyteller types – and I’m not the type who conceptualizes story.  It’s strictly something I do from within myself that’s organic, and if I bring any technique to it through the years, it’s what happens after that.  Once I’ve got something I can, in fact, give it more shape, help it, speed it up, give it some sort of ending.  Endings are frequently a problem. 

I also think that the stories in my particular case – early stories in the book of Vanishing reflected the view of life, which I didn’t realize until  they all came together.  It’s a fairly bleak view, a kind of existential ‘50s view, which emerges in which there’s really not a lot of meaning and not a lot of love.  There’s a sort of emptiness in character’s lives.  So what emerges is a kind of worldview that I had at the time, less so now than I did then.

That came from the writing itself.  I admire writers who are prolific and can turn out stories – shape these stories . . . like Joyce Carol Oates, they just do it.  And I’ve never really felt that I was in that class.

WHC

A story begins, of course, and as you said, a story ends.   Do you have some feeling as you write that the end is going to happen or  do you let the end just sort of fall of the cliff?

Kirby Wilkins

Well, the famous New Yorker stories that didn’t end, they dribbled out.  But as I was talking[about] the other night,  I personally I don’t want to know the end when I start.  I want to discover the end and let it be a bit of a surprise.  And the act of writing leads me to the point where it’s got to end and sometimes that happens naturally and sometimes I artificially say “wait a minute, I’ve got to get out of this somehow.  What’s going on here?”  But in many cases – I think that’s almost true of every story my book Vanishing – the story evolved and ended.  And for my own reading of stories I tend to prefer a more organic story – a little less predictable maybe in terms of plot manipulation.

WHC

Should a fictional story be entertaining?

Kirby Wilkins

Yes, it should be entertaining.  But we get into trouble there if we’re competing with big entertainment – films.  Yes, it should be entertaining, you want people to read it and enjoy it and come away not just entertained, but, I hope, maybe moved in some way.  That would be nice. 

The stress on entertainment now is hazardous because you’re up against overwhelming odds through other media, which I think has put some pressure on fiction to be extremely snappy right out of the box. You’ve got to have the catcher, you got to sink the hook, and a lot of times that’s kind of artificial, but maybe an economic necessity that you’re competing [against].  But I’ve always found that kind of approach difficult.

I do think a story, when you pick it up, you want to keep reading after page one and there are many ways to do that.

WHC

One of the admirable things I’ve seen you do this week is you have a very distinct control of discussion of student manuscripts in class and I wanted you to go through the very specific things you say at the beginning.  You give a list 1 of things that shape the discussion.  Those are so valuable and I just wondered if you would share those with us.

Kirby Wilkins

Well, I don’t have my copy, [but] that evolves from the whole approach to the class and to dealing with student manuscripts.  It  does directly relate to my own experience in writing school in the ‘50’s.  Specifically Stanford.  I didn’t realize it fully until later, it was quite a destructive experience to be in classes that were very pushy in terms of aiming toward publication, fame, and fortune.  So the effect at that point was to turn me completely off.  I didn’t write again.  And that’s why I mentioned Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who was a very supportive man.  He is well known to anybody who lives in Reno, Nevada.  Track of the Cat, is one of his books, Ox-Bow Incident . . .

WHC

Oh, yes.

Kirby Wilkins

City of Trembling Leaves.

WHC

I know him now.

Kirby Wilkins

And he was for a while sort of the great white hope.  I mean it looked like he was really coming as a writer, and about the time I had him as a teacher, he quit writing.  Nobody ever knew [why].  All the people who loved him didn’t know what was going on.  He couldn’t write.  So he was frozen.  I was frozen up when I had the class with him.  He was extremely sympathetic.  I didn’t do any great writing with him but I had a man who understood about writing. 

So that shaped my whole philosophy, which is a writing workshop of any kind has got to be completely supportive of the people in the workshop, but not pussyfoot around the issues.  So partly it’s a delicate balance.   You want to look at manuscripts; you want to offer comments.  You would like as many of those comments as possible to come from students themselves and not from you.  There needs to be an attitude of respect toward the people in the class regardless of the quality of the manuscript. 

