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On Writing a Novel: An Interview with Author Johnathan Wilber

Nearsighted welcomes fiction writer Johnathan Wilber, a graduate of the MFA fiction program at Columbia and the author of Out, Beelzebub!. Johnathan is currently working on his second novel.

Belo Cipriani: You have a writing degree from Columbia University. Do you think a writing degree is necessary in order to get published?

Johnathan Wilber: No. If you have an MFA from one of the most well-known programs, like Iowa, you may get an agent or editor to look faster at your work than he or she might otherwise, but it’s ultimately about the work, and whether the publisher or agent thinks it fits into whatever the market’s doing at any given time and whatever vision they have for their “lists.” And it’s about luck.

MFA programs are often too divorced from the publishing world. There’s a certain art-for-arts-sake bent to many of these programs, and while that’s a good thing for the realm of art in general, it’s not a revenue-generating paradigm. It also tends to overlook the idea that a book is as much about what the writer’s writing as what the reader’s reading. If you’re not writing for an audience, why write? I’ve found it important to wedge myself between the MFA and the publishing worlds.

If you’re considering enrolling in an MFA, I recommend first that you do a few colonies, retreats, etc. This is a great way to get workshopped and meet other writers at a fraction of the expense. And it often has similar cachet to the MFA programs.

Belo: You’ve worked for a big publisher. How did you land that job and did that experience affect your writing?

Johnathan: I worked as an intern at the David Black Literary Agency during my MFA at Columbia. After I finished school, my boss at David Black put me in touch with a cookbooks editor at HarperCollins who needed an assistant. That’s how I got my first job. My work at Harper was largely on cookbooks and nonfiction—with some romance thrown in—so I wouldn’t say that had an outsize influence on my writing. Cookbooks are a very different sort of thing. After a few years, I moved on to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, where I worked on literary fiction, narrative nonfiction, and some translations.

At HMH, I learned a lot about the way editors think and talk about fiction, about what sells and what doesn’t, and a big part of my job was reading manuscripts and determining exactly what I did or didn’t like about a book. That kind of reading was useful. It was almost scientific. And when I approach my own writing now, I spend a lot more time thinking about concept, the market, the pitch, and the readership.

I think of publishing now more as a game, not a game I feel I’ve mastered necessarily—or one that can be definitively mastered by anyone—but it’s a game. There’s a lot of luck and a lot of networking involved. Working in publishing dispelled the notion for me that the business of books is any different than any other kind of market-driven enterprise. Or that there are special, transcendent “talents” out there, just waiting to be discovered. I do wonder what our canon would look like today if publishing was two hundred years ago what it is now.

By the time I left in 2012, working in publishing was a dispiriting experience. I wouldn’t give back those years, because I learned a lot, but I had to get out of the industry before my soul crumpled. There are so many important books out there that never see the light of day—both because editors are so overworked and because they’re expected to drive big numbers at all costs. I get a lot of grief for this opinion, but what Amazon has been doing with self-publishing is a huge boon to writers who don’t fit the marketing mold of the big publishers.

Belo: By publishing standards, you are a young writer. At what age did you decide you would write?

Johnathan: I’ve always spent a lot of my free time writing. When I was growing up, this didn’t take on any kind of digestible form. It was something like a mix of musings, poetry, stories, and vocabulary lists. In college, I intended to study theater, and I did for a bit, when I realized that I wanted more control over the artistic creation than acting would give me and that I was much too introverted to ever be an actor. I started playwrighting. And I did that until I realized I hated being limited to dialogue. I did my undergrad at Northwestern, which has a fabulous undergraduate writing program. I applied and was accepted, worked with some great mentors and fellow students, and that kinda sent me off into fiction writing.

Belo: What is your creative process like?

Johnathan: It’s been changing over the years. When I wrote my first novel, I just wrote whatever came into my head, without any kind of planning or forethought. That’s an exciting way to create, in many ways, but it’s also very frustrating when you get stuck. I ended up writing in fits and starts. I would not write for weeks and months and then my conscience would get the best of me and I’d binge-write. I was also doing my MFA when I wrote this book, so I did a lot of starting-and-stopping, a lot of midstream-revising. I wouldn’t do this again. I’m a believer now that you gotta plow through a novel and finish it before you revise.

