My thanks to writer Mark Wisniewski for taking some time to answer a few questions about his new novel, WATCH ME GO, a dark and tangled story about two desperate characters whose paths cross after careening through a landscape of murder, betrayal, gambling, injustice, and love. Ranging from the Bronx to the racetrack, from a naïve young woman to a guy who grew up on the streets—and all evoked with precision and beauty—my reading experience was one of encountering worlds layered upon worlds. I recommend the book to anyone looking for complex story-telling and the kind of deep and powerful characters you can’t shake off—and, from a craft standpoint, I’d also recommend the book as a study in working with point-of-view. (As my questions reflect, I’m one of those writers who likes to study POV!)
Deesh first appeared in “Straightaway,” Mark’s short story that was selected to appear in an edition of the Best American Short Stories. Deesh and his buddies from the Bronx have been hired to haul away a mysterious (and alarmingly heavy) oil drum from a farmhouse in upstate New York. Can we just say that the novel takes us beyond the end of that amazing story, and that it’s not “hilarity” that ensues, but bad decisions and worse consequences?
Jan comes to upstate New York with her mother to spend the summer with family friends. Dreaming of being a jockey like her dead father, she’s also dreaming of love, and finds herself drawn to the family’s son, Tug, who has his own dreams of running a horse farm and one day heading to college. Too bad his dad Tom is an unrepentant gambler…
Here’s what Mark had to say about his book:
You made a number of choices with regard to point of view that are of special interest to me. The book alternates first person POV between two very different characters, Deesh, an African-American man from the Bronx streets, and Jan, a young, horse-crazy woman who grew up fatherless in Arkansas. How—and why—did you choose these characters to tell your story?
Those characters chose me. Deesh's voice came into my head for reasons I will never know for sure, other than that I'd been teaching a lot back then and therefore reading countless journal entries written by students--and one of the student's writing voices sounded a lot like Deesh's. You know how that goes, Leslie: a narrative voice starts coming out well on the screen, you don't stop to question it, you just let it flow. And in this case it kept flowing into secrets and violent conflicts and insights that owed themselves to Deesh's having been up against serious trouble. At some point, his voice felt sort of like a best friend. And Jan's narrative voice had its own quasi-magical, quasi spiritual genesis. If I got into all the details about how her narrative voice came about, you'd think I was insane.
What drew you to the first person? What were the challenges of creating not one but two distinct first person voices? Was the duo of first person narrators your intention from the beginning?
There were so many permutations of this novel, Leslie, it's hard for me to answer that question. I can say that, in the early nineties, when the first sentences of Watch Me Go came out, they were in first person. But I would then have to add that there were long periods of time when various chapters were narrated in third person. Additionally, as you no doubt noticed, my editor and I chose to have Jan, at times, narrate her best guesses regarding what Tug experienced/ thought/feared shortly before his demise. The result of our choosing to have Jan address this was that several consecutive sentences of Jan's first person narrative can, if read out of context, feel like third-person from Tug's point of view--when in fact those sentences are Jan's first-person-post-tragedy-speculation. That's some significantly tricky playing around with point of view (in some people's eyes), and if someone out there doesn't read the book closely or take it seriously, that person might not get the implied emotional landscape of Jan's narration. So for my editor and me to go ahead now and then with that "hybrid" manner of Jan's narration was a gamble. We knew there was risk; we knew speed-readers might not get what was being implied and how this could lead to a feeling of suspense regarding why Tug couldn't narrate his own story--and we went for it. My point here being, I guess, that my intentions about point of view morphed countless times as this book shifted gears toward publication.
What differences were there in the way you considered plot as you approached this novel, which is definitely on the mystery/suspense end of the spectrum, versus your previous books and short stories, which I assume were more, for lack of a better word, traditionally “literary”?
I always liked plot. Then I went to a couple grad schools in creative writing, where "literary" was the code word you needed to say to get invited to the best parties. There was a professor (won't say where) who encouraged his creative writing students to develop plots in their fiction, and he was absolutely despised and ostracized--while the professors who wrote poetic sentences about characters' musings were being pretty much adored and deified. That's just one of those things academia believes: diction and character trump having an interesting chain of events. Or at least that's how academia was back in the day. Now, maybe, MFA programs aren't so snobbish when it comes to plot?
“Write what you know” is about the oldest bit of writing advice there is. Here, I feel that there were things you did “know,” at least to some extent (i.e. the world of the racetrack) and things you didn’t (i.e. as far as I can tell you are not a young woman!). Can you speak to the relevance of that advice in your writing and writing in general?
Well, I do know the racetrack somewhat, and that helped me write a few scenes. Regarding lack of first-hand experience, I'll admit to needing to speculate sometimes about what it was like to be Jan. We all have memories, though, and in my case the writing/revising of Watch Me Go took so many years, I went through several girlfriends in the duration (having a novel face rejection for years can really test a relationship), so, at some point during all those years of revision, I could think back on the struggles of these various women I'd dated. Strikes me now that nearly every woman I've known has had, at some point in her life, some jerk harassing her sexually, and plenty of these women have eventually told me details about the various hells they've gone through harassment-wise. So writing those Jan sections about the jerks at the track hitting on her didn't require much imagination. I mean, you just think back on the horror stories you've heard--and you change the names and settings and write.
This novel started as a short story, “Straightaway.” When you wrote this story, did you know it was going to become a novel? The story focuses exclusively on Deesh and his buddies, hired to dispose of a sealed oil drum; they suspect there’s a body inside it, but they want the cash—which they take to the racetrack. How and why did you decide to expand this story into a novel; when in the process did Jan come in? Did you consider elevating others to POV characters?
Often I thought of making [Tom’s associate] Jasper a narrator. He was such a cool guy! It was as if he sensed precisely how the nefarious horse-folk were messing with Tom and Tug and Jan, yet he never knew the facts for sure--yet he never let his uncertainty or the mounting horror of the situation rattle him. And he had that vintage Galaxie 500, and you just knew he knew those back roads upstate better than anyone. In any case, yes, the short story "Straightaway" was always chomping at the bit to run long, and, for a few years there, I simply didn't want it to. I was scared of the anti-sports sentiment among literary folk. I was too busy and worried about paying off a mortgage.
Having a story selected for the Best American Short Stories series is a dream for most of the fiction writers I know. I would love to know more about the Big Moment, when you learned that “Straightaway” had been chosen…and by Salman Rushdie, no less! How did you hear?
A screened phone message from Bob Fogarty (editor of Antioch Review). I picked up as soon as I heard the words "Best American." I was in shock. It was cloudy outside, the middle of February, I think, so there'd been that general sense of malaise everywhere you'd go, inside the house and out. So, yes, definitely: that phone call changed the trajectory of my career.
This passage from Jan resonated with me: “And, sure, winning felt good, very, very good, but a victory in a horse race takes very little time, a very small fraction of your life. And then there ends up being the whole rest of your life, where you feel caught in this tangle of beauty and ugliness.” With so many bleak elements in the book—murders, betrayals, secrets—what are the ways in which your characters were allowed to experience beauty?
Nature. Both Jan and Deesh ran from the deaths & betrayals & choices that marred their lives, and their attempts to run more or less forced them to encounter things like moonlight between treetops, sunshine on water, unfettered birdsong, unexpected landscapes, and of course the splendor of running horses. Even when Deesh was up against that bobcat, he saw beauty in its eyes. In fact, Deesh's conceived solution to his troubles was to disappear into nature. He hoped it could be nature and him only. His greatest problems--and Jan's--were thanks to people.
You can read more about WATCH ME GO here.
Here’s more information about Mark Wisniewski at his author site.