Many of the writing programs are kind of ego fests where it’s important to put people down – and to be top dog and to have the teacher’s attention and so on.  So basically I tried to stay away from that and work with the students in the class, bring the students along, let them do the work as much as possible.  To that extent I gave that little list of things 1

If you’re reading, you’re not reading as a reader anymore, you’re now a writer reading as a writer.  Then there are different things you’re looking for, structural items, how does a piece begin, how soon is there tension?  There should be tension immediately [that provides entertainment value].  Something’s amiss.  Nothing [needs to be] dramatic, not sinking the fishhook, but there’s something’s not quite right.

WHC

Something out of balance?

Kirby Wilkins

Something out of balance.  And that unravels and unfolds as you move into the story.  A short story’s quite different than a novel in that respect.  A short story is, some people have said, more difficult to write than a novel.  That the novel allows you a little more sloppiness, a little more room, a little more space to kind of wander around in.   

WHC

This is sort of a tangential extension of that question.  Last night I saw you, when you were giving your lecture, answer a question from a woman who gave some background on the story that she was writing.  I – and everybody – admired the way you were able to ask her specific questions, to help her find within herself, ideas, thoughts . . . images too, I think.  

You may not think about it, it may come naturally, but I wonder if you could sort of delve in  and give us some specifics about how you do that.  It was so effective. 

Kirby Wilkins

Well, thank you.  That moment was nice for me too just because of the way she responded really.  I have talked to her since and it turns out there’s even more to the story.  But it goes back to this fundamental philosophy between Walter Clark and Wally Stegner at Stanford, and San Francisco State, in my experience in the early ‘60s, and that is respect for the people, the students . . . and instead of answering questions with authority as the expert, I would much prefer to have that come through, you know, from the student. 

In this case it’s a question of just Socratic questions.  [The idea is to] just zero in on a couple of things, let her respond to those.   In that case, they were pretty much just abstractions, I think.  She talked of the tall Indian man, and she’s just new in town, and so the immediate question was how did you know he was Indian?  And suddenly she cuts loose: “Oh, well, the Indians dress completely differently, they wear the hats, they got these clothes on, and all sorts of stuff.   And so then there was a pause and I said what did you say the problem was in your writing?  I mean everybody laughed because of course there it was.

WHC

She’d solved it right on her own.

Kirby Wilkins

Then she [said] she walks across the street – and at that point I didn’t know she’s just gotten off a bus – she goes to a Laundromat, which I thought was amazing coming to a strange town and going to the Laundromat.  And she’s also got two kids in tow.  And so just pressing for those details from her, which she was quick enough to give, pleased everybody.  It pleased me; I found out information. 

What she was doing was what any writer has to do, which is just go deeper into the material.  And because it was all on a public stage, I suppose it made it more dramatic.  But it was just push a little deeper and let it come from her.  I didn’t have to say anything.

WHC

This is one of those impossible metaphysical kind of questions.

Kirby Wilkins

I love those. 

WHC

What is voice for a writer? 

Kirby Wilkins

Well, we heard a discussion of poetic voice, which I didn’t entirely agree with.  Fictional voice is, in my view,  after all these years of teaching, the single most important aspect of writing.  But you can’t lay it on; you can’t invent it.  It has to do with your character, your angle of vision, the way you see the world, and the way you project as a narrator and the kind of language you use.

I mean there are famous voices you recognize immediately – the Hemingway voice that infected generations of people.  Another voice you could probably recognize a mile off was Faulkner.  But I think voice is more fluid for most of us.  [An author] could write a series of stories and people will not be sure necessarily they’re written by the same author.  So I’m not sure it’s a steadfast voice.  That’s a voice that develops in a unique piece of fiction and it comes from the choices the writer’s making and the way the writer approaches the material . . . and of course the language the writer uses develops voice.  And it’s not easy to define, but I think when all the elements come together in those first opening lines of a story, [the effects] are huge.  And it’s best not to be self-conscious about that.  Not –” I think I’m going to have a tough voice here,” but [create a voice that] drives the story.

When the reader picks it up, the first couple paragraphs, they either put the story down or they keep going.  And if they keep going, in my case mostly, it’s the voice that’s coming on the page (and are written words on a page) . . . no human voice behind it all, they’re coming into my head and they’re resonating in some way that makes me want to keep moving.

