September 27, 2016

Stories with a Secret, Never to Be Told: an interview with Robert J. Wiersema, author of "Seven Crow Stories"

In his debut collection Seven Crow Stories, best-selling novelist Robert J. Wiersema draws on myth and folktale, ghost stories, and fairy tales to share a glimpse of the worlds bordering our own. With his short fiction, Wiersema explores the mysterious realms of the shadows, the mirrorlands where time runs strange.

Gef: What is the allure to folktales for you? Was there a specific mythology that influenced you in your writing early on?

Robert: Folk tales are alluring to me on a couple of levels. First, and primarily, they’re a source of wonder, of magic, of hints of another world, or more worlds. The realistic and the fantastic exist side by side, sometimes comfortably, sometimes less so. And that approach, I think pretty apparently, has shaped my writing in a profound way. The other way they are alluring is that they form something of a common language, a language that transcends tongues and borders, rich in symbols and deep meanings which, in many cases, transcend the rational altogether. As far as early influences (vis a vis folktale and myth), I would love to say Celtic mythology, or the folklore of television, but I think it would probably be the Bible. The Bible, for a kid in Sunday school, isn’t a collection of proscriptions and restrictions, it’s a font of stories, many of which have stuck with me my entire life (long after any sense of organized faith had been abandoned).

Gef: How did this collection come about? Was this something you originally envisioned as a complete book or did the stories kind of lend themselves to being collected like this?

Robert: Seven Crow Stories has been a long time coming, but in an odd way. About 25 years ago, listening to the Counting Crows first album, I made a connection: in the traditional counting rhyme, seven crows stands for a secret, never to be told. That struck me as describing a particular kind of story, a story in which questions are raised which aren’t always answered, or are answered in ways which may not seem like answers. Stories in which the main narrative may (or may not) wrap up, but there are elements unresolved lurking beneath the surface. I began to refer to those types of stories – in my own writing – as “seven crow stories”, stories with a secret, never to be told. And I knew that if I ever published a collection of stories, it would be that kind of story, with that title. And seven stories only. (I’m a fan of the symmetry.) I’m not a frequent short story writer, so I was surprised by the number of stories I actually had, once I started pulling them out of drawers and off old hard drives. Seven Crow Stories is a very tight selection, guided by the types of stories, and the stories I wanted to tell between the stories, and between my work as a whole. There are characters in these stories, for example, who also appear in Black Feathers, and in the forthcoming The Fallow Heart (a Henderson novel), the links between them being another kind of secret. (The other thing that was important to me was that I couldn’t mess with the stories. In a sense, this collection is like archeology, each story reflective of a moment in my life, a particular time, and I didn’t want to lose that by revising to this current moment. I edited and polished and scrubbed off egregious burrs, but I didn’t do any wholesale revision – these are the final versions of stories as much as twenty-five years old.)

Gef: How have you found your progression as a writer thus far?

Robert: I’m probably not the right one to answer this, if only because any answer I can give is liable to be made up of contradictions. Writing has become easier for me, even as it has become much more difficult. I’m much more conscious of the process, though I work better when I ignore any rational thought. Planning is the best approach; I am a terrible planner. It’s the best thing in the world; it’s a misery.

That’s not very helpful, is it?

Gef: How intensive does the research process get for you?

Robert: I was at an author breakfast last year, on the same bill with a couple of non-fiction writers, and I cracked the audience up by saying that the reason I wrote fiction was because I didn’t have to worry that much about research; I could just make things up. Which was perfect, for someone as inherently lazy as myself. They didn’t know I wasn’t kidding.

Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?

Robert: There are so many, and it’s a constantly evolving list, even today. John Irving’s The World According to Garp told me it was okay to be messed up, and to live a writer’s life. In no particular order, and they inspired in different ways: John Crowley, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Alice Munro, Charles de Lint, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Moorcock, Helen Oyeyemi, Joan Didion, Elmore Leonard, Elena Ferrante...

Gef: Is there any kind of a gear shift writing-wise for you when switching story lengths?

Robert: There isn’t actually, and that’s somewhat problematic. I approach every piece of fiction in precisely the same way, which means I write stories in the same why I write novels, rather than as their own form. It also means that concepts I think would make good stories end up as novellas or novels...

Gef: What is the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Robert: I tell this to my students early in every semester: “write what you know” is a terrible piece of advice, as far as people understand it. What I don’t tell them is that that advice hamstrung me for a long time, limiting me to a regressive circle of autobiographically inspired works... I shudder to think, actually. Far better is the addition of one word: “writer from what you know”. Or better yet, and my default approach: “writer (from) what you fear.”

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Robert: I don’t actually believe in the concept of guilty pleasures. Why should pleasure be guilty? There are some folks who think my comic book reading should be a guilty pleasure – I ignore those people as much as possible. I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly AND the Paris Review, I read Batman and Fables and Saga and The Wicked & The Divine, and I read Marlon James and AS Byatt and Robertson Davies and Carol Shields and Edward St. Aubyn (I’m looking at the shelf to my immediate left, too lazy to get up to make the point) and I don’t feel guilty about any of them. Nor should anyone. Read/watch/listen to what you want, to what makes your heart sing, to what makes you think.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Robert: My webpage is long-neglected, and should perhaps be ignored, but people can find me on Facebook or Twitter. That’s where I’ll be talking about things like The Fallow Heart, the first novel set in Henderson, a love story about death and a mythic story about two small, seemingly unimportant people, which I’m revising now, and Cold Roses, the novel still in handwritten manuscript, and Strayed, which I’m about to leap (back) into, as my project for the fall.

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