What inspired Our 13th Divorce? my publisher (Livingston) wanted to know. I answered thusly:
I wanted to see how much comedy and poignancy I could swirl together inside a serious novel about repeated failure. I was also tracking, with some curiosity, the slippery path of a protagonist who is wondering whether he can (or should) transcend the people and the place that have shaped him. After all, failures of love and luck don’t have to be genetically determined. Do they? And what behavioral choices become visible, I wondered, when a smart outsider (a fictional fiancée/therapist, no less) makes you love and mistrust her for the same reason: she introduces you to yourself? I wanted Our 13th Divorce to feature an ensemble cast of complex and flawed people slouching toward grace (as the best of us often do) even as they appear to defeat themselves. I wanted to explore cultural notions of gender and class, history, the persistent power of memory, the fragile nature of relationships over four generations, the magnetic pull of home, companionship and loneliness, and what we learn and fail to learn from those we love and fail to love. The results, I hope, are tragic. And comic. And poignant. And ultimately, instructive enough not to require a sequel.
And here’s an interview I conducted with the WSJ (Winston-Salem Journal, not the Wall Street Journal) in which I try to say some honest things about fiction-writing and teaching and Bugs Bunny.
Also: I wrote the following “Artist Statement” as part of my application for a Wisconsin State Arts Board Literary Fellowship, which I received in 2011. It would look quite different if I wrote it today (based on current projects and influences), but here’s what I wrote then:
The reasons I write are tied to what I write about: I write to discover authenticity and I write about people who strive to do the same. My current novel-in-progress, Our 13th Divorce, features a cast of alienated and eccentric characters determined to stumble toward grace while enduring countless setbacks. Their quest, like my quest in writing, is driven by strong-willed passion, humor, pain, and hope. We (my characters and I) are equipped with enough humility to commit ourselves to the long and arduous journey of making key discoveries that are visible only after reflecting on our failings. We think, more specifically, about cultural notions of gender and class, history, and memory. We think about the fragile nature of relationships over multiple generations, we obsess over the magnetic pull of home, and we study the ways we learn (and fail to learn) from those we love (and fail to love). We feel most alive when we’re in the middle of a tense situation, facing choices, uncertain of the trouble we’re headed toward. We proceed through trial and error and take joy in the journey.
My literary heroes inspire me for the ways they capture authenticity. For their sophisticated portraits of working-class characters, I return to Raymond Carver and Richard Russo. For comic voices driven by genuine pathos: Lorrie Moore, Walker Percy, and Lewis Nordan. For her comi-tragic vision and for her methodical consideration of craft: Flannery O’Connor. For his obsession over Time and Place, and for his structural innovations: Faulkner. For capturing the cadences and complexities of (mis)communication: Eudora Welty. For their playful language and sharp eyes: Salman Rushdie, Samuel Beckett, David Foster Wallace. My own writing emerges from these blended influences, and when it’s going well—which comes only in the midst of working very hard—I manage to create vivid sentences that rely on memory and imagination to produce moments that readers will recognize as sincere, funny, and true.
I started my second novel without knowing how it was going to end. I knew I had a good story to tell, and I knew I had the passion, perseverance, and patience to finish the book. I trusted the process of going through endless revisions to make discoveries. Because of what I’ve learned through the process, I suddenly feel qualified to write a book on how to finish a book. One day I may write that book, but currently, I feel most passionate about completing my next project, a short story collection called Last Words of the Holy Ghost.