WHC

Now, is that the authorial voice?  Is that the persona of . . .

Kirby Wilkins

The writer.  And it’s not even quite a persona.  Because it’s not a stand-in for the writer, it’s the writer’s language on the page.  It’s not as though you can back up as you might from a person and figure out who the guy is behind [the person].  I hate to say it’s mysterious process or mystical, but there is no person like that.  I mean the writer wrote the words, wrote the story.  There’s the story that goes and resonates in our mind with a kind of voice.  That voice may in fact surprise the writer himself.  So I’m not sure it’s a persona exactly.  I mean it’s tempting to say that, but I’m not sure.

WHC

When considering the voice of the author, is it ever different than that of the narrator?  Or the character?  Is there a distinctive voice for each?

Kirby Wilkins

What do you mean by the narrator?  The person telling the story?

WHC

Yes.  In my conceptualization, an author creates a story,  a narrator tells the story, and the character acts in the story.  But there are all sorts of fluctuations; for example, in first person, sometimes often the author is the narrator,  in first-person often people collapse,  the –

Kirby Wilkins

What did you say?  The first-person, the narrator telling the story, who’s the [narrator]?   The author’s doing what?

WHC

The author is creating the story.

Kirby Wilkins

And the narrator’s telling the story. 

WHC

Telling the story.

Kirby Wilkins

And that narrator’s not the author?

WHC

Well, it depends on who’s writing, of course.  I try to separate the author from the narrator so that the narrator’s background and perceptions are really imagined differently, and often more effectively, [than] when the author is relying on authorial worldview that is limited.  This allows more potential and flexibility in the way the overall voice of the piece goes forward.  And I’m wondering in your thinking and in your writing, whether you ever do think about narrator-distinctive voice . . . and also character-distinctive. 

I’ve come to believe that in creating a character voice, it helps the work to have the reader recognize that this is one unique character’s dialogue.  The author is creating a character’s voice and that character’s voice can only be consistent if the environment and the experience of that character are specific and maintained consistently for that character. 

Contemporary literature, quite frankly, doesn’t even deal with this very often.  To see it done well, you have to go back to the classics of the 20th and 19th Centuries: Forester, Jane Austin, the Brontes.  Although the author is present in these works as the creator of the work, the author is not in the work.  There is no distinct authorial presence in the story world.   These didn’t create an authorial presence, still the author is there in the unique way they create the story and deliver it through a separate narrator related to the story world. 

Kirby Wilkins

Well, I’m still not totally clear about the separation between the author and the narrator.  I think I know what you mean.  That is, in a third-person story where characters are thinking certain ways and even in say close third-person where you’re in somebody’s mind throughout the entire story and you’re seeing the world through their eyes.  Okay, that’s the character’s perception of the world.  Now, I have invented that character . . . that voice. 

Now, I, as the author have invented that, but you’re right, there’s a funny little distinction in that the voice of the story at that point and the way that character is seen and moved and the way the thoughts move.  It’s almost as if it’s not entirely me doing that.  I’m assuming it’s not a narrator because the narrator’s not telling the story.  The narrator’s sort of creating the story, allowing the story to happen.  But is that me?  That’s an interesting question.

WHC

There seems to be an advantage for that narrator separation in the sense that every story is essentially written in the past, about something that has happened, even if you put the story in the present or future tense; everything in the author’s mind has happened, from a place with a different perception . . .

Kirby Wilkins

Yes.

WHC

. . . in the telling.  If you’re writing a Civil War story, and I’m not talking totally about historical fiction, I’m just saying there’s a setting for a fictional story.  So you’ve got an historical setting and you’ve got a narrator not in 2012, but, let’s say, you’ve put him or her in 1940.  And you’re writing about a story that is positioned as if occurring in 1864.  There is an advantage of writing through that narrator using all that narrator’s perceptions, thoughts, attitudes, opinions from 1940.  And the advantage being that there is this totally different perspective of the Civil War from 1940 than from the author’s in 2012.  It is a rich source of ironies.

