Five Questions with… Russell Wangersky

Russell Wangersky, author of Walt and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

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IFOA: You’ve published novels, collections of short stories and non-fiction. Is there a form that you enjoy writing most?

Russell Wangersky: I like all three forms, but I think short stories are the ones I like working on the mostprimarily because you can keep the whole story in your head at once, and can work on it all in a single sitting, there in the dark under your desk light. With novels, on top of the difficulties of having to work back into changing mood and tone (finding where you were in your head when you were working on it last), there’s the sheer problem of remembering where and when things happen so that you don’t trip up. And non-fiction? It’s just plain hard workthere is so much research to do behind every sentence, and it’s also so close to my daily job as a newspaper editor that it’s too much like work.Russell Wangersky

IFOA: Where did the idea for Walt come from?

Wangersky: Walt came from two places: first, from covering court as a reporter, and watching all sorts of truly awful people in the dock who still had family and friends who clearly loved them in the courtroom. It made me wonder about how people who do awful things justify it to themselves, and how others end up loving them. The second was the notion of concerns about personal privacy and the way that we’re all supposed to be concerned about electronic privacy while we go around shedding concrete personal information every day to people who can just pick it up off the ground.

IFOA: Walt is described as a psychological thriller. Was it difficult to maintain suspense throughout the writing of the book?

Wangersky: It’s described as a thriller, but it didn’t start out that way. It was a story I was interested init ended up a thriller almost by default. The suspense has everything to do with Walt himselfwhat he’s willing to do, what he’s willing to explain. So suspense wasn’t that hard to maintain, especially because most of the book is in first person. It was just a matter of staying in his head, which was not always a nice place to be. It was hard to go back later and maintain pace and tone in the editing, though, because edits feel like good muffin batterlumpy.

Wangersky, WaltIFOA: The grocery notes that begin each chapter, which Walt collects, are real. Were you ever unsettled by this primary research for your novel?

Wangersky: I have hundreds of grocery notes now, and I’m still collecting themevery time I pick one up, it’s like the bones of a much bigger story, and now that I’m in the habit of picking them up, I can’t seem to help myself. Calling it “primary research” gives it much more dignity than it felt like at the time. Unsettled? I was asked by the publisher at one point after the book was done to put together a collage of the notes and photograph them. Looking at the photos, all the different handwriting and papers, some of them clearly stepped on or driven over, was suddenly quite unsettling. A clear intrusion of privacy, but I used them anyway.

IFOA: If you could meet any author, living or dead, who would it be?

Wangersky: Cormac McCarthy. Just to ask howhow you get the nerve to write like that, to use language as if you own it, without ever seeming to have any doubt. Suttree? Pure linguistic magic.

Russell Wangersky is a writer, editor and columnist. On October 28 he presents Walt, a dark, psychological thriller about a grocery store cleaner who is pursued by police detectives unsatisfied with the answers he’s given about his wife’s disappearance.

The Back Story: where does writing begin?

By Janet Somerville

Yesterday The Walrus‘s Rachel Giese ably prompted The Back Story round table discussion that included Liza Klaussmann (Tigers in Red Weather), Donna Morrissey (The Deception of Livvy Higgs), Robin Sloan (Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore) and Russell Wangersky (Whirl Away).

The conversation began with each considering how place/home shapes their work. Referring specifically to Newfoundland, Wangersky said, “Everything seems large and it bleeds into all you do.” Morrissey suggested, “When I work, I write from a psychological perspective first. But, the geography shapes everything, including dialect.”

Wangersky, Klaussmann, Morrissey, Sloan and Giese at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Klaussmann seemed a Hemingway disciple when she noted, “Being away from places that I write about helps me imagine the place more deeply. Sloan remarked on the intentional book blurb that insists “he spends his time between San Francisco and the Internet. The Internet is a great city and I’m interested in how to dramatize that.”

Although P.D. James claims the first place she has to come to is setting, Wangersky insisted that for him a character’s voice is his beginning: “I hear something that makes me think and then build frames around it.” Klaussmann said “place acts on your characters,” and Morrissey wondered “if I’d chosen a different setting would the character’s struggle work out in a different way.” Sloan fixed his mind on the Internet, claiming “it has fraught pros and cons as any village graveyard.”

Giese asked if each had always been involved in artistic pursuits, plumbing early experiences and their childhoods. With scientist parents and engineer siblings, Wangersky the reader/dreamer was constantly the butt-end of family jokes. He recalled being a teenager and declaring “Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell and Margaret Atwood are old. When they die, I can take their place.”

Both Robin Sloan and Donna Morrissey recalled the world-building impulse of childhood. Sloan “drew maps of fancy kingdoms—folders full—with little stories inscribed along the edges,” while Morrissey used the natural world for creative inspiration: “I was always alone up in the woods. I’d create little towns running down the brook.” Klaussmann admitted, “My first book was a rip off of The Secret Garden.”

Referring to Henry James’s claim that “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” Wangersky chimed in, “I collect a lot of starting points.” Morrissey noted, “my challenge is writing features, so I’m always looking at faces, noticing a crooked tooth, or the way your eyebrows furrow.” Klaussmann said, “I don’t take notes. I trust in the subconscious, the way it churns raw material into something new, but true.” Sloan quipped, “It’s as if I’m listening to three other pole vaulters say ‘I don’t use the pole.'”

Giese closed the conversation with the provocative question, does art trump family? Klaussmann offered, “It’s a selfish profession. All writers are narcissistic.” Wangersky admitted, “I steal time from everyone, even sleep.”

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

Five Questions with… Russell Wangersky

© Ned Pratt Photography

Russell Wangersky, author of Whirl Away, will appear in three IFOA events this weekend, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize event.

IFOA: Your new short story collection has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (congrats!). What is it about short stories that appeals to you?

Wangersky: I like short stories for a simple, greedy reason; they are short enough that I can hold the entire story in my head while working on it. With novels, you end up going back and forth sometimes, trying to remember just exactly where something happened. The legwork is incredible, and, frankly, not much fun.

IFOA: Which of the characters in Whirl Away is most like you?

Wangersky: I think I have to say Tim McCann, the ambulance driver/paramedic in the story “911,” because he drives around with the same passle of self-doubt I do.

IFOA: When and where do you write?

Wangersky: I write at a computer in my kitchen in St. John’s, during whatever time I can steal between a full-time newspaper job and magazine freelance work.

IFOA: If you could time travel, where and when would you go, and why?

Wangersky: I honestly like the right now—but I think that’s mostly because I’m naturally unsettled with new things. I know where I fit in the familiar.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The best part is…

Wangersky: Dinnertime.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Wangersky: Kaleidoscopic.

For more about Wangersky at IFOA, click here.