With the novel I’m pitching now, I modeled the story after Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As I wrote, I went through the original novel, scene by scene, and rewrote things to fit my concept (1970s New York, just prior to the AIDS epidemic). This work was very steady and fast. I wrote one to two pages a day and I had a draft of the novel done in a year and a half. I’ve since revised it three or four times, and what I have now is a very different book than what Stoker wrote. A big part of this novel was doing research—on Zaire, on the 1970s, on Ebola, on AIDS, on New York. I originally dreaded the prospect of so much research, but I came to find that it was—to my great surprise—the most rewarding aspect of the project. It allowed me to write things I might not have invented purely of my own imagination.

I’m a kid of the 1980s, and I felt as if I was discovering a whole lost decade. I’ve been watching the TV my characters might have watched—The Bionic Woman and All in the Family—and listening to Fleetwood Mac on repeat. I’ve started wearing big glasses and growing my hair out. I’m the Daniel Day Lewis of writing. This is a really rewarding, three-dimensional way of learning history, and potentially confusing for employers.

Belo: Who are your all-time favorite authors?

Johnathan: David Foster Wallace was a big influence for me when I first started writing… The sheer ambition and the vocabulary. I still love him, but I had a phase where I was imitating and I had to get that out of my system. (I did.) Tony Kushner, especially Angels in America. Larry Kramer, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Harris, Donna Tartt, Randy Shilts, Donald Barthelme.

Belo: Who are you reading now?

Johnathan: I’ve been reading a lot more commercial fiction these days. I’m reading Micro by Michael Crichton, a novel finished by Richard Preston. I’m very interested in writing fiction that moves fast like commercial fiction, but features sophisticated language, characters, and historical texture.

Belo: What is your first book about and how did you come up with the story?

Johnathan: My first book, Out, Beelzebub!, is about a writer who becomes obsessed with The New Yorker’s latest darling. He begins stalking her and eventually plans an elaborate murder by clam chowder. This gets sidetracked when he’s thrown in prison. He begins a couture line of clothing for chihuahuas. As the story progresses, the successful writer starts to lose her wits. Eventually the two of them are thrown together in a kind of odd-couple Goonies-inspired ending that plays out in booby-trapped tunnels below Port Authority. It’s kind of A Confederacy of Dunces meets Harry Potter.

I don’t know where this came from. The main character is based to some extent on myself and based in large part on my frustration with the literary culture, The New Yorker culture, the way books and careers are made or broken. When I was finishing the novel, the “20 Writers under 40” list was a big deal. I was impressed with a few of these writers, but in large part I was bored. I was interested in why the literary world latches onto certain people and not others. I’ve mentioned that publishing is a game, and I think this novel was in many ways my working out my frustration with that game.

I was also reading a lot of surreal and satirical fiction at the time. Dave Eggers, John Kennedy Toole, Donald Barthelme, George Saunders—and that absurd aesthetic really appealed to me at the time.

Belo: What is your next book about?

Johnathan: The book I’m selling now is a retelling of Dracula set in the years 1976 and 1977, a historical fantasy that traces the HIV/AIDS epidemic before it became an epidemic. It follows a small group of gay men, a transgender woman, and several doctors, from Zaire to Provincetown to New York City. It explores the legacy of colonialism and the social metaphors of disease, mapping out the landscape of a world poised for an outbreak. It’s Joseph Conrad meets the wild 1970s and the dawn of AIDS.

Belo: When will people be able to buy it?

Johnathan: That’s a good question. I’m currently in the process of working with agents, a process that could take months. And then I imagine I’ll revise again before sending to publishers. I’d love to say 2015, or 2016, but it’s all up in the air right now. To stay abreast, you can follow me on Facebook. I post only important stuff.

Belo: Any words of wisdom for budding writers?

Johnathan: I was late to the game of making friends with other writers. I kinda kept to myself in college and grad school and have only recently begun to understand how important community is, especially among people who work in isolation. I don’t like “networking.” I never have, though I’ve only recently begun to understand why. Meeting kindred spirits is a different thing. There are lots of great workshops and retreats and colonies out there. I heartily recommend Lambda’s Emerging Gay Voices workshop that takes place at UCLA. I would take advantage of these, both to meet other writers you can exchange writing with, but also to exorcise the blues that come and go with every writing project.

Johnathan Wilber is a distinct voice in fiction. Learn more by visiting his Facebook page.


Who is Belo Cipriani?

Belo Cipriani is the Writer-in-Residence at Holy Names University, a spokesperson for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the author of Blind: A Memoir. You are invited to connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and YouTube.

Photo credit: Michael Stokes

Belo Cipriani View more

Belo Cipriani is the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams. He is a disability advocate, a spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and is currently the national spokesman for 100 Percent Wine -- a premium winery that donates 100 percent of proceeds to nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work.