Kirby Wilkins

That’s getting pretty tricky because you’re talking about an actual narrator who exists in 1940 as a person, as a character.

WHC

Yes.  But not always as an in-story character.  Story narrators are often not characterized, or even identified.  Instead, they remain a presence in the story for the reader that has a specific voice, although not necessary developed on the page, and a worldview.

Kirby Wilkins

So if we’re sitting here, 2012, how do we know that it’s a character in 1940 writing the book?

WHC

You mean how does a reader know?

Kirby Wilkins

How does a reader know?

WHC

Well, the reader doesn’t  need to be told the character is speaking and thinking in 1940.  But the reader needs to assume that for credibility and reliability in the reader’s perception and acceptance of the story.  All this is subliminal in most cases.

Kirby Wilkins

I think you’re going to have to have cues in a case like that. 

WHC

Yes.

Kirby Wilkins

I mean otherwise why not just tell the story of the Civil War right now.  We sit down and let’s write a story about the Civil War.   We’ll get the research together and we’ll get it started and there’s a character doing X and somebody else doing Y.   I mean that’s writing a story about the Civil War.  Now, if you and I are going to create a novel with the patina of the voice of 1940, I can’t actually get my mind around that, how we would do it.

WHC

In the 1940s, the thought and actions of the narrator, the character, or even the author, are different.  For example, the voice in 1940 will have an entirely different view of the race issue from that of 2012, or from the time of Thomas Jefferson, or any other time.  It is timeline specific.  The advantage, it would seem, is creating believable – and accurate – voices for characters and narrator – that contribute to storytelling.  Accurate voices help distinguish characters, and help provide broader interpretaion of story meaning and themes.

Kirby Wilkins

Well, no.  It’s just as I say, to my way of thinking, it’s almost an impossible thing to concede to do because when the book is picked up in the bookstore, which it wouldn’t be anymore because it would be online, but anyway it’s on the Kindle, you’re reading a book about the Civil War.  Now, I see – in my mind, I’m not seeing any way we’re going to  know that’s a 1940 narrative.

WHC

Not a 1940’s narrative.  Simply a voice that supports the character’s (and narrator’s) position on the story timeline.

Kirby Wilkins

It’s virtually [impossible] – except again in the post-modern thing where you can play all kinds of games and tricks. But in a conventional realistic novel, you don’t want to break that narrative stance . . . the consistency . . .

WHC

I understand.

Kirby Wilkins

. . . otherwise you’re going to lose your reader.

WHC

Not lose the reader as much as allow room for the reader to join into the story narrative. 

Let me ask you about point of view and voice.   Are they the same thing?  And if not, how do they differ and how do you use them?

Kirby Wilkins

I don’t think that they’re the same thing, but they’re related.  One of the deceptive things about first-person is it seems to be a clear point of view.  We know where we are, [from] where some guy’s talking to us, and this is the way it is.  In fact, that’s a stance, it’s an invented character, it’s also a creation – as much a creation as a third-person.  But we buy into it a little more easily  . . . first-person. 

You get to third-person, it gets trickier.  The third-person voice you adopt can be some slangy voice, it can be in New Orleans, or whatever.  You take a voice of a character who has a voice in the story.  Outside the story, yo,u the writer, are creating that voice.  First-person, the banter of voice is not so clear because nobody’s talking now.  Now we’ve got a person on the page, moving around, doing things, who’s being seen from a particular angle, either a so-called omniscient, way back, up close, stream of consciousness.  Those choices, how close and intimate we become with the third-person character, are in my mind curious and have something to do with voice. 

I know when I’m most comfortable with a close third-person voice in which I’m almost in a stream of consciousness.  I’m up so close that everything is really in that person’s mind and it’s kind of a free-flowing association that’s going on.  That seems to be my natural default mode.  Other people, not at all.  They have to be further back.  Well, the choices may have something to do with where the author sees the world. 

WHC

Are all first-person narrations unreliable?

