Monday, April 16, 2012

Interview with Frank Wheeler, Jr.

Frank Wheeler, Jr. was nice enough to give me a few minutes of his time to talk about his upcoming novel The Wowzer and hint at some things to come.  I'm pretty sure the thing everyone's going to be talking about when this sucker hits the shelves is Frank's masterful use of dialect throughout the narrative.  In fact, it's so masterful, I half-thought that Frank may have simply dictated The Wowzer and had someone transcribe it.  I wasn't surprised when I picked up the phone and the voice on the other end of the line was well-spoken, even a little professorial.  But, to be perfectly honest, there was a little piece of me that was disappointed that Jerry and Frank weren't the same person.  Then I remembered Jerry's penchant for the violent, and I decided it was better this way. 

But it did make me wonder how he arrived at the voice for Jerry and how difficult it was to get it on the page.  Turns out, it was a process beginning with Jerry's appearance as an ancillary character in a prior novel.

This voice just stuck in my brain.  I kept increasing his part and adding to it.  After I finished that book, I wanted to develop the character more, so I wrote this short story which was what became The Wowzer.  I started writing the short story in the same way—just in plain third person.  It didn't work.  I wrote five or six pages, and I stopped and went back and said 'OK, third person doesn't work, let's try first person.'  And it didn't work.  And I went back again, went through past tense and present tense and tried all these things.  And finally, I knew what need to happen.  It needed to be in dialect—it needed to sound like speech.  I had already done some of the research on dialect, so I went back and got the books I used and I tried to make it as close to the system of dialect that Vance Randolph had used in his book Down in the Holler: A Gallery ofOzark Folk SpeechI wouldn't put anything on the page that I couldn't hear my relatives saying.  It had to sound like something that would come from them.  I wanted Jerry to sound like he could sound like someone related to me.

Not only is Jerry's voice razor-sharp, so is the setting.  I've never been to the Ozarks, but I imagine it to be a slightly refracted version of the world I live in.  Lots of things are the same, but there are differences at the edges that are jarring when you notice them.  Like idea of the Wowzer itself—a giant panther-like creature that slaughters people who go too far into woods.  It's the exact type of story I would have heard as a child, except that I didn't.  That regionality—that peculiarity—seems especially appropriate to this type of story where the setting itself is something of a character.  It's that little quirk that most people wouldn't even notice. 

I know that there were Wowzer stories in Missouri.  There were some in Texas.  There were some in Oklahoma.  So there are little pockets throughout that collection of states  . . . some people have heard them and others just haven't.

When you have a book like The Wowzer, it almost begs for a sequel.  Turns out, Frank's had begin work on the next story long before The Wowzer was even published.

I'm about two thirds the way through a sequel to The Wowzer.  Same characters, same dialect.  I ended up putting it down for a while to write a different novel.  Now that I'm finishing that up, I'd like to come back and finish the sequel.

Finding time to write and figuring out how to write is a difficult thing, especially when you have obligations.  The most valuable piece of advice I have got about writing was that I had natural access to an inner jackass most writers couldn't even approach, and that I should listen to that jackass whenever he speaks.  The most valuable piece of advice Frank's ever gotten is a bit more useful:

You can't see your work.  Right after you first write it.  Not objectively.  You need to involve others in the process.  This was for a poetry class I took.  Other people's perspectives are essential to the process of writing.  I've always been a storyteller, and when I was 18 or 19 I started to make serious efforts at trying to develop into a writer who could someday publish something.  But I was very resistant to other people's feedback, and I think when I started to allow other people to critique me and then take it seriously, that was thing that allowed me to progress.  Not being sentimental about it.

My last question to Frank was who would play Jerry in the movie version.  Both of us struggled to come up with an actor who would fit.  Names like Matt Damon and Matthew McConaughey were tossed back and forth.  It wasn't until after the call that I remembered a little show called Friday Night Lights and a character named Tim Riggins, played by the unfortunately named Taylor Kitsch.  He's about the right age.  We know he can do the accent, though he'd have to make it a bit heavier.  And then another name came to me.  Michael Fassbender.  Thoughts?

Anyway, it was great to talk with Frank and get a little insight into The Wowzer and his writing process.  Don't forget to go buy a copy or three on May 1.

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