Kirby Wilkins

Well, we never know how reliable they are as long as we’re stuck in the first-person all the way through.  I think the good ones – and I’m being very vague here – have to have some questions in reader’s mind around if this person really right or not.  I wish I could remember the name of a book – oh, God, I’m completely blanking it out, that just weighs two points of view, the man’s point of view and the woman’s point of view, completely separated about the same events in America.  And of course they’re wildly different.  They’re so wildly different that you expect it to be resolved in some way.  In other words, there’s this view – go home and sleep on it.  And they’re so wildly [different]– I mean they can’t both be right, so something’s going on here.  Well, the author in that case is not going to help us out.  He’s deliberately not helping out in the first-person box.  Just dropped us in and said good luck.

WHC

So the author could use the unreliable first-person effectively in prose for  . . .

Kirby Wilkins

Oh, yes.  One of these people is either unreliable, lying – but they’re both very winning.  I mean, you know they’re talking; I’m going with them.

WHC

Do you see writing either novel or a short story as a structured procedure.

Kirby Wilkins

Yes.

WHC

You call it organic earlier.  And yet are there times when structure can help?  Are there certain stories that you find that need to have some sort of structure to it to be effective?  And the reason I say that is that structure seems to relate to drama in many ways.   Structure also seems to relate to logic and continuity.  And when you need logic and continuity to get across some complex emotional changes, do you look to structure then?

Kirby Wilkins

Definitely in revision, yes.  It seems to me at the point the questions you’re raising relate to something’s got to be moved around, and there’s got to be motivation.  Why would this happen? 

WHC

Yes.

Kirby Wilkins

You’ve jumped from point A to point B, but there’s nothing in between what’s going on there.   In issues of motivation, you get  into the plot.  Yes, at that point trying to work a finished product, those are the kinds of technical aspects that are internalized, but you certainly have to do them.  And sometimes miraculously an occasional writing will have the flow and have the satisfactory kind of plot resolution that doesn’t need much tinkering; you know . . . it just bends.

WHC

Do you use second person, either the you voice or we voice?

Kirby Wilkins

Not much.  I’m trying to think; it seems to me a couple of stories.  And I like to play with it in the sort of things we’ve been working on in class, leads for material, and I’ll just start talking.  You know . . . this is really a lot simpler than this, can’t we look at it this way?  So it’s a person – it’s not actually a fictional voice.   So I kind of like the intimacy of that.  But in terms of using it in fiction . . .

WHC

Now that seems to be a direct approach to the reader.

Kirby Wilkins

It is a direct approach and it’s like you’re having a little chat with the reader.

WHC

Right.

Kirby Wilkins

– and you almost like know who your reader is.

WHC

When you say, “We’re going down the street” or “You’re going down the street and you walk into the café and you order a sandwich,” or “We went to the fair and looked at the pigs.”  In that sense, what do you see as advantages to the use of the second-person voice in contemporary fiction.

Kirby Wilkins

You mean the “we”?

WHC

The we-voice or the you-voice.  

Kirby Wilkins

It’s  completely different.  It’s a completely different voice and it can get aggravating for the reader to have somebody addressing them as you all the time as if they’re bosom buddies.  And particularly if the person saying you is not a very nice person – it even makes it harder.

WHC

Because you don’t want to be associated with them? 

Kirby Wilkins

But we is simply say my wife and I are going into the store, you know, we’re going in, that seems to be a
very unusual construction for a number of people doing something.

WHC

That’s different than the confrontational [accusatory] 2nd person, often in 1st person.  You go into the store.  The reader thinks “really?  Why?  Or: “You think she is ugly as sin, but you like the way swings her butt.  The reader may think,  “That’s not what I would think. Why am I reading this?”

Kirby Wilkins

How would you use “we” as a second person?

WHC

I don’t think I would use it.  But people are using it like this: “We looked to the other people in the life boat, maybe twenty or thirty.” [note how this implies that the reader, being part of the we, can’t see or count.]  Or: “We went to church and we thought, ‘you know God is here today.’ [The reader thinks, “really?”  I was with you doing that?]

Kirby Wilkins

Okay.

WHC

We went to church, we lit a candle, and we watched that candle melt, the flame yellow orange, and it brought an idea to us.  And the reader asks, ‘that’s not what I would remember.  Why am I included?”  Always the author confronting the reader, and demanding suspension of disbelief.

Kirby Wilkins

Well, in what you’re making up there, there is an implied other person beside the reader.  We were doing this and it’s not just the reader, but there’s somebody else going along.

WHC

Yes.  The author actually demands the reader join in, if they are to continue reading.  It’s more than use of “we” as plural second person descriptive.  It’s including the reader by addressing them as “you” plus someone else, often unclear.

Kirby Wilkins

Oh, I see.  Yes, okay, I’m hearing it a bit now.  I gotcha.

I don’t have a feeling about that one at all.  You-voice I like to play with.

WHC

How is literary fiction changing for you in the last century, and do you perceive a change to be positive or negative?

Kirby Wilkins

You know, I don’t know.  I think literary fiction as a concept is probably fairly recent. I’m not sure there was much literary fiction before.  There was fiction and people read.  My father read Hemingway.   People read Dos Passos . . . the popular writers – Steinbeck, I mean those were good writers, they’re not literary writers.  They become literary writers as we look back, but at the time they were part of the culture and they wrote. 

I think literary fiction is partly the distancing of what’s happened and the writing schools reflect that in a way, that a literary story is opposed to the popular story, and the popular story is – of course – lower status.  The literary story appeals more to people with education and a degree of sophistication and those who are willing to give it the time.  I’m not sure when that happened or why it happened, but I do think it’s become more exaggerated.  I mean is Stephen King a literary writer?

WHC

No.  [But a very good writer.]

Kirby Wilkins

He’s a popular writer?

WHC

I would think yes. 

Kirby Wilkins

Yeah.  Okay.

WHC

He’s a genre writer.  But will he persist on the shelves of  literature and with time be seen as literature.  I don’t think his characterization is strong enough and his plots are too fatalistic, [and often fantasy.   In general, most literary fiction is character-based with significant change in thinking and with meaning.]

Kirby Wilkins

Ray Carver, whom I liked a lot, is certainly relegated to literary status.  He might have had a little more outreach than other literary writers.

WHC

Right. 

Kirby Wilkins

Joyce Carol Oates?

WHC

Literary.  But with widely variable quality in her output.

Kirby Wilkins

Literary?  [Oates] publishes like mad.  I don’t know how many, you know, of her novels she sells.  But it’s an odd distinction.  I’m not sure when it crept in, but it seems to me it’s a little bit artificial, but it’s been accelerated by the 822 writing programs and people learning to write.  Look what’s become of literary fiction, which apparently means sort of serious or slightly more demanding fiction that would not appeal to the popular reader.  So it’s aimed at a slightly different audience.

WHC

Would you think that being character-based, fiction could be assigned to literary fiction whereas plot-oriented fiction would be genre in a sense?

Kirby Wilkins

Yeah.  I’m sure that that’s partly it.  That the good popular writer who’s writing, publishing, making a living off of it is certainly using certain techniques that are working in a lot of that is plot.  A lot of it is the expectation of the audience.

WHC

And fatalistic plot.  The asteroid’s coming towards earth and we got to figure out a way to save earth.

Kirby Wilkins

Yes.  And maybe what they call – what is it?  Chick lit.  That implies an audience and so when people are writing Chick lit, they have an audience, probably with expectations.  I’m not sure what the age range for Chick lit readers is.  So part of it is audience and the literary writer almost doesn’t have an audience except, if he’s picked up, gets good reviews, good New York Times reviews, makes it kind of up the ladder of critical success, and probably never going to  make it into the top ten in the New York Times, but at least will have a solid reputation, solid enough sales that maybe they might even bring out a paperback.  That will help in going to writing conferences and teaching schools and do the things that literary writers can do.

WHC

How does memoir fit into this spectrum?

Kirby Wilkins

I have no idea.  All I know is there’s a lot more memoir being written.  It may be almost a turn against literary fiction . . . that memoir seems to be real; as you open the book up at least it’s got you hooked there.  I’m going to  find out something real about the world.  There’s a call for it and that seems to be a need for voyeurism on the part of readers.  A lot of writers now are wanting to  expose themselves?

WHC

Well, expose things that wouldn’t have been exposed in last century as writers.  We want to know salacious detail, we want . . .

Kirby Wilkins

Well a memoir’s the last place you’re going to get it about the person themselves.  I mean they will be telling all kinds of salacious detail about their friends and who was screwing whom and so forth.  But inadvertently telling a lot about themselves too.

I have read almost no contemporary memoir.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  There’s a memoir class going . . . people were talking about memoir this morning; a lot of my students have been interested in memoir.  What is it about memoir?  To my way of thinking, somewhat cynically, it’s a form of fiction and increasingly the blurring is between fiction and memoir.  It’s a creative nonfiction.  I think for some fiction writers it’s hardly even necessary to conceal some of the things that you used to have to conceal.  So I’m not sure what’s going on out there.  Whatever it is, I suppose maybe I’ll find out some day.  I read some memoir; I just don’t think about it much.

WHC

I wanted to ask you about your teaching experience with Wallace Stegner;  You had mentioned that it wasn’t as positive as I had imagined, actually.

Kirby Wilkins

As a teacher of literature, he’s a Western author and a formulator of the Western kind of movement – a mystique.  The writing school in the ‘50s was spun out of Iowa and it was, I guess, the first one on the West Coast – San Francisco State followed soon after.  And I think Stegner was quite ambitious.  I mean he was opening a new program, it was not that common in the country, and he wanted to succeed.  He was pushing; he wanted results, which is fine. 

In my own defense, I would say I’ve met at least half a dozen friends who quit writing after they left the Stanford writing program.  So to my mind something was slightly amiss there. 

I think what was amiss for me was, as an undergraduate, when I got into the class, the graduate students were part of the problem.  [I’d] written a couple stories that my undergraduate teachers liked and so I got in with the big fellows.  Well, I shouldn’t have been in with the big fellows first of all because I was just barely a developing writer, didn’t know my ass from first base.  So that’s one problem. 

The other is that, in retrospect, it’s the bad side of the writing program in which there is probably insufficient respect for  the student writers.  I mean, if something’s bad, it’s bad, period.  We’re not talking about improving it necessarily; it’s just a piece of shit.  Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it was in that kind of background.

And when you’re in a delicate state, not even sure what you’re doing, it can be quite damaging.  I knew good writers who went in the program and never wrote again afterwards . . . I mean, who were more confident writers than I was. 

So I think in the early days at Stanford probably there was too much push, and Stegner wanted to get up equal with Iowa right away.  And that push worked for some people.  I mean the Stanford program, of course, is famous for the writers it has put out in the Stanford Fellowship Program.  So it works.  For me it became the definition of what I would not do when I taught.  So everything has been sort of anti-Stanford.

WHC

I guess it’s ironic in a sense that the present director of the Iowa workshop is a graduate of the Stanford program.

Kirby Wilkins

Doesn’t surprise me at all.  But now this is a very personal opinion.  But I’ve run into enough road kill that I I feel confident.

WHC

I understand.  Thanks for sharing.  Do you have any recommended reads, contemporary or classic, for students and what would they get out of those reads  if they read them?

Kirby Wilkins

Well, I have such a lousy memory I’ve got to go look up things that I read because I’ve already forgotten them.  But in terms of things that have made a distinctive impact on me, in my thinking, in my writing, there are two or three that come immediately to mind. 

In the ‘50s it’s Hemingway.  For better or worse because I think there’s a downside to Hemingway.  But if they haven’t read Hemingway, they haven’t read the stories, haven’t read the novels, and increasingly I think people haven’t, [they need to].  I mean he finally faded out.  Some of them now are painful to read for me.  The Old Man in the Sea, looking  back, it just didn’t work.  So Hemingway may finally just vanish.  But at the moment, at that time, {he’s worth the read.]. 

More recently for me, very important has been Ray Carver, his stories.  The bleakness of the stories appeals to me, that kind of existential emptiness in the suburban world.

WHC

And the minimalism . . .

Kirby Wilkins

And the minimalism.  I think you can make a direct link between Carver and Hemingway; I don’t know the details, but I think you could very easily. 

Another one who’s minimalist and maybe the most important for me is James Salter . . . particularly the novel Light Years.  He’s written stories, and he’s written a memoir, which is extremely powerful.  He had gone out of style in the early ‘50s; nobody knew anything about Salter and he was rescued by North Point Press, which produced fine paperback work out of the  East Bay.  And these are really beautiful books, they’re just gorgeous. 

Somebody wandered in a library and saw it and brought out Light Years and you hate to think such a book was ever lost.  Anyway I have that North Point copy and it’s available – the book.  You want minimalism, Salter has so much white space you can’t believe it.  And he also has a nice way with erotic material.  In a book called, A Sport and a Pastime, which is entirely erotic, but in the one I’m talking about, Light Years, it’s amazing.  You can’t believe what that man did. 

Carver, I’ve reread in the course of teaching people.  But stylistically all of those are held together I guess by minimalism, a certain kind of bleakness.  

WHC

If somebody wanted to study with you, is there a way to access you in the teaching setting?  I know you’re not teaching actively as much these days, but, is there a way?   Do you teach privately?   When do you teach workshops . . . is there a way for people to know how to access?

Kirby Wilkins

Well, that’s been an evolutionary process.  When I was teaching the same students, I was constantly available and endless office hours.  And it’s one of the things I think really needs to be done, and that’s why I prefer to talk to a student about a manuscript rather than write comments.  Because it’s give and take when you’re talking about manuscript.  Then I got into writing groups with students who had been my students, who wanted to go on and have a writing group, and wanted to pay me for the writing group.  I was extremely uncomfortable with that.  So that didn’t last long.  I just didn’t want to do it.  I didn’t want to take their money; I didn’t want to be responsible for that.  So then that evolved into a writing group of former students with me still presumably in a position of authority.  And I totally wasn’t comfortable with that. 

So over the years there’s been a lot of interaction with students.  And then, last year I went to this memoir conference in Salt Lake City and people there got so close and they didn’t know anything about me as a writer.  I was just another person in the conference.  But we got close and we wanted to talk about what people were writing and everybody wanted to send stuff around.  And that’s the point I began to wonder, I don’t know, can I do this?  Particularly if there’s a number of people.  What’s the arrangement?  And reading can be so time consuming.  And it feels like often I think I’ve got to get this read.  Then I’ve got to come up with a written response, and you know the easier way always for me has been the student in person.

WHC

On a one-to-one basis?

Kirby Wilkins

Well, it would have to be pretty limited given my life.  And you know doing that for money is not comfortable to me.  On the other hand, if it’s taking up a lot of time  that becomes an issue.  There’s a lot of writers that I’ve encouraged over the years who have published.  I’ll make a plug, these classes I’m talking about at Cabrillo.  Natalie Serber just got a nice review in the New York Times for Shout Her Lovely Name.  She’s got a huge advance, she’s managed to get in on that before it all  collapsed.  So I’m delighted for her and she’s gone on to teach.  And she was one of these people that went all the way through, one of the people to do the writing, paid-for writing group; in fact, she’s one of the people who suggested the writing group that we we’re in.  Now she’s teaching writing herself in Portland.  And, yes, I’d love to keep in touch with her, but she wouldn’t, it’s the last thing she’d want to do is send anything to me at this point.

WHC

Could somebody contact you if they wanted to study?

Kirby Wilkins

Yes, they could except the problem is who are they, what are they doing, and what’s the nature of their work?  Is it something that you really want to spend some serious time with?  And that’s pretty hard to filter out. If there was a way to do that where it would really be of value to them – but I’m doing something that there’s a zillion of schools are doing, that are putting out lots of writing teachers.  If there was some reason why I was the perfect person for a student, I suppose I would talk about it.

WHC

It’s a pleasure talking to you and I certainly have learned a great deal.  I’d like to thank you very much for talking to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com

Kirby Wilkins

Well, it’s a pleasure talking to you because you know so much about literature.

WHC

Thank you.  That’s very kind.  

 

1 Questions for manuscript critique.

  1. Is there tension and how soon do you feel it?
  2. Is there movement?
  3. How important is place and if it is mentioned, is it important?
  4. What are the motivations?
  5. Do you know the characters?
  6. What is the timeline?  How is it compressed?
  7. What stands out?  Image?  Dialogue?
  8. Is there a theme?  (Present in most serious fiction.)
  9. Ask: what? why? how?